Vintage, Part Fourteen

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Without further ado, picking up mere seconds from where we left off…

There is never anything remarkable about the room in which someone’s life is ending.  Rooms are hardly ever built with the express purpose of containing a man’s last breath.  They happen upon that role instead by quirk of fate, becoming through no intent of their own the unexpected terminus for that unpredictably snaking line that demarcates a human being’s limited time in the world.  But once a room houses a death, it is defined by it.  Death etches itself deep into the paint, and its tendrils seep through to stain the brick beneath.  The air tastes of it.  No matter what other, happier events have transpired in that room in the past, now, it can never be anything else.

That’s the room where my father died.

Etienne’s legs started to quiver as he heard the first cough, that dreadful rattle of a brew of blood and acid bubbling up from a stomach worn thin as paper.  The bed held a mere sliver of the invincible man who’d once held his hand so tightly, shrunken now to a shivering bag of bones under jaundiced skin and flaking white hair.  The smell was enough to invite one to retch up one’s own contribution to it.  In the memory Etienne knew he was to enter and sit at the edge of the bed and try to hold his father’s hand again, but he fought against repeating that history with every spare iota of fortitude.  “Papa,” he said quietly.  Reynand did not hear him.  “Papa, c’est Etienne.”

His father tried to say his name, but the first syllable broke into violent wheezes.  Reynand clutched a small, blood-soaked towel to his mouth, almost devouring it as he tried to stifle the tremors in his gut.  Etienne did as his memory of the moment commanded and found a place on the bed after all, reaching for his papa, wishing and pretending that he would recover, or, if not, that at least the horrible coughing would stop.

It did, finally, and Reynand slumped against his pillow.  “Etienne,” he was able to croak in a cloud of red spittle.

“Papa,” said Etienne, “I thought I could try to find maman.  Maybe if I told her how sick you were she could come back and try to help you.”

Reynand started coughing again, and he slammed a bony hand down on his son’s and squeezed while he saturated the towel with pieces of his insides.  Etienne winced at the sensation of some of that old strength lingering in the man’s grip.  “You said you thought she was living in Quermont now,” he said.  “I have enough saved that I could hire someone to take me there.  Then I could find her and ask her to come back.  It would only take a day or two.”

“Maman is never coming back,” Papa insisted, with handfuls of breath tinted by ancient anger.  “I taught you better than to waste your money like that.”  He dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, although there was no one to overhear them.  “Why don’t you go buy some of Papa’s medicine for him instead?  Hmm?”

“The doctor told me your ‘medicine’ is making you worse,” Etienne said.

“Putains,” spat his father.  “Liars and quacks.  They’ll not be foisting their leeches on me.”

“Maman knows how to make you better.  She always made me better whenever I was sick.”

Reynand shrank from his son, the tremors in his limbs seeming to ease as resignation slid over the wanness of his features.  He closed his eyes to watch regrets drift across his mind.  “Your maman… your maman.  My love.  I had every chance with her, to build our life into something lasting.  She gave me more chances than I deserved.  Far more.  At every opportunity I squandered them.”

A young only son was the wrong audience.  His father should have called for a brother, a dear friend, or a minister, rather than dump his final confession on someone who should never have been so encumbered.  But Reynand de Navarre had no siblings, had long since alienated any acquaintances and considered religious men to be a pack of deluded hucksters.  There was, at the end, no one else.  Only this boy who had yet to grow out of his round face and into his stringy frame.

“But why?” asked Etienne.

“A man doesn’t appreciate what he has while he has it,” said Reynand with a deep sigh.  “He wants more.  He goes off in search of more, and he thinks that home will always be waiting for him when he deigns to return to it.  I loved your mother, but I loved other women too, and when temptation touched me I gave myself to it.”  He turned away to gaze at the less judgmental face of the streaked and faded cornflower wall.  “So many times I begged her to forgive me,” he said, “and when she did I would go out and find another yet again, and still another.  In my arrogance, my stupidity, I couldn’t understand how I was hurting her, how I was destroying the bright spirit I’d once fallen in love with.  I only cared about what I wanted, what I felt I was making of myself.  A bold, confident man who takes what he wants, pulls its beating heart from its chest and roars in triumph as the blood pours down his arm.  Oh, mon fils.  How I miss her.  How one last kiss would be enough.”

He began to weep.  As the tears ran, the coughing returned.  Papa’s entire body convulsed into hacks and sputters and shakes.  He groped for the towel as blood froth pooled at the corners of his mouth.  As he bore witness to the deterioration, Etienne winced and choked back tears of his own.

