Authors: Lauren Groff
Here it is, the France the mother loves. The butter and pastry in the mouth, the cobblestones, the picturesque dawn with almost no French people in it.
Today they will visit Ãtretat. Guy de Maupassant had loved Ãtretat. His mother, Laure Le Poittevin, spent most of her life there. Guy grew up there, and built a house not far from his mother's when he made money. He called it La Guillette, the little Guy, in his complacent narcissism.
The mother drives the windy road up to the top of the cliffs, which finally seem white in the morning sun, blindingly so. Aha, she thinks. It just gets dirty as it goes through the day, like the rest of us. Wow, breathes the little boy, but the elder holds his own counsel, watching. Something in him, she knows, wants her to spin the wheel and accelerate over the cliff, just to see what would happen.
Tiny forests, meadows, songbirds, villages. The Mercedes purrs into Ãtretat; they park on rue Guy-de-Maupassant.
The town is spotlit by the early sun, utterly still. From the density of souvenir shops, she knows it will later be full of tourists. The boys are hungry again, and she finds another bakery and again lets them have what they want as long as they order in French. Both boys choose a
, some sort of Ã©clair with green frosting, which looks disgusting, but then again
the novel is her least favorite of Flaubert's books, and it seems right that the boys choose something gesturing at Flaubert, who
was Guy de Maupassant's mentor and friend. Such a tragedy, to follow up the greatness of
with melodramatic historical fiction about ancient Carthage, as if a maker of an uncannily humanoid robot decided next to turn his attention to cuckoo clocks.
But Flaubert had loved Guy truly, finding in the boy the ghost of his closest friend, Alfred Le Poittevin, Guy's uncle. Alfred had been a poet who died too young, and Flaubert never got over the shock of it. When Guy grew up, he became close to Flaubert and pressed himself into Flaubert's mold: disciplined on the page and obscene in the life. Guy was called by the family to prepare and dress Flaubert's body when the master died of apoplexy; Guy wept in anger when the hole dug for the corpse was too short for the coffin. Later, a grieving Guy wrote to Turgenev: The great old soul is following me. His voice haunts me. His sentences are in my ears, his love, which I look for and can't find because it is gone, has made the entire world seem empty around me.
The mother and the boys go out to the boardwalk. The red flags are up, which means bathing is a no-go, as if anyone sane would brave these waves, wild and crashing white. This beach is like Yport's, only supersized. Here, though, the great cliffs take her breath away. On the left side, there is a needle, one huge pointed rock, as well as a giant's archway somehow carved out of the bone-white
stone; on the right, a smaller archway has a church like a brown
When they grow too cold in the wind, they walk the town, but something about the aesthetics of the buildings feels off to her, close and mean. There are brown timbers everywhere, tight streets, second and third stories that tilt frighteningly far off their foundations into the road. The native style seems so ornate and dark and airless that the effect is almost disdainful. She feels the buildings leaning like women watching behind her back, whispering.
She takes the children to the villa Les Verguies, where, after their parents' divorce, Guy and HervÃ© were raised by their suffering mother, but there is nothing to see there, and a great gate blocks the way. She takes the children down the long road to La Guillette. The only thing to see there is a sign that says La Guillette. She takes a picture of it, then of the boys in front of it, and then, not finding herself capable of trespass, they walk back. Some writer named Maurice Leblanc was a much bigger deal in Ãtretat than Guy de Maupassant, it appears; he'd written some detective named ArsÃ¨ne Lupin. The arsenic wolf; the name could be applied to Guy, who had taken arsenic among many other medications for his syphilis and was predatory sexually, reportedly able to make himself erect at will.
She walks her boys up the long climb toward the church atop the cliff. She carries the little one when he grows too tired to go on, and feels her muscles burn
pleasantly. When she's too tired, the older boy carries his brother for a spell, and, God, this makes her want to cry with love. Up at the stone church, she stands closest to the drop like a sheepdog to keep her boys from nearing the lip of the cliff but lets them run and play around the church, climbing the steps, leaping down.
