Authors: Lauren Groff
It means something to me, Grant said.
It would, Manfred said. You are very American. You are all secretly royalists.
In the distance, the clouds cracked and slabs of light fell to the ground. Manfred sighed. He said, We have had a pleasant talk. But I believe you may drive.
Grant turned the car on and pushed up the hill, home.
The women gave out little yodels of surprise when they arrived to find the men in the kitchen in aprons, chopping vegetables. The men looked at Mina when she came out of the car, and Leo felt power turning and beginning to flow in her direction, like the stream at the bottom of the hillside when he shifted rocks in its bed. Outside smelled like rich earth, like cows. Manfred had poured them all champagne and brought the flutes out on a platter, and they drank it on the wet white gravel, looking at the way the vines sparked with late light, the green and purple tinge to the edge of sky.
they all said. Even Leo got an inch of champagne, which he had always loved like cola. He downed it. His mother was watching his father carefully over her drink, and it was true his father had a dangerous pink in his cheeks. Badness moved in Leo. He stole into the kitchen, now dim with dusk, and to the fireplace, the small ceramic box that had
written on it, or so Manda had said a few days earlier with her shy French. Leo had to wait for Grant to come in, bouncing Mina's suitcases up the stairs. His mother and Mina followed behind, his mother explaining the wonky shower, Leo's schedule, how Leo couldn't swim yet so everyone had to be careful with the pool. Leo's father gravely handed him a purple macaron and turned back to cook, and Leo put the sweet thing up the
chimney for the pigeons to eat. He hated macarons. He came out on the grass, past the pool, down into the cool orchard with its sticky smell. It appeared that the falcon had grown while he'd gone. It was huge with the shadows that had fallen on it. He stood over the bird on its nest and said words in German, then English, then French. He made some magic words up and said them. In one of his father's old books, back at home in the castle in the Alps, there had been a drawing of an old bird set aflame, and in the next illustration, it turned into a glorious new bird. Leo thought with longing of his own bed there, his own books and his own toys, and the mountain in his window when he awoke. He struck the match on a stone. The flame sizzled then took. The sticks were wet but not right under the bird, and those dry twigs caught just before the flame touched his hand. The bird's feathers, burning, let off a reek that he hadn't foreseen. He stepped back, crouching on his heels, to watch. Black roil of smoke. When he looked up again, it was much later; shadows around him deepened. The bird was a charred, ugly thing now, half feathered, half flesh. The fire had gone out entirely; there was no more red in the embers. Someone was calling for him,
He stood and ran up the hill, feeling weariness in his legs and all along the back of his neck. It was Mina calling for him with the sunset bright in her hair, with another glass of champagne shining in her hand. Someone is burning something awful, she said, sniffing. An orange-faced boy rode by on
a tractor that looked like a leggy animal; he stood up and shouted something gleeful that neither of them caught over the noise. Mina waved, smiled with her teeth. She looked at Leo's dirty face, his dirty hands. She said, laughing, Wash yourself, eat your dinner fast, and I'll give you a bath and put you to bed. His heart could hardly bear all that he was feeling. It was either expanding to the sky or contracting to a pin, hard to say. Leo, his mother called, come give me a kiss.
he thought, but kissed her anyway on her soft and powdery cheek. He kissed Manda up the giraffe's neck on her neck, and she blushed and laughed. His father he would not. Let the boy be, his father murmured to his mother. The gleam on Mina's legs up the stairs. He would eat her if he could. He let her wash him with warm water and she put him in clean pajamas and he petted her soft cheek and smelled her while she sang him to sleep.
It was chilly outside on the veranda. Amanda wore a fleece, Genevieve wore a brocaded shawl. They waited for the food to cook and ate terrine on baguettes and drank champagne, listening on the monitor to Leo's little piping voice and Mina's gravelly one answering him. There was light coming from the kitchen and on the table one candle in a pewter candlestick that looked ancient. Manfred had put on
Peter and the Wolf
, which was Leo's CD, but all of the other music in the house was his sister's
and all of it was 1990s grunge. There was some kind of newborn glitter in Manfred's eyes that Amanda was having a difficult time looking at directly. Something had shifted between Grant and Manfred; there was a humming line between them there had never been before.
Yesterday, Manfred said suddenly, I poisoned the rats in the kitchen. I forgot to say. Do not eat the cheese you will find in the corners.
