There’s this girl who was born to a dead painter and a suicidal mother. The mother is in an institution and the girl visits her on Sundays. In this way the girl is no different from other girls she knows, the ones who visit their fathers in prison or at the bar on Sunday afternoons. Only Angéline’s mother is not in jail.
On good Sundays, the mother is sitting up in bed, in white sheets with the curtains open and the sunlight streaming in across her face, lighting up her cheekbones, and primroses or forsythia on the nightstand. Flowers the nurse has put there in time for Angéline’s visit. On bad Sundays, her mother is in the metal room, rocking with her hands wrapped around her ankles, and when Angéline is let in—if she is let in—the mother screeches terrible words and throws herself against the walls.
Why do they let Angéline in on those days?
In the metal room, even the walls are made from polished stainless steel. The whole room looks like the inside of a cooking pot. No one could get out of that room. Lex Luthor could never get out. There’s no bed, nothing: there’s a mattress on the floor in a corner with no sheets on it, so Angéline’s mother can’t twist the bedding into a rope and hang herself, she can’t haul the bed up and drop it onto on her hands and feet, she can’t use its hard frame to break her bones.
On the good days, the mother reaches into her nightstand and offers Angéline the sweets she has hiding there: filled chocolates and silky caramels, purple and pink squares of Turkish delight that leave a silt filigree of powdered sugar over Angéline’s fingertips. In the metal room, Angéline can still see the trace of this sugar on her mother’s hands, lining the nail beds. The mother throws herself at the wall, screaming, and then rushes at Angéline as if to throw her, too, but instead falls into a heap at her daughter’s feet. She tears at her hands, the sugar peeling away like lace, threadbare as gloves that fall and melt away into the floor.
The mother is crying and the doctor comes in his soft grey pants and gives her a long injection: just here, in her thigh, like this. Angéline stands very still but does not turn away. She is wearing a white dress and white shoes. Her shoes with a strap and a silver latch.
“No, you never did,” Marie-France says. Her spoon twirls against her lip: she is never quite sure about Angéline. They’ve been eating rose-petal ice cream, sitting under the pear tree where their father once almost cut off his own arm with a chain saw, trying to be a gardener. His left hand was holding onto the branch so it wouldn’t fall, while his right arm held the saw. Then the arms got crossed.
The father is a chief comptable at the BNP. There’s a single rotten pear in the grass next to where the girls are sitting and Angéline waves impatiently at two wasps dancing between them, too close to her own elbow.
Marie-France waits for the story to go on, but Angéline just shrugs, using her mouth as much as her shoulders:
“What do you know? You were hardly born then.”
Angéline wraps a fist around her own mane of red hair, hanging loose down her back, and shakes it like a bunch of flowers.
“Where do you think I got this colour from? And my eyes, why are my eyes brown when yours and Papa’s are blue?”
“Maman has brown eyes,” Marie-France says. Slowly, like an explorer who might walk into a tiger trap.
She has a doll in her lap. Now that her ice cream is done she’s applied herself to pulling out its yellow yarn hair, one strand at a time, starting at the nape of the neck and working up in rows. Each piece of yarn leaves a tiny hole, black and gapey, in the doll’s soft skull. This takes a good deal of Marie-France’s concentration.
Angéline holds firm.
“That’s because I told you,” she says. “Maman is your mother. She’s really my aunt. Don’t worry: we’re still related, you and I. They have the same eyes, of course.”
For a moment, here, Angéline falters. She is imagining the depth of Maman’s eyes: not, she thinks, like her own at all. A blackening to them, when she looks down at Angéline. Thinking of this, her body curls in.
Then, decisive: “Maman is only my own mother’s sister.” Angéline scrapes up the last bit of her ice cream, blithe again, biting down on the hard silver spoon. “It’s a little lie they told you,” she says. “Because you’re so small.”
She tosses the empty ice cream cup over her shoulder into the lawn behind them. The two wasps bob in the air like buoys at the seaside before returning to hover close to their pear. As though they are nervous of landing, as though their feet will be mired in sweetness and stick.
Angéline leans forward on her hands.
“My own mother’s name is Giselle-Angélique,” she says, “and she has deep, dark brown eyes and she made a baby with a painter from the north. But he didn’t marry her, and then he died of starvation.”
Marie-France stops plucking the doll and brings it close against her chest instead, her fingers entwined in what hair it has left. Even the doll’s eyes are enormous.
