It was not mystery or grief,
Nor the wise will of fate –
It was the impression of strife,
Our meetings always left behind.
From dawn I'd anticipate
The moment when you'd appear,
Feeling faint stabbing pains
All along my folded arms.
And with dry fingers I'd crumple
The table's chequered cloth…
I knew then, already,
How small this earth truly is.
I remember tales of Horus, my father's voice regaling my young ears from across the cockpit of the sailboat with stories of the Egyptian falcon god.
Horus the bird of prey, the sky god with the sun as his right eye and the moon as his left. Always constant, never changing and utterly above it all as he soared across the cosmos in a pattern as immutable as his unblinking stare. I listened to these stories, memorized them like scripture and years passed before I realized that every word my father ever gave me was a prescription for power.
I came to know Horus the Great, Ammut the Devourer and others like them while other girls played with dolls and heard of love and fairytales.
And then we all grew, little girls becoming a new, strange type of creature with blossoming breasts and coy smiles and the sweet space between our thighs that made some of us think of love and harmony while I waited, feeling the new edges and curves of my body the way a warrior fingers a foreign blade.
Is it any wonder I yearned for the liberty of absolute power? It was always a game - a pursuit of clawing and fucking and freedom.
Freedom above all else.
And then I found an opponent who played the game better: a man with sun-and-moon eyes that saw too much.
So I flew.
Soaring above the storm, ascending into the sky until the world was too small to matter. Landing in a place of quiet, a place where no one knew how sharp and cruel the wilds of desperation could be. And yet, even here my fingers still itch to unfurl the sails of my father's boat, a slave to the wind alone, weightless and hopeless and utterly human.
Laurent does not speak of the drunken night we spent on the beach. Occasionally, I watch his hands whittling a piece of wood, ruffling Sascha's fur, or wielding his pruning shears and I remember the calluses of his fingers as they'd scraped against me. For a moment, he sought my pleasure, and the memory is an odd sort of power.
But dreams of any sort of power fade more every morning in these last breaths of winter, and I feel myself disappearing into the sweat and aching muscles that come with working the idylls of Ilse's land. I dig and cut and haul and scrape and burn until there is nothing but the work in front of me, until I am only the sum of what my hands can do.
Today is no different, and I revel in the exhaustion of my body as I lean against the pasture fence.
"You should rest," Laurent suggests, coming to lean beside me. He says this often, letting me be when I ignore him; the work does not go away, and the Vigny boys can only do so much.
"Look at Odette," he says suddenly, pointing to where a brown and white heifer standing in the corner of the pasture, apart from the rest of the herd. "Have you seen her do that before?"
"Stand so far away from the rest of them. Look at the way her tail lifts." He frowns. "She will be calving tonight."
I study him as he looks over the pasture. He is a man formed of his native soil, of the blood of these beasts and the turn of the orchard seasons and I feel a twinge of envy for the confidence with which he fits into his surroundings.
My own world feels much farther than an ocean away. I'm separated now from the rumble and growl of New York by long weeks and miles, and there is a pulsing in my chest ever-present — the pull of footprints I still long to leave.
"You have mail," Caroline informs me, offering me the envelope with the hauteur of an aggrieved queen.
Something inside of me tightens, possibility and anticipation merging into a heady cocktail as I consider who would have taken the trouble to send something to me in the middle of Normandy… and I am instantly subdued as I recognize the letterhead of my father's consulting firm.
Inside, there is only a sheet of paper listing dates, locations, hotels and events. A few handwritten sentences have been scrawled within the margins.
FYI, it reads. You may get a visitor soon. - Paul
I skim over the rest of the page once more, recognizing now that Paul Strickland has sent me my father's travel itinerary for the coming months. One event in particular catches my eye.
International Initiative for Promoting Political Economy
I note the corresponding date. My father will be in France in less than three weeks' time.
Though Laurent remains silent on the subject of our drunken indiscretions that night on the beach, his curiosity about my past only seems to grow stronger.
