Douglas Clegg

Museum of the Innocents, Part Two

June 9th, 2016

Books to read, currently in-progress on this blog:

Mr. Darkness    The Marriage of Figaro    

Museum of the Innocents  

Douglas Clegg in 2014

Dear Reader,

Here is the continuation of Museum of the Innocents. Miss Part One? Click the link just above to begin at the beginning. Thank you for coming by.

Best,

Douglas Clegg

All material from Museum of the Innocents is copyright 2009-2016 ©  Douglas Clegg. Used here with permission, all rights reserved. You do not have permission to post this or any other fiction presented at DouglasClegg.com on any other website or use it in any way, shape or form without permission from Douglas Clegg (DClegg@DouglasClegg.com). 

PART TWO

MADAME GABRIAC’S CRIMINAL DAUGHTER

Ten Years Before

 

 

 

1

A Jewel Thief in Paris, Winter 1857

 

Sophie Gabriac was seven years old when her Aunt Leonie drew her aside on a chilly afternoon as a light snow descended over the city of Paris.

This was at her great-uncle’s house along the Faubourg St-Germaine with its enormous windows showcasing the elegant garden and grand boulevard beyond.

Her mother often sent her to stay with her aunt on the long winter days after her sister Violette was born.

The baby’s birth had been traumatic – Sophie remembered it only as blood and knives and the kitchen table, where her mother screamed and the midwife scrubbed and washed and sour-faced physicians came and went. Afterward her mother was sick for nearly a month and the baby needed quiet. Sophie’s father – no help at all – was off in China with another war. Two doctors visited, a nurse was hired – and slept in a small bed near the baby’s crib – and then the cook employed a noisy girl to run errands and help with the meals. Sophie felt as if she were forgotten in all of it.

“I don’t want to go to Aunt Leonie’s,” Sophie whined when her mother tugged the bonnet over her tangle of hair, drawing the ribbon together. “Can’t I stay with you? I can help. I’ll brush your hair. I’ll keep the kitchen girl out of your way.”

“We need our rest – and we have all the help in the world, little rabbit,” her mother said. “You’ll be bored here. All I intend to do is take my medicine and sleep. And the baby – well, she’ll cry all day and night. You’ll hate both of us soon enough.”

“But I don’t want to go.”

Cherie, you must. You will remind your aunt that you’re a Gabriac, and everything in that house belongs to us, as well,” her mother told her, kissing her gently, the sweaty warmth of fever in her touch. “Leonie’s fond of forgetting that fact. Imagine, someday, when your father comes home, that house will be ours. Yours. Yours and mine and our little Violette’s.”

Aunt Leonie, at forty, was all sharp edges, from face to foot. She had a shiny little falcon’s beak of a nose and small, wide-set gray eyes, one of which always seemed slightly at odds with the other.

Still, the impression that her features were off-kilter all but vanished by the time she emerged from her private apartment with its mirrors and hairdressers.

Dressed and powdered, face glistening with moonstone dust, cheeks lightly smudged with a faint halo of pink, colorful ribbons festooned at her wrist and hair – dyed red from henna – sparkling rings slipped around her long thorny fingers, diamond-crowned black choker clasped at her throat, Aunt Leonie transformed into an absolute portrait of Parisian high culture.

“We’ll have tea and a nice long chat, shall we?” Leonie said as she ushered Sophie into the parlor.

Her aunt wore an indigo gown mottled with red and gold patterns, a white silk sash wrapped tight at her waist.

Sophie reached out to touch Aunt Leonie’s puffed sleeves, warm and soft. She inhaled a wildflower essence that put her in mind of her grandmother’s endless twilight suppers at long tables overlooking terraced summer gardens.

“I’ve found something that I believe belongs to you.”

Aunt Leonie drew a small tortoiseshell comb from her scalp, letting the soft, wavy strands fall down the back of her neck.

“Is it yours?” her aunt asked.

Without hesitation, Sophie cried out as if it were Christmas morning. “I thought I lost it. Thank you, Aunt Leonie, thank you.”

“It means so much to you.”

“It was a gift – from Papa – from Italy – when I was five.” Then she whispered, “He bought it in a shop that sells only beautiful things.”

Leonie offered a curious smile as Sophie took the comb and drew it through her hair, nestling it against her scalp.

“So lovely,” her aunt said. “Your hair – it’s like spun gold.”

They sat across from each other on twin high-backed chairs at the olive-wood table inlaid with ivory and jade.

Silver dishes and small trays were set across the table, each filled with a variety of confections: sugar almond, gently-rounded chocolate, colorful marzipan, candied fruit, tiny finger pastry and fresh raspberries. A cat-shaped pitcher of frothy cream sat beside the small ceramic dog filled with sugar, both guarding an elephantine teapot that dwarfed everything around it.

The steaming tea, the buttery tang that burst from flaked pastries, the trace of smoke from the fireplace grate, the lingering spice incense from candles along the windowsill and even the imagined freshness of snow outside, all mingled and created an overpowering memory of this day for Sophie that would never leave her.

She marveled at how her aunt poured tea – the turn of her wrist, the delicate way she held the little pitcher, grasping the saucer, balancing it all – as she spoke of carriage rides they’d take to shops and theaters before winter grew severe.

“There’s a matter we need to discuss.” Aunt Leonie passed her the first cup. “It’s been on my mind for days.”

Sophie warmed her hands against the delicate porcelain cup, all the while stealing glances at the variety of temptations laid out before her.

“You know, my dear, I suspect there may be two Sophies sitting across from me.” Her aunt wagged her finger as if scolding a naughty kitten.

Sophie brought the cup to her lips, inhaling a scent of murky tea, imagining earthy chestnut and wild orchid swirled into a mist of cinnamon cream.

“There’s this Sophie – the one I see before me – a nice little child,” her aunt said. “She knows her manners, yes?”

Sophie, barely listening, leaned over the table to pick out a perfect marzipan peach.

“And then there’s the Sophie who lurks beneath,” her aunt said. “A secretive little creature.”

Sophie felt a sudden prickling along her arms. She looked up, feeling as if her aunt had just pinched her – invisibly – from across the table.

“The secret Sophie doesn’t say what she really means.” Aunt Leonie said. “There’s something cold as a frozen river about her, don’t you agree? She doesn’t show her feelings the way other young ladies do. I see that other Sophie, within you. You may be able to hide her from your mother, but there she is – yes, I see her – behind those eyes.”

Sophie, her hand trembling slightly, glanced down at the cup and saucer in her fingers.

Still as stone, Sophie thought.

Her aunt reached across the table, steadying her hand. “Here, let’s set the cup down, shall we? There’s something I want you to see.”

Aunt Leonie’s hand went deep into the folds of her dress.

Her aunt often brought little trinkets from hidden pockets, but this time she drew out a long strand of pearls.

“Isn’t this beautiful? See the slight rose-tint of each pearl? How it catches the light?”

Sophie stared at the necklace, which twisted and turned and made a slight rattling sound. She felt a thudding panic in her chest.

Still as a statue, still as stone. It was a game she played with her friends.

Sophie slowly raised her chin and gazed at her aunt with what she hoped was a look of absolute innocence.

“You recognize this, yes? I see it in those eyes of yours, even if others don’t. I know who you are, my secret Sophie. You stole this from my dressing table.”

Still as stone.

“It was in the little Boulle box – the one with the brass cartouche on its lid. I opened it and let you touch these pearls before I put them on. Nearly two years ago. You watched me dress that night.

“I was going out with your uncle to a wonderful party – it was March, I believe. Still brisk outside. You asked if you could touch these pearls. I let you. You were so innocent, or so I thought. How was I to know you were – even then – planning your crime?”

Aunt Leonie turned slightly in her chair and called out for the servant named Laurent, who stood just on the other side of the door.

Laurent stepped into the room, a small wooden box in his hands, which Sophie recognized. A memory came to her: a rabbit caught in a trap out among the yellow and violet haze of gardens.

Laurent passed the box to his mistress, but not before he cast a judging glance at Sophie.

If she hadn’t been so shocked by this entire display, Sophie would have felt her heart break, for she had developed a liking for Laurent, who was handsome and pretty and played games with her during the boring afternoons.

Aunt Leonie thanked the servant, who turned to leave when his mistress grabbed his hand.

“No, stay,” she said. “I want you to witness this.”

Traitor, Sophie thought as she watched the servant.

“Even this has a lovely story. Did I ever tell it? This box was a gift from a king to your great-grandmother and has been with us ever since. Ebon and ivory, with little amethyst flames at its edge. And look –how lovely it is inside. Red silk, and see the little bronze tassel at the clasp? Such craftsmanship! What artists create such luxury these days – and in such a small package? This is a work of love, this box.”

Sophie felt her mouth go dry. She stared at the box as her aunt set it down, open and empty, on the table.

Sophie’s left heel itched – her shoe felt tight – she used the toe of her right shoe to scratch it. Her left shoe slipped down, so that the heel swung back, barely touching the floor.

Her scalp began to itch. She wanted to scratch it, but wouldn’t move.

Still as a statue, she thought.

The itchiness migrated from her scalp to the back of her neck. She was certain that if she scratched – if she really let loose with this overwhelming urge – that it would somehow be an admission of guilt.

When it’s over, she thought. When Aunt Leonie sends me out of the room. When she stomps off in fury.

I’ll scratch then.

Aunt Leonie made a noise at the back of her throat, nearly a cat’s purr.

