"It's so dark, maman." She sounded awed, uncertain in the face of
so much dereliction. "And it smells so sad."
She is right. The smell is like daylight trapped for years until it has gone
sour and rancid, of mouse droppings and the ghosts of things unremembered and
unmourned. It echoes like a cave, the small heat of our presence only serving to
accentuate every shadow. Paint and sunlight and soapy water will rid it of the
grime, but the sadness is another matter, the forlorn resonance of a house where
no one has laughed for years. Anouk's face looked pale and large-eyed in the
candlelight, her hand tightening in mine.
"Do we have to sleep here?" she asked. "Pantoufle doesn't like
it. He's afraid."
I smiled and kissed her solemn golden cheek. "Pantoufle is going to help
We lit a candle for every room, gold and red and white and orange. I prefer
to make my own incense, but in a crisis the bought sticks were good enough for
our purposes, lavender and cedar and lemongrass. We each held a candle, Anouk
blowing her toy trumpet and I rattling a metal spoon in an old saucepan, and for
ten minutes we stamped around every room, shouting and singing at the top of our
voices--Out! Out! Out!--until the walls shook and the outraged ghosts fled,
leaving in their wake a faint scent of scorching and a good deal of fallen
plaster. Look behind the cracked and blackened paintwork, behind the sadness of
things abandoned, and begin to see faint outlines, like the afterimage of a
sparkler held in the hand--here a wall adazzle with golden paint, there an
armchair, a little shabby but colored a triumphant orange, the old awning
suddenly glowing as half-hidden colors slide out from beneath the layers of
grime. Out! Out! Out! Anouk and Pantoufle stamped and sang, and the faint images
seemed to grow brighter--a red stool beside the vinyl counter, a string of bells
against the front door. Of course, I know it's only a game. Glamours to comfort
a frightened child. There'll have to be work done, hard work, before any of this
becomes real. And yet for the moment it is enough to know that the house
welcomes us, as we welcome it. Rock salt and bread by the doorstep to placate
any resident gods. Sandalwood on our pillow to sweeten our dreams.
Later Anouk told me Pantoufle wasn't frightened anymore, so that was all
right. We slept together in our clothes on the floury mattress in the bedroom
with all the candles burning, and when we awoke it was morning.
Actually the bells woke us. I hadn't realized quite how close we were to the
church until I heard them, a single low resonant drone falling into a bright
carillon--dómmm flá-di-dadi-dómmmm--on the downbeat. I looked at my watch. It
was six o'clock. Gray-gold light filtered through the broken shutters onto the
bed. I stood up and looked out onto the square, with its wet cobbles shining.
The square white church tower stood out sharply in the morning sunlight, rising
from a hollow of dark shopfronts; a bakery, a florist, a shop selling graveyard
paraphernalia--plaques, stone angels, enameled everlasting roses.... Above these
discreetly shuttered facades the white tower is a beacon, the Roman numerals of
the clock gleaming redly at six-twenty to baffle the devil, the Virgin in her
dizzy eyrie watching the square with a faintly sickened expression. At the tip
of the short spire, a weathervane turns--west to west-north-west--a robed man
with a scythe. From the balcony with the dead geranium I could see the first
arrivals to mass. I recognized the woman in the tartan coat from the carnival; I
waved to her, but she hurried on without an answering gesture, pulling her coat
protectively around her. Behind her the felt-hatted man with his sad brown dog
in tow gave me a hesitant smile. I called down brightly to him, but seemingly
village etiquette did not allow for such informalities, for he did not respond,
hurrying in his turn into the church, taking his dog with him.
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