The next few weeks were spent, unintentionally, apart. Chelsea did not take Edward's classes and he did not go out of his way to meet her.
Chelsea was lonely. She had always been lonely, but had never let herself feel it. She was cold hearted, and she knew it. Kind perhaps, in brief snippets when she allowed herself to be, but for the most part cold. Almost bitter, like Edward, as their pain though separate was felt together.
She knew she had that quality about her; an impulsive sensuality that told sordid tales of her future. She was in her bloom; she radiated an unquenchable hunger for the fruits of life.
But it was not that she was impetuous that she would one day fall – her head was wiser than those women who belittled her. It was the sweet denial she harboured. She didn’t want to be one of those women. Those stupid, proud women who married blindly and only awakened from their pretentious slumber when a sexually transmitted disease showed up on a pap smear. And in their empty heads rang declarations of loyalty – But he was faithful! He wouldn’t dare! And the word – betrayal – hit them like a fist in the gut. You could almost feel their world splinter like glass.
She would not be the sad half of the middle aged couple sitting in silence in a noisy restaurant. Tucking a blonde streaked curl behind a pearl-studded ear, quietly reading a book as her husband smiled at the young waitresses.
It occurred to her that their world was, as she was, an illusion. When she thought of Bernard’s old chateaux it came to her that other cultures saw in the West a world of plastic; sterile, disposable and cloned of and for each other. And these plastic people, in denial of their own desires, saw the others as shrouded in the dark cloak of secrecy and ancient religious practice; unenlightened, shadowed. And in the same breath of disgust they themselves were unenlightened; immune to the glare of neon and the sameness of their clothing. Chelsea wondered at this global confusion, at the confusion that battled within her, and momentarily she tasted Edward’s pain and was in unity with his murky past. He knew not of her fast world, and her none of the mute dullness of his.
He strode through the University car park with a folder tucked under his arm and a muscle twitching in his clenched jaw. It had been a week and the scent of her was still in his clothes. Why did he think everyone knew, that the students mocked him with their childish giggles? He grew angry. How had he fallen so desperately, fallen under the bewitchment of a little French whore?
The lecture hall was too brightly lit and Edward cringed under the fluorescent glare. He had not been sleeping, his body ached, he was hopelessly distracted.
Susannah was in the front row and Chelsea was not. He noticed this when he glanced from the overhead and in to the audience. No matter how many students joined his lecture to glimpse the man who had seduced an innocent, he could pick her face within seconds. His eyes knew the languid, slender body and would find it leaning in the doorway, reclined in the front row with her neck unknowingly offered to him and her breasts peeking up from her carelessly buttoned blouse.
Susannah smiled at him, her round eyes begging his approval. He nodded in acknowledgement and inwardly chuckled when two spots of pink appeared on her cheeks. A sweet girl, truly innocent. She was not malicious, she was not selfish, he could hold her and know her heart was with only him...
He stopped. What was this way of thinking?
His mouth felt dry and his hands were clammy. He was sick, very sick. The poison in his mind was quickly contracted by his body and he staggered like a drunk. He was sick, he would throw up, pass out cold at any moment.
A small voice questioned him, it was very distant, very timid.
‘Sir? Are you all right?’
And the world became fuzzy, it blurred in black and white. The way it danced made him want to laugh, then it all disappeared in to a small black dot and switched off like a television set.
He was in his apartment, thank God. He was waking up, his neck felt stiff and sore. That’s right - it had been a dream. He had not fallen unconscious in front of a lecture theatre of students, it was a stupid dream.
Then, ‘Sir?’ - came the timid voice, and a knot tightened in his swirling stomach.
‘No,’ he moaned.
‘Sir, I brought you some chicken broth. I’m afraid I let myself in, the door was unlocked...’
Edward’s eyes focused and a round face framed with silken blonde hair came in to his vision. The small mouth was turned up at one corner in a self conscious smile, the large eyes were moist and frightened.
‘Susannah,’ he breathed, and it was almost a groan.
What was she frightened of, the little fool? Why had she come here? Did she think, in her innocence, that his being her friend’s lover made him a friend of hers? And yet she called him ‘Sir’. She was certainly a strange thing.
