The Religious

Christina Milletti

Outside the Restaurant Suisse I lay in the ivy. I was flat on my back, the ivy curled around my arms and legs, bucking my chin (tickling me really). A soft vegetal bed. I smelled of shade because it smelled of shade. Of earth, of cool life among leaves, of small stones and the snails beneath them. In the ivy, it is dark and peaceful while I wait for my guests who are touring the city. They have a map (I sold it to them). My maps always lead to the Suisse.

I met Alice and John out on the green where most tourists begin their morning walk above the Old Town in Québec City. The city itself is built into a bluff. At the top, the green is well tended and groomed. From there, the views are exquisite: it’s easy to roam down to the walls of the Old Town, it makes perfect sense. Even I begin my day on the green.

At first I didn’t see Alice and John, at first I ignored them while they strolled, taking photographs of monuments as most tourists do. John’s camera was slung around his neck, his visor tilted up toward the sky searching for signs of bad weather. There were none: the clouds were full, the breeze mild. But he continued to look, continued to pull Alice behind him as though he were hoping the sky would grow smug so they would be forced to abandon their journey. John was sullen—there’s no other word for it. Soon enough there were words, a hushed exchange full of spit and nerve that rocked the quiet air with its tension. That’s why I turned (I like to watch couples quarrel), that’s when I saw Alice’s knees the first time. They were perfect and white: astonishing, round. I picked up my maps. I ran to Alice (her knees were that nice). I ran with my arms in the air, the maps aloft, hurrying because, unless I was mistaken, Alice’s knees were pointing toward me.

“Hello!” I called waving my hat. “Hello!” until they stopped arguing, were forced to wave back—hesitantly—as if I were an acquaintance whose name they’d forgotten. Then John saw the map in my hand.
 
“No thank you.” He was abrupt, firm, he was turning away. I am used to rudeness (all map men must be). It’s frequently the first step toward a sale.

“Sir,” I chided. “Don’t miss out on my offer. Look here,” I said, unfolding my map. “I have the best map of the city. I’ve listed the monuments of common interest—the Plains of Abraham, the Citadelle—as well as attractions of a more unique nature: for instance, the abandoned lot on the edge of the Old Town where they feed the carriage horses at dusk. I’m sure the lady would like to see that.”

Alice leaned toward John. Her voice was a whisper but I still could hear it. “John, it could be fun.” Already, she was on my side. But John hushed her (he was still angry). Then, sighing, he took the map from my hand.

“This map,” I went on, “is comprehensive.” I smiled. “Better yet, I’ll sell it to you for half price.” I winked at Alice (I think she blushed). “I give more for less.”

“How nice.” John studied the map while Alice looked over his shoulder. I waited. I watched them both closely, studying Alice’s knees at leisure. I was right: even now as she leaned on her husband’s shoulder, her head pressed to his side, her knees were angled toward me.

John remained silent, but after a time, he gave Alice a nod and she pulled cash from her purse.

“You won’t regret it,” I said as we made the exchange. They didn’t answer, they were already gone. Perhaps they didn’t hear me.

That sale (the lone sale of my day) had taken place after breakfast. Now the night had pulled a wool blanket over the Old Town, the lamps had flickered to life. Shortly, Alice and John would arrive, I had no doubt. I have lived in Québec City for fifteen years, my guests rarely fail me. Tourists follow maps—that is their job. They will follow a map into the sewers.

