There’s a lot I was going to say about the 2 month gap between posting the last update in this book, and why, and how this book is super draft mode. It takes too long to explain, though, so I may post it separately. For now I will just say:
I MAY NEED JULIAN FILES BETA READERS!
If you are interested, let me know–especially if you are a Boyd and/or Vivienne fan because you may have paid attention to details I might have forgotten in our many reworkings of ICoS.
As for this chapter, it’s one that some of you may have been waiting for, and others maybe never wanted to read.
Sunday July 17, 2005
Cedar Hills neighborhood
Vivienne knelt in the dusty attic, the only place she felt safe from prying eyes. Her gaze, as always, strayed to the box that held her deepest treasure. And, as always, she made her gaze move away.
She had chosen her path and she did not regret it. She did not make choices lightly, and refused to question actions she had made to the best of her ability at any given time. Doubt was the path toward self destruction, as far as she was concerned; the path that only the weak and insecure took.
Still, there were days that drew her up here again, away from her husband, away the child that haunted this house. Up, up to where she could breathe freely with the trapdoor shut and the darkness surrounding her in comfort.
Cedrick was asleep, as was their son. Although Cedrick had difficulty falling asleep, once he achieved it he could sleep through anything. Their son never strayed from bed once he had settled in–whether it was because he slept through noises or was intelligent enough to not bother anyone, she did not know. It was a small thing she could be grateful for on nights like this. A small thing she wished could be part of a greater whole, but no matter how hard she tried it didn’t seem to happen.
When he had first come screaming into her arms, she had felt a detachment she had never expected. Exhaustion and a need to get away. From when he had been growing inside her to even now, years later, there were days on end where she barely wished to eat. Days where she found solace at her work because it was easier to concentrate on her expectations as a professional than it was to confront her inability to be the perfect mother, or even a proper mother at all. She was used to excelling at what she put her mind toward, yet her inability to meet even the most basic of expectations of motherhood felt like a betrayal; whether of her own mind and body, or of society, or of her son, or anything else, she could not always decide.
Perhaps it had been that or something else that had made his red, crying face bring to mind the image of the Nain Rouge. Vivienne had once met a woman from Detroit who, upon learning Vivienne was French, had talked at length about the Nain Rouge and how she viewed it.
Harbinger of doom, she called it. And Vivienne’s first sight of her only child had brought that swiftly to mind.
Vivienne had tried to ignore the thought, but perhaps her addled mind had known best. Only days later, the war had taken Vivienne’s family, and everything had twisted in Vivienne’s life from then on.
It was in memory of that family that she was here now.
As had been the case since she had birthed that child, she had been unable to sleep; caught forever in the shroud between dreams and the waking world. That restlessness had drawn her from the warmth of Cedrick’s side, down the quiet hallway, up the stairs, up the ladder, to sit with her knees pulled to her chest, where her gaze was drawn again, again to that box.
It was Amy’s birthday.
Did Cedrick remember this and pointedly not speak of it each year? Or had he forgotten, now that the date no longer held significance?
It would always be meaningful to Vivienne.
Today, Amy would have turned fifty. Today, Vivienne would have insisted on bringing her somewhere special; buying her something beautiful. She would have made Amy breakfast if Braeden or Cedrick had not. She would have sat by her side and felt the comfort of her presence.
In a world that had not seemed ready to accept Vivienne since the sudden death of her parents when she was eight years old, Vivienne had grown accustomed to keeping everyone at a distance. She had come to expect negativity sent her way. It no longer bothered her, because her grandmother’s lessons had worked. Mireille had taught Vivienne how to live in a world like this and how to rise above it. To not care what others thought, so she could be free to do what she believed was best.
Life is war, her grandmother had told her since she was brought, orphaned, to Mireille’s Parisian home. Do not lose yourself in the battles. Think always of the long strategy. If you plan ahead, you will always win.
She had taught Vivienne all of that, and yet a part of Vivienne had never stopped aching for the loving warmth she remembered of her mother’s arms. A part of her could not stop being that eight year old child, with the last memory of parents who smiled at her and held her close and sang soft, sweet French lullabies when she was tired or scared. She could not forget her mother, who had taught her how to ride her first horse, or her father who had given her a colt and had stayed by her side that first time she climbed astride, his hands spread to catch her if she should fall. A colt she had childishly named Venteux, for the feeling of the wind rushing past her when she rode.
No matter how hard Vivienne had tried, she could not make those memories disappear. No matter how much Mireille had helped her, that piece of Vivienne would not leave.
Still, Vivienne had thought she had successfully buried those memories, that past weak and vulnerable self, until she had walked into Cedrick’s childhood home for the first time.
Until she had met his mother Amy.