"Omi says you ran away because of your mother died unexpectedly," he says one morning, breaking a tired silence as we ride across the Lethullier's land on the way to the house for lunch.
"Yes," I answer shortly.
"Is that the only reason you left?"
I sigh. The work here has borne down on my bones, long weeks of labor settling into sore muscles like a canker. My skin feels almost feverish with fatigue.
"She thinks there is a man in your past," he continues when I do not answer. "What was his name?"
"I am asking because—"
"You're asking because you want me to start telling you things. Now, you want to know his name. Then you'll want to know what he was like, how long I knew him, how he was in bed."
He laughs, unfazed by the flatness of my voice. "Alright, then. How was he in bed?"
"He made me come," I retort. "Which is more than I can say for you."
The sudden allusion to our time on the beach brings him up short, his mouth settling into a grim line. The rumble of the old truck engine fills the silence as the farmhouse comes closer. "It is a good thing we are friends," he observes after a moment. "You are very careless with your claws."
"You said you liked my claws."
"I would like them better if you would occasionally keep them sheathed."
I wouldn't know how, I want to reply. Instead, I lean my forehead against the cool of the window, aching all over.
We do not speak again before joining with the Vignys and a few other laborers for lunch in Ilse's kitchen. I sit silent amidst the steady chatter of voices, my head pounding.
"Liebchen," Ilse says, frowning at my untouched plate. "You are unwell?"
"You have not eaten."
"You look ill," she insists. "Laurent-"
"The work is too much," he says with a shrug, speaking around the food in his mouth. "She is like a cat who thinks it is a horse."
"I told you to be careful with her."
He rolls his eyes. "You try ordering her around."
"I'm fine—" I insist, annoyed at being discussed like a petulant child, but Ilse's hand is on my forehead.
"Bed," she says sternly. "I will bring you soup, and books if you'd like them."
Further protestations are ignored; she glares at me when I do not move.
It is easier not to fight. I go upstairs and sink into the bed, where the weight of my heavy limbs sinks me into oblivion.
I am seven years old, and my feet reach just past the center of the mattress of the large bed in the middle of my room.
"How is she?" my father asks.
"The fever will break soon," Ilse answers.
"You are attending the benefit," Ilse interrupts coolly. "I remember."
"We'll just be at the D'Agostinos down the road."
Her reply is unintelligible, and then footsteps fade, leaving only Ilse's soft, half-sung German.
"Weißt du, wieviel Mücken spielen
in der heißen Sonnenglut?
Wie viel Fische auch sich kühlen
in der hellen Wasserflut?"
I wake from my nap to feel a feverish heat dancing through my body, biting at my limbs until my teeth chatter.
"Liebchen," Ilse says quietly. Her hand is cool and dry against my cheek. "Can you eat?"
Sitting up feels like an impossibility, and I shake my head.
"You need water. Open."
I feel something cool against my mouth. I purse my lips around the straw and drink, relieved as the liquid runs over my tongue.
"Ilse," I whisper, sinking back into the pillow as sleep comes again. "Sing me something."
But all I can hear is her sad sigh, and then everything here is gone for a little while, disappearing into a world inside which neither time nor fever can touch.
Sated and sweaty, Jacob Black pulls me down to his naked chest, ignoring my stiff limbs as his mouth seeks mine. He kisses my stone lips gently, moves his fingers through my tangled hair and whispers things against my skin like a confessor kissing his rosary.
"I don't think I'll ever get tired of this," he breathes, intertwining our hands and I turn my head to the side, catch my breath and stare at the gleaming surface of his wedding band between us, a cold, sacred thing.
I know he is lying before he does, and I leave the hotel smelling of him and remembering that I hate sacred things — their shiny surfaces suspended too high, too bright and unblemished and pure. It's safer to pull the icons down to earth, burn the altar, barter the ashes.
Later, Jacob will see what I am and know what I've taken, and he'll hate me and spit on this memory. And then I will watch him go, my smile bright beneath a mask of sacred soot as I carry my kindling to the temple of another.
