As a young girl in France, Marlena Hunter’s life was a fairy tale. She had a talented artist for a father, a doting mother, and a brother she couldn’t be closer to. She loved her family; she just didn’t know what her family actually was.
When a car crash kills their parents, Marlena and Yvon lose not only France, but also their identity. Sent to Richmond, Virginia, they arrive at the home of two aunts they’ve never met before, who tell them that their true last name is Dawson, that their father had fled the family years back—and that now the family is calling in the debt.
Trapped in a mansion with as many secrets as rooms, Marlena yearns for escape. But in America, you can either make friends or make profit, and Yvon suddenly seems much more interested in the latter. While he is free to leave the house, Marlena is left to avoid lecherous tutors and the secretary-to-wife track expected of a woman. Caught between mastering the game to escape it and falling prey to its allure, she needs to learn fast—for Malcolm Foxworth has cast his eye in her direction. And no family name can protect her from the twisted roots of the Dollanganger family tree.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 6, 1923
Date of Death:December 19, 1986
Place of Birth:Portsmouth, Virginia
Place of Death:Virginia Beach, Virginia
Read an Excerpt
“Louis is close friends with your brother only because of you, Marlena,” Regine Besnier said, or rather whined, while we were walking back to my new, larger home after going to the farmers’ market for potatoes and onions for my mother’s bouillabaisse. She had learned the recipe from Jean-Paul’s woman friend, Anne Bise. They had never married. Jean-Paul claimed it would ruin their forty-year relationship. But Papa told him he was as good as married and more henpecked than any other married man in the village.
Regine’s voice was so nasal that you would think someone had his hands tightening around her long, narrow neck. I don’t know why I wanted her as a best friend. She often would utter nasty and mean things disguised as facts or supposedly helpful suggestions. Actually, I knew why but was afraid to admit it, especially to myself. Her envy of me stroked my ego, which was something for which my mother had a particular distaste: conceit and vanity.
“Vanity, even in small bites, will poison your soul,” she told me more than a dozen times if she told me once. It was something she was particularly sensitive to herself. She made it sound like a trap set by the devil just outside the door, waiting to ensnare you as soon as you left your house.
“You do me a disservice by encouraging me to think too much of myself,” my mother would tell those who gave her lavish compliments, especially about her beauty. She was so adamant about it, especially in front of me, that whoever had praised or admired her would stutter and apologize.
Her anger and her intensity puzzled me. She wasn’t usually so unfairly sharp toward or critical of others in our village, but I assumed that this reaction to praise was her way of teaching me a lesson. I’d see she was looking to be sure I or Yvon had heard her. That was always the first reason our parents would do something unexpected or even unpleasant: they were showing us an example of what not to do. Our parents were perfect. How could they ever deliberately have done or do anything wrong? Refusing to believe that was true was the same as refusing to believe in angels.
“Louis and Yvon have been friends for ages, Regine. I had barely grown out of diapers when they began to do everything together. Seeing them playing together in the yard is one of my earliest memories. Please, don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not!” she protested, her round, deeply set, coffee-bean-brown eyes practically exploding. “Maybe that was true once, but now he can’t stop looking at you every chance he has. I see it,” she insisted. “Besides, why be upset about it? Louis Pinault is one of the best-looking boys in Villefranche. He’s not as good-looking as your brother, of course, but few boys are.”
She folded her arms and brought them down forcefully against her stomach. It was one of her And that’s that statements. Sometimes she could be so stubborn and determined that she would cause my stomach to be tied in knots. Few could stand it. It was another reason I was practically her only friend.
But I wasn’t going to disagree with her about Louis’s looks. He was handsome, and if I was being truthful, I would admit that I had the feeling he was looking at me differently lately. I just didn’t want to give Regine the satisfaction of being right, being so astute, although I didn’t want to appear oblivious like some child. Truthfully, lately I had been wondering about myself, not about him. What was it about me that had suddenly opened Louis’s eyes?