“They were going to get married,” Angéline says. “Giselle-Angélique had made her own wedding dress. It was on the shoulders, like this—”
She draws a finger across her collarbones, edge to edge, but then lets the hand curl into a fist.
“She was going to get married in a beautiful red dress like a Lisbon fortune-teller, and her family was very angry. They wanted her to marry an old man with a lot of money, he’d been in the seminary but he dropped out because he couldn’t stop chasing women and he fought with the other priests. But Giselle-Angélique didn’t care what they wanted—
Angéline is on her feet now, acting the part: Giselle-Angélique in her moment of crisis—
‘No!’ she said, ‘I don’t care!—’”
The maman Marie-France knows is soft and warm and wears pinstriped dresses in seafoam or robin’s egg blue. She never shouts at Marie-France. But this story is compelling and even she begins to pine for a mother who howls and claws at her clothes—
‘“—I don’t care!’” Angéline repeats, fist raised, “and she made the red, red dress and she said, ‘I will marry Alphonse the painter, like a whore in red!’ and her father—(that was Papie, you know)—slapped her cheeks like this: pam!”
And Angéline drops to her knees and smacks Marie-France with an open hand.
For a moment there is no sound at all. Marie-France brings her own small palm up to touch the stinging cheek. She is too surprised to scream, her breath still sucking in.
“Put your ice cream cup against it,” Angéline says. “It’s cold and that feels good. Where was I?”
Marie-France brings the empty-and-barely-cool verrine up to her face. Her lip begins to shake: “But I don’t want Papie to hit her!”
The tears are on their way now.
“Don’t worry,” Angéline says. “He got over it.” She waits a moment for Marie-France to wipe her nose with the hem of her skirt before continuing, still on her knees, as though the story itself were sacred. “But now Giselle-Angélique goes to the woods, to a little chapel where there is a priest who will marry them, out of spite, because he knew that other man in the seminary and hated him: the failed priest used to cheat at water-polo. So there she is in her red, red, Lisbon dress, picking her way through the forest with no shoes on, and she arrives at the chapel and she is there and the priest is there and of course I am there, too—(remember? I am in her stomach, I am the baby she made)—so there we all are, but Alphonse the painter from the north never comes. He never comes because this is the very saddest part: he was on his way to the chapel to meet her and he fell in a pit.”
Angéline nods gravely, and Marie France, the ice cream cup still pressed to her face, finds herself nodding as well.
“Every day he got thinner,” Angéline says. “And no one came. And he starved, down in the pit.”
There’s a moment of silence, led by Angéline, who closes her eyes and makes a solemn sign of the cross. Marie-France crosses herself, too, and then looks down and crosses the bald dolly. Just in case.
“And Giselle-Angélique had to go home thinking he had abandoned her,” Angéline says. She seems bored now, or worn out from the telling. “And she had the baby that was me and then they found his body. They found his bones and she was so overcome by grief that she couldn’t nurse me anymore, and they took her to the asylum because she had descended into madness, and she lived there until finally one day she drowned herself in the pond with the swans.”
She nods again, but it’s different this time. She clucks her teeth.
“Okay,” Angéline says. “Now we have to go back inside. It’s hot and I want my bathing suit.”
“But where was I,” Marie-France says, clutching the doll high around the neck. “Where was I, when you were at the asylum with the swans?”
“Where were you?” Angéline stands up and shakes out her skirt. She starts to braid her hair down one side, her eyes on her shoulder. When it’s done she reaches down and pulls a bit of the remaining yarn from the doll’s head and ties the end of her braid with a knot.
“You were a baby,” she says. “You were sitting in a high chair and eating mashed potatoes. You were eating potage St. Germain with no teeth.”
Marie-France watches from the lawn as Angéline climbs the stone steps into the house. The sash of her sundress has become untied and it drags like a train behind her. Like a cape: when they play at superheroes, it is always Angéline who can fly. She has a sunburn on her shoulders, the skin is peeling there. Looking at it makes Marie-France check her own shoulders, but she is built of different stuff: her skin adores the sun, soaks it up. All summer she is made of gold.
She would prefer to burn.
She would prefer to have some evidence, hard proof, that this story of Angéline’s is not true; she wishes, not only to be definitely Angéline’s sister, but for them to be identical. Mirrors. Or, failing that trick, she wishes that it were she, Marie-France, who was the older. The one who walks away, rather than the one who is left behind. Left waiting. For one terrible moment she imagines running inside to Maman, repeating the story, showing her red and stinging cheek, waiting then only for Angéline’s punishment to be meted out.
