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for Amanda and Ben

Madame Frayssinet had left the house. Through the vagueries of French (at that point it was more through gesture and intonation that I understood anything; the sounds themselves carried little meaning) June and I learned that our hostess, the exotic and restless Madame Frayssinet, had gone off to Corsica for two weeks. She needed to get away. From us? we wondered. What had we done wrong? We would never know. For reasons that would remain forever unexplained to me, Madame Frayssinet left one night without saying a word, entrusting us into the hands of Gil, her faithful friend and house companion, and Christoph, her son. She would return the night before June and I left for Paris with the rest of the program, and the last I heard from her was the spitting fight with Christoph early that morning, before the sun had even risen; he was going off to the army and, though I still do not know what exactly was said, I was left with the impression that neither of them wanted him to go. Madame Frayssinet stayed in her room all that day while we packed our suitcases and gathered our belongings from about the house. She waved to us from the upstairs window, a robed arm flapping like an old bird through the shutters. Gil drove us to the train station.

During our stay in the Frayssinet household, most of which was under the surveillance of two nervous and manipulatable males, June and I began the painstaking process of making friends with one another. We had known each other back at school, through French class, but had never learned anything about the other. June had lived in London before she went to college, and the accent would creep up sometimes from the back of her throat. It took a while to get to know each other well enough to actually confide in one another. We were both feeling like teenagers in Aix-en-Provence—lanky, obtrusive—both wondering when the French would come dripping off our tongues.

There was a path that snaked away from the house down a slow-sloping hill before dumping into the main boulevard coiled around the city. On that path each morning June and I would attempt to recount in French our dreams from the night before. We would struggle to stretch our mouths into statement, but nothing meaningful came. There were glimpses of comprehension, but the process was so painful that at every other sentence one of us was bound to turn to the other and squint, as if what was eking out was something to be discerned in the morning air over our heads. We never got very far before slipping back into English, and when we did the whole day would open up to us, the sky tucked between the yellowed buildings cutting all the words away.

The walls of Madame Frayssinet’s house, though built of plaster and stone, seemed to be constantly sifting the outside in, so that walking across the varying, rugged floors, some of mosaic tile, others of wood, still others of white linoleum, felt like walking through an unswept garden. Leaves and twigs blew in through the open glass doors, not to be swept up for days. The plants that swung from chains in the rooms rustled continuously in the breeze, the mild September weather occupying the interior of Madame Frayssinet’s house just as much as it did the out.

The sitting room was draped with fabrics from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, worlds in which it seemed Madame must have lived at some point. Pillows studded with mirrors, embroidery, swirls of gold thread were piled on the couches, on each chair, some even on the floor. Objects crowded in from the shelves and end tables, shaped by foreign hands from ceramic, silver, carved wood, and molded bronze. One day I pointed to the five masks hooked to the wall and asked where they had come from. Madame answered, “Ceux-là viennent de l’Afrique.” That was one of the only successful exchanges I would ever have with her. I looked at the contorted black forms of each face, the slitted eyes and grassy braids. The masks caught and held my gaze for minutes whenever I entered the room.

The night June and I arrived was clearly not the night we were expected. Madame Frayssinet was not at the house. Her neighbor had collected us at the train station, a worried statement on her face. She sang in French, a high sweet voice that got lost when the car started and continued to be drowned out as we roared up the winding streets, the exhaust mingling with the wind in the trees. When we reached the parted iron gate she pushed it slowly aside so we could slide our suitcases onto the cracked courtyard and look upon our new home.

A villa is what the director of the program had called it, though in reality it appeared like a miniature replica, with a shrunken but lively garden leading up to the front stone patio. The shutters in front of the door were tightly bolted, as were the shutters of each and every window. No one was home. Madame Frayssinet’s neighbor had to leave to pick her child up at school, or at least that is what I thought she said after several repetitions. She looked like a Mom, frazzled blond hair and a bulging woven purse. She looked anxious.