Cold, my mother called me, and I feel it for the first time, daggers of pain stabbing through the ice, pulsing ever-present.
And now It is the first time we've spoken in New York, and Edward is drunk.
"You remind me of a girl I knew back home," he slurs, smiling as he leans into me from his chair. I smile back.
And he nods, tells me I'm lovely and asks me to follow him.
"Where?" I ask, already knowing the answer.
"Anywhere. The bathroom. My car. Anywhere."
I hum thoughtfully, pretending to consider it. "And what would we do there?"
"I'd—we'd do—I'd fuck you, Bella."
"Mmhm," he mumbles against my neck.
"I can't hear you," I tell him as his lips move against my skin. He pulls back, repeats himself.
"I could eat you up," he says.
He will. And, silly thing that I am, I will let him.
But now his face fades into a pale winter sky, and I am frozen, mounted upon a pedestal and flanked by the silent figures of Ammut and Artemis as time crawls by, growing moss and gathering bitter winds as I long for a man of unforgiving angles beneath a tangle of penny-colored hair.
Freedom, freedom, but am I nothing more than a motionless god, governed by the untractable laws of my own world and nature?
This is the way it must be, Artemis sighs in the language of the cold.
Forget him, Ammut adds with disdain.
But something within rebels against both of them — they've betrayed me, urging me to liberation and leading me here, a slave to the spot in which I stand, the search for freedom culminated in lifeless stone.
And so I stay, stiff and still on a pedestal among rows and rows of barren, snow-covered trees that stretch across the sloping hills and end at a soundless sea. I loom over the landscape, a cold and terrible thing.
On the ground below, a woodsman trudges through the orchard rows, axe in hand. He comes to a stop beside me and there is a flash of heat as he runs his hand across my granite foot, his lips whistling a familiar tune before he heaves his axe into my side.
Padam... padam... padam...
Il arrive en courant derrière moi
Padam... padam... padam...
Blood stains the snow as he cuts, and the pain is a fever running through me, its flames crawling into every dead and dormant place, twisting my heart like a sponge as I writhe inside the silent cage of my form, the inside of my skull echoing with the sound of my own screams.
With a stroke, and another stroke, I am felled.
The cold earth embraces me like a lover, the snow melting against the fire of my flesh as I lay prone, helpless on the ground with only the drip! drop! of snow from budding branches, falling like tears upon my upturned face.
Edward looms above me, bloody axe in hand. His penny-colored hair is a mess.
"You're crying," he observes. "But it is only the thaw, and you're a fool to fight it."
And then I am lost inside a wilderness of blind passion - darkness and fog, and I run through the mist, tearing through the moors of a nether world like a dumb beast, mouth agape to catch the wind and teeth bared for the kill.
My heart pounds to a simple rhythm: conquer, conquer, conquer and the quicksilver rush of blood sings loudly, arrogant and sure through unbound limbs. I am a god with an insatiable hunger as ancient as the song in my bones.
And then something changes: footsteps, gaining. A growl - there is something behind me.
The chase turns and the wet muscle in my chest pounds harder, screaming for escape and I run until the heat of the other's breath is on my back, his fingers gripping my flesh as foreign limbs cage me as I thrash, baring the tender white flesh of my neck but there is no bite, no predator or prey. There is only possession, a power demanding a submission that rankles every inch of me. Escape, my mind screams.
But there is none.
Suspended on a thread of consciousness, I continue to fight. When I finally collapse into the altar of my pursuer's arms, it is with the weary obeisance of a captive slave.
"Under her dark veil she wrung her hands. 'Why are you so pale today?'" Akhmatova wrote, and now her words scrape against the walls of my consciousness.
"Because I made him drink of stinging grief
Until he got drunk on it.
How can I forget? He staggered out,
His mouth twisted in agony.
I ran down not touching the banister
And caught up with him at the gate.
I cried 'A joke!
