Authors: Lauren Groff
Now a stocky sixty-year-old man is coming down the hill, hallooing. This can only be Jean-Paul. His face is windbattered. If he has eyes, they are so deep and hooded by his shaggy brows she can't see them. His odor shakes her hand before his hand does, some combination of unwashed clothes, body, salt, breath. He smells like a lifelong bachelor.
He apologizes for being so late, says the house is ready, that they are going to be very happy there. He is surprised at her French, he says. It isn't bad! He says he has a gift for her, that the guy who owns the house has told him that she was researching Guy de Maupassant, andÂ .Â .Â . He pulls out a wad of paper from the back pocket of his jeans and unfolds it dramatically before giving it to her.
She looks at it. He's printed out for her the French Wikipedia page for Guy de Maupassant: Henri RenÃ© Albert Guy de Maupassant, b. 5 August 1850, d. 6 July 1893, protÃ©gÃ© of Flaubert, failed suicide, Naturalist writer of short stories and novels, et cetera. Jean-Paul waits. She swallows her laugh, says it is very nice of him to do that, and that he shouldn't have, and thanks very much. This is apparently insufficient. He frowns and squints at her, then turns and takes the boys' hands. The older boy lets him hold his for just long enough to not be rude, then takes it away, but the little one keeps holding the hand and chats with Jean-Paul, despite the odor and mutual incomprehension. They start up a very long flight of stairs, seventy-four steps, she'll count later, carved into the steep hillside. The mother carries all three of the bags, which are heavy.
The older boy hangs back with her and says quietly that he doesn't like that man, that he is stinky and there is something weird about him.
Oh, he's not so bad, she tells him. She is wheezing a little. At the top, Jean-Paul and the little boy have turned around and are watching her power upward, step by step.
Jean-Paul laughs and calls down that she reminds him of a she-goat.
Changed my mind, Monkey, she murmurs to her older boy, I don't like him, either.
Atop the hill, the streets are nervous, haphazard, full of short jogs up a half step and quick alleys. Everything is
made of stone. In the sun, out of the wind, it is quite warm. Red geraniums spill everywhere.
At last, Jean-Paul drops the little boy's hand, pulls out a key with a flourish, opens a door in a wall beside other doors, and steps in. He says that here they are, here's home. Inside, it is sparse, which suits her, all rock and wood and white plaster, three rooms stacked atop one another, connected by a spiral staircase. Someone's grandmother's furniture. There is a fatty, rotting smell that she recognizes from an apartment in Boston when she was young, a few weeks of low-level anguish after a rat died in the walls. There is a table, chairs, a couch and television downstairs, a trundle bed and a bathroom on the next floor, and at the top her tiny white room with only a queen-sized bed in it. There is dirt on the windowsills, long hairs and sand in the drains.
The two skylights in her own bare white room at the top are open, and she sticks her head through. On one side, she sees only sky, the daydreaming sheep above the cliffs. But the other is full of slate rooftops shining like damp skin. Everything she sees from here is striped: the red-and-tan clock tower at the center of town, the roofs of the blue-and-white tin cabanas on the beach, the creamy cliffs with their veins of flint, the ocean's navy with whitecaps, the tiny people walking the boardwalk in their mariner's shirts. The wind is raw on her cheeks.
She brings her head back in. Jean-Paul is standing very close. His scent is strong, and it combines with the
dead-animal smell from the kitchen to become somehow an unpleasant film in her mouth.
He wants to show her how to use the television, the wifi, the stovetop, but she says, No, no. Thank you! No, no, no, no. She goes down the stairs, over and over thanking Jean-Paul, who is following her. From the front door, she calls up for the boys, who are leaping off the bed and making the house shake as they land. They come down grumblingly. She has to go grocery shopping, she says; it is imperative. If there are problems, she'll get in touch with the owner. It is great to meet Jean-Paul. She opens the door. He hangs back. She says goodbye three different ways. He slinks out. She opens all the windows and waits for ten minutes as the wind blows the last of him out, then when she is sure he is gone, she makes the boys put their sandals on again.
The mean-mouthed woman at the town's only
laughs at the mother when she tries to fit all the groceries into the reusable bag she brought from Florida. The mother feels ashamed: she saw an excellent burgundy at an astonishing price, one fifteenth of what the wine would have cost in the United States, and bought all four bottles on the shelf. They make the cardboard box the woman gives her heavy.
The boys pass the bakery slowly, sniffing. They speed by the butcher shop because the window is gruesome
with dead flesh. They are vegetarians, though only when it comes to creatures with faces.
It was simple to get to the center of town, but now the mother appears to have lost her way. The streets were silent and eerie with drizzle when they arrived in the morning but are now thronging with visitors. The boys run ahead; she yells to prevent them from being hit by the cars sliding along in the tight roads between the houses. They look back at her blankly.
She asks someone where their street is, but the man, clearly a fisherman, responds in an impossible French, a French that makes her fear she has somehow lost her French entirely. Yportais, she'll learn later, is its own dialect, as knotty as old rope.
At last she puts down the groceries and rubs her arms. She won't cry, she tells herself firmly. The older boy has found a tall round pole beside a set of stairs leading up to a bricked-in front door. He is showing his little brother how to climb up, slide down. Dark hair, gold hair, dark, then gold.
Guy was also the beloved older brother of someone smaller and blonder, HervÃ©. But HervÃ© was the even more tragic mirror of his tragic brother, and the parallel feels like a curse on her own boys, and she rushes it out of her mind.
The littlest playground in the world! her sons shout, sliding.
She watches, feeling each slide in her own body. She
had a battery-operated toy when she was little, a set of penguins that marched up a staircase only to launch down a curvy slide and start the march again. The thrill was vicarious, the adrenaline outsourced. Good training, the mother thinks, for a life in books.
She comes up the sidewalk, pushing the box with her feet.
What's wrong, Mommy? the little one says.
I think we're lost, she says. Don't worry. I'll figure it out.
He makes a pinched face as if he'd sucked a lemon, then slides down the pole and runs up the stairs again.
The older boy comes over and stands on her feet, pressing his head into her sternum. He looks up at her face questioningly. Isn't that it? he says, pointing to a great cracked terra-cotta pot with red geraniums, beside which is the gap in the houses that leads into their narrow street. He knew where they were for a while but was being careful of her feelings, she sees. Sweet child. Or not so sweet, because when they arrive at the house, while she fumbles with the key, the older boy either pushes his little brother off the step or doesn't mean to knock him off, it is hard to tell; he has gone watchful in his graceful predator's body, but the little one's wails are echoing in the close street and his knee has a dab of blood on it, and she hustles all three inside as quickly as she can and shuts the door against their noise, for fear of the neighbors.
She cleans the house while the boys play with Legos, though the place was supposed to have been already cleaned before they arrived; this is why they had to wait until the afternoon to see it. There is nothing she can do about the smell but keep the windows open and hope for a speedy decay. They eat pasta and carrots, and go for a walk before bed, and on the way home there are cooking odors, people just beginning their evenings in vacationland, the sun still bright overhead.
She sings the boys the Magnetic Fields' “Book of Love” and reads to them from
The Little Prince
, and they fall asleep quickly in their sleeping bags because they can't understand French and she might as well have been singing whalesong. Oh, but she loves the language in her mouth, the silk and bone of it, the bright vowels and the beautiful shapes a mouth makes to speak it.
Downstairs, people keep passing the window, and their voices are loud. She closes it, closes the curtain. The wifi won't work, though she turns the router on and off many times, though she follows the instructions in the binder the house owner left, each time more carefully than the last. She isn't going to talk to her husband; he is in the thick of work by now, would respond curtly, would hurt her feelings and make her feel unloved, but maybe she has some good email, she doesn't know. She
opens her notebook but finds it impossible to write. She opens a bottle of the great cheap burgundy and is startled when she goes to pour another glass to find the bottle empty so soon. There must be an invisible her in the room, drinking from the same bottle, a second her, in yoga pants and a fleece jacket and smudged glasses, a doppelgÃ¤nger just like her, right next to her, but unseeable. The only explanation.
