Clara stood with her hands in her skirt pockets, nose pressed against the smudged glass. She looked outside, at the hills that looked like the rolling sea in a storm, at the reddening trees full of squirrels and laughing children, at the distant church tower now tolling out five, evening, time of Evensong, time of ending and time of fulness.
The sun was full and heavy, and it bore down richly on the French countryside.
Clara was tall and angular, with long lanky blond hair that looked brown and tangled easily. She was forgetful and loved to read and think, and she was not an American. She was a writer, but not really, and she had not been home for longer than she cared to remember.
She had not seen her mother or her friends for even longer.
She took her hands out of her pockets, bringing with them her diamond ring; usually embedded deep into her pockets. She found small corner that was easily hidden by the curtains and traced the silhouette of the bell tower onto the glass with her ring. She marked her initials—CK—in the tiniest niche of the tower, and closed the curtains.
Time of rest. Time of Evensong.
Clara turned back to her room and sat on the bed and sighed.
“At least I can write reviews, Mamma,” she said aloud. “I need not starve, even if I cannot write a story.”
Her mother seemed to nod and seemed to smile, but her silence left an ache ringing in the room.
Clara did not let out the sob that was building in her chest. If you could only be here with me, Mamma. How I’ve missed you. This season is supposed to be spent with family, but you're not here with me. How I miss you.
Clara stood again and took the stairs carefully. The steps were narrow and creaky, the tottering spindles of railings reached out with wide arms to clasp her close and fling her off onto the floor below, rather than protecting her.
The owner of the Hôtel du Papillons was a twiggy grand old lady who had never seen a smile in her day, but knew how to make one herself. She said that all it took was spit and grit and a lot of prayer, and there was a homemade smile. Her life had been hard, and now it was not. Now it was full of butterflies and grins and falling red leaves and church bells tolling out a christening and too much honey on her table.
Mrs. Vieux was bent over the long wooden table when Clara came down, knuckles white on the stairwell. Her white hair was pinned into a shining crown upon her scalp.
“Oh, bonjour, Clara!” she said, standing and turning, a large smile of broken teeth filling her face.
Clara smiled and asked in limping French when dinner was served.
“Huit heures ce soir, chérie,” Mrs. Vieux replied, and handed Clara a long pencil from her hair.
Clara stared down at it in her hands and looked up at the lady.
“For you. Pour toi, chérie. You must get to work. Yuletide is tonight and with it your deadline.”
Clara groaned and Mrs. Vieux laughed. She pushed Clara out gently, and went back to placing forks and knives at the places.
Poor Mrs. Vieux. This was her thirtieth Christmas season as the boarding house mistress, and, even though she did not tell Clara, Clara knew that the woman was worried. The house was losing money and patrons very rapidly, and if things did not change soon, the home would have to close.
Clara went outside and tried to think. Yule’s Eve—Christmas Eve—was arriving tonight, and with it, her deadline. A deadline for a story. She leaned her elbow against the huge oak tree outside and looked up at the hotel.
It was a massive hotel, once the house of an expat English nobleman with too much money and a penchant for a Victorian homestyle, now a sweet hotel for a widow woman with a thousand adopted grandchildren from the village, and butterflies in the backyard. It was a house with a story, and Clara had hoped that coming here would give her a story.
Zaz her editor wanted a story—any story!—by Christmas, or she risked losing him as her editor.
She could think of nothing.
Clara lay down beneath the tree and the faint, soft beating-droning of butterflies and the tolling of Evensong down in the village sang her to sleep.
She woke when Mrs. Vieux shook her, saying something in French about déjeuner. Clara rose, joints groaning, and followed the lady into her house. It was dark already and the children down-the-village were silent; the dogs quiet in their doghouses; the birds mute in the nests. The stars were appearing, one after the other, and no sound wound its way up the hill to the hotel save the low faint hum of the butterflies.
She sat uncomfortably with the other guests—crude Américains with no sense of a palate. They grumbled about the snails and les huitres. Mrs. Vieux smiled blandly at them and mumbled idiots in French under her breath. Clara choked on a huitre and on a laugh.
Mrs. Vieux folded her hands and bowed her white head. She murmured a few words in intelligible French. Clara closed her eyes so as not to tear up: She knew exactly what Mrs. Vieux would be praying for.
Clara did not help with the dishes, as she usually did, and instead went upstairs. She sat at her desk before the scratched window and thought about nothing.
She took out a piece of paper and the pencil Mrs. Vieux gave her, bent and scratched—nothing. She could think of nothing worthy of writing.
Clara gave up and walked downstairs. The downstairs was shadowy with the gauzy curtains billowing in the soft breeze of the evening. The moon was not out, but the stars blazed with all glory out into the night, and were enough to see by.
She went to the kitchen and sat by the butcher-board island and looked at the apple sitting there. It was dull-red with three yellow spots and a worm-hole. To be expected. The windfall apples of this year were coming in rotten, and Mrs. Vieux worried that the real harvest was going to be a harvest of worms.
Clara reached out with her finger to touch the apple. There was a dead butterfly perched on the apple: Killed no doubt by Mrs. Vieux, who loved beauty in any form, no matter if one had to kill and maim to get it.
Doesn’t this world like to get beauty that way?
There was a soft noise behind her and Clara jerked and whirled around.
Clara cried out internally—God!—and then, upon further consideration—Mamma! Help me!—but no one answered. Where was mother now? Dead and buried in the ground, long whitened with rot. By now the flowers planted round her grave had reached her body and reached their tendrilly roots toward her heart.
Her heart, her beating red heart that had given so much for her family and done so little for Mamma herself.
Clara whispered into the dark—Oh, Mamma, I wanted a story, but not this way! Please! Maybe a Yule story, not a horror story!
She went to the window and looked up at the sky. It was white and flat and she could hear silvery bells in the distance. Her throat felt bare and only in this setting, time, place, would she worry about that.
Clara turned and looked at the apple.
It was gone.
Only the butterfly remained, frozen in a motionless dance of devilish pain and wild, joyful beauty.
Clara stared for a moment and then rushed up the stairs, pencil in hand. She threw herself onto her bed and huddled there until she had the courage to get up and lock her bedroom door and sit at her desk.
She took the pencil and put it at the paper. Slowly she looked around, behind her. There was no one there, but Clara thought all the same that there Mamma stood. She did not stand. Instead, she smiled, shivering a little in the bare, blank cold that wrapped its arms around her like a blanket, and bent her head back to the paper.
Now she knew what to write. A tale of Yuletide and joy and ghosts, and a landlady that Clara loved and desperately wanted to help.