That's all it was. If you leave, I'll die.'
He smiled calmly and grimly
And told me, 'Don't stand here in the wind.'"
When I open my eyes again, I am alone in my bed at Au Chien Pèlerin.
There is water and a pile of books on the bedstand.
And ghosts in the ceiling, dancing to Padam, Padam.
I smile up at them, the skin of my dry lips splitting as I sink back into the darkness.
All fevers break, as most passions fade.
The angry froth and foam of my mind settles as the day dawns, sunlight cutting over the horizon like a blade against my eyes as I try to open them.
I am tired, and weak, and sick, and something has broken.
Something has changed.
Run, something whispers urgently. But my limbs are too heavy, my breath too shallow.
And here, undistracted by work or drink or reading, I am a hostage to the memory of the man I left behind.
Laurent comes in after lunch, wrinkling his nose at the room's stale smell.
"You are sleeping the rest of winter away," he informs me.
My throat burns when I speak. "It's only been two days."
"Yes, but you've missed the first bloom of the season," he announces proudly, showing me the small blossom in his hand. He folds his large frame into the chair by the door, and the ever-present hound Sascha curls up at his feet as he produces an apple and paring knife from his coat, setting the blade to the thin skin of the fruit as he speaks. "You talk in your sleep."
I close my eyes.
"I know this by accident, of course," he continues. "We took turns checking your fever last night. Who is Edward?"
Another memory: Edward moving inside of me, grace and fire and groaning.
I shake my head.
"If you do not tell me, then I will ask again and again." He smiles. "I am very persistent."
"Why does it matter?"
"It may not, but it interests me. You interest me, Isabella, and you are less subtle than you think, dragging your broken heart around like a favorite toy."
And I am silent still, for broken hearts are found in the flayed-open chests of silly, weak things and my heart is not broken. My fingers do not itch for the feel of another's skin. My teeth do not grind at the memory of his taste.
"Of course, if you do not want to speak of him…"
He smiles, intent for a few moments on the uninterrupted scrawl of the apple peel.
"I have Etienne and Matthieu pruning the southern rows," he says suddenly, his tone casual as the peel grows longer. "It is amazing, the way they work when there is no pretty girl to stare at. There must be irony in that somewhere, I suppose: temptation has been removed from them, and so they are free to focus on the apple trees." He sighs. "But Eve made her own choices, and the Vignys must make theirs. That is how the world works. Forbidden fruit, women — the pretty things are the most dangerous. We sell our souls to have them."
Prim, pretty thing, Edward whispered once.
"Spoken like one who knows," I rasp.
He shrugs. "You are not the first pretty thing to cross my path, little stray. Now tell me: who is Edward?"
Ignoring him, my eyes fall to the books again. There is one in the pile, Le soldat oublié, which I have not yet read.
Le soldat oublié. The Forgotten Soldier.
"Someone you love?" Laurent presses, his gaze following mine to the books' scarred spines. "Someone who has died?"
I frown. Laurent sees it.
"No? Then perhaps someone who has left you."
The words fall from my mouth unbidden. I frown as soon as I speak them.
"You left him?" Laurent repeats, surprised. "Ah. You see, now we are getting somewhere. He loved you?"
I ignore him once more, my eyes on Le soldat oblié.
Edward Cullen is trying to woo me, a playboy setting aside the chase for a moment as the strains of Non Credere float above the dance floor of Locanda.
He thinks the cold thing in his arms can do more than fuck him six ways to Sunday, and so he begins to reveal himself. And I brush my fingers softly against his neck as I listen.
"My middle name is Anthony," he says, the smooth cadence of his words almost lost beneath the music. "I'm named after my grandfather. My birthday is June 20. I'm thirty-two years old and I'm the youngest VP to oversee Mergers Acquisitions in the history of my family's investment firm."
I listen, staring over his shoulder, swaying dumbly to the music as he continues.
