Tuesday, June 30, 2009
I glanced up, startled out of my reverie, making eye contact with an elderly black man. I waved my hand into the empty space on the bench, moving my lunch. “Sure, go ahead. Plenty of room.”
Sitting down heavily, he closed his eyes as he leaned back. A deep groan emanated from his chest. I’d seen this gentleman here before, though this was the first time we’d spoken. Most of the time, I’d sit and eat my lunch and he’d stand near the edge of the pond, silently looking out over the water. He always had the damnedest expression on his face, an expression I equated with someone who was weighing the good and bad, counting the rights and wrongs done in life…maybe trying to figure out if there was still enough time to atone for the wrong.
“It’s getting hot,” I commented, watching him fan himself with his tweed taxi-driver hat. Silence makes me nervous and I wanted to fill the peculiar emptiness in the air. “Humid, too,” I said as sweat trickled between my shoulder blades.
His lips split into a wide smile, revealing large, bright white teeth. “Ain’t so hot. Ain’t so humid, neither. Not like where I’m from.”
“Where’s that?” I asked, suddenly curious about him.
“Georgia,” he crooned at me in a surprisingly good baritone. He sounded a little like Ray Charles.
“Then you’re a long way from home. How’d you end up here?”
He smoothed his yellow polo shirt and brushed away lint from his brown and maroon plaid slacks. His face took on a serious expression. “How do any of us end up anywhere?”
I picked at the crust on my sandwich, not eating, appetite suppressed by the stifling heat. “I think the bigger question is where to go from here,” I replied quietly, more to myself than to him.
“What’choo frownin’ fo’, Missy Miss?”
I felt myself straighten up and stiffen, like a steel rod had taken the place of my spine. My grandfather used to call me Missy Miss, always before he’d scoop me into the palms of his hands and swing me wildly upward, letting me fly into oblivion and free fall on the way down before catching me and swinging me up again. After he died, I assumed nobody would ever call me Missy Miss again. A few months ago, a friend of mine called me that, and now again, this time from a stranger. I felt a hollow ache in my chest, a sudden longing for the grandfather I haven’t seen in twenty-three years.
“Name’s Murray,” he said, uncurling gnarled, arthritic fingers from the handle of his cane. He reached across the space between us, holding out his trembling hand.
I shook it gently, feeling his dry skin, rough against my palm. “Martha. Good to meet you.”
He gave a surprisingly firm handshake in return. “Martha? What kind of fool name is that fo’ someone like you? Bet’choo yo’ folks woulda named you somethin’ else if they’d a known what you would look like all grown up. 'Specially lookin’ at them eyes of yo’s. Mind if I jus’ call you Missy? You look like a Missy to me.”
I nodded, amused.
Murray stared hard at me, his eyes boring into my own. “You got some dark eyes, Missy.”
“Yeah. Comes from my dad’s side.”
“More than that,” he said. “Them eyes you got in yo’ head. Too dark. A li’l girl like you shouldn’t be havin’ so much darkness.”
I bristled. The color of my eyes is one of the only things I like about myself. Brown. Dark brown. From a distance, it’s hard to tell where the blackness of the pupil ends and the brown iris begins. Infinite pools. Windows to my soul. A soul that I’m afraid is darker than my eyes.
As if he could read my thoughts, Murray scooted closer and patted my hand. “Not the color, Missy. That brown you got is jus’ fine. Pretty. Like dark chocolate. Smooth velvet. You got soul eyes. Like my poor ol’ mama, bless her dead ol’ soul. Them kinda eyes like you got speak louder than anything that might come outta yo’ mouth. I’m talkin’ 'bout the dark in there. Too much trouble for a young lady like yo’self.”
The corners of my mouth tightened into fake smile. I felt like my face would crack from the strain. “Not so young, not much of a lady.”
“Pshaw, whatever you say, Missy.” He slapped his right thigh and laughed loudly, startling the herons into taking flight. “I bet’choo that a nicer lady ain’t never been seen. But you got troubles, Missy girl. Yes you do. Deep troubles that span across yo’ lifetime. Haunts yo’ eyes. Makes you skittish. Bet’choo don’t trust too many people in yo’ life. But you can trust old Murray, yes you can. Ain’t nothin’ nobody can say that would surprise me anymo’.”
I couldn’t help but giggle at him. He was so…emphatic? Forceful? No, that wasn’t right. Sincere. He was sincere. He really believed what he was saying.