‘How nice of you.’ He smiled in a manner he hoped was sincere. He wanted to ask her how she had known where he lived, but foresaw that it would embarrass and offend her. She was so meek, not at all like his Chelsea. His heart stabbed with pain. Beautiful, beautiful Chelsea.
‘I made it myself,’ the girl was saying. ‘My mother taught me, it’s a family recipe. I hope you are feeling all right now. I think you may have banged your head on the lecturn.’
Edward ran his hand over his stubbled jaw and closed his eyes, willing her to leave. He wanted to be alone in his humilliation and defeat. He could not bear to ask of Chelsea, nor the details of what had happened during the lecture. It would be wrong of him, she was a child and should not be involved. He was sure she would part gladly with the details, yet he didn’t trust her. There was some alterior motive for her presence other than kindness. She was a strange one. She seemed so frightened but in her timid voice was a note of certainty, a maternal knowingness that coaxed one to believe in her word.
‘Thank you, Susannah. I’m feeling very tired now, would you believe? I think I’ll take a nap.’ He forced a smile, hoping that his words would convince her to leave without him seeming rude.
A frown puckered her freckled forehead.
‘You just woke up, Sir.’
His lips tightened. ‘Sir’ again? None of his students called him that.
‘What time is it? Don’t you have a class to go to?’
Susannah laughed and patted the bed next to his shoulder.
‘No, silly, it’s nine o’clock!’
Edward sat upright and stared at her laughing face.
‘Nine o’clock? How long have I been asleep? How did I get to be in my bed?’ The questions he had witheld burst forth in his anxiety.
Susannah continued to smile in a motherly way. He felt irritated by her amusement at his embarrassing condition.
‘There’s no need to worry, it’s only a case of heat stroke. The nurse came in from her lunch break just after it happened.’
He sighed, steadying his breathing as his heart rate regained a normal pace.
‘I just came to see if you’re all right.’ She smiled. ‘I’ve only been here about ten minutes.’
She placed the plastic container of chicken broth on his bedside table and re-arranged some of the items that were sitting there. She moved with the quiet authority of a nurse, and despite her youth it seemed for a moment that she were his elder, that generations of motherhood coarsed through her matronly body and could protect him from the emptiness he had endured alone.
Her story sounded fairly plausible. He had fainted from heat stroke, the nurse had had him carried home and now a concerned student was visiting him with a thoughtful gift.
He smiled at last. Susannah seemed more relaxed now, and to his relief she got to het feet and smoothed her denim skirt over her hips.
‘Well, I’ve got to be going. My friends will be wondering why I’m so late.’
He touched her arm in thanks and her eyes widened a fraction, regarding the hand on her arm for a moment before returning her eyes to his face. Again, he was made to think how different the two women were. If it were Chelsea she would have gazed unself-consciously at him with her liquid eyes and smiled that slow smile. Yet Susannah reacted to his touch as though it were an invasion, something to be feared. Perhaps she had been warned of men, but was not experienced enough to know when not to fear them. Perhaps she had been scared of something she had heard or seen. He couldn’t know for sure.
He thanked her and promised to drink the broth, watching in satisfaction as her stout figure made its way out of his apartment.
Peace at last, Edward thought, stretching his arms luxuriously. Peace enough to dwell upon his failures and wonder at what games the child-like siren played tonight.
There were times when she was exhausted by the joy of life. At others the darkness seeped through the cracks of that joy, setting its rosy glow to an ominous grey.
She was fearful of these times, and invariabley they came to her at night in her bed. That was when the memory of pain was nearest. In the deafening silence that pulsed in her ears and made her skin alive with fear, the memories were inescapable.
Pierre could tickle that heart of hers, however. He could bring the warmth back in to her expression, make her sing along with him as though she had always been happy. He rarely spoke of serious matters, yet she sensed from his eyes and his careful movements that he knew more of her than she cared to know of herself. In this way, she felt safe with him. In this way she could hide from herself because there was someone who, without words, understood.
