Tuesday Fiction: “Mélanie” by Aliette de Bodard
It’s finally here!
For the next two months, at least, we’ll be publishing one short story every Tuesday here at the WSB. We’ve got stories lined up for you from South Africa, Israel, Brazil, India, the UK and elsewhere. If you’d like to send us a story, drop us a line at email@example.com!
We’re starting this new feature with French author Aliette de Bodard‘s Mélanie, originally published in Realms of Fantasy magazine.
Aliette is also a contributor to The Apex Book of World SF, which is now under a special sale for blog readers!
By Aliette de Bodard
March in Paris: the trees in the school’s courtyard have bloomed in the mild weather, tumbles of white and pink flowers hanging just out of reach.
The boarders sit in small clutches under the arcades of building B, their notebooks open on their knees–making their last, frantic revisions before the competitive exams.
“Three weeks left,” Richard says, tapping his pen against a mathematical formula.
“Yeah,” Erwan says. He’s staring at the other students–all shining, all gorged with light: the light of numbers and curves, the endless dance of the formulas that rule the world. And, as it always does, his gaze fastens on Mélanie.
She’s standing behind her boyfriend Bertrand, both arms dangling down his shoulders. Alone of all students, she doesn’t shine–or so little it’s barely visible. Even the maths and physics she’s had to cram in during her revisions haven’t sunk in, haven’t made a difference.
She’ll be here next year, Erwan thinks, his heart sinking. There’s not an engineering school that will open its doors to her, not an entry exam that she’ll pass–not with so few numbers, so few equations trapped within her. It’s as if the maths had washed right over her, forgotten as soon as she’s read them.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Richard says, and then he looks at Mélanie. “Oh, I see. Daydreaming again.”
“I’m not,” Erwan protests, blushing. “I was thinking–about the exams.”
“Everybody is,” Richard says. “But some of us are going to have an easier time than others.”
Erwan’s gaze leaves Mélanie, to stare at her boyfriend.
He’s sitting cross-legged on the ground, a book by his side–a thriller, not even a maths or physics book. Numbers whirl beneath his white skin–numbers and equations, endlessly broken up, endlessly merging, a sight that makes Erwan’s eyes ache. With the exams so close, Bertrand’s whole being looks transfigured. No wonder he’s always first, always effortlessly. The maths are in his veins and in his bones.
“Yeah,” Erwan says. “Bertrand will pass with flying colours. He always has.” He can’t quite keep the bitterness out of his voice.
Richard stares at him, thoughtful. “Jealous? I didn’t think it was that bad.” Light gleams on the metal frame of his glasses, briefly turning them into a line of small, almost invisible digits. “It won’t last, you know.”
“What won’t last?”
Richard shakes his head. For someone who’s failed once at his exams, he’s disturbingly serene–as if the whole thing didn’t concern him at all. “I’ve seen it before. The exams will drive those two apart. And if it doesn’t happen…well, once they’re both in different schools–” He opens his hands wide, letting the wind blow through them.
“They could be in the same school,” Erwan says, unsure of why he’s defending Bertrand now.
“They might,” Richard says. “But let’s face it: he’ll get a far better school than her. Math-wise, she’s not in his league at all.”
Erwan watches Mélanie, the delicate, almost porcelain-like cast of her skin, her green eyes shining in the hollows of her face–and he’s filled with an absurd sense of loss, as if they’re all standing on the edge of a chasm that only he can see. “No,” he says. “She’s not in the same league at all.”
The classroom is almost unrecognisable: the chairs and tables pushed against the wall, with a crowd at the centre, dancing to the drums and guitar chords blared from the loudspeaker. Washed in the throbbing neon lights, the students appear ordinary–almost hollow, the maths’ radiance drained away.
Erwan leans against a wall, letting the vast music fill the emptiness in his chest. Richard, his face creased in a mocking smile, is flirting with a black-haired girl–his normal boisterousness exacerbated, either by drink or by the proximity of the exams.
Saturday, Erwan thinks. The last Saturday. The entry exam for the Mines, one of the oldest engineering schools, starts on Wednesday. And then another, and another until everyone is drained: all the numbers whirling in their heads disgorged on pieces of papers, their magic given away to strangers.