Perhaps it was how Mama was fixing my much longer hair or the clothes she permitted me to wear, which clearly revealed that my bosom was rapidly developing. I was afraid to ask her if I could use her lipstick. Once I had snuck it on, and Yvon got so upset that I ran to the spring to wash every trace of it away. He didn’t tell our mother. He never wanted to get me in trouble and often took blame for something stupid I had done, something I had misplaced or broken.
For some reason I couldn’t quite understand myself, I thought if I ever responded to Louis’s smiles and looks, Yvon would be angry, not only with me but with Louis, and I’d feel terrible about breaking up their long friendship. Despite what she was saying, I thought Regine wouldn’t be happy if I welcomed Louis’s affections, either.
“I’m not upset about it, Regine, but I think perhaps it is you who can’t stop looking at him,” I said.
Showing her I could read her romantic feelings was like stripping her naked in the street. A flush came quickly to her face. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy my effect on her. Mama would shake her head at me if she heard me doing it. I did tease Regine often.
“That’s not true,” Regine said, but not with confidence.
“Of course it’s true. Don’t be so coy. Give him a strong hint how you feel about him, and maybe he’ll start looking at you. Some boys need a little push or donkey tug. They’re not shy; they’re just... oblivious.”
She looked at me askance, clearly wondering. “How do you know so much about boys? You’ve never had a boyfriend.”
I shrugged. “Some things are just obvious.”
“Or your mother told you,” Regine said sadly, her eyes filled with jealousy. Her mother had her late in life. She had two older brothers who were already married, with one’s wife expecting. “My mama won’t even say the word ‘sex’ to me and pretends I still haven’t gotten monthlies. Everything I know about it and sex, I know because of what your mother told you and you told me,” she whined. “You two are more like sisters.”
I smiled to myself. Yes, I thought, we are.
Regine was silent for a few moments. Then she just stopped, so I stopped.
“You really think Louis could like me?”
“How will you know if you don’t give him some reason to hope?” I asked, as if it was as clear a fact as daytime. I smiled to myself. Only someone looking into my eyes could see that what I really believed about her and Louis was the complete opposite of what I had just said.
Nevertheless, how sophisticated I sounded for someone just a little less than fifteen, I thought. The truth was that if Mama overheard me, she would hate it and give me one of her critical looks so sharp that Papa would say it would cut through the walls of the old fortress built by the Duke of the Savoy in 1557 to guard the port. He claimed to have the scars to prove it after she had given him similar looks.
“Do you really think so?” Regine asked. Her face looked like a balloon blown up with hope. I had turned lights on in her eyes, lights that she didn’t dare turn on herself for fear she would reveal her true feelings and be the object of ridicule.
“You have to think so yourself, Regine. You can’t go by what others think when it comes to romance.”
“But you really think I can get him to like me? You’re not just saying it to shut me up?”
Honestly, I was hoping to shut her up about the way Louis was looking at me these days, and as far as Louis liking her, definitely not, I thought, but didn’t say it. Regine’s nose was too thin and a bit too long. Her lips were a little crooked, especially when she was thinking hard. She was lean, still more boyish, and she was a good two inches or so taller than any other girl our age. Her legs were so long that it looked like she had to stop them from growing or she would become a circus freak. The rest of her body needed years to catch up, especially her bosom, which was still asleep in her childlike body, despite her introduction to what many of the older women told me was a woman’s curse.
But she did have thick, butter-smooth black hair and a perennial tan, which gave her a dark-peach complexion, highlighting her eyes. Her biggest fault was that she talked too much, talked as if she was afraid of any silence. Any boy she fancied would have difficulty thinking, much less getting a word in before she had started another sentence, and I knew that boys hated that. They had to be the ones to control the conversations. If we were clever, we would let them believe they were controlling everything, even though they weren’t.
I grunted rather than say Oui.
Maybe I was simply too critical of Regine, too critical especially when it came to other girls. I was always envying someone for something, even though I was told I had the best features of my parents and would surely grow to be as beautiful as if not more beautiful than my mother. There was no reason for me to lack any self-confidence, and I didn’t like pretending to be shy, even though my mother favored girls who were.