It might have been in Paris, she wasn’t certain. She knew the weather was fine for they had spent long days at the beach; endless days, and that was where she had met the tall barrister. But she couldn’t remember if it was in Paris that she first saw her reflection, for those days were full of her own irrational desires and saved no room for memory of time and place.
It had been in a shop window; quite accidental. Pierre was with her; she didn’t know why – she couldn’t remember. Perhaps he had accompanied her on a visit to her mother’s, or perhaps she had dragged him shopping with her for make up and shoes. Regardless, they were standing at an outside novelty stall and Chelsea was trying on sunglasses. They were large-rimmed, dark sunglasses in the tradition of the ninteen forties film stars. Quite unfashionable really, even verging on appearing ludicrous. She had placed them on her face, laughing as Pierre clasped his hands together and uttered exaggerated praise. And there, in the window, was the reflection of a woman. An elegant woman; it startled her. Made her step back in surprise. Not the girl who had fought against her curves, had combed the dark hair flat across her brow, had the glimmer of uncertainty in her still childish eyes and the thinness in her body of pre adolescence. Not her, but a woman – seen through the eyes of another, for the dark glasses made her appear to be someone else. And she was struck by the grace of this woman, by her fluid limbs and sultry expression and the quirk of cynicism that played at the corner of her mouth. The woman was more sombre than she had imagined herself to be, despite the obvious humour in her face, and much more arrogant than she had ever felt she was.
And it was the only time she had thought herself beautiful, even when from that moment on it was all anyone ever said about her.
It was a defining event though it was brief and no photograph commemorated its existance. For though now she knew the truth and was to a degree pleased, it had been -unbeknownst to her at the time - the confirmation of what she had long suspected. That she was nothing more to anyone than a pretty flower, a rose to be plucked from the soil before her petals could unfold.
It might have been that very day that she met the barrister. His name was Laurent Christophe, and the fact that he had two first names had always irritated her. He was tall with a medium build and a shock of black hair that leapt from his head as though escaping somewhere. He was twenty four and lived in a seaside villa. His skin was tanned a deep olive from his trip to the Greek Isles and he wore his features as though they would fall from his face; always with his head held high and his nose pinched as though in confusion, or disgust. Chelsea had thought from the start that he did not like her much, but perhaps it was that his expression could not change. Whether or not he liked her, he was the first to go beyond the lingering stares and double takes of other men, for it was obvious that he most certainly desired her.
Chelsea and Pierre had been sunbathing. Pierre had scraped together his earnings to buy her a gift – her prized posession – a white halter neck bikini that embodied the chic of the time. Pierre loved to gaze at her as she reclined on the deck chair, admiring both her beauty and the pleasure his gift had brought to her face. But something had grown to distract him; it was that now the breadth of her hips, her velvet skin, her white throat sloping in to those soft breasts were not his alone. They were not hidden, they were laid bare to be admired by the eyes of others. And he was sick with jealousy, sick even though he had known the day would come when this powerful force could not be contained.
And almost synchronised with his thoughts, there came the barrister. Decked in quarter length slacks and nothing more he strode the sand, eyes roving and stopping short at Chelsea; their black centres softening, dilating as they caressed her body. He had that air about him that meant he could have a woman. He needn’t even put it in words, it was a given. And the pinched features showed that even in the face of such beauty he could find a flaw, that any woman would be his if he just gently, kindly, pointed it out. Forever with that look of disdain and assurance of his success.
Chelsea’s figure was still youthful, that was a downfall. There was the element of deviousness about her; she knew of her beauty yet she didn’t care. She was small, slender, child-like and yet so devastatingly feminine. She made you want to grasp her, devour her, possess her, yet she was always one step ahead. Elusive. Fragile. Innocent. And oh so clever.
He had not approached her that day. But Pierre had seen the barrister, and it was to be the end of his youthful optimism. He despised him on sight, and even as he crept under her skin Chelsea would eventually despise him also. She didn’t know what love was; had never experienced it in the form of maternal nurture nor in self sacrifice. And she thought that Laurent loved her and that because he loved her so much, she must love him back. She owed to him the only thing she knew to offer, the thing that seemed to make him happy – herself.