“I was shocked to see the necklace gone, of course. How you found the key to this box – that’s still a mystery, isn’t it? Perhaps it had fallen from one of my pockets, or I’d simply mislaid it. But little rats find all kinds of tidbits when they’re sniffing around. You’re very much like your mother, aren’t you?”

The servant crossed his arms over his chest and made a slight grunting noise.

Sophie closed her eyes, wishing they’d all disappear. The itchy feeling had spread to her face. Yet she would not move her hands, nor touch her own skin for fear that this would erupt into a fire of furious scratching.

Her aunt wouldn’t stop talking. And the more she went on, the more Sophie felt the burning itch spread across her skin.

“Like a darling little rat, you must have been, as you searched for this.”

When Sophie opened her eyes again, Aunt Leonie grinned.

“I wouldn’t have thought about the pearls for – oh, another year or two, perhaps. I rarely wear this, except for special occasions. Adèle found this necklace, among your things, upstairs – the night your sister was born. You had left it behind. Hidden. I couldn’t believe it at first. A thief? Not the little girl whom I’d held since her birth! Why I had been with your mother that night – I stayed up until dawn to see your first breath! I lay beside your mother in that wide bed and gripped her hand in mine as you came into this world. Not that little baby, not my precious niece, Marie-Sophie. Why, I was ready to thrash Adèle in defense of you. But there, in my dressing room, I found a small comb. It was near this box, as if the criminal had lingered too long in contemplation of her crime.”

Sophie reached up and pulled the comb from her scalp, feeling the pinch of it as it wrenched free of her tangling hair.

She threw it to the rug as if it were poison.

“It’s not mine,” Sophie muttered.

She held her breath and wished all of it would sweep away with the snow – the table, the silver trays, the confections, the tea, the high-backed chairs – and especially her aunt.

“It’s too late for such denials,” Aunt Leonie’s voice dropped low, nearly a growl. “This is not a toy, Sophie. It’s a rare expensive piece, passed down in our family. If only you’d been patient. You see, I considered leaving it to you when you were older. I doubt that will happen, after this. Why should I give a thief –”

Sophie covered her ears, but kept hearing her aunt’s voice as she spoke of robbers, sin, crime and prisons. The need to scratch grew worse. Her whole body felt as if it were covered in fleas all tunneling just beneath her skin.

Her aunt poured out more tea for the two of them.

Aunt Leonie passed Sophie a cup.

Sophie was not sure why her aunt had grown quiet.

Leonie clicked the spoon against the cup’s edge as she stirred.

“If you confess to this crime, I won’t punish you,” Leonie said. “But if you don’t, you’ll sleep in the cellar with the rest of the rats. Do you understand? Don’t give me that empty look. Do you understand?”

Her aunt leaned across the table and slapped the teacup from Sophie’s hand. It smashed against the table’s edge, falling to the floor in a spray of fragments.

Sophie stared down at her feet.

She looked up at her aunt.

“Yes, I took it,” Sophie whispered.

In a mere second, the itchy feeling subsided. The temperature in the room seemed to plummet as soon as she spoke.

“Ah, the secret Sophie reveals herself,” Aunt Leonie said, her eyes narrowing. “I knew I’d find you there.”

Glancing over to the servant, she said, “Laurent, you’ve heard this confession?”

“Yes, madame.”

After her aunt dismissed the servant, she leaned back, her long fingers stroking the carved scrollwork at the arm of her chair.

Sophie held her breath to the count of twenty, expecting a chasm to open up beneath her. She heard crackling in the fireplace and stared at the flames as they sparked and leapt along the grate.

What would it be like to burn up? Ash and smoke up the chimney, out into the air, up to the clouds?

“This is your mother’s influence.” Aunt Leonie’s voice transformed into a vicious snarl. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. You haven’t been raised a Gabriac at all.”

Sophie didn’t dare move, though she had an urge to run out of the room.

Aunt Leonie went silent for what seemed several minutes.

Sophie stared at the teapot and silver trays. She imagined that she heard a rapid, distant thudding sound as if someone in heavy boots were tromping through the snow. It was her blood, she realized – her heartbeat – making that sound.

She worried that she might die suddenly.

An eternity passed until Leonie rose up and walked slowly to Sophie’s side of the table.

Her aunt drew a chair close, sitting right beside her.

Sophie wouldn’t look at her. She felt a terrible pain in her stomach.

“You can be arrested for such thievery – yes, even you,” Leonie whispered, her face so close she might have kissed Sophie’s cheek. “I heard of a little boy imprisoned – for years – just for stealing a silver spoon. Can you imagine? This necklace is worth much more than a spoon, believe me. Thievery doesn’t suit you. Some girls get away with such things, but not girls like the two of us.”

Aunt Leonie combed her fingers through Sophie’s hair, drawing it to the side of her face.

“You’re not a beauty. In fact, you’re rather plain. You may have your mother’s character, but you have your father’s looks.”

Her aunt’s breath smelled as sweet and bitter as the amarelle cherry.

“Oh your hair is lovely, and no one ever faulted a girl for being sloe-eyed. I have no doubt you’ll grow into that nose. Plain girls make excellent wives and mothers when they grow up, so I don’t want you crying over this.”

Leonie’s voice became a tickle of venom crawling just inside her ear.

“Beauties—like your mother—can often break rules and people forgive them. But ladies like us, my dear, must be better than that. I will forgive this crime for now. But if you do such a thing again, I’ll break that frozen river inside you, Sophie. The secret Sophie – this one who steals, who lies – must die, do you understand? Yes? You must kill her, and at the moment of her death you will – truly – be a Gabriac. Do you promise to kill her? Do you promise?”

 

2

The Prisoner of Pearls

 

That night, in the wide feather bed on the third floor of her aunt’s home, Sophie wept so much that she made a promise to the mirror’s reflection that no one would ever make her shed tears again as long as she lived – at least not on the outside. Not where the tears showed.

Before dawn, Sophie stole the pearl necklace again.

This time, she was careful. She didn’t drop any evidence behind, nor did she forget to lock the box or return the key to where it belonged.

She went home to her mother and the baby after breakfast and refused to spend time alone with her aunt or visit the house on the Faubourg St-Germaine again.

Sophie began to distrust any claim to authority after this.

She was a thief, after all. A criminal. She began to feel the rebellion of her inner self as something good – something to be nurtured and coddled.

It wasn’t just Aunt Leonie, but others, as well.

Her mother ignored her most days, or else seemed casually unkind and careless. Her uncle never noticed her other than to chastise her, and her great-uncle was just this ancient creature wrapped in shawls and blankets, wheeled out on state occasions when suddenly the relatives all called themselves Madame le Comtesse this and Duc du that. Her grandmother was kind now and then, but her visits were rare.

Her father was a memory, as far as she was concerned.   Her tutors seemed corrupt.

When she went to confession, she was certain the priest was drunk. She often made up elaborate sins to test him. She made up a story about her aunt attending a Black Mass in a fashionable residence along the Champs-Élysées, and still the priest didn’t seem to care.

She craved some kind of religion and so she made up her own. She imagined that she possessed wondrous mystical powers with the help of Aunt Leonie’s necklace, which had become a pagan idol to her. It had, after all, been the first thing she’d ever stolen, and the wickedness of that crime added to its power.

Sophie played a game – shared with her little sister – where she could see the future in the iridescent pearls, their rose-pink hearts glowing when held up to candlelight.

Her sister – Violette– was not quite four when they first played together with the pearls.

Viola, as Sophie called her, had eyes like perfect chocolates. “You’re my little doll,” Sophie told her. “Made for amber ribbons and silver spoons. We found you in an old shop of beautiful, broken things. Even though you were cracked along the back of the scalp, we took you to a dollmaker who repaired you. No one would know you were anything less than perfect because all that fuzzy hair on your head was glued on to cover where the seam would show in back. A magician breathed life into you, mingled with custard and honey, and when your eyes opened for the first time, I loved you like I had never loved any doll ever before.”

Viola, too young to argue, accepted her origins from her wise sister. When she saw dolls – in shops or along the shelves in the nursery – she looked at them with the same wonder that others might look at their distant relatives, to see a resemblance, to catch a glimpse of a shared bloodline.

Sophie spun elaborate tales of their future lives, discovered from long hours staring into the hearts of the pearls. Countries where dolls gave birth to human children, and where thieves were treated like princes; where prisons existed to punish people who were cruel to children, and that only Sophie herself could decide whether to execute such parents or to let them languish in a windowless tower.

In this future, she saw the life ahead of her: the wealth, the elegant parties, the palaces, the suitors, the lovers and best of all, the dances. Aunt Leonie met with ruin, shunned by all the fashionable hostesses until she ended up a drab wandering, half out of her mind, along those shady avenues where ladies never go.

Her mother and father met with a peculiar fate when – together for a single night between wars – they were both bitten by a mad dog, and became wolves themselves from the bite. In later years, Sophie would hear them howling out along the woods.

“What about me?” Viola asked when she was four and a half. “What happens to me?”

“Let me see here,” Sophie whispered, passing the necklace in front of the candle’s flame.   “The pearls will tell all.”

Sophie told her: a dashing stranger in a mask named Sir Ranulf the Bold would carry Viola off on a charger and take her to his castle in Bavaria. Sir Ranulf had an enormous doll collection, and Viola would reign over her kind in a country where to have been born a doll was to be nobility.

By the time Viola was five – and called Viola by everyone – she was so familiar with this vision from the pearls that she would often see handsome strangers in the street and ask Sophie if she thought one of them might be Sir Ranulf the Bold.

