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Authors: Serena Burdick

Girl in the Afternoon

BOOK: Girl in the Afternoon
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For my sister, Lilia

 

ENGLAND 1878

 

Sometimes,
in this big, cold house, I pretend I am an explorer on an expedition, navigating the long corridors like rivers, the huge rooms like undiscovered islands. I crawl under tables and leap onto sofas. I take my sister's hand, and we run through the rooms together. But the air next to my body is cold because she isn't really there, and when I look at the empty space next to me, my chest hurts. It hurts right where my heart is, so I think that this must be what is meant by a broken heart.

“Why,” I ask Maman, “is everything different?”

She puts her hands on my cheeks and looks at me with eyes that are so soft and brown I wish I could touch them.

“You are just a boy,” she says. “It is too much for a boy to understand.”

 

PARIS 1870

 

Chapter 1

Aimée was never told why Henri came to live with them. She was never told anything that mattered. She used to think it was because she was a girl, and only boys got to know the truth about things, but eventually she came to understand that some things are better left unknown.

*   *   *

On
that cold December morning when Henri disappeared, Aimée lay on her bed with her face buried in a pillow. In her right hand she held her stone necklace, smoothing her thumb and forefinger over the cool surface.

It was raining the day Henri found the stone. It was the size of a thimble, clear as crystal and flecked with pink. They were children then, and with his head bent against the rain, Henri showed her the perfect hole in its center. Later that night, he strung it on a piece of string and tied it around her neck.

Aimée lifted her face from the pillow and dropped back onto her cheek, covering her nose and mouth with her hand. Even the icy temperature couldn't stem the rank smell of gun smoke and cannon fire. She breathed into her palm, her breath moist and warm, just as Henri's breath had been against her lips last night. She remembered the surprising taste of his mouth, his salty lips, and the firm groping of his tongue, how the kiss had grown gentler and slower and had made her feel as if her legs wouldn't hold her up.

Tossing off her warm eiderdown quilt, Aimée jumped out of bed, sucking frigid air through clenched teeth, and slipped her feet into icy slippers. She snatched a shawl off the back of a chair and wrapped it over her shoulders. Through the window, a band of sunlight stretched across the room and lit up the doorknobs on her wardrobe like tiny blue flames.

She pulled a sketchbook from her desk, flipping it open to a picture of Henri, his features thin and youthful, but with the awkward beginnings of maturity. There was a look of mischief in his eyes, maybe a touch of fear, and a hesitant half smile on his lips.

It was the sketch she'd done when she was fourteen years old—Henri already a mature sixteen—and she'd insisted he take his shirt off. “Just do it already,” she'd said. “It's the only way I'm ever going to paint a nude. You'll get to go to the académie and paint all the nudes you want. I'll be stuck here with the peaches.”

Aimée snatched a peach off the table where their instructor, the acclaimed Barbizon painter Monsieur Camentron, had meticulously placed it and sank her teeth into the pink flesh.

“Aimée?” Henri had leaned his long arm on the shiny mahogany and gave a disapproving wag of his finger. “How are we going to finish our paintings with one less peach?”

She shrugged. “We'll scrape one out and insist he only set out two. Camentron's too senile to remember anyway.”

Aimée could remember how warm the sun had felt pouring through the high windows, turning everything rich and vibrant. She could remember the sweet taste of the peach as she'd watched Henri unbutton his shirt and cautiously tug the cuffs over his hands, sliding his lanky arms through the sleeves. She remembered the heat in her cheeks when she'd seen his scrawny, hairless chest, and how she had laughed a stupid laugh.

“Start drawing before someone catches us,” Henri had said, and she'd dropped the sticky pit back into the bowl and taken up her box of Conté crayons.

It was Henri who'd taught Aimée to draw when he had first arrived.

“It's an acceptable way to keep to yourself,” he'd told her.

They would lie on their stomachs with their drawing boards in front of them, kicking their legs in the air. Very quickly Aimée had found she could copy the objects in front of her with amazing accuracy.

“Exceptional,” Henri had said when she'd handed him a drawing of a toy monkey.