Laurent’s fiancee, Bo-Bae, was Korean, and in the time Chelsea was to spend with her she developed a taste for the hot Korean dishes that Bo-Bae’s grandmother would make. Bo-Bae, in Korean, meant ‘precious’ – a treasure. Laurent would call her his precious and it sickened Chelsea to no end. Knowing that he had chosen Bo-Bae before he had met Chelsea, knowing that even as the endearment passed his lips his eyes clung to her own.
Adele, the young daughter of her mother’s maid, was Chelsea’s Paris companion. Chelsea would call on her when she was restless and needed company, and Adele was only too happy to escape her duties at the manor house. It was at this stage, before they knew of Laurent Christophe and his Bo-Bae, that the pair would spend their days in the market place, stopping at the various cafes, spending Chelsea’s mother’s money on bijoux and bits of jewelry that they would soon grow tired of. On one of these occasions the afternoon would bring to them a mystery solved; the curious mystery of Laurent Christophe’s identity. Before that day Chelsea had never met a barrister, nor had she ever met a Korean. In Australia there were many different races; all colours walked the streets but she had had contact with none. It was an old fashioned attitude her mother held; a purist European superiority that outwardly expressed tolerance for all races and inwardly accepted none. Chelsea had found liberation from such out-dated practise in her Sydney days, yet a small part she could not out grow still found surprise and curious interest in interacting with other cultures.
It was to be soon that Laurent would find them, and he would gently guide them in to his world of unknown delights.
The coils of hair that escaped the plastic jaws of her hair clip flung themselves about in the breeze, seeming separate from her; joyful against her seriousness. Her face was motionless; structured in the silence of contemplation, and the hair – it moved of its own accord. Vibrant ribbons dancing without her.
This was how Laurent had seen her on that fateful day. This was the way he would always see her; a sullen flower whose petals longed to dance.
Music played in the courtyard that afternoon. Bells rang and trumpets chortled and buskers sang their pleas to passing tourists. Chelsea had drank two cups of cafe latte and the buzz that claimed her had made her surroundings slant towards the surreal. It was as in a play or a film. And because nothing was quite real, she could do as she wished. She was in a world without consequences like a dream. The music accellerated with her pulse and she clasped Adele’s hand, all at once aware of Laurent Christophe and the path he was making toward them.
When he reached their table he extended his hand, uncurling his long fingers to reveal a small object in his palm. An earring.
“Exusez-moi mademoiselle, I believe you dropped this,” he addressed Chelsea, and his voice alone made gooseflesh ripple over both girls.
Chelsea pressed a finger to her naked ear lobe.
“Oh, so I have! How lucky! Merci, monsieur, I hadn’t noticed it was missing.”
Laurent smiled slowly and Chelsea did something she had never done before. She blushed.
He took them to his fiancee’s apartment for supper. Adele was anxious that they were going somewhere with a stranger, but Chelsea was not fearful of strangers. They could do with her as they liked, she didn’t care. She almost wanted her mother to find out so that she would be shocked, so that she could notice her existance with more than just a sneer. So that she would notice her pain at all.
Bo-Bae was very obliging when they were introduced. She poured handle-less cups of hot, sour tea and served them sweet bread and fiery soup that contained boiled meat and chilli. She rarely made eye contact and moved soundlessly, her gestures fluid and precise. Chelsea felt large and clumsy beside this elegant creature, and she wondered at the couple’s strange relationship, at whether Bo-Bae was to be a wife of convenience, or of something more sinister. Chelsea never completely understood it and had made up her mind at the onset that she would not try to.
Everything about that afternoon was unexpected, yet on some level oddly familiar. As though it had been planned, or dreamed. As though all of it were meant to happen.
Bo-Bae’s grandmother hovered over them, chattering in the staccato language, wearing a night dress that was stained with cooking oil. She disappeared in to the tiny kitchen regularly, eventually muttering something that meant they were out of rice.
When Bo-Bae and her grandmother went out to run errands, Chelsea and Adele were left alone with Laurent. It was as though Bo-Bae already knew what would happen and didn’t care, as though she had resigned herself to turn the other cheek. All the while feigning ignorance with her expressionless face and often deliberate misunderstanding of French. Chelsea had imagined that she would feel guilty, but she didn’t. In the end she began to sense that she was not the one who should feel guilt, but that this strange world and its inhabitants were somehow responsible for what was to happen, and were more aware of her fate than she.