Yvon agreed with me, however. He said very shy girls were probably turtles in an earlier life. He told our mother that he didn’t trust girls who were too shy. “They’re laying traps with their blushing,” he said. “Marlena has more intelligent things to say than most of my friends. Why force her to keep quiet just because she is a girl?”
If Papa heard him, he would start to smile and then quickly look away before Mama saw him. She didn’t disagree with Yvon. She often told me I was bright and beautiful. However, she always pointed out that it was all right for her to say it because she was my mother, and mothers had almost an obligation to praise and brag about their children.
Mama wouldn’t let Papa paint me, however. There was nothing I dreamed of more, but I wouldn’t say or ask for it.
“Don’t stroke her ego that much yet, Beau,” she would tell him, with her eyes fixed on me, if he as much as suggested he might. “Humility will save her from making all-too-familiar mistakes.”
Papa looked at her and nodded in agreement. Whatever she implied kept him from putting up any argument. But what did that mean? What familiar mistakes was she referring to? I wondered. Was she talking about my future ones or mistakes she and Papa had made? Neither Yvon nor I ever heard our parents confess to any serious errors. We overheard other adults, parents of other children, declare they had made this wrong decision or that, most of the time admitting they had not listened to their mothers or fathers and nearly ruined their own lives, but our parents avoided talking about their youth. It was as if they were never children.
They did have deep secrets, I thought, secrets perhaps Yvon didn’t know, either, but, like me, he felt them hovering around us. Too often, we would see them whispering, and often when something someone in the village said seemed quite insignificant to us, they would look at each other quickly and sharply, as if they could anticipate the questions that would attack us like angry bees. Sometimes they would move us along, as if we could be infected by the memories other people had of them when they first had come to France with little more than hope. They certainly weren’t rich then and weren’t truly rich now, but we were comfortable and never lacked for anything like so many other families. We could have been very poor. Maybe they were ashamed of that. Maybe that gave them their nightmares.
A number of times, I overheard my mother say that if it weren’t for Jean-Paul and Papa’s inheriting his cousin Beverly Morris’s money, we’d probably never have lasted here. Jean-Paul Vitton had arranged for our parents to come to France. He had found Papa his first art-teacher job tutoring rich children who had “no ounce of talent.” However, it was only that way and other ways that Jean-Paul introduced him to people who would buy his work in France that made our life here possible. He was the closest Yvon and I had to a relative because he was our godfather.
If anything, Mama frightened me with her vague references to early memories that suggested their struggles and fears. Maybe that was why she didn’t like to talk about them. When she did, she made it sound as though they were washed ashore with nothing but themselves. It made me wonder. What if Jean-Paul had not been able to help them? What if Papa would have failed to become the artist he was and they were here with no friends or relatives? Just thinking about us wandering Europe like gypsies would make me tremble. I had seen enough of them coming along and begging for bread or a little work to earn some bread.
Yvon had too much self-pride. I was sure that he would have withered away. Mama wouldn’t be as beautiful, and Papa would have become so much older quickly, like most of those men we saw pass through, men with faces so empty of expectations for themselves that they looked more like ghosts to me with their gaunt eyes.
Why did our parents come here, anyway? America was where everyone wanted to go to get rich. There was something dark, something hidden between sentences or long silences. I can’t remember exactly how young I was when I first felt this sense of mystery about my parents, these clouds of secrets around them, but I did ask Yvon about it more and more as we grew up.
“Mama and Papa whisper a lot, don’t they? They’re probably thinking about when they were so poor in America. Do you think they were ever as desperate as some of the gypsies? Do they wake up from nightmares about it?”
I didn’t really believe that was a possible answer, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t imagining that fearful look on their faces whenever even the slightest reference to their past emerged. Maybe, hopefully, I was making it all seem bigger than it was.
“We don’t know if they were ever that poor, Marlena. Stop thinking so much about it. What difference does it make to you now? Besides, everyone has nightmares or memories they’d rather keep to themselves or certainly out of the ears of their children,” Yvon said, sounding years older, as he always did. Hearing him, someone would think he was the one who didn’t have a real childhood and not our parents.