“Pretty smile you got there, Missy. You might want to show it more often.”
My hand flew up to my mouth, fingers pressing against my lips. I didn’t mean to laugh at him, I really didn’t. He was being so sweet and I didn’t want him to think I was making fun of him.
“Pretty color that’choo got on yo’ lips, too. Makes yo’ smile even prettier.”
My face flushed. I hardly ever wore lipstick, but I was feeling out of sorts this morning, restless, and in a moment of spontaneity, had dabbed on a bit of Black Amethyst. It’s a bold color, good for summer, but very unlike me.
“Ain’t no need to be embarrassed, girlie. It’s a good color fo’ you. Makes you seem mo’ ladylike and that, li’l Missy, is a good thing. Ain’t no shame in lookin’ like a lady every now and again.”
I nodded, still blushing. Purposely avoiding eye contact, I dropped my gaze to my hands. Saying that my hands are not pretty is an understatement. The nails are okay in length, though poorly cared for; the skin is dry and my fingers are forever covered in small nicks and cuts. The cuticles are ragged. Two of my fingers are crooked from old breaks and most of my knuckles are permanently swollen from early-onset arthritis.
“Yo’ hands say as much about you as them eyes and yo’ smile.”
I lifted my head, meeting his eyes for a brief moment before turning away again. What was it about this man? If he wasn’t so pleasant, I would find him to be creepy. Stalker-ish. But there was something about him. Something.
“Yo’ hands, Missy. They okay, you know what I’m sayin’? Yo’ hard workin’ hands ain’t nothin’ to be 'shamed of. Shows you know what matters. Shows you got values.” He took a deep breath and leaned in closer to me, lowering his voice to a trembling whisper. “Yo’ hands, yo’ smile, yo’ eyes, Missy, they all show yo’ choices. Our choices tell our stories. What’s yo’ story?”
“What’s yours?” I challenged. I don’t talk about myself to the closest people in my life. I couldn’t see how I could manage talking about myself to a complete stranger.
“My story? Ain’t nobody asked me that in a long time. My story ain’t jus’ my own. You got time or you gotta be gettin’ on somewhere?”
I glanced at my watch knowing full well my lunch break was almost over. “I have time. Tell me.”
“Well,” he began, “jus’ like mos’ people, my story don’t begin and end with me. Lotsa stories, little stories and big stories, they make up my past. My own stories make up my present.” He settled back on the bench, staring out over the water, stretching his long legs out in front of him. I noticed that he wore white athletic socks and brown leather slippers, so stereotypical of an old man. “My story, I s’pose, probably goes back to my great-great-granny. She was a slave on a Georgia plantation. Born in 1845.”
My eyes widened. I suspected, just as he had said, that this story was indeed, not just his own.
It's 4:15 in the morning and I am dying in Chicago.
I’m sitting in a Michigan Suite at the Drake Hotel with all the lights turned off. The drapes are pulled back from the windows so that I can see outside. It’s December and it’s snowing. The lake is gray and green beneath the light of a nearly full moon and the street lights along Lake Shore drive illuminate every snowflake, making then turn a yellow gold until they pile on the ground and turn back to white. In one corner, leaning against the bundle of drapes, Amelia stands tall. Thin. Dark, like the shadows. If one were not careful, she could vanish as you looked at her. She’s been silent all this time, arms crossed, black eyes knowing but untelling. I can’t even tell if she’s looking at me or out the window. She’s barely looked at me at all since half past six. I wonder if she blames herself, somehow, for what’s happening to me. She’s the oldest, after all. I think she’s always felt responsible for me and Eleanor.
Eleanor is sleeping on the bed, curled into herself like a ball. Physically, she’s the opposite of Amelia. Amelia has skin the color of pine wood, black hair cropped stylishly short, to her ears, and narrow black eyes that one usually only sees in pictures of hieroglyphics. She’s timeless –too timeless –whereas Eleanor seems to be from every time at once. She’s fair-skinned, fair-faced, fair-haired, and hazel-eyed, almost nondescript. But most of all, Eleanor is tangible in away Amelia never has been and never will be.
“You don’t have to write it all tonight,” Amelia says, stealing across the shadowed portion of the room to the same bed where Eleanor is sleeping. She climbs underneath the covers, light enough that she doesn’t seem to move the bed at all. “You have four days.”