“But is it wise for a doll to marry such a man?” Sophie cautioned her. “Men who marry dolls often abandon them later. He might leave you for another doll with a greater dowry. No, you’ll have to find a little tin soldier or even a nutcracker to marry – or a marionette. Now that would be a husband under your control – and it would be suitable. Marrying any other kind of man can only lead a doll to sorrow.”

Sophie began writing constantly and made the visions into little playlets, as well, and performed them to herself in her bedroom mirror, doing all the parts, with Viola as her adoring audience. Later, her little sister joined in. Viola was not a good reader – she was slow at lessons – so Sophie would read out her lines and make her sister commit them to memory. They performed the plays in front of the mirror, imagining a stage and proscenium like the one at the Opera, and bouquets thrown from the crowds.

This fantasy world became a refuge on their loneliest days.

Sophie was fairly sure it was all make-believe but by then she had taught her sister the technique for pearl divination and it was too late to end it.

“A Slavic princess once owned these pearls. She rode as a warrior into battle againt the Turk,” Sophie told Viola. “She sacrificed many of her enemies to these pearls so if you pray to them, you’ll see the future. But even better, the pearls are tools of witchcraft, too. The Slavic princess delved in Black Magic and – when she died…”

Sophie let her voice drop to a deep whisper as if she were about to reveal a terrifying secret.

“It was by her own hand, as she tightened the pearls about her throat, taking the last of her breath – until her soul went into the necklace itself.”

“No,’ Viola gasped. “Not her soul.” Even dolls – according to the mythology they’d created – had eternal souls.

“Yes. Her most sacred immortal soul. Imprisoned forever in the pearls. Not living, not dead. Waiting to be released.”

“How can we help her?”

“True love,” Sophie said. “Only true love will set her free.”

On special occasions – or in moments of crisis – Sophie would curl the string of pearls around her wrist and lie down on the bed beside her sister.

They’d call up storms to sink ships, imagine their future husbands and children, go on forest adventures and travel to savage lands, or even go so far as to lay a curse on someone who had given them a harsh word or glance.

“We are witches,” Sophie told her sister. “Beautiful witches. With great power, brought us by the pearls.”

“Witches,” Viola repeated, staring into the candlelight.

Sometimes, they’d ask the pearls to send their father home.

One night, Viola crawled into Sophie’s bed while a thunderstorm raged outside.

“Don’t be afraid,” Sophie whispered to her sister.

“I saw ghosts outside,” Viola whispered.

“Ghosts of who?”

“People from the portraits.”

“The ones in the hall?”

Viola nodded.

“All those old relatives? Great-grandmother too?”

Viola nodded.

“It’s just your mind making it up,” Sophie said.

“No, it’s real. They’re whispering,” Viola said, a worried tone in her voice. “I think they know things about us. They don’t like witches – and they hate dolls who pretend to be girls. And they know about the necklace.”

“Even if they did, who could they tell?” Sophie kissed the top of her sister’s scalp. “They’re just a bunch of gossips, those portraits. No one would ever believe a word they said.”

“They don’t want us here,” Viola said, ignoring her sister’s words. “They want us to leave.”

And in fact, within a few years, they did leave.

Sophie hadn’t seen her father in more than two and a half years by the time she was fourteen, when her mother told her they were going to join him in Mexico.

 

3 The Magnificent Gift of Helene Eugenie Gabriac

 

Arriving after a difficult journey to Mexico City, the Gabriacs took up residence in a palatial house on the Calle de San Francisco with a view of the cathedral directly across. This was in 1864.

“It’s bigger than that drafty house on St. Germaine,” Madame Gabriac said as she passed her hat to the smallest of the five servants her husband had hired.

“Girls, this is Leticia. She worked for the Jubinals,” Madame Gabriac announced after the servant took her half-coat.

“They had no complaints whatsoever. And they’re a family of complainers.” “I still miss them,” Leticia said. “Particularly Jean-Baptiste. He was a devil. I had to chase him around and around the gardens to get him to take his bath – even at his age!”

Leticia was small and plain, young but without a youthful look. Her only distinguishing feature was an odd little headdress: her hair was hidden with an ordinary black cloth, wound around her scalp, framing her face, ending in a twist at her shoulder.

Madame Gabriac, who had a penchant for nicknames for servants, immediately began calling her “our little nun,” and Leticia seemed to enjoy the phrase.

The girls met the other servants, briefly, including the young French cook – a slender, tall girl with dark hair, green eyes and a pretty face who looked just a few years older than Sophie herself.

Madame Gabriac pointed out the baggage in the lower hallway, snapping her fingers to the porters from the street. Two other servants were given instructions about where to unpack, and what should be done next.

“And let’s have an early supper,” she told the cook.

Furnishings from various Gabriac houses had arrived some days earlier.

“Your father made all the arrangements,” Madame Gabriac told her daughters. “Isn’t it magnificent, this house?”

“It’s like Aunt Leonie’s,” Viola said.

“Exactly like it,” Sophie said without enthusiasm. “And like our grandmother’s. It’s like all homes – except ours.”

“Oh, Marie-Sophie, don’t be ridiculous,” Madame Gabriac said. “Do you honestly miss that tiny place?”

“It wasn’t tiny. And it was ours.”

“This is ours, too, cherie. And so much more magnificent, don’t you think? So many rooms I’ll have a headache sorting them out.”

Sophie scanned the long hallway. “It’s too big.”

“Within a few weeks, it may seem small to you. “

“Can I see my bedroom?” Viola asked, tugging at her mother’s sleeve.

“Of course. If you can find it,” her mother said. “And when you do, I think we could all use a good lie-down before supper. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Viola raced down the hall and began poking her head into one open doorway after another, shouting, “Not here!” and “This isn’t it!” and occasionally, “You should see what’s in here! There’s a harp, and books!”

After a minute or more of this running around, she stepped out into the corridor and leaned against a doorframe.

“I can’t find my room.”

“Upstairs!” Madame Gabriac shouted. “And be mindful of the steps!”

Sophie stood just outside the main parlor. “It’s so dead here.”

Cherie?”

“It’s like a ghost of other peoples’ houses. It’s not real at all.”

“Nonsense,” her mother said. “What kind of talk is this? Real? Ghosts? Oh, you’re exhausted from the trip. Of course, we all are.”

“I’m not tired. I don’t like it here. It’s haunted.”

“This is some crazy idea from all those romances you’ve been reading, isn’t it? We should throw those out.”

“Not my books,” Sophie whispered.

“That sort of reading is bad for a girl your age. I knew they’d fill your head with rot. All you did the whole voyage over, read, read, read. What a bore you were.”

“It made the time pass.”

“Yes, and now your head is filled with these strange ideas. But just open your eyes, cherie.”

Sophie followed her mother into the wide parlor. The room was white, like all the rooms in the house, and filled with familiar wall sconces, as well as a delicately-molded figurine of a nymph holding a lamp.

Her grandmother’s rose-colored curtains rustled in the breeze from the open window, antique silks were draped across chairs, little silver creatures gleamed along the windowsill.

In a far corner, an enormous tapestry lay rolled up. Sophie recognized it, for she’d seen it at her grandmother’s country estate. She and one of her cousins had pulled it across a wide room. Sophie remembered its fanciful scene: odd long-beaked birds with enormous wingspan, chevaliers wearing plumed hats, headdress-laden damsels riding the backs of deer with antlers as thick as forests, and little moth-holes at the corners of the cloth from having hung in her grandmother’s house and her great-grandmother’s and great-great-grandmother’s in centuries previous.

“It’s as if they were getting rid of all their old junk,” Sophie said.

Her mother let out a strange little mouse-squeak.

“Look!” Madame Gabriac cried out, nearly running over toward the doors on the far side of the parlor. “How did he get this? Why, he’d have to fight his sister tooth and nail. Incredible! I can’t believe Helene sent this – for us, Sophie, for us! This is the most magnificent gift of all!”

Sophie glanced around the room.

“Armand Riolet,” her mother whispered as if it were the secret name of God.

“Who?”

“Only the greatest sculptor of all time. Why, most of his work sits in the great palaces of the world. Look – just look how beautiful she is. She wasn’t yet twenty when she posed for it.”

 4

The Bronze Girl  

The sculpture depicted a young woman, nearly naked, riding upon great bronze wings, beneath which there was, perhaps, the form of an angel, though the figure seemed to melt into the statue’s marble base.

“It’s Marie-Sophie Eugenie Gabriac herself – your namesake,” her mother said. “Done just before her marriage. You even resemble your great-grandmother. See?”

Her mother threw herself down on her knees before the statue, as if worshipping some heathen goddess.

Sophie felt the jostling sensation of waking from a dream, as if the real world and the dream world combined for the barest moment.

Sophie had seen her great-grandmother in portraits that hung at her grandmother’s estate. In those paintings, her great-grandmother had been older, more regal in bearing, touched by life and childbirth and burdened by travel and war and love and loss.

But this incarnation of Marie-Sophie Eugenie, Duchess, daughter of an Austrian Prince and a French duchess, was untouched, unspoiled. There was something in the bronze’s face that confused Sophie – the sculptor had captured an expression that she’d never seen. It wasn’t just the slight smile, the curve of lip, the way the eyes seemed come to life if Sophie stared too long at them.

It was something captured – frozen – right then. Right at that moment of her great-grandmother’s life. It was almost as if the figure would spring to life in a moment.

Sophie felt as if the girl in the sculpture knew a secret that Sophie herself didn’t know. A mystery. A strange, jarring feeling overcame Sophie as she stood several feet from the statue.

