"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 us."
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.
From Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Copyright Joanne Harris 1999. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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