“You left the window open,” I say, disregarding her remark.
“To let the evil spirits out,” she reminds me, lying straight on her back, arms at her side, eyes gazing at the ceiling.
It’s a superstition we’ve always laughed about: to leave at least one window in the house cracked at all times, in all types of weather, so that any evil in the house can leave. Tonight, it doesn’t seem so amusing in the pale blue glow of my laptop screen.
I just sort of sit here for a few minutes with my chin on my knees until I hear the even and synchronized breathing of Amelia and Eleanor behind me. My two best friends, asleep and safe at last.
I realize suddenly how much I wish I was back home. Not home in Brussels, where I own a townhouse in a fashionable district near Gare-du-Midi, but in the countryside of Flanders just east of Ghent. The countryside of Flanders where I was born and am constantly reborn. It’s true that the sweeping landscape of my childhood is barely recognizable in the region today. War and industrialization and modernization have erased so many of its rolling plains, and the house here I was born no longer stands. I can’t even be sure where it might have originally stood anymore, that’s how different things are. Still, I couldn’t resist buying a house of my own there almost sixty years ago. It’s little more than an old, rickety cottage with tangled poppies making the lawn a rusted red for most of the year. There are three bedrooms, two upstairs and one downstairs that I use for myself. The living area is one large room with a kitchen and cooking area on the north end, and open windows to the south and west making up the sitting and dining areas. There’s even a small dirt cellar I once planned to start a wine collection in. So far, the only collection down there is mothballs and some old cleaning supplies. As often as I go –at least a dozen times a year –I can never bring myself to stay long. The restless heart that brings me there, that constantly longs to be there, fights an ever-losing battle with my feet. I am pulled and repelled by the place and its significance to who I am…whatever that is.
Sometimes when people ask me who I am, or where I’m from, or what I do, I get caught off guard and just stand there for a moment, awkwardly silent. After spending more than two hundred years in this world I sometimes get lost in the lives I’ve led, the names I’ve had, the roles I’ve played, and the memories I’ve invented. Eventually, truth and reality, whatever they are, don’t really seem to matter. The imaginary, the invented, are just as relevant to me as anything supposedly “real.” So who am I? I’m a traveler on an unusually long ribbon of Time that has finally come to an end. I’m a woman in a foreign country, in a busy city, in a dark hotel room wondering what it will be like to die at last.
I was born on the 18th of May in 1804. My family name was Lambrecht, but my father, Michel, who became a wealthy textile merchant under French rule, officially changed it to Lambert before he married my mother, the youngest daughter of a noble French family. We lived in large house built in what was considered then to be the most contemporary style. It was situated in the lowland of what is now the province of East Flanders in Belgium, not far from Ghent, and my father held some land and tenants, in addition to his business in textiles and shipping. As one would expect in a time under the Emperor Napoléon, and with my mother’s traditional upbringing, my siblings and I were christened with respectable French names and only spoke French at home. I was, in fact, born on the same day Napoléon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor. My mother used to say that I was born at the precise moment that he took the imperial crown from the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head; I was born in that Divine moment. Of course, my mother is long-since dead and it was likely nothing more than a childhood fairytale, but I do wonder, sometimes, whether there was some kind of Divinity or another in the moment I was born, which made me as I am: cursed and blessed me as I am.
I was the fourth of five children. Before me had come my sisters Charlotte, Marguerite, and Elisabeth. I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t remember their faces anymore, just as I can’t remember the faces of my mother or father, but I do remember that there was a warmth about my sisters, like sunshine on a summer’s day. It’s a feeling that lingers whenever I think about them and our brief childhood days together, running wild and innocent through the countryside, usually barefoot and immune to our mother’s and governess’s admonishments that it was ungenteel and unfitting for young girls of our class.
Charlotte was four years older than I, and had soft, blond curls. I remember this feature for some reason, and perhaps that adds to my impression of summer when thinking of my sisters. Marguerite was two years older than me, and then Elisabeth was one year older, though she and I were the least close. I was nearly fifteen by the time my younger brother, Eduard, was born. At last, my father had the heir he had longed for, and as it came on the heels of Charlotte’s marriage to a business associate of my father’s, it resulted in extended celebration by my family.
