After pausing a moment to rearrange the flowers, she opened the apartment door and greeted her white cat, Stanley. (So named because he had a very British demeanor, and she considered Stanley to be a very British name. Both Simone and Agnès had agreed that it suited him well.)

A plate clanged. Stanley led her to the kitchen, as if she didn’t know from where the sound came. Maman was cleaning up after lunch. “Please don’t, Maman. I’ll do it.”

Nathalie took a plate out of her mother’s hands and placed the flowers in them instead, clasping her fingers over Maman’s scars. “Pretty flowers for my pretty Maman,” she said. “The sun was too much for them, as you can see.”

“Water will wake them up. They’re lovely! Thank you.” Maman inhaled the scent, smiling. She reached behind a stack of plates for a vase. “From where?”

“A—a woman selling them outside the morgue.” Nathalie felt guilty passing off a logical guess as a certainty. It felt like a lie.

Maman poured water from a pitcher into the vase and set the flowers on the table. “And please eat. Lentil salad and some vegetables. You’re too skinny, ma bichette.”

Although Nathalie was now quite a bit taller than her mother, she had been and always would be Maman’s “little doe.” She kissed her mother’s ruddy cheeks. “Only if you let me finish clearing the table.”

Nathalie helped herself to the food and, despite her mother’s protests, cleaned up the kitchen afterward. Most every household task was a challenge for Maman since the fire in May. She was healing well enough but still getting used to this new, slower pace. She was restless now, not sure what to do with herself and especially her hands, which weren’t accustomed to stillness. Maman had been an apprentice at the House of Worth when she was Nathalie’s age and a seamstress ever since. She worked at the tailor shop, creating everything from everyday frocks to magnificent costumes for the Opéra Comique. Nathalie was proud of her mother’s talent and felt fortunate to have an abundance of skirts and dresses. Maman bought fabric at a significant discount from the shop’s supplier, and Nathalie was often clothed in silks, cottons, muslins, and velvets that her family would never otherwise be able to afford.

Maman had been helping out with costumes backstage at the Opéra Comique when it happened. One of the wings of the Salle Favart caught fire from a gas jet during a show, and life as her mother knew it was forever changed. Dozens of people died and many suffered burns; some people told Maman she was lucky to escape with burns only on her hands and arms. Maman always thanked them politely, as if she hadn’t heard it many times before. Nathalie, however, knew her mother was devastated by those very scarred, painful hands and the memory of how nimble they once had been.

As much as Maman claimed she could still sew, her inefficiency frustrated her, and it was clear she wasn’t ready to return to the tailor shop. Even arranging her chignon, the color of nutmeg and always so tidy, was a struggle some days. She rejected the doctor’s assessment that she might never regain sufficient movement in her hands and fingers, and she made sure she kept her hands as active as possible.

And so half-finished dresses with luscious fabrics and practical cottons and ornamental beads and sensible buttons hung throughout the apartment. Ghosts on dress forms, reminding Maman of loss and happier days. More than once Nathalie had suggested taking them down, but her mother refused.

Nathalie tore her article from the back of the journal and put it on the table as Maman talked about her morning errands at the marketplace, telling a story about a woman who’d tried to steal mushrooms by stuffing them in her cleavage. “May I read your article? Even I’m curious about this one. The whole market was talking about it.”

“Please do. It was … an especially difficult one to write,” said Nathalie, glad to be able to disappear into her room.

She rested her vial of catacomb dirt on the shelf where she kept unusual things. A doll with clothes that Maman had sewn, a jade dragon Papa had brought back from China. A partial bird skeleton (Stanley was responsible for that; the remains of the poor creature were on the edge of the roof, and when the wind carried it to a spot under her window, she kept part of it). Silvain, her stuffed rabbit from childhood, worn out from so much cuddling. A mourning brooch with a braided lock of her grandmother’s hair in the center. Some of Nathalie’s baby teeth and claws Stanley had shed, together in a porcelain cup Aunt Brigitte gave her for imaginary tea parties as a child. Tangible little chapters of the book that was her, thus far.

Nathalie took off her dress and put on a shirt and stockings. She was just stepping into her trousers when Maman called from the kitchen.

“Ma bichette. The victim, my goodness. But tell me, what did you truly see?”



How could Maman know?

Nathalie stumbled, one foot in and one foot out of her trousers, and sat on the bed to catch her balance. She finished dressing, put her catacomb dirt tube into her pocket, and stepped out of the bedroom. “What—what did I see?”

“The cuts, the bruising. Are you exaggerating?” Maman lifted her soft hazel eyes from the journal. Her own visits to the morgue were few and far between after seeing the mangled corpse of a train track victim several years ago. Yet she devoured the morgue report each day.

Nathalie exhaled. Of course that was what see meant.

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