A life reduced to a block of stone, a patch of grass.
Along the way Addie had picked a handful of flowers, wild things that grow at the edge of the path, weedy blossoms, yellow and white. She kneels to set them on the ground, stops when she sees the dates below her father’s name.
The year she left.
She searches her memory, tries to remember any signs of sickness. The cough that lingered in his chest, the shadow of weakness in his limbs. The memories from her second life are trapped in amber, perfectly preserved. But the ones from before, when she was Adeline LaRue—memories of kneading bread on a stool beside her mother, of watching her father carve faces into blocks of wood, of trailing Estele through the shallows of the Sarthe—those are fading. The twenty-three years she lived before the woods, before the deal, worn to little more than edges.
Later, Addie will be able to recall almost three hundred years in perfect detail, every moment of every day, preserved.
But she is already losing the sound of her father’s laugh.
She cannot remember the exact color of her mother’s eyes.
Cannot recall the set of Estele’s jaw.
For years, she will lie awake and tell herself stories of the girl she’d been, in hopes of holding fast to every fleeting fragment, but it will have the opposite effect—the memories like talismans, too often touched; like saint’s coins, the etching worn down to silver plate and faint impressions.
As for her father’s sickness, it must have stolen in between one season and the next, and for the first time, Addie is grateful for the cleansing nature of her curse, for having made the deal at all—not for her own sake, but for her mother’s. That Marthe LaRue had only to grieve one loss, instead of two.
Jean is buried among the other members of their family. An infant sister who only saw two years. A mother and father, both gone before Addie herself was ten. One row over, their own parents and unmarried siblings. The plot beside him, empty, and waiting for his wife.
There is no place for her, of course. But this string of graves, like a timeline, charting from the past into the future, this is what drove her to the woods that night, the fear of a life like this, leading to the same small patch of grass.
Staring down at her father’s grave, Addie feels the heavy sadness of finality, the weight of an object coming to rest. The grief has come and gone—she lost this man fifty years ago, she has already mourned, and though it hurts, the pain isn’t fresh. It has long dulled to an ache, the wound given way to scar.
She lays the flowers on her father’s grave, and rises, moving deeper between the plots, drawn back in time with every step, until she is no longer Addie, but Adeline; no longer a ghost but flesh and blood and mortal. Still bound to this place, roots aching like phantom limbs.
She studies the names on the gravestones, knows each and every one, but the difference is that once upon a time, the names knew her, too.
Here is Roger, buried beside his first and only wife, Pauline.
Here is Isabelle, and her youngest, Sara, taken in the same year.
And here, almost in the center of the yard, is the name that matters most. The one that held her hand so many times, showed her there was more to life.
Estele Magritte, reads her tombstone. 1642–1719.
The dates are carved over a simple cross, and Addie can almost hear the old woman hissing through her teeth.
Estele, buried in the shadow of a house she did not worship.
Estele, who would say that a soul is just the seed returned to soil, who wanted nothing but a tree over her bones. She should have been laid to rest at the edge of the woods, or amid the vegetables in her garden. She should have at least been buried in a corner plot, where the branches of an old yew reach over the low wall to shade the graves.
Addie crosses to the small shed at the edge of the churchyard, and finds a trowel amid the tools, and sets off for the woods.
It is the height of summer, but the air is cool beneath the cover of the trees. Midday, but still the smell of night lingers on the leaves. The scent of this place, so universal, and specific. With every breath the taste of soil on her tongue, the memory of desperation, a girl, sinking her hands into the dirt as she prayed.
Now, she sinks the trowel instead, coaxes a sapling from the soil. It is a fragile thing, likely to fall over with the next strong storm, but she carries it back to the churchyard, cradled like an infant in her hands, and if anyone finds it strange, they will forget about the sight long before they think to tell anyone. And if they notice the tree growing over the old woman’s grave, perhaps they will stop and think of older gods again.
And as Addie leaves the church behind, the bells begin to chime, calling the villagers to Mass.
She walks down the road as they pour from their homes, children clinging to their mother’s hands, and men and women side by side. Some faces new to her, and others, she knows.
There is George Therault, and Roger’s oldest daughter, and Isabelle’s two sons, and the next time Addie comes, they will all be dead, the last of her old life—her first life—buried in the same ten-meter plot.
* * *
The hut sits abandoned at the edge of the woods.
The low fence has fallen in, and Estele’s garden is long overgrown, the house itself slowly giving way, sagging with age and neglect. The door is shut fast, but the shutters hang on broken joints, exposing the glass of a single window, cracked open like a tired eye.
The next time Addie comes, the frame of the house will be lost beneath the green, and the time after that, the woods will have crept forward and swallowed it all.
But today, it still stands, and she makes her way up the weedy path, the stolen lantern in one hand. She keeps expecting the old woman to step out of the woods, wrinkled arms filled with cuttings, but the only rustle comes from magpies and the sound of her own feet.
Inside, the hut is damp, and empty, the dark space littered with debris—the clay shards of a broken cup, a crumbling table—but gone are the bowls in which she mixed her salves, and the cane she used when the weather was wet, and the bundles of herbs that hung from the rafters, and the iron pot that sat in the hearth.
Addie is sure that Estele’s things were taken up after her death, parceled out through the village, just as her life was, deemed public property simply because she did not wed. Villon, her ward, because Estele had no child.
She goes into the garden, and harvests what she can from the wild plot, carries the ragged bounty of carrots and long beans inside and sets it on the table. She throws the shutters open and finds herself face-to-face with the woods.
The trees stand in a dark line, tangled branches clawing at the sky. Their roots are inching forward, crawling into the garden and across the lawn. A slow and patient advance.
The sun is sinking now, and even though it’s summer, a damp has crawled in through the gaps in the thatched roof, between the stones and under the door, and a chill hangs over the bones of the little hut.
Addie carries a stolen lantern to the hearth. It has been a rainy month, and the wood is damp, but she is patient, coaxing the flame from the lamp until it catches on the kindling.
Fifty years, and she is still learning the shape of her curse.
She cannot make a thing, but she can use it.
She cannot break a thing, but she can steal it.
She cannot start a fire, but she can keep it going.