* * *
As if my thinking of them induced their arrival, Alice and John turned up as guests often do—suddenly—even when they’re expected. Their arms latched but not locked, they walked up to the Suisse, peered through its windows at the tables within, at the biergarten where I myself dine each evening, and where that glorious bounty of woman—my Rosalie—works each night until ten. In Alice’s left hand was the map I sold John. Her right hand held her belly. Alice was pregnant. Why hadn’t I noticed before? Rising, I brushed myself off as they entered the Suisse. I walked in behind them, followed them among long tables shared by groups of strangers. As Alice went for a chair, I stepped on John’s heel. He stopped—what choice did he have?—and passing him, I took his seat. I sat next to Alice at the head of the table. What a simple feat to sit between them. Above the biergarten, the moon glowed red and as one star fell, full of haste, from the sky, I touched Alice’s arm. I pointed up through the arbor above us—through lilac and vine to the stars. When John at last sat down across from his wife, Alice was smiling with the wonder of it. Flushed with a red August moon. “I am Arnot de L’oeufs,” I said offering up my hand to him. I wondered if he’d remember that I was the map man. He didn’t. I wasn’t surprised as he took my hand: he barely looked at me when we first met. “I’m Alice,” she said, and stood up. I tried to take her soft hand in my own, but it was occupied elsewhere—plucking a lilac from an arbor above us, threading its thin stem in her hair. Soon enough, though, I learned they’d been married eight years, that Alice taught poems and John fixed cracked teeth, that they lived in a coastal town outside of Boston. Alice even told me that she was with child, that in five months (she at last gave a hint of her smile) two would finally be three. “We could not conceive,” she confided, her voice at a whisper. “You see, we had to have help.” “Congratulations!” I turned and thumped John on the back, but he shook my hand off. Alice watched—she’d gone quite still in her chair. Across the table, she watched us both. “How fortunate you are,” I told them as I stretched my legs under the table. I might have even touched Alice’s knee with my own, let it nudge the soft white flesh of her thigh, but Rosalie—the full mountain of her—suddenly appeared (as she often does) at my side. For a large woman, she is surprisingly swift—her body hovers and crests as she moves between chairs, as she bends and fills glasses with water. Yet for all her volume, she is less a fish than a wolf. Rosalie can always find me: even in the ivy, she can always smell me out. It’s her size that keeps me coming back. I plumb her trails, her ocean depths. She even has continents for me to explore. And I do. It’s why she keeps me. Her family doesn’t understand. “Arnot.” Rosalie acknowledged my arrival in her careful way. Then, as my guests studied their menus, she deftly pinched my ear. “I recommend the fondue,” I suggested. Rosalie nodded. “It’s the specialty of the Suisse.” For a moment, Alice met her husband’s gaze. When, with a sigh, he at last nodded, her mood suddenly lightened, and like a schoolgirl she clapped. “Make that for two,” she said rubbing her belly. “Three,” John added with flair (now he was showing off). It made Alice smile, the grim air between them disperse. Is that not the way with men and women? I pounded the table in my excitement. “It’s fondue all around,” I told Rosalie. Their eyes were bright as Rosalie left to place our orders.
* * *
Two sat before me. They were two, and though they shared a similar scent—an odor of sweat and the city, of lilacs, the candle’s blue flame—they sat apart, the one across from the other while, at the end of the table, I sat between them cut off from the rest of the guests. They were quiet among all the talk at the table, a dam that absorbed the chatter around us about castles and rooms, small overpriced objects, about aching backs and indigestion. Two, they sat back, stretched out in their chairs and, together, looked up through the arbor of lilac and vine at the clouds in the dark, at the wings of insomniac birds pulling wind and stars behind them. I looked from one to the other as they gazed at each other and finally looked back at me. Alice’s hand was resting soft on her belly. I smiled. I can be quite friendly. “Yes?” John asked. “I myself am a parent,” I lied. “May I offer you some advice?” John’s reply was smooth but curt. “That’s not really necessary.” Alice clearly disapproved of his tone. Without a word, she admonished him with her eyes and, gracefully, cut in. “Please Arnot,” she prodded. “I’m sure we can use all the advice we can get.” Her hand was stretched toward me and, without thinking, I picked it up, took it as an offering. John coughed, but I’m sure it was not a mistake. After all, Alice did not pull away. “Three years ago,” I began, “I moved here from my hometown across the Atlantic, from a region of France off the Bay of Biscay in the southwestern