They drift down and eat a margarita pizza for lunch. They buy water shoes for the painful stones on the beaches, a mat so they can sunbathe, floaties, their own blue-and-white mariner's sweatshirts because cold like this was impossible to imagine in the hellmouth that is summer in Florida. They buy a postcard for the boys' father that will remain in the bottom of her bag, staining and shredding at the corners, unwritten, until they are home.
There is nothing else to do so they walk down, across the boardwalk, up to the top of the other cliff, where there is a staircase carved into the rock and a winding pathway with no guardrail to keep people from tripping and falling three hundred feet into the evil.
Ow, says the older boy, trying to rip his hand away from hers, but she won't let him go.
Keep me safe, she says to give him a job, pretending to be afraid. I don't want to fall.
Then both boys hold her hands and steer her around rocks and talk to her in the gentle voices she heard them use once to urge a baby gosling out of a gutter, which they tried to do for hours, until the chick got hungry and darted
out and they caught him and released him into their neighborhood's duck pond, where he was never seen again, where, she thinks now, he was probably eaten immediately by a hawk, as he had no mother goose to protect him.
When they cross a narrow bridge over a vast drop, the wind nearly blows the sunglasses off her face, and she becomes genuinely frightened. She squeezes her sons' hands, having visions of their shirts filling with wind, pushing them up and into the air like kites, their little faces first dazzled and delighted and then the slow dawn of dread as they begin to blow away. She would tether them here, to the earth, with her body.
I'm not scared, the smaller boy says, pressing close to her leg.
Me neither, the older one says.
Mommy's scared, the smaller boy says. Though we're not.
Oh, Mommy's scared of everything, the older one says, but pets her leg with his free hand.
From here, the other cliff they climbed earlier shows itself to be perilous, the church ready to fall off in a gust of wind. She can't believe she let her boys run around up there. The nausea rises in her throat. She has dragged her children across the world; she is risking their death, and for what? For a long-dead writer whom she finds morally repugnant, whose work she likes only about five percent of, filled as it is with white male arrogance and anti-Semitism and misogyny and flat-out celebrations of rape.
This town, from up here, feels malevolent, an outgrowth of Guy's bad heart.
The nausea stays until they descend and she finds the car. She drives out of Ãtretat with a sense of relief, and the boys fall asleep, and she reads a book, parked in the casino lot back in Yport, because her boys are too beautiful, asleep like this; she can't disturb them when there's such peace in their faces.
At the end of the boardwalk in Yport, near the spooky cave in the cliff, there is a carousel of ersatz Disney characters with vehicles that jerk eight feet into the air when the boys push a button.
The woman who sold the mother twenty tickets is beautiful, a bleached blonde with huge tits. She lives in a trailer behind the carousel with a fleshy man who never wears a shirt. She never speaks. The mother thinks she is maybe Eastern European. The woman makes savage faces at the backs of the parents who buy tickets, and when she goes around to take the same tickets from the children before their rides, she rips them nastily out of their little hands.
The boys ride together in the Dumbo car. They flash by, flash by, flash by, first low then high in the air, shouting with joy over the Spice Girls.
At her first family, in a village outside Nantes, during her study-abroad year, her fourteen-year-old host sister
would play the same song loudly and on repeat when her eighteen-year-old boyfriend, who was in the navy and wore a silly pom-pom on his beret, came over and they locked the door. She could hear their moaning even through the noise.
I'll tell you what I want, what I really really want
; the mother associates the song with statutory rape.
When her children descend from the air and the ride settles, the little one runs to her, banging his golden head into her lap, and only then does she understand that he is weeping; he hadn't been laughing, he'd been screaming with terror the entire time. It hadn't been the height, she understands, but the red button. His brother had told him that if the four-year-old touched it, the Dumbo would explode.
I promise you, Little Bear, she says. It won't explode.
But what if there was a bomb? he sobs.