As Adele, accustomed to hunger, busied herself with tasting the many sweet meats, candies made of bean curd, and oddly shaped fish eggs, Laurent silently lead Chelsea in to a darkened bedroom. Light had peeked in through the slit in the curtains and Laurent drew them together roughly, the abruptness of his movement the only thing that betrayed his anticipation. And then he turned to her, and without so much as a kiss began to undress her. And she let him, watching in fascination as he expertly removed every article of her clothing. His fingers didn’t tremble as Pierre’s had. He had a sturdiness about him, a seriousness. She had the sensation that he was detatched from his actions, that he touched her blindly though his eyes consumed her. And carefully, not in desperation but in patience, he carried her to the bed, pushed her hair back from her face and looked in to her eyes as he made love to her. She didn’t remember much enjoyment, but it had felt interesting. His noises excited her a little and she felt inexplicable triumph when his thrusts became uၮeven and clumsy and he shuddered violently against her.
Afterwards he had dressed in a rush and she had lain on the bed feeling like she could laugh, but she was in shock. It was that simple. It was that easy. He was looking at her and then he was beside her, stroking her skin, murmuring that she was beautiful, that she was perfection, that he worshipped her.
When she returned home that evening, she looked at herself nude in the full length mirror. It was strange to be beautiful, she thought in a moment of clarity as she scrutinised her reflection. Certainly her features did not define perfection. But she was not flawed in the sense that called for criticism. In fact, there was little anyone could say to criticise her. Her face was delicately constructed, her figure was slender yet carefully curved, her hair was a cascade of colour and light.
Yes, it was strange. So strange. She touched the smallness of her features with an equally small and curious hand. Was it her? Was the strange creature who so resembled the sculptured flesh on the glossy pages really her? Was she beautiful? Desireable? How could she be when sadness plagued her, how could she be when she was anxious, cautious – a little girl who read books and danced and thought only of beauty as a fairy tale. Not real, not her.
Where could she go from here, where would it take her? She didn’t know, she wanted to close her eyes and not see all the confusion anymore.
The next month to the day she had felt restless and cross. Adele watched her warily from across the balcony as she watered the plants. Chelsea had gone cold again, had turned herself off like a light switch. She had one of her mother’s cinnamon scented cigarettes between her fingers and was passing it to and from her lips as she stared in to the distance. She felt old and weary. She wrote, but only at night when her thoughts were so loud that they demanded acknowledgement. The month’s affair had taken its toll and now Laurent disgusted her. She couldn’t explain it – his love seemed so cold in the darkness of his bedroom with that dispassionate expression forever on his face. He was emotionless, that much she had learned. And now she spent her days with Pierre, gentle Pierre who had faded in colour and whose gimpy knee worsened by the day. Pierre made her feel sad. His sorrow was so cumbersome, and yet she had no other company besides Adele. She stayed with him because he listened to her, but his silence made her hate her own words. And in her emotional isolation she grew angry – anger the only temper she knew to practise – and she sank in to the darkness of her mind.
In every day that passed there was that fear. Could she lose her mind? Was there something more life could bring – one final blow – that she could not bear?
Then the inevitable answer. No. She would go on. She would continue on because the failure was not hers, she would triumph. Some day, some day. Some day haunted her, would it ever come?
The affair ended without a formal goodbye, only the private knowledge that she would not see Laurent again. That she would not go to flaunt their betrayal before Bo-Bae, to partake of her generosity and then leave to choke on her own superiority.
And she was left again with the emptiness. She was used up, worn out. Alone. Alone, as always. Yet it reassured her in some strange way. That she was meant for this lonliness was a comfort. That she was meant for something, be it only pain, was reason enough to go on.
Thursday 12:45pm, 27th March
There is tonight. Always, tonight. When I lay in bed, again. Here, again. Where I return, where I remain. Where I find my comfort, or lackthereof, in this unchanging bed. Where I find myself each night and each morning. Where I struggle to wake and struggle to sleep. Where I struggle. Struggle with fantasy, with demon and dream. Dream of what was and what may never be.