province of Dordogne. Though to your ears I perhaps sound as if I belong to this city, I assure you: I am not Québecois.” John shrugged but I held him fast with my eyes. “There is,” I insisted, “a difference. “I was born in Montignac,” I went on, “a small town, not even a town but a village built into the slopes of the Northern Pyrenees. My home is east of Bordeaux and west of Lyon. North of Lourdes and south of Paris. It is small, but we have history—a history preserved in burnt ochre and manganese crayon—a history lost and recovered by children. A history later stolen by men with small tools and large reputations. “We have the first paintings you see—the great hall of the bulls, the horses, the rhino. It’s all there etched in umber and red, traced in earth tones—scarred black—above my childhood home. The hunt remains; it goes on there in the caves in the dark.” “Lascaux?” said Alice. She looked thoughtful. “We intend to go there one day.” I was pleased. “Do you know how Lascaux was discovered? Have you heard the story?” Two shook their heads. I clapped my hands in excitement. “I was there,” I explained, “when it was found.” “Tell us!” Alice laughed. Her enthusiasm was half pleasure, half demand. I could imagine her hanging laundered sheets on a line with the same important energy. “Of course,” I said and, leaning over, straightened the napkin which had rumpled up on her lap. John laid a hand on my arm and I turned to him. “Tell us,” he suggested softly. So I cleared my throat: I did as he bade me. The scent of lilac was flush in the air.
* * *
“The night before we found the caverns—Marcel, Jacques, Georges, Simon, and I—there was a storm, the kind of buck green storm that only exists in the mountains after the summer has gone, after the damp days full of flies and sweat have dried up, and the warm waters steeped in the lakes run cold. I always knew that the storms would soon come when, in the late summer evenings, I burned a candle, read by its light (at the time it was Livingstone’s letters to Stanley), and found myself undisturbed by the flutter of moths, the roll and tumble of their thick wings in the flame. Only then was I sure that summer was leaving, that—already—it was time to tug the hatches down, the knickers up. That, soon enough, my mother would pull out the blankets, leave them at the foot of my bed because the chill when it came would arrive as sudden and fierce as a dog in the night that hasn’t eaten for days. And as a child I was prone to sickness. “A forest summer is like no other, it always protests leaving. Septembers in Montignac are filled with its tantrums. And that summer—it was 1940—we had already had more than our share. I can still remember being caught out in the trees when a bright sky full of cotton and blue went black. Yet the day that Lascaux emerged from the dark (it was the twelfth, my mother’s birthday) we thought we were prepared. The sky, after all, was gray from the outset. But then at noon, it went green, as thick as crushed velvet. The trees bent, gave in without fighting to the hail and the wind; even the stones began to rattle their mortar. And as my mother rushed me out of the house, I was thankful for the first time that we were poor, that there was empty space in the fruit cellar’s shallow recesses where the two of us could hide. I was already ten, but I buried my face in her lap as the wind gathered, the walls trembled. Clutching her musty skirts in my fists, it’s likely I cried when the sky broke in half. As if a mountain toppled into the valley. “I do remember my mother shouting, cursing the wind, the water, the deep, shaking earth. Her anger coursed through me like her homemade wine. It was a perilous comfort that—oddly enough—put me right to sleep.” John sighed and looked intensely at Alice. She deliberately ignored him. “I awoke when she pulled my hair,” I went on. “The wind had died down, and we pushed the cellar doors open. Outside, our neighbors’ children—Georges and Marcel—were waiting in the yard with their infested old dog. They helped my mother brush the dirt and leaves from her skirt. Then they turned to me. “‘Did you hear it?’ Georges asked. “‘You must have,’ Simon said as he arrived with Jacques on his heels. “‘Come on!’ And then they were running and I was running or, rather, I was trying to run, but my mother had me by the ear. “‘Ten minutes.’ Her breath was sour. Then she let me go. “I ran off through the trees, snapping and leaping over thick fallen branches. I called out to the boys, but they were gone. They were fourteen (I was just ten). Already they ran much faster. Already, they’d disappeared. “‘Arnot!’ I heard Marcel suddenly shout. I ran toward his voice though I still couldn’t see him. Before me was an enormous pine, its thick shag pointing down the slope I had just climbed. It had been toppled by the storm, and the hoary trunk jutted out of the earth above a deep hole—a bunker—that was large enough for all four boys to stand in. Inside, they were waiting for me beneath its fat dangling roots—its brazen moss—from which I had the urge to avert my eyes. I was, as you might guess, a very impressionable child. “‘Jump Arnot!’ Marcel shouted and, when I did not, he climbed out of the crater and, much as my mother had done, grabbed me by the ear. With a flip of his wrist, he tossed me, and I landed in the soft earth at Georges’s feet. He stood me up, wiped the dirt from my eyes. “‘Can you see?’ he asked (sympathetically I thought). But when I nodded, he picked me up, bent me like a broken compass—face down, my small boots pointing sole-first to the sky. He stuck my head, my shoulders, through a dank hole in the dirt. By my legs, he held me upside down in the dark, in an opening at the base of the crater. For a moment, I thought the boys had simply played a boy’s trick until I realized that the hole was large and dry, that, inside, I could feel the absence of earth, a fierce plenty of air, stale and abiding around me.” “How cruel,” Alice said, shaking her head. “I was young,” I explained, stroking her fingers (I still had her hand). “I never knew my father, only an uncle from Dijon who, like all Dijones, worked in the mustard factory there and always smelled like sulfur.” I coughed. “He rarely came to visit. So you’ll understand when I say that I had no precedent for tight lipped manhood, that I was quite simply scared out of my wits.” “I bet you screamed like a girl,” John said. “I was just a boy,” I sighed. “No doubt my voice shook the walls.” Alice squeezed my hand. “Go on,” she said, ignoring her husband. I of course obliged. “‘What do you see?’ Georges shook me. His grip was tight—alarming—on my thighs. “‘It’s too dark,’ I pleaded. “From above, I heard Marcel curse, and then he pressed a lighter into my palm. “‘If you drop it,’ he said grimly, ‘I will make Georges drop you.’ “Georges shook me again. ‘Well?’ “I sparked the lighter, and the flame lit up. A small bit of light, a wink in the dark. But I saw the cave, it was all there beneath me not twenty feet down. I saw the paintings, I saw them all. But I spied the drop, too, and as my fear once again overcame me, my organs revolted, they loosened—you might say south became north—and, cursing, Georges pulled me up. He dumped me in the dirt at his side.” “For god’s sake,” John muttered. I sighed. “It’s true. I was weak, and I ran home to my mother. I spent the day cleaning gutters while the boys dug in the woods. Opened the mouth of the crevasse under the pine and explored the cavern below. “I saw them first, you understand. I saw the bulls and their cows painted on the cave walls. They were nothing more than stick figures—just childish drawings—drawn in red and brown. I saw their horns, the spears and the blood. I saw the horses, I saw it all. I was the one who saw it first.” I gripped Alice’s hand. “Yet on the front page of the paper the very next day, their picture appeared and I wasn’t in it. There they were—the four of them—arms crossed and proud, their brown dog at their feet. I scanned for my name, I read the article thoroughly. But did they mention my contribution?” I shook my head. “Later, I tried to clear up their story. After, I learned at all too young of an age that truth and perception are much different matters. There was my truth, here as I’ve told it. But the truth couldn’t compare with a photograph of four young boys—shirts wrung with dirt—their bodies smudged by the very same earth that once covered our ancestors’ drawings. That was what lasted, that’s all people now know. Their story became history. It is history now. “Now,” I told them, “there’s no difference.” There was a long pause and Alice filled it with a frown. “That just doesn’t seem right.” She was shaking her head. I don’t think it’s too much to say that she felt sad for me. John’s eyes were bright, however, perhaps even cruel. “At last the moral.” He smiled. “Every boy needs his father.” I shook my head. “If you’ll bear with me,” I sighed, “there’s more.” Did I imagine Alice’s look? Was she relieved? At any rate, hands fluttering, she waved me on. Once again, her knees were aimed toward me. An invitation: I had to look away. “Years passed,” I continued, “years without acknowledgment. But I didn’t let my young struggles shape me. No: I went on to excel while Jacques, the buffoon, became a mechanic and Simon took a job tending bar outside town; while Georges and Marcel went into business and opened a hotel together. From what I understand, they were successful. At least their guests, and many locals, praised them. Yet, by a stroke of ill fortune, the hotel became infested with fleas (to this day, no one knows how). It wouldn’t have been so bad of course had they not catered to certain public officials who made a habit of using the rooms to meet their posies on the side.” I shook my head sadly. “How do you explain to your wife how you’ve become a nest for vermin?” “My, my,” John said softly. It was almost a whisper. “You can imagine the scenes,” I told him. “Georges and Marcel had to shut down the hotel. They had to leave town shortly thereafter.” “Well