Though Geraldine arose early the next morning, as was her habit, Steven had already left the apartment. There were no traces of any activity in the kitchen so she presumed he chose to have breakfast somewhere along the boulevard. She had the place to herself but felt uneasy. What were his plans for lunch? Would he be in or out?
Her morning routine stretched before her exactly as it had done for years, but the rooms she entered seemed empty, as if each was holding its breath until Steven’s return. Of course, she understood she was projecting her feelings upon the cream-colored walls, but they seemed to reflect her emotions with an unaccustomed intensity.
The hours wore on at a tedious pace, each second punctuated by the ticking of the mantel clock. For once, it came as a relief when it was time to collect the mail. It gave her something to do besides think about Steven. But the little box contained nothing of interest. Even the newspaper seemed filled with the same reports she’d read the day before. There was trouble in the Middle East, the economy was in a slump and the politicians were hurling accusations at one another as the coming elections approached. Each day’s turmoil seemed indistinguishable from the last. If one were to depend upon world affairs as evidence of time’s passage, she grumbled, one would be lost.
The hour of noon was approaching when Geraldine, having nodded off, was awakened by a rustle at the door. A key was turning in the lock and she heard voices, one male and the other female. Rising from the settee, she had just enough time to give her reflection a quick glance in the mirror over the mantel before she heard that dreadful nickname being called out.
“Hello, Gerry?” Enid’s voice entered the hall before her followed by Steven’s deeper tones. Soon after, the pair entered the parlor, the nephew carrying an armload of groceries. He greeted his great aunt cheerily then headed for the kitchen with his burden while Enid flopped down on the settee. Her lips twitched with her approval of the new man in residence but she said nothing, as if she expected Geraldine to crumple beside her like a giggling school girl.
Geraldine did nothing of the kind but slid into one of the overstuffed chairs, taking a moment to observe her friend’s apple green dress with its white piping at the collar. The color struck her as unbecoming but far worse, the garment was sleeveless and exposed Enid’s wrinkly arms. Though Geraldine’s appendages were smoother, she never made that mistake. No matter the weather, she always wore long sleeves or draped a silk scarf over her shoulders. How like Enid to be oblivious of her defects her friend thought.
It was true. Enid had no notion of the poor impression she was making and seemed all too eager to discuss the new arrival. She leaned toward Geraldine as if to share a secret.
“What a handsome young man this nephew of yours turns out to be, Gerry, and how wicked of you to keep him all to yourself… though I can’t blame you. I’d probably do the same thing…”
“I’m not keeping him to myself,” the dancer objected. ‘He’s just arrived…”
“Yes, yes. Never mind that,” Enid interrupted. “Tell me all about him. How old would you say he is? Twenty-four? Twenty-five? And, oh, what a gorgeous pair of dark eyes — so sad and melancholy, as if he were harboring a tragic secret, perhaps the loss of a great love. Women will absolutely swoon for him, I warn you.”
“Don’t be so silly, Enid.” Geraldine crossed one leg over the other and looked annoyed, though it troubled her that her friend had seen that same haunted look she’d observed from the outset. Was her relative hiding something, after all? Had he come to Paris for a reason but refused to tell her? She tried to distract her doubts by staring out the window. “He has an interesting face.” That was the only truth she was willing to concede.
Edith gasped. “‘An interesting face?’ Are you blind? He’s utterly gorgeous. Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed. I’m sorry, Gerry, but I can’t allow you to keep him to yourself. There’s a younger generation that must have a peek at him. You’ll soon see I’m right.
“Please, Enid, don’t take him under your wing…”
“Too late, darling, I’ve invited him to the theatre this evening…”
Geraldine said nothing but uttered a loud and prolonged sigh. Seeing that she’d ruffled feathers, her visitor spoke apologetically.
“I don’t see the harm in it. I met him outside the concierge’s offices and guessing who he was, I introduced myself. Why not? As we were both coming here, I had to make conversation. He’s very easy to talk to, more friendly than his brooding look might suggest. Handsome men are usually far too pleased with themselves to take notice of anyone else. But this darling nephew of yours…”
“I’ve decided to make omelets for lunch.” Steven stuck his head into the room, unaware that he’d been the topic of conversation. “I’m pretty good at it, so I hope you plan to stay, Enid. You won’t be disappointed.”