But: Angéline might come back.
She said she would. So Marie-France waits.
There is a wading pool at the end of the garden, edged with ferns, and fed by a real stream. A sound of falling water; the pool with a fountain in it. Marie-France is still small enough to not care about bathing suits and only strips down to her panties and splashes in. It’s cool in the shade, and quiet. A mosquito drifts close to her face before landing instead in a practiced way on the back of her neck.
She floats her doll in the water and more of its yarn hair comes out and the doll itself spins a little, caught in an eddy. A cloth-made toy, soft in its parts. Marie-France pokes it in the stomach and it wavers there on the surface, bobbing up, but then drawing away from her, the current pulling at it. She wades deeper and pokes it again. This time the doll swirls briefly into the fountain’s path, and there’s a new sound as the waterfall batters its face.
What is Marie-France thinking about?
There’s a faraway noise, a shot, or a window at the front of the house, falling with a slam, and she looks up. Her father is not home yet. Her father is on the autoroute, she thinks, rolling along smoothly in his silvery car. There is no one in the back seat. The radio is on. There might be a box of candy.
Once, in the same back seat, she and Angéline fought over a bag of striped, round suckers, the candy melting against her fingers and sticking as she reached over and pulled at Angéline’s long hair, and Angéline did not howl but whispered hoarsely in Marie-France’s ear a sanction so awful that Marie-France began to cry. She remembers the slam of the brakes and her father’s threat, his always-threat, that he will leave Angéline back at the last rest stop, he will leave her with the Monsieur, is that what she wants?
But Marie-France cannot picture the Monsieur: his face looms too far above the counter at every stop they make. When she tries very hard, she imagines only the bristling hair at his neck, the fabric of his shirt, a black smell of cigarettes. They are all the same. At her level, she can only ever see the worn leather of their belts.
Angéline, defiant with dark eyes, looked like she could spit.
Now, in her mind, Marie-France lies. She smiles and tells her father that they are only play-fighting. She lets go of the hair. A few strands pulling free, twined in the melted sugar on her fingers like lace.
In the back garden, the fountain burbles on. There are a few errant bits of yarn that do not sink but chase each other across the surface. The pool is deep now, almost to Marie-France’s armpits. The doll is deeper still, caught in the fountain’s pulse.
She would like to save it, but first it must be in danger. This much she knows.
She tiptoes. Waiting for the current to bring the thing around again.
In Paris, the father sets down his fork and pulls out his wallet. It was a good lunch, right down to the soft cheese at the end, a creamy wedge of St. André. He pays for the table: himself, two executives from a Norwegian oil company, and their Scottish investor—an ugly sort of man with teeth like long bones. The Scot speaks terrible French, but he has a lot of money and the father has good ideas of what to do with it.
The father’s wallet falls open, a casual gesture, revealing the usual plastic and photos. His driver’s licence, a gold card with the bank’s name on it. He withdraws the card, moving stiffly: an old injury to his shoulder, he explains, something that happened in the garden one day, and the waiter comes and goes with the cheque. There is the usual small talk, to which he pays little attention. He is already thinking ahead to the drive home, whether traffic will be lighter if he leaves now, or if he waits until evening; whether it will be too humid to sit out on the terrace; what soft, quiet lies his wife will tell him about the day; what she will have made for dinner. He has arrived at the smooth pulse of the vein at her wrist as he lays his hand against it, when the Scot bends down to retrieve something that has fallen under the table.
“Yours?” he asks, offering the photo.
The father recognizes it immediately. He flips the wallet open again and sees where a pocket has come loose. The Scot leans forward with the little picture—it’s only a school photo, Marie-France in her blue kindergarten jumper, a ribbon in her hair—but he is distracted by something else and, compelled, reaches out for the wallet and pulls it closer. The father does not quite let go.
It’s Angéline he is looking at, her photo safely wedged.
“Extraordinary,” the man says.
It is always Angéline.
There is a little silence as the father’s grip on his own wallet tightens. He cannot be seen to wrench it away. The two Norwegians stop talking. Their fingers straighten and curl now, too, hovering. Hesitant. As though with this small movement they could join in, touch the photo themselves, stroke its worn edge.
Finally the Scot lets go, although he does not lean away.
“A terrible beauty,” he says. He grins.
His mouth is wide open.
There are no swans in the backyard pool. A few lilies float, tethered to the bottom, and the light catching a rainbow in the current around them, the current just a slow-moving circle.
The doll takes on water first at the mid-line.