Poor little rats, said Genevieve. I wish you had told me. I would have found a humane trap somewhere. It's an awful thing to die of thirst. She pulled the shawl tighter to her.
Oh! That explains the falcon, Amanda said. The others looked at her.
Leo saw a falcon fall dead out of the sky this morning, she said. It was huge. It was in the driveway. I don't know how you all missed it. I bet it ate a poisoned rat and croaked in midair.
No, Genevieve said, too quickly.
It seems likely, doesn't it, Manfred said. Oh, dear. It is terrible luck to kill a raptor. It signifies the end of days.
I mean, the thing probably just had a heart attack, Amanda said, but rested her head on her husband's shoulder, and it took him a moment to slide his chair over and put his arm around her.
The wind restrained itself, the treetops shushed. The moon came from behind a cloud and looked at itself in the pool.
Now Mina was singing in the monitor, and Amanda said, Listen! “Au Clair de la Lune.” She sang along for a stanza, then had to stop.
Why are you crying, silly? Genevieve said gently, touching Amanda's hair. Twice in a day and you never used to cry. I once saw all four of your big old brothers sitting on you, one of them bouncing on your head, and you didn't cry. You just fought like a wild thing.
Hormones, I think, Amanda said. I don't know. It's just that all those nights when Sophie would go out and leave Mina at our house, I would sing this to her until she went to sleep. For hours and hours. Everybody would be screaming downstairs, just awful things, and once in a while the cops would show up, and there would be flashing lights in the window. But in my bed, there'd be this sweet beautiful baby girl sucking her thumb and saying, Sing it again. And so I'd sing it again and again and again, and it was all I could do.
They listened to Mina's beautiful, raspy voice over the monitorÂ .Â .Â .
Il dit Ã son tourâ Ouvrez votre porte, pour le dieu d'amour.
Well, thank God for Madame Dupont, Genevieve said. Forcing us to learn it in seventh grade. She made us sing at school assembly, remember? I wanted to die.
Nobody looked at Manfred; they studied the knives, the bread. The moment passed.
Grant said, What's she saying?
There were tears in his eyes, Amanda saw; she squeezed
the back of his neck. She was moved. It had been so long since she had seen the side of him that would weep during movies about dolphin harvests. A different Grant had grown up over him, a harder one.
Manfred didn't seem inclined to translate. Amanda listened for a minute to gather herself. It's a story, she said. Harlequin wants to write a letter, but he doesn't have a pen and his fire went out, and so he goes to his buddy Pierrot to borrow them. But Pierrot is in bed and won't open the door, and he tells Harlequin to go to the neighbor's to ask because he can hear someone making a fire in her kitchen. And then Harlequin and the neighbor fall in love. It's silly, she said. A pretty lullaby.
But Manfred was looking at her from the shadows. He leaned forward. Dear Amanda, he said. The world must be hard for you. All substance, no nuance. Harlequin is on the prowl. He wants sex,
pour l'amour de Dieu
. When Pierrot turns him away, he goes to the neighbor to
battre le briquet
. Double entendre, you see. He is, in the end, fucking the neighbor.
Genevieve sat back slowly in the darkness.
Manfred smiled at Amanda, and there was a strange new electricity in the air; there was something here, announcing itself to Amanda, in the very back of her head. It had almost arrived, the understanding; it was almost here. She held her breath to let it step shyly forward into the light.
Mina watched the couples from the doorway, feeling as if she were still flying over the Atlantic, the ground distant and swift beneath. Nobody was speaking; they were not looking at one another. Something had soured since she'd left them half an hour ago. She had come from a house of conflict. She knew just by looking that there would be an argument breaking out in a moment and that it would be bad.
She took a step out to distract them. She started singing. She didn't have a good voice, but she was loud and her singing sometimes would disarm a fight at home. The other four snapped their eyes up at her. She felt herself expanding into her body as she always did when she was watched. She was new tonight, strange. The champagne was all she'd consumed since leaving Orlando, and it made her feel languorous, like a cat.