“But we’re older now. They can tell us the truth. We’re no longer children.”
“Maybe that’s more reason for them to keep whatever it is to themselves.”
“I don’t understand. How could that be more reason?”
Yvon often said things that flew above me. I called them bird words.
“Shadows are best left in the shadows.”
“What? What shadows?”
Bird words again, I thought.
He said nothing more. I was going to pursue it and force him to reveal what he meant, but the look in his eyes told me not to talk about it, to stop asking questions. How did he know that? How did he know it would be better for us not to talk about Mama and Papa’s past, especially in front of them? Did he have so much more wisdom at sixteen than I had at fourteen?
“Parents have an unfair advantage over us,” he said just last week as a sort of response to my questions about our parents’ whispering and private looks, maybe because I was so much more persistent.
“What do you mean?” Again, I had no idea what he was saying, but this time I was determined to force him to explain. He took one look at me and knew I’d ask him until his ears were stuffed and had turned red.
“They know us from the day we are born, know who we are, how we think, what makes us laugh and cry, and when we do something they might not know or understand, they question us like the gendarmerie. Maybe it’s because they worry; maybe it’s because they love us so much; maybe it’s both. We don’t know the same about them. It takes years to, or maybe we never do. That’s why it’s unfair, especially when they interrogate us like the police might.”
I wasn’t really surprised he thought our parents could be like the police. Most parents were like that. However, to me it seemed that they were questioning him more than they were me all the time. But then again, he was older, with more opportunities to get into trouble. He was on his own more and wandered off with his friends as far as Nice. When he returned, Mama especially might pounce, demanding to know every detail about what he and his friends had done. I thought she was unfair, always assuming something terrible. What made her think so darkly when it came to my brother? He never did anything that would embarrass or trouble her so.
“Your mother is right to be concerned,” Madame Cosse, the butcher’s wife, told me when I mentioned how intense my mother could be when she questioned my brother. “Boys, because of their nature, have more access to trouble. Never let a boy dare you to do anything, Marlena. It’s built into them to be more distress for their parents and for themselves.”
“But it wasn’t Adam. It was Eve who brought the world trouble,” I parroted from Monsieur Appert’s lessons. “Monsieur Appert says so.”
“Of course he does. He’s a man. Just listen to me. Always listen to the wiser, older people around you, especially older women. Women are born with more wisdom,” she insisted, and then muttered, “It’s just wasted because men are deaf. But it’s not wasted on you.”
It seemed to me that everyone in this village, from the baker to the cabinet maker to the street cleaner, was always looking out for me, looking to protect me, and Yvon as well. They wanted to be sure we shared any worldly knowledge that they had acquired. We were like one extended family. Everyone behaved like he or she was an uncle or aunt, maybe more so because they knew Yvon and I had no grandparents. Papa’s mother died of cholera when he was no older than I was. He was always a little unclear about how old he was when his father had heart failure. Papa would only say he was in his teens. Mama had told us that her mother died from consumption and then her father died from heart failure the following year.
If we, especially I, asked any more questions about our grandparents, they both advised us to leave what was buried, buried. It was all too sad, and why dwell on sadness? Yvon didn’t have to be told twice, but I couldn’t stop being curious.
Our family was different from other families in the village in that way. Neither of our parents liked to talk about their families very much. Neither mentioned a favorite aunt or uncle. Sometimes I felt we were the first family on earth with no relatives ever.
Our history seemed to have begun with our parents’ arrival in France, where they were married in St. Michael’s Church in the heart of Villefranche. They said they had gone through a civil service but wanted a religious one. Every time we walked past the church, I imagined them emerging, Mama in a beautiful lily-white wedding dress, holding a bouquet of a variety of flowers, and Papa in his suit and tie looking even more handsome. How silly of me to wish it, but I wished I had been there and stood beside them when they took their vows.
