“Marie’s child isn’t coming as it should,” she said. “I asked the river gods to make things flow smooth. They are good at that.”
“But why did you give them your cup?”
“Because, Addie, the gods are greedy.”
Addie. A pet name, one her mother scorned as boyish. A name her father favored, but only when they were alone. A name that rang like a bell in her bones. A name that suited her far more than Adeline.
Now, she finds Estele in her garden, folded in among the wild vines of squash, the thorny spine of a blackberry bush, bent low as a warping branch.
“Addie.” The old woman says her name without looking up.
It is autumn, and the ground is littered with the stones of fruit that didn’t ripen as it should. Addie nudges them with the toe of her shoe. “How do you talk to them?” she asks. “The old gods. Do you call them by name?”
Estele straightens, joints cracking like dry sticks. If she’s surprised by the question, it doesn’t show. “They have no names.”
“Is there a spell?”
Estele gives her a pointed look. “Spells are for witches, and witches are too often burned.”
“Then how do you pray?”
“With gifts, and praise, and even then, the old gods are fickle. They are not bound to answer.”
“What do you do then?”
“You carry on.”
She chews on the inside of her cheek. “How many gods are there, Estele?”
“As many gods as you have questions,” answers the old woman, but there is no scorn in her voice, and Addie knows to wait her out, to hold her breath until she sees the telltale sign of Estele’s softening. It is like waiting at a neighbor’s door after you’ve knocked, when you know they are home. She can hear the steps, the low rasp of the lock, and knows that it will give.
Estele sighs open.
“The old gods are everywhere,” she says. “They swim in the river, and grow in the field, and sing in the woods. They are in the sunlight on the wheat, and under the saplings in spring, and in the vines that grow up the side of that stone church. They gather at the edges of the day, at dawn, and at dusk.”
Adeline’s eyes narrow. “Will you teach me? How to call on them?”
The old woman sighs, knowing that Adeline LaRue is not only clever, but also stubborn. She begins wading through the garden to the house, and the girl follows, afraid that if Estele reaches her front door before she answers, she might close it on this conversation. But Estele looks back, eyes keen in her wrinkled face.
“There are rules.”
Adeline hates rules, but she knows that sometimes they are necessary.
“You must humble yourself before them. You must offer them a gift. Something precious to you. And you must be careful what you ask for.”
Adeline considers. “Is that all?”
Estele’s face darkens. “The old gods may be great, but they are neither kind nor merciful. They are fickle, unsteady as moonlight on water, or shadows in a storm. If you insist on calling them, take heed: be careful what you ask for, be willing to pay the price.” She leans over Adeline, casting her in shadow. “And no matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.”
Two days later, when Adeline’s father returns, he comes bearing a fresh pad of parchment, and a bundle of black lead pencils, bound with string, and the first thing she does is pick the best one, and sink it down into the ground behind their garden, and pray that next time her father leaves, she will be with him.
But if the gods hear, they do not answer.
She never goes to market again.
Blink, and the years fall away like leaves.
Adeline is sixteen now, and everyone speaks of her as if she is a summer bloom, something to be plucked, and propped within a vase, intended only to flower and then to rot. Like Isabelle, who dreams of family instead of freedom, and seems content to briefly blossom and then wither.
No, Adeline has decided she would rather be a tree, like Estele. If she must grow roots, she would rather be left to flourish wild instead of pruned, would rather stand alone, allowed to grow beneath the open sky. Better that than firewood, cut down just to burn in someone else’s hearth.
She hefts the laundry on her hip and crests the rise, making her way down the weedy slope to the river. When she reaches the banks, she turns the basket out, dumping the soiled clothes into the grass, and there, tucked like a secret between the skirts and aprons and undergarments, is the sketchbook. Not the first—she has gathered them year after year, careful to fill every inch of space, to make the most of each blank page.
But every one is like a taper burning on a moonless night, always running out too fast.
It does not help that she keeps giving bits away.
She kicks off her shoes and slumps back against the slope, her skirts pooling beneath her. She runs her fingers through the weedy grass and finds the fraying edge of the paper, one of her favorite drawings, folded into a square and driven down into the bank last week, just after dawn. A token, buried like a seed, or a promise. An offering.
Adeline still prays to the new God, when she must, but when her parents are not looking she prays to the old ones, too. She can do both: keep one tucked in her cheek like a cherry pit while she whispers to the other.
So far, none of them have answered.
And yet, Adeline is sure that they are listening.
When George Caron began to look at her a certain way last spring, she prayed for him to turn his gaze, and he began to notice Isabelle instead. Isabelle has since become his wife, and is now ripe with her first child, and worn with all the torments that come with it.
When Arnaud Tulle made his intentions clear last fall, Adeline prayed that he would find another girl. He did not, but that winter he took ill and died, and Adeline felt terrible for her relief, even as she fed more trinkets to the stream.
She has prayed, and someone must have heard, for she is still free. Free from courtship, free from marriage, free from everything except Villon. Left alone to grow.
Adeline sits back on the slope, the sketchpad balanced on her knees. She pulls the drawstring pouch from her pocket, bits of charcoal and a few worn-down precious pencils rattling like coins on market day.
She used to bind a bit of cloth around the stems to keep her fingers clean, until her father fashioned narrow bands of wood around the blackened sticks, and showed her how to hold the little knife, how to shave away the edges, and trim the casing into points. And now the images are sharper, the edges contoured, the details fine. The pictures bloom like stains across the paper, landscapes of Villon, and everyone in it, too—the lines of her mother’s hair and her father’s eyes and Estele’s hands, and then there, tucked into the seams and edges of each page—
Every bit of unused space she fills with him, a face drawn so often that the gestures now feel effortless, the lines unfurling on their own. She can conjure him from memory, even though they have never met.
He is, after all, only a figment of her mind. A companion crafted first from boredom, and then from longing.