What a tale she has left her daughter to read, and what a tale Ursula will have to tell her betrothed, if she chooses! How decades before, her unknown father killed his unclaimed father—a murder which, once she’d discovered it, had driven Anna to flee him, so that both men proved each other’s undoing. To say nothing of how many others were undone, and will yet be.
She stops to reread her story but cannot get past the first lines. Child! hearts do not break. Life is very tough as well as very terrible. She can only hope she has done justice in the rest. Has explained herself clearly, though not perhaps too clearly.
Even after all these years, she has so many secrets left to keep.
Anna folds the manuscript and leaves it in the top drawer of her desk, to return to later. And then to deliver. That will be the end of it. I will tell thee all now, on condition that no spoken word ever passes between us on the subject. It would kill me to be questioned. I should have to see all present again…
She rises and walks out of the room. Then out of the house, into the streets of Frankfurt. Even now, after all these years, she is nervous of stepping out from behind four walls. Yet she knows this road well, and her head clears more and more the farther she gets from her modest little house, from the letter. The closer she gets to a certain street, and the room at the top of the stairs at the end of it.
Her slippers were not fashioned to walk such distances, and she feels cobblestones, then splintered planks beneath the thin soles. The rail creaks as she leans against it for a moment. Perhaps Amante hears, or saw her coming down the street; at any event the door swings open as Anna approaches it. Amante's short grey hair stands around her head like a halo, the color of light shining through fine dust. She braces her hands on her narrow hips, clad in trousers as she likes to be in her home, and smiles.
Anna smiles back—her usual smile, small and close-lipped. But sincere.
As she comes closer, Amante's dark, bright eyes narrow. “Has something happened?”
“Soon it will,” Anna says.
Amante holds out her arm. “Come inside.” To shopkeepers and the landlord she speaks a deeply accented German, but with Anna she falls into her rich mother tongue, the French of Normandy.
Anna closes a hand around her elbow, and at once the touch infuses strength into her. She follows Amante into her rooms, dim and sparsely furnished but clean. They smell of castile soap, drying herbs, and something savory baking over the little stove.
Amante pours glasses of small beer for them both while Anna sits at the scarred table. She traces a scratch in the wood with one fingertip.
“I wrote a letter to Ursula,” she says. “It explains…my first marriage.”
Amante settles beside her on the low bench. She sits cross-legged, tailor style. Despite her grey hair her joints fold as fluidly as ever, and her long-fingered hands rest in her lap. “Why did you tell her now?”
Even the two of them have rarely spoken of it. During their flight, Amante kept always to practicalities. Afterwards, there seemed to be no need to say anything. The past had been buried in silence.
Anna raises it, saying, “Because she has almost become engaged to the son of the Sieur De Poissy.”
In a surge it returns to her—a rush of sound and shadowy images. M. de la Tourelle’s voice sneeringly reading the letter from De Poissy’s pocket, the Chauffeurs joining in the ribald laughter and mockery of his son and his wife who would never receive it. While Anna huddled below the table, limbs curled tight, praying not to be seen. Still…she remembered the touch, too. When her hand reached out in the dark and felt the claylike dead fingers.
Amante presses her thumb to her lips, seemingly in thought. Anna wets her mouth with a sip of the beer.
“It wouldn’t be right.” She lets spill the reasoning she withheld from her daughter; Urusla would not welcome her thoughts, but with Amante she can always share them. “First because it wouldn’t be just. Our two families should not be tied together in that way. But also—oh, Amante, I couldn’t bear it. To see him every day, and know, and remember—”
The dark, the voices above her, the cramp that grew in her body as she tried to hold still, chased here and there by chill tremors. De Poissy’s heavy, still, cold hand—
Her hand, which has been tracing spilled foam along a split in the oak boards, now curls tight. The scar in her finger, where she bit her own flesh to keep quiet that night, stands out darkly against her bloodless skin. When her short nails dig into her palm, the pain is almost enough to cut through her growing horror.
“I told her as much as I could, once and for all. And begged her never to speak of it aloud. Amante, I can’t bear to relive it again!”
It is a plea as much as it is a declaration. She feels herself overcome, darkness surrounding her—darkness too reminiscent of those terrible nights in hiding and in flight. The chill in her marrow of constant pursuit, constant wariness. Endless days when she had only one refuge.
But she comes out of her swoon in what feels like an instant. Her head is in Amante’s lap, her cheek resting on the worn nap of her trousers and her own hair covering her face like a screen the color of dirty ice. A hand strokes steadily through it, the touch gentle and warm.
She is in shadow from her tresses and Amante’s body bending over her, but it is a familiar shadow. Another memory rises, of the damp day they spent sheltering under the bridge beneath Amante’s cloak. Their first day of flight, of freedom. She had rested, so, her head in the other woman’s lap. A sure hand soothing her fevered fear.
Anna reaches up, catches the hand in her own scarred one. Brings it to her mouth and kisses it. “Thank you, my love.”