“Dear boy,” Enid purred, “I can’t imagine ever being disappointed with you.”
“Yes, well, the trouble is, I can’t find a frying pan. You do have one don’t you, Geraldine?” He cast an appealing glance in his great aunt’s direction. Disarmed by it, she sat for a moment, thinking.
Of course she had a frying pan. But where did she keep it? She hadn’t a clue. Ah yes… she remembered. “I think it’s in the pantry beside the cooking oils.”
“In the pantry?” Steven raised one eyebrow in disbelief. “That’s an odd place for it.” He didn’t wait for an explanation but hurried from the room as if making an omelet had something to do with preventing World War III.
Enid tossed a cat-like grin in her friend’s direction. “And he cooks, too.”
There was no mistaking Enid’s intent to make a splash in her circle with a new man on her arm. Steven’s first week was a round of theatre, films and cocktail parties, invitations which Geraldine also received but refused to the apparent delight of her friend.
By Friday, even the great nephew looked a little worn, though he insisted he was enjoying himself. Nonetheless, he’d arrived home, after a dinner party Enid had thrown for him, a little earlier than usual, around eleven o’clock, and was surprised to find his great aunt sitting on the settee in the parlor. He hoped she hadn’t been waiting up for him, he said.
Exhausted, he flopped into one of the easy chairs beside her and loosened his tie. His disheveled hair gave him a rakish appearance, which might have made him appealing to a young woman, but was a look of which Geraldine disapproved. She threw him a hard glance which he mistook as censure for the lateness the hour.
“I hope I haven’t kept you up. I tried to get away earlier but your friend, Enid, is quite a party girl. I’d like to know where she gets her energy. After so many nights, I feel like I’ve been rolled over by a truck.”
Geraldine was mollified by his remark, taking it for criticism of her friend
“Enid’s always been hyper-active. Probably suffers from a thyroid disorder or something of the sort. At bottom, I suspect, she can’t stand being alone. That’s why she keeps busy 28 hours a day.”
She swung her legs down from the settee and sat up, satisfied that her great nephew was home at last. “I find her very wearing, don’t you?”
“There are only twenty four hours in a day. She can’t be going somewhere twenty-eight.”
Niggled by the correction, the great aunt rose to peer down at Steven. “Oh don’t be such a literalist. You know what I mean.”
He flashed her a devastating smile. “Yes, I do. But I can’t fault her for having a lust for life, especially as she’s just about your age, isn’t she?”
“She’s three years younger,” Geraldine snapped.
“That’s not much of difference, is it?”
“At my age it is.”
“You’re making excuses,” Steven laughed. “You could outlast Enid if you chose to. That’s true, isn’t it? And maybe out drink her, too.”
“You make me sound like a wanton woman.” Geraldine folded her arms as she threw another sharp glance at the young man sprawled out in the chair. “A glass of Port after dinner. I don’t call that…”
Steven rose, too, so he could look down at her. “Yes, yes. I know it’s wrong of me to tease, especially since you’ve been good enough to wait up for me.”
Geraldine’s eyes grew wide in protest. “I didn’t wait up for you. I was reading an article and time got away from me.”
The young man peered round but could find no trace of literature anywhere. “Really? What article?”
“I put it away,” Geraldine sputtered. “Just before you came in…
And then you sat down again instead of going to bed?”
The old woman’s cheeks grew warm with embarrassment. “Yes, that’s what I did. That’s exactly what I did. Is that so strange?”
His laugh was warm as he bent down to kiss her on one of those rosy cheeks. “It’s your apartment. You can do whatever you like. As for me,” he yawned as he stretched his arms. “I’m off to bed.”
He turned his back on her and headed for his room.
Geraldine was so stunned by his kiss that it took her a moment to rally. But rally she did for the time had come to put a stop to Enid traipsing about with her relative as if he were a diamond bobble.
“Hm-m? He swung his head round to look at her.
“I-It’s nothing really. I was wondering if you had plans for tomorrow evening…”
The question was one he hadn’t expected. “Nothing I couldn’t put off. Did you have something in mind?”
His great aunt shrugged, as if to indicate indifference. “‘I just thought we might have dinner together, you and I… to celebrate your first week in Paris. It’s supposed to be a lovely evening…a full moon, I think…”
The young man changed direction and walked toward the old woman until he was near enough to take her hands in his. As he stood admiring them with their long, tapered fingers, he looked wistful.