It had been so long since he had seen his mother.  He could scarcely remember those details that should have been unforgettable.  The lilt of her lullabies.  The warmth and the soft scent of her as he pressed in for a hug.  The promise of sleep with peaceful dreams simply by knowing she was in the next room.  It had all been snatched away, and the man dying in the bed was to blame.

Etienne waited for the spasm to pass.  He let his father enjoy one complete minute of restful breathing.  “Papa,” he said, “if you had been different, would Maman have stayed?”

“Peut être, Etienne.  Peut être.  But even if I had remained faithful from the first day I was probably never enough of a man for someone like her.  Oh, you should have seen her then.  The most magnificent thing I had ever laid eyes upon.  I threw her away.  She was right to go.”

“Why didn’t she take me with her?” Etienne pleaded.  “Why did she leave me with you?”

“You were the mistake that tied her to this wreck and shadow,” Papa said, sinking deeper into the abyss.  “You would be a constant reminder of a life wasted.”

Young Etienne aged ten years in the space of a single word.  He felt himself shift away from the old man, and heard his lips deliver the phrase that he knew would demand the most cruel truth a boy could hear from his father.  “Is that all that I am, Papa?  A mistake?”

“You’re a bright boy, Etienne.  But if the world was fair, and men were wiser, you never would have been born.”  He gave Etienne one generous second to gasp at the stab of the spear before he twisted it.  “But, since you were, make yourself useful and take that money and go buy your Papa some more medicine.”

In silence, Etienne rose from the bed.  He made for the door as the chastened, obedient son desperate to earn his papa’s praise.  “There’s a good little fellow,” said Reynand.  “You know the kind I like.  Herriot’s genièvre, in the blue glass bottle.  Ask Monsieur Clouvet to help you get it from the top shelf.  Get it back here as quick as you can.  You’ll do that for me, won’t you?”  The smile on the old man’s repugnant face, the ruddy lips splitting yellowed skin, was as oily as that of a confidence trickster.  He was positively giddy at the prospect of downing more of the accursed drink and blithely ignorant of the irreparable damage he had just inflicted upon his boy.

The first time, Etienne had run away.  To the harbor, to throw reality into the sea and find himself instead in the place where he’d once been the happiest.  The easy path.

Just like him.  Just as he would have done.

“Father,” Etienne said, suddenly with an older, learned voice.  A term he had never used for Reynand before.  It had always been ‘Papa.’  He stopped at the doorway and turned back as deliberately as the second hand of a clock, carrying on his shoulders the accumulated burden of two decades of unanswered questions, rued choices and paths of fate grown impassable with twisted weeds.  He turned to see again the likeness of the withered waste of a man who had sired him, a gnarled half-corpse soiling a sagging bed, the heart beating now only out of lingering spite and stubborn reluctance to give up an old habit.  “Thank you,” said Etienne.  “Thank you for the gift of learning how to hate someone without reservation or regret.  I fled from here once because I was terrified of a world without my papa in it.  Now…”  He grinned.  “I am tempted to buy your coveted drink and pour it down your throat myself just so that you’ll die faster.”

It did not seem possible, but Reynand de Navarre shriveled further into himself.  Eyelids peeled back into his skull, and the shakes that wracked his body now added tremors of fear.  “Etienne, my son,” he begged, “I don’t want to die.”

“Yes you do,” said Etienne.  “It’s all you’ve ever wanted.  Nothing has ever been worth living for.  Not Maman, and certainly not me.  You’ve made sure to hasten your end at every opportunity, but even now you’re still too much of a coward to do what you always taught me was the most important thing in life:  defend what you believe.  Here is what I believe, father.  This is the fate you have earned.  Congratulations.  Enjoy it alone.”

“Etienne!” Papa sobbed as his son strode from the room without remorse or lingering wish to look back.  Not this time.  The room where his father died could remain that.  Etienne closed the door on the wizened creature’s plaintive cries, sealing them forever behind rotting wood panels and locking his own memories in a steel vault he knew now he need never open again.  Yet he felt no relief from their weight, only a deepening and entrenchment of the anger that had made him reach out to the Bureau Centrale.

The witch was waiting for him a step outside time in the corridor beyond.  Its detail and color faded like the light after a sunset, vanishing from his mind, leaving only the two of them in a sea of gray growing darker with each approaching wave.

“It was not long after this,” Nightingale said.

Etienne nodded.  “He could have been a revered professor, or conseiller to the King.  Instead, Reynand de Navarre died without a sou to his name and completely forgotten.  Five days, before the smell compelled a stranger to kick down the door and discover him lying there.  I don’t even know where he is buried.”  He smirked to himself.  “It has never occurred to me to find out.”

“Hatred is the most reliable of emotions.  It justifies every questionable action and thought we might ever have.  If you forgave your father, if that hate was gone, who would you be then?”  She edged closer.  “You don’t even know, and the very idea of it frightens you.”

“This is not fear,” Etienne said sharply, temper boiling over and spilling at her.  “It’s fact.  I know the pull toward hopelessness, the ease with which one can let the cruelty of life turn you into a victim.  That was him.  I’ll never see myself become that.”  His eyes flitted to the door behind him.  “Never,” he whispered.

“At what cost?” demanded Nightingale.  “Do you think that innocent girl who could speak to butterflies deserved to pay?  Did your mother?”

Ice paralyzed Etienne’s spine.  “What do you mean?” he said, each word enunciated deliberately, aimed straight at her with the precision of an arrow.

Nightingale said nothing.

From raised palms and fingertips a cold cascade of light and mist, sparkling in the amaranthine shade of her lips, shimmered across the darkness between them and wound itself about his limbs, as delicately as the application of a balm to a burn.  Where the spell touched him, Etienne’s pores went instantly both numb and aflame, and the sensation burrowed down through nerve and muscle to the very fragments of his bones.  It spread into his chest and from there exploded across the rest of his body, cocooning him in suffocating strands of energy.  A sudden jolt of terror pierced the parts of him he could still feel.  He reached for her, to beg the witch to stop.  On his outstretched arm the fingers were shrinking, the lines were smoothing out, the hairs were retreating beneath the surface like frightened worms.  The world, what he could perceive of it, seemed to be getting so much larger, and Nightingale, magic continuing to pour from her elegant hands, was towering over him now as if he was sinking into the earth, yet the ground remained solid.

Etienne’s thoughts began to split apart, the complex phrases of adult intellect devolving into colors, shapes, abstract fragments of emotion that were more instinctual than reasoned.  He was compelled to speak, but forgot the words.  Forgot all the words.  Forgot what words were.  When he did manage to force something out, it was formless sound.  A wail of pure desperation and pure need.

Nightingale let her hands fall to her sides, the last of the spell ebbing into the darkness around her, as she contemplated the baby lying in front of her.  It squirmed and screamed, utterly incapable of comprehending where it was or what had happened to it, knowing only in its innocent state that it was scared, or hungry, or in pain.  The witch smiled, placed a finger to her lips, whispered a calming “shh,” and retreated into the shadows.  The baby’s cries echoed into the void.

It lay there on its own in dark nothingness for a few moments shy of an eternity, pleading for someone, anyone to come.  Tiny, chubby legs kicked at the air like a turtle flipped onto its back.  Two voices began to filter through the cold murk, the words only random sounds to a baby’s ears but the tones varying enough for it to be able to distinguish in its undeveloped mind which was the man and which was the woman, and which would most likely come to him.

“Encore!  Every night.  Every hour.  This maudit brat will not let us sleep!”

“He is a baby, and babies cry.  We were told he would be a sickly child.”

“He’s just being petulant because he wants attention.  Ignore him and he will stop.”

“Go back to bed then if your sleep is so damned precious to you.”

A door slammed, the harsher of the two voices departed, and sudden gentle hands reached down to lift the baby and cradle it in warm, welcoming, forgiving arms.  “Mon cheri,” sang a perfect voice.  “Je suis ici.  Maman est ici.  Je ne vais nulpart.”

The baby kept crying, wincing at the pressure cutting into its chest.  The woman rocked it back and forth, whispering reassurance, planting tender kisses on a downy-haired crown.  This was the third time the infant had contracted the illness, and the episodes were lasting longer and growing more intense – and the same could be said for her husband’s impatience.  Two nights past, a drunken rant had seen him threaten to abandon them both, but the morning’s sobriety had brought tearful contrition.  She knew that in his own primitive way he was afraid for the child’s well-being as much as she, even if his ability to articulate it was not much more evolved than the screams cutting at her eardrums right now.

Her heart bled to see her little one like this.  The first two times he had gotten better, but it had been three days and nights now and the usually reliable herbal tonics were doing nothing.  The fever would break, and then flare up, and the tiny body’s reserves were depleted by an inability to keep down even liquid nourishment.  There would be hints of hope here and there where sleep would arrive, but never for more than an hour before the cries began again.  The local doctors had cautioned her that the child might not survive this latest bout, that the sickness had been racing through the city claiming many other, much hardier newborns.  She had thanked them for their optimism and sent them on their gloomy way.