It was as if – with a brief tremble – she had just stepped out of her body and looked back at it.

The bronze figure resembled her in several ways. It wasn’t just the general figure but in nearly every detail, Sophie could see herself in the sculpture of her great-grandmother. S

he could predict that in a few years, she would look more like this figure than she would her own mother. It was almost as if it were a mirror reflection of fate.

The proportion of limbs, the curve at the shoulders, the slightly long neck, the nose that she hated so much, the sad eyes, the jawline that had never seemed feminine enough. The breasts, exposed, tilting upward, nearly the same small size as her own, those breasts that had only begun showing themselves under her clothes, here they were, jutting out for all to see.

Sophie noticed a strange ripple, indentations and small round orbs raised in a tattoo curving along the bronze nipples. Sophie recognized the pearl necklace – the one she’d kept, stolen from her aunt. Aunt Leonie had told her that it belonged to her great-grandmother.

(“A young lady must wed with an eye toward increasing a family’s position,” Aunt Leonie once told her. “Think of your great-grandmother. She came from royalty and wealth, but married a Gabriac – which saved her – and many in her family – from the guillotine. And secured an even greater fortune for future generations. She did this for us. For me, for you and Viola, as well.”)

The necklace – sculpted more than a hundred years before – along the shoulders and breasts of her great-grandmother.

“I don’t remember ever seeing this,” Sophie said, almost afraid to break the momentary silence.

Her mother did not once look away from the statue as she told the story of how she came to discover the Riolet itself.

 5

The Dragon’s Egg

“Your grandmother – Helene – she’s so greedy with her treasures. She’s like a gnome from those fairy tales you’ve been reading to your sister. It surprises me, these gifts, these wonderful things, this beautiful bronze sent from heaven. Your grandmother must truly miss her son to give us all of this.

“Oh, Helene – in that big hat of hers, the ridiculous one, the one that makes her look as if she’s a relic from a hundred years ago – she keeps her precious gems and rings and bracelets all locked away in underground tunnels, one supposes. She must hide the painting that is of great value, while lesser ones line her hallway. She must put out the cheap ceramics for her family rather than the expensive plates that were a gift from Napoleon himself.

“She’s the dragon who hides the virgin in its cave. “She has hundreds of such treasures, all stolen of course, all taken from revolutions and wars and everything her family has done for centuries – probably all the way back to the half-eaten fruit of the tree from Eden.” Madame Gabriac took a deep breath.

“But of all of her treasures. This one. This, the greatest of them.”

Sophie recognized the look on her mother’s face. It was as if her mother gazed upon Jesus Himself. Not as the barefoot Franciscans might imagine him, but as a mitred Archbishop at Easter in lavish costume, arms raised up to the golden god adorned in purple robes, regaled as the King of Heaven or the Prince of Glory.

“You remember the house? The one in the country? The one by the cliffs, above the village, looking down, the terraced gardens?”

Sophie nodded.

“The thousand and one rooms.”

“Did we ever count them all?”

“We tried,” Madame Gabriac said, glancing over at her daughter, smiling. “We reached forty-six and became exhausted.”

She returned her attentions to her other daughter, the bronze one.

“Imagine. She was there, among them.”

Her mother transported Sophie back to Helene’s estate – the rolling hills, the gardens of muted, weeping color, the giant urns across wide terraces, the mirrored halls, the ballroom with its ceiling mural of oval-faced women in wigs and feathers parading in circus tent gowns – the room after room after room after room of the house.

Sophie wasn’t sure if she recalled the house precisely, or if this was a reconstructed chimera of all the houses she had known that bore the name Gabriac.

“When I was pregnant, with you,” her mother began. “But I didn’t know it. It was fall. October, I believe. Your father was in Italy then. I went to stay with Helene and Gerard. Leonie and Maurice, as well, were there. Leonie never trusted me with her mother. She was afraid, of course. Helene loved me almost as if I were her daughter. I was the first to have children.

“I heard of this bronze, in passing. A brief mistake on Leonie’s part. The Riolet was mentioned by accident, although now that it is here – she is here with us – I know that there’s no accident in life. Every moment, every word, every deed, slowly travels from a distant horizon to crash against the shore. And so it was, when I was there. I was so young – oh my lord, I was in my late teens.”

“I was born when you were nearly twenty-five,” Sophie said.

“Oh, of course,” her mother said. “It was Daniel, not you. It must have been. There was all the trouble in Paris – a sea of soldiers poured in, dogs running in the streets – and so many of our friends had already gone to the coast, imagining the worst. But there I was, young and married and living with your father’s family. Leonie had already declared war against me. And the baby, too.”

Sophie felt that little twinge inside, whenever her brother was mentioned.

“It had to be summer. The garden was in bloom, all nightmarish with enormous blossoms and dragonflies and bees and those awful Austrian cousins.”

“Well, once I overheard a conversation. It was Leonie – whose voice is always so loud – when she whispers in a crowded room in France, they hear her in Shanghai. She mentioned the bronze. She mentioned Riolet. And her mother – Helene – slapped her, I think, for speaking of it. Smacked her right across the mouth. Imagine. A grown woman. “But it showed me how important – how valuable – this bronze must be. And a Riolet, after all. I was no fool.

“I had to discover this secret – once I’d heard, no, it was more a whiff, a whisper, a tickling feather at my ear and nose and lips. Riolet. Armand Riolet. Of course, in my studies, I’d heard of Riolet. I knew his history, all ladies my age had heard of him. He was a romantic, there was a famous portrait of him by Moularde – a scandal, really – the artist depicted as young Samson, half-naked, a sword and shield covering his bolder regions, dark wild hair at his shoulders, piercing eyes. His legendary liaisons, the intrigue with Marie-Antoinette herself, the published diaries of his insane mistress – most of which had been burned – but your grandmother had a copy of it at her house. Oh, and the art that he created, his part in the revolution. So much more.

“I discovered – simply by listening to servants – that your grandmother went to view this hidden work of art every Sunday. I bribed the housekeeper – remember Louise? The one you children called Lulu? Those wide saucer eyes? Lips all brittle like oyster shells? The old souse. Anyone could buy her loyalty with a bottle of modest vintage and a Florentine fan.

“Every Sunday, Helene went to gaze upon this Riolet. Others attended Mass. But your grandmother claimed her gout kept her from going. But it wasn’t gout at all.

“This was her religion. The Riolet.

“I feigned illness one Sunday, and remained behind. My room was far away from the main house and looked out over the sea. Helene would never think that I would follow her, I was certain.

“I was careful not to be seen as I stalked your grandmother down the byzantine routes of that house, up and down stairs, in and out of chambers. I worried that I’d be lost without leaving bread crumbs in my wake or tying thread between doorways.

“But finally, she came to the room, one I had never before seen, down an alleyway of a corridor, narrow, low-ceilinged, with a jumbling of old and useless things strewn about it as if it were used by lesser servants. “She unlocked it and went in. She left the door cracked, very slightly.

“I tiptoed to it, as best I could, for your brother – rest his soul – had begun kicking within me, causing little jolts that made me catch my breath. He was a strong little baby, which is why we named him Hercule, after all.”

“Daniel,” Sophie interrupted, jarred from her mother’s tale by this discrepancy.

“Of course, yes, Daniel. But I called him Hercule. It was only on the gravestone, when we buried him, after his christening, that Daniel became his name. But, regardless, cherie, there I was, at the door, a kicking baby inside me.”

Sophie silently marveled at her mother’s composure in this mention of her dead brother. Aunt Leonie had spread a story that her mother suffered from hysteria for years, requiring constant treatments and taking of the waters after Daniel’s death.

(“Only when you were born,” Leonie told her, “did she begin to recover.”)

Her mother raised a hand, pantomiming.

“I leaned against the doorframe, and pressed my eye against the crack. Oh, but she was returning to the door! She would see me!

“I panicked. I covered my mouth to keep from letting out a cry. I stepped back, expecting the worst. “I held my breath.

“But she had simply returned to the door to shut it. And lock it. Never suspecting that I was just on the other side.

“I crouched down, spying through the keyhole.

“She approached a tall black lacquer cabinet.

“It was the kind with little secret catches and drawers and hidden cabinets within. Something a magician might use.

“She opened the cabinet, moved her hands along its lining, and suddenly, doors within it popped open, and there she was.”

Her mother took a long breath. “Later, I tried to forget what I’d seen. But I couldn’t. It was an itch I couldn’t scratch. It was a taste of something sweet and savory that I had to have again. She haunted my dreams. I managed to get your grandmother to speak of her. And Helene told the entire history to me, of how the statue had once been stolen, then returned, then her husband’s brother had taken it, but your grandmother had managed to get it again after he died. “Still, Helene wouldn’t admit that it was in the house at all. She told me it was kept in a vault. A vault! As if the Bank of Paris held it, or a castle in the Loire.”

Her mother spoke of the long summer, the pain of the pregnancy as little Hercule grew, and doctors who came and went. But she could never forget the room, or the cabinet.

“The key to that room was hidden somewhere. I had to find it. Oh, I had already been searching, believe me. I was supposed to stay in bed the whole time – the doctors warned me, but I couldn’t resist looking. I found keys to every single room except for the one room in that house from which I was barred. I was a starving cat, sniffing out a mouse in the walls, I tell you.

