The cloud cast years of my youth can be found in few photographs as, even we, spent little, sometimes none. My legs were thin, tiny little girl legs never touching. I sat at the dinner table knees knocking, a valley in between, and my blonde curls hung heavy on my shoulders like the branches in the peak of August outside our summer home with the punished hills and all their grass-forsaken land.
My memories of the city before the siege feel far away, the coast of an imperial colony I have never visited, only seen in brochures and on tea tin labels. The streets all cobbled, all bustling. The flowers blooming from windowsill pots. Sunlight streaming into my eastward window on mornings when kitchen sounds trickled down the hall--Father lacing his boots up tight and Mother ladling breakfast onto our plates, the ceramic bowl swanning under the faucet.
In the threshold to my bedroom there lay a loose floorboard. I would take a wide step over it when sneaking to the bathroom late at night after hours of reading under the blankets my father's boyhood adventure books, the pages all humid jungles with my hair stuck to neck, mosquitos in my ear and a brave native leading the way through the fleshy thicket with his machete chopping. This specific memory may have been born in a movie I saw later in life, but time has made it, like so many other things, only mine.
My mother grew up in the estate far past the railroad lines, near the southern sea, and it was there we stayed out the war. I recall only the fragments of how we arrived there.
Father left his job with the Louvre--his last days were spent emptying its halls. My mother and I would bring him lunch--a ham and butter sandwich with an orange, the last of our reserves--and instead of playing hide and seek in the sculptures, I sat back against the bare wall of the Greek wing. Men wearing thick black belts around their middles circled Winged Victory and wiped their brows as even more men made way planking wood down the stairway to her throne. And then she was inched down that steep incline, no head, no arms, only wings trembling, each thousand particle a threat. Father stood over me, watching the descent from over his shoulder. Mother gasped as the statue almost toppled all together and Father, his eyes closed, as if to remember her in her place, turned to us and said, "Surely, we will never see her again."
Sirens sang through the afternoon hours, and my days were spent listless. It had been weeks since the schools were shut and the battle line was drawing nearer when Father pulled in front of our house in his big black car rather than his bicycle. My mother came into the foyer were I was lying on the ground, content with watching the rainbows refracting inside the chandelier above. She held my camel colored suitcase in hand and told me, "Colette, you must be a good little girl. You will be staying with your Aunt Therese in the outer city for the weekend, and then you will get on a great big train and come out to the country. Your father and I will be at the station to pick you up, you understand?" She said, "Colette, do you understand? You must be a good little girl for us now." Mother had the hiccups that day. I remember the sun warm in the kitchen as Father and I sat at the table, the boiling water on the stove the only conversation. Mother wiped the counter in large sweeping circles, weeping and hiccuping with her mouth closed.
My aunt's thick black hair sunk far past her freckled shoulders. Her house was much smaller than ours and the backyard had a brown and white rooster. When I arrived she sliced a baguette and held out a piece to me. "Colette, has your mother told you about--" she said before trailing off, her gaze focused some place out the window, skirting the horizon. "Something terrible is happening in the world, Colette," she said. "We must pray to Mother Mary." And then Aunt Therese placed my hand into hers, snaked with veins and loose with age.
Mother Mary, lead us from death to life, from falsehood to truth. Lead us from despair to hope, from fear to trust. Lead us from hate to love, from war to peace. Let peace fill our heart, our world, our universe.
Aunt Therese's eyes were shut tight for a long time after she had stopped speaking. "Colette," she said. "You know the Hail Mary, yes?"
Before I could answer, she was frantic. Aunt Therese took both of my hands, pulled them into her lap and unloaded a white Rosary into my palms and then pressed them shut, pressed them so hard that the beads made pockets in my skin.
"You will be safe where you're heading--"
"Safe from what," I asked but she didn't answer.
"If those awful men come to your house with their sharp tongues, I want you to stay completely still and silent. I want you to take these beads and say your prayers. Please Colette. You must."
"I will," I promised and with that Aunt Therese walked out into the backyard, away from her uneaten bread, and began to lay out the rooster's feed.
Other than that, all I can see is the view from my train seat and her long thin arm waving farewell from the platform below. The land was flat and then it lolled and the stations in between had bricks both red and grey. With every stop, passengers would leave the train but none would enter. The attendant wore a black hat with gold trim and served chocolates with my tea. The corners of his eyes folded when he smiled, sneaking the treat into my tiny hands. Silver stubble gilded his jaw-line. My father would have been his friend.
Last stop. End of the line! rang in my ears as the conductor made his slow way down the aisle. I climbed onto the seat and pulled my suitcase down. Outside the train my mother stood waiting in a pink dress with white lace on her hands. "Oh, Mama!" I said, so tired and happy with the end of my travels. She carried my suitcase to the car with her arm around my shoulders. The station sat beside a field of grass long as my legs and heavy under the wind, saturated with the sun's light. Father started the engine and I climbed into the back seat and we drove into the sea of orange waves, the setting sun, the dark of the night.
I woke in my father's arms as he carried me from the car to the porch. The moon was bright enough in the country to light acres between the house and the sea. All possible futures stretched before us in this new home. Mother said, "Everything will be fine ," tussling my hair as Father opened the front door. My eyes sat heavy with sleep and I climbed into the master bed, ready to dream, to feel everything fine.
In the morning Mother showed me what would be my room. "Now Colette, I must tell you. You will be sharing your room." Following her up the circling staircase, I imagined a young nurse on leave in the country, or perhaps a distant relative holed up at the estate. Flashes of late night talks, morse code across the floorboards, learning how to braid, scandalous stories of dance halls full of soldiers--all things I lacked as an only child all fell to the floor when Mother opened the door to a room empty besides the furniture and a painting.
There she sat. Mother introduced her as Grande Odalisque. The gentle slope of her bare back, the sad smile hinted by her eyes, the feathers in her hand. Mother said it was our family's job to protect her, it was father's duty. She seemed obscene, a spine impossibly long, but I liked her. She could listen to my stories and tell me hers. Someday I would look like her, hips wide and waist nipped, all the unknowns kept inside my lips.
The Odalisque, born Martine, sleeps with her bed pushed up against the window. Instead of drapes she keeps thin red silk, samples she found in market stalls, layered across the glass. The red intensifies the morning sun and wakes her up, brow slick from sweat and cheeks flush. Martine, the odalisque, is a hot blooded girl. Her mother used to say Good morning my hot blooded girls as she pulled off the covers each blue-black morning in their small country home. The odalisque rises with the sun and the grumble of her stomach. She waits for the water to boil in her kettle and rubs the sleep out of her shoulders, her ribs, her calves.
We slept like sisters with our secrets, my back turned to her. Branch shadows slid across the ceiling, tiles of tin screwed in by hand so long ago.