The bright smile that had filled Amy’s features; the open arms that had been there immediately, engulfing Vivienne before she had a chance to speak. That warm voice in her ear welcoming her with the Québécois accent Vivienne had teased Cedrick about in Paris. Amy’s accent was even a bit different than that, retaining a touch of her American Northeastern drawl pulling the vowels and consonants into a new shape.
She remembered the way Amy had anticipated Vivienne’s needs: the cup of tea or coffee she made before Vivienne even thought to ask; the presence of a woman at her side who understood, who didn’t judge, on the nights Vivienne had cried endlessly about her pregnancy and had been too scared to let Cedrick see.
The mother Vivienne had yearned for since her own had died, her birth mother denigrated by her grandmother again and again until Vivienne had thought love could only be a weakness, and idealism the greatest of crimes.
But then Cedrick had come into her life and he had brought his family with, and Vivienne had known the warmth of belonging again. She had known she wasn’t alone in this world, in this war known as life.
She had been wrong, perhaps, to believe in that future.
She had been foolish, it seemed, to forget her grandmother’s warnings.
It had all started with that Nain Rouge.
Child of misfortune; soulless it seemed at times, with eyes that burned their way through everything. Staring endlessly as a demon might at a city to learn and mimic human behavior.
She didn’t believe in demons; not really. She didn’t truly think him of the devil. There was nothing supernatural at work, in all likelihood.
And yet, every hatred that had been visited upon her externally or internally, every loss she held gathered in empty arms, she felt could be tied back to the moment that child was conceived in thought. And most especially after he had been birthed into this world.
It was true that the hatred had started far earlier; true the loss had gone back to her childhood, long before he existed. But those small and large sufferings had happened in another country, what felt like another world and another life now far removed from her own.
Here was where she was supposed to have a new chance. Here, in North America.
And here was where he had made Amy die.
Cedrick’s family would have been safely in Canada if not for Boyd. They would not have been in Lexington, in that neighborhood where the bombs destroyed everything, if he had not been born the day he was born.
His birth was the dawn of the death of everyone Vivienne had left to love.
The bare light bulb moved subtly in a breeze she could never feel. The silence of this span of the house was refreshing and complete. The pressure she felt every waking moment, the suffocation of breathing, of existing, of moving through the everyday battle of life, felt at home here in this claustrophobic corner of their home.
She could see the war of life play out here, again and again, and here she could pause between the battles for fugitive, ephemeral rest.
And so this war had led her here, alone in a dusty attic, perched against a wall with her long hair catching and holding onto the rough wood. And she squeezed her tired, burning eyes shut to keep them from drifting again, again, to that box.
She had arrived in Paris with so little to her name; with only one item from her dead parents. She had left France, disowned, with so little in her possession.
But there was one thing she had been certain to bring. One trinket; the only gift she had left from her mother Alette.
She had wanted something from her grandmother who had been kind and loving, Alette’s mother Éliane who had joyfully shouted encouragement when Vivienne had rushed by on Venteux’s back. But Éliane had not wanted her, Mireille had told Vivienne; not after Alette was gone. And then Éliane had died. Like she deserved, Mireille had said, for birthing that demon Alette into the world.
Vivienne had not been permitted to bring any memories of Éliane or her mother to her new home. The only reason Mireille had let her keep her last and, now, only gift from her mother was because Vivienne had told Mireille it came from her father Jacques; from Mireille’s beloved son.
Everything else was gone; pared down to that singular souvenir now turned, unerringly, into a legacy.
Everything that mattered to that eight year old girl who had been told her parents were dead and now she had to move across the country to an estranged grandmother—everything for her was in that box.
Vivienne had thought she would show Amy, one day, this gift from her mother. She had believed, one day, she could see what her new mother thought of it.
That would never happen now.
Both of Vivienne’s mothers were dead.
Vivienne opened her eyes and watched the dust dance and gather in the yellow swatch of light.
“Joyeux anniversaire,” she whispered, a dry and catching voice in the night. “Je t’aime, maman.”
She pulled her legs closer to her chest and rested her chin on her knees. She fell quiet, contemplative, and then continued the tradition she had secretly created from the time Amy had died.
There was no body for them to mourn; no true grave she could visit. Cedrick observed the anniversary of his family’s death, but Vivienne thought it was important, too, to remember the anniversary of his mother’s life.
And so, even though she was well aware Amy was dead and disintegrated and decomposed back into the earth, every year on July 17 she murmured about her day, about the past year of her life since she had last updated Amy.
Today, she told Amy about Boyd’s lessons, because she knew Amy would have loved to know. After all, Amy had once promised a shaking and frightened nineteen-year-old Vivienne, who had whispered her deepest fear that the dark and twisted feeling she felt during her pregnancy would never leave and she would never be capable of loving that child the way a mother was supposed to—Amy had promised that terrified and ashamed Vivienne that it would get better, and if it didn’t then Amy would be there for her. She had promised that vulnerable Vivienne that she would help.