“So, another Sunday approached. Again, I bribed Lulu – whose thirst for good wine was insatiable. She was my feeble Scheherezade, feeding me tidbits of your grandmother’s routine. She told me that Helene rose early to get the keys to the room. ‘I’ve never seen her when she got them, I just know she has them, so I know she rises before the rest of us. On Sunday. Most Sundays.’ Lulu said, already half-drunk as we spoke. Before dawn, she said. When it’s not light, even. When even the rooster sleeps.

“I couldn’t sleep all of Saturday night. Nervous and twitchy, I paced the floor of my room, nearly rubbing out the pattern of the beautiful rug that lay across it. At four, I went to sit near your grandmother’s room. She opened the door not twenty minutes later. Ghost-like in her nightgown and cap, she held a little candle in her hand. For a moment, I thought she sensed me there. I held my breath. I willed myself to become as dark as the hall itself.

“I followed her down the stair, through corridors, past the rooms and the kitchen, and out the back steps. Outside, a halo of light pressed through the dark gloom, as if the sun were just over the rise. “Your grandmother didn’t see me as I followed her out of the house.

“She went to the garden, along the narrow path of flagstones, through the sprays of iris and lilac bushes, to that little pond full of gold and black fish.

“She knelt there, on the slate just above the water’s surface. She spread the rushes and reeds apart. I wasn’t sure what she might be up to, but then she rolled back her sleeve, reaching into the scum.

“In a moment, she retrieved a a small, dripping safe – rusted and filthy.

“Once she’d set it on the ground – and it was not a light box, believe me, but you know Helene, for an old bird, she still had her strength. By now, the light had come up, casting a purple haze. This seemed to hasten your grandmother’s movements.

“She drew herself up, and there, not three feet from the pond, by the walkway where the lavender grew, she lifted one of the white stones. You remember? You called them serpent eggs?”

(“Dragon eggs,” Sophie interrupted.)

“That’s right – but of course! Dragon eggs. All smooth and white, big as a fat man’s fist.

“But there was one dragon’s egg that was different from the others. A little blue-green vein bled down the center, and it made the stone look like a large eye. It was only later – in the heat of the afternoon – that I found it, this stone, and what lay beneath it.

“The key to the safe.

“That morning, before even the kitchen boy was up, I watched as your grandmother unlocked the safe, and withdrew the other two keys.

“The one to the room, and the one to the cabinet – which was small and silver. Isn’t that madness? What an unexpected fox your grandmother was! To hide these keys in a pond. Why, her greedy little mind must have suspected that everyone was after the Riolet. And perhaps, they were. The following Sunday, a well-placed bribe to Lulu helped me yet again.

“Her price had gone up to two bottles of the finest wine and nearly a week’s wages – to keep her silence and watch for your grandmother’s carriage, for everyone had gone to the village in the late afternoon, while I feigned illness and exhaustion.

“I paid Lulu’s fee gladly, of course. I would have given my firstborn to enter that room. “I went to retrieve these keys.

“I had to see the figure of Marie-Sophie Eugenie. I had to.

“My heart beat rapidly as if I’d swallowed a live hummingbird and it thrummed its wings against my ribs. I unlocked the door of the chamber,” her mother said, her voice rising. “And then the cabinet. I had to hunt within that puzzle of a cabinet – turn little knobs and feel beneath drawers, but I knew she was there.

“It was as if she were breathing. Waiting for me to find her.

“I finally touched the edge of a velvety trench along the cabinet wall. Yes, I knew. This was it. I felt along its soft edge. Applying slight pressure there, suddenly, miraculously, I heard a little noise, as if a trap had sprung…”

Madame Gabriac gasped as if she were now discovering the statue again. She moved her hands through the air, a magician conjuring.

“And then, her. Her.”

“I stayed there an hour. I put the keys back where they belonged. Your grandmother was none the wiser. Or so I thought.”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Her face…” Sophie said.

“Oh, yes. She was in love, Sophie. It’s there in her face. See how Riolet captured it! Why, it rivals all the treasures of the Louvre, doesn’t it? He was a magnificent artist.”

Then, taking a heaving breath, her mother whispered, “It’s worth more than we might imagine.”

“I don’t know why,” Sophie said. “I’ve seen bronzes like it before.”

“There are none like it,” Madame Gabriac said in a hushed tone, as if Sophie had cried out some blasphemy. “None. It is unrivaled.”

Her mother reached out to touch the figure’s hands.

“Even the fingernails. Look. The half-moon at the base of the nail. There is one flaw – see, under the chin? But even this flaw makes it perfect.”

Her mother was lost, Sophie felt, no longer in the room. No longer with her.

“It is the only remaining sculpture of the royal family done by Riolet. The rest were destroyed during the bloody revolution. Armand Riolet was murdered – by his mistress – soon after he completed this. She was jealous of this statue! It’s his final work. His masterwork, some have said.”

As if Sophie didn’t even exist, her mother whispered, “Is it really here? Or is it a dream?”

Madame Gabriac’s grazed her fingers along the statue’s face.

“I knew we’d have it someday,” she said, speaking slowly, almost in a trance. “I knew it. How your father wrestled this from Leonie and his uncles, I can only imagine. Perhaps your grandmother told no one. Your father’s cousins would kill for it.”

Then, pressing her hands to her face, Madame Gabriac began weeping as she nearly collapsed to the floor in front of the figure.

Sophie crouched next to her. “Mama? Are you all right?”

“I was so afraid, cherie. The whole journey here.”

“I know,” Sophie said, kneeling down.

“My whole life. I was told. I was told I would be nothing. That my father – that he was nothing but a shopkeeper. But we were never poor. I had the best education, Sophie. Better than Leonie ever had. My mother – rest her soul – never saw how well I married. But she taught me. And I was smarter than other girls I knew. And I dreamed, Sophie. We must dream, always. On the rooftop, where I kept my doves, I’d release them in the air and they’d fly over Paris and I’d dream that I was with them, that I was not always going to live above a shop, that I would be in those mansions, among those people who came into the shop, those people who had everything. Everything.

“I saw your father in his uniform.” Madame Gabriac brightened as she spoke. “He was handsome. I dreamed he would give me – and my future children – he would give us this life. I knew. But now, do you see? Look what we have. Look what your father has done for us. If your aunt could see this, she would be the one with tears on her face.”

“Yes.” Sophie kissed her mother on the forehead. “She’d want to strangle her own mother.”

Madame Gabriac smiled. “Oh, that’s true, cherie. Leonie would rather set herself on fire than lose this.”

“Grandmama must love us very much.”

“Oh yes, yes,” her mother whispered. “She’s chosen us. Us over them. That’s what all this means. We are chosen.”

“Of course we are,” Sophie said, embracing her mother.

“Leonie can’t stand that I’m a Gabriac. It kills her. But she’s lost. She’s lost. And this is the sign. This beautiful statue.”

“Don’t think about Aunt Leonie,” Sophie said, feeling a terrible heaviness in her chest. “She’s a world away from us.”

After several minutes, Sophie helped her mother to her feet.

“We’ll show them,” her mother said. “When this business is through. We’ll return to Paris. We’ll buy a palace – a greater house than any Gabriac has ever had. You’ll see, Sophie. This will be a small part of our lives. This will be a moment out of a thousand brilliant, victorious moments. This is only the beginning. Oh cherie, it will be wonderful, I promise. I promise.”

“I know, Mama,” Sophie whispered.

6

The Ruby Feathers of Enchanted Birds

 

When the period for naps was over, Leticia called the girls down, and then had to run back upstairs with Viola to rouse Sophie. The servant stood by the bed as Sophie struggled out from under a deep dream.

Sophie looked up at Leticia, unsure of who she was, where she was, why she was no longer in Paris, shopping along the St. Honore with her father and mother as she had been in the dream.

“Your mother,” the servant said. “She called supper.”

The reality around her returned. The bedroom, the new home, the hour or so of sleep, and Leticia herself.

Sophie went to wash her face in the porcelain bowl at the dressing table. Viola began asking Leticia all kinds of questions, prompting Sophie to warn her sister to mind her manners.

“It’s all right,” Leticia said in near-perfect French. “No one ever asks me about myself. Not in the other houses where I’ve worked. All they cared about was where their things were, who would help them, why they didn’t have what they wanted at the precise moment that they thought of it.”

Leticia, as it turned out, was a little chatterbox, though she rarely would ever speak in front of Madame Gabriac. But with the girls, she spoke freely and constantly.

She began telling her entire life, which took the girls from washing up to dressing for supper, to walking down the long hallway upstairs, through the alcove, down the curved staircase to the next floor, and out onto the terrace where their mother thrummed the table with her fingers and wouldn’t look at them for ten minutes because they were so late.

Leticia was from Spain, but spoke several languages because the variations of Latin interested her, and – so she reported – had spent her entire childhood in a convent in Andalusia. “Strict nuns. They’d beat you and starve you. But I was a fast learner. A star pupil. Sister Inez Aloysia took me under her wing. I slept in her room, away from the other girls. I had special privileges, partly because of my uncle.”

Leticia’s uncle was a priest; her two maiden aunts were contemplative nuns of some obscure order in the Pyrenees; her own parents, however, hated all churches.

“Both my father and mother died when I was young, although I’m not sure how they died. My uncle insisted that I never speak of them – and he provided for my education, so I did as I was told. Sister Inez Aloysia – who prayed seven hours a day – told me they went right to Hell, but if I prayed in the dark with her – in our little bed – they might be forgiven for their sins. I’d lay down next to her and we’d both clasp hands and I could hear her prayers whispered at my left ear for so long that I began to hear them in my dreams.”

