Her first memory is of the sun. It is Paris. She is two years old. She stands in her father’s private courtyard, a small child with nut-brown hair and dark eyes, and looks up at the shining orb until it blinds her. She closes her eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun on her already-tan skin, and when she opens them, sees spots that make her laugh. The spots go away. She looks up again at the trees.
If she could say the words, she would say, “This is the world.”
She feels it reach out around her in complete safety, what she knows of the world outside the courtyard, and the people in the world, and the people in her life—mother, father, sisters, brother. It is a world full of love and trust and beauty, light sparkling down from above and the warmth of the shining yellow ball on her body.
She is sleepy. She lies down in the center of the private courtyard, curls up in a ball, and sleeps.
Much later her mother, Veronique, comes and picks her up, when it is growing dark. Louise rouses and cries, but quickly quiets, sensing her mother’s breasts, their perfume. They sit in the chair before the fire and her mother opens her dress.
Veronique closes her eyes in this free time she has feeding her daughter. She strokes Louise’s sweet head, her third daughter. The child’s hair is already long. In birth, even, it covered her head, rich and dark. Next year she will end the nursing, as she is with child again. She is such a stubborn child. Louise’s little fists will ball together, her face red with tears. Veronique secretly likes her stubbornness, admires it. It will help her endure life, she thinks.
She watches her husband, Nicolas, by the table, brooding over the accounts of the local artists’ guild that he directs. His stature has increased their income, but also his labor. Paintings of other artists line their living quarters and seep into the courtyard. On market day, he and his apprentices maintain a stall where they sell the works of half the artists of Paris, but it is not a small task. When he is not worrying over guild matters, he is hard at work on his own still lifes or portraits. She has sat for him more than once in costumes meant to represent the court. He is a large man, his great beard halfway down his chest and black deacon’s cloak shrouding him, his manner serious and dark. She thinks of the young man he once was, with his hairless, angular chin and blue eyes, and sees no resemblance. And perhaps he sees no resemblance in her, with her thick rolls of flesh and hooded eyes.
How does youth turn into this? she wonders. The bright promise so alive for an hour and then gone? She must not think such thoughts; God’s gift of life is not some entertainment to be merely enjoyed. At night, though, he still lays his hand on her and she can feel the comfort of his life next to hers before she falls asleep. In the morning, he rises earlier than she does. When she comes to make the meal, he is kneeling in the courtyard, his eyes closed to God.
Louise sits at a table at the back of their church with three other girls, copying words from the Bible, And He stood and blessed the people and a light shone from His eyes. Teacher comes and moves her hand so the letters will be more perfect. She likes the silence of the church, the sunlight from a high window, and the plain dark wood of the pews, but the stone walls are cold. On Sundays they come here also—father, mother, sisters, brother—to listen as the man talks. Sit still, her mother whispers. Cross your hands. She tries, but it is difficult.
Today is for writing. She bends over the paper and carefully makes the letters. She is a girl though sometimes she wishes she were not. As a boy, she could stand with her father in the market and attend the regular school. She could run in the fields. Her body is made for running, not sitting as the women do at church, the light shining on their white collars. But she is lucky. Her father wants her to read and write, so she comes to the church with a few other girls and learns her letters.
He says that if she were Catholic, she would have no education, but she is Huguenot, not Catholic. Catholics kill you, her father says. They killed your uncle and his family. There is a hot poker in his voice when he says it, and she is afraid to look at his face. Once, she brought home a lump of Catholic incense that she’d found in the street—did not know what it was, thought it merely a piece of charcoal to draw with and imagined the pictures she would make to please him—and his face got so angry, spit coming from his mouth. “You are Huguenot!” he yelled, heat rising to his cheeks. She had never seen him so angry. It made her cry. He opened the door and threw it into the street. Much later he came and kissed her and said he was sorry, but still she cried.
She smells the soup warming on a fire at the back of the church and it makes her hungry. She tries to keep still, but her mind wanders. She likes to wander. If she were an insect, she would wander down the stone wall of the church and find the top of her own head. That’s funny. She touches the top of her head, but there is no insect, and looks at the words again, the curve of each letter. And He stood and blessed the people and a light shone from His eyes. She likes the form of each letter and imagines herself an insect, riding them all. It makes her giggle.
After they eat, they draw—a cup and an apple—as her father does at home. Now she is serious like he is, though maybe it is just the silence that makes her serious. When she draws, the whole world is reduced to the scratch of her charcoal on the paper. This is her second favorite time of day, drawing. Sometimes it is enough just to stare at the apple and watch the sun carve a line across its bright stomach. Her favorite time is nighttime when she is allowed to crawl into bed with her mother and feel her warm body next to her own, smell her breath, and look into her eyes. Her mother is still nursing her youngest brother, and she lets Louise touch her breasts, feel their softness. Of all people on Earth, she thinks her mother is the most wonderful.
She falls asleep that way each night. In the morning, her mother walks her into the cold Paris streets and back to the church. Sometimes, instead of the church, they go to the market with all the smells and food and noise. So much happens at the market. It is exciting but it also frightens her. Dead animals hang from ropes, flies buzzing, as huge men in bloody clothes slice pieces of the meat to sell, their faces laughing in the sun. The fruits and vegetables are quieter. She likes this part better, to let her fingers dribble across their fat, rosy bellies. Once, a lady gave her a plum. Her lips touched the firm, purple skin, but when it broke, the juice ran over her chin and made her laugh. A dog trailed after them, lapping at what fell out of her hands. She had plum juice on her face all day until her mother wiped it off before the last meal. Later, before she slept, she gazed at a bowl of peaches on the table in a last sliver of light.
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JUDITH DANCOFF’s work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Shanghai Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her prizes include a Pushcart Prize nomination and residences at Hedgebrook, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, where she was the McElwee Family Fellow. The Calamity of Desire, her debut collection of short fiction, will be published by Finishing Line Press in spring 2024. She lives in Los Angeles.