The cruel irony was that she knew of a remedy that would sweep away the sickness like crumbs from a table, and she was terrified to use it.  It would mean going back on an old vow and exposing the entire family to a life of looking over their collective shoulder, of waiting for that awful and inevitable pounding on the front door in the middle of the night.  She had been quite content to pretend, for more years than she could remember, that the choice, and the fear, belonged to someone else.  But here, holding her son, listening to his cries rattle the walls while a husband incapable of handling crises pulled a pillow over a veritable ostrich’s head in the next room, a mother’s instinct for protection drowned out worries of self-preservation.  Enough.  She could not abide him hurting any longer.  She needed to remember who she was, recall the old gift, and reach into that dusty corner of her memory for the needed spell.

“My sweet fils Etienne,” she whispered as she leaned over him.  She spread apart the blanket in which he was swaddled and laid a hand against his soft pink chest.  A warm golden light spread out from her fingers and washed over him in a cleansing glow that brought early dawn to the small room.  The cries stopped.  The infection was gone.  The baby cooed happily, peacefully, and gazed up into the sad smile and the light from the manifestation of the magic reflected in his mother’s eyes.  She lifted her hand, drawing the healing energy back into herself, and with a flourish of fingers dispersed it into tiny stars dancing off into the air and winking out one by one.  “I am so sorry,” she said, understanding the consequences that the breaking of her vow meant for him.  Her tears fell onto his cheeks.  He giggled at the warmth and the wet.  She laughed and clutched him to her breast, humming the innocent song about goats and lambs that her own mother had once soothed her with, and praying that for once, morning would not come.

As the adult Etienne de Navarre watched, he did not know whether to scream out in mad disbelief, sob in regret or simply throw up, and he grasped at elusive breath and begged someone to tell him what to do.  Strength in his legs gave way.  He crumpled to the ground.  “My mother…”  He heaved the words as though they were anvils.  “She…”

“Elyssia de Navarre was a great sorceress,” said Nightingale behind him.  “Forced to conceal her powers to escape the suspicion of the Bureau Centrale.  For many years she lived in denial and without magic, until that night she chose to use it to save your life.”

“She never… I didn’t…”

“You wondered, though,” said the witch, peering into his soul like it was made of glass.  “Why your friends got sick, but you didn’t.  Why your garden was always full of food even in the driest summers.  Why she seemed never to age.”

Etienne dared to lean nearer to the living image of his mother and himself as a baby, close enough to gasp at the taste of the pomegranate scent of her long hair, to be able to look up into his mother’s eyes once more.  Tears could not diminish entirely the smile he remembered seeing behind those eyes, no matter the harshness of the moment or the cares troubling her mind.  He thought of the long cold years since he’d seen them.  Part of him knew her every facet and the other was staring uncomprehending at a stranger.  His mother, the very shape of the force he had sworn to fight.  He thought of his father pleading for her.  He thought of long nights spent wondering where and why she had gone, thinking perhaps that if he called out the window into the darkness loud enough she might hear him and return.  He knew the futility of wishing to regain lost time, but it was equally futile to try and expect to function now only on reason.  He hated the life that had followed her departure, and he mourned the one he could have had with her in it.  “She didn’t help him,” he whispered through clenched teeth, unsure if he was talking about his father or himself.  “She could have saved him.”

“Don’t confuse magic with miracles, Etienne.  There is no spell to change a man’s character.”

“Is that why she left, finally?”  Nightingale did not answer.  Instead she moved next to him and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.  “No,” he said.  It made sense now.  “They found her.”

“She wanted to send for you, but she feared that they would take you too.  She sacrificed herself to ensure that you would grow up free from their reach.”

Etienne had as much use for religion as his late father, but he suddenly found the idea of a misanthropic god meddling in the fates of men for his own amusement to be far more credible.  “Instead, I joined them.  And I dedicated myself to hunting down everyone like her.”  He flailed at recalling how many there had been.  That he could not recollect the precise detail of each life he had helped to end was a nameless shame that was far too heavy to be described merely as crushing.

Nightingale added another weight.  “To hunting your own family, Etienne.”