There is tonight. Always, here again. Tonight the nothingness consumes me and I write, but I write regardless. Always, I write. In my head, in my book, it is the same. Always, the stories. The stories of me in my mind, the memories and fantasies no different from each other. No different anymore. I dream and I write and I write to dream. Hope has found friendship in the regret, in the hollow ache, they entwine, they confuse fiction and reality. They are the same. In my mind, I write of myself, of my love and my hate, of what was and what I thought should be, I no longer know which is which.
Tonight, and every night, I write my life.
Pierre was roused by the sound of the steam kettle. Its shrill alarm brought him scrambling from his make-shift bed and hobbling through the hallway to the damp kitchen. The kettle was insistant, urging him faster and he danced on crutch then foot, wondering who had gone away and left it there to boil. He removed it carefully from the stove and extinguished the fire, turning on his crutch to retrieve his carving knife and rusty collection of keys. A soft sigh stilled him and he turned to find Monique standing in the stone hollow of the doorway. They regarded one another for some time without speaking. There was a shift in her eyes that made him pay attention, made him think to himself that he should remember her face as it was then; drawn and taut with her hair pulled back tight and her eyes hungry and cold.
“Take this,” she said in a gruff whisper, thrusting her hand toward him, her pale eyes hiding from his. He looked down, grasped the slender, calloused fingers gently and turned her hand over. He brushed his thumb over the hardened knuckles, softly as though pitying her, and she trembled, turning her head away, blinking rapidly.
In her palm was a brass key. He opened his lips to speak, but she silenced him.
“Hush, don’t be silly.” Her cold eyes pierced his briefly before she tore them away. “Just take it, you know what it is. Take it and see for yourself.”
Pierre didn’t want to leave her. He wanted to bring something to this icy exchange that would comfort her, but it was impossible. She was already gone, her fingers trembling faintly as she pushed the key in to his hand and walked briskly from the room. She left behind a staleness, a cold dread that passed to him and flowed through his veins.
Chelsea was in the fields with the geese and the hens. A girl tall for fifteen, with dark hair cropped above her shoulders and her figure filling in its awkward gaps. Pierre watched her with a smile. She laughed like no one he had ever seen. She laughed fearlessly, with unrestrained joy. She laughed now at the flustered hens who held up their skirts as she chased them, delighting in their indignant squawks and undignified attempts at escape. She saw him standing there as she stumbled and her face brightened, reddening with embarrassed laughter. She threw up her hand in a wave, lifted her apron that was sodden with mud and trudged through the tall grass.
“Pierre! Pierre! Annabelle has laid eggs!”
“Annabelle, ma petite, indeed? Are you sure?”
Chelsea frowned and pushed him playfully, her cheeks pink from the crisp air and exercise.
“Of course I’m sure! She has laid eggs!”
Pierre only laughed.
“Annabelle is very old, you know. She has never laid a single egg and would have been your uncle’s dinner many times had he not found another use for her.”
Chelsea giggled, recalling her uncle’s trick of tucking Annabelle’s head beneath her wing and rocking her to sleep.
“But I promise you, Pierre, she has laid eggs. Four in fact!”
Pierre fingered the key in his hand and judged the distance across the field to the barn. He was thoughtful, he considered the situation and tried to ignore the pleading eyes of his companion.
“Then let’s have a look,” he said slowly and Chelsea squeeled. They made their way across and Chelsea lagged behind to keep Pierre company, skipping and jumping and singing.
Bernard was returning from nearby wood land, a rope threaded with pheasant and rabbit tossed over his shoulders and his shot gun held under-arm. He saw the pair advancing on the barn and stopped for a moment, his grey eyes unnaturally pale in the maze of wrinkles and tarnished skin. He sucked on a withered cigarette and flicked its remains to the ground before continuing toward the house, muttering bitter profanity.
“You see?” Chelsea exclaimed, lifting the brooding Annabelle from her nesting box. Annabelle clucked, her head bobbling in offense to being so exposed. Beneath her outstretched legs were four speckled eggs, one brown and three white.