“I think that would be a wonderful idea. Just you and me.”
That night, Geraldine slept with the innocence of a school girl. Even her dreams, what she could remember of them, were full of flowers and gamboling sheep. She awoke the next morning with a bloom on her cheeks for which she was unable account but she was happy. And, as it was a clear, fresh day she actually sang in the shower.
By the time she entered the kitchen, she found Steven standing by the stove as if he were waiting for her. He looked dashing in his black trousers and open collared white shirt.
“Shall I make you an omelet or would you prefer scrambled?”
“I was thinking of coffee, thank you.”
He pointed to the percolator. “It’s already made. But I insist you allow me to prepare your breakfast. As you pointed out last night, this is our anniversary. I’ve been here a week. In honor of the occasion, I’m hoping you will spend the entire day with me, not just dinner. I’d like to find an art shop so I can pick up some water colors and paper. I brought no supplies with me because of the difficulty in air travel these days, too much inspection, but I’m determined to do your portrait, however much you object.”
Geraldine blushed and waved the suggestion of a portrait away.”It’s too fine a day for me to sit still. We haven’t really talked and we could do something together. Why don’t we go to the Louvre? It’s not very far. Have you seen it yet?”
Steven admitted that he had but as the exhibits were inexhaustible, he suggested she show him her favorite pieces. She was pleased with his idea and hoped he hadn’t set her cheeks aglow for a second time.
Their breakfast that morning was quiet. Geraldine could feel Steven’s eyes on her now and again but each time she gazed up from her eggs, he’d turn his head away. She wanted to ask if anything was wrong but she couldn’t bring herself to it. She didn’t know, why but she was a little afraid. Some bond existed between them that seemed stronger that blood ties.
Being a coward was natural to her, so she put off her questions for another time. The day ahead of them was meant to be special and she would everything in her power to make it so. Steven seemed to understand and when they were ready to leave, he proffered his arm as if they were going to a ball. She took it and together, they strolled into the sunshine, behaving as if the street belonged to them. And maybe it did, for passersby seemed to make way for them.
The Louvre was a twenty minute walk at a leisurely pace and as it was a Saturday in August, when they arrived, they found a small line had formed. Fortunately, it was moving at a good pace and they were inside in a matter of a few minutes. During the interval, however, they’d chatted with an elderly man who, despite the passing years, recognized Geraldine at once. He was almost overcome with pleasure to meet her, behavior which the former prima ballerina feared might make it difficult to disengage. But after asking her to sign his map of the Louvre, the only paper he had on him, his granddaughter of twelve, aghast to see her grandfather behaving like a teenager, dragged him off with a determined tug.
Except for the multitude of other tourists, Geraldine and Steven were alone again. They meandered among the rooms and corridors paying no heed to anything but them and to the art, of course. Anyone observing them might have gathered the pair imagined the museum and all its treasures were their private possession for they moved in a proprietary way, sharing their opinions and delighting in the extent of their agreement.
Geraldine was particularly gratified when they stood admiring one of her favorite pieces, Ingres’ Une Odalisque. The painting was of a reclining nude, her exquisite face turned over one shoulder as if looking out into the room. Steven seemed unable to take his eyes off the work but as Geraldine continued to watch, she noted a shadow of melancholy drifted across his face, an expression she had seen more than once. This time, however, it was so vivid, she winced as if stabbed by the same pain. What was behind that look? Was it possible he missed the young girl he’d left behind?
Seeing his despair grow more intense, Geraldine decided the time for discretion had passed. If he was thinking about his former lover, there was no reason why this girl couldn’t join them for a week or two. It wouldn’t bother her in the least if Steven shared his room with his guest. The former dancer wasn’t a prude …
Steven shook himself after a time, as if awaking from a malaise.
“I could go for a good cup of coffee,” he said, gazing down at her, still shivering a little.
His great aunt glanced at her watch and realized they’d been exploring the Louvre for two hours. She could use a good sit down, too, and suggested a nearby café.
After they’d settled at an outdoor table, Steven ordered a croissant with his coffee while Geraldine required only a café au lait. Neither of them said anything of import until the waiter arrived with their order. Each pretended to make a study of the people strolling by, though the old woman was certain her great nephew was dissembling…just as she was. She wanted to start a conversation but was reticent, not wishing to intrude upon his thoughts. Even so, she felt that she must.
