by Josh Gray
My great aunt Elise, age eleven, walks through the streets of her ruined city carrying a basket of food. Dusk falls over Lyon, and Elise moves swiftly hoping to finish her errand before nightfall. The cold wind creeps through the wracked and riddled buildings as she makes her way around the craters that litter the streets. Elise imagines these craters as the holes her mother digs for tulip bulbs. The loose soil turning over easily, willingly, for the trowel. There must be giant bulbs for these holes, she thinks. A whole street lined with tulips as tall as trees.
The food is for her sister who is locked in the cellar of a château. When they came for her sister, they knocked politely. A mob with a courteous leader. Elise’s mother answered the door. Give us the girl, they said. Elise sat in the bathroom holding her older sister’s hand, tremors racing through their bodies. They paraded her sister through the streets where children hurled mud at her and women spat and the men called her a whore. In the square; they sat her on the lip of the fountain and shaved her head. The hair floated in clumps, like dark ciliated ships, in the fountain water. The people cheered. Some placed children on their shoulders so they could see. Elise stops. The château stands before her as large and looming as a cathedral. There are men outside the cellar door, smoking silently, their heads bowed like penitents.
The men notice Elise. They send a boy over, seventeen and angel-faced. He’s pale with beautiful, but cracked lips. He licks at them nervously. He tells her to leave, but she’s too scared to move. He trembles, feigns anger, finally pleads and begs. The men call him back where they speak to him and nod towards Elise. The boy returns to her and says in a forced voice, Leave the basket.
Later Elise understood. Whispers and the taunts of cruel schoolchildren enlightened her. She only knew then that something was happening, something that hurt.
Her sister’s cries echoing off the dark cellar’s cold, moist stones. The old wooden bedframe and its musty horsehair mattress creaking violently. The men whispering their acidic hate, so well preserved in their bowels from swallowing it as Elise’s sister passed by on the streets arm-in-arm with a lower-level officer. The conqueror’s concubine.
I don’t know if Elise told me this or if my imagination has created the details. The walk through the city, the men with their smoke billowing beneath the rising moon. The rape, Elise told me that, I know. Possibly seven men, possibly thirteen. Elise couldn’t remember exactly, and she told me so many gin-soaked versions that it was difficult to keep up.
I know the story so well that I can replay it in my mind as often as I want. Every scene is on request, along with every detail: the craters, the weight of the basket, and the dried lips. I can feel Elise’s stomach fall away when she sees the men and the heavy dread as she sets the basket down and turns away. This must be like the empathy pains husbands have while their wives are in labor.
Elise is dead now. I guess I’m carrying the flame. I used to tell her story at parties and on long drives with friends during the holidays, or occasionally in soft post-coital twilights. It got to the point people requested it. And in truth, I waited for it, played it up, acted like it no longer interested me. They’d beg and I’d finally, reluctantly, comply. One toff tried to pass it off as his own; he sent it to Esquire. They sent him back a rejection letter, not handwritten. Now I save the story for dinner parties, supper club socials, and the long cigarette break with an advanced undergraduate whose legs aren’t mapped with varicose veins, like those of my colleagues.
Elise moved to Seagate after she was liberated from Knoxville. She threw a drink in the face of her department chair; she was never a good drunk. I don’t know what he did, if anything. She didn’t like the mountains anyway; “the lumps” is what she called the Smokies. She got on at UNCW as a French instructor, which she didn’t care for, and my mother helped her find a house three blocks up from our own.
I was twelve; she was fifty-seven. She looked ancient. Wrinkled, fissured. Ascites just beginning to distend her belly. Rode hard and put up wet, is what father said. My mother visited her regularly, making the salvation of the old broad’s soul her march to martyrdom.
On days when my mother couldn’t carry her cross, I’d go instead and sit while Elise drank cocktails as her birds skirled and flew about. Her house smelled of gin, bird shit, expensive perfume, and lime rinds rotting at the bottom of glasses, the kitchen sink.
