A Woman Unknown
We have become accustomed to seeing her through summer. She is smooth and dark, like the murmuring water outside her window. She is called Alice, after a storm and a heartbreak, and after another woman who had been young once and died. Her hair is long and lustrous, black as envy, and always clean. It unfurls from a bun as water from a broken dam, gathering at her hips. She brushes it in sets of one hundred strokes, over and over again with the ivory hairbrush, and washes it only once a month. Because “the secret to beautiful hair is keeping it out of the water as much as possible”, and so we tried it for three or four days until our hair began to smell like the hot fur of a desert animal, and oil gathered in a soft paste behind our ears.
Tante Alice shares her words sparingly. She is swollen with stories, brimming with inherited secrets and forsaken legacies. We come to her to listen. We listen through the silken sounds of cicadas, the shrill, insistent purr of bloated mosquitoes. We listen to her vaporous recollections of war-torn shores, the dim and frosted images she paints of forgotten ancestors and house pets gone extinct. We listen for the shadows of suggestions, for the murmurs of memories we can carry from this place. We come for these things, and for the recipes she keeps and brings to life. Tante Alice is expecting us on Sunday, though when we ask to visit her, she says “yes, but I will not have time to make the cake.” Baking reminds her that she is tired of getting older.
Alice is our grandmother’s sister. She had been born during the war, and when the German troops had come through northern France, our grandmother, the eldest, had carved a tunnel out of a hay-bale and hidden her there, the quiet baby with wet, sable eyes. We do not know much else about her childhood, nor do we know much about her as a girl, as a woman. We come to visit her twice a summer, in her squat blue cottage on the heavy, verdant flanks of the Seine river, where she bakes golden pear tortes and sweet cream cakes for us to eat. We pick chamomile and black tea leaves from the milkweeds in her wild garden, and followed her wandering gaze to the bottoms of our teacups, tempting clairvoyance, keeping a pact, unspoken, that we will not tell our holy-rolling aunts and uncles of our forays into white magic.
The last time that we came to visit Alice was on a Tuesday in October. The world was waiting for snow, living things seemed suspended in motion, quiet and anxious. My brothers and I had taken the train by ourselves for the first time. Hers was the last stop on the Petite Ceinture railway line. When we passed Villa du Bel Air, my brother Jacques drew a hard, whistling breath.
“Look: the new Paris Métro. It begins here.”
“I’d like to work in construction,” says Gerald.
“You’re too smart for that kind of thing,” says Jacques.
“Maybe I’ll be an architect then.”
I thought about Alice’s father, who was an architect, and an army general too. Alice’s father who survived only to sap the lives of those around him. Alice’s father whose heart gave out with a gasp as he was chasing a hunting dog with a whip. Skeletal iron beams sliced through the thick morning mist. Working men watched us as we passed by, the pads of our fingers making little moons on the steam-saturated windows.
The train station was empty and achingly cold, the only sound was that of frost hardening in shrill, metallic clicks against the tin roof. Tante Alice was not there, nor did we find her on the winding path of blue gravel that led to her little cottage. When we arrived, she was standing, barefoot, pink bobby socks in hand, at the milky river’s edge. Her eyes were veiled, her gaze tangled in the turbid currents that split and swirled the leaves like broken sails. Tante Alice, standing by the river’s edge, holding her breath and counting the wrinkles of water. Alice, with hair like combed river weeds, and pale, bloodless feet disappearing into the riverbed. Alice, evaporating, as the foam and spittle on sun-stroked stone, as the phantoms of fish haunting the water. I wanted, that day, to tell my brother what I had seen, but he shrugged his shoulders like bobbing apples and sauntered into the little house by the shore, drawn by the familiar soft scent of flour and pears.
Tante Alice does not have time to bake, so we bring pink seashell macarons and a mason jar of Maman’s apple cider. I am holding the bag because my brothers carry their fishing poles like weapons. They are going to fish for snappers and sunfish. We are stepping off the train, onto the platform. A small man, crumpled with wrinkles and cinnamon brown says, Is that for me? I remember to smile, and the man runs a rough finger along my arm. Say girl, will you share with me? My brother Gérald swings a hooked arm like a lasso around my shoulders and leads me away. He has never seen a man touch me before.
Tante Alice often told us the story of the man she once married. They had met in a train station in Marseilles, shortly before the second war. He was a sailor, and was heading to Le Havre with the other young men. He swayed his hips as he approached her, his breath rich and red with whiskey, placed both hands on her shoulders and said “If words were undying and captured the essence of things, I would tell you how beautiful you are, and ask you to marry me.” He died of dysentery, some two years later, without protest, without a sound, and was lost to the deepest shadows of the Pacific.
Dusk is sweeping slowly over the ocean, and the wings of summer insects rub sleepy melodies from the air. We are walking along the blue gravel path, through meadows threaded with pale moths and purple dust. Stalks of wheat and heather cast aquiline shadows against empty houses. No one lives here anymore. We are impatient to reach the cottage before dark, the darkness here is thick and shuddering, words are lost to the whistling wind. Tante Alice does not speak very much at night. She brushes her hair before the fire and goes to sleep before the stars have punctured the fabric of the night sky. She will have been expecting us.
On that Tuesday in October, Tante Alice spoke only to me. My brothers were in the kitchen, dipping their fingers in bowls of batter and feeding heavy cream to the cat. She did not move as I approached her on the shore. I was ashamed of my coral pink Maryjanea, so out of place against the polished glass and broken stones along the river’s edge. I stood behind her, taking great pains to breathe without making a sound.
“Words,” she said, “came into the world of their own volition, without intention, without a distinct destiny. They insist on immortality, and yet they are always passing away. From the moment they are spoken, they are empty, hollow, soulless. And yet, words are all we have. Perhaps there is some better way to make our experiences known, to make our moments matter. But for now, all we have are these words.”
I wish now that I had not spoken. But instead, I said, “Tante Alice, I love you very much. And that means something to me.” I watched her hinge at the hips and drag the tips of her fingers across the water, as though she were drawing a line in the sand.
Around the back of the cottage is a garden, savagely overgrown and stirring with nocturnal inquietude. But what I remember most is the magnolia tree, its papery bark and thick, lustrous leaves. There is a rope lolling from a low branch, where a swing used to be. It is blue with mold and rotting, and insects lay their eggs between the splitting fibers. My brothers and I have peeled off the fraying bark and carved our names into the smooth skin beneath. The tree is ours. When we enter the empty house, we know to look for Tante Alice in the garden. I tell myself then that I will never forget the silhouette of the magnolia tree against the violent, sprawling sunset.
She’s not here. Did you check upstairs?
Colette, says my brother Jacques, would you go and look by the water?
My brothers lead me back through the kitchen. There are little white pastries on the mahogany counter, cut like play wedding cake. They pull out chairs and begin to eat, and I walk on outside, onto the porch, and look out to the spot where she stood on a Tuesday in October. Two little satin slippers are lined up neatly by the shore. One white sock dances in an eddy, caught by the lapping tongue of the rising tide. Beneath the broken water, the distorted shapes of seashells and stones shimmer like storybook ghosts. The current, bitter and chill, carves tunnels like hollow catacombs, dragging fallen feathers and leaves, and a second little sock like a moribund creature, far from the foam-lipped shore. The static of the summer night pulses against my temples. I turn my back to the water and go back inside. I do not tell my brothers what I have seen. In the kitchen, held in place by a silver spoon, there is a little note. I read the note while my brothers eat cake, and I will meaning into the words on the page.