The waist-seam weakens the whole, darkening and then growing heavy as the wetness works in. Marie-France, on her toes in the pool, arm outstretched, can only nick the doll’s shoulder. She wants it. She wants to see what will happen next. Her fingers flex, as though this subtle movement will call it to her. In fact, she is only creating little waves.
Someone just a bit taller could reach it. Someone could bring her a net.
It is Angéline who scoops her ice cream and balances on a stool to pull a mug down from the cupboard, the bunny riding a bicycle, Marie-France’s favourite. She is good at swings and frogs and drawing, but unreliable, too: a little less lively, when Maman stands on the stone steps, watching. A little more lively when she goes inside.
Chin-deep now, Marie-France hops in place, reaching.
She looks toward the house, but no one is there. The umbrella casts a yawn of shade over the stone terrace. Angéline has not reemerged in her lavender bikini, ready to swim.
From the pool’s edge, there is a sound like chewing. A paring sound: it makes Marie-France flinch. She turns, but slowly, her arms still held out, grazing the surface.
A beetle. She can see it, camouflaged in the shadows, working at the woody rhododendron by the water’s edge. Etching a groove in the stalk. (Where is Angéline? She still has not come.) The sound of its jaws, churning.
A black beetle. Horny. Pincers like knives.
She lets the water carry her back, away from the edge and the garden and its little beasts. For a moment, she hops again in place.
The beetle makes its noise. Marie-France twists to look and slips for the first time, bobbing under, while further on, the doll begins a subtle jackknife, spinning more slowly, and closer to the fountain again. Blue-embroidered eyes held open and staring. Marie-France comes up sputtering.
There is something slimy on the floor of the pool.
Her cheek throbs, still stinging from the slap and now the cold of the water. She slaps her own hands against the surface. Angry, choppy waves come and go. She reaches for the doll, but it slips always and always out of her grasp.
The water is deep and she is afraid. (Where is Angéline?) Marie-France stands very still. She wants to turn away, but she doesn’t. She reaches again.
When she slips the second time, her feet slide right out from under her, the cold water filling her nose and ears and a sudden headache, sharp, like a thrust of ice between her eyes. It is very quick. There is barely a splash. At the pond’s edge, the beetle continues its work.
Only the doll’s hands and feet break the waterline now. Its body is a beautiful angle, taut and heavy at its core.
Inside the house, the mother turns over on her bed. The bedspread is chenille, white and pilled and very old: it was a wedding gift from her own mother. She has been trying to rest, a hand against her eyes. She gives up.
On the bedside table, there are six dinner forks, and she has a sudden memory of the night before, waking in the dark. Angéline at her bedside, the forks held out in a fist, tines up: a bouquet. She is inclined to sleepwalking and often appears in her parents’ bedroom. It’s a little bit spectral, but one can get used to anything. Angéline, her body pressed to the wall, or by the window, pulling the curtain back to watch the road winding by and trembling at what she sees there, mid-dream.
The mother turns again, takes a breath, and rises. The pillow’s stitching has left a mark at her cheek. She gathers the forks up, straightens the doily they were spilled out upon, smooths her blouse. She can hear that someone has come into the house. For a moment she thinks to slide open her own nightstand drawer, click the silver latch on her jewelry box. She has the strange feeling something is in the room, something she is meant keep hidden. A kind of hangover from her afternoon sleep.
There’s a white dress in a sheath of clear plastic hanging by the door: Angéline’s communion gown, back from the dressmaker. Brushing past on her way out of the room, she notices the plastic has been slit along its crease. A fingernail? And then its small owner, a hand, snaking in to touch the satin skirt, the lace of the veil.
Last night, at the side of the bed: was it her nightgown Angéline was wearing, or this dress? The mother looks more closely, checking for signs of disarray. A smudge, a greasy fingermark. The hanger sways on its hook.
In the kitchen, she means to put the forks away but peers instead through to the next room, where Angéline is curled on the couch, watching a cartoon about Molière. She had thought the girls were outside. There is a little vase of primroses at the edge of the coffee table, the water level getting low. Angéline’s sundress has a ragged look. The sash is untied, and she’s been sucking on it: the mother can see where it’s been played to a point with a wet tongue.
She stays there, leaning in the doorway, unnoticed, the bouquet of forks still in one hand. They never speak of the sleepwalking in the morning. Angéline doesn’t remember and it upsets her, to hear that she’s been doing things in the night, another life she can’t trace. But the mother wonders what she sees. Last night, for example. The spiked bouquet in her hands, the covers pulled tight, and the father rising slowly from his pillow, watching her. The mother jumping to stand, ushering Angéline from the room and staying with her then, lying, for a time, on the carpet beside her bed.
