Read The Cabinet of Earths Online

Authors: Anne Nesbet

The Cabinet of Earths (3 page)

Just the slightest flutter of a thought—
smiling!—
and then it winked out again and was gone.

“It's probably something along the lines of autism,” said Maya's mother. “Though she wasn't born with it. Anyway, I know you'll handle things with your usual good sense. And now—”

She yawned.

“—I'm taking a nap. Go look at your room, James, why don't you? It's right down the hall. . . .”

There was a long moment of silence in that apartment, still so empty and unfamiliar, with the suitcases scattered around like toppled bricks. For the first time, Maya noticed the wall of the living room wasn't a straight line at all, but a long curve. Even the windows had a curve to them, and through the rippled glass she could see the street winding along and the windows of the building just across the way, with their fancy iron balconies good only for potted plants, not people. And slate-colored roofs with more windows thrusting out from them. All in all, the place looked remarkably like, well, Paris.

“Where's my room?” James was asking from farther and farther away. “Here? Is this it? Can I mess it up now?”

She ran her fingertip along the curving wall, all the way to the fireplace in the corner, where there was a potted plant at one side and a mirror above, tilted just the tiniest bit, so that her own face looked down at her, her eyes darker in the glass than they usually looked, darker and more serious, somehow.

And then when her finger got as far as the mantelpiece, it tripped. There was the smallest paper corner of something, trapped between the mantel and the wall. You could see that someone had painted over the joint where the mantelpiece met the wall, but not very carefully, and there was a black line of a crack visible now. And that was where her finger had tripped: not on the crack itself, but on a tiny cardboard corner that stuck out from that crack, no farther than a fraction of an inch. An eye might not notice the bump of it, even, but a finger did.

And her fingers were already working carefully away at that corner in the crack, easing whatever it was out, bit by bit, trying to get just enough cardboard between her index finger and thumb to pull the thing out. Because if she lost hold of it now, she saw, it would fall all the way into the depths of that crack and be gone for good.

Maya was good at fiddling things out of tight places, though.

With a slight sigh of paint dust, out it came: a large envelope, quite old, it seemed. With something in it. Several somethings. They poured out easily into her hand: photographs. Black and white, square-shaped, odd.
How old they must be
, she couldn't help thinking,
these pictures of children in quaint tailored coats and antique sweaters. Walking along sidewalks, looking up into the camera with a smile and a wave: alive, almost
.

Almost alive.

She was tipping a photograph back and forth in her hand, watching it shimmer.

A little girl, maybe four years old, with dark ringlets spilling out from under her tam; dark, sparkling eyes. Sparkling. Yes—

“So what've you got there?” said her father. Out of nowhere, almost. Maya jumped.

“Bunch of photos,” she said, hugging the envelope closer to her chest. But she held out a hand, to give him a look.

“Hnh,” he said, an appreciating sort of sound. “Cute kids. Used to live here, maybe. Nice old prints, too. Different emulsions back then, you know.”

Then he drifted back out of the room again. Suitcases trumped photographs.

For a while, however, Maya could not move away from that place or look away from those pictures. They were silvery in a way she had never seen a photograph be silvery before; almost three-dimensional, somehow, when you rocked the shining children in your hand. Not everything in those photos had that magical fullness: The trees, the sidewalks, the cobblestones in the background stayed flat, and even the other figures in the frame, the passersby, the extras.

But oh, the beautiful, luminous children!

Those children were like little flames of silvery depth flickering against the ordinary flatness of everything else, and some of the flames were brighter and deeper than others.

On the backs of the photographs were neat notations in pencil, numbers followed by something that looked like a droopy “X”: “174
X
,” “56.8
X
,” and even “216
X
!!” on the photograph of the ringletted girl.

“Adèle,” it said there, in fine and feathery script, and a date she could not read. 1951, maybe. 1957?

Maya's breath caught in her throat, and her fingers tingled as she slipped the photographs back into the envelope they had been waiting in all this time. It was the strangest feeling that filled her now, after all that long day of travel, bronze salamanders, elegant young men in sunglasses, and cousins your eyes just slipped right over—

She felt—really she did!—as if the very walls of this room had sent her a letter.