“You’re safe,” Amante says. “We both are.” Her fingers again swirl through Anna’s hair, brushing it back from her warming cheek. From the corner of her eyes Anna can glimpse her face, the lines carved with age surrounding her bright eyes like the barbs of feathers.
“I’ve always been safe with you.” Again she kisses her; it’s all she can do. Falling beyond gratitude, beyond hope of repayment, into something simpler and infinitely harder. Into love, and all they have given for it.
“I told Ursula you sacrificed your life for us.”
Amante nods, and if a shadow crosses her face, a smile follows. A smile both fond and proud, as well as wistful. “It was necessary, Anna. Once M. de la Tourelle traced us—found us…” The smile vanishes at the memory of his attack. Brutal enough that it could be taken for fatal, would have been if not for the rapid and miraculous ministrations of Dr. Voss. The doctor and Amante realized then that the only way to escape de la Tourelle’s brigand gang was to let them believe they had succeeded. So she could never return to Anna and their daughter. And Anna had to live alone, in hiding, untraced and uncomforted, unable to offer any comfort to Amante either.
Though that was to slight the doctor’s role. He carried word between them, sharing what comfort he could, and in time, he offered Anna and her daughter the shelter and companionship of his name.
“What else did you tell her?” Amante asks, seeming to read her thoughts. There is an uncharacteristic unsteady softness to her question. Amante, usually so calm, source of whatever peace Anna is able to grasp, is now the one who needs reassurance.
Anna is not sure she can give it. “Little else. For dear Voss’s sake.” Sustaining their secret protected his honor, hiding the lover she had kept before and then throughout her second marriage. She suspected sometimes that the doctor, too, kept a lover of his own sex. Nothing to prove, but she remembered the lock of thick hair folded in the back pages of one of his books as she cleaned his library after his death. The inscriptions in the front plates, revealing a certain fondness. Such scraps that passion might leave behind. “I have already removed him from his place as Ursula’s father, but to also elide him as my husband?”
Amante nods. She does not say the question she could so rightly ask—And your other spouse?
Those days as they made their haggard way home were also when they could show themselves in public—disguised, of course, but baring a truth as well. Amante as the tailor, Anna as her wife. Anna misses them sometimes. She suspects Amante does as well.
“I’m sorry.” She sighs and straightens from Amante’s lap. Her arms fold, clasping each other to her sides. “If only…” If only she were not so shy, so scared, so secretive. If only she could be sure of Ursula’s reaction. “I have to tell her about De Poissy, and can she bear to hear more? She doesn’t understand me. Nor I her, most times. I’ve tried to explain my past to her, but even so… Yet I’m not ashamed of you.”
“I know,” Amante says.
“I have never been ashamed of you.” It is perhaps the one thing in her life that brings no shame, no flush of failure.
Except Ursula is the other. Anna has not been a perfect mother—Ursula was closer to Voss, her heart’s father—but she has loved and cared for her, and she is so frightened now of undoing all that care. Of losing that love.
“I hope she is well,” Amante says. A certain heaviness in her voice reminds Anna once again of how much her heart’s spouse had loved their daughter. It has been years since Amante saw Ursula. That night before she left for the country house on her near-fatal journey, the night she kissed the baby a thousand times and mused on death, was almost the last meeting it appears to be in Anna’s letter. She’d visited the Voss townhouse sometimes, deep in the night, when the girl was an infant. Though after de la Tourelle’s death there was no need to keep her identity hidden, still there had not been any introduction between them. For all the reasons Anna has given now, and because of that lingering fear. She is even afraid to build too much goodness into her life lest it be swept away. Anxiety is with her like the constant pain of an unhealed wound; she has learned to live with it, but does not always have the strength to resist it. Without it, what would she feel?
“I hope she will be,” she tells Amante. “She may go to visit her uncle, you know, in the mill house on the Necker.”
“She liked it there?”
“Very much, I think. She was glad to meet family. To travel.”
“I’m glad you were able to make the journey.”
“I love my brother, but I’m not certain I could have without your encouragement.” It was the farthest Anna has ever gone from her Frankfurt house since the doctor took her to the prison where de la Tourelle’s body lay. Both journeys were trials with a sort of reward at the end of them, but some days Anna is not certain their rewards were worth it. Her first husband's death did not undo all the harm his life had enacted. Her reunion with her brother was marred by her sister in law’s unfriendliness, by the fact that she never could fully return home.
If the Necker-side mill is truly home anymore.
She curls again in Amante’s arms. “You are such a refuge to me.”
“My dear, you have given my life meaning.” Amante’s fingers curl at the nape of her neck, around her waist. “And added another thirty years to it, no doubt. When we met I was a gaunt old maid of forty—and now!”
“You were very handsome, I remember thinking that from the first.”
“Now I’m a handsome, gaunt old maid of more than sixty.”
“And I?” The coquette rises in her, bubbling like spring water towards the surface sun-warmed by Amante’s love.
