“Just give me a shout if I can help,” says the girl, turning away before the curtain swings shut, and Addie is alone with a pillowed bench, and a full-length mirror, and herself.
She kicks off her boots, and shrugs out of her jacket, tossing it onto the seat. Change rattles in the pocket as it lands, and something tumbles out. It hits the floor with a dull clack and rolls across the narrow changing room, stopping only when it meets the baseboard.
It is a ring.
A small circle carved of ash-gray wood. A familiar band, once loved, now loathsome.
Addie stares at the thing a moment. Her fingers twitch, traitorous, but she doesn’t reach for the ring, doesn’t pick it up, just turns her back on the small wooden circle and continues undressing. She pulls on the sweater, shimmies into the leggings, zips up the boots. The mannequin was thinner, taller, but Addie likes the way the outfit hangs on her, the warmth of the cashmere, the weight of the leggings, the soft embrace of the lining in the boots.
She plucks the price tags off one by one, ignoring the zeroes.
Joyeux anniversaire, she thinks, meeting her reflection. Inclining her head, as if she too hears some private song. The picture of a modern Manhattan woman, even if the face in the mirror is the same one she’s had for centuries.
Addie leaves her old clothes strewn like a shadow across the dressing room floor. The ring, a scorned child in the corner. The only thing she reclaims is the discarded jacket.
It’s soft, made of black leather and worn practically to silk, the kind of thing people pay a fortune for these days and call it vintage. It is the only thing Addie refused to leave behind and feed to the flames in New Orleans, though the smell of him clung to it like smoke, his stain forever on everything. She does not care. She loves the jacket.
It was new then, but it is broken in now, shows its wear in all the ways she can’t. It reminds her of Dorian Gray, time reflected in cowhide instead of human skin.
Addie steps out of the little curtained booth.
Across the boutique, the clerk startles, flustered at the sight of her. “Everything fit?” she asks, too polite to admit she doesn’t remember letting someone into the back. God bless customer service.
Addie shakes her head ruefully. “Some days you’re stuck with what you’ve got,” she says, heading for the door.
By the time the clerk finds the clothes, a ghost of a girl on the changing room floor, she won’t remember whose they are, and Addie will be gone, from sight and mind and memory.
She tosses the jacket over her shoulder, one finger hooked in the collar, and steps out into the sun.
Adeline sits on a bench beside her father.
Her father, who is, to her, a mystery, a solemn giant most at home inside his workshop.
Beneath their feet, a pile of woodwares make shapes like small bodies under a blanket, and the cart wheels rattle as Maxime, the sturdy mare, draws them down the lane, away from home.
Away—away—a word that makes her small heart race.
Adeline is seven, the same as the number of freckles on her face. She is bright and small and quick as a sparrow, and has begged for months to go with him to market. Begged until her mother swore she would go mad, until her father finally said yes. He is a woodworker, her father, and three times a year, he makes the trip along the Sarthe, up to the city of Le Mans.
And today, she is with him.
Today, for the first time, Adeline is leaving Villon.
She looks back at her mother, arms crossed beside the old yew tree at the end of the lane, and then they round the bend, and her mother is gone. The village rolls past, here the houses and there the fields, here the church and there the trees, here Monsieur Berger turning soil and there Madame Therault hanging clothes, her daughter Isabelle sitting in the grass nearby, twining flowers into crowns, her tongue between her teeth in concentration.
When Adeline told the girl about her trip, Isabelle had only shrugged, and said, “I like it here.”
As if you couldn’t like one place and want to see another.
Now she looks up at Adeline, and waves as the cart goes by. They reach the edge of the village, the farthest she has ever gone before, and the cart hits a divot in the road, and shakes as if it too has crossed a threshold. Adeline holds her breath, expecting to feel some rope draw tight inside her, binding her to the town.
But there is no tether, no lurch. The cart keeps moving, and Adeline feels a little wild and a little scared as she turns back to look at the shrinking picture of Villon, which was, until now, the sum of her world, and is now only a part, made smaller with the mare’s every step, until the town seems like one of her father’s figurines, small enough to nest within one calloused palm.
It is a day’s ride to Le Mans, the trek made easy with her mother’s basket and her father’s company—one’s bread and cheese to fill her belly, and the other’s easy laugh, and broad shoulders making shade for Adeline beneath the summer sun.
At home he is a quiet man, committed to his work, but on the road he begins to open, to unfold, to speak.
And when he speaks, it is to tell her stories.
Those stories he gathered, the way one gathers wood.
“Il était une fois,” he will say, before sliding into stories of palaces and kings, of gold and glamour, of masquerade balls and cities full of splendor. Once upon a time. This is how the story starts.
She will not remember the stories themselves, but she will recall the way he tells them; the words feel smooth as river stones, and she wonders if he tells these stories when he is alone, if he carries on, talking to Maxime in this easy, gentle way. Wonders if he tells stories to the wood as he is working it. Or if they are just for her.
Adeline wishes she could write them down.
Later, her father will teach her letters. Her mother will have a fit when she finds out, and accuse him of giving her another way to idle, waste the hours of the day, but Adeline will steal away into his workshop nonetheless, and he will let her sit and practice writing her own name in the fine dust that always seems to coat the workshop floor.
But today, she can only listen.
The countryside rolls past around them, a jostling portrait of a world she already knows. The fields are fields, just like her own, the trees arranged in roughly the same order, and when they do come upon a village, it is a watery reflection of Villon, and Adeline begins to wonder if the world outside is as boring as her own.
And then, the walls of Le Mans come into sight.
Stone ridges rising in the distance, a many-patterned spine along the hills. It is a hundred times the size of Villon—or at least, it is that grand in memory—and Adeline holds her breath as they pass through the gates and into the protected city.
Beyond, a maze of crowded streets. Her father guides the cart between houses squeezed tight as stones, until the narrow road opens onto a square.
There is a square back in Villon, of course, but it is little bigger than their yard. This is a giant’s space, the ground lost beneath so many feet, and carts, and stalls. And as her father guides Maxime to a stop, Adeline stands on the bench and marvels at the marketplace, the heady smell of bread and sugar on the air, and people, people, everywhere she looks. She has never seen so many of them, let alone ones she does not know. They are a sea of strangers, unfamiliar faces in unfamiliar clothes, with unfamiliar voices, calling unfamiliar words. It feels as if the doors of her world have been thrown wide, so many rooms added to a house she thought she knew.