Sometime between arrival and now, she'd finally decided what she'd been mulling over for the past few days; and now what she knew and what they didn't filled her with a secret lift of joy. Internal helium. She wouldn't board the plane at the end of the summer. School was so gray and useless compared to what waited for her in Paris, her life on hold in that hot place where she'd lived her childhood out. Florida. Well. She was finished with all of that. A whole continent in the past. She would go toward
the glamour. She was only twenty-one. She was beautiful. She could do whatever she wanted to. She felt herself on the exhilarating upward climb in her life. As she walked toward them, she saw how these people at the table had stopped climbing, how they were teetering on the precipice (even Amanda, poor tired Amanda). That Manfred man was already hurtling down. He was a mere breath from the rocks.
This sky huge with stars. Glorious, Mina thought, as she walked toward them. The cold in the air, the smell of cherries wafting up from the trees, the veal and endives cooking in the kitchen, the pool with its own moon, the stone house, the vines, the country full of velvet-eyed Frenchmen. Even the flicks of candlelight on those angry faces at the table was romantic. Everything was beautiful. Anything was possible. The whole world had been split open like a peach. And these poor people, these poor fucking people. Were they too old to see it? All they had to do was reach out and pluck it and raise it to their lips, and they would taste it, too.
The apartment Helena rented in Salvador had high ceilings, marble floors, vast windows. It always looked cool, even when the blaze of a Brazilian summer crept inside in the late afternoon. If she leaned from her balcony, she could see the former convent that curved around her street's cul-de-sac; she could see over the red tile roofs of the buildings across the way to where the harbor opened into ocean. She was so close she could smell faint littoral rot and taste the salt on the wind. For the first few mornings, she took her coffee out to the balcony in her cotton nightgown and watched the water sweeping greenly toward the horizon, ocean and sky faltering into haze where they met.
One morning when she was on the balcony enjoying the nightgown's graze against her ankles and the sharp summer sunlight, she looked down to find the shopkeeper from the grocery across the street looking up at her. He had a broom in his hand, but he wasn't sweeping.
His round, dark face, always glistening as if just brushed with hot butter, was turned up toward her. His lips were open, and his tongue was pressing rapidly into the gap between his two front teeth, all pink and wet and lewd.
She went inside and shut the glass door hard and put her coffee cup down very carefully on the glass dining table. She felt ill. She went into the bedroom to look at herself. The same light that fell across the balcony was slicing through the windows in her room, and she stood in the pool of it to see what he'd seen. In the mirror, all was apparent, literally: she could see her entire bodyâlegs, dark pubis, round brown nipplesâas if her nightgown were only a pale shadow of her own skin. Helena thought of the man's view from below, the pink soles of her feet pressing through the keyhole shapes in the balcony's floor, the taper of her legs to her bust, her head topped with dyed yellow hair brazenly unbrushed.
Jesus Christ, I look like a whore, she said. Helena laughed at herself, and the laugh broke the spell, and she showered and dressed and went out for the day. As she passed the grocery, she stared straight ahead, unwilling to give the shopkeeper the satisfaction of seeing her look into the dark recesses of his store.
Helena was in that viscous pool of years in her late thirties when she could feel her beauty slowly departing from her. She had been lovely at one time, which
slid into pretty, which slid into attractive, and now, if she didn't do something major to halt the slide, she'd end up at handsomely middle-aged, which was no place at all to be. She was the youngest daughter of a mother too perennially ill to live alone, and being the youngest and unmarried at the time of her mother's first bloom of illness, Helena was the one to fall into the caretaking role. For the most part, her life with her mother was calm, even good, with whist and euchre and jigsaw puzzles and television programs, with all that church on Sundays, ferociously antedated, in Latin, with veils. Helena herself believed in no god but the one that moved in her mother's face when she genuflected on the velvet and forgot how ill she was.
She was, on the whole, fine with the arrangement, fine with being her mother's keeper. It had to be said, however, that love was impossible with a sick and saintly mother patiently bearing her insomnia in the room next door. There was no question of dating, either, because her mother needed help every few hours to go to the bathroom or remember a pill or a shot, for a lap to lay her head in and a hand to wipe away the moisture at her temples.
Helena's sisters felt horribly guilty watching their beautiful sister fade in such dutiful servitude, and so they gave Helena a good chunk of money every year and came to spend two weeks apiece caring for their mother in Helena's stead. For a month a year, Helena had the freedom and funds to spend her time wherever she wanted. She
mostly chose to visit quiet places bedaubed with romanceâVerona, Yalta, Davos, Aracatacaâand to stretch her cash reserves, she rented a furnished apartment and ate only dinners out. She'd spend the days in museums and coffee shops and botanical gardens, and at night, more often than not, she'd come giggling back home with her pumps in one hand, exchanging sloppy kisses with a stranger in the elevator.