The coffee seemed to loosen their tongues and soon their discourse was flowing again. They repeated much of what they’d already said about art that morning and about the merits of the styles of each art period. As Geraldine had yet to see samples of Steven’s work, she wondered how he approached his canvas. If she had to guess, she judged him to be a romantic but wasn’t sure and didn’t even know what medium he preferred, water color or oil. When asked, he told her oil was his medium, but he did his preliminary studies in water color.
Geraldine nodded that she understood. She wanted to raise more of her questions, but Steven seemed intent upon dominating the conversation. He asked her about her life as a dancer and if she missed her art, which, of course, she did but chose to deny. People always asked that and she wondered why. Of course, she missed dancing. It had defined her for most of her life. But to answer in the affirmative invited pity and Geraldine refused to be pitied. She was glad when the subject moved on to her work as a writer.
To her surprise, Steven had read her volume of poetry and had brought his copy for her to sign. He insisted that she do so when they returned to the apartment and, flattered, she’d agreed. She was curious of his opinion about her work but as he didn’t offer any, she didn’t ask.
“Enid’s invited me to see a new play next week. I wish you’d come,” he said out of the blue. Do think about it. I’ll spring for champagne if it’s awful. That’s fair, isn’t it?”
When his great aunt didn’t answer, he continued to press. “I’d really like your company. Enid’s a good soul, but she’s… well overwhelming, at times.” His pleading expression left Geraldine feeling guilty. Enid was her friend, after all, which meant the woman had been foisted upon him on that pretext.
“Maybe,” she relented. “I’ll think about it.”
The rest of the afternoon passed leisurely enough. Geraldine took her relative to an art shop where he made his purchase of paper and watercolors. The young shop clerk made eyes at Steven as she wrapped his purchase with string and put in a plastic bag, taking more time than was necessary. Steven thanked her with a kiss on the hand which made her blush with delight. After that, it was time for lunch and this too they shared at a second restaurant with outdoor tables.
The afternoon drifted gently by like a leaf floating on a still pond. Nonetheless, Geraldine had not forgotten the subject she wished to broach with Steven. She’d observed his malaise too many times since they’d left the Louvre. He’d be gazing at a fountain or statue in some public square and then, suddenly, if only for a moment, he’d slip into silence again, as though being carried away by a dark thought. Each time she saw that look, she felt a stab of pain, as well. She knew she had to get to the bottom of what troubled him but was also aware she needed to tread carefully, like a blind man walking the edge of a precipice. She decided to press for an explanation of his mood when they returned to the apartment where there’d be no distractions.
“I’m famished,” Steven confessed as they crossed the threshold of the shadow hung rooms they called home. By now it was nearly ten in the evening. Geraldine couldn’t imagine where the time had gone. Outside, the street lights shed amber pools on the pavement as if they wished to compete with the harvest moon.
Geraldine headed for the kitchen while her great nephew went to his rooms to rid himself of his packages. He soon returned to her, looking cheerful, perhaps more so than was required.
“Can I help? Shall I wash lettuce for a salad?”
Geraldine told him it wasn’t necessary. She’d prepared the salad before they’d left that morning. As for the main course, the chef’s frozen dinner was already in the microwave.
Steven rubbed his hands together in anticipation and sat down at the table.
We’ve had such a lovely day, let’s eat in the dining room this evening,” his great aunt suggested. “Why don’t you light some candles and we’ll dine in a civilized manner.”
“All right,” Steven agreed as he rose from his chair. “But don’t ask me to wear a tie.” That said, he ambled off to satisfy Geraldine’s wishes. As she prepared the coffee, she could hear him opening and closing drawers in the oak sideboard.
“Lower right,” she called out by way of instruction.
“Ah,” came the reply. Apparently, he had found the slim white tapers she used for special occasions.
“Three should do,” she called back. “You’ll find the holders in the drawer above. Use the crystal tonight. They reflect the flames so beautifully. And take out the sterling silverware. It’s in the center drawer with the linen napkins. I think we should go all out this evening.”
She could hear the table being set as she hurried to her bedroom to run a comb through her hair. Even though she’d used a good number of pins to hold her chignon in place, she could feel that a few strands had loosened.