"I went to Penn for undergrad and did my MBA at Columbia. My mother's name is- was Elizabeth. She was one of the first female Fortune 500 CEOs in the country, she died when I was eighteen, and I'm still angry at her for a myriad of reasons I won't go into. My younger sister, whom you've met, is my mother reincarnate, minus the work ethic, and tries to plan every fucking second of my life. My father is Carlisle Masen - yes, that Carlisle Masen - who, as I'm sure you know, is renowned as the most obnoxious real estate developer in the whole of the Western Hemisphere..."
"I've never been arrested, and I've never been in love, but I went skydiving for my twenty-first birthday and it was one of the only times I've actually felt alive. My favorite book is 'The Forgotten Soldier' by Guy Sajer, and I don't give a fuck if it's nonfiction or not because, I swear to god, it was the first story I really understood."
Later, I'll watch him lose his words as I roll my hips against him, pressing him down against my mattress and smiling at his rapt expression. Later, I will score his flesh with my fingernails and whisper that I've marked him. Later, Paul will show up on my doorstep with the news that my mother is gone forever.
But now, he is telling me secrets, and I tell my hands to loosen their grip as I suck his words inside where they will live in hollow, hallowed places.
Where they live still.
The pages of Le soldat oblié are worn, crinkled and folded over in places, but I read through its chapters as my body steadily exorcises the weakness wrought by fever and exhaustion.
"As I remember his laugh," Sajer wrote, "there was nothing mad about it, it was more like the laugh of someone who has been the victim of a practical joke, a farce in which he had believed until suddenly he realized his folly."
"Why me?" Edward asked me that night in the hallway, stone words falling from white lips.
I wanted you, I told him then.
Hours later, the book lies discarded on the counterpane. Unoccupied, my fingers writhe around each other, feeling their mates' sinew and bone, worrying at the skin like a hound on the hunt.
The fever has broken, but I would swear that Edward's scent permeates the air as my mind races. Liar, it whispers, jolting me out of another memory.
I am a liar. I have lied to him.
I do not want him. This is not want.
I did love you, Edward told me, but this is not love. This is not benevolent warmth, calming embraces or the security of home.
It is fire, it is ice. It is a blade in my gut, a hook in my heart.
It is the need to claw, catch, anger him, melt against his fury and meld myself against the heat of him, fuse him to my bones as he protests and steal every bit of him until it's inside me.
I need to own him, to harm him and hurt him and hold him to make him stay.
I've been in the throes of this sickness since I was a child — the desire to have him at my feet. To be the master. To watch him want me with a desperation that feels like agony.
It is not love, but it demands a reckoning.
In a moment, Edward will leave.
He stares at me, my journal in his hand, my fears and fantasies inside his head. He knows the truth, has come for his pound of flesh.
I am not afraid of you, he tells me.
In a moment, I'll let him fuck me on the floor. In a moment, I will watch him go.
But for now, my gaze falters.
It is the third morning since the fever broke, and I walk slowly down the stairs to breakfast. My father's itinerary feels like it is burning a square in the pocket of my coat.
"Isabella!" Ilse exclaims when she sees me in the kitchen doorway. "I am glad you are feeling better."
"She would drop if the wind blew the right way," Laurent snorts from his place at the table. "Don't think you're working with me today. I have enough to do without watching you swoon in front of the chickens."
I am still a moment, taking in the warmth of the bright, busy kitchen, the hospitality of Ilse and the answering gruffness of her grandson. It is a pretty picture, one in which I do not belong.
"I'm not working," I tell them. "I'm leaving."
I know it's been an extremely long time, so if you're reading this, please accept both my thanks and an apology for keeping you waiting. Several huge life changes have happened in the last two years, which (of course) occurred when people started to care about something I was writing. Ah, c'est la vie. As always, I'm grateful to Myg for cyber-kicking my ass to write, and for providing insight and editing for each chapter.
Thanks again for reading this story and for all of your kind words and encouragement and funny tweets, etc., etc.
My access to the internet ain't what it used to be. That being said, I'll update on Wednesday.