done.” John raised his glass as though the fleas were my doing. I ignored him of course. “Meanwhile, I went on to Bordeaux, to the university. There I tried one thing and another. First, mathematics, finance, then administration. Nothing, however, seemed to take. Until one day soon after I turned twenty five, I returned home to visit my mother (she was by then ailing with a disease of the lungs) and I learned that the archaeologists were limiting tours of the caves, that the paintings were in peril. “That was 1955. By 1963, the caves were closed altogether. Now you can’t see the bulls anymore.” Surprised, Alice sat up in her chair, but Rosalie’s arrival from the kitchen—not unlike a wave mounting the shoreline—distracted Alice from the past to the present. I lost her to hot porcelain bowls steaming with pastures and maids. I lost her to diced bread and an empty plate that she quickly filled. For a student of poetry, Alice was all prose as she wielded her skewer like a harpoon—dunking her bread in the fondue, then raising it (dripping and hot) like a large and hard-won trout. Puckering her bright round lips, she blew, then sucked the bread off the pike. I whistled in gentle approval, let my knee touch her thigh. I couldn’t help myself. At my side, Rosalie waited; she was waiting, she would wait (I knew her too well). I dropped my napkin, and we went down for it at the same time. “My place,” she said. “Eleven o’clock?” I slipped my hand inside her blouse. She was soft and I lost my fingers in the warm well of her breasts. Behind her, I could see Alice’s knees under the table. She was relaxed, her knees slumped apart. Her napkin was sliding again to the floor. Rosalie turned and followed my eyes. “Be good.” It was a warning and, leaning on the side of my chair to pull herself up, she stunned me with a blow to the head. It was accidental of course, and not the first time she’d hit me. Her large limbs (she once explained) responded less to her will than to gravitational pull and inertia, the positive and negative charge of apparent ions, all the laws, in short, of physics. They tugged her limbs this way and that (she had little control). No doubt at the moment she stood, the earth suddenly wobbled off orbit, and her elbow responded (as it often did) in a parallel flux. Fortunately, neither Alice nor John noticed the slip. Alice was eating at an impossible pace while John watched with concern (I gathered the site was not unfamiliar), begging now and again a soft take it easy, which she studiously ignored. “Shall I go on?” Alice didn’t waste her breath. There was a nod for me. And before John could protest, I began. “In 1955, my life changed. The caves—my discovery—were in danger, and so I offered my help to the local diggers. But what did I have to offer when ‘employees with training,’ they said, ‘were essential’? By then, at the end of my studies, I had no wish to renew my coursework. So, one evening, while I was bathing my mother (she died several weeks later), I considered my situation, the situation, that is, of Lascaux: how the past, having become suddenly present, was again shut away from the future. “My mother was asleep, so I left for the tavern. As I walked, the sun joining the pines on the steep green slopes, I saw a young boy sitting out on the curb. He was crying, and I sat down (not too close) by him. He was not the first to be disappointed: the caves had been closed all day. “Thinking suddenly of Georges and Marcel, of Simon and Jacques, I leaned over, picked up a bit of red stone in the street. I used it like chalk and drew on the sidewalk. Right there on the pavement where the rain later washed it away, I drew my first picture of a Lascaux horse that I’d seen, its four bent legs and red flaring mane, the hooves tucked under its belly in flight like no horse would ever gallop. I am no artist—believe me—but as though my eyes were a pattern through which I could see, I simply traced the horse. I did not, that is to say, draw it. Evidently, I’ve been branded; my memory was stamped the day the cave emerged from the dark, and I—quite alone—saw the first art of our ancestors as I was suspended in the arms of a boy. “The drawing satisfied the youngster. His tears dried (though his nose still convulsed) and, exchanging my stone for the gift he unwittingly gave me, I watched him draw a bull of his own.” I laughed. “It looked a great deal like my horse. “The next day I withdrew some funds from my mother’s account and signed a lease for a shop. That very day, I began to draw pictures of bulls, of horses on stones I found in the woods near my home. It was effortless, can you imagine? The bulls with their oval heads, their bent horns; the cows grazing undisturbed on the plains. I drew them all—even the rhino, the cat. I drew the spears, I drew the hunt. And everything changed. The tourists changed. They came to my shop. They held each rock, each piece of slate in their hands and imagined digging it up from the dirt. They closed their eyes; they breathed in sulfur and