Near the door rested a square iron table and four iron chairs. June and I sat down and waited. The hush of the garden after the neighbor’s engine died away almost took our breath away. The quiet was so powerful, like magic. A large, shiny-headed bee hovered over a tangled rose bush and then floated off into the air, the extinguished sound leaving an even deeper silence. The sun was preparing to set. It sunk sleepily behind the bushes along the fence, resting some of its rays on June’s light blond head.

The gate slammed and we looked up. A hurried young man with a goatee came plowing through the garden toward us, his long brown hair tossed up at the sides of his head. He had a backpack slung over his shoulder. There were patches of sweat on the front of his shirt.

“Ahhh!” he gasped, bringing both hands disconcertingly to his cheeks as if discovering a mouse. “Vous êtes déjà arrivées?” His large brown eyes blinked from me to June, back and forth. The backpack slid to the ground.

“Bonjour,” June and I both mumbled, tasting the awkward greeting between our teeth. We looked to each other for more words but found only fragments. Sentences, questions, were beyond our grasp.

We had both stood the minute Christoph walked through the gate, feeling instantly like intruders caught robbing an old villa of its spell. Christoph’s statement swiftly turned apologetic. He batted his large dark lids and pressed his hands together priestlike, bowing as he said, “Je suis desolé, très très desolé. Vraiment, nous croyions que vous arriveriez demain.” He hastily swung his backpack onto his shoulder again as if it was his young child, propping it with his hip. Taking in a chestful of air, he summoned up a few words in English. “Fallow me, please. Fallow me.” We did as we were told.

Inside, the house was cool and dark, and at first it was left that way, everything in silhouette. Instantly, Christoph began to dart about igniting lamps in the rooms. That was when we caught our first glimpse of the sitting room, the rugs and tapestries and slippery pillows, the pilings of books and trinkets. The house looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. In the thin and shadowy light, some of which came from the blue twilight in the windows, I felt uncontrollably lost and far away from home. Who was this light-blond girl beside me, her English accent like a shield over her mouth? She looked blue in the unlit foyer. I turned to where Christoph had illuminated the sitting room and saw hanging on the wall the five dark, shriveled masks. They looked at me through narrowed eyes. One had a long snout like an elephant. Another was rounded like a shell. The shadows they cast gave them little gray ghost bodies. They hovered there panting in the wavering light of a large white oil lamp, as if they, too, had just arrived from afar.

“My mather . . .” Christoph stuttered in English, quick to understand that we did not respond to a word of French. “She comes later tonight. She knows nathing that you arrive today.” He had finished lighting up the house for the time being and just stood with his hands on his hips, considering what he could say next. What came was a thick mixture of English, French, and silent, frustrated body gestures. “Here,” he puffed, grabbing June’s suitcase. “Attendez. . . I take,” and with a hand pointing up to the ceiling he swooped the suitcase onto his shoulder and barreled down the hall. We heard his heavy staggering steps curling up the spiral staircase.

When he came down he was heaving with short deep breaths and his shirt had sprung even more dark stains. “Now . . .” he said. “I take.” He dragged my suitcase away from me through a door that opened off the foyer.

Empty-handed, not sure whether we were supposed to search out where we would be sleeping for the next month, June and I shifted clumsily side by side. I was trying hard not to think of Corine. I wondered if June knew I was a twin. There were many people I saw everyday who would never have guessed this. Since arriving at our two separate colleges Corine and I had embarked upon a game to see how far our new friendships would go before they found out that we had other halves to us, someone who looked and talked and moved just like us, for whom we’d been mistaken all of our lives. It was unlikely, then, that June knew anything about Corine, since I had never talked about her and none of June’s friends would have known, either.

While Christoph was still setting up my room the front door swung wide and an older man entered soundlessly, bags dangling from his fists. He was small but muscled. Even his silhouette in the doorway rippled. A light was flipped on and there he hunched, Gil, with a cigarette lit and balanced on his lip. He set the bags down, ran his large hands through his gray hair. “Ahhh, vous êtes déjà arrivées!” and then he was smiling and laughing, his eyes bright as fireflies. A mustache wriggled between his two shining cheeks. I was overjoyed to discover such a wonderful face.

Madame Frayssinet would not arrive for another two hours, but within that time June and I learned to love her world. It scared us to sit among so much chaos, the mess of the house, of the garden, the constant spill of an uncontrollable, gushing language. But within minutes we were swept away by it, swept up by this kind, gray man with twinkling eyes and placed down to eat at the garden table. There were plates of pickles and cheese, thin slices of ham and bowls of plums. The two men waited on us like puppets, plunking down for a minute at a time to try and muster a conversation in one of our two languages, only to spring up again unexpected, dashing back into the house to grab the pepper or the salt, another bottle of water or wine. Gil provided a half empty bottle of Pastis and June and I sipped shyly, wondering what they would produce next. We were all under the most magnificent blue sky, thick and rich like a painted sea, the treetops black and lacelike. The garden was breathing with crickets and tiny rivers of night wind.

It seemed an hour or more passed in almost complete silence. Gil and Christoph had stopped their mad rushing and had joined us at the table, their legs stretched out before them in a deep but quiet exhaustion. The two dogs that lived at the house curled themselves at their feet, twitching softly like babies in a dark room. We all sat as if hypnotised by the flame caught in the lantern; none of us moved our faces from its dance. I wondered what the garden would have sounded like, had our thoughts suddenly stood up and spoke.

There was a noise at the gate. Two figures were approaching down the path. They walked silently as if their feet did not touch the ground. One was a short, long-haired woman with a shawl about her shoulders, a bag hanging from her arm. The other was a man, dressed entirely in black, except for a small square of white tucked beneath his chin. His skin was black, too, his hair thick like black fur. He wore thin, gold-rimmed glasses half-way down the bridge of his nose.

“Bonjour,” the woman purred, as if she had expected all along to find us there. “Vous êtes bien arrivées?” She was looking at us, from one to the other. She seemed not to see Christoph or Gil sitting in the candlelight. Her eyes were cluttered by the glare in her glasses, which I hadn’t noticed at first because they were tiny and delicate, the lens barely extending past the sockets. Her clothes were long and loose, the shawl brightly colored and rimmed with tassels. Her skin shone as if it had just been oiled, though I could see distinct creases in her cheeks and neck. She smiled at us quietly and then excused herself and walked into the house, the younger black priest following her close behind. Christoph explained over his shoulder that she was late and that they had been waiting for her all this time, but Madame Frayssinet only tossed him a dry glance, making it clear that her son’s words did not disturb her.

Gil looked sheepishly into the lantern, his head slightly bowed. He leaned in on his bulbous elbows, his shoulders jutting into his large, flat ears. He glanced up at us, then returned his gaze to the candlelight. I could tell he wanted to say something, but he knew even less English than Christoph.

Christoph took another of his deep breaths, this time drawing from a freshly lit cigarette, pounded ashes into the wide tray, and then leaned back, preparing to speak.

“My mather,” he said, “looks at religion . . . religion stadies. She is very interested in these stadies. Please, don’t be afraid . . . she is very nice lady . . .She just likes this . . . mystrious way of life. . . .” He seemed satisfied for the moment, then looked cautiously over his shoulder at the orange light seeping out from one of the ground floor windows. He turned quickly back, staring directly at me. “She is doing . . . some . . . prayers . . . you know? Prayers? This man . . . this man who come here . . . he is a friend from l’Afrique . . . He is an African priest. They are doing some . . . some prayers . . . together? You know, this is ceremony. My mather knows African ceremony. And she does it now . . . in your room.” He pointed at me across the table, shrugging his head in the direction of the house. I looked and saw that the orange light was indeed coming from where my bedroom window should have been. “She is using the room because she does not want a . . . disturbance, you know . . . disturbance? . . . when we go inside.” Christoph seemed to grow more confident as he talked. At one time, he must have spoken English well.

