Days, weeks, months, ordinary times, unordinary times. Routine, soothing at first, grew tiresome. Then one airless morning in July, the year 1898, our third at the convent of the Congrégation de Saint Coeur de Marie, everything changed.
"Mesdemoiselles," the Mother Superior said as Gabrielle, Julia-Berthe, and I cleaned dishes in the kitchen. "You are wanted in the visiting room."
Us? We were never wanted in the visiting room. Unless—
My heart shot up to my throat.
Could our father have come to get us at last?
We followed the Mother Superior down the hall. I smoothed my skirt, felt the plaits in my hair, hoping they were neat. I saw Gabrielle reach up to pat hers too. She was the one who'd said all these years he would come back, convincing herself that he'd gone to America to make a fortune and would return once he had.
When at last we reached the visiting room and the nun opened the door, I held my breath, anticipating a man with the grin of a charmer, the hands of a peasant, our father. Instead all I saw was an elderly lady with a kindly expression on her face. She wore carved wooden shoes called sabots, a coarse gray skirt, hempen stockings, and a faded print shirtwaist.
"Mémère," Julia-Berthe said, rushing to embrace the old woman as if she might disappear as unexpectedly as she'd appeared.
I stared at her, more surprised than if it had been Albert.
"You don't know the peace we've had all these years," Mémère told the Mother Superior, "traveling from market to market knowing our dear granddaughters were in your care. It's not an easy life out on the road, and now we're too old for it." She clucked her tongue as adults did and offered us lemon pastilles.
She and Pépère had taken a small house in Clermont-Ferrand, a village just a short train ride away, and we were invited there for a few days to celebrate le quatorze juillet, the holiday commemorating the storming of the Bastille prison. At last we were getting out of the convent, for a little while, at least.
I didn't say out loud what I was thinking, what I was sure Gabrielle was thinking too. 'Maybe our father will be in Clermont-Ferrand. Maybe he's waiting for us there.'
Somewhere deep in the empty places inside of me, where love was supposed to reside, I couldn't quash that dash of hope, foolish as it was, that Albert would return. Not the old Albert but a new one, who wanted us.
We left, and Mémère ushered us aboard a train. At Clermont-Ferrand, she led us to a crooked house with just one room cluttered with an array of objects to be sold at the local market—flat bicycle tires, moldy boxes, crusty pans. Rows of chipped, mismatched crockery lined the walls near the cookstove. A collection of old, broken dentures, yellowed and gruesome-looking, turned my stomach. It was as if nothing was ever thrown away.
There was so much clutter that at first we didn't see the girl near the bed. She was about fifteen, the same age as Gabrielle, or maybe sixteen like Julia-Berthe, and she moved toward us with an excitement and warmth we weren't used to. "Gabrielle?" she said. "Julia-Berthe? Do you remember me? And little Ninette! It's been so long. One of the fairs, I think, that's where we met. Look how pretty all three of you are."
She had the same long neck as Gabrielle, the same fine features and thin, angular frame, but with kinder, gentler edges. She wore convent clothes, like us, but with an ease and poise so that they didn't seem like convent clothes at all. I noticed Gabrielle tucking loose hair behind her ears. We must have been staring at her dumbly because finally Mémère spoke up.
"You daft girls, this is Adrienne. My youngest daughter. Your father's sister. Your aunt."
"Aunt?" Julia-Berthe said. "She's too young to be our aunt."
"Indeed she is your aunt, and I should know," Mémère said. "I've brought nineteen souls into this world. Your father was the first when I was sixteen. Adrienne, the last."
"The 'grande finale'," Adrienne said, performing a charming little curtsey.
An aunt in convent girl clothes? An aunt who was our age? Gabrielle and I seemed to have swallowed our tongues.
"Ah, girls, don't look so confused," Mémère said. "Adrienne is just like you. She goes to a convent school in Moulins. Before