His hand strokes his christening medal, the only magic he’ll have left by the end of it: silver from his home town in Brittany. He wraps his fingers around it until it cuts into his flesh, trying not to think of the smell of the sea or the feel of brine in his hair. He came here for a bright future; came here in the alien, narrow streets of Paris–and found himself utterly lost, the maths his only unchanging anchor.
Near him, so close he could touch her, Mélanie is dancing, her face changing colour with each beam of light. Her body sways and twists like a length of ivy; her wrists bend at near-impossible angles with smooth, effortless gestures; her hands close and open, holding out in their empty palms a treasure without price. She’s fierce and beautiful and feral; freedom made flesh, far, far from exams and maths and schools. Erwan’s heart constricts in his chest just watching her; some part of him wishes that he could join her dance and forget everything.
Then, as if the world somehow had shifted, it’s not abandon he sees in her eyes anymore, but the tightness of repressed pain. Her teeth are bared in a rictus; her eyes shine moist under the neons.
He’s moving forward, almost without being aware of it, moving until he stands before her. “Mélanie? Are you all right?”
“I–” She stares at him, her eyes widening, changing from green to yellow to green again–and in their depths, for a split second, he sees a light beating like a living heart. He starts opening his mouth, but everything is forgotten when she shakes her head with a grimace of pain. “I need to leave. Now.”
“I’ll see you to your room–” Erwan begins, but she’s mouthing “no”.
“I’ll be fine,” she says
“Mélanie–” But before he can gather his thoughts, she’s gone, striding from the room. He catches a glimpse of her retreating back: she holds herself straight, rigid, but he can see the trembling in the set of her shoulders. Almost, he starts after her–almost, but a voice stops him.
“What did she tell you?” a voice calls.
Erwan turns, slowly. Bertrand is staring at him, his fists clenched, every line of his face drawn with sick, sick fear. Among all the students, he alone still shines, the radiance within him so strongly anchored even the party lights cannot wash it away. Numbers coalesce within his eyes, throb beneath his skin. “What did she tell you?”
“She didn’t feel well,” Erwan says. He can feel the fear coiled in Bertrand’s chest, the fear coiled in the air around them–drawn into his lungs with the smell of sweat and cigarettes. Why is Bertrand so nervous? The exams? It seems to be…more than that, much more, but he can’t imagine why. “She left. For her room, I suppose.”
Bertrand reaches out, seizes the lapel of Erwan’s shirt. Erwan, stunned, stands paralysed for a moment, the cotton digging into his skin. “Don’t talk with her,” Bertrand hisses. “Don’t you approach her again.”
Erwan doesn’t move–but a cold, remote part of him takes over, and asks, “Why? She’s not yours.”
“You don’t understand anything. Don’t talk to her. Leave her alone.” He’s almost sobbing now–folding back into himself like a hurt puppy, small and pathetic.
Erwan pulls his body away, leaving Bertrand standing, grasping at empty air. “You’re drunk,” Erwan says, but deep down he knows that’s not the case. Bertrand’s voice is slurred, but his breath doesn’t stink of alcohol; his face isn’t flushed–save with the light of numbers and integrals, the light that’s always been there, that always will be. If he’s drunk, it’s only with fear.
“Leave her alone,” Bertrand repeats, and then he’s gone too, running out of the room by the same door Mélanie left. Going after her, no doubt.
Not his business. Not his place to interfere.
Erwan thinks of maths and sea and brine, curves entwined with the rising and falling breath of the ocean, numbers woven out of the gulls’ screams and the whispers of the wind. They’re safe and familiar. They cannot affect him in any way. They cannot hurt him.
There’s an insistent knocking on his door, a pounding that echoes the one in his head. “Erwan!”
“Go away,” Erwan moans, turning towards the wall.
“Come on, you sleepyhead! It’s eleven o’clock.”
“So what?” Erwan asks. “Let me sleep.” But he’s wide awake now, his mind sharp. Or least sharper than it should be.
He rolls over and crawls out of bed, groaning as aching muscles protest, and opens the door. Richard stands grinning on the threshold, proffering a white parcel splayed with the name of the nearby bakery.