As she gazed into her mirror, she wasn’t displeased with her appearance. Her body was slim, her posture pencil straight and though her formerly raven hair was now grey and did little to brighten her pale complexion, one could argue the overall monotone was one of fine porcelain… on a good day… in a pale light. She remembered when that face and figure could turn more than one head and that there had been a few admiring lovers. But her great passion had always been her art and she had no interest in entanglements now. Still, it was good to feel feminine again.
On impulse, she slipped into a kaftan of white cotton, its square neck and cuffs embroidered with white roses. She was pleased with her effect when she entered the dining room. Turning round to greet her, she thought for a moment that her great nephew held his breath.
“Geraldine,” he murmured as he hurried to pull out a chair for her. “You look absolutely ethereal. If I could paint you now… just as you stand there in the candlelight…”
He forgot to finish his sentence but continued to stare, as if he feared at any moment she would disappear like a reflection shattered by a ripple upon on a pond.
“That’s very poetic,” Steven, Geraldine demurred. “But I think I heard the microwave go off. Dinner must be ready.” She turned toward the kitchen but her great nephew insisted she sit down.
“Let me prepare everything.”
He didn’t wait for her answer and soon she heard dishes rattling from the kitchen.
Their dinner of Beef Bourgogne produced little conversation. The food was more than adequate and the Port satisfying but Geraldine felt a little awkward. For some reason, Steven kept staring at her and then glancing away just as he’d done that afternoon. Yet even in profile, she could detect the same melancholy expression she’d observed throughout the day. What was troubling the boy? She decided to say to settle the matter over coffee.
“Are you unhappy here?” she began.
The young man looked up at her, his expression one of complete surprise. “Unhappy? Why would you think that? I’ve never been happier. Paris is a wonderful city and everyone’s been so kind, especially you…”
“But I sense it isn’t enough. Each passing day seems to leave you sadder. Do you begin to miss the young woman you left behind? If so…”
Steven slapped his hand upon the table with a force that caused Geraldine to jump.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. It’s not about her, that’s all.”
“Then what is it about?” Geraldine gazed at him intently. “You admit something’s wrong. Perhaps I can help.”
He shook his head as if to rid his ears of water. “You can’t.” He bit off his words and sat with his elbows braced upon the table looking more distraught.
“Look,” he began again after running his fingers a few times through his hair. “I’m being an idiot and I don’t mean to take my mood out on you. You’ve been nothing but kindness itself…
Geraldine reached across the table to touch Steven’s arms. “You must tell me what’s troubling you. It’s no good bottling things up. Whatever’s happened, you can rely on me to be discreet…”
The young man exploded for a second time before she could finish her sentence.
“But that’s just it. There’s nothing to talk about. Nothing.”
The great aunt collapsed against her chair, embarrassed to have intruded upon feelings so intense. If she could have taken back her words, she would have for she suffered to see him in so much turmoil. Yet now that these feelings had been released, there seemed to be nothing to do but press forward.
“My dear boy, I would like to help… I believe you know that. Still, I shan’t intrude upon your privacy. If you prefer to keep silent…” She started to rise, hoping to force his decision. Her blackmail succeeded.
“Wait!” He reached out with his hand to hold her back and she relented. Sitting down again, she was prepared to wait, if necessary, certain the boy would find his way to her.
“Do you ever dream?” His voice was barely audible but she heard him clearly, as if he had whispered in her ear. Still, she withheld her answer in case he had more to say. When nothing came, she gave her reply.
“I don’t remember all of them but yes, I have dreams. We all do, if science is to be believed.”
Steven shook his head and his eyes grew red. “I don’t mean those kinds of dreams. I mean dreams so real that ordinary life seems an illusion. Do you ever awake on a bright, clear morning and wish you were still dreaming?”
“Naturally I’ve had pleasant experiences that I regretted losing…”
“No, I don’t mean that!” Thrown into despair by her answer, the young man dropped his head into his hands and Geraldine felt certain she saw a tear fall and form a damp circle on the linen.
“I-I’m afraid I’m not sure what you mean…”
“I’m asking if you’ve ever felt another world might exist, more beautiful than this but one you can’t reach no matter how hard you try? I feel that way sometimes… like I should be somewhere else, not here.
He sat gazing at her now, his eyes chocolate pools and though her bosom was fraught with pity, she didn’t know how to console him. What surprised her more was to hear these feelings of alienation coming from someone other than herself. Were they both experiencing some form of depression endemic to the family?
To some extent, she had managed to overcome her feelings, or rather, they came and went with less frequency. But with Steven, she had no idea what could be done. He was young. Perhaps he should see a professional. Certainly, his wound seemed fresher than hers and she could not answer for his future if his suffering went unchecked.
“Can you tell me about these dreams?” She spoke softly for fear he might bolt from the table. If anything, he looked relieved when he heard her. His face brightened, if only for a moment.
“I’d like to tell you. Somehow, I’m sure you’ll understand and not think I’m crazy?”
“I’ll think nothing of the kind. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…'”
“‘Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Yes. That’s it exactly.”
“Then begin when you are ready and I will listen.”
A brief silence followed. Whether Steven was marshalling his thoughts or regretting he’d broached the subject, Geraldine didn’t know, but she sat smiling at him, hoping to infuse him with confidence.
“There is a young woman,” he began.
“Ah, I thought so.” Geraldine interrupted despite her promise. If unrequited love was all that was troubling her great nephew, she was certain he’d recover. But the young man raised his hand in objection.
“No, no. Hear me out. It’s not what you think… not entirely. I saw her first in a dream, a face that was very beautiful… the way I imagine you were when you were young.”
Though he’d meant no insult, Geraldine blanched to hear his words. She knew that she was old and that her beauty had faded but she had no wish to have that fact confirmed by another. It took some effort to hold her expression without flinching.
Whatever her struggles, Steven failed to notice them and went on.
“At first it was only a face, but it came to me night after night…”
“Since you’ve been here?”
“No, before, when I was in Boston. I tried to paint the features to make her more real but each time I touched my brush to canvas, the image evaporated and I could not recall it again until the next night. After weeks of attempting to capture that image, I gave up. That’s when she came to me as a complete presence. We talked and she took me to a world I never knew existed, a place full of colors and shapes previously unknown. When I’m here, I can’t remember these visions, but when I’m with her… It sounds crazy, I know.”
Geraldine shook her head in disagreement. “No, it doesn’t sound crazy. The human eye is unable to see the entire spectrum of color. But in your dreams, who knows what’s possible?”
Encouraged by what she’d said, Steven looked alert and a little hopeful. “Then you think this girl might exist?”
This time, Geraldine nodded in the affirmative. “Of course it’s possible. Maybe she visited the gallery in Boston… or was a student when you were…”
Steven cut her off. “If I’d seen her in either of those places, I’d have remembered. No, I meant could she be like a color of a different wave length? Could she exist on some other plane?”
Geraldine sat dumbstruck. The idea seemed preposterous and yet it struck a chord within her, one that made her anxious, as if an important message were about to arrive that would change her life.
“Tell me more about these experiences. When you meet with her, what does she say?”
Steven leaned forward in his chair, eager to talk about a subject that till now had seemed forbidden.
“That’s the strangest part. We never talk, not in actual words. Yet we understand one another perfectly, as if we’re reading one another’s thoughts. I only know that when I’m with her I’m happy.”
“Are you in love with this girl, the one you imagine? Is that what you think?”
Hearing his condition put so matter-of-factly, Steven’s expression shifted from joy to despair in an instant.
“That’s the horror of it, isn’t it? I’m in love with someone who doesn’t exist. I long for a world that’s in my head…”
“My dear boy…” Geraldine reached out to her great nephew but he pulled away.
“Please, I don’t want your pity. I want your help. I have to find this girl. If I don’t, I think I’ll go mad. Believe me I’ve tried on my own: drugs, alcohol … Nothing worked. For a while, I thought coming to Paris was the answer, but the dreams have gotten worse. What am I to do, Geraldine? What am I to do?”
Steven’s eyes met those of his great aunt’s. His look was desperate, as if she and only she possessed the antidote to his creeping madness.
Rising from her chair, she moved to the one beside him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.
“You mustn’t upset yourself so. Whatever this dream is, we’ll get to the bottom of it. We’ll find a way to put a stop to them…”
Steven’s mouth fell open and he pulled away.
“Bu-but, I don’t want to stop them. I want to find her. I can’t go on living without her…”
“But if she’s a dream…”
“No, she comes to me in a dream. But I’m certain she’s as real as you and I. You must help me. I need to find her or one day I might…”
Geraldine touched Steven’s lips with her finger to silence him. “Don’t say it. Don’t ever threaten that. Death solves nothing. We’ll find her. We will.”
“I don’t know. But you must let me try. Will you?”
His dark eyes searched her with a mixture of hope and disbelief. “Yes, of course. But I sound mad even to myself.”
“Never mind that. We’ll find a solution. You aren’t alone any longer.”
Comforted, the young man buried his face in his great aunt’s bosom and wept unashamedly. His tears penetrated her gown and undergarments but she refused to pull away. She, too, was experiencing a deep sense of longing. She loved this young man with all her heart, not in a carnal sense, but with a tenderness that filled her with light. If it had been necessary, she would have given her life for him. Self-sacrifice, she knew, was not the remedy. Something else was required. But what?
And then, in the silence between the young man’s sobs and the beating of her heart, an idea came to her.
“Steven!” She took the young man’s chin in her one hand, forcing him to look at her through his tear stained eyes. “I know where we must go, a place that always brings me peace. We’ll go there now, very moment.”
They had not far to walk and Steven came meekly, a little ashamed by the tears he had shed but curious about where his great aunt was leading him. They entered Venue de l’Observatoire, which led into the Jardin du Luxembourg. No one was about at that hour of night. Like etiolated spirits they floated between the rows of chestnut trees in the full moon’s deliquescent light, an atmosphere so still, one might have heard a leaf fall. But there was no breeze. Rather, if they had stepped into a plein air painting and were moving within its noiseless borders, the scene surrounding them could not have been more still. The park seemed to be holding its breath.
They approached Fontaine des Quartre Parties du Monde and Steven took hold of his great aunt’s hand as if he required an anchor. She understood and held on to him with a tight grip. Neither of them dared to speak for fear they might be exiled from a scene at once exquisite and ethereal.
At the center of the pond towered a bronze sculpture that represented the four quarters of the globe: Asia, Africa, Europe and America. Each quarter was depicted as women of distinct ethnicity. Together, the four shouldered a globe which was composed of signs from the zodiac and the whole was encircled by prancing sea horses and fishes and turtles that were so lifelike, one expected to hear water splashing. But the silence held sway as if it were a fifth dimension that could overrule time.
Steven stared into the pond and without knowing why, tears sprang into his eyes for a second time that evening. But if his behavior was surprising, his great aunt was weeping, too. Though the young man wasn’t looking in her direction, he knew it was so. Their hands, still clasped together, tightened further. Each wondered if that gesture was meant to provide mutual comfort or was there in that tiny movement a sense that they were saying goodbye? Somehow, they intuited it was the latter, and this grief was the cause of their tears.
What began as inkling grew into a certainty as the waters in the fountain began to ripple and then form waves that grew larger and larger until the pool was a churning cauldron of white foam. The pair let go of their hands and stepping back from the pool’s edge, they continued to stare into its tempest, remaining mute, as if their tongues were lead.
Neither was frightened nor questioned what was happening. They stood entranced, watching, as beneath the bubbles bewitching figures began to appear and pulsate with an iridescent light. The apparitions rose slowly, remaining indistinct until they broke the water’s surface with a force that sent geysers spewing twenty or thirty feet into the air before falling back. Not until this curtain had subsided did the silence return, pervasive and mystical, except for the gasps emitted by the young man and his great aunt. Surprise did not affect them but recognition had. They stood with their mouths open as if a veil had been lifted from their eyes and for the first time in their lives they saw clearly.
The most beautiful of the four Ondines before them, if one were forced to judge among perfection, thrust forward her silver hand.
“It is time Steven. Come.”
He drifted toward her as if her liquid voice were an opiate and made no protest. Only when he had reached the pool’s edge did Geraldine regain her senses.
“No, he’s not of your world,” she cried as she struggled to hold Steven back. “Spare him and take me. I’ll go with you. You have my word.”
A pair of celestial lips parted in a smile.
“You know well enough, Marie, that what you ask is impossible. And you know, too, that once I loved you best. But you left us for a mortal and now you can never return. This earth is your home. Even so, I have not punished you as decreed. You died, but I allowed you to be reborn and yours hasn’t been a bad life. But the forfeit for your betrayal must be paid. And as it is Steven that you love, he must come with us. That justice even I cannot defy.”
The Ondine held her hand out to the young man a second time, but Geraldine’s grip only gres stronger.