Maybe she's imagining this because Guy's later stories had many doubles, because, as Guy's disease progressed, he began seeing a ghost of himself. One of his many lovers was GisÃ¨le d'Estoc, bisexual, a demimondaine, famous for a bare-breasted public swordfight with a female lover who wronged her. She had such a fiery temper, she was suspected of bombing Le Restaurant Foyot to get back at a nasty critic. In her posthumous tell-all about her love affair with Guy,
, GisÃ¨le says that he once told her about his double:
Guy, she says, was lying still on the bed so that she could hardly see him in the shadows. The dark corners seemed to pulse with phantoms. Was he asleep? Suddenly, she heard his muted, jerky voice, saying in a harsh tone, This is the third time he's come to stop me in my work. At first he had a strange moving face, a face from a dream, my own face, as if I were looking in a mirror. This time, he wouldn't speak to me. On the last visit, this visitor who
looks more like me than my own brother seemed real to me. He walked into my office and I heard his footsteps. Then he sat in my chair, all naturally, as if he belonged there. After he left, I would have sworn that he'd moved my books, my papers, all the objects on my desk. Like the last time, just now he said nothing to me, his face in an expression that has nothing to do with my work or worries. Only on this third visit did I understand what my double was thinking. He's furious with me, he hates and scorns me. And do you know why? He believes that he is the author of my books! He is accusing me of stealing them from him!
Sometimes, Guy whispered to her, I feel madness rolling around in my brain.
The mother finishes the second bottle of wine. The page before her is still blank.
Fuck it, she thinks, it is the travel, the strain of newness, the stink in the house, and her body feels heavy, as if over the course of the day it had been stuffed full of stones from the beach, all of these things conspiring to keep her from working. With some effort, she climbs the spiral staircase up into her cold white windy room.
Ten at night and yet the sun is still blazing in the skylights. She pokes her head through into the air and sees the tide far out, the black exposed seabed terrifying in its
rawness, its gleam somehow sinister like the surface of a dark moon. Tiny people pick their way across it, holding white things she imagines are buckets.
On the next rooftop there is a line of seagulls. They are strangely still, facing away from her and toward the sea. She counts a dozen but stops counting because something makes her uneasy about their silence. This is a species of bird that is never quiet; they are three-fourths scream, they are the birds of rage, all of them mothers; even the male gulls are mothers.
Something, she thinks, is wrong.
Soon, pink and navy spread across the sky, and the sun blazes, then goes out. She'd read of sailors at sea who, on extremely clear days, see a flash of green the moment the sun sets. The only thing she sees is the ghost of the old dead sun on her eyelids when she closes them.
A moment later, the biggest seagull opens its wings. All at once the birds break into shrieks, laughter, wild flapping; it is deafeningly loud, and she is so startled she hits her head on the skylight, and when she stops wincing, the seagulls are lifting up in the wind, peeling off the rooftop, carrying backward toward her. She ducks again and watches a handful float backward close over her head, their tongues darting out of their open mouths like long and pink and panicked worms.
Then they are gone, their noise coming down from the distant air. She is shaking, but maybe she is just cold.
She gets into bed to warm up and within a few breaths is asleep.
In the morning, there is a tiny freezing body climbing under her warm duvet, then another one. The boys fidget but stay quiet, all elbows and knees knocking her sides, cheeks on her arms and chest. They watch the sky lighten overhead. She hadn't shut the windows and the room is frigid, the way her bedroom had been frigid when she was small and her family lived in a drafty antique house in upstate New York, and some nights she'd watch wind through a crack whip a thin string of snow across the room to settle in a tiny perfect nipple in the fireplace.
At the bakery, she makes the boys order what they want in French, and the baker looks at the mother kindly and holds her hand for a moment when she passes over the paper twists of pastries, and all the way home, the mother feels the baker's warm fingers on hers.
Not many other people are awake in Yport. A man bullying his spaniel down the street. The fishermen winching their boats with the long chains down the beach and through the channel.