“Éclairs,” he says, still smiling. His skin glows white and blue and red–all the numbers aligned underneath, rewriting themselves until they reach a final result–and then everything starting back again, an endless cycle. None of that belongs to someone who barely slept last night: probably less than Erwan, since he left later. Not for the first time, Erwan wonders what Richard’s secret is. Nothing, he guesses, but habit. Two years of preparatory classes have hardened Richard, built a shell around him Erwan isn’t sure he can actually pierce.
They sit on the bed and eat the éclairs–the taste of coffee paste and pâte à choux filling their mouths like an explosion.
“You’re sitting on something,” Erwan says, “and you’re dying to tell me.”
Richard grins. “How did you know?” he asks.
Energy, Erwan thinks. Numbers and curves. Richard is glowing, equations crackling in the air with every one of his gestures–he’s moved out of his normal patterns.
Except Richard won’t see it, of course. As far as Erwan knows, he is the only one in the class who can make out such things: his Druid ancestors all had the Second Sight, and it’s surfaced again in Erwan–as a twisted shadow of what it should have been.
“It’s the talk of the class,” Richard says. He finishes his éclair, rubs his hands together, and carefully folds the parcel paper into a neat, flat square with its two diagonals. “Bertrand and Mélanie broke up.”
Erwan remembers hands, gripping his shirt-lapels; remembers the slurred, angry, fearful voice. “How–? Why–?”
Richard shrugs. “He followed her last night to her room. She was upset by something and didn’t want to let him in, so he just kicked open the door–lifted it clean off its hinges. Totally pissed, if you want my opinion.”
“He wasn’t drunk,” Erwan says. Richard’s gaze swivels towards him. Erwan goes on, quickly, “I saw him yesterday. He wasn’t drunk–he was freaking out.”
“Exam stress?” Richard lifts an eyebrow. “Ah well, it happens to the best of us.”
Erwan shakes his head. “Bertrand never has to worry about that. He’s always first. Why would he freak out?”
“Sometimes,” Richard says, “people look like they’re succeeding without working, but in reality they’re not.”
Erwan shakes his head. “I did homework with him once.” He still remembers that, in his dreams: three of them around a table, two still trying to understand the ramifications of the question, and Bertrand, awash with a feverish radiance, aligning equation after equation on his paper; Bertrand flourishing his results after a few minutes, and explaining to them. Mélanie was there, he remembers: unobtrusive, sitting in a corner of the room, reading a book–not a maths books, but some fantasy book with a dragon rearing on the cover. She’d smiled when Bertrand spoke–a proud, protective smile, more like a mother than a girlfriend. “He really has maths in his blood,” Erwan says.
“Instability?” Richard asks. “The best mathematicians were mad.”
“I don’t know. I suppose he’s taking the break-up badly,” Erwan says, thinking of Bertrand’s sick, jealous fear.
Richard shrugs. “He looks a bit under the weather–not as sharp as he once was, if you get my drift. But he’ll pull through. He always has.”
Some part of Erwan is wishing Bertrand wouldn’t make it, that he’d pay some price for what he’s done–kicking open the door, no doubt screaming, frightening Mélanie out of her wits. No wonder she broke up with him. “Yeah, I suppose he’ll pull through,” he says, at last. “What did you want to revise today?”
Richard laughs. “Four days before the exams? Trust my experience, Erwan: you don’t revise now. You stop working and get some fresh air. Come on, let’s go walk through the Mouffetard market.”
Exam after exam after exam: Maths following Physics following Chemistry following Computer Science… Every night, some of the light within them drains away; some of the magic gone forever, seeping within the ink, absorbed by the paper.
In his room, Erwan has pinned physics and maths formulas on the walls; he sees them every morning as he rises, every evening as he goes to bed. It’s a reminder, a pact: he will not think of home, nor of the silver medal on his chest, only of the light; of numbers and curves and matrices.
One night, he’s about to enter his room when he catches a glimpse of a girl, quickly retreating down the corridor–a silhouette he’d recognise anywhere. Mélanie.
Once before, he’s let her go; he won’t be such a fool as to do it twice. Before he can articulate the thought properly, he’s running after her in the corridors, past the slanted doors of students’ room, past the small, narrow windows that open onto the courtyard. Down the darkened stairs leading to the school restaurant; running under the arcades of the courtyard, until she turns right into the small plaza with the infirmary–and, rounding the corner, out of breath, Erwan sees her sitting on a bench, her back to him.