She has committed herself to truth; she has to find a way to tell it, so she says, Well, yes, if there was a bomb, it'd explode. But who would bomb a children's carousel?
Nobody? he says.
You said it, she says.
It's true that the world is overrun with terrorists. It's true that the mother no longer goes to movies in theaters, and she scans for the exits in restaurants. Deeper, worse, the death everywhere, the surgical strikes, the eyes in the sky. Aleppo in the beautiful before, the ravaged after. She puts these thoughts away. If she could, she'd spend the entire day in bed.
Her little boy looks at her, wanting more.
I'd chase down the guy who tried to bomb you and punch him in the face, she says. Also, the penis.
You couldn't, he says, but he is laughing; the word
is inherently ridiculous, the concept of a penis is ludicrous, it always gets a laugh.
Who's faster, Daddy or me? Who wins when we race at the park?
You, he says grudgingly.
There you go, she says. I'm the toughest mother in the world. I won't let anybody hurt you, she says, and she is either lying or not, it is hard to tell, because this promise is so complicated, the future so dark.
Sunset is still three hours away but the sky is pink, and the quickest way to happiness is sugar, so she buys them all ice creams. Chocolate for her, rum raisin for the boys. They sit in an upturned fishing boat to eat.
The boys vibrate until their engines shut off one after the other, and she carries one on her back, the other on her front, huffing all the way home.
She puts them to bed upstairs and doesn't bother to turn on the lights in the house. She likes the gloomy dim through the curtains downstairs. She also wants to steer clear of the seagulls, the way they shouted down the sunset the day before.
She looks at her empty notebook until its emptiness is
seared into her brain, and then she opens one bottle of burgundy and drinks it and then opens a second, because why not.
The neighbors are having dinner in their courtyard. She imagines it full of bougainvillea, bird feeders, a long antique table. Silverware that's heirloom silver but mismatched. They are talking about the migrants from the war in Syria. She has to concentrate: their French is rapid-fire and muffled with food.
An infestation, someone says. Someone else chuckles. Disgusting, those Arabs, do you see the way they treat their women? someone says. Stone them to death if some uncle molests them. Sell them off to be fucked by old men when they're eight years old. Barbaric.
She finishes the second bottle and tries the wifi again but there is none, and she can't figure out the television and the books she brought are full of Guy and she is in no mood for his bullshit tonight, not after dealing with Ãtretat.
She'll go to bed, she decides. She stands. But her eye falls on the door, and she sees in the glass behind the curtain the silhouette of a man. His arm is moving.
Maybe she hasn't locked the door, she thinks. She can't remember. She is pretty sure she hasn't.
She holds her breath, and her body goes into a crouch behind the sofa. There is a single soft knock on the door, and she listens to the silence afterward.
She stares at the knob, a curled lever, and keeps seeing
it move, but the movement is in her eyes, not in the knob; the knob stays where it is.
After a while, the man moves away. There is an elaborate whistling, sharp footsteps. The neighbors' voices have lowered, and she can no longer understand them. She no longer wants to listen.
She locks the door, then puts one of the kitchen chairs under the handle. She shuts all the windows. Her children's faces in the darkness are featureless pale blots. She stands over them until one complains in his sleep about the hallway light, then she crawls up the spiral to her bedroom, where there is still sun in the skylight, which she blocks out by pulling her duvet over her head.
All night she wakes with a start to see an outline in the middle of the floor, which always turns out to be her own dress drying on the back of a chair as soon as she fumbles her glasses onto her face, and at last she gives up and just sleeps with them on, and in the morning she has a pink welt from temple to ear that is tender and aches to the touch.
After three days, they brave the water. The cold is not terrible, at least as soon as breath returns. Refreshing! she shouts, coaxing the boys in, until they start saying Refreshing! to describe all the mildly unpleasant things they have to bear before they get to have any fun. Their evening warmish shower over the gritty tile. The
mushy buttery carrots and peas she bought only because the jar was beautiful. Pasta again, as vegetarianism is tough in this town. The long wait in the morning until the
opens at dawn.