Aimée had bitten her bottom lip and looked down at her blue-veined hands, the praise warm in her belly. She was a skinny, pale child with narrow lips and gray eyes. There had never been anything exceptional about her.

When they drew, Henri would tell fantastical stories of faraway places, and Aimée would add pictures reflecting the tale. Later, when they had inched their way into adult bodies and began seriously painting, they spoke very little. It was easier to pretend they were concentrating, when really they had grown shy. There was none of the relaxed carelessness of most siblings, no banter or ridicule. But then, they were not brother and sister, rather companions who had been raised in the same home, and that was the difference.

After a while, the silence became what they needed most. A form of communication more precious than their art, balanced tenderly and cautiously between them. There was an intimacy in it, a suspension of time like the moment right before a kiss. And it was this that they first fell in love with, the ability to be together and alone at the same time.

*   *   *

The
day before Henri disappeared, Colette Savaray stood in the parlor smoothing her hands down the front of her dress and staring at the floor where the rug used to be. They'd rolled it up months earlier and removed it with the rest of the First Empire furniture. The wood, where the rug had been, was shinier than the wood around the edge of the room, and Colette realized it would be no easy feat getting that enormous rug placed again.

She looked over the sparse room. There was a velvet sofa marooned in the middle of the floor, stripped of its end tables, facing two walnut chairs taken from the dining room, their red upholstered seats completely out of place against the blue-and-gold paper on the walls. Colette hated the bareness and the way every sound, even the click of her heels, echoed and bounced back at her.

She yanked open the brocade curtains they now kept closed in the daytime. Dust floated like a strip of tulle in the dull light. Colette swirled her arm through it, scattering the motes with her open hand.

A loud crack shot down the hall, and she snapped her arm to her side, imagining a bullet barreling through the doorway.

The sound came again, and she laughed. It was only the front-door knocker.

“Marie?” she called, looking one way and then the other before sitting in one of the chairs. “Marie! There's someone at the door.”

They hadn't had a visitor in months. Even with the horrors outside—bloodied soldiers being carried through the streets in omnibuses and all those dead horses—it was knowing that no person could get in or out of Paris that made Colette feel most frantic, like a caged animal. Just hearing the sound of that knocker gave her a sense of hopefulness, despite the state of her house. She reached a hand to her hair and pushed the pins in place, wishing she'd taken more care with her toilet that morning.

Their housekeeper, Marie, the one loyal servant who remained, made her way down the hall. She was a stout, middle-aged woman with shocking red hair that sprang in tight, uncontrollable curls.

“I'm here, madame,” she called as she passed the parlor door, and Colette heard Marie's wooden shoes clomping in the vestibule and then the reverberating chink of the outer door's steel handle.

When Édouard Manet stepped into the parlor, Colette rose with a ravishing smile. “My goodness!” she exclaimed, extending a hand. “Any visitor would be cause for celebration, but you, Monsieur Manet, really are a thrill.”

“Madame.” Édouard took her hand, kissed it, and released it back to her. He looked thinner than usual in his military greatcoat, but his beard was still full, his small, dark eyes authoritative and reassuring. Even in wartime he was impeccably dressed, his coat brushed, his shoes polished and shiny. He was a man who claimed a room, and Colette found this irresistible.

“Do sit down. I want all the news.” She gestured to the sofa, easing herself onto her chair.

Édouard sat, unbuttoning the top two buttons of his coat. “It's either smallpox, starvation, shells flying through our windows, or else we'll be buried alive in sandbags,” he said with a wry smile. “You should have left with the other families when you had the chance. Stubborn, the lot of you. The Morisot women refused to leave as well.”

“You can't blame any of us. Who knew the Prussians would be so fierce and so many?” Colette leaned forward with a hand to her chest. “I, myself, am a liberal Bonapartist, but clearly Gambetta and the new republic were unprepared. We've blown up our own bridges, for goodness' sake, and even that hasn't stopped the Prussians. I heard Bougival and Louveciennes have suffered as much damage as anywhere else. Such carnage and wreckage is beyond me.”

BOOK: Girl in the Afternoon
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