He stops, hesitantly, not knowing what to do. He hasn’t seen her since the party; nor has he seen Bertrand–they’re not at the same exam centre, and not in the same wing of the dormitory. There are rumours that Bertrand’s doing badly at the exams; that his hands keep shaking and his face contorting into grimaces at odd times; that the break-up with Mélanie has shattered him beyond repair. Erwan’s not sure what to make of them; and, to be honest, he doesn’t want to think about Bertrand, especially not now.
“You can come,” Mélanie says, without turning. “It’s all right.”
His heart beating faster and faster, he rounds the bench, and sits beside her. She doesn’t shine at all–no equations under her porcelain skin, no numbers whirling in her pupils. It will be a wonder if she places high enough to be accepted into a school.
“How’s it going?” he asks, unsure of where to begin.
She smiles–a tight, sad smile. “As well as it can, I suppose. You?”
Erwan shrugs. “Okay, I guess.” He’s not Bertrand: he won’t whiz through. He doesn’t have the maths singing in his veins, in his bones. “We’ll see.”
“Yeah.” She stares at the building in front of them, her gaze distant. “I miss home,” she says, finally. “I wish I were there now, and not stuck at school.”
Erwan’s fingers close around his medal; he feels the coolness on his skin. He thinks of home; of the small cottage on the cliffs and the smell of the sea every morning; of the wind singing in his ears as he cycles to town; and a wave of nostalgia rises within his chest until every breath burns. He wants to go back, back to a place where he belongs. “I miss home too,” he says.
She nods, sagely. “You’re from Brittany, right?”
“Yes,” he replies. “Ever been there?” he asks.
She shakes her head. “No. I’d never been out of Lusignan before I came here–and that wasn’t the greatest idea I ever had.”
“Why?” he asks.
Her gaze, for a moment, is troubled. “I wanted to–get away,” she says. “In my family, we’ve been the same generation after generation–never venturing beyond the nearest village, never setting a foot out of Poitou. I thought I could be different. But I can’t. It’s too hard.”
“You’re here,” Erwan offers.
“Yes.” Mélanie’s voice is bitter. “But I’m no different.”
“You are,” Erwan says, instinctively–and when her head snaps towards him, her gaze intent, he wonders why he said it at all. “I mean, you went away. You’re sitting for the exams. You’re going to be an engineer. That counts for something, surely?”
Mélanie doesn’t speak for a while. “I don’t think I want to be an engineer, Erwan.”
“Then…” The word is on his lips before he can think.
“I don’t know what I want to be. I just don’t.”
“You don’t have to know now,” Erwan says.
“I’m going to have to. It’s that, or one more year. And I can’t survive one more year.”
Erwan, at a loss once more, falls back on platitudes. “Richard says it’s easier the second year.”
“Richard’s Richard. Nothing ever fazes him, does it?”
“Sometimes. But not often.” He smiles, says, “You’re going to be all right. I’m sure you will.”
“I wish I could be as sure as you,” Mélanie says. Her eyes, though, are not as grave as they were. “Thanks.”
Erwan shrugs, trying to appear nonchalant–he’s never been good at that, and she probably sees straight through him. But if she does, he doesn’t see it in her eyes.
They sit side by side for a while. In Erwan’s mind, the maths have surfaced again: curves rising like waves from the sea. Magic: the only one he knows anymore. Mélanie just sits there, staring at the old buildings of the school, staring at the cloudless sky above them, her skin pale and shadowed, her green eyes unwavering–her eyes…
Erwan wakes up, as if from a dream. Something is wrong, subtly wrong with her eyes.
She’s not blinking. Or, at any rate, not often enough to keep her eyes moist. And there’s something in the depths of her pupils–some alien, pulsing light buried deep within her.
Mélanie’s gaze focuses on him, mildly curious. Her eyes are green, the colour of the sleepy sea, and she’s blinking normally. Normal. Everything is normal. It’s just that it’s late; and he’s exhausted and he’s imagining things.