Once Leticia had finished school, failing in various attempts to take the sacred vows, it was arranged that she should marry a young monk who had to leave his order. Not long after, her husband died from a persistent, wracking cough.

“He didn’t die exactly from the cough,” she admitted, without being asked to do so. “And perhaps he isn’t dead. One day, I just no longer heard the cough. When I looked around, he wasn’t there. I haven’t seen him since. Perhaps if I hear his cough, I’ll know he’s alive and things will be better between us.”

(“I don’t think she believes people die at all,” Sophie whispered to Viola as they went down the stairs, while Leticia chattered as she walked ahead of them.

“Maybe they don’t,” Viola said. “Maybe they just stop coughing.”)

By the time the terrace was in view, out past the wide room that seemed barren and purposeless, through the beveled glass doors, between the great clay pots filled with tropical plants and small citrus bushes, Leticia had reached the part of her life where she arrived in Mexico City with letters of reference and went to work almost immediately as a governess at first, and then a housekeeper . “The Moreaus, the Jubinals, even the Arouets – right behind us – but she’s a terrible woman, capable of all sorts of wickedness.”

On the terrace, the girls took their seats opposite their mother.

It was still light out. The sky looked as if it might rain, but Leticia told them it was too far away. “We’d smell it first. When you smell the rain, you know it’s on its way. You can set your clock by it in summer.”

“I thought it would be boiling hot here,” Sophie said.

“Oh, no,” Leticia laughed. “It’s always perfect in the city.”

A commotion began in the alley beyond the back gate where two workmen argued over some onerous task.

The cook – Camille – brought a large bowl of cassoulet out to the table, with great chunks of bread set out on the side plates.

Gold bands ran around the rim of each bowl, and the plates themselves were brightly painted dainty birds with curved beaks along their silver edges.

“My grandmother used to make this during the long winters at our farmhouse,” Camille said in her whispery little voice as she poured sauce across Viola’s plate. “On frozen nights when the wind howled, she told us it was storm wolves racing through the clouds.”

“Were there really wolves?” Viola asked.

“Terrible storm wolves, of course, but they stayed in the sky. Still, they frightened all the ducks.”

“You had ducks?” Viola asked.

“Oh yes,” Camille said as she ladled out copious amounts of sauce and stew and long slender white asparagus across Sophie’s plate. “And geese and chickens and pigs. All quite friendly – but noisy! The geese, in particular, liked to sing hymns – and you know that wolves hate hymns as much as they hate aubergine and mushroom soup.”

Sophie looked up at the cook, who smiled at her. Camille’s dark hair sprayed in slender strands out from the sides of her little white cap.

Sophie could not help but smile back.

“You have your father’s eyes, you know that?” Camille said, feather-soft, as she hovered nearby, looking back at Sophie.

Sophie thought Camille was a wonderful cook, but when she mentioned this to her mother – after the plates were cleared – all she got in reply was, “The stew was dry, I thought. And too much salt.”

Later, Viola discovered the sealed letter.

She came running up to Sophie, out of breath.

“It was at a writing desk,” Viola said, passing her the letter. “Under the inkwell. In the little room by the library.”

Sophie glanced at it before taking it to their mother. “From father.”

Madame Gabriac turned the letter over. “Viola, run and get my glasses. In the drawing room, on the table.”

“He left us a note. At least,” Sophie said.

Their mother walked ahead of them, tugging apart the wide doors to the library.

“Girls, this way.” Madame Gabriac glanced back to her daughters, who peered through the doorway.

“Our own library,” Sophie whispered.

“Just like Aunt Leonie’s,” Viola said.

“Bigger than hers. But not so many books.”

Tall dark bookcases obscured the walls of the long room. Various chairs and benches were set around long and short tables, all of them with rather plain lamps set beside curious little figurines at each table’s center.

Viola clutched Sophie’s hand as they followed their mother over to the round table near a tall arched window that looked out over the terrace.

Sophie stood at the window while her mother turned up various lamps.

Leticia sat below at the terrace table with another servant, both of them having coffee. As Leticia spoke, her hands moved rapidly as if they might fly away.

“I like Leticia,” Sophie said. “Her French is good.”

“And Camille,” Viola said.

“Yes, Camille, too.”

A man and a woman walked through the alley between houses.

Somewhere, dogs were barking – perhaps a street or two over.

Across the way, in the gardens of the house directly behind theirs, a woman fed small green and red parrots from her hand. She stood within a white birdcage that was as tall as a door and wide enough for three people to enter.

“Who lives behind us?” Sophie asked. “Is it the Arouets?”

“How would I know? Come – sit,” Madame Gabriac said.

Sophie wandered over to the table, and pulled out one of the chairs next to her sister. A small figurine of St. Michel standing atop a dragon-winged devil stood beside the lamp.

“The people in back, they’ve got birds,” she told Viola. “Parrots – but not ordinary ones. They’re made of sparkling jewels.”

“What kind?”

“Mostly jade and rubies,” Sophie said.

“There’s no such thing.”

“You might think that, but I saw them.”

“They must be enchanted,” Viola said, with some certainty.

“Yes, by a bad witch – a hag of the worst sort. Not like us. I’ve seen her. She keeps the jade birds trapped within a cage as big as Notre Dame itself. Their feathers, of course, are magic. They grant wishes.”

“How many wishes?”

“Oh Sophie, really, stop filling her head with nonsense,” Madame Gabriac said as she slipped her glasses on. “She’s going to believe the world is like that. Viola, there are no magic birds.”

Sophie eyed her mother while she spoke just under her breath. “One wish for each feather.”

“I’d have to pluck them all off,” Viola said. “So I could have a thousand wishes.”

“But what about the poor birds? And even worse – for every wish you get, one gets taken away from someone else.”

“That’s not fair.”

“When has a witch’s curse ever been fair?”

Viola thought a moment. “Then my first wish would be…no one would ever lose their wishes. And my second would be that the birds grow two feathers for every single one I take.”

Madame Gabriac lit a cigarette and rested it on the edge of a large crystal ashtray shaped like a swan.

She used a pair of scissors to slice the wax seal and open the letter.

“Look,” Madame Gabriac said. “Two pages. He must have taken a good ten minutes.”

Viola whispered, “Papa.”

Their mother began to read the letter aloud.

“Dearest Gabrielle and my beloved angels Sophie and Violette,

Do you like our little palace? I hope it pleases you, but I invite you to change it as you desire. You will note that my mother sent us some special gifts, and these no doubt will make you as happy as they do me.

“You will find that the servants are a decent lot. The laundress comes twice a week. Be kind to the man who brings the jugs of water – and have the cook feed him if he arrives early enough.

“You will love our cook – Camille is a good country girl, and she has already tried to make me fat, so be careful! You will not easily resist her dishes.”

Madame Gabriac read slowly, as if she were picking out words and phrases that carried a particular significance, with possible hidden meanings.

“She makes delicious sauces that you will never forget. Her Magret de Canard Poê and her simple pot-au-feu are among my favorites. She is just recently married, so be kind to her. Her husband is a young soldier, and she misses him and her parents, as well.

“I hope you will welcome her as part of the family and treat her accordingly. In my too-short days in the city, she reminded me of our home country and its cuisine.”

Madame Gabriac peered over the letter at her daughters.

“Well, apparently the help made quite an impression. One wonders why no mention of our little nun, Leticia. I find her particularly good at her job.”

She picked up the second page of the letter and continued reading.

“There’s an excellent seamstress three doors down, and the markets are a few minutes by foot. Carriages will be at your disposal.

“You must begin your Spanish lessons, of course, right away. We must create harmony in our new city.”

Their mother made a little noise at the back of her throat. She took off her glasses, and put the letter down.

“And so on and so forth.”

“But what else does he say?” Sophie asked.

“He says he’s sending some old friend of his to visit. A gentleman from Grenoble, a man named Renzo. What a ridiculous name that is,” Madame Gabriac said.

“Is that all?” Viola asked. “Nothing about my birthday?”

“He says he’ll visit soon,” her mother said.

“When is ‘soon’?”

Sophie drew her sister close, wrapping her arm over her shoulders, brushing her hair back with her hand. “I’m sure he’ll come for Christmas.”

“My birthday’s next month,” Viola said. “Maybe then? Maybe he’ll get me a jade and ruby bird?”

Madame Gabriac reached for the ashtray and dragged it to the edge of the table.

She opened the slender tin box beside it and drew out a match and another cigarette. After lighting the cigarette, she slipped it between her lips.

Madame Gabriac set the burning match to the letter.

She held the two pages of the letter as they caught fire. When the cinders began floating upward, she dropped the blackening paper into the wide ashtray.

“Are you mad?” Sophie reached for the letter before it all burned up. “What are you doing?”

Her mother swatted her hand away. “You’ll burn yourself.”

“But you’re destroying…” Sophie said, but couldn’t bring herself to say it aloud: him.

She watched the last of the letter blacken and smolder and turn to ash.

“It’s only paper,” Madame Gabriac said. “He’ll write other letters to us. You can save those in all your little books, if you like.”

The next morning, Sophie’s mother let the cook go.

By evening, Madame Gabriac hired a local woman who was in her forties.

“She’s come highly recommended. She speaks French, at least to the extent a cook needs to. We can teach her a few French dishes. If your father ever visits, he may come to appreciate her canard as much as he did Camille’s.”

The new cook was named Griselda Riachuela, and she had a wild bird’s nest of hair upon her scalp and a spindly figure beneath it. Sophie thought she looked like some witch’s broom turned upside down. No cook’s cap would fit that bramble of hair.