What are the limits of consciousness? How much does she know?
Outside an engine quits and she turns quickly to the window, shovels the forks into the sink, puts on her gloves as if to wash them.
Something else, outside, too: someone shouting and crying. She is lost for a moment, confused. What was she doing? Her hands with a powdery feeling, the flocking inside the gloves. She glances back toward the couch, a sudden thought dropping into her throat like a cube of ice:
Angéline curled up by herself. Where is Marie-France?
In the backyard, there is burst of water, and then silence. Wide-eyed, Marie-France breaks the surface. At first she does not understand that she can breathe again; she is too surprised to scream, her body still trying to keep the water out. She learns she is safe with an accelerated wail, a wail that discovers itself and grows. The real accident is that she did not drown: her knee landing by chance against a boulder in the bottom of the pond, the boulder large enough to give her purchase, a push of her leg enough to boost her up, and out.
Ten years from now, she’ll be sunbathing with friends by the edge of a lake when some boy picks her up, unbidden, and throws her in: this is the moment she will relive in that future moment, the terrible surprise of it, her eyes open in the murky underwater and her legs scissoring, the scramble to find the bottom. Without the bottom, you cannot know which way is up. Her burst of breath at the surface, painful.
In twenty years, she will decide to quit swimming altogether, the calm of a pond’s blue as sinister as a secret chest, a locked room. Not to be opened.
The father comes into the yard and sees her running, half-falling over the edge of the pool. Now wrapping her skinny arms around his neck and allowing herself to be lifted and carried through the air. Water streams down her legs. His shirt-front soaks through.
“Papa,” Marie-France says as he tries to set her down again. She is weeping. “Papa—” Her legs still dangling; she is clinging to his neck.
The father is bewildered by this but also distracted by his wet shirt-front, so wet it sticks to his skin, and her mouth also sticking, the remains of her ice cream leaving a streak along his collar, and he wants to shake her—
“But what is this? Madness, Marie-France! And what’s happened to your cheek, your cheek is all red?”—he begins to say this, but there is the crack of glass as he stumbles on the discarded verrine. Her little girl’s grip loosens and she slides away from him, wet skin on wet skin—he cannot catch her, cannot make it stop—her smooth bare feet falling to meet the cool grass below the pear tree.
And pam! The tenderest part of her foot, just beneath the arch, comes down on the pear-drunk wasps and this time she screams and screams and the father swings her back up in his arms, cursing the grass and the trees and the fruit that with their ripening split their own skins, lurid, grotesque.
Inside the house, a curtain brushes the window.
The father rushes up the stone steps.
The mother turns from the window to the room. Angéline does not stir from her position, sash-tip to lips, eyes on the far-away screen.
In five years, Angéline will have outgrown cartoons and her sister’s dolls. She will lean, slack, against the polished steel of the refrigerator door while a housekeeper pits cherries and lays them, leaking colour, into a bed of butter pastry for the father’s birthday dinner. She will refuse to eat dessert.
In ten years, she will wait until her parents are gone for the weekend to throw a party, her lips and cheeks stained cherry-red, bite marks etched down her pale throat, her sister banished, tearful, to a playroom.
In fifteen years, she will pick her way through a woodland to meet her lover, her feet bare, wearing a dress the colour of flames.
The mother cannot know this yet. She can see her husband crossing the yard, Marie-France in his arms, their reflection a fast-moving shadow caught in the sunlit streak of the glass cabinet door, an accidental mirror. Her heart suddenly crashing against her ribs, as though she has been running for a long time.
There is the sound of a siren, pale and distant. Fire engines rushing to someone else’s emergency. No: it wails but does not pierce. No, it is a song. She turns.
Her husband is coming now, up the stone steps.
The mother turns, although she does not want to.
She knows that it is Angéline, singing on the couch, the sash wet and sullen in one corner of her mouth.
Marie-France bursts through the back door in her father’s arms, swollen foot first. She is a long howl. She has the slick, red look of a newborn. Her father’s grip is so tight she will have bruises in the morning. The raised mark of her sister’s hand whitish now, against her cheek.
Angéline sees them coming. The father’s grey suit pants damp and sticking to his leg. She doesn’t move. Already Maman is there above her, tearing off the yellow gloves.
She does not even have time to raise her hands to protect herself, her breath still sucking in.