I never knew Eduard, nor my sister’s fiancé. When I was eight years old, I was sent away to a school in Paris, a strange decision made by my mother and only reluctantly agreed to by my father, who no doubt balked at the expense. At the time, Napoléon was losing badly in the East, thousands of men dying in the Russian winter, and by the following year, I was present at the coronation of King Louis XVIII. Obviously, it was a short-lived monarchy, but for a young girl it was an exciting occasion, not to mention a welcome break from the routine of school.
School was wretched, I recall. I wasn’t as pretty as the other girls, not as wealthy, not as nobly born, nor as socially acceptable. I was a cloth merchant’s daughter from the country, and they were born into names and titles and all the good things young girls needed back in that day to find good husbands. To say that I had a difficult time fitting in is an understatement. I had friends, of course, and liked my studies well enough. I learned Latin and English and bit of German (Flemish was considered uncouth to my peers, though my home in Flanders had, at that point, been joined into the Kingdom of Holland and Dutch was supposedly our official language). My English became quite good, and there were a couple of English girls who came and went in and out of the school that I became acquainted with, particularly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. One of the girls, Anne was to play a key role in my life a few years after we left school. And an Austrian girl as well, Therèse, whom I liked very much and got on with well.
School was very different back then, particularly for girls, but at the same time, it was very much the same as it is nowadays. Girls are mean and sneaky and somehow know instinctively how to make life seem interminably long for one another. I did my share of torture, to be sure, but I felt like I also received a disproportionate share of it due to the previously mentioned malady of being thought “common.” It didn’t help that, because I enjoyed learning, I became a bit of a pet to our Headmistress, an overbearing and rather fat spinster who claimed royal lineage. She was a bookish woman herself and attempted to cram all sorts of unconventional things into our head instead of the typical embroidery, dancing, and singing. This annoyed some girls, but even at eight I had a sense that I needed to learn all that I could because I would need it all someday. Perhaps it had something to do with being the youngest daughter. I felt no assurances that anyone would ever take care of me. My poor parents had three other daughters to sell of to good marriages. My father probably would have preferred to give me over to the church and I felt incredibly beholden to my mother for having bigger dreams for me. Next to Charlotte, she thought I was the prettiest and the smartest. In essence, the most likely to do well.
Outside of our family politics, there were much larger politics afoot. My family had done nothing but prosper under Napoléon, and there were various points when this fact became a bit of a burden. Fortunately, my father didn’t have ambitions for power. He never so much as thought of a town council position, rather content to grumble about his taxes, but always pay them on time in order to keep business and profits running smoothly. He struck a careful balance though, and I can see that only now, looking back. He would have been an easy sort of man to steamroll or make a convenient puppet, but my father had backbone, at least. He also aligned himself discreetly with the church, finding salvation and escape with talk of charity whenever others wanted to use him for other purposes. He was clever, I suppose, in his own ways.
Despite my family’s open support for the Emperor, my memories of the coronation of Louis XVIII have a magical quality about them. My classmates and I were allowed, through the generosity of one of the older girls’ mothers, to watch the procession from the windows of her drawing room. It was not the last coronation procession I was to see in my lifetime, and by that note, it was far from the most glamorous, as well. But it was my first, and so it’s stuck itself in my mind. I remember pressing my ten year old nose rudely against the glass of the window and breathing unto it, creating that thin fog that would vanish the moment I inhaled again. I had to stand on tip-toe, too, being smaller than the other girls. Size is how I had managed to squeeze my way to the front eventually, but the window seemed high as well.
As for the adults, I remember them not being at all impressed. There didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for the man who was our new king. He lacked charisma, something the Emperor had in droves. What he did promise though, was better relations with our neighbors. It was shortly after his coronation that some English girls came to our school, including Anne.
Anne was not the prettiest, but she had the good fortune of being the niece of a Duke in England as was, for that reason alone, popular amongst the girls at school. On the surface anyway. I meant it when I say that little girls were and still are rather mean. Behind Anne’s back, most of the girls pitied her disadvantageous looks, and even I was told that I was prettier than Anne. The worst of it was jealousy, of course. We all knew that Anne would marry better than any of us, and this was the success we were taught to measure ourselves by. Surely she would marry an earl at least, or a duke like her uncle, and best of all, there was the possibility that, if some eligible foreign prince were available, she could have him as well. This was something we all dreamed of secretly, but with Anne…with Anne it was a very real possibility. She could rely on the knowledge that she would continue to live the same sort of life and enjoy the same kind of luxury that she and her mother had been born into. In France, at that time, the other girls couldn’t be so certain. Some had lost relatives in the Revolution, at the foot of the guillotine and were made constantly to remember it. Others were nouveau riche, so to speak, and after the return of Louis VXVIII, there were even some of the fragile old guard.