She had no trouble finding men, even if it was undeniable that her looks were slipping. If, at the restaurant she chose, a man didn't approach her, she went to the bar of a nice hotel. If nothing happened at the bar, she went to a nightclub and brought home drunk boys half her age. She preferred blond businessmen above all, but there was a different and sometimes more intense pleasure in these young men, natives of the places she visited, something delicious in the way their languages slid past each other, only barely touching.
Men were not as disciplined or as smart as women, she thought; men almost always took what they were offered, their appetites too crude and raw to put up much resistance. They were like children, gobbling down their candy all at once, with no thought about the consequences of their greed. She and her visitors often kept the neighbors awake, but the neighbors rarely complained; when they met her in the hallway, they usually became confused by the neat and elegant gray dresses Helena wore, her severe tight bun, her pale and haughty face. It felt wrong,
somehow, to make such an embarrassing complaint of a woman whose posture was so very correct.
After her month of slaking her thirsts, Helena found she was almost eager to return to the close, doily-riddled apartment and her mother's half-swallowed cries of pain in the night.
A week after the shopkeeper had seen her in all her glory, two weeks into her stay in Salvador, she came home early one morning with one of her boys. She'd met a group of flight attendants at a bar, and their lone man was clearly uninterested in her, or perhaps in women in general, and so she'd gone along with the giddy bunch to a local nightclub. There they were out of place among the gorgeous young creatures with their barely-there clothing, their feline sleekness. The flight attendants eventually vanished, and Helena was left dancing with a tall, very dark-skinned man of eighteen or so. Though his English was limited to the rap lyrics he mouthed to the music, she managed to convey what she wanted to do to him. He grinned beautifully. They rode his scooter to her part of the city, Helena pressing her pelvis against him as they rode, touching him, and he went so fast he nearly lost control when they hit the cobblestones. They laughed with relief and something richer when he turned the bike off, and they slid down and, hushing each other, went together through the wrought-iron fence. She pulled the
gate closed and glanced out into the street as it clanged. She was startled to see the moon-faced shopkeeper. He was in a crouch, about to pull up the metal gate protecting his storefront. He was watching her. She felt the smile fall off her face as he gave an imperceptible shake of his head and turned his back. She had a sudden urge to call out to him, something desperate and true, about the long, dry years spent in the wilderness of her mother's illness, but the boy drew her away by the waist, his voice warm and sibilant and nonsensical in her ear, and when she looked back, the shopkeeper had turned away.
Helena woke in the mid-morning to find the boy gone. In the kitchen, she discovered a plate he'd left with a smiley face drawn on it in hot sauce, and she set it in the sink and watched as the face dissolved under a stream of water. She spent the morning slowly caring for her body, taking a long bubble bath and exfoliating and depilating, filing and polishing, seeing elaborately to her hair. The gnawing feeling she'd woken to hadn't gone away, and so she put on her primmest outfit, a long black dress and sturdy walking sandals. She hesitated and threw a shawl around her shoulders to give an even fustier impression. She hadn't, as yet, bought anything from the grocery across the streetâthe owner of the apartment had warned her in his letter that the prices at the clean chain grocery three blocks northward were half what the
local shop's wereâbut she needed some bananas and papayas and coffee and bread, and she gathered her courage to face the shopkeeper.
The store smelled strongly of fruit on the cusp of rot, and the shelves were packed, the rows tight. Two people with baskets could have hardly slid by each other. There was nobody else in the store, she was relieved to see, save the shopkeeper and a friend of his who had been chatting by the register until she came in. She gave them a small nod, and they nodded back, both unsmiling.
She browsed for a while, until the men began to speak again in a low tone. Back by the toilet paper and festive paper napkins there was a little narrow doorway in the wall, which was empty when she first looked past it. When she looked again, though, she saw a small foot, then a hand, a dark head. When the whole person came into the light, she was either a very short woman or a young girl. Helena assumed she was indigenous, brown-skinned and broad-cheekboned, then wondered if she was the shopkeeper's daughter, though she had assumed the moment she saw him that the shopkeeper was black; he was only slightly lighter than the boy from last night. But Brazil was so confusing this way, Salvador especially so, with its slave-trade blight of long ago: you never could tell exactly where people belonged. She had been surprised to find that this city upset some deep Northern Hemisphere sense of order that she didn't know she treasured.