But, that night, as he lies in his bed with the numbers whirling in his head, staring at the curves arcing across the ceiling, he remembers: he’s seen this light, once before. He’s seen it shining in her eyes at the party, except that he’s forgotten.
Forgotten–or been made to forget?
Why would she hide it?
She has to, part of him whispers in his mind. Because it’s not the light of science and not the radiance of numbers, and it’s not ruled by anything.
He wonders whether Bertrand saw it. He wonders what the real reason for the break-up was.
He doesn’t speak of it to Richard–he can imagine, all too well, his friend smiling at him in a bright, sceptical way. And maybe the small part of him that whispers that he’s imagined it is right; maybe he’s making a fuss over nothing.
What he wants, in any case, is to be near Mélanie–to sit by her side, the maths and the exams forgotten; to sit close to her, telling stories of home, listening to her voice with its lilting accents; to hear tales of Lusignan and its castle perched on the cliff.
“The castle belongs to your family?” he asks.
She laughs, a crystalline cascade. “No, you silly. The castle’s only ruins now. It’s just for tourists.” Her face turns melancholy again–she’s as changing as the sea itself. “Though my ancestors did live inside it, at one point.”
“So what happened?” Erwan asks. “They got thrown out with the Revolution?”
Mélanie shrugs. “Bad things happen,” she said. “We lost the Count’s trust. But that was long, long before the Revolution ever came to Lusignan.”
Erwan can sense she doesn’t want to talk about it: part of the family’s shame, he guesses. Every family has its own dark, deeply-buried secrets. “What do you have on Monday?” he asks. As soon as he’s said the words, he curses himself for a fool. He wanted to change the subject, but all he managed to do was shift it to something which makes Mélanie uncomfortable.
She shrugs. “Maths.” She doesn’t seem particularly concerned. But it doesn’t seem to be an act, either–unlike Richard, who affects indifference but who revised his courses as fiercely as Erwan, who has numbers whirling within his mind, numbers coalescing on his hands and on his lower arms.
“You’re giving up?” Erwan asks.
“I don’t know. I thought–I thought I’d found it, you know,” she says. “I thought I’d found something that justified everything.”
“Someone,” Erwan says, slowly. He can guess some of her thoughts; but not all.
Mélanie doesn’t speak for a while. Her hands have clenched in her lap, so hard the bones are showing–translucent, brittle bones that seem almost unreal. “He was wonderful at first. And then it went sour.” She pauses, shakes her head. “It always does, anyway.”
Erwan has no idea what he can say; he fears that every word he can conjure will only break the moment, like a trembling feather that finally tips the balance. When he doesn’t speak, Mélanie rises, picking up her schoolbag from the bench. “I have to go,” she says.
Erwan’s voice finally gets past the obstruction in his throat. “Do you want to go to the cinema?”
Mélanie, already going, half-turns, surprise etched on every line of her face. “That’s very sweet of you, but I can’t. Not tonight.”
“Some other day?” Erwan asks, still not willing to be turned down.
Mélanie hovers, clearly torn–though between which options Erwan cannot fathom. Bertrand’s memory is perhaps too strong–perhaps it’s too early for him to be so forward. “After the written exams are over,” she says, finally. “Friday next week?”
Erwan, surprised, can only nod. Mélanie does a half-turn, swivelling on her feet as if they didn’t quite touch the ground, and then she’s running towards the exit, carrying herself straight. Too straight.
He’s seen that once before–at the party. She holds herself straight because she’s in pain again. “Mélanie!” he calls, but she doesn’t hear him. He runs after her in the school corridors, trying to stop her, to comfort her.
Her door, when he reaches it, is locked. He knocks, but there’s no answer.
“I’ll be fine, Erwan,” she finally replies. Her voice is–off, somehow?
“No,” she says, and it’s the lash of a whip. “I’ll be fine. Please, Erwan. Leave me alone.”
He’s not Bertrand. He’s not going to kick the door open, or to force himself when he’s not wanted. “If that’s what you want,” he says, at last, and turns to go.
He walks back to his room, brooding. The shadows are lengthening in the corridor–the sun of late afternoon, hanging golden over the corridors.