Chapter 4
The Baby Who Sang in the Ruins

T
hey had just slogged through Parisian puddles for an hour, and now Cousin Louise was looking up and down the street, choosing a café.

“There,” she said finally, with a point and a sniff. “We'll go there.”

She liked cafés. Well, in principle, Maya did, too. Sitting at a little round table in Paris, watching well-dressed people stride by in their high-heeled shoes,
clickety-clack, clickety-clack
, while you sipped a fizzy drink—nothing more relaxing than that, under ordinary circumstances. That is to say: in other company than that of Cousin Louise.

“Please request that table over there, Maya,” said Cousin Louise (never in English, always in French). “The one facing the fountain. I'll have a
café crème
, very hot, please tell him.”

Even in parts of the world where people speak English, it can take some gumption to tackle a waiter on a busy day. But every afternoon spent with Cousin Louise led like clockwork to this uncomfortable moment when Maya had to sort through her new French phrases, fingering them like foreign coins in a pocket to see what she had to spend; when she had to march forward and catch the eye of a man whose vest and apron meant business; and then had to
galvanize herself
, open her mouth, and talk.

This time Maya's face must have sagged into a frown for a moment, because when they were safely at their table, and the waiter was about to bustle back any moment with their drinks, Cousin Louise asked, “You think I am making you do this only for tormenting you?”

(Maya could understand more of Cousin Louise's French now, but her brain still made peculiar English of it.)

“Non, non
,”
said Maya halfheartedly.

“But listen, Maya,” said Cousin Louise. “If I ask for a table, I will not get one. If I order
café crème
, they will not bring it. They do not see me.”

For a moment Maya was filled with the most peculiar thought:
Maybe that was the literal truth
!
Had she spent this week trailing a truly invisible person all over Paris? But what could that possibly mean? What if the whole Davidson family was simply being
haunted
by this Cousin Louise?

It was a foolish, impossible thought, but still she had to put her hands in her lap to keep the worry from showing, and when the waiter came with the drinks, she watched him with an eagle eye. But he put her Orangina and a tall cylindrical glass on her side of the table and the coffee on the other side, quite as if he realized Maya was not there all alone. A relief. Cousin Louise might not necessarily be a ghost, after all. Which would have been awfully hard to explain to her parents, come to think of it, if it had turned out to be true.

“So,” said Cousin Louise, after testing the temperature of her coffee. “And how was it, the first day of school?”

But of course she used the French expression:
la Rentrée
. The Comeback. The Reopening. The Return. The words don't work so well if you're a refugee from California and deeply missing all your friends and your dog.

Maya thought about her day, about how during
récréation
, which was recess, all the normal students stood around looking cool in their black jackets and chatting in French, while the friendless new kids hung out on the edges and, if they were Maya, counted the many, many days remaining before the next vacation. And decided it was safer to talk about James instead.

“My brother seems to be doing very well,” she said. (Taking the usual pauses before the verbs.) “He bounced to school this morning—is it all right, ‘bounced'?—with his new backpack and his new pencils. And this afternoon he bounced out once more, very contented. He likes school.”

Not to mention that three or four little boys had waved good-bye to him as he took Maya's hand to walk home.

“I see,” said Cousin Louise. “It is easier for him. He is not at all invisible, that one.”

Maya stole a look at Cousin Louise's inscrutable face and then gave her soda a determined stir. The thing was, even when Cousin Louise seemed to be making a joke, you could never be quite sure enough to laugh.

“Yes, he will take taxis all the time, if he wishes, when he is big,” said Cousin Louise, as if that were the measure of something grand. “He will hold out his hand, and they will not speed by. They will see him and stop. They will even serve him coffee when he requests it, in cafés.”

She rested her bland eyes on Maya, in whose mind those taxis and waiters had gotten all tangled up with the black-jacketed crowd at the Collège Paul Sabatier. Being ignored? Well, even Maya knew something about that.