Despite Regine’s babbling about Louis, I was still thinking about all that as we headed back to my new home on the hill looking over the harbor of La Darse. The sun had broken free from a patch of clouds and dropped its late-June rays in waves of thunderous heat over us. Thankfully, our new home was only two streets up. Regine lived four streets up, and the way rose so steeply it was painful to go quickly. However, my legs were quite strong, as were the legs of most who lived above the village and had to navigate long and steep stone stairways.
On summer days, especially like this one, I hated doing errands, but as soon as I was old enough to go myself, there was no refusing. Yvon was an apprentice to Monsieur Dufloit, the village cobbler, and had fewer household duties. He did enjoy the work, and thanks to him, I had a fancy pair of Edwardian high-top black leather boots. It was one of his first accomplishments.
My parents, especially my mother, were proud of him for thinking first of me and not making something for himself. He didn’t actually give them to me, however. He left them outside my bedroom door, and when I thanked him, giving him a quick peck on the cheek, he blushed and said he didn’t know what I was talking about. From what I could see, Yvon was shy only with me. He certainly didn’t hesitate to flirt with other girls, especially Marion Veil, whose father was the village doctor. She was the oldest of three daughters and was certainly one of the prettiest girls in Villefranche, with her strawberry-red hair and blue-green eyes.
But Yvon was uncomfortable being called her boyfriend, even though he basically was. I think he just didn’t want to commit emotionally to anyone other than his family. It was part of the distrust that ran along with the blood in his veins. When I asked him what if she had told him that she loved him, he grimaced and said he wouldn’t believe her if she had.
“Why not?” I asked.
“People lie to each other too much, even married people. Maybe especially married people,” he added, with those cerulean-blue eyes of his narrowing over a memory he had stored right behind them.
My heart skipped beats.
“Not Mama and Papa.”
“They’re not people. They’re our parents, and they are really in love with and true to each other.”
That made me feel better, but whatever it was, whatever unseemly thing he had witnessed, he kept to himself or at least kept it from me. Sometimes he treated me as if I was made of thin china, so fragile that a nasty thought would shatter me. But he truly cherished me, and I was proud to wear the boots he had made, even though he wanted to pretend it was just as much of a surprise to him.
“The boots just walked up here themselves?” I asked him.
“Stranger things have happened.”
“Oh, sure. It’s Eve’s fault,” I said, and he pressed his lips together and twisted his nose. Then he remembered Monsieur Appert and laughed. It was always so good to hear Yvon laugh. He did it so rarely.
As we approached my house, I could see something unusual was happening. Yvon was home, and there was a crowd of our neighbors circled around something that held their attention on the east side of the house. Their excited voices carried down the hill and were bringing more people out and up.
Jean-Paul, who was too old and arthritic now to walk up the hill from his seaside cottage, was sitting on the far right. Usually, Papa and Yvon carried him up in what my father had built, a litter they amusingly called the “King’s Chair.” Papa had dressed up the sides by embossing crowns and scepters.
“What’s going on?” Regine asked.
I shook my head, and we both started to run up the hill. The wide smile on Yvon’s face put even more strength and speed into my legs. Regine, who had a longer stride, still fell behind. As I drew closer, I saw what everyone was looking at and talking about: some sort of red vehicle.
“What is it?” I gasped, first reaching Yvon. “Why is everyone here?”
“Someone very rich wanted Papa’s painting with Mama standing on the wall of the fort and looking out at the harbor, and they traded a brand-new red Alfonso XIII Roadster for it. It’s one of the first made in a French factory in Paris. This model won the Coupe de L’Auto race. It’s named after the Spanish king.”
I never heard Yvon sound so excited.
“What exactly is it?” I asked. Regine caught up.
Yvon laughed at me. “What exactly is it? It’s an automobile, Marlena, one of the fastest made. It was delivered only a little while ago.”
“So it goes by itself?”
“Without horses, yes. It has an engine. I have shown you pictures of such vehicles. This one has one of the first electric starters, too.”
I shrugged. Such machines were never as interesting to me as they were to him.
I drew closer. Papa was sitting behind the steering wheel, with a man beside him explaining things. I never saw Papa look so happy and proud.