At his door, he hesitates, his hand closing over the handle. He can go inside and stare at the formulas pinned on the walls, at the ceiling until he sees numbers within the scabbed paint, until he hears the breath of the sea in every creak of the parquet. Or he can go see whether Richard’s in his room.
The fear of loneliness wins. Erwan walks ten paces and knocks at his friend’s door.
Richard is in, listening to some classical music on his hifi system–violins wailing in counterpoint to majestic brass, another curve traced in the vastness of space. “You look wasted,” he says. Richard’s face is glowing, pulsing to the rhythm beneath the music–the secret voice of the numbers.
“I don’t,” Erwan says, raising hands to his eyes–and seeing how translucent they have become, how little he holds. All the magic given away, drained away by the paper and the ink. “Do I?”
Richard’s voice is his best imitation of a stern mother. “Come on. Let’s go for a walk.”
They end up in Gibert Joseph, one of the biggest bookshops in the Latin Quarter. Erwan drags Richard upwards, into the fiction section–right next to the Springer-Verlag maths books and their yellow covers that hide yet more curves, yet more numbers. It’s hard to escape maths–no, it’s impossible.
“Want a book?” Richard asks, holding two thriller paperbacks, one in each hand. He purses his lips, as he always does when he’s contemplating a purchase. Finally he walks towards the nearest help-desk, and starts up chatting with the salesman, asking him for his opinion on the authors.
Erwan stares at the rows of books, all perfectly, neatly aligned, as if the salesman were also a maths-freak. There’s power here, crackling between the covers. He feels almost rejuvenated–almost, and yet it goes too deep, the hollow within him.
“Browsing?” a sarcastic voice asks behind him. “Fancy meeting you there.”
Erwan slowly turns, and finds Bertrand standing before him. For a moment he’s struck speechless: Bertrand’s face is white, haggard; he’s bent over as if bearing some great weight. And he’s–dull. There’s no light in him, nothing left at all, no searing radiance made up of thousands of numbers and equations. Dull.
“What happened to you?” They’re the first words that come to Erwan’s lips.
Bertrand’s lips stretch, in what might be a smile. “I warned you, Erwan. I told you to stay away from her.”
“I don’t see–”
“Don’t lie to me,” Bertrand growls. “You’re seeing her. You’re chatting with her, all friendly-like. Next thing I know, you’ll be kissing. Want to kiss her, Erwan?” He manages to make the whole prospect sound repulsive.
“She’s not yours anymore,” Erwan says, warmth flooding his cheeks. “You can’t telling what to do and what not to do.”
Bertrand laughs–a sickening, joyless thing. “Telling you? I’m warning you. You think you can have her? There are rules, Erwan. Rules.” His voice trails off; he looks around the store uncertainly.
“What are you talking about?” Erwan asks. You’re drunk, he wants to say, but it’s not that, it’s never been that. Madness, Richard said. Perhaps it’s madness. Perhaps it’s in the blood.
But the maths were in his blood, and they’re not here anymore.
“No Saturdays,” Bertrand says. “No outings on Saturdays. They’re all the same, in her family.”
Today is Saturday. And today, as she was at the party–which was also on a Saturday–Mélanie won’t see him. Mélanie is in pain. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Erwan says.
“I know what you want.” Bertrand smiles. “But you’re not ready to pay the price. You’re not ready.”
“You’re making no sense.”
Abruptly, Bertrand grasps both of Erwan’s hands, and holds them in an iron grip. “No sense?” He laughs again. People are stopping, staring at them both–and Richard, still deep in conversation with the bookseller, doesn’t realise any of this. “You should stay away from her. You don’t know what you’re dealing with.”
“And you’re not helping,” Erwan says, caustically.
Bertrand releases Erwan’s hands, as abruptly as he took them. He stares at Erwan with bloodshot eyes. His lips work, but there’s no sound coming from his mouth, as if something in him doesn’t want the words to get out. Finally he spits, “You’re so pathetic. Such a useless, blind fool. Have you never wondered about Lusignan?”
Lusignan. Mélanie’s birth-town. Lusignan is hauntingly familiar, a name that should mean something, that he’s already heard or seen. “Bertrand–”
But Bertrand is already walking away, all hunched and sad, basking in the glow of books whose presence he doesn’t seem to feel. He’s the one who is small and pathetic. Erwan never liked him, but it’s not right either, to see him reduced to such a state.