Anne withstood the jealousy well. She had grown up with many cousins who resented her even less kindly than we did, for her mother was very close to the Duke, and therefore Anne was his obvious favorite. At first, she was understandably aloof at school, but she gradually warmed to me. The arrangement was actually thrust upon both of us by Madam, who found Anne’s French unconscionable. Because my English was by far the best of the other girls, Anne and I were made conversation partners. Something as small as this can easily bring young girls close together when they’re so far from their families and home countries, and it wasn’t long before we were sharing secrets under the blankets at night when we should have been sleeping.
As abruptly as we were thrown together though, we were separated. Napoléon escaped Elba early in 1815, and Anne and I were not reunited until three years later. In the interim, we wrote each other frequent letters that frequently never reached our destination. War has no sympathy for the letters of schoolgirls, but the letters that made it through helped to keep our friendship alive. Still, fourteen is quite different than ten, and when she returned to school, it took time for us to fall back into an easy friendship. It didn’t help that Anne was somewhat of an introvert and could often be seen pursing her lips tightly together as if the words would burst forth uncontrollably if she were to slacken her jaw even the slightest. Add to that the awkwardness of adolescence and the pressure of marrying both well and soon, and it’s probably a miracle we became even better friends than we had been as girls.
Both of us had begun to take on more polish by the age of fourteen –Anne more so than I. She had been in English schools during the post-war years, and she had begun to travel a little with the Duke, as well. She came to school straight from a trip to Vienna, which set all the other girls’ faces green with envy. All except mine, because I lacked the imagination and desire for travel at that age. How different could Vienna truly be from Paris? I couldn’t fathom it. And in between, I was sure there was nothing but the sameness of the countryside I had vague memories from at home. The post-war years for me had also been subject to more turmoil as France tried to pull itself back together once again. From the windows of Madam’s school, it didn’t seem so terrifying, though history tells me it was for some. By 1818, things had settled back into an easy pattern for those of means, and that is, I suppose, why Anne returned at last.
We spent our days singing and dancing and sewing, and painting in the garden if the weather was fine. These were the final days of our education, and there was really nothing else for us to learn. We would wake early in the morning and breakfast together, as we had throughout our school days. We’d say our morning prayers and then dress for riding. Around noon, we would break for tea and a light meal. We’d read our lessons, mostly history, and then we’d stitch samplers in the sitting room before our afternoon walk. Sometimes there’d be shopping, depending on how many of us had received our allowance from home, and then we’d have lessons on various instruments, some taking turns singing or dancing. Anne was excellent on the piano and often volunteered to play for the whole session, which most of the girls eagerly accepted. Our dance instructor was a balding gentleman, but dancing seemed to be the key to falling in love in our minds, and so we much preferred moving our feet rather than our fingers. Then there would be a late afternoon tea before supper. Again, if we were fortunate, there would be some sort of entertainment: the theatre or a concert or assembly of some kind that we could attend. These sorts of activities broke up the monotony of our days, but they were relatively rare to come by. Our headmistress feared overexposing us to society without the guidance of our overbearing mothers, and certainly there were mothers I had seen come in and out who would have found it presumptuous of Madam.
One thing is for sure, and that’s that both Madam and our mothers would have been scandalized by the things we used to talk about at night while huddled close on someone’s bed. We’d talk about fashion and balls and future husbands. The history and philosophy of our morning lessons were emptied out to make room for romantic dreams that sent us off in fits of suppressed giggles so that we wouldn’t be caught and scolded. We thought the most ludicrous things about marriage and sex and babies, and I still shake my head thinking back to how little we knew, let alone understood. It was meant to be that way back then, though for the life of me, I can’t imagine why.
The spring of my fifteenth birthday, I finally learned more about the reality behind our midnight gossiping. I received a letter from my mother, as I would every few weeks, but this one bore the news that Charlotte was to marry the eldest son and business partner of one of my father’s oldest business associates. Charlotte’s betrothed stood to inherit a rapidly expanding and highly profitable shipping business in Antwerpen, which is where Charlotte would live as his wife. For our family it meant incredible wealth, and for me it meant an unexpected holiday back to Ghent, but I couldn’t fathom what it meant to Charlotte.