soot. “And they paid me, let’s not forget that. They paid me so they could take history home.” John chewed thoughtfully. “You must have cleaned up.” “Within a year,” I admitted, “I earned a small fortune, found a wife. I made my reputation.” “You were vindicated,” Alice said softly. A pale thread of cool cheese hung from her chin. John bent over and tugged it off. I nodded. “In 1963, they closed the caves. People were angry. But what could anyone do?” “I imagine you’ll tell us.” John sighed and sat back. “It was not my idea to build a duplicate cave for the tourists to visit—to build the cave they now call Lascaux II. But, between you and me,” I leaned in and lowered my voice, “the chief archaeologist came to my shop the day before he announced the project. He looked around at the stones, at the horses and bulls that I’d drawn. He didn’t buy anything, but he smiled: there was a great deal in that smile, a great deal of promise. And when the funds were approved to build a cave not two hundred feet below the original site (I helped with a large donation), I was one among several local artists he hired. It was I who repainted one of the bulls for all the public to see.” Alice looked at John. “Imagine that,” she said, “an artist at our table.” “I like to think of myself as a historian.” I paused. “In fact, with the exception of a few minor changes, my bull is still there.” “Changes?” Alice was absentmindedly preening. I laughed. “Aesthetic arguments were predictable I suppose. But between you and me,” I poked Alice’s side with my skewer, “a fig is a fig no matter how large, or from what beast it hangs.” John pushed the skewer away. Was he angry? His chin had turned pink. The flesh of his cheeks was sucked to the bone. “I don’t know what you mean.” He was actually huffy. Had I ever sat so stiffly in a soft backed chair? It wasn’t hard suddenly to imagine John at sixty, his hair gone white, while Alice dawdled, picked up socks, the sports page, around him. Except that I was the old man, John the youth. What had I said to upset him? Alice watched John as I watched John. She wasn’t shocked. Apparently she had seen this transformation before. “You know,” she said softly, too softly, and for the first time I feared her as I fear most women. “You know exactly what Arnot means.” Silently they fought their battle around me. Motionless, I could feel each parry and thrust. They were transparent power: a tree felled in the darkness. The leg thrust up, a hole wrenched clean. A wound made without a weapon. John’s breaths came hard and controlled, but he refused to respond. He just watched her, they watched each other until, without a word, they both retreated—resolute monarchs who haven’t yet had to give up terrain. When John at last spoke, it was to me. In the blue flame between us, his teeth glowed opaquely. Behind them, as though behind a curtain, I thought I could see his tongue ripple and bow like a puppet. I did not trust his grin. “Arnot,” he asked. “Where is your wife?” “Montignac.” It was the truth. “And your business?” “She runs it with her new partner.” John was quiet for a moment. Then he had to hold back a laugh. “Let me guess,” he finally said. “One of your childhood friends?” “Georges,” I admitted, and John leaned back in his chair, began whistling a melody to himself. Alice didn’t move. She had simply gone still, even her chest was still, as though her breaths—as they emerged from her lungs—had already dispersed within the air they were made of. As though there was no difference inside her and out. John stopped whistling: Alice had his attention. His small victory had passed. “You can be mean, John,” Alice said softly, as a matter of fact. Her tone scared him (it scared me). He sat up in his chair, his hand cupped to his ear as though he could not hear her, didn’t understand what she’d said. But, once again, Alice was quiet. I watched her napkin slip to the floor. It didn’t rustle as it fell; her napkin didn’t make a sound. When Rosalie at last returned, she seemed to be glowing, her flesh full of late-evening dinner light, and I imagined—just for an instant—that there was a faint smile about (though not on) her lips. I looked intently but when she caught me staring, I quickly turned (lest an arm fly). Alice too had luminesced, but her heat was all temperature without its expression. Her eyes were on John. As his were on her. As they sat stunned and apart beside me. “Are you finished?” Rosalie asked. Alice ignored her and our table seemed to be cloaked for a moment in shadow. No answer from Alice, Rosalie turned to John. He shrugged, and fussed instead with the pots of fondue that, while I told my story, had overcooked on the flame and crusted up with burnt cheese. “Take them,” I said, my hand on her arm. “We’ve eaten all that we can.” “What of la religieuse?” She hesitated as she looked in the pots. The question distracted my companions from their mutual stupor. They were tourists after all—it’s a learned behavior—and they looked to me as if I were their tour guide, as though