Out of the Forest and into the Trees

SHORT STORY | OUT OF THE FOREST AND INTO THE TREES

The minute I first saw Monique, it wasn't hard to tell that she had the cocksure, feral resolve of a Vera Wang model, stalking the catwalk with a pearl handled pistol in her purse. But there was an ethereal fragility about her too: An unsettling paradox that I've yet to come even close to unraveling. But in spite of that, less than three weeks after we'd met, we found a rundown little house overlooking the Seine near Montmartre and moved in together. Strange as it seemed, we were happy then. We never got married but we were in love. At least I thought we were.

After she'd moved out two months later, with no explanation, it would be nearly three years before I'd see her again. I'd wearied of Paris by then but continued to scratch out a living as a freelance photojournalist after moving to an old restored farm house on a hill above Aix-en-Provence that overlooked the road that leads to Toulon. I didn't recognize her at first. She'd just burst out of Place de la Mairie carrying a basket full of flowers that was at least as big as she was. Tugging at her skirt was a giggling little girl who nearly took my breath away, she was so pretty. I just stood there in the shadow of the Tour de l'Horloge clock tower in the Ferragamo boots she'd bought me, too petrified to move, or even breathe. She'd cut her naturally blond hair short and her chalk white skin had turned dark gold from the sun. She looked better than I'd ever seen her, doing the little soft shoe shuffle she always did when she seemed pleased with herself. It was as if no time at all had passed and she smiled that same glimmering smile she once flashed at me, right before we used to rush home in the rain to make love in the lavender-scented breeze that drifted up from the south in the early spring. It was obvious that she'd come to Provence for a reason. I wasn't all that easy to find, and I couldn't believe it possible that her being there had been a coincidence. But when she looked up and seemed to notice me there, she began to visibly shake inside her clothes, rocking precariously on her high heels, as nervous as a moth fluttering above a flame, trying to make up her mind. And then, she was gone.

Three days later she send me a short note; "Her name is Lilly," she wrote, "and she was born pre-maturely. But she's a bright, spirited little vamp, and as tiny as she is, she has an indestructible heart. I think you'd like her. She's got your wild blue eyes and my devious grin. I'm sorry I never told you about her, but I didn't think you wanted kids, so I thought it best to raise her on my own. I hope you understand.

Be well, my love,
Monique"

Looking back, I don't recall Monique ever mentioning that she wanted children, or, for that matter, that she thought I didn't. I did, but in the short few months we were together, the subject never came up. I'm not sure what made her think I didn't want them
-I love kids- but there had always been a crack somewhere inside of her fractured self that I could never fix: A place where any kind of pain that wanted to got in, and when she got something like that in her head, it stayed there, lying uneasily between us like an abandoned alley cat that wandered the streets at night, looking for a place to rest, but never found one.

The knock on my farm house door a few years later shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. It had been an unusually cool, early spring morning when I saw her standing there, looking exactly like one of those priceless porcelain dolls they sell on the Champs-Elysées near the place de l'Etoile. She wore black, patent leather shoes, a yellow summer dress, and a forest green Girl Scout pack in which she'd stuffed what appeared to be an exotic jungle sloth with amber-speckled eyes and a coffee-colored coat as smooth as cashmere. Apparently, according to Lilly, her mother Monique, had hung herself one bleak winter morning from one of the giant beech trees near the Pré-Catelan in the Bois de Boulogne. It was Lilly who'd found her body floating in the freezing breeze like a baby blue boat that seemed to sail adrift in a shimmering sea of white snow flakes, her arms stretched out towards heaven as the indifferent black birds hovered above in the cold dead sky.

Lilly explained it all to me as if she was a tenured professor at the Sorbonne, lecturing an obviously clueless freshman. "She wasn't really happy," she said. "She had ghosts in her head that she carried around like chains and never told anybody about. But when she walked in her sleep I could hear them jangling in the dark."

Apparently exhausted, Lilly sat down and sighed. Setting her pink plastic purse on my cluttered kitchen table, she meticulously patted down her rumpled silk dress, and then, after calmly gathering her strength, resumed her recitation:

"Last week when I turned nine, my mom told me that she wasn't going to be there when I woke up in the morning and that I better get right with Jesus and learn to cook, so I could find a man to take care of me. I don't even like men. Did I mention, I was nine at the time?"

Gasping for some remote semblance of control, I stared in wonder at the adorable creature perched like a miniature Christmas tree angel in front of me and said, "Yes, dear, you did."

Struck dump by the thought that she'd come from an unfathomable world I can't even imagine, I instinctively put out my hand, but all I could think of to say was,

"Welcome home."

In time, I came to accept what Monique had done to herself, but I still don't know how anyone, for any reason, could have left a precious diamond in the rough like Lilly alone in the world to fend for her own sweet self. And even after all these years, when I listen to the Mistral wind roaring in out of the forest and into the trees, I can't help but wonder why.