We pull into the train station at Cerbère in the late afternoon. It’s begun to snow even this far south and the dull specter of winter possesses the town—electric poles hooded by thick slabs of it, a greenhouse bearing the weight of a full foot of it, the train station’s sidewalks spiked with orange safety cones to warn of it. Max has every reason not to speak to me for so long. I keep putting off his questions and feelings. He knows something’s gone wrong. I can’t hide everything. He can read it in the lines across my face. I don’t want to hurt him, but telling him would hurt him more—it’s a matter of choosing the least troublesome of the two versions of histories.
He pouts out the window as the station’s silver clock slows to a standstill above his head. I don’t want to say the wrong thing, so perhaps I’m a coward. He looks terrified. I can’t imagine living the same way. His shoulders sag and his hair has thinned at the temples. We’d had lunch in silence. He’d taken photos of Perpignan and Montpellier without a word.
Now, as the passengers deboard the cars and the conductors wipe down the windows, Max collects his suitcases and walks out ahead of us in silence again. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but there’s only one road outside, and it’s the road to the cottage, a quarter mile past the strip of restaurants and real estate agencies along the water.
“Here we are… Edward, it’s a such wonderful place,” Nathalie promises. From under a dark polished rock in the front garden, she reveals a key. Along the side of the house, she finds and twists a rusty valve most likely for running water. Then before we step inside Pierre and Edna’s wartime nest, she adds, “It does, however, have a small bug problem.”
Max says to her, “Oh, we New Orleans folk are used to bugs,” and I laugh, though I know I shouldn’t when he’s in this somber mood, because I remember the first time he encountered a roach. He smashed his foot with a hammer trying to kill the monstrous thing from atop the toilet seat. The roach deftly escaped. We slept in bright lamplight for a week, until he realized they didn’t mind the lights.
“Is this your first time to France, Max? Have you seen my beautiful country?”
“I’ve never been down here to the West,” he answers, that borrowed Southern twine in his voice that means he’s engaged. He appreciates she speaks English, and glad to be in from the cold somewhere other than a hotel. “I’m sure it must be paradise in summertime.”
“My parents live in Céret. That’s somewhat north of here and in the Pyrenees. Max, it’s absolutely amazing in June. There’s this certain smell. Like wine and chocolate-covered fruits. You should visit one day. I go back every year to see mom and dad. At least, when tuition comes around again, if you know what I mean.”
The small and green sitting room houses two dust-covered Baroque chairs in the far corners. I smell rotten artichokes. A disoriented moth hovers hopelessly above the upright wall heater. Twenty more moths wander around in the attached room, a crowded den looking out toward sea, a patio and town between them, and bird feeders hung from a leafless tree and a short flag pole. A round mahogany table spares little room for anything else, and thus there aren’t any chairs around it. Green placemats still wait for supper. Nathalie steps into the kitchen through another door and puts on a pot of water to boil.
“Actually, Edna doesn’t come here,” Nathalie explains. “Bad memories, I suppose. We’ll probably have to kill a spider or two and dust some walls.” It seems she wants to tell me something more important. She stands at the breadbox, stuffing it with two knotted loaves that she brought from Marseille, and crunches her eyebrows together intently. “I wonder if we have enough wood for a fire,” she finally says.
I find a few dry starter logs and spare kindling under a frosty blanket on the back patio. The sun is setting on the ocean horizon, white blotch in the gray sponge that’s sky, so when Nathalie shouts from the kitchen window, I hear nothing distinct, I’m already millions of miles away. When I step back inside, setting the wood at my feet, then sliding the glass door shut, Max says, “Eddie. Didn’t you hear Nathalie say to leave that open? To let some of the moths back outside.”
“Is that what she said? Honest, I heard something completely different.”
“You don’t listen to anything lately.” He drags a rugged bench from the hallway and sits courteously at the opposite side of table. “Why did we come here again? What’s the relevance of this stinky house that smells like old eggplants?”
“Oh, I thought it sm—”
“This is where many of the strategies were imagined,” Nathalie answers for me. She hands me a dishtowel as she walks out of the kitchen, seeming at home quickly, thin and graceful, then asks me, “And, Edward, do you mind?” She could be our mother, despite her age, preparing our lunches, giving us wise and efficient orders, and telling us stories. “They spent more time here in Cerbère than anywhere else. I think they were even married here! Actually in this cottage! There’s a ton of memorabilia downstairs. Things she hasn’t touched for years!”
“Oh, I understand,” he says. “It’s so quaint and cozy, too. I already like it. Aside from the smell. I always love a patio with a good view. Eddie and I stayed at a hotel in Cape Cod. Frankly, I can’t tell them apart. We travel halfway around the world and everything looks the exactly the same.”