I could dispense a compact explanation, a bit of Québecois lore they could take back to Boston, tell their friends, their neighbors, even the child they’d soon add to their numbers. Already, they were preparing to reminisce about their adventures. How different the rest of us are. I remain, however, a generous man. I pointed into their pots. “The hard cheese there,” I explained. “The locals call it la religieuse.” “It’s a delicacy,” Rosalie added as though in explanation. “More like a tradition,” I said. “You eat it for luck.” Rosalie frowned. “You’re a pagan, Arnot. It’s not superstition.” Rosalie took her time. “La religieuse is a prayer,” she said at last. “It is like a prayer of hope.” “It’s cheese,” John muttered under his breath. Rosalie stepped close to him and stroked his hair with her enormous hand. “It is cheese,” she agreed softly, too softly, and I was reminded (unexpectedly) of Alice a moment before. “But it is also a prayer.” She looked unusually thoughtful as she added, “A prayer one makes of the past.” He was angry. “If you eat ash now,” he said, “perhaps you’ll one day have bounty?” His eyes were hard on Alice. “Is that what you mean?” “What Rosalie means,” I suggested, trying to calm him in my good natured fashion, “is that even pagans like you and me must sometimes take part in these rituals—rituals that men invented and women sustain—though we no longer believe.” I’m sure he was grateful for my contribution even if he continued to glare at me. I tried to reassure him. “It’s how I found Rosalie.” I must have made an impression, because he turned with a sigh and looked at his wife. Alice was quiet, however, as she picked up her bowl, ran a delicate finger inside its lip. When she spoke her voice was not soft. “This cheese,” she told John, “it’s a fossil. Not just remains.” “A bag of bones,” I added, “a skeleton.” She stared at her husband. “Don’t you see, John? It’s a relic, not refuse.” She paused. “It’s what was and something new.” In Alice’s eyes there was no pity. She simply watched him take in her words. Her patience was old, it was no longer patience. It had grown, was still growing, like the child inside her. Perhaps they would be born together. “Look,” I said, then took my skewer and used it to poke the dark crust of cheese that had burned on the base of Alice’s pot. The skewer punctured it, and fractured a layer. With my fingers, I picked up a thin brown flake. John studied the burnt remainder as though it were parchment and a lexicon had been inscribed on its surface. He didn’t move. He strained in his chair. Finally, shoulders sagging, he bent his head and looked at his hands. I waited while Alice watched John, studied a place on his skull which still looked lush with dark hair, but which perhaps was no longer as full as the rest. She had frozen, yet the muscles under her face were in motion and, when I looked closely, I had the curious feeling there was a riot going on there under her skin, that her flesh—soft and white, only a little blue—was filled with veins, filled with traffic. That, suddenly, she had felt her own industry of internal commerce and disposal, all the diners and universities, the gas stations and mini marts going about their business inside her. Pursing her lips, Alice reached out and took the cinder of cheese. Snapping it in two pieces, she held half to John’s lips. For a long moment, they stared at each other. And, then, John at last opened his mouth, revealed his tongue. He had no other choice, of that I’m quite certain. Delicately, Alice placed half of her token in his mouth, half in her own. They had struck a bargain. “Bravo.” Rosalie rubbed Alice’s back fondly as she began to clear our plates from the table. She was smiling the way only Rosalie smiles. As if it were a jinx, as if a smile was asking for trouble. Alice reached for my hand. “Thank you, Arnot.” I was confused, but I took her hand anyway as she stood up and leaned over me. I could smell the cheese inside her. “You should visit Lascaux,” I advised her. “Take John to the bulls. At least the bulls you can see. They are not the same, but good enough.” “Yes.” Alice was nodding. “But we’ll wait to take the child too. Our family should see Lascaux together.” I watched her walk out the door, knees straight ahead. John followed closely behind. From my seat, I winked at my girl (she loomed not far off in the corner). John had paid my bill while Alice watched. Americans always seem to pay for my meals: that’s why I like to have them around. When I rose, it was ten o’clock. So I went for a nap in the ivy. On the ground, cool life at my ankles, I waited for Rosalie.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro
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CHRISTINA MILLETTI teaches fiction and twentieth- century literature at Eastern Michigan University. Her work has most recently appeared in Best New American Voices (Harcourt 2001). “The Religious” is from her recently completed collection Traveling Companions. She is an editor of The Little Magazine.