“You are gorgeous, Madame, and true and brave." She presses Anna's cheek, meets her eyes. "You have done well as a mother. I know you fear you will break Ursula’s heart, but think what good you have done her. You’ve given her a home, a family to be proud of. If she had stayed as de la Tourelle’s child…”
Anna shudders, nods. Deeper than her horror, she feels a stirring of something more: too bleak to be satisfaction, but relieved, even proud. Whatever else came of her first marriage, she has brought a kind, intelligent daughter safely into the world.
“A good mother,” Amante says, “and a splendid wife.”
They kiss, warm and steady and long. Anna cups Amante’s skull; tenderly her thumbs trace the rim of her ears, then close at the back of her neck and pull her closer.
“There is one other reason,” she says when the kiss breaks. “Why I haven’t told Ursula about you. And it is this: I fear she would be jealous, because she may lose the love of her life, and all this time I have kept mine.”
“Darling.” Tears shine in Amante’s eyes, quickly blinked away.
“I will never lose you.” Anna kisses her again.
“No, no.” Her hands begin to stroke Anna’s hair and back. They curl over her shoulders as the kiss deepens, becomes open-mouthed. Anna trails next along her jaw, the bone long and firm-set though the skin above it has loosened over the years; down her neck which has always been sensitive.
She pauses there, locked in embrace, eyes closed. A moment of peace stretches out. “Sometimes when I come here I wish I could never leave.”
“You need not,” Amante says, “yet.”
Her hands at Anna’s waist guide her to stand as Amante rises from beneath her. Once she would have carried her, but Anna does not like her to tax her strength. They go into the next room, where her bed is lit by a shaft of light from a window that overlooks the roofs of other houses, and above them the sky where clouds drift like undiscovered continents. Their shadows dance over the blankets and the floorboards.
Anna stands and Amante undresses her as she has for twenty years, first as a lady’s maid and then as a lover. She moves slowly, unlike her usual brisk self, savoring the task. She kisses Anna’s shoulder as she bares it, the chemise sliding to her feet. Anna steps out of her slippers and arches against the stroking along her naked back.
Then she turns, unbuttons Amante’s waistcoat and opens the ties at the neck of her white shirt. Her dear head falls back as Anna's fingers skim her breasts. Amante takes down her own breeches but leaves on the knee-high black silk stockings. Anna stands too with her feet covered by much-darned linen. Amante has tried to lessen her need to bend, and Anna is too impatient to take them off herself. She lies down and keeps her touch roving over Amante’s hips, stomach, bosom as the other woman settles in bed beside her.
“Your hair is so beautiful in the sunlight.” Amante’s fingers comb it out, a handful of silver shining white. Anna smiles, and when Amante lets her hair fall she bends her head to trace the strands over the older woman’s body. She circles the small breasts, traces down along her wiry length. She pauses at the old scar, a deep and knotted line just shy of the center of her chest.
Amante’s hand settles over it, hiding it from view. Meeting her smile, Anna moves her hair and fingers over the rest of her. Amante’s body is beautiful, healthy, a sculpture of bone and muscle. She responds slowly but surely. Anna strokes and kisses her thighs, then the folds between them. Amante gasps, rising against her lips. Even after patient suckling and lapping at her bud until it swells, she remains too dry for penetration, but Anna knows no more is needed. She licks and manipulates her outer sex, using the rhythm long familiar to both of them, until Amante begins to shake and cry out louder. At last she seizes Anna’s shoulders and tugs, summoning her up. Then Amante flips and rises over her.
A leg insinuates between Anna’s and they rock against each other. Under the steady, gentle motion Amante slowly comes undone. Anna’s limbs wrap around her, holding her tightly in this rare moment of helplessness. She murmurs something; they both whisper streams of endearments, worn through use as smooth and bright as riverbed stones.
This—these moments free from fear, from shame, free almost of consciousness of anything but the simple words and touch and knowledge of the other woman and her own pleasure, they feel like the truest moments of Anna’s life.
Amante moves down over her, kneeling between her legs. She kisses her belly, ripple-marked from bearing a child, growing slack with age. She is not strong as Amante is and never has been. The tautness of Anna’s youth was all anxiety, her blossom of maturity hidden, what beauty she had was put to little use; sometimes she feels that her body has been wasted. But under Amante’s love she begins to unfold again. She grows wet from kisses and stroking, and her hips begin to pump as two fingers make their way into her. She clamps tight, greedy for them, then with tremors her muscles pull them deeper. “My love,” she whispers to Amante. In response Amante kisses the joint where thigh meets hip, pulling hard on the skin, producing a glorious sensation of heated intensity that drives Anna wild. She cups Amante’s head, holding her to her.
“Mark me,” she says, the request she has given every time they meet, ever since that first covert rendezvous when passion had led Amante to leave her a lasting reminder of her presence. “Yes, please—”
Steadily, sweetly, Amante does. With one hand she grips Anna’s stockinged calf, holding her legs open. The other delves into her, milking out her release.
When it passes, Amante comes up again, resting beside her on the narrow bed. They touch each other, petting like kittens. Time with all its burdens drops away, and there is this: them, their two grey heads resting on one pillow, as it should be.