She had promised that anxious Vivienne that she would not navigate this frightening path alone. No matter what. Because Vivienne would always have a friend and mother in Amy.
That promise had burned to ash alongside Amy’s body. But Vivienne still spoke to a ghost she didn’t believe in, because she did believe in the kindness of that woman’s soul when she had lived.
“He excels at French,” she told that sightless soul now in French. “I hardly need to teach him a word before he integrates it and understands its nuances.” She turned her head so her cheek caught against the thin fabric of her night dress. Her eyes strayed, again, to the box. “He’s very intelligent. Cedrick is proud. He’s certain he’s ahead of his age, and I agree. I believe it is likely he will…”
Her words faded, lost in the comforting compression of the night. The sentence she had planned to form was gone as if it had never existed, and her mind undulated with the change.
She could not lie to Amy, whether she was ghost or human; whether she lived or was lost. It had always been that way. Such had been the unending comfort of Amy, knowing she had that support.
Cedrick loved Vivienne. He saw someone human, when everyone else had only ever seen a beast. When her own grandmother had treated her as if she were inhuman. Cedrick always took all of her words, no matter how cutting or short they may be, and he transformed them into things of beauty that made her believe even in her own humanity. He reflected back to her a woman worth loving, not worth leaving.
And it was for that reason there were some truths she was too terrified to ever tell him.
I do not want a child.
I never want to be a mother.
I cannot be a mother.
I have always loathed the idea.
I have always found it demeaning and frightening.
I have never wanted to be burdened by that responsibility.
It was always the life I said I absolutely did not want.
I told my grandmother again and again, no, no, when she said it was inevitable and she would form my future around it– when she tried to take away my control and wished to force it on me, I said no, no, never, no.
Words she had never been able to say to him, caught and caustic in her throat; corrosive in her heart.
Words she had let leave, quaking, from her lips only ever in the protective presence of Amy, far from the ears of anyone else.
Amy had listened. Amy had not condemned her. Amy had not said all the words everyone else had ever said for why a woman could not dare say that; why it was not allowed to want her own life, or a life with a husband, without the requirement of a child in that future.
Why a woman was only as good as her womb.
Her entire meaning and life and personality and dreams, siphoned down to be judged by the usage of one organ.
Amy had listened.
Amy had hoped the love would come, and had promised to aid even if it didn’t.
Amy had let her be truthful, raw and vulnerable and revealing of all her undesirable parts, in a way even Cedrick could not fulfill because Vivienne was too frightened of the idea of losing his love. The love she had left everything in her life to pursue.
And so here, this night, the night of Amy’s birth fifty years ago, Vivienne could not continue with that superficial update when so many other words crowded her lungs.
“Amy,” she said quietly, and should have been horrified to hear her voice crack. Would have been, if not for that shroud descending again so heavily on her throat; her heart; her mind.
It was a welcome distance; a wall that separated her from the wild depth of emotions. Something she had once viewed with freedom, that independence of feeling, that capability of extreme emotions, but now in her maturity she knew to be folly.
Mireille had taught her that feelings, that love and emotions, were weaknesses. Unprotected joins in the armor that kept her safe in the war of life. The quickest path to failure.
“I wanted to feel that love.”
She hadn’t wanted to say it aloud, hadn’t meant to, but for as quiet as the sounds were, it ripped her apart inside. She pressed cold palms into the heat of her closed eyes, her back curved gently against the dark.
“I never wanted him but when I knew I had to have him, I wanted it to change. I wanted—I wanted to understand. I wanted one piece of my life to not be a struggle, looking from the outside in. I wanted to hold him and hold no grudges, I wanted to feel the joy Cedrick did, I wanted…”
She sucked in a breath, thin and sharp and cutting.
“But I don’t know how, Amy. I don’t.” She felt her dry eyes grow heavy. Maybe another person would have cried but she couldn’t. “I don’t. My grandmother taught me to be strong, not weak. She taught me to deny all this. I don’t know what it is to be a mother. I only know how to be a warrior. I love Cedrick, I could leave everything for him, but I don’t know how to feel love that isn’t there. I don’t know how to force myself to not—”
—be a monster.
The words were unbidden in her mind, held close by the clawed fingers of her memories. Her grandmother’s voice, soothing in her ears.
Monster, Vivienne, you are nothing but a—
She stopped herself, pulsed her fingers to feel the dig of her fingernails into her palms, and dropped her arms to her side. Felt the catch of the floor against her skin. She stayed there, a still statue, every muscle taut as she fought to regain the control she briefly let herself lose.