Etienne turned away from the angelic figure, back to the other celestial woman who had led him to this place, and offered her only a blank canvas upon which to paint.  “You, she and I are the descendants of a single unknown, legendary woman who lived over a thousand years ago,” she told him.  “She was the first to have magic.  Her daughters inherited her powers, and their sons carried the magic in their blood to bequeath to their own daughters and granddaughters.  As they went out across the world so too did magic take root in every corner of civilization.  No matter how many of us have been tortured and killed over the centuries by those too frightened to try to understand, magic endures.  As much a part of nature and as impossible to stop as the light of the sun.”

Etienne caught a note of uncertainty in Nightingale’s voice.  “But something has changed.”

“Man’s tenacity and resourcefulness when presented with the impossible is boundless, even more so when it is spurred by hatred,” she said sadly.  “He will even learn to block the light.  The weapons your friend Meservey invented are a mortal threat to us.  I have done my best to interfere, but… the Bureau is winning, Etienne.  The Commissionaires have doubled their quotas.  More witches are being captured and murdered than ever before.”  For the first time since he’d known her, the immensely powerful Nightingale looked scared, and even overwhelmed.

“Much to atone for,” he said, quoting her words back to her.  “But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.  I’m not my mother.  There has always been more Reynand than Elyssia about me.”  He glanced at his mother again, and hoped that her spectre would not notice him, what he had become in her absence.  He was Commissionaire Etienne de Navarre of the Bureau Centrale, the son of a sorceress and a betrayer of his entire kind.  The revelation tasted of ashes.  Maman, if only I had known.  Why did you never tell me?

He hated who he had become.  He hated who he was.

“Men born to witches have gifts of their own,” Nightingale said.  “They are more intelligent, intuitive, driven… the qualities you admire most in yourself, and of which you have made such fine use in your career.  Your ability to read every nuance of a situation, to command the attention of others, what some might even call your magnetism, you owe those to her.  But you fear that your father’s weakness taints your strength, and this fear has shaped your choices.  You don’t acknowledge it, though.  You wrestle it into the dirt and grind it beneath your heel, but it’s always there.  It even shows in how you drink.  Never to excess, always in control, understanding every precise element of every vintage down to the signature of the fruit from which the wine came.  Mastering it the way he couldn’t.  Control is strength to you, because control tames the fear.  And for a very long time, magic was something you could not control, so you worked to destroy it.”

Nightingale knelt next to him and covered his hands with hers.  He felt the charge of mystical energy sizzling at her fingertips.  “Etienne, your father and mother are long dead.  You cannot wound them anymore.  You need to forgive them and do honor to both their memory and to the love they shared once that gave you this life.  When we first met, that night outside Montagnes-les-grands, I could sense who you were.  I knew you were one of us, and that given time, I could reach you.  It was why I let you go free, why I sought you out at the lake, why I’ve protected you and why I am asking you now.  If you loved them.  If you love me.  Help me end this war.”

The image of Elyssia and the baby began to dissolve, spinning away into fragments of golden light.  Etienne reached out to grab onto something, any vestige of her he could keep, but his hand found only air.  The particles swirled higher, tearing away the darkness to reveal the white room overlooking the Calerre harbor where he’d awoken what felt like a hundred years ago.  It was nighttime now, and a quilt of amber lights flickered over the hillsides at the mouth of the dark sea beyond.  “Au revoir, maman,” Etienne whispered, swallowing his emotions.  His father had wanted only one more kiss.  He would have settled for a final glimpse.

Au revoir à vous deux.

Nightingale was still holding his hands, awaiting his answer.  He collected himself and reasserted the self-confidence that she’d told him was an inheritance from Maman.  “You are wrong,” he said.  “The aim should not be to end the war.  It should be to win it.  This will never stop until we burn the Bureau to the ground and salt the smoldering cinders.”

She smirked at the improbability contained in his remark.  “I have a great deal of power, Etienne, but not against those weapons.  Not against legions of Bureau soldiers.”

“We will need our own army, then.”  An idea crested to the forefront of his thoughts, one that the former, more rational Etienne would have dismissed as lunacy, and indeed there was a not insignificant part of him that still considered it so.  “I have an inkling as to where we might recruit one.  I may need your help, though, in convincing its leader.”

“Why is that?”

“The last time I saw him, I stabbed him through the hand.”

*  *  *

Happy weekend, happy reading, and thanks for sticking around!  A break for a day or two, then it’s on with writing Part Fifteen!

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5 thoughts on “Vintage, Part Fourteen”

  1. What a fabulous opening paragraphs with some really memorable lines Graham. What a poignant observation that death marks a place or a room much more than happiness. What a great effort! Well done :))

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