Growing up, I hadn’t been entirely without support. I had Mme. Francoise, who saw not just with the eyes in her head but also with the eyes in her heart. She didn’t turn from the pain she saw in me, not like the rest of the maids and cooks who averted their eyes when I was near. But what could they have done? To question out loud what they suspected would have meant immediate dismissal. They were women lucky to have employment. Coming forth wouldn’t have changed The Beast’s routines or his beliefs. They’d have simply been replaced with others more willing to look away in exchange for bread to place in their children’s hands.
Mme. Francoise was tiny and bent and seldom spoke. I don’t know how many years she sat on her little stool in the stone kitchen before she approached me. I had walked by her a hundred times, and seen nothing, maybe a shadow, or a fixture as meaningless to my child’s mind as a stick broom. Then she came. I was outside, hiding between bushes. Crying, with my bloomers torn off, I rubbed and scratched between my legs. Such itching and burning I’d never known.
She took me inside, sat me in a bucket of warm water, cloudy with herbs. I recognized some of the things she boiled before adding them: lavender, chamomile, walnut, anise, and Damask rose. There in the kitchen, no clothing beneath, and the skirt of my dress blossoming over the pail sides, as though I simply sat on a little stool, I soaked. I don’t remember how often she needed to save me in this way, but I remember the instant relief of sinking into her remedy, antibiotic and restorative and being content to sit there long after the water was cold. At the time, I didn’t know enough to associate the infections with The Beast, though she must have.
I’m convinced that she was allowed to stay at the villa in part because she went nearly unnoticed. She was half phantom, hunched alone in her corner, an old wool scarf tied around her head, a gnome or ancient fairy. Under certain slants of light, I could catch a tincture of the fiery red hair she once had. When she wasn’t walking the hills harvesting wild things, she worked soundlessly at her table with her herbs and flowers, chopping, pressing, and grinding for her creams and powders. Sitting in her concoctions, I watched the staff approach her with their colds, flu, and female troubles. They would stroll to her stool, waiting until she looked up. She studied them, at times there was whispering, and after a few minutes, she shook powders or crushed leaves onto tiny squares of paper, and with her chloroform-stained fingers and nails, she folded the paper and gave instructions. “Boil a cloth along with this. Wrap it tight around the wound,” or “Make a warm tea, strained well. Drink it three days. No more.”
I loved the scents rising from her table and her peaceful silence. While the others chatted and cackled amongst themselves, her quiet was louder. There was the afternoon, too, after my having been with The Beast, the sky black and slicing with lightning, when I feared running across the fields and climbing into my cave. Mme. Francoise saw my sorrow, and her eyes told me she knew about the morning I had. Her concern doctored me, the acknowledgment of my sorrow, and I sat down next to her eager to be taught. Later that afternoon, when The Beast was ready for his tea, when it sat on his tray ready to be delivered, she opened my palm, put a pinch of something in it, and with her eyes motioned to the tea cup. Then, she screeched at a rat that dropped out of the air, and as the maids screamed and grabbed brooms, I hurried and opened my hand over the waiting cup. The powder vanished, like a white leaf sucked down a drain. For three days, the house was in an uproar, The Beast fuming with unstoppable diarrhea.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish