Issue 67, Fall 1976
The morning was a sealed envelope. Madame Armance Lenot had touched her dry, white lips to it one last time, and the light had gone from it, as it goes a moment for those who shut out a love letter by closing their eyes, only for her, her eyes wide open, it was forever. For several years people and things had been losing shape and color, objects coming to life while persons turned to seaweed, then cement. Distances and time no longer had their geometry. Even clocks changed into flowers, which faded. And yet, well into her advanced old age, Armance had walked with her brisk little step, read books with a magnifying glass, texts she relished quickly or tossed aside the way she brushed crumbs from her bosom during her greedy breakfasts of cakes and sweets. Even the family she no longer saw except on her birthday and special holidays, even its impact was weakening. Of the big joyous bouquets in which her daughters-in-law had stuck their prickly and sometimes frightening wild flowers, soon nothing remained but the gaunt transparent pattern of the gypsophilias, and in the house where the old lady’s vision foundered, darkness drew its uniform heavy velvet funereal hangings closer in around her. And then there was that sealed morning.
Of all that had sung out in the house, only Esther’s voice droned on, the English lady’s companion the sons had given their mother, nearly five years ago, strong as a horse. Now, they reasoned, Madame Lenot had everything she needed, being rich as the bank across the boulevard and replete with memories, of trips, of men, of tokens of love. Certainly she had lived long and well enough, they felt, remaining egotistical and faithful to the appetite that made her love all sorts of things: a stranger’s glance, the street, the flowers on the table and even her husband who had received clients here, within these walls, wrote his summations to the jury here and later, disillusioned by his fellow men, here became a famous corporation lawyer, making fortunes on sunken cargoes, scrap metal deals, oil embargoes, delayed or hijacked shipments of arms.
“Esther,” said Madame Lenot, “Esther?”
“Here I am, Madame.”
“It’s all over,” said the blind woman, rising from the chair she sat in part of the day near the window. “Esther, now the street is a sea of water and I saw it rise. Where are you? Give me your hand.”
The English woman approached her mistress timidly, although she was usually quite brusque.
“You’re trembling?” Madame Lenot asked. “Yes, you’re trembling! And you’re not the one who’s blind! I am. But I’ve prepared myself for it. Your hand is freezing. Here, let me warm it for you.”
Esther could not bring herself to believe that the eyes she gazed into were sightless now and she looked away, giving herself time to think of how to put it when she announced that she was going home, to the house she’d bought in South London since being in the Lenots’ employ. Of course she could still get a good rent for it for a few more years, but her mistress’s disability, dreaded for so long, filled her with terror.
“Madame,” she began...
“No, Esther,” the blind woman cut her off, “I won’t tolerate pity. No use crying over spilt milk. I will simply obey you. Our roles will be reversed, and you’ll probably just love it. Everyone deserves a chance to give the orders!”
The old lady smiled and Esther could not see the slightest flicker in her fixed, transparent, russet pupils.
“But there’s no point in telling the others yet,” she added.
“Easter is only three days off. They’ll all come here for dinner. I won’t leave the table, and then I’ll pretend I’m tired and go to my room. They’ll leave around five and you’ll say, after looking in on me, that I’m sleeping like a top.”
“And after that?” asked Esther.
“After that? You mean after this last holiday is over?”
“Last holiday,” sighed Esther. “Why say that?”
“Last,” Armance repeated. “After that, I have my plan.”
Things went just as she had said. Easter Sunday, at the usual banquet, Armance pretended she could see, turning her head this way and that and even acting giddy enough to sing a popular tune before rising from the table and walking surefootedly to the door to the stairs, having rehearsed each step twenty times on Saturday. All the children applauded when she turned, one hand on the knob, to-smilingly bow to the group.
“Yes, Madame, just the rawhide valises.”
“Exactly,” said Armance. “Pack all my woolens in one, and in the other my summer things and the books you’ll read to me: I only want to take confessions, as many as possible. My husband put them away on the top shelf in the little parlor. Some of them are a little off-color. You’ll find those at the back, bound with metal clasps, made up to look like missals. Don’t forget. And no hat boxes. Just my wigs and scarves. I shall never have looked so young! Have you got the answers to the letters to Me. Querel? and the order from the travel agency?”
“The tickets are right here,” Esther said. “Our first train leaves tomorrow at 8:13. We catch the plane around noon.”
“Splendid. We’ll save Paris for when we get back. Esther, you are going to see all the things that I would like to see again, only you’ll be describing them to me. Before I die, I want to put on the jeweled necklace of all the cities I have adored: Prague, Venice, Cairo, Granada, Quebec, New York and your London, then my dear Holland, then Paris. And it will be winter, one last time here. I’m so happy!”
Madame Lenot held out her hands and Esther looked at them a moment, reaching towards her, fingers spread, before grasping them and feeling herself pulled, big as she was, tight against the tiny frail woman whose head barely came up to her breasts.
“Good night, Esther. You know I no longer live within these walls. The house has died before me. Go on upstairs. I’ll find my way by myself. I’ll be up later. I’ve always liked to take sleep into bed with me, rather than the other way around. As though it were my favorite child. Turn out the light.”
Esther said good night and started to leave. As she switched off the light, her heart tightened. Madame Lenot was looking towards her and her pale white face shone out alone a moment halfway up the room where the chairs, dressers, tables and vases of flowers had just sunk into darkness.