She adored the birds and hated menopause. She wouldn’t keep the birds in cages, and so kept her house a free range. My earliest memory of her involves the birds. I was walking to her house with my mother for a visit, and there she was in the front lawn, in a soft-blue kimono, shouting at a finch that’d escaped out the door, and was hobbling through the air on its clipped wings. Elise was shouting in French with her gimlet crashing in small waves over her glass’s rim. I speak only a little French, but I remember her shouting, “Albert, come down out of the goddamned tree! You are not deaf, you treacherous bastard!” She had a deliciously filthy mouth. Once, at our dinner table, after my father had scoffed at her story of handling a difficult student, she spat French at him. He asked her to translate and she replied, “It means you are a cocksucking swine.” He lunged at her, but she sat there, looking at him so coldly you could see his strength falling from him like bricks from a condemned building. She knew the weaknesses of brutal men.
I think of Elise now when I watch the news and hear talk of IED’s, surges, and the local hostility. In the other day’s newspaper, there was a photograph of bearded men burning an American flag and pointing and screaming at the camera. They looked angry and alive. Children were on the fringe, barely in focus, and they seemed to be circling the men, fluttering in excitement, their arms extended like wings. I wondered why there were so many kids around this flag burning. Don’t they have any other games to play? There’s a boy there, no older than ten or twelve, and he’s my favorite. He’s among the men, pointing at the camera, but he seems to be levitating. Maybe he’s on the shoulders of a pint-sized father, or maybe the excitement has lifted him into the photograph. Either way, his face is defiled, defiant. That’s how Elise looked at my father at the dinner table, defiled and defiant. I love this photograph. I cut it out and placed it in between the pages of a book and put that book back on the shelf.
I showed this picture to my favorite student. She’s blonde with bright eyes and a backpack stitched with left-wing political patches. I like her because she sat at the front of my senior capstone and asked questions, and laughed at my jokes. She’s sophisticated for her age, a rare treat who earnestly believes that the world is hers to save. When she spoke passionately in class about peace and famine and disease control, her words fell into a lisp, her eyes moistened. I had to lean against the lectern to hide my excitement. Sometimes on the weekends, I go to the café near campus, where she’s a waitress, a little before her lunch shift ends. She sits with me and talks before biking home to her townhouse. The townhouse is only a mile or so away from the café, very convenient. I’ve told her about Elise, but only about sitting with her. How Elise made me my first cocktail when I was twelve and how afterwards I walked home, saluted my dog, and slept for ten hours.
Oftentimes my mother came home with reddened eyes, Elise being too brutal and the birds too loud. I never came home crying. I never spoke, only listened. Elise told me that was a lovely trait for a man to have. She began to tell me stories. My favorite was why she got fired from that New England university, where the winters were so bitterly cold. Boston was it? Or perhaps Concord? Anyway. She was, like me, a young academic; she taught French history and at department parties told her stories of Paris. She was fired due to an affair with a young girl. Elise couldn’t help it. She told me once there was nothing as pleasant as picking the ripe, flawless fruit of youth, and tasting it fresh. The girl had a boyfriend she ignored while trysting with Elise. He snitched.
I asked Elise once, What happened to your sister, after the cellar? She was nodding off in her rocker, her eyelids nearly closed, and the gin in her glass creeping close to its edges as her hand slipped to the side of her knee. I assumed this was the safest time to ask. She looked at me, her left eye twitching as fast as bird’s wings, and then passed out. The glass fell and gin spilled onto the hardwood and a parakeet flew down for a quick nip. I placed the glass in a fold of the blanket that covered her. Elise died a year later. She left nothing to us.
I think about this young man with the cracked-dry lips. I’ve created a life for him: an uneventful adolescence spent on a dusty farm with bleating sheep, scraggly crops, and a simple father with stooped shoulders. A cliché? Yes, but it’s my fantasy and besides I never include this in the story. He’s probably a retired banker now, respectable. Then he was the youngest, and last in line. Surely Elise knew that. I pity him sometimes, for finding her sister soaked in the stew of bloody, sweaty sheets. I bet someone stood at the door to see that he finished the job. I think he trembled too, and very near whimpering as he undressed, even mumbling sweetly as he climbed on top of her, his eyes closed tight. I know his thoughts as he entered her, those honeyed ruins of her flesh—he thought about how, when he was a child helping his father with the slaughtering of the spring lambs, their gutted viscera lay in a pile of purples, blues, and reds, and how when he put his hand to the pile, it felt warm but grew cold so very quickly.