The shopkeeper saw the girl or woman and said
something in a harsh voice, and by the swift fear Helena saw on her face, the way her shoulders dropped subserviently, and the speed with which she vanished from sight, Helena thought there was something wrong here. She didn't know what to do; she had to swiftly rest her head against the cool metal of the shelves to pull herself together. When she took her purchases up to the shopkeeper, her hands were trembling and she could barely look at him, getting only an impression of shortness and powerful shoulders. She fixed on a small tin statuette in the window above his head, a woman knee-deep in sharp-looking waves. YemanjÃ¡, she remembered from the marketplace, goddess of the sea. The man pointed at the numbers on the register with a blunt finger. Helena paid the money to YemanjÃ¡, not to him.
By the time he put her purchases in a plastic sack, she was able to look him full in the face, saying silently,
You are a bad man and I am watching.
For the rest of the day, she fretted over the girl, wondering if she needed rescuing. Still, she savored the way the shopkeeper had flinched under her eyes.
For three days, Helena dressed with ostentatious primness and made small purchases at the grocer's, but the shopkeeper never greeted her and she never saw the girl or woman again. Helena's ardor had cooled by the third day,
and she began to wonder if the girl wasn't simply the man's wife or girlfriend or stock person, a person to whom it was a wrong but not a crime to speak to in such a way. She began to feel a chill of guilt that she had jumped to such conclusionsâwhat an arrogant, American thing to do!âand to avoid the whole marshy emotional terrain, she began making her purchases at the chain again.
On a trip back from the other store, her milk and eggs swinging in a bag by her hip, she saw the shopkeeper out in front of his store, and he looked first at her bag, and something folded in his face, and he gave her a not-unfriendly wave, and she, confused, pretended to not see him.
Upstairs in her apartment, she fretted. Was she never to walk out of her house without being swamped with bad feelings? Was the shopkeeper going to ruin her entire vacation? She made herself a fruit salad and sat vengefully on her balcony to eat it. A great thick cloud had formed, and the wind had risen, and when she finished, she stood to take a look at the ocean. She watched as a distant sheet of water descended from the black clouds and sped toward her, drawing a swift curtain over the cruise ships outside the harbor, then the fishing boats motoring in, then the harbor itself, then the church steeple. When it hit the red rooftop across the street, she stepped inside and shut her glass door a breath before the storm smacked loudly at her, as if raging that she was still dry and safe when all the rest of the world was vulnerable.
The storm against the many windows was terrifically loud, and for a full day, Helena was stuck in the apartment, unable to go out to her museums or films or restaurants and bars and nightclubs. She read all of her books and wrote letters to her sisters and mother, telling them of this strange, dreamy town with its pastels and hills and wandering bands of drummer girls who danced under the streetlights and played ferociously in the former slave market filled with textiles and handicrafts. She wrote of the first man she had met there, though she stretched the truth far out of shape, taking what was simply a jet-lagged hour or so and implying a love affair, as she always did in her letters during her months at large. Her mother was a romantic, and her sisters, stuck in their happy marriages, only pretended to censure her entanglements, tsking and gorging themselves for a full year on Helena's hints and subtexts. She wrote of visiting the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, translating it as Our Lord of Happy Endings, knowing her mother would hear the sonorous Portuguese and imagine a dark-skinned Jesus on a cross, that her sisters would get the joke and laugh behind their hands.
When a kind of night fell over the afternoon, she felt desperate and tied a plastic shopping bag over her head and wore the only trench coat she'd brought, because it was supposed to be summer in the Southern Hemisphere,
after all. She ran, holding her shoes, to the convent-cum-fine-hotel at the end of the street. At the very last second, the bellhop opened the door for her and she burst into the lobby, laughing and shaking the water from her yellow hair and untying the plastic bag from her head in a vast gold-framed mirror. This was much better, she thought as she surveyed the hotel with its jungle of plants and woodwork, then checked her hair and makeup. She was flushed and very pretty. She slid on her shoes, and the bellhop gave her a little applause and gestured to the fire.