“And now,” said Cousin Louise, opening her book. “We will talk about the
imperfect past
.”

As if the present weren't imperfect enough! At least in the past there had been friends to hang out with, and a dog that loved you, and a world that spoke your own language.

But Cousin Louise meant a verb tense. About which she went on and on and on. Maya was trying her best to pay attention, but her mind kept drifting away to more interesting things: the brightly lit windows of the shops, the little fountain with its sad cherubs holding up their marble banner, the tourists sauntering by with their cameras dangling from wrist straps and their noses buried in their guidebooks, the flock of fashionable students making a smooth and languid turn into the entrance of the café, like the birds swooping from tree to tree in the Champ de Mars.

“Aux enfants perdus”
—the café was named after the fountain. “What children?” thought Maya drowsily. “Lost how?”

“Maya,” said Cousin Louise. “Maya!”

Maya gave a guilty start. She was pretty sure that Cousin Louise had been trying to get her attention for some time already.

“I see you are indifferent to verbs today. But if you would be so kind as to catch the waiter's eye.”

Just at that very moment, though, someone gave Maya a friendly tap on the shoulder.

“Hey there,” said a boy in English, very close to her ear. Maya jumped in her chair and twisted around to see who it could be.

“I think you're Maya,” he said. “Excuse me. Aren't you?”

He had dark brown hair, almost black, the slightest hint of a curl in it. And eyes that were a surprisingly friendly gray. But why was a random boy calling her by name? In English? In Paris?

“Whoa, sorry, didn't mean to startle you,” said the boy, holding out his hand. “I saw you at school this morning. The new girl from the U.S., so I was curious. Maya, they said.”

“Maya Davidson,” said Maya, shaking the boy's hand. He had appeared so suddenly that she didn't even have time to feel shy. “You were really at that school? You're American!”

“No, no,” said the boy. “Actually: Bulgarian. But, you know, I lived in New York for four years, so . . .”

He shrugged and smiled.

Maya couldn't help smiling herself: the first honest smile to cross her face since who knows when.

“Why were you in New York?” she asked.

“Parents are diplomats,” he said. “So then they got posted to Paris. Too bad for me! Had to start all over again. Tons of fun.”

“What's your name?” asked Maya.

“Valko,” he said. “Means ‘wolf.' V-A-L-K-O. That's how they spell it here, anyway. In Bulgaria it's different. Are you here for good?”

“Oh, no,” said Maya. “Just a year. My dad's working in some laboratory.”

“How's your French?”

“I'm working on it,” said Maya. And then remembered. “Oh, yes! This is my Cousin Louise.”

Valko looked rather taken aback for a moment. Quite the way you'd look, in fact, if an empty chair turned out, on third glance, not to be empty, after all. He shook Cousin Louise's hand with an apologetic smile. And then looked puzzled.

Oh!
thought Maya.
Maybe he feels it, too!

But you can't just up and ask someone if his hand has gone numb. Not with Cousin Louise right beside you, more or less.

“Delighted,” said Cousin Louise, everything about her, as ever, nondescript. And faded back into her chair.

“Well, then,” said Valko, hesitating for a moment. He kind of gathered himself together to leave—a moment of decision—and then pulled a stool over from a neighboring table and sat down instead. Maya found she had been holding her breath; she let go of it with a flustered cough and scooted over to give Valko some room at the table.

“I was in your shoes a year ago,” he said to Maya. “That's why I wanted to say hi. I know what it's like. I've been new a million times. It gets better, really it does. Some of the kids at school are all right. Of course—”

He gave a quick nod toward the other end of the café, where the flock of stylish students had clustered around a boy with very well-combed hair.

“That's the Dauphin,” said Valko. “His crowd, I would avoid.”

“Dolphin?” said Maya.

“Dauphin, not dolphin. Eugène de Raousset-Boulbon—that's his name. He comes from a family of Beautiful People. No, wait, I'm not kidding. You should see his parents. They look like they're about twenty-five years old. Do your parents look like they're twenty-five? Nope, mine neither.”

