A dream, to keep her company.
She doesn’t remember when it started, only that one day she cast her gaze about the village and found every prospect wanting.
Arnaud’s eyes were pleasant, but he had no chin.
Jacques was tall, but dull as dirt.
George was strong, but his hands were rough, his moods rougher still.
And so she stole the pieces she found pleasant, and assembled someone new.
It began as a game—but the more Adeline draws him, the stronger the lines, the more confident the press of her charcoal.
Black curls. Pale eyes. Strong jaw. Sloping shoulders and a cupid’s bow mouth. A man she’d never meet, a life she’d never know, a world she could only dream of.
When she is restless, she returns to the drawings, tracing over the now familiar lines. And when she cannot sleep, she thinks of him. Not the angle of his cheek, or the shade of green she has conjured for his eyes, but his voice, his touch. She lies awake and imagines him beside her, his long fingers tracing absent patterns on her skin. As he does, he tells her stories.
Not the kind her father used to tell, of knights and kingdoms, princesses and thieves. Not fairy tales and warnings of venturing outside the lines, but stories that feel like truths, renditions of the road, cities that sparkle, of the world beyond Villon. And even though the words she puts in his mouth are surely full of errors and lies, her stranger’s conjured voice makes them sound so wonderful, so real.
If only you could see it, he says.
I would give anything, she answers.
One day, he promises. One day, I’ll show you. You’ll see it all.
The words ache, even as she thinks them, the game giving way to want, a thing too genuine, too dangerous. And so, even in her imagination, she guides the conversation back to safer roads.
Tell me about tigers, Adeline says, having heard of the massive cats from Estele, who heard of them from the mason, who was part of a caravan that included a woman who claimed to have seen one.
Her stranger smiles, and gestures with his tapered fingers, and tells her of their silken fur, their teeth, their furious roars.
On the slope, the laundry forgotten beside her, Adeline turns her wooden ring absently with one hand as she draws with the other, sketching out his eyes, his mouth, the line of his bare shoulders. She breathes life into him with every line. And with every stroke, coaxes out another story.
Tell me about dancing in Paris.
Tell me about sailing across the sea.
Tell me everything.
There was no danger in it, no reproach, not when she was young. All girls are prone to dreaming. She will grow out of it, her parents say—but instead, Adeline feels herself growing in, holding tighter to the stubborn hope of something more.
The world should be getting larger. Instead, she feels it shrinking, tightening like chains around her limbs as the flat lines of her own body begin to curve out against it, and suddenly the charcoal beneath her nails is unbecoming, as is the idea that she would choose her own company over Arnaud’s or George’s, or any man who might have her.
She is at odds with everything, she does not fit, an insult to her sex, a stubborn child in a woman’s form, her head bowed and arms wrapped tight around her drawing pad as if it were a door.
And when she does look up, her gaze always goes to the edge of town.
“A dreamer,” scorns her mother.
“A dreamer,” mourns her father.
“A dreamer,” warns Estele.
Still, it does not seem such a bad word.
Until Adeline wakes up.
New York City
March 10, 2014
There is a rhythm to moving through the world alone.
You discover what you can and cannot live without, the simple necessities and small joys that define a life. Not food, not shelter, not the basic things a body needs—those are, for her, a luxury—but the things that keep you sane. That bring you joy. That make life bearable.
Addie thinks of her father and his carvings, the way he peeled away the bark, whittled down the wood beneath to find the shapes that lived inside. Michelangelo called it the angel in the marble—though she’d not known that as a child. Her father had called it the secret in the wood. He knew how to reduce a thing, sliver by sliver, piece by piece, until he found its essence; knew, too, when he’d gone too far. One stroke too many, and the wood went from delicate to brittle in his hands.
Addie has had three hundred years to practice her father’s art, to whittle herself down to a few essential truths, to learn the things she cannot do without.
And this is what she’s settled on: she can go without food (she will not wither). She can go without heat (the cold will not kill her). But a life without art, without wonder, without beautiful things—she would go mad. She has gone mad.
What she needs are stories.
Stories are a way to preserve one’s self. To be remembered. And to forget.
Stories come in so many forms: in charcoal, and in song, in paintings, poems, films. And books.
Books, she has found, are a way to live a thousand lives—or to find strength in a very long one.
Two blocks up Flatbush, she sees the familiar green folding table on the sidewalk, covered in paperbacks, and Fred hunched in his rickety chair behind it, red nose buried in M is for Malice. The old man explained to her once, back when he was on K is for Killer, how he was determined to get through Grafton’s entire alphabet series before he dies. She hopes he makes it. He has a nagging cough, and sitting out here in the cold doesn’t help, but here he is, whenever Addie comes by.
Fred doesn’t smile, or make small talk. What Addie knows of him she has pried out word by word over the last two years, the progress slow and halting. She knows he is a widower who lives upstairs, knows the books belonged to his wife, Candace, knows that when she died, he packed up all her books and brought them down to sell, and it’s like letting her go in pieces. Selling off his grief. Addie knows that he sits down here because he’s afraid of dying in his apartment, of not being found—not being missed.
“I keel over out here,” he says, “at least someone will notice.”
He is a gruff old man, but Addie likes him. Sees the sadness in his anger, the guardedness of grief.
Addie suspects he doesn’t really want the books to sell.
He doesn’t price them, hasn’t read more than a few, and sometimes his mood is so coarse, his tone so cold, he actually scares the customers away. Still, they come, and still, they buy, but every time the selection seems to thin a new box appears, the contents are unpacked to fill the gaps, and in the last few weeks, Addie has once more begun to spot new releases among the old, fresh covers and unbroken spines in with the battered paperbacks. She wonders if he is buying them, or if other people have begun donating to his strange collection.
Addie slows, now, her fingers dancing over the spines.
The selection is always a medley of discordant notes. Thrillers, biographies, romance, battered mass markets, mostly, interrupted by a few glossy hardcovers. She has stopped to study them a hundred times, but today she simply tips the book on the end into her hand, the gesture light and swift as a magician’s. A piece of legerdemain. Practice long given way to perfect. Addie tucks the book under her arm and keeps walking.
The old man never looks up.