“Edna’s son had a replica of the Marseille house built in your country. In California, actually. God knows why. Home away from home. He attended Stanford for a year and a half. Hmmm… Adam must be about forty now. I don’t know exactly. He never visits his mother anymore. They don’t talk unless it’s important business. I’ve never even met him.” The kettle whistles and rattles atop the stove. “Oh, could you, Edward?” she deviates. “My legs are devastatingly tired.” She’s more like a young nanny than a mother. Like Julie Andrews with a splash of Catherine Deneuve done up like Twiggy. “The cottage hasn’t changed since Durapau was living here,” she recommences. “That’s part of the fascination, I think. Why hasn’t anyone touched it? It’s as if it were haunted or the site of some horrid massacre. We’re converting it, too… into a Resistance museum of sorts, or for all practical purposes, but it certainly won’t be all-inclusive.”
“I heard something like that,” I comment on my way to the kitchen. “But I didn’t give Cerbère much thought. I didn’t know so much was here about Pierre!”
“The benefactors agreed to put up a business and admissions office on the other side of that poor garden with the enormous bird bath. It’s a bit sparse in here. I think Edna wants to add some more furniture. Going for period pieces. I brought some of those documents, too. Sketches of the new building and how they envision the whole museum. And there’s mountains and mountains of memorabilia in the basement!”
“Do we have sugar?”
“I’ve got it here already,” Nathalie declares, points to the bowl, then hands me a photograph, in a plain black frame, before helping herself to the tea first. “I love this picture. It’s from their wedding. Three weeks before he vanished into the air and she returned to London.”
Pierre Durapau, a cigarette between his thumb and index finger, hair vaselined into a slick pompier, bared muscular arms around his wife, staring at something not quite in the picture. Edna, a much younger and prettier version, hair like the head and tail of a fox fur. There’s something wrong with Pierre’s eyes, though. Lines going this and that way. “What happened to his face?” I ask. “Are those war wounds?”
“You didn’t know?” she asks in return, somewhat dumbfounded. “That’s his scars!”
“He was injured?”
“Not in the war. He did it himself. He tried to gouge out his own eyes. It was with a crochet needle, I think. I thought maybe Edna told you. I’m sorry. It happened two months before that picture. So the wounds are very fresh. That’s the old bishop of Cerbère in back of them. He’s cooking.”
“Do you know why he did it?”
“She’s never really explained it fully to me. She just said it was some misguided notion. I can’t imagine. Maybe he’d just seen too many awful things everywhere.”
“I really had no idea they had a son, either,” I admit. “Do you believe Durapau is alive somewhere? Do you think the Africa rumors are true?”
“He might be alive?” Max asks. “How dramatic! You never mentioned that!”
“Oh, some people say they’ve seen him in Marrakech,” Nathalie responds. “Others say he never left France. It’s the same as people saying they’ve seen Adolph Hitler in Brazil. But I don’t think Pierre would leave Edna alone all these years. They cared for each other so deeply. And I’m very sure he would’ve wanted to see Adam grow up.” She digs a chocolate bar from her woven sack, unpeels it, and divides it into three for us. “But of course his old friends and accomplices claimed to see him everywhere around the world after Africa. Gibraltar, Marseille, New York, Dublin… even in the Vatican. But how could that many people really recognize Pierre Durapau?”
Once I tuck Max into bed, I tiptoe back to find Nathalie lolling cross-legged on the parlor floor, a room I’d only just discovered, tending a fire most likely lit with the long match still smoking smaller and grayer plumes from its tabletop ashtray. I also watch the fire wordlessly, because she looks contemplative and peaceful. I don’t want to disturb her with my troubles. It’s that kind of warm that’s only for a winter day. My pajamas linger down my spine. Water droplets puddle along the windowpane. The hearth’s fire is tinged bright blue at its tips.
“I’m completely embarrassed,” she propounds, smiles like a cat, and then withdraws a half-smoked joint from under her knee. “I thought you’d changed your mind and gone off to bed. Do you smoke weed?”
We examine the photo of Edna and Durapau again. Pierre had beautiful ears. I wonder if he was a wrestler. That’s the sort of ears. Curled at the very tips like a pig’s ears. His nose is crooked, handsomely though, like it’s been broken a few times. It’s simply remarkable that a man could gouge out his own eyes. I could never harm myself in such a way. What reason allows such a crazed proposition? What sickening pain must he have been able to endure? I’m a nervous wreck even when a nurse draws blood. I wince at the sudden sting of a rubberband. What conviction could--
“I hope that wasn’t too much for you. I’m a bit numb to marijuana nowadays.”
“No, not at all,” I assure. “You know, not everyone knows this about me, but I was in the seminary before I met Max. I wanted to become a priest.” She doesn’t find it so hard to believe. She folds a white dinner napkin into a long band, wraps it around my neck, and then giggles in such a way that it suddenly feels like New Year’s Eve. I expect to look at the fire and see a sparkling ball drop from Times Square. “I wasn’t such a puritan really. I dropped out, of course. Well—that’s obvious.”