He gave his left palm an expressive jab with his thumb.

“Local aristocrats, that's what,” he said. “Secret societies and fancy clothes. Seriously! What the heck is ‘Philosophical Chemistry' supposed to be? It's not really chemistry, because chemistry is science. The Beautiful People have nothing to do with
science
. They don't like foreigners, either. I'd stay away; that's what I advise.”

“So why is he a dolphin?” asked Maya. Inside her head, the words were still humming:
Philosophical Chemistry
? Like the building? Like the people who had brought all the Davidsons to Paris?

“Oldest son of the king, that's what a dauphin used to be. Not related to the sea. Not like fish. Thinks his daddy's the King of Paris or something. Well, never mind them.”

He laughed.

“Really, though, welcome to the most uneventful
q
uartier
in Paris,” he said. “Except for the occasional abducted child”—he waved at the fountain—“nothing has ever happened here, and nothing ever will.”

And then he looked at his watch, gave another friendly nod, and took off down the avenue with the quick lope of a wolfhound.

Rosalie, 1951; Amandine, 1954; Laurent, 1955; Adèle, 1957—missing, but not forgotten
, said the sad cherubs' banner, as Valko retreated into the distance beyond it.
Edouard, 1959; Marie-Jeanne, 1960; Stéphane—

“And have you much homework tonight?” said Cousin Louise, whom Maya had again completely forgotten for three or four minutes—not just forgotten the way we forget our parents when their presence might be a problem, but
forgotten entirely
. If Maya had been a bus driver, she would have driven right past her without a second thought. It chilled your bones somehow, thinking about what it must be like to be so forgotten, all of the time.

How could a church falling on your head do that, make you
forgettable
?

But that reminded her of something. She had thought about it last night as she was brushing her teeth. She had been watching her face in the mirror and thinking about photographs, and then this other thought had come and sat down, like a stubborn dog, in the middle of her brain.

“Cousin Louise,” she said. “You were smiling in that photo, the one we have back home.”

It was not unlike talking to a wall, or a haystack, or an empty chair. But the thought wouldn't budge, so she plowed gamely on.

“The photo from the newspaper,” she said. “It's in an old album my grandmother had.”

“Excuse me?” said Cousin Louise, looking at her as if from a long way off.

“From when the church fell on you. There's a picture from when they dug you out, and you're smiling and waving your arms—”

Cousin Louise made a vague sound, but she did not interrupt.

“And the headline says it was a miracle. Mom translated it for us. And they found you because—because—you were
singing in the ruins
. You were almost a baby, but you were singing, and they could hear you, and they could see you, and they pulled you out,
safe and sound
. That's what it says.”

This time Cousin Louise made no sound at all. Just sat there, like a blank space, waiting for something.

“It's just that Mom said you were hurt by the church,” Maya said at last, all that silence making her cheeks burn with awkwardness. It had seemed important, last night in the bathroom. But now—

The blank space that was Cousin Louise shifted a little in its chair. And sighed. And began, after all, to talk.

“Well,” said Cousin Louise. “A
miracle
. Now that is very strange. Because I am sure something happened to me at some point. An accident. Damage done somehow, all the same. I don't know. A question for that uncle, I suppose, if I can find him.”

“What uncle?”

“The one who took me in first,” said Cousin Louise. “After the accident, you know. I have no memory of him, but I know his name: Henri de Fourcroy. They sent me to so many different people when I was a child. Nobody wanted to keep me. I made them uncomfortable, even then. They are made uncomfortable, you know, or they do not notice me at all.”

“My mother said it was like autism, what you have,” said Maya, surprising herself. It wasn't like her, to blurt such things out. She almost clapped an anxious hand to her mouth. But Cousin Louise didn't seem perturbed. She just shook her head.

“Autism?
Non
. Not that,” said Cousin Louise. “I have read about that. How the minds of others can be opaque, they say, to people with autism. Probably I describe it badly. But that is not the case with me. No—”

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