“My sister Charlotte is to be married,” I told Anne that afternoon as we lounged around the drawing room in unladylike fashion and stared sullenly out the windows at the rain coming down.
“How exciting,” she said, sitting upright and looking as though she were eager for more details. “How old is your sister?”
“She’ll be nineteen next month,” I admitted. It was a little old to be married, but at least she hadn’t yet reached her twentieth year. “I haven’t seen her since she was sixteen when I was last home for Christmas.”
“Will she be married in Paris?” Anne asked.
“No, in Ghent, from my father’s house. Her fiancé’s family will come from Antwerpen, fifty kilometers away and stay the week.”
“What’s his name?” Anne seemed less interested knowing it wouldn’t be in Paris, but she continued peppering me with questions. “Is he handsome?”
I laughed. “He’s nearly twelve years older than her, who can say?”
“Is he rich then?” Anne was alarmingly realistic, even at that age. “Or does he have some land and title?”
“He’s plenty rich, I’m sure.” That much, my mother had made clear in the letter. “My father would hardly let her marry him otherwise.”
“That’s very lucky,” Anne had said approvingly.
“Would you like to come with me?” I don’t know that I had meant to ask her, but Anne brightened at the idea immediately and agreed so long as Madam would allow it, which she did.
My father’s servant arrived the following month, and Anne and I spent several days shopping and packing and laughing. Some of the other girls joined in, including the newest of Madam’s charges, an Austrian girl, one year younger than us, named Therèse. We went from one storefront to the next searching for the perfect gift for my sister, and settling eventually on a China crepe shawl. For our wedding outfits, Anne and I spent considerably more time, wanting desperately to be the most fashionable people there, the thought not even crossing our minds that it wouldn’t be difficult for Paris girls to be considered stylish at a country wedding. We indulged in lace and ribbons and fine silks; we bought new gloves and bonnets, and even new dancing slippers. We pretended that it was our own coming out, and in some sense, it was. It was our first society event, even if the society would mostly be merchants from Flanders.
Anne had time to write home about her trip, and the day before we were to leave, she received a package from the Duke, sending his compliments to my sister. We wondered desperately what was inside, but Madam commanded us sharply not to open it as it wasn’t meant for us. We hid it in Anne’s trunk so what we wouldn’t have to stare at it in the carriage, tempted to disobey and open it.
The journey was hardly pleasant. It took almost six days of traveling, and when we stopped overnight, Anne and I had to share a bedchamber and a maid, which led to unnecessary quarreling. Luckily, neither of us got sick, as I recall, but there was a lot of boredom and discomfort until we arrived at Maison de Lambert and were greeted by my mother. She was unenthused by Anne’s homely looks at first, but she quickly approved of her French and manners.
Anne and I shared my old bedroom with Elisabeth, who was thirteen and taller than me. Charlotte, I remember, was even prettier than she had been at sixteen. I can’t even remember what color eyes she had, let alone how her face was shaped, but I think she must have smiled a lot. She hugged me close, I remember that, and for the first two nights, both Anne and I left our room dark, preferring instead to sleep in Charlotte’s bed, and telling her stories of Paris, even while she regaled us with the details of balls and parties and the process of betrothal.
I had conflicting feelings upon my reunion with Charlotte. On the one hand, I found it so cruel that some stranger was about to take away a sister I had barely had the opportunity to know, but on the other, her enthusiasm was contagious, and I was happy that she would lead a good life. I even began to dream of coming back to Ghent with a young, handsome husband, so that I would be closer to her and the children she’d eventually have.
During the days of helping my mother and sisters prepare for the wedding, I came to better understand how different their lives were from mine. While I had been sent to Paris for education and the opportunity to improve my family through some yet-to-be-determined means, Charlotte, very clearly, had been auctioned off to the highest bidder. My father was already quick to start shopping Marguerite around, though she was less pretty than Charlotte. I came to the slow realization that we all served a purpose, back then, even the girls. Barred from any respectable professions, we were left with the worst sort of menial work: to warm beds, whether in marriage or in outright prostitution, the latter of which, I knew nothing about back in 1819.