“I am watching you,” Griselda said when she met Sophie that night, just before supper.

Sophie guided Viola by the hand through the little maze of hanging pots and low tables. It was their first visit to the kitchen. In this steamy underworld, hellfire belched from the wide oven and a motley assortment of pots rumbled in diabolical boil on the stove.

The scent of lamb, onion and chili filled the air.

“Get away from that,” Griselda barked, pointing a wooden spoon toward Viola who peered down into a wide mixing bowl on a low stool. “If you fall in, I’ll bake you in the oven and we’ll eat you for pudding tonight.”

Sophie tried out a few words in Spanish with the cook, but the woman glowered at her. Griselda’s eyes were dark little almonds, one of them slightly turned as if it were about to run off. “Like Aunt Leonie’s,” Sophie whispered.

“I know what you’re up to,” the cook said.

“Senora?”

“I know girls like you.” Griselda turned back to the stove. She seemed to have grown several arms, all moving furiously: stirring pots, grabbing dried herbs off the table, whipping eggs into a creamy froth, chopping onions with a knife big enough to cut a man in two.

She turned about one last time. “I’ve seen you before. Little spoiled potatoes with too many eyes and sprouts, all of you. Now, get out of my kitchen.”

As they went back up the stairs, Viola said, “She’s not nice like Camille.”

“Of course not,” Sophie said. “Griselda’s an ogress with six arms.”

“And she eats children.”

“But she had better watch out for the jade parrots,” Sophie added. “They’ll make nests in her thorny hair and peck out her eyes.”

On their seventh night in the house, the Gabriac sisters met a man who was introduced as their “guardian angel.”

 

7

The Gentleman from Grenoble

 

“Viola– what are you doing?” Madame Gabriac said.

Viola – who had circled behind the man – peered over at her mother. “Looking for his wings.”

“I’ve made them invisible for the time being,” the man said.

The man was late. He apologized at the door downstairs first to one servant, then another. He begged forgiveness when Leticia brought him upstairs, and then mentioned how sorry he was yet again, this time to Madame Gabriac, when they went into the drawing room.

The man’s head held a fringe of reddish hair, and the enormous bald spot beyond this shone in the bright lamplight. A red moustache perched on his upper lip; a sparse beard came to a sharp point just beneath his chin. He was nattily dressed in cream-colored waistcoat and suit, an ivory-tipped cane in his hand.

“He’s not really an angel,” Sophie said as she pulled Viola back around toward the settee in the anteroom. She whispered, “Unless angels look like goats these days.”

“Monsieur Lorencez is an important man,” their mother said. “He doesn’t have time to waste.”

“Oh, but time is wonderful to waste,” the man said, winking at Sophie. “And please call me Renzo.”

Renzo sat in a chair across from the two girls. He reached over and took Sophie’s hand, offered reluctantly.

His hands were warm and strangely moist. He placed one under her palm, one over, as if he wanted to smother her fingers. She drew her hand away as quickly as she could.

“I know your father very well. He misses you both.”

Madame Gabriac clutched a thin brown cigarette between her fingers as she went to stand by the window, which was opened just a crack.

“I still don’t see why we need someone guarding us,” Sophie said.

Sophie glanced at the Renzo’s hands. His knuckles whitened as he clutched the cane.

“Well, there are certain dangers here. In the city,” Renzo said.

“We’ll stay in the house. Day and night if we have to,” Sophie said.

“Oh, that would be a pity. You girls need sunshine and friends and trips to shops, don’t you? Yes, of course. Still, there are things one must not do. Not in the city. Not while you’re here.”

“Like what?” Viola asked.

Renzo drew his fingers along his beard.

Sophie reached over, squeezing Viola’s hand. She leaned close to her sister and whispered in her ear, “Old goat.”

Viola giggled.

“Viola.” Madame Gabriac snapped her fingers. “Sophie.”

Renzo’s lecture began. Crime, care, caution, courtesy, curfew, chaperones, coaches, carriages, cathedrals, convents, catamites, commotions, confession – Renzo nattered away.

Sophie and Viola traded sly glances through the tepid hour.

“Sounds dreadful,” Sophie said when he seemed to have finished.

“Crime’s nearly commonplace in those neighborhoods you love best in Paris, isn’t it? Yet you always felt safe there. This city is no different.”

“He’s going to start up again,” Sophie whispered as quietly as she could into Viola’s ear.

And he did.

Another hour of warning and weather reports and where-to-go passed, the godlessness of the Liberals, the rightness of the Empire, during which Madame Gabriac smoked several cigarettes, finally sitting down in the enormous chair beneath the painting of the house in Grasse with its thousand purple and yellow wildflowers.

Their mother rose once to go to the doorway to call Leticia to bring up coffee.

The tray with the cups arrived. Leticia seemed frightened by Renzo’s devilish visage.

Renzo drank three cups of over-sugared coffee in quick succession. He spattered drips and drops around his shirt and waistcoat and the rug, for he couldn’t keep his arms from moving as he spoke.

He lit up a cigar and breathed ash into every phrase as he began chatting with their mother about the various clubs and soirees of the city – places with names like The Byzantine and The Scheherazade and something about special evenings at the Iturbide. “Society is very much the same here as in Paris, only it’s quieter, perhaps – and more secretive.”

Viola began coughing from all the smoke.

The room needed airing out.

Leticia flung open doors on either side of the drawing room, all the sashes were pulled back, the windows pushed as wide as they would go. Leticia returned with several wide peacock fans, passing two to the girls and one to Renzo, keeping one for herself.

They fanned the air.

Madame Gabriac put out her cigarette.

Renzo’s droning voice cut through the haze.

Viola’s cough subsided.

“Good,” he said, when his speech was done. “It’s a beautiful city in most respects. I understand you’ve already begun studying the language.”

“Leticia’s teaching us. And Griselda, but…” Viola said, and then spoke a sentence in Spanish, in which she said, “She’s a mean old witch and I think she’s put a spell on my mother.”

Renzo raised an eyebrow, and half his mouth smiled while the other half remained still.

(“These girls,” Madame Gabriac said, with a polite harshness.)

“Very poetic, Viola,” he said, after a moment or two. “You and Sophie must speak the language when you’re out in the shops and market. These are our people. Enjoy yourselves. And let’s not let your mother down.”

He turned in his chair, tilting his head back slightly toward Madame Gabriac. “It’s no doubt difficult without a man in the house.”

“You can only imagine,” Madame Gabriac said.

“Monsieur Renzo,” Viola said, an utter seriousness in her tone.

“Yes?” he said, turning back toward her.

“May we see your wings now?”

On her way to bed that night, Sophie passed by shadows in the hallway.

She heard a man’s voice – barely more than a whisper.

Then, her mother’s voice. Soft, low.

Sophie listened, but couldn’t make out the conversation.

Her mother’s voice grew louder. “Sophie? What are you doing? You should be in bed.”

Sophie looked from her mother’s face, half in shadow, to the man who stood there, his cane leaning against the doorway to her mother’s bedroom. His shirt was not completely buttoned.

“Go to bed. Right now,” Madame Gabriac said.

When Sophie turned away, she heard Renzo say to her mother, “It’s her age, that’s all. She’s nearly a woman. Don’t be cross with her.”

Sophie went to her room and locked the door. Her heart was beating fast. She felt as if she could barely breathe and that she might faint dead away at any moment.

She dropped onto her bed and lay there until the feeling of panic subsided. Her face felt flushed with heat.

She reached into the recesses of the mattress and found the necklace, raising it up, pressing it against her heart to slow it down, imagining the prisoner of the pearls, her scimitar, her vengeance.

 

8

The Book Who Reads Itself

 

From those first weeks in the city, Sophie buried herself in popular romances with titles like The Raftsman’s Daughter, Last Days of Tul, The Romance of the Mummy – and her favorite of all of them, Mademoiselle de Maupin.

Sophie slept with these books by her pillow, imagining their adventures and intrigues. The novels helped her get through the long days.

Whenever she held the pearls against a candle’s glow, Sophie imagined that her future involved daring and scandal and swordfights.

Three years passed slowly, with news of battles and French families coming and going. Despite her morning classes at the Academy, Sophie began to feel more isolated as time went on and as the government around them slowly crumbled. Still, the ordinariness of the days didn’t change much – the servants kept the girls in high spirits, and there were visitors to the house, dinner parties that Sophie and Viola spied upon, and once, even, their father visited, though it was brief, and neither Sophie nor Viola could remember exactly when they’d last seen him a year or so later.

Renzo visited frequently, bringing chocolates and Turkish coffee and unusual spices he’d bought on his travels. He often arrived just before bedtime, returning with their mother and other friends that Sophie never met, coming back from an evening at Le Byz, as they called it, or a special concert at the Scheherazade or dinner with minor dignitaries at the palace itself. Once, Renzo – stinking drunk – tucked Viola in and tried to do the same for Sophie, who ordered him out of her room.

The servants had become playmates, with Leticia enjoying games in the courtyard and on the terrace, while Diego –one of the aguadores, bringing jugs of water twice a week – would take time out for hide and seek; the livery servant liked card games, and Olivia, the French seamstress – who arrived once every two weeks with a gown for their mother – brought gossip and news from the world of fashionable women, where everything interesting and scandalous seemed to happen.

And then, there was the cook.

