“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.”
― Emily Brontë,
I woke, drowning in the confusion that comes when an afternoon sleep is married to overwhelming jetlag. I was floating in a sea of blackness – so black I was not entirely sure at first if my eyes were opened or closed. I blinked hard two, three times and thought ‘Where the hell am I?’ I started to move.
“Fuck!” The word slipped out on a breathy exhale. The pain brought me back – back to my house in Collobrieres, back to my conversation with Claire and Lynn, back to that goddamned cow, and back to what was likely two broken ribs. Worst of all, it brought me back to Imogene.
Images of last summer swam across the blackness, the day I left burned into my mind. We were lying in this bed, in this very spot. Her back was to me and I could count every rib, every vertebrae. Her long grey hair spread across the pillow and even though I could not see it, the telltale trail of smoke and acrid smell of her French cigarette told me that she was smoking.
“You shouldn’t smoke in bed.” I told her. “you’re going to set yourself on fire one of these days.”
She didn’t answer and I sat up, wrapping my arms around my bare legs and laying my cheek on my knee.
“You agreed that I have to go.”
She just kept smoking.
“Come on Imogene. Don’t be like this. I’m going to be gone in a couple of hours.”
She flipped onto her back – her eyes, usually the colour of the sea, were icy-cold. “I know you have to go, but I don’t have to fecking like it.” her brogue thicker with the added anger.
My gaze ran over her face, trying to commit every line and wrinkle, every spot and freckle to memory. Truly, I didn’t mind her sulk, it was part of a pattern we had fallen into. She would sulk, I would cajole, she would sulk more and then I would pull her into bed and all would be forgiven.
As was expected, I reached out to run my fingers along her cheek, down her throat in a meandering line to her nipple – something that had always made her forget whichever of my missteps had had caused her pique. But this time she grabbed my wrist hard, cigarette still between her fingers.
“Swear you’ll come back.” The words came with an intensity of open emotion I had rarely seen in her.
“Ow – you’re burning me!” I tried to pull my hand away with little success. “Of course, I’ll be back – I told you. I’ll be back by Christmas.”
But I hadn’t been back. Christmas turned to New Years turned to Valentines Day turned to Easter. The quick freelance assignment in Marrakesh had ended and I had heard whispers of a story too good to pass up in Egypt. When the Cairo connection dried up, I was smuggled into Libya to interview some of the migrants that were waiting along the coastline of the Mediterranean, hoping for a spot on a boat to take them to Greece or Turkey or Sicily. It was then that I had stopped texting and emailing. It was too dangerous and I was too busy.
I eased my way up from my back and flipped on the light. The bulb crackled before illuminating the space allowing me to see just how much cleaning needed to be done. Not a flick of the duster had moved the dust motes since I had last been here, nor had a drop of soapy water fallen on the floor.
“I’ll have to get Etienne’s daughter in to clean for me.” I muttered to myself.
The sound of an open hand being slapped against the door made me jump and then swear. I stood and shuffled across the bedroom and through the kitchen, hand over hand, leaning on chairs, doorknobs, tables and counters. The door was slapped again.
“J’arrive. Attendez, s’il vous plaît!” I called. I opened the door to be blinded by a bright light shining in my eyes. “Stop it. I can’t see.” I continued in English.
“I’m sorry, I just wanted to make sure you were awake.” came the elfin voice of Madeleine as she dropped the beam of a flashlight to her feet.
“Oh, I’m awake alright.” I answered.
“Maman thought that you would not have any food in the kitchen so she sent me up here with this.” Madeleine thrust a large wicker basket towards me. I took it and groaned at the weight as I lifted it onto the table.
“What time is it?”
“It is twenty-one hundred hours. Or nine o’clock PM if you prefer.” she answered.
“Your mother let’s you come out by yourself this late at night?” I was already poking through the cheeses and bread and fruit and wine hidden under the white cloth covering the basket.
“Maman trusts that I can see if something bad is going to happen. Nothing bad is going to happen. Tonight.” Madeleine reached over and took a grape. “Besides that, Maman can’t walk up here. She can’t walk anywhere.”
I straightened. “Your mother can’t walk?”
“No. She had polio myelitis when she was little. I should go now.” Madeleine began to walk to the door. She stopped for a moment and then turned. “Imogene wants you to call her. Tomorrow. The morning is better. Bon nuit!”
And before I could even ask her a question, she was out the door and running down the path.