Elise never told me what happened after the cellar. The stories start again when Elise arrives in Paris, a country mouse come for university. Sartre’s Paris, and de Beauvoir’s. She knew them, stalked them as so many young students did. She hinted at having an affair with both, but never confessed. She spoke instead of the city’s bold youth, the arrogant young men who mimicked the tough actors of the American movies, and the coy girls, and how seducing them was as lovely and intricate as playing Scarlatti on a good piano. My student loves these Paris pieces; I know she imagines herself in them as another pixie-haired Jean Seberg.
When Elise died of a stroke at sixty with a liver rotted by cirrhosis, she gave her money, more than we thought she had, to the Wilmington Bird Club and asked that her ashes be spread in the Saône. My father said we didn’t have the money to fly to France to dump some old bitch’s ashtray.
The day they burned Elise, I cried. My mother, in a sweetly sensitive voice, had explained what cremation was and I was of course mature enough at fifteen to understand, but I still cried, even though I was miles from the crematorium and did not watch the shoveling out of her ashen remains. I cried because when I was five a bottle rocket lit by a truculent eight-year old ignited against me and burned a silver-dollar-sized scar onto my right ankle. I believe it to be the worst possible hurt I’ve ever known. At the hospital, my mother, as codeine covered me like a soft blanket of feathers, told me that the scar would heal into a magic button that, when pressed, would make me invisible. My father called her a fool but she ignored him and pressed her nose against mine and said, “I promise.” Still I remembered the burn, and the thought of Elise’s deflated body enduring that premature hell cracked me down the center.
We spread her ashes along the banks of the Cape Fear River. My mother would have flown to Lyon, alone, dandling her aunt’s urn in her lap, and emptied the ashes in the Saône, not out of a deep and sustained love but rather as the last act in her martyrdom. My father said no. So my mother and I dressed in our Sunday best and rubber boots and trudged down the muddy riverbanks after a series of summer storms had strafed the coast.
The ashes fell like blackened clouds too heavy for the sky to hold, and became fast-floating cinereal clumps headed for the Atlantic. On a sudden breeze a small puff of ash landed near my boot, on a pair of briar leaves. As my mother spoke a few words for the dear departed, I reached down in a quick furtive movement and palmed the ash. I rubbed the grit around in my fist and looked out on a river that shone like a current of broken glass from a sun creeping through the cracks in the clouds.
As we left the river, I asked my mother about the sister and the cellar. There was no sister, she said; Elise fibbed when she drank. My father would say the hooch wasn’t to blame; she was just a lying whore. How do you know, I asked my mother.
My mother, Elise’s cousin, never mentioned any siblings, but she said Elise was briefly sent to an institution at an early age, but later went to school in Paris.
A convent, I asked.
No, a psychiatric institution for children, a dreadful place, no doubt, for an imaginative child.
This conversation became a part of my story as well, a nice coda for the dinner party, and one that allows me to stare into my wine glass, pause for a moment, and attempt a reason for the story’s dubious authenticity. Why would any family want to discuss such a shameful thing? Who could talk about it, any of it? Or maybe Elise was half-mad and loved an audience? At this I release a long sigh and lean back and stare again at my wine glass, or perhaps coffee now, after dinner. If there’s a woman present I’m interested in, this is the moment I glance at her, make eye contact, and judge whether or not the story has moved her enough to allow me a kiss in the dark driveway, near the mailbox listed by a drunken fender.
I decided to tell Elise’s story of the château to my student. There was a protest that morning before her lunch shift, one against wars, occupations, financial fraud, austerity. I wagered her blood would be up, the soft face reddened beneath the blonde hair. There’d be no better time to tell her, as the café fell quiet in the late afternoon, of the cellar, the sister, and the boy with beautiful lips. Maybe even the coda on her townhouse sofa. But I found a young man waiting for her, a tall dandy with a mess of red curls and a simpering look of self-satisfaction. She introduced us; I didn’t stand. They excused themselves to the exit and I waited a moment before following. They biked and I kept a safe distance behind. At the townhouse, I lingered on the far sidewalk, covered by the low-hanging canopy of an oak. I could see through the first floor window into the living room, where they didn’t linger. I imagined them showering together and him carrying her, sopping wet, to the disheveled bed. Her flesh goose-bumped. Her blonde hair clinging in clumps around her fragile clavicle. I stood on the sidewalk, peeking through the leaves, seeing all of this before turning back the way I came, along a street lined with tulips as tall as trees.