“What was that?” Richard asks, coming back with only one book in his hands.
“Nothing,” Erwan says. But he’s thinking of Lusignan. He’s thinking of eyes that should have been green and weren’t always so. “I need to drop by the Internet café.”
Erwan sits in a dingy chair in the basement of the small café, and stares at the screen for a while. Then he searches “Lusignan”, and the first thing that comes up is a page about the history of Poitou. It has a story in it: a medieval myth, the story of Raymondin, a nobleman who found a beautiful woman bathing in the forest and made her his wife. She gave him land and power and respect, all in return for one condition: that he would not seek to see her on Saturdays.
Stories are stories, and they always end the same way: Raymondin, suspecting his wife of infidelity, opened her door on a Saturday evening, and found her bathing–with the yellow-slitted eyes and tail of a snake. His hand went for the hilt of his sword–whereupon his wife screamed a terrible cry, and vanished from the castle, never to return again.
The wife’s name was Mélusine.
Mélanie, Erwan thinks, and remembers eyes shifting from green to yellow and back to green. He remembers her words: my ancestors lived inside the castle, but we lost the Count’s trust. Lost the trust. No Saturdays.
Somehow, he makes his way out of the Internet café.
“What was that about?” Richard asks.
“I needed to send an email.”
“You’re a very bad liar, you know,” Richard says conversationally. “I wish you’d tell me what this is all about. Mélanie?”
“Perhaps.” Erwan doesn’t say anything else, and neither does Richard.
Only when they’re at Erwan’s door does Richard speak up. “It’s none of my business. But be careful, whatever you do.”
Erwan shrugs, as carelessly as he can manage. “I will be. Thanks.”
“You really are a terrible liar,” Richard says, staring at him. But after a while he just shrugs and walks away, as if washing his hands of the whole business.
Erwan waits until Richard is gone. Then he goes to Mélanie’s room, and knocks.
There’s no answer. He stands, staring at the locked door. The last time he was here, he told himself that he was no Bertrand; he told himself that he wouldn’t force himself where he wasn’t wanted. It’s not enough now, it’s not enough. He has to know.
“Mélanie?” he asks, and when still there is no answer, he hurls himself at the door, again and again until the rusted hinges give way and the door–already broken down once and shoddily repaired–finally opens.
She’s standing by the window, not looking at him. She’s filled with light now–a light that pulses with the wildness of the forest, a light that can’t be closeted within the rhythm of numbers. “Mélanie,” he says, and she turns, with a swift, fluid movement that doesn’t belong to anything human.
Her eyes open, stare at him. They’re yellow and impossibly round, and her skin is flaking away, revealing scales underneath. Run, run, whispers a crazed voice within him. But he can’t; he’s transfixed by her gaze.
“Rules,” he whispers. “No Saturdays. You didn’t tell me that.”
“You saw Bertrand.” Her face is unreadable–it’s changed so much.
“Yes,” he says. And, because he’s read the myth, he asks, “What did you give him?”
She laughs–the same bitter, weary laugh as Bertrand. “What he wanted. What he only truly ever wanted.”
“The maths in his blood and in his bones, enough talent to make him first. To make him shine.”
“And he left.”
Her eyes blink–a slow, ponderous movement, but surely snakes can’t blink? Surely snakes have no eyelids?
She’s not a snake. She’s not human. She’s–other. “He left,” she says at last, and her voice is Mélanie’s again, small and sad. “He saw me and screamed, and left.”
“I didn’t tell you the rules because I thought–” She’s blinking furiously now, as if to dislodge something stuck on her eyes. “I thought it wouldn’t come to that point. I thought you wouldn’t need them.”
“I don’t want rules,” Erwan says. His eyes are still trying to encompass what she is–to fit her within the curves and formulas and neat equations of the world. But he can’t. She’s not part of that. She’s never been part of that. “I want–” he stops, helpless, drowned in her light. “I–”
He has no words. Nothing left but maths, and, at the last, they betray him–equations scattering into nothingness, arcing curves broken, numbers turning into alien letters.
“You don’t know what you want?” Her voice is mocking–the snake’s hiss, before it strikes. “Everyone does. Bertrand did.”
