Perhaps it is a ritual of sorts, this return. A way to cleanse herself, to set Villon firmly in the past. Perhaps she is trying to let go. Or perhaps she is trying to hold on.
She will not stay, that much she knows.
Sunlight glints on the surface of the Sarthe, and for an instant, she thinks of praying, sinking her hands into the shallow stream, but she has nothing to offer the river gods now, and nothing to say to them. They did not answer when it mattered.
Around the bend, and beyond a copse of trees, Villon rises amid the shallow hills, gray stone houses nestled in the basin of the valley. It has grown, a little, widened like a man in middle age, inching outward, but it is still Villon. There is the church, and the town square, and there, beyond the center of the town, the dark green line of the woods.
She does not go through town, instead bends around it to the south.
The old yew tree still stands sentinel at the end of the lane. Fifty years have added a few knotted angles to its limbs, a measure of width around its base, but otherwise, it is the same. And for an instant, when all she can see is the edge of the house, time stutters, and slips, and she is twenty-three again, walking home from the town, or the river, or Isabelle’s, washing on her hip, or the drawing pad under her arm, and any moment she will see her mother in the open doorway, flour powdering her wrists, will hear the steady chop of her father’s ax, the soft hush of their mare, Maxime, swishing her tail and munching grass.
But then she nears the house, and the illusion crumbles back into memory. The horse is gone, of course, and in the yard, her father’s workshop now leans tiredly to one side, while across the weedy grass, her parents’ cottage sits, dark and still.
What did she expect?
Fifty years. Addie knew they would no longer be there, but the sight of this place, decaying, abandoned, still unnerves her. Her feet move of their own accord, carrying her down the dirt lane, through the yard to the sloping ruins of her father’s shop.
She eases the door open—the wood is rotted, crumbling—and steps into the shed.
Sunlight streams through the broken boards, striping the dark, and the air smells of decay instead of fresh-scraped wood, earthy and sweet; every surface is covered in mold, and damp, and dust. Tools her father sharpened every day now lie abandoned, rusted brown and red. The shelves are mostly empty; the wooden birds are gone, but a large bowl sits, half-finished, beneath a curtain of cobwebs and grime.
She runs her hand through the dust, watches it gather again in her wake.
How long has he been gone?
She forces herself back out into the yard, and stops.
The house has come to life, or at least, begun to stir. A thin ribbon of smoke rises from the chimney. A window sits open, thin curtains rippling softly in the draft.
Someone is still here.
She should go, she knows she should, this place isn’t hers, not anymore, but she is already crossing the yard, already reaching out to knock. Her fingers slow, remembering that night, the last one of another life.
She hovers there, on the step, willing her hand to choose—but she has already announced herself. The curtain flutters, a shadow crossing the window, and Addie can only retreat two steps, three, before the door opens a crack. Just enough to reveal a sliver of wrinkled cheek, a scowling blue eye.
The woman’s voice is brittle, thin, but it still lands like a stone in Addie’s chest, knocks the air away, and she is sure that even if she were mortal, her mind softened by time, she would still remember this—the sound of her mother’s voice.
The door groans open, and there she is, withered like a plant in winter, gnarled fingers clutching a threadbare shawl. She is old, anciently so, but alive.
“Do I know you?” asks her mother, but there is no hint of recognition in her voice, only the doubt of the old and the unsure.
Addie shakes her head.
Afterward, she will wonder if she should have answered yes, if her mother’s mind, emptied of memory, could have made room for that one truth. If she might have invited her daughter in, to sit beside the hearth, and share a simple meal, so that when Addie left, she would have something to hold on to besides the version of her mother shutting her out.
But she doesn’t.
She tries to tell herself that this woman stopped being her mother when she stopped being her daughter, but of course, it doesn’t work that way. And yet, it must. She has already grieved, and though the shock of the woman’s face is sharp, the pain is shallow.
“What do you want?” demands Marthe LaRue.
And that is another question she can’t answer, because she doesn’t know. She looks past the old woman, into the dim hall that used to be her home, and only then does a strange hope rise inside her chest. If her mother is alive, then maybe, maybe—but she knows. Knows by the cobwebs in the workshop door, the dust on the half-finished bowl. Knows by the weary look in her mother’s face, and the dark, disheveled state of the cottage behind her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, backing away.
And the woman does not ask what for, only stares, unblinking as she goes.
The door groans shut, and Addie knows, as she walks away, that she will never see her mother again.
New York City
March 17, 2014
It is easy enough to say the words.
After all, the story has never been the hard part.
It is a secret she has tried to share so many times, with Isabelle, and Remy, with friends and strangers and anyone who might listen, and every time, she has watched their expressions flatten, their faces go blank, watched the words hang in the air before her like smoke before being blown away.
But Henry looks at her, and listens.
He listens as she tells him of the wedding, and the prayers that went unanswered, the offerings made at dawn, and dusk. Of the darkness in the woods, parading as a man, of her wish, and his refusal, and her mistake.
You can have my soul when I don’t want it anymore.
Listens as she tells him of living forever, and being forgotten, and giving up. When she finishes, she holds her breath, expecting Henry to blink away the fog, to ask what she was about to say. Instead, his eyes narrow with such peculiar focus, and she realizes, heart racing, that he has heard every word.
“You made a deal?” he says. There is a detachment in his voice, an unnerving calm.
And of course, it sounds like madness.
Of course, he does not believe her.
This is how she loses him. Not to memory, but to disbelief.
And then, out of nowhere, Henry laughs.
He sags against a bike rack, head in his hand, and laughs, and she thinks he’s gone mad, thinks she’s broken something in him, thinks, even, that he is mocking her.
But it is not the kind of laughter that follows a joke.
It is too manic, too breathless.
“You made a deal,” he says again.
She swallows. “Look, I know how it sounds but—”
“I believe you.”
She blinks, suddenly confused. “What?”
“I believe you,” he says again.
Three small words, as rare as I remember you, and it should be enough—but it’s not. Nothing makes sense, not Henry, not this; it hasn’t since the start and she’s been too afraid to ask, to know, as if knowing would bring the whole dream crashing down, but she can see the cracks in his shoulders, can feel them in her chest.