“Hey,” he called when the man got out of the vehicle. “Come sit beside me.” He patted the seat.
“Go on,” Yvon urged, but with a sadness in his voice. “Go on,” he repeated, and pushed me forward.
I walked around the rear of the vehicle slowly. Jean-Paul nodded and smiled. Cautiously, I got in. Mama was standing on the other side with her good friend Madame Blondeau, whose husband was capitaine of the local police. Mama looked so excited, too. Papa turned a key, did something in front, and there was a roar from the vehicle. Everyone cheered. Then he moved something else, and we started forward. I screamed and took hold of the door handle as we began to go faster. Was I the first one to take a ride with him? Why didn’t he ask Yvon? I looked back. He was watching us, but he wasn’t smiling.
Papa turned the car, and we started down the hill.
I screamed again, as I would on a circus ride, and he laughed. Dust flew up around us. He made another turn and followed one of the roads that led out of the village. The vehicle bounced over bumps and through shallow ditches, but Papa didn’t slow down. People walking and farmers with horse-drawn carts stopped and moved to the side, watching us go by with amazement.
“It’s one of the fastest new motor vehicles,” Papa said, as thrilled as a little boy. We bounced so hard once that I rose and fell in the seat, but he went faster and faster, until he slowed down for a sharp turn. Then he brought the vehicle to a stop and sat back. “Wow,” he said. “That was a ride, huh, Marlena?”
“It’s scary, Papa.”
“Only until you get used to it,” he said, and started slowly ahead, before turning around and going back almost as fast as we had come. It didn’t go quickly up the hill, but I sat back amazed at how much quicker we returned than we would if we were in a horse and wagon.
Everyone was waiting where we had started. As soon as we stopped, Papa beckoned to Mama to get in. She approached and leaned over the door.
“Take Yvon, Beau.”
“Of course,” Papa said. He beckoned to Yvon. Yvon walked slowly to the car. I could see he wasn’t happy. He looked sullen. He should have been first, I thought. He’s older, and he’s a boy. I got out quickly.
“It’s scary,” I told him.
He didn’t reply. He got in, and Papa waved to everyone and turned around.
“Your father is like a little boy again,” Mama said.
“His painting was worth far more,” Jean-Paul muttered. “He sold it too quickly.”
I glanced at him with surprise, and he shrugged. “But what do I know? The world is moving too fast for me now, Marlena. What was important is no longer as important.”
“Don’t complain about it, Jean-Paul. You’ll be driven from your house to ours for dinner faster,” Mama said. “That’s for sure.”
“The food couldn’t be any better than it is because of that,” Jean-Paul told her, and they laughed.
I looked at the cloud of dust and thought about the sad expression on Yvon’s face. Why didn’t Papa take him first? He surely knew Yvon would be more interested in motorcars. Perhaps he was planning to do something special after he had given me and Mama quick rides, I thought.
As it turned out, I was right. It took them much longer to return, and when they did, Yvon was driving, with his face so washed in a smile that I thought it would never change. To my surprise, when they stopped and got out, Yvon answered more questions about the vehicle than Papa did. Even the man who had brought the vehicle looked impressed with him.
“Where did you learn all that about the automobile?” I asked him later, after he and Papa washed it so it would remain looking brand-new.
“Newspapers. Papa doesn’t care as much about the real world.”
“What does that mean? You can be so frustrating sometimes, Yvon, with your bird words.”
He laughed. “Papa’s an artist. He isn’t interested in facts. He’s interested in beauty and mystery,” he replied. He turned from the vehicle and looked out at the sea, as if he heard voices coming from it, as if all his wisdom was brought in with the tide.
The sun was slipping like a gold plate into the water. Traces of clouds were thinning out and turning into phantoms. When we were younger, Papa would sit with us on the beach sometimes after dinner and ask us to describe clouds at twilight. He said that was when they changed into their true selves. Yvon always saw animals or insects. I saw flowers sometimes and birds most of the time. When I asked Papa what he saw, he thought and said, “They’re still becoming what they are. They’re people’s dreams.”