My sisters were resigned to it in a way I was not. They seemed to me, even then, to be unnecessarily submissive creatures with no will of their own. Perhaps Paris had taught me to dream bigger, to dream outside of the limited range of my hometown, but I think there were probably fundamental differences in our natures and temperaments. My mother, at least, could relate a little. One night she called Anne and me to her bedside, and we spent the night combing each other’s hair. She told us stories of Paris from her youth, before the disruption of the Revolution. Her sister had married a viscount and lived in a beautiful townhome with gold leaf wallpaper in the drawing rooms and seventeen bedrooms. Again, this could have been a fairytale made up by my mother, but Anne and I were appreciative of such stories. We talked her ears off with our limited experiences at the museums and in the parks. It’s the only occasion I can remember where my mother smiled and laughed, or even spoke at such length. At the end of it though, she said very abruptly. “That’s enough now, girls. Off to bed with you.”
And as if someone had blown out a candle, we slide off her bed and hurried into Charlotte’s room for the late night session with my sisters that would follow. The memory of my mother though, gentle and interested in my life, as a mother should be, is another of those rare early memories that stays with me. Thinking about it now, I think Anne and I must have reminded her of all that she’d lost, and that’s why she chased us back to our rooms. Shutting the door on our youthfulness was the same as shutting the door on memories she could never return to. I’ve wondered, occasionally, what that must feel like.
In Charlotte’s room one night, my other sisters joined Anne and me in a late night gathering. Anne and I asked her about kissing and touching hands with gentlemen. Besides our dance instructor and a handful of footmen and stable boys, there were very few men in our lives, and even fewer of social station that we would ever have occasion to come into physical contact with. Charlotte’s marriage was yet another reminder that our world was full of looking, but never touching. Marriage meant the end of all that, though we obviously couldn’t imagine to what extent.
“Do you love him?” Anne asked, as she toyed with my braided hair and I swung my legs over the bed.
My sisters and Anne turned to Charlotte in interest of her answer, but I continued to stare out into the black summer night. There was no skyline save for the treetops, and no light but for the smallest sliver of a moon and the reflection of our candle in the glass of the window.
Unlike Anne, I would never have thought to ask such a question, and not just because it would have been considered inappropriate. I had no sense of romance yet, and almost too much common sense. I knew my sister’s fiancé was not only twelve years her senior, but that she had only had the rare occasion to see him before, usually when he and his father conducted business in Ghent. Their social moments, rare as they would have been, would also not have been private. What could Charlotte have known about him to love? She hardly knew anything about him at all.
Looking back, I see him as nothing but a very fortunate man who was able to pay for the loveliest flower in my family’s garden and take it away for his own pleasure. It’s not that he was in any way a bad man –at least I doubt that he was. It’s just that he had probably never given much thought to love, and my sister, if she had ever given it much thought, had put those thoughts carefully away.
“He will make a good husband and good father one day. We’ll keep a lovely home, and I’ll be able to help all my sisters find good husbands of their own,” was Charlotte’s diplomatic response. “What more could a girl ever ask for of a husband?”
She got up and blew out the light, ending the conversation as my mother might have: by simply deciding it was over. I remember sleeping in between Charlotte and Anne that night, and inching my body close to Charlotte’s until my back was pressed into the curve of her chest. She had put her arm around me and told me to sleep already, but I don’t think I slept a wink that night.
The next morning was the day of the wedding. As Anne and I got ready in our own room after breakfast, she asked me if I believed in love. I had never known Anne to be much of a romantic, or one so preoccupied by thoughts of love, and so I answered that I didn’t know.
“How can you not know? Either you do or don’t.”
“I haven’t thought about it much,” I snapped.
There was poetry, of course, and romantic prose, but that all seemed like an academic sort of love. Reading of courtship wasn’t the same as experiencing it, and although I knew it was only a matter of time until I did, I had a difficult time imagining it. It seemed impossible that a boy, let alone a gentleman or a knight in shining armor, would come and sweep me off my feet. I was just the youngest daughter of a tradesman. I was not raised with great prospects, even if my schooling in Paris had opened my horizons more than they would have been at home. If anything, I supposed I would think about it when I was sixteen or seventeen and able to make my debut in society.
“I think about it all the time,” Anne sighed, helping the maid straighten out the folds of her dress. “I can’t wait until it’s my wedding day.”
“Well, we’ve plenty of time to wait,” I reminded her, retying the bow of my sash. “And I’m in no hurry, but then again, I’ve no plans to marry a duke or a prince, like you do.”
Anne blushed and laughed, but didn’t say anything more on the topic. Even if I had had hopes of marrying a prince, I wonder if I would have thought about love more. –I don’t think I would have.
