Hello, Internet! Today I have another first time guest for Flash Fiction Friday, welcome August Li! Gus as we affectionately call him, brings us a fantastic tale of remembering when things were beautiful, but beware, memory can be deceptive.
The Gardens at Fontainebleau
by August Li
It hangs in the second-floor double drawing room, not far from the bay window with its view or the river and, on a clear day, Battersea Park on the opposite bank. It stands out against the hunter green walls and looks at home amongst the Georgian furnishings that came with the flat.
Once, I considered it my finest accomplishment to have made something so lovely. It filled me with pride to look at the delicate threads and careful french knots that told the story of that happiest of days.
A girl sits in the Italianate gardens beyond the château, the building and grounds scholars would later claim brought the Renaissance to France. She sits on a stone bench beside a fountain, her face swarthy and her nose too long, her trumpet-sleeved brocade dress a fashion from years ago—some bumpkin hauled to the palace as a mistress for one of the lords. There, captured in silk thread: her slack-jawed awe at the opulence around her, the daffodils at the hem of her gown, the new leaves on the trees shading her from the sun, the leather bible on her lap. Even the gemmed brooch she wears is immortalized in little whorls of thread.
Behind a hedge, a woman even less suitable to this bastion of wealth and civilization peers out at the new arrival. She is rakish and wild-looking, with hair like old straw and skin sure to blister as soon as she steps from her shaded haven. Her hand is lifted as if to reach out, and ferns and foxglove trail off into the shadows behind her. A fox hides among the bracken.
I’d spent weeks embroidering ever leaf, every blossom. I’d agonized over the wraith-woman’s expression, desperate to capture at least a little of her fascination upon peeking through that gap in the shrubbery.
Because I had been utterly ensorcelled by the sight of her, and I needed to record it. Words were too risky; a journal could be found and read. Paint and stone were unsuitable for well-bred women of that time—and even charlatans like I was, and in so many ways, still am.
No one looking at the embroidery would know of the longing it hid, the days spent watching from a curtain of glossy foliage, the eventual slow steps across the carpet of grass. Of the way bolder hints adorned the acceptable conversations like pearls along the edge of a lace ruff. Nothing in the tidy stitches belies nights in the countryside beneath the moon and evenings of sweat-damp chemises and candlelight.
Not even the wildest imagination might conjure visions of the magic that pulsed through this land long before any Roman sandal touched it, magic carried in whispers around campfires, in the wind through the trees, in dreams stirring in cairns and mounds where more than bones rested. No, nothing in such an idyllic scene summons thoughts of old gods or pacts writ in blood—those memorialized only in the heads and hearts of people like me, who had seen them made, broken, and finally covered beneath the trappings of so-called decency and progress. And now the sharing of them, the siren call of power they held, might win me what I most wanted.
I could offer her something no other living person possessed.
The man who’d brought her to the palace received the first taste of the skills I’d taught her. He was a rotund, red-nosed drunkard who farted when he came, and she despised him. She’d wanted to use the blade, see his blood spill black under the stars…. It hadn’t been easy to persuade her toward poison.
Perhaps I should’ve known then.
But I had been so proud of what I had made, the culmination of my memories and talents and secrets.
This thing. Looking at it now, looking it at for the hundredth time or maybe the thousandth, all I see are things done wrong: the chain-stitching is irregular, the satin stitch full of gaps. The floss has faded over the years, grown dull and begun to fray.
Everyday I find another mistake. Everyday I despise it more. All I can see is what should’ve been done differently.
I turn away, walk downstairs, and take an apple and a cup of tea into a garden worth more than most houses in London—another reward reaped through dark deeds and mystic covenants. I read, and I watch the squirrels and starlings in the walnut tree. By the time I hear the garage door opening and the soft purr of her Aston Martin, a blanket of cloud obscures the sunset, smudging the fiery colors. A mix of rain and mist mute the verdant spring growth, washing the garden in minty silver.
She goes inside and calls out. A light comes on in the kitchen. Moments pass, and though I hear nothing more, I sense her there and turn to see her coming up the garden path, moisture sparkling on her leather jacket, strands of hair stuck to her face.
At her hip, the long knife with the serpentine blade she favors almost exclusively and has done for years. Decades.
Across the chest of her ivory blouse, a group of red dots like a spray of hawthorn berries.
She flicks her tongue across her teeth when she sees me looking at it.
“Business or pleasure?” I ask.
She arches a brow. “What difference does it make? It’s blood for the lady with three faces. The crow mother. And money for us.”
“It’s blood for you.” I shake my head, unwilling to have the same debate about the difference between devotion and serial killing. “It’s my fault.”
“You don’t get to take credit for me any longer,” she says. “I’ve paid you back a hundred times for the talents you passed along. I’m grateful to you for giving me the means to control my own destiny, but I have reciprocated.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing all these years?”
She steps closer and curves an arm around my waist. Heat rises off her body, and I catch the metallic scent of her latest kill. Who was it this time? A high-profile hit or just a hapless bastard in a pub? A man or woman chosen at random in a shop and stalked and culled like a beast? Her breath is warm against my ear as she says, “You know I didn’t mean it like that. Come on. Let’s get out of this chilly damp for a bit. Go to Spain. Maybe Greece. Have fun like we did in the old days, running naked through the waves and the fields. Eating grapes off the vine. Getting drunk on a balcony and sleeping until afternoon. Laughing at the entitled pricks who thought death couldn’t find them.”
“This was never meant to be about ego,” I tell her. “It’s not even meant to be justice. Only a bargain.”
Her tongue against my neck raises goose-flesh. “It’s been too long since we made an offering together. Our gifts were beautiful.” Her laugh is husky. “Just like all those tapestries you made. Especially the one in the drawing room.”
It had been beautiful, but the years had warped the stitching and leached the hues from the threads. The whole piece was threadbare and pulling itself apart, a tangle of twisted string.
String that should be cut. I reach to the tabletop where my empty teacup sits filling with rainwater. Beside it, the knife I used to peel the apple. It’s been a long time since I used a blade, but the memory lives in my skin and sinew, and cool, smooth steel is as familiar as my own body—as hers—as the last light of the day glints off the edge.