She made up her mind, and she started packing. She left before the sun came up that day. Winding her way through the maze of narrow streets in the sleepy city, past Clothilde’s boulangerie, where she bought her baguette every day, she soundlessly gave adieu to the ugly gargoyles on the cathedral and walked out into the green vineyards that stretched beyond the city as far as the eye could see.
She was going home. Back to the small house made of bricks tucked into the folds of the Burgundy slopes, with flowerpots outside by the well in the courtyard, with cords of garlic dangling from the ceiling in the spacious kitchen stacked with copper pots and kettles, with the linden tree in the garden which served as shade to the entire family as they sat to have dîner during the endless summer days, and in the autumn when ginger leaves would dance around the garden and maman would complain of bone ache.
She followed the narrow, country path outside the city, homeward bound and thinking about her days ahead, just like of old. Behind her, the grey city stretched tall and sleepy into the dawning sky, where shades of scarlet and azure heralded from the east the coming of another cloudless, late summer day. They will not find her in the morning. Maybe they will not even look for her, she thought. She hoped; she wanted to be forgotten in the grey city. She knew that, having been forgotten, it would be easier to forget.
The suitcase she carried was almost empty, bearing all that was material that she ever possessed for herself: the Bible, her other dress, an alternative set of lingerie, an extra pair of shoes, one small bottle of rose-oil, an old straw hat that she inherited from mamie, a book of poetry and, wrapped in a bleached handkerchief, a picture of her family, all gathered at the table under the linden tree in the garden, taken one fine autumn day after the vindanges and kept in a silver-plated frame; a gift her sister, Marie, offered her when she left home.
The sun travelled fast across the sky as she moved slowly up the country path, passing remote villages with spiky church towers and green, abundant vineyards where huge black grapes hung heavily in clusters, basking in the glaring sun. The city was out of sight now, and it looked as if the entire Earth was a peaceful haven covered with vineyards, tiny villages, and buzzing insects.
She knew she would be home before sunset, and she couldn’t wait to be there at last. She pictured maman in the kitchen, making quiche amidst the steam of pots and pans and the scent of herbs, and papa checking the procédure in the cellar, where ancient, mouldy walls that breathed staleness guarded the precious brew inside clean wooden barrels, huge like the bellies of horses. She pictured Bernard, her brother, outside on the vegetable patch among lettuces and courgettes and Sophie, his wife, sewing and prattling with Marie under the linden tree in the garden, and the children running all over the place playing stuck-in-the-mud.
She couldn’t wait to see them all, to embrace them and join her two sisters under the linden tree with her own sewing work, just like of old, when the three of them would sit together: Sophie, thin and pale with crow-black hair and a pointed chin, a wise woman and a good mother in her thirties; Marie, plump with wide cheekbones, wavy, honey-coloured hair and hazel eyes like most of the family, a lenient personality and loving aunt to Sophie and Bernard’s children, childless herself, having lost her young husband in the war; she would also be there, although never fitting clearly into the composition, youngest of all and restless, always torn between contentment and anxiousness. But she knew now that she belonged to that place, whose tranquillity she once ran away from to become a petty seamstress in the city.
The sun was already far ahead in the west when she began to recognize a familiar countryside. In the orange glow of the fireball in front of her, the bushes and trees that hemmed the dusty path suddenly looked reminiscent of a time gone by, and her small feet accelerated pace as she proceeded impatiently to greet her destiny.
As she approached the house, which was to appear any moment from behind a turn of the path, the evening air became chilly. The sky was ablaze, and a pious silence reigned all around. Only her steps disturbed the quiet as she trotted down the path, closer to her home with every step, with every heartbeat. She almost couldn’t believe she made it all the way. She was back, back home, from where she will never, never run away again. And the city and its grey gargoyles at once felt so far away and so unreal, as if they were only part of a wicked dream.
She entered the courtyard and put down her suitcase. The sun was hidden by the low garden wall, and the courtyard was cold and sombre. For some reason, it was deserted. Hugging her arms to avoid the chill, she walked slowly around, looking at the bareness of a place once warm with the presence of life. The well was covered, and the flower pots around it were filled with dry soil. The door was bolted, barely visible behind a thick curtain of fine spider webs; the forest green shutters on the windows were closed. She walked around the house into the garden, making her way, bewildered, through the tall grass that had taken over the cracks in the once neat stone path.
The garden was large and empty. The furniture had been taken away, along with the garden tools and the children’s toys. She turned her eyes toward the corner where the linden tree always provided shelter under its wide crown; its dry carcass lay uprooted on the ground, branches drooped, leaves sunk into the soil, rotting.
She stood in the middle of the garden, cold and remote, contemplating. Out of the corner of her eye, she suddenly noticed that, where the linden tree had been uprooted, a feeble green shoot was tearing its way up form among the cinders of the trunk. She came to it to take a closer look.
« Tu ne survivras pas l’hiver, mon petit. »
Almost unconsciously, she clasped both her hands around the twig and pulled it out with all her force, then dropped it onto the pile of dead branches. She remembered everything that had happened, and turned resolutely to go back to the dark courtyard, brushing past the tall grass on the stone path, picking up her suitcase and walking out the gaping doors of the entrance. She had to get back, back to where she took refuge a long time ago, back to the city. Back to her tiny room with a small window and a pretty mirror above the sink. Back to the Atelier where pleasant ladies tried on evening gowns of silk and lace. Back to the ugly gargoyles on the cathedral that scorned passers by.
She was in a hurry to return, the sun setting into the vineyards behind her. They will not need to look for her in the morning, she will be there. She was impatient to get back to where she had begun to build her home, back to where a lot of work awaited her: Madame Caseau needed her satin evening gown finished, Madame Roche and her two daughters were expected to come to a final fitting séance before the wedding. Yes, she still needed to sew on the ribbons and lace on the gown of the bride; she would do that as soon as she returns… as soon as she gets back.
* * *
As she walked briskly down the country path, the sun was definitely gulped down by the abundant vineyards. A playful wind picked up her skirts and extricated her upward into the heavens, plopping her right onto the Milky White Way, where she still confidently strides, the white silhouette of her skirt and her hat sparkling amidst the twinkling stars, on her way home.