Charlotte looked beautiful on her wedding day, and Anne and I learned on our return to school that an announcement appeared in the Paris papers. Anne had sat in the front pew next to me and with the rest of my family as we listened to my sister’s soft voice swear to obey a stranger and put her life and happiness in his hands. Afterward, there was drinking and dancing, and then my sister rode away with her new husband and Anne and I began to pack our trunks to leave for Paris. Although I don’t remember the likely uneventful return journey to Paris, I do remember pouting out the window as our carriage departed and my mother stood and watched from the foot of the front steps. Even then I had an inexplicable longing to stay while wanting nothing more than to leave.
Back at school, Anne and I didn’t talk much about our trip or the wedding. We fell back into our daily pattern of history and walking and shopping and gossiping. Though the point of our last years with Madam was to cement our sense of feminine virtue, I suspect it was really to sharpen our ability to gossip. Back then, gossip was more often than not better than virtue, and I’m inclined to think sometimes that it still is.
Several weeks later, I received another letter from my mother bearing more momentous news: that she was with child. It was a situation perhaps even more eagerly anticipated than Charlotte’s fortunate match. I tried to offer my support from a distance, but I often lapsed in my requests for a baby brother during bedtime prayers and Sunday penance. Fortunately, this negligence had little impact on my mother, who gave birth to a healthy, rosy-cheeked baby boy fifteen years my junior, and he was named Eduard Michel Joseph Lambert. The family’s future was secured on the shoulders of an infant, and I wrote my congratulations to both my mother and father.
I was not called home to see the new child and was therefore blissfully ignorant of his entire life. Instead, I occupied myself with planning my debut in Paris society. It wasn’t a formal coming out, but upon our sixteenth year, the girls at Madam’s school did make a formal curtsey to the matrons of the fashionable salons, and then waited for their judgment. I wrote to my father in preparation for this occasion, and I not only asked for, but was granted a ridiculous sum of money that my mother no doubt played a hand in. I wonder if she might have wanted to come and see me properly come out, but with Eduard it would have been impossible.
Instead, I was sent to the office of M Durant, my father’s Parisien man of business, as well as my legal guardian while I was away from home. And since my father had no brothers, and as it was, a son of only a short year, M Durant would also have been responsible for me in the case of my father passing while I remained unwed.
M Jean Durant was a short man, although surprisingly enough, not as stout as one might imagine a "man of business." He didn't even wear spectacles, which I thought a critical component to such a serious profession. Instead, he was terribly average: medium height, brown hair, blue eyes, and symmetrical features that, while unremarkable, were still pleasing enough.
I first met M Durant after my father agreed to fund my first stepping out into society. One didn't send money those days, and in order to deliver me the sum I required, I needed to visit the man in person. I remember being ushered into his office by a harried assistant and offered a chair in front of his desk. He was a brisk man, talking to me only briefly on how I'd grown since he last saw me, and how he was to understand any number of things about my life, which I couldn't fathom how he knew, unless my father had written him of me. From there, he got straight down to business, attempting to instill within me a sense of responsibility for the money he was about to place in my hands. He ended by bidding me to be a good girl, and it was only by the smallest of miracles that he didn't pat me on the head. Afterward, I told Anne that he was quite possibly one of the strangest men in the world, or at least that I had ever met.
It's strange to think back at how well I can remember the face of M Durant, but not that of my own mother or father, or even Anne for all that she's been a major character in my story so far. It's fascinating the things the memory chooses to save and discard.
The sun is rising.
Although it's still snowing, the sky is brightening above the lake, and it's after six in the morning. I know I should sleep, but I don't want to miss the moments left in my life. Back in Brussels it's after noon. I should be at work, staring out my window at the black-haired gentleman who works in the office building across the courtyard. We smile and wave at each other every so often, communicating with little gestures throughout the day, and turning off our office lights every night in farewell.
But that's the old life. The one that's ending.
The clouds are thin and gray, like dirty, shredded cotton. I can see gulls in the sky, carried by the frigid winter wind over the thick lake water. Although the room is cozy enough, I can feel the draft from the window Amelia left open. I get up to close it and pause for a minute at the window. The city is still quiet beneath me, and I put my fingers against the glass. It's ice cold to the touch, and it jolts me further awake. The sky outside is so familiar, though I hesitate to walk down the lane of that memory.