A Total Eclipse of the Sun

It was a hot August Friday, and it had been evening for about an hour that morning. The papers were full of explanations and helpful diagrams about the day’s total eclipse of the sun, and the shops had done good business in contraptions of card and smoky plastic to protect the eyes of those who wanted to admire the beautiful and rare phenomenon. Now it had passed, and the sun was out again.

Madame Granic, the fishmonger, in the driving seat of her delivery van, was drinking the coffee which she had poured from her flask, and reading the article about the eclipse in Ouest France. She studied the diagrams closely. She wondered briefly what Brittany would be like, centuries into the future, at the time of the next total eclipse of the sun in this part of the world. Then she finished her coffee, screwed the cup back on to the flask, and continued her round.

She knew exactly what old Madame Le Brize, in the next house, would order: a small fillet of hake. There had been no variation in Mme Le Brize’s modest but steady custom since Mme Granic had taken over the round fifteen years ago. Occasionally it had been necessary to raise the price of the fish by a few centimes. Mme Le Brize would mutter, but pay up. There was no other way she was going to get fresh fish on a Friday, living as far away from the town as she did, being the age she was, and not driving, of course. Almost none of the country women of Mme Le Brize’s generation could drive. In her youth and her prime, she had ridden the ten kilometres to Plouay, the nearest town, on her bicycle, but those days were long gone.

Mme Granic stopped the van at the gate of Mme Le Brize’s isolated house and sounded the horn. It was unusual for the old woman not to be waiting for her. After a minute or so, she climbed down from the van, opened the gate, walked up the path and knocked on the door. Silence. She stepped back from the door and observed that the shutters at all the windows at the front of the house were closed. Strange. She walked round the side to see if Mme Le Brize were in her little vegetable garden at the back. No-one. Mme Granic knocked on the back door, having noticed that the back windows were all shuttered too. No reply.

Perhaps Mme Le Brize had gone to stay with one of her sons for a few days. If that were the case, it was unlike her not to have mentioned her intention the previous week. She was not the sort of person to do anything on impulse. Her record in the buying of fish showed that.

Mme Granic continued her round. Other customers awaited her, some more inclined to support her business by buying a nice piece of sole, or some langoustines which took their fancy. She finished her round at about three o’clock. She was driving back to her shop in Plouay by the most direct route when she realised that she was worried about Mme Le Brize. Perhaps the old woman was dead. Perhaps she was so ill that she hadn’t been able to get out of bed that morning, which was why the shutters were still closed. She could be lying there in the dark. Mme Granic turned off the main road and cut back through the lanes to the house.

She knocked once more, hard, on the front door. As she waited, she asked herself what she would do if there were still no reply. Go to the police in Plouay? Find the telephone number of one of the sons? Yes, she would do that, she thought, but then she heard the drawing of a bolt. The sudden sound, after so long a silence, startled but relieved her. Two bolts were drawn and a key turned. The door opened a crack.

‘Yes?’
‘Are you all right, madame?’
‘Of course, but what are you doing out?’
‘It’s Friday. The fish.’
‘Can you still see?’
‘Of course I can see. How would I drive the van if I couldn’t see?’
‘I heard that anyone who went outside and opened their eyes today would go blind.’
‘Ah, the eclipse. No, it’s not as bad as that! You mustn’t look at the sun when it goes behind the moon, it’s true. Then you might go blind. But I didn’t look at the sky at all, and carried on as usual.’
‘Has anyone else been out today?’
‘Everyone! Some people looked at the eclipse through special glasses which protect their eyes.’
‘Idiots. I’m sure I heard it on the radio. Anyone who went out today and opened their eyes would go blind. There won’t be another day like it for centuries. They must have made a mistake.’

There was a pause, and Mme Le Brize opened the door wider, so Mme Granic could see her face. The old woman looked past Mme Granic, at the air, suspiciously. Then she said:
‘Have you sold my piece of hake?’
‘No. It’s in the van.’
‘I’ll get my purse.’