“My cousin in Avignon is a man of the collar,” she says, on the verge of a grin again, a willowy exhalation as she persists to talk. “Remarkable that they still exist, I think. They must be so modern now. Driving their cars, cooking their own dinners, typing on their computers. I don’t know why they aren’t allowed to marry yet.”
“You don’t believe in God?” I ask, though normally wouldn’t inquire because I’ve argued far too many pointless arguments with people who prefer faith to reason, but she’s young and seems so free with her words and her thoughts.
She shakes out her ponytail, and says with no spirit, “Not since starting Uni.”
“No, I have a hard time believing we can all fit into one huge heaven. Don’t you? That makes me queasy about death. It can’t possibly have enough room for every person who’s walked the Earth in the last twenty thousand years.”
“Just the good ones.”
First, a slow, dulled colorant washes over my throat, then my lungs, and my body turns green like fish scales. Nathalie scrabbles through her purse and produces a Polaroid picture and Chapstick. “This is my boyfriend. We were acting a bit silly that day. It was Bastille Day.”
“It’s the back of someone’s head.”
“It’s the back of his head,” she corrects. Then she leaves me to examine it, returns with a can of chopped pineapple, it couldn’t have been in her hand bag, and spoons the pieces out onto two crescent-shaped plates. I eat the yellow fruit with my fingers and squeeze it between my lips. “Do you see that? Can you see the tattoo on his neck?” she asks.
“Oh, I didn’t notice that!”
“It’s an apple, but you can really make it out. I drew it on him with felt markers.”
It seems she wants to tell me something more important. She stands at the breadbox, stuffing it with two knotted loaves that she brought from Marseille, and crunches her eyebrows together intently. “I wonder if we have enough wood for a fire,” she finally says.
I can’t hold my head still, it buoys on top of me, sedated and feckless, as if I were in a bathtub, or caught in the ocean’s waves. Nathalie begins to whistle, swaying her hips against the floor, and winks at me, playfully, pretending, as her voice—somewhat muffled here and there by the snaps of the fire—percolates toward me. Her mother was a jazz singer, or so she says, and wanted to be the next Edith Piaf. She sings me a song her mother wrote about love and pining:
If you could peel open a heart
like a piece of fruit
would it taste as sweet as you?
Her face is like a marshmallow. She asks, “Are you very in love with him?”
“Oh, I guess I can’t help it,” I answer distractedly. There isn’t a point in worrying about Max. We love each other enough to get through a roadblock here and there. Her eyes are syrupy from that song. I love Max very much. Her question helps me pull it all into focus. Here I am in wonderland. I feel perfect. I’ve made no mistakes. “To tell you the truth, Nathalie, I wish he were awake to smoke with us. It’s been years since he smoked. He developed a little problem. Every time, well, at the end, he thought he was having a stroke. His mind would freeze up like an old machine. Then he’d just freak out about it. He’d have to sit on the floor and not move at all. He’d just stay there with his eyes squeezed shut, concentrating… on staying alive, I guess. That’s how he put it, at least.”
“That’s scary,” she says. “If that were my case, I wouldn’t do it anymore either.”
“He was never a great kisser,” I confide with a whisper, following some tangent in my own head, and follow it to Sebie, too. “But he was a good kisser. I didn’t kiss him as deeply as I wanted. I was reserved, you know, because, well, men are weird. Especially about kissing. He had such twiggy lips. Like a billboard model from the seventies.”
“Twiggy? That’s so dreamy.”
“It’s amazing that you’re still so aroused by him after so many years!”
“Well, honestly, I’d only just met him… under extraordinary circumstances.”
She bunches her eyebrows together, casually curious about something suddenly clear, like a schoolgirl peering down at her misbehaved pet, and asks, “I thought you’d been together for oodles and oodles of years?”
I don’t come to my senses so quickly as I’d have liked. The phantoms in the room are more comfortable, and everything is a honeycomb, perforated with fire’s light. I make revisions in my head. The way this vacation should’ve been, what people know and don’t know. Of course, she doesn’t know that I somehow found myself talking about Sebie instead of Max. “Well,” I attempt. “At least, compared to how long Durapau loved Edna.”
“Oh, but not very long at all,” she corrects and chews another chunk of the tasty pineapple. “He disappeared in 1943. They only shared a short time together. Unless he’s met her secretly! Wouldn’t that be so marvelously romantic?”
“Yes, very,” I agree. While she puckers and re-lights, I question, “but do you really think there’s no more room in heaven anymore? Can’t it be some ceiling-less paradise without limits?” to which she doesn’t reply, and instead puffs out her rosy cheeks, squints against the smoke, and coughs deeply.
Patrick Earl Ryan was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the author of If We Were Electric, a short story collection, winner of the 2019 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and published by University of Georgia Press. His work has been printed in Ontario Review, Pleiades, Best New American Voices, Men on Men, Cairn, and James White Review, among others. Previously, he was founder and editor-in-chief of Lodestar Quarterly. He lives in San Francisco.