Griselda, despite her ogress ways, had begun teaching the girls how to make chicken mole, and to keep from crying over chopped onions (“Do not let on that you intend to murder the little demons, but quickly drown them in cool bone broth, yes, skins and all, and then, you chop them quickly and throw them into the pan until their flesh sizzles and curls! It may seem heartless, but the element of surprise is important,”) how to stuff the chilis (“with caution for their tender feelings and modesty,”) and where to find the good masa for tamales (“out in the Indian markets, where no Criollo dares go, where all the old women glare at you and mutter spells and incantations if you don’t show them respect,”) and how to haggle over the price of fruit and who not to buy from at all, and where to find the perfect plums in the city. She began to talk openly about her limp (“my father threw me down the stairs when I was fifteen and of course I deserved it because my father was never wrong – and, according to him, I was never right,”), her hair (“My grandmother was a thorn tree and my great-uncle was a cactus – I inherited their hair, but my sister Celia got their faces, and that’s why no man will come near her,”) and why her eye wandered (“I once saw a truly handsome boy, a matador named Rubio, when I was nineteen, from the corner of my eye – and that eye has been trying to find him ever since,”) and all about her son Paolito.

“He’s off with the army but I expect him home any day now. He promised to come back and buy me a little house just outside the city, with a blue cage full of lovebirds hanging in the courtyard, surrounded by bright red dahlias. Aren’t dahlias the most perfect flower? My abuelita told me that they’re the sharp little blossoms of a broken heart.”

Sophie had begun loving Griselda, though the cook was still harsh with glance and her knife-edged tongue at times, yet every now and then, these glimmers of kindness showed through. Griselda taught Viola the legends of her home village – the stories of the gods, of the saints, of the sleeping maiden, of the buried cities, and more. The cook also taught them songs to sing while cooking (“These are spells, these tunes. It’s all witchcraft, of course,” Griselda said, “I am from a long line of spice witches.”) The two sisters particularly loved the recipe for the hottest of chilis mingled with “chocolate as sweet and sticky as sin itself,” speckled with sifted cinnamon and poured into a bowl of steamed milk to be sipped on rainy evenings when the gardens flooded and they sat in the warm kitchen listening to stories of Griselda’s childhood below the snowy peak of Popocatapetal, “Up where people grow young instead of old, and where you can see the little fish that swim in the lake of the clouds.”

Rumors of the slaughter of prisoners and distant massacres reached Sophie each week through the gossip of servants.

The fighting was elsewhere, and within the gates of the city, only the presence of soldiers along the Paseo suggested wartime. But now and then, as the tide shifted from the Europeans to the Mexicans themselves, something happened within a few streets of the Gabriac home.

“It was terrible!” Leticia cried out as she hurried the girls down into the gardens for an afternoon of Spanish lessons. “Nothing but thugs, of course, but such a horror story! I really shouldn’t tell you, Sophie, it will singe your eyelashes to hear it.”

The son of a French officer was attacked just four streets away, stabbed and left for dead. No one had yet been arrested for this crime. No European walked the boulevards alone without a sense of fear – and most of the high-ranking officers’ families left the city by the time Sophie turned seventeen in the fall of 1866.

“It’s unsafe for us here,” Sophie told her mother one evening in late December.

Madame Gabriac stood in front of her dressing mirror, corset cinching her waist, pushing her breasts up, while the bloom of crinolette caged the lower half of her body where she wore long silk undergarments thin as the wings of a butterfly.

“Run and get our little nun, cherie,” her mother said. “I need to hurry.”

“I’m worried, mama.”

“Oh, for god’s sake, Marie-Sophie,” Madame Gabriac said, glancing at her from the tall mirror. “Believe me, Juarez himself doesn’t want anything bad to happen to us. Now, here, help me.”

Madame Gabriac swept her hair up from the nape of her neck and held it.

Sophie stepped around her mother’s back and grasped sheaves of her thick hair, curving it upward, pinning it back.

“Now the curls.”

“Your hair’s like starch,” Sophie said as she brushed up several strands and pulled at the stiff hair. “Why do you do it?”

“To look beautiful, of course.”

“Not your hair. I mean why do you go out with those awful people?”

“Don’t be so provincial. They’re not awful at all. And it’s the opera. It’s just the opera.”

“But they hate us,” Sophie said.

“You mean politics? One’s in, one’s out. A game among men, Sophie,” Madame Gabriac said. “Women don’t need to play it.”

Her mother looked at her reflection. She reached up and fiddled with the tiny curls by her forehead. “What do you think – ribbons? Or comb?”

“Comb,” Sophie said.

“Yes, a hint of drama – that beautiful comb, the one your father sent last Christmas. Where is our little nun? Go get her, would you?”

Sophie ran into the hall and called out for the servant. She hurried along to her mother’s room to fetch the silver comb with a half-dozen pearls at its crown and two sapphires at either end.

Her mother grabbed the comb from her daughter’s fingers the second she returned with it. She positioned it at a low angle at the back of her scalp.

“Perfect,” she whispered to her reflection. “How do I look?”

Sophie cocked her head to the side as she checked each detail of her mother’s hair and face.

“Like an Empress. In her underwear.”

“Leticia! Leticia! Hurry!” Her mother shouted toward the open door.

“I’m coming, Senora!” the servant called from down the hall.

Madame Gabriac turned and grasped Sophie’s hands, squeezing them lightly. “Don’t look so glum. Cherie, we have people watching out for us.”

“Like our guardian angel?”

“You hate him so much as that?”

“Yes,” Sophie said. “But hate is too kind a word for it.”

Her mother pursed her lips. Her eyes seemed steely. She let go of Sophie’s hands. “You’re now a woman if you can speak to me this way.”

Then her mother looked to the open doorway and shouted for the servant.

Leticia came rushing in with a wide, blue damask dress draped over her arms, the little café au lait silk crepe hat in one hand, and a folded fan in the other.

In her lips, Leticia held a half-dozen little pearl-tipped pins, through which she managed to murmur apologies, blaming the seamstress, blaming the traffic in the street.

She drew the pins out, pushing them into the tiny velvet cushion at the dressing table.

“The hat, I think,” Leticia said, holding it up.

Madame Gabriac preferred the comb to the hat, and a little silver-threaded snood that was barely noticeable when drawn over of her thick hair, most of which wouldn’t stay in place whether pinned into curls or not.

Sophie and Leticia worked like bees to get the dress around the crinolette and make it hang so that no wires showed. Sophie drew down the pagoda sleeves for the full effect.

“There,” Sophie said, passing her mother the fan. “A work of art.”

“We’ll go to the Plaza de Toros, soon,” Madame Gabriac said as she opened the rose-colored fan, tigers and egrets painted on its gold border. She checked the mirror one last time. “Wouldn’t you like that? The toreros are all young and handsome. Renzo knows everyone there. Perhaps we can meet Ramon de Garza – the new star of the arena. We’ll have a special day, Sophie. You, me and Viola.”

Her mother went out nearly every night, and spoke more Spanish than French, even at home, even to Sophie and little Viola, as if France itself were fading in her blood.

Viola, who was getting better at Spanish than Sophie, pushed open her older sister’s bedroom door one night.

In her hand, a slim little volume, tattered, its leather cover nearly flaking off.

“It’s called El Palacio de Memoria,” Viola said.

The Palace of Memory,” Sophie leaned her head against her little sister’s as they curled up on the bed. “What a strange name for a book.”

“It’s wonderful,” Viola said. “I read it slowly at first. But then a second time.”

“Is this your third time?” Sophie said, her fingers lazily delving into her sisters beautiful hair, stroking it lightly. Viola smelled like violets and lavender from her bath.

“It might be my fourth,” Viola said.

Viola began reading, first in Spanish, then in French, and then in Spanish again.

“This book,” she began reading, “is a book who reads itself…”

“Are you sure that’s ‘who’ – not ‘that’?” Sophie pointed to one of the words.

Viola nodded, pushing her sister’s finger away. “…A book who reads itself so that you don’t have to struggle or strain. It speaks. It was given its voice by the man who gained mysterious power to bring words to life simply by learning the seven secrets within this tale, all of which you, too, may learn if you read it. This is a true story, of course, but none of it has ever happened.”

“Is it from the library?” Sophie reached over and turned the cover slightly. The title was embossed in faded silver on the green leather cover. There was a drawing of an elephant on the first page.

“Leticia gave it to me. She told me it was her favorite. She found it in the Jubinal’s library, and they told her to keep it. That’s what she said.”

“She probably stole it,” Sophie said.

“She said my Spanish was good enough to start reading it.” Viola whispered as if it were a secret, “I even dream in Spanish now.”

“Read me some more,” Sophie said.

“All right.”

And so, Viola began, and they read by wavering lamplight into the night about the two brothers named Octavio and Aureliano de la Paz who grew up in a village called Arroyo Perdido, where no one knew or cared to know their neighbors, and from which their father had ventured out two years earlier into the jungles of Rio Sombre.

Within several pages, the brothers met the daughter of the thief who stole the golden breaths of emperors and queens and transformed them into braying donkeys and yowling cats.

This girl was none other than Mentira Verdades who sought a cure for her terrible, gem-producing cough, and could not completely tell the truth, but neither were her lies wholly false.

Late that night, leaving Viola in her bed with her arms around the little book, Sophie went downstairs to the library, thinking she would find another book to read and then fall asleep on the lounge that had been set just beneath the window.

When she opened the doors, she saw that there was a single lamp on at the very end of the long room. Someone sat at a table, but because of a haze of dark and her own sleeplessness, she wasn’t sure who it was until she heard his voice.

“Sophie,” Renzo called out, as she stood just inside the door. He turned the lamp up slightly so she could see him better and beckoned her with his hand.

 

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