“Amazing,” conceded Pierre, nodding approval. “Very interesting indeed.”
Chelsea beamed and Pierre’s eyes wandered to the bolted door on the barn floor, its old hinges barely visible from beneath the layers of hay and chook droppings.
“I think Aunt Monique will be happy, don’t you? You should take them back to her. Perhaps she will make us that cake she’s been promising.”
Chelsea appeared to think this was a good idea. Her eyes sparkled and she collected the eggs, placing them carefully in her apron pocket.
“She could make us chocolate cake,” she agreed, “Or I can bake biscuits!”
Pierre smiled his encouragement.
“Mais oui, you’re getting good at that.”
In his discontent he watched her hurry from the barn, his heart fluttering as he squeezed the key in his hand. The twang of metal and sweat cut the air and he compressed his lips in a thin line, lifting the legs of his trousers when he was certain Chelsea had gone and kneeling amongst the scattered hay. His knee gave a yelp and he fought the pain, raking his hands through his hair until it had dulled enough for him to think clearly once more.
The key was rusty and for an instant he was certain it wouldn’t turn in the lock. He poked a stick through the hole to clear the way, removing skerricks of dirt and hay that had become lodged there over the years. After a brief struggle something gave way and the key turned. There was a crackle like something breaking and when he withdrew the key again it was encrusted with some sort of insect chrysalis. He shuddered and pumped his hand up and down in distress until the offending object detached and flew across the barn.
At last, he could open the door. He grasped the knocker and tugged at it to loosen the door in its hinges. Once freed, it swang back and landed against the barn floor with a resounding crash that disturbed the chooks. They became noisily perturbed, the sound of their flapping wings and angry clucks filling the barn and travelling through the thin winter air. The howl of a wolf came in haunting reply from the woods, and with a shudder Pierre sensed that dusk was nearing.
With haste, he lowered first his gimpy leg in to the narrow basement, then his other leg, and carefully he found his footing. It was cramped and dim, but shafts of light shone from between the wooden slats of the barn floor making it easy to see once the eyes adjusted. At Pierre’s feet, caked with chook droppings, hay and feed was a white envelope. It lay as though it had been discarded there, next to the bronze chest in which it was usually kept. Pierre wondered if it had been slotted through the floor slats in a hurry. Perhaps it had been thrown there to stay forever. Pierre had seen the chest before. It was where Bernard stored the deeds to the house, his birth and marriage certificates, and whatever else he deemed private or priceless. At some time, the chest had been moved to the basement beneath the barn. At some time the envelope had been moved with it. Now Pierre bent to retrieve the soiled object from the ground and his fingers trembled when he held it between them. He told himself it didn’t matter, he already knew. But even as his eyes skimmed the first photograph those thoughts evaporated with the breath from his lungs and he was numb. Turning the second over in his hand, he couldn’t withold a gasp. It was her, stark and afraid. It was her eyes, her tiny frame, here in the barn. Her old eyes, only a child. Her nightmares, at last understood, they flashed around his mind for a blinding moment. Oxygen had been seazed from him and he doubled over, every nerve-end burning. Bile rose, hot and unstoppable, in his throat and he was sick in a reeking mess on the dirt floor.
That night, the walls were shaking. Chelsea sat upright in bed, hoping she had remembered not to lock the door so that Uncle Bernard would not be angry. But no one was coming up the stairs and the hall light was off. She had awoken to the sound of the walls shaking and now she heard it again, this time accompanied by a muffled shriek.
Her heart jumped to her throat and she was out of bed, treading lightly and quickly down the hall and through the living room. Pierre was not in his bed and the shouts and banging were louder now. Light was coming from the kitchen and then in the entrance was Aunt Monique, tear-stained and stricken, hair fallen from its curlers and unravelled in a mess around her face. And Uncle Bernard, she would remember it always. He was there behind Aunt Monique, his fists so large and heavy, raining down on her over and over. There was blood on them both. She was crying and he didn’t stop, she was already broken and he hit her still, as though to kill her, as though to silence her completely.
And Chelsea screamed; a scream so loud and piercing that he looked up, and she ran as fast as she could out in to the winter night.