“No! You can’t have him. Why should he be punished for my treachery? He’s a young man with his entire life before him. Do what you will with me. I am guilty. But know this: as I am of the earth, I defy water’s dominion and I will not let go. Never!”
That Geraldine meant every defiant word no one could doubt. Her screams were so primal, so like the pain of birth, that for a moment, the entire setting flickered as if it were no more than the light from a faltering candle. In the pool, the eyes of the Ondines grew round with fear… all, except for the one who had spoken. She remained at the center of their circle, her long raven hair shimmering in the moonlight, her cobalt eyes glistening.
“You are one of us, Marie. That can never change and so we must not quarrel. But consider your position. Is this protest for Steven’s sake or for yours? Shall we let him make the decision?” A pair of magnetic eyes turned in the young man’s direction and as if in answer, he reached out to the Ondine. But Geraldine’s grip was steel.
“No. I won’t let you go, Steven. You can’t sacrifice yourself for me. Not for me.”
The great nephew turned to his relative in disbelief, his eyes wide and his breath shallow.
“But don’t you see? It’s her face… the one in my dreams. This is the woman I love…”
“Don’t be a fool! She’s bewitched you. You’re under a spell. You know nothing of that other world. Nothing!”
The face that peered down at her was serene and confident. Geraldine shuddered to see it, as if she could already envision Steven’s face beneath the water.
“I love you Geraldine and I believe you love me. That’s why you brought me here, though you may not have realized it. Now you must let me go. How could the world from which you’ve come be anything but beautiful? I must see it. Let me go, please?”
As images of the enchanted world flooded into her memory, the old woman felt as if she were suffocating. She recalled, too, the face of her human lover, the one who had tempted her away from her charmed life only to betray her with another, leaving her suspended between two worlds. If Steven remained at her side, he would be lost too. She didn’t want that. She loved him too much.
Geraldine Hoffman let go of her great nephew and stepped away.
Moved by her sacrifice, he brushed her cheek with his fingers and then, without looking back, he stepped into the fountain. The water began to churn as he and the women surrounding him began their slow descent. But the Ondine with the raven hair called out to the figure left standing on the grass.
“I have granted you one final wish, Marie. You know what it is.”
The former dancer watched as the water from the fountain arced high into the sky, forming a vaulted ceiling before settling down again. After that, all was quiet.
If a stranger had been wandering through the park at that hour, he would have seen a remarkable sight, one that would have caused him to question his vision or worse, one that might have made him doubt his sanity, for not only would he have seen the Ondines descend beneath the water with a handsome young man as their prisoner, but he also would have witnessed the disappearance into thin air of an old woman who, moments before, had stood beside the fountain, weeping.
During the yearlong investigation into the disappearance of Steven York and Geraldine Hoffman, Enid Galliard wrote frequent letters to the editor of Le Monde complaining about police incompetence. She continued to write even after Steven’s parents had given up hope and for many years, thereafter, on the anniversary of the disappearance of her friends. Perhaps she would be writing to this day if death had not silenced her.
In time, memory of the missing pair faded. Then years later, a young girl arrived from the provinces to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet. Some said her talents were already so far perfected that she would no doubt become a prima ballerina before she reached the age of fourteen. The few who’d seen her dance and, who also had long memories, compared her greatness to that of the vanished dancer. The child’s name was Marie Eau-Claire.
Click here to read parts 1-3 of Caroline Miller’s Marie Eau-Claire.
Caroline Miller is a woman of many distinctions. She served two terms as Multnomah County Commissioner, preceded by a term as an original councilor with Metro, the Portland area regional government.
As a novelist, 2009 marked a creative milestone for Caroline Miller. Gothic Spring is a classic page-turner centering on a talented, independent young woman, tormented by her passions and intolerance and the mysterious death of the vicar’s wife. This novel is being reissued in print format by Koho Pono LLC and is available in electronic format. Miller published a fictionalized memoir, Heart Land, earlier that same year. A third novel, still unnamed, is slated for publication shortly.
Miller is a member of PEN. Her prolific short stories thrilled readers in publications as diverse as Children’s Digest, Grit and Tales of the Talisman. Her short story, ‘Under the Bridge and Beneath the Moon,’ was dramatized for radio in Oregon and Washington. Aside from writing, Caroline is a talented painter whose silk pieces have been sold in Portland art galleries and featured in juried exhibitions.