What was Yvon dreaming about now?
“Got to get back to work,” he said. “There is a pair of shoes I promised to finish today. See you at dinner.” He started away, never having walked with more pride, his shoulders high and straight. He turned once to smile and wave to me.
The crowd of villagers began to break up, everyone shaking Papa’s hand and wishing him luck with his new vehicle. For a while afterward, it practically took over our lives. Every night after dinner for the next few weeks, Papa and Yvon would wash the red automobile to keep it looking new. They wouldn’t permit a spot of mud on it. Mama and I would stand by and laugh at them, Mama telling Papa he might have to get permission to marry the thing.
“Thing? Thing? You can’t call this a thing!” Papa cried. “It’s the beginning of the future.”
“I can’t see how getting somewhere faster makes that much difference unless it’s an emergency,” she told him.
He threw up his hands and cried, “Women!”
What I did like about the new vehicle was how it seemed to bring Yvon and Papa closer together. They took it for more rides, fidgeted over parts, and planned out trips. It sat only two, so I didn’t go along, but I wasn’t as excited about it as Yvon was. A little more than a week later, when Papa suggested Yvon take me for a ride, Mama objected.
“He needs more practice with you,” she told him. I saw how hurt Yvon was. He always showed his displeasure by looking down and quickly doing something else, especially if Mama said anything remotely negative about him.
“There’s not that much to it,” Papa told her. “He knows more about it than I do, and he’s certainly not going to confront too many of these vehicles out there.”
“It goes too fast, Beau. Please,” she begged.
Papa softened the blow by deciding to give more time to Yvon’s practicing and less time to his painting.
“You’ll take your mother for a ride first, then,” he told Yvon. “That way, she’ll see how good you are.”
That seemed to mend his hurt feelings. As it turned out, she told him that he drove better than Papa.
“Your father is too distracted. No matter how fast we go, he sees something he thinks he might paint,” she told him.
I was standing beside Papa at the time. He nodded and laughed.
“Who knows me better than your mother?” he said.
After that, she gave Yvon permission to take me for a ride. But she refused to let him take Louis or any other boy.
“I know you’d like to show off,” she said, “but I’m afraid of how they might dare you to go too fast.”
“No one makes me do what I don’t want to do,” Yvon snapped back at her, with an unusual abruptness and rage in his eyes.
She just stared at him, but with an expression on her face I couldn’t ever recall seeing. It was as if she was looking at someone else and not her son. She glanced at me and realized it, quickly returning to herself.
“We all have our weak moments, Yvon. When you think too much of yourself, you either hurt yourself or someone you love,” she said softly.
It made him blink, and he suddenly looked more ashamed than angry. However, he didn’t apologize. He looked down, and then he turned and walked away.
“He didn’t mean to be disrespectful, Mama,” I said. “Yvon doesn’t think too much of himself.”
She looked after him and then at me, barely changing her expression. “He doesn’t know himself completely,” she said. “He doesn’t know who he is.”
“What?” I smiled. Did Yvon inherit bird words from her?
“There are things inside you, inside us all, that we have not yet realized, Marlena. That is why it’s best to be more humble and move a little slower at times. We spend most of our lives learning about ourselves and not, as everyone thinks, learning about others.”
She looked at Yvon walking away. “Someday he’ll understand.”
“What about me, Mama?”
“You’ll both understand.”
She folded her arms, pulled up the collar of her blouse, and walked around the house to go up the hill a little farther to where Papa was working on a new painting. If she didn’t fetch him sometimes, he’d forget we were having dinner or that he hadn’t eaten.
With Yvon going off in one direction and she in another, I felt a little lost. What was Mama saying? It was as if suddenly we were all strangers, as if the family everyone thought was picture-perfect had become shadows afraid of the coming sunlight.
It was more like I had just stepped out of our comfortable, beautiful world and did what Yvon always advised me to avoid doing, step into one of those clouds of secrets.
In my heart I knew there would be more.
And it would make everything that had come before it an easily forgotten dream.