“You don’t,” he says, the words torn out of him, out of the remote part of him that still watches, that still ponders. “You came here, and you still don’t know.”
She shakes her head, angrily. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It should,” Erwan says. He stands, still–because he cannot do anything else. “It should.”
She stares at him for a moment, her yellow eyes lidded. “Go away,” she says.
“No.” It’s the only reply he can make.
“You broke the rules.” Her voice is the hiss of a snake. Lines of light arc from her waist, hardening into the coiled body of a snake. “You will go away, and you will forget.”
The light is getting stronger–and the odour of the forest, the odour of rotten leaves and mouldy earth, rises in the room until Erwan can smell nothing else.
“You have no will.” Her words tear at him, unmake him, piece by piece–he has no magic left, nothing that would resist that. “You will forget.” And her voice speaks alien words: a low, droning sound that slowly washes over him until the walls of the room blur.
He’s listening to it–feeling the final numbers scatter out of him, the final equations irretrievably wiped away, memories of Mélanie’s true face wavering and fading–knowing he’s losing precious things, that he can’t do anything–losing…
The smell of the forest grows stronger and stronger: shadowy trees hover on the edge of existence.
He has to speak. He has to–there was something he should have said, something that would have changed the course they’re on–
He has to–
“Where–will–you–go?” The words are torn of his mouth, leaving a trail of fire in his throat.
Her face lies in shadow–fading further and further away. “Home. I should never have left. Things are simpler back there.”
The wave of nostalgia rises in Erwan–home and the crash of the waves, home and the smell of buckwheat crêpes: the core of him, untouched, as solid and as real as his silver christening medal.
He touches it, feels the tingle going up his fingers. “Home,” he says. “Home.” And, as the room swims back into focus, he sees Mélanie with her shimmering scales and her coiled body on the floor. But she’s not great and terrible, she’s not alien: just a girl, bewildered and lost. And reflected in her eyes is a hollow-eyed boy–just a boy, bewildered and lost, too.
“You don’t belong home,” he says, slowly, every word coming with difficulty.
“I belong nowhere.” She stands poised by the window, unmoving. The feeling of great strength is slowly fading.
Erwan shakes his head, slowly, trying to dispel the sense of emptiness now feeling him. “That’s not true,” he said.
She shakes her head–angry, bitter. “Of course it is. What other place is there for me?”
He moves, slowly, agonisingly slowly, coming to stand by her at the window. He thinks of Raymondin of Lusignan, groping for his sword in the darkness; of Bertrand, kicking open the door and screaming at what he found there. He thinks of that instant, suspended in time, when the story could have followed another course.
“You’re here,” he says. “And so am I. And I won’t run away.”
And, reaching out with both hands, pulls her towards him, for an awkward kiss.
Her skin is cool, slithering under his fingers–and her lips are cold on his, too, the coldness of deep winter nights. Something–fangs, he thinks, dimly–pierces his skin as they kiss, and numbness travels to his cheeks, his face, his heart.
She pulls back from him–surprised, angry, perhaps? He can’t read her gaze. He can’t guess what might lie under the yellow eyes.
“There are rules.”
“Yes,” he says. “You change back on Saturdays. That’s the only rule, isn’t it?”
She holds herself, rigid, says nothing.
“There’s no need for closed doors,” he says, slowly, groping for words that will change everything. “No need for any rules.”
She laughs, spins round–letting him see the coiled snake’s body on the floor, the sense of immense power gathering behind her. “Men are always afraid of what they cannot encompass.”
Erwan spreads his hands wide, with a calm he doesn’t feel. “I’m afraid,” he said. “But I’m still here. I’m still standing where I need to be.”
Her face is unreadable once again. She bends towards him, her lips meeting his–fangs piercing his skin, the same numbing feeling spreading through him.
When she pulls away, she says, “It won’t last. It never does.”
“It will last long enough.” Slowly, carefully, he holds out his hand to her, and she takes it. Power crackles in the air, fills the hollow in his chest.
He’s lost the maths; lost the magic of numbers, the radiance of curves.
But there are other kinds of magic.
Mélanie (c) Aliette de Bodard 2010. All rights reserved.