The Sound of the Fountain
The sick thud when you step and the ground moves away from you, a suck and your foot gone—that was sound Just would call the fountain of youth.
Thirteen years old, Just, and dying for love. He mooned over pictures of martyrs, their turned-up, too-white eyes, their muscular, grey-pink breasts. He tried out sonnets. He thanked God for polished surfaces to watch himself in. (He must have done more than die from love, must have: 1. Practiced his sword 2. Rode the fields 3. Worked the accounts 4. Rattled off his Latin, 5. Longed for Montaigne’s father and a village of Latin-speaking peasants to whom he could show off his own. His peasants spoke too loud and made signs with their hands, which it was not liberal nor up-to-date to call hexes.)
Just endeavored to keep near the woman he loved. He knew of a man who cut holes in portraits and spied on elegant women through the painted eyes. He’d heard of another who dressed up like an old woman and held salon, telling the girls to come closer, my dear, closer. Just stood with his ears against the wall on the other side of his mother’s chamber and listened to the women.
The woman Just loved was backwards his age (thirty-one) and named Madame Ledoux. Her eyes were dark and calm like a cow’s, the fine, blond hair along her cheeks and neck showed off by a thin layer of sweat.
This is what the men said about her: She was a widow and rich, but not happy.
This is what the women said about her: She was a murderess.
Poisoning a husband or a father was one thing. But: Mme Ledoux had a husband, which was a fine thing to have, and a lover, which was even better. But her husband was jealous, which was very inconvenient. And then she had a lover and a jealous husband and a baby. When the baby was born, the husband was away, and she so desperate to hide it. Because the baby had horns! Imagine! (Just like his father, the women laughed.) The truth (the pitiful truth) was, Mme Ledoux was much too fearful, much too silly. She worried through all her confinement and should only expect something like that would happen. If you hadn’t seen the baby yourself, and its curly little horns, it was because it had died. Mme Ledoux had rolled on it and smothered it in the night. And the upshot of it all was that her husband’s ship had been lost and he never made it home at all.
At dinners to which Mme Ledoux had to be invited, she was confined at the end of the table. Just was so close to her he could hear her chew. He could hear her swallow. Once he saw her pour something in a cup. He remembered that she was a murderess and thought of poison, but she drank it herself. He could hear the hungry suck of it in her throat (or imagined he could).
She looked at him with her tragic, contemptuous eyes and he knew she could see he loved her, and she didn’t give a fuck.
So many thirteen-year-olds would have eaten their hearts out to be an adult, to show Mme Ledoux just how old they were. This is what Just wanted: To hold out a cup to her, or drink from hers, both drink from the same cup. And whatever was in it would makes them both so young and sweet, so young, young, young his eyes filled with tears at the thought of it. What kind of child did that make him?
This was all not long before Just’s grown-up brother came home with his young wife Heloise—who Just soon vowed to give all (some of) his love for the rest of his (young, young) life.
About the time Just was dying of love, Heloise was longing to be married to an old man, mostly because she was dying of boredom.
Heloise’s mother was a widow who had never cared for society. She lived modestly in the country with her young daughter and taught her old-fashioned ways and out-of-fashion virtues. Heloise’s mother did not have much education, but the two loved to read to each other, especially the new fairy tales that should have been too fashionable for Heloise’s mother to love. The mother had always planned to take the daughter to
Heloise’s aunt took responsibility for her education—so sadly neglected—and took her back with her to
Heloise had the almond, too white eyes, so favored by Just in his martyrs, and little white teeth with little black spaces between them. The bones of her nose and cheeks were still too raw and near the skin, but Heloise’s aunt saw potential.
Heloise’s cousin, Genevieve, happy in her own round, young eyes, and young, pink cheeks, and pink, round breasts, said Yes, Heloise would definitely be a beauty and when they were both married, they would hide each other’s letters from each other’s husbands, and have so much fun. Genevieve was sentimental about her orphaned cousin and solicitous of her happiness.
She took her to see a giraffe. Their chaperone had to be coaxed—just a little because everyone was mad to see the beast.
“It is ravishing” pronounced Genevieve. “The giraffe. Do you see how they have painted it so cunning in fashionable patterns? I am ravished with it.”
Heloise remembered what she had once read out to her mother, what they had both coped into their little books, “And each creature with the just proportions of its kind, of bone and of muscle and of nature.” The giraffe was a beast stretched on the scale between animal and angel. Heloise pronounced herself ravished with it too.
The menagerie was thick with the smell of all the animals ever in it and of all the people ever curious to see them and of all the things the people had rubbed on themselves before going out. In short, it smelled and Genevieve pressed her handkerchief against her face.
In a cage behind them, a tiger growled and Genevieve shrieked, and turned, and shivered deliciously. “Do you see him,” she said, “And his wicked eyes. He would eat us as soon as look at us.” (The tiger did not look at them; it turned around and around as much as it could.)
Genevieve crushed the handkerchief tighter against her mouth. “Do you see him?”
“I can’t hear you,” Heloise said angrily, “Take that away from your mouth.” She was having a harder and harder time distinguishing words when she couldn’t watch people’s mouths.
But for the most part, Genevieve leaned in so close and confidential when she talked, whispered so chummily in Heloise’s ears, it was very easy to love her.
Sometimes Heloise dreamt of drowning in a sound, and not one that resembled the growl of the tiger, something else. She should have died of boredom when she was living with her mother in the country (she should have died in the country with her mother and not be living here), but she only felt it now.
Heloise dreamed of her home and realized she didn’t want it either. She wanted to be Anywhere-That-Was-Not-Here.
Genevieve said soon they could be married, here was a game: they would both point out to each other the young men they would best like to be their husbands, they would say nothing, just point with their lips and the other would know what she meant, and Heloise could go first. Heloise said that she wanted to marry an old man. (The truth was she was afraid of selecting someone young. It is so easy, so natural to commit to someone who will die soon.)
Genevieve said, “And what if you have a baby, and he is dead! An old man.”
Heloise shrugged. Her mother had had a little baby once, her baby sister, and, if she remembered right, it had made both of them very happy as long as it had lived.
Genevieve shrugged too and said, If that would make her cousin happy.
After that, whenever they happened to be able to catch sight of men, Genevieve would point out their old features for Heloise. “You see that one is young, but he has a big nose.” “That one has a bald spot on the back of his head.” “That one is stooped, and that one will snore.” “That one is missing a hand.”
Almost everyone had something old about him.
Genevieve’s old feature was her dead tooth. Heloise’s was the peach-white fuzz on the top of her ears.