I did not know how to respond. I wanted to ask how long the ceremony would last. Would I be left to wait in the living room while everyone else went to bed? June was eyeing me sympathetically. I could stay in her room for the night, of course. But even she seemed to have grown foreign to me. I needed to be alone, soon. The only person I felt I really knew at that moment was myself.

We never heard any chanting or felt any movements behind those blank plaster walls. Gil tried to keep us amused by relating some of his great sea adventures, though he did not speak a word of English and the stories were tremendously complicated. I could only identify a few of the names of the places he was claiming to have sailed through. Christoph helped to illuminate some of them by filling in pieces of the information. Gil had been a sailor for most of his life and had spent much of his time off of the ship deep-sea diving with his mates. He used to dive for coral and sunken treasures pinned under shipwrecks. He had been everywhere, to Australia and the South Pacific, to the tip of Africa and up and down the Atlantic, to South America and even up into Alaska. I watched him as he told each tightly packed story, the sounds of his words rolling off my earlobes. I followed the way his eyes lit up and then glazed over, as if a screen had dropped onto which he could blink out his memories and watch them all to himself.

Madame Frayssinet had spotted him on the side of the road one afternoon in Aix-en-Provence, ten years earlier. He was hitchhiking, but refused every car that pulled over. When Madame Frayssinet pulled up alongside him, they just looked at each other and Gil jumped in beside her. “My mather believes,” Christoph interjected, “Gil is her guardian angel.” Gil, with a cluck of his tongue and a loud smack of his lips, seemed satisfied with this. He lit a match from the lantern and, leaning back, his legs outspread before him, puffed his thick tobacco to light.

As the four of us stood to gather the dishes together, the door opened and out stepped Madame Frayssinet and the priest. They did not acknowledge us as they passed, ensconced, it seemed, in a mutual silence they carried between them. Madame no longer wore her shawl and her hair hung down straight and heavy over her back. The priest held something in his hands. A box or a book.

When the gate had closed there was a short silence and then Madame Frayssinet was seated at the table, chattering away about something with Gil. She seemed to be scolding Christoph because her son suddenly scowled and marched into the house, his arms lined with plates. Gil shrugged, shook his head and grinned. He winked at her as she patted his head. When they finally stood and left the table, June and I trailed behind them, too exhausted to talk to one another. In a daze we wished everyone goodnight and they did the same, the three of them clustered in the kitchen. I left June in the hall and went to my room.

The light that had appeared orange from the garden was actually made from a broad pink lampshade placed by the side of the bed. I undressed and sat under the covers, looking about me for signs of the ceremony that had transpired only half an hour earlier. There was a faint smell of incense though I could have conjured that up from the mixture of flower air outside the window and the leftover dinner scents leaking in from the kitchen. Otherwise, everything appeared untouched. I was in a narrow twin bed with a blue and white cover. The carpet was also blue and there was a small desk and a crooked metal desk lamp. There was a dresser and a closet, the doors of which were nothing but large slats of mirror. I dodged my image as I looked along its surface. An entire room stared back in its reflection.

I turned off the light and lay down in the dark, watching the curtains push now and then into the room. Corine was in Cameroon for the semester, tucked into Africa’s western armpit. She would have arrived by now. She would have stepped down off the plane and into some other family’s hands. I thought of the priest’s hands, as black as the arms of his coat, folded softly behind him as he walked. What secrets did he know that my sister would soon find out? Had he left some of them in this room? They might be here somewhere pressed against the walls or rubbed into the carpet. Before turning out the light I had noticed four dark, ordered spots, and could tell that at one point Madame and the priest must have been kneeling together, side by side, facing the mirror.


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[email protected] | April 2001 | Issue 13