It took time.
A deep breath in and another out.
With the surge of emotion leaving, she felt emptied out and exhausted. It was a feeling as corrosively comforting as it was familiar, and yet…
She didn’t say the words she was thinking:
You were supposed to save me from this.
You were supposed to be here to guide me.
I thought you could be his mother if I could not.
I thought, with you, we could all find relief.
I hoped we could all be happy.
I need you but you aren’t here.
Instead, she said another truth; one just as deep but not as painful. Something else to tell Amy, a calmer truth to forget what she almost had said aloud.
“Lately, I struggle.”
She watched the light move with more life along the worn wooden floor than she felt lately in her own heart.
“I can’t sleep at night. I wake, again and again, and in the morning it’s difficult to rise. For more than this reason, during the day I am so tired. I spend all my energy at my work, and when I return I don’t want to think, or move. When I see Cedrick and Boyd so easily able to interact, when I watch them share smiles I cannot join, I feel lost in my own family. I feel peripheral. I begin to fear losing Cedrick’s love; his strength. Without you here to support me, I fear it will happen. I feel so tired all the time, and yet I still cannot sleep.”
The dust settled slowly, gracefully, to the floor.
“It’s a cycle I have felt many times since you left. I felt it, too, when Boyd was growing inside me. There are days I have no troubles, and everything feels right. And there are days I wonder how long this will stay until I can be free of it.” She closed her eyes, and let the disquiet take hold of her words.
“Will I be free of it, maman? Or is this another war I must fight as long as I live?”
There was no answer, and she did not expect one. She voiced the doubts to the confessional of death, and knew no advice would ever break that hold.
Maybe Amy would have known the answer. Maybe she would have told Vivienne what to do. But she was gone and only Vivienne and Mireille remained.
But Vivienne could not ask Mireille, either. Vivienne’s grandmother had made it incredibly clear when Vivienne had left that she was disgusted with her; that Vivienne was truly orphaned, now, with no family anywhere in France. No name and no money, no ancestry to call her own. Mireille had told her that choosing Cedrick would only see her burned, and had warned that she didn’t want to hear Vivienne come crying to her when everything inevitably fell apart.
You walk out that door, Vivienne, Mireille had said, and you are stricken from this family tree. My only granddaughter died with her father, I will tell everyone. Died at the hands of her worthless mother.
Vivienne pulled in a breath, let it flood her dusty lungs, and let it out as a fraying sigh. She wished she had a candle with her but it had been too much to remember, this night, when the restlessness of insomnia had dragged her too close, too often, to the surface.
Tomorrow, she told herself, she would don the armor fully again. Tomorrow, she would keep close the lessons her grandmother had given her. Tomorrow, she would rely on that distance to return her to her rightful self. Tomorrow, she would be the person she was meant to be; the person who did not fear or question the troubled edges of her mind.
Tomorrow, she would be ready once again for the war.
But tonight—tonight, even in waking, she would let herself dream.
She closed her eyes and pushed her head harder against the unfinished attic wall. Felt the stinging nettling of her hair catching in splinters and gaps.
She imagined a cake on a table, and Amy and Braeden and Cedrick standing around it. She left Riley out because she liked to forget he existed, but Aiden could be there instead. She imagined a candle, flickering and bright, casting shadows away from Amy’s smile, lending warmth back into rigor mortis; life back into death.
She waited until they were firm in her mind, and then into that clustered dusk she sang a song of birthday wishes.
“Bon anniversaire, nos voeux les plus sincères. Que ces quelques fleurs, vous apportent le bonheur… Que l’année entière, vous soit douce et légère. Et que l’an fini, nous soyons tous réunis. Pour chanter en choeur… Bon anniversaire…”
The words drifted into the dark; a distant, low-breath melody that could hold no truth against reality; no buoyancy in the shadowy depths.
There would be no other years; no happiness waiting, nor flowers to come. There was no one to sing along with her, because she did not want to hurt the only person who would have remembered.
So she stayed alone in the attic, wishing she could be surrounded by the ghosts of the family who had believed in her.
But they were gone forever.
Fading memories of a time she would give anything to regain, yet her ‘anything’ would never be anywhere near enough.
As always, she had to let go.
“Adieu, maman,” she whispered.
When she stood, already she felt the armor pulling back into place.
When she opened the trapdoor that led back down to the house, she felt reality flooding back, bringing with it a sense of certainty she felt for most of her life but allowed herself to lose, just a little, when she was up here alone in the dark.
When she reached up and pulled the switch on the light, she imagined Amy blowing out that candle and fading, like everything else, back into the black.
It would be another year until Vivienne would let herself feel that vulnerability again.
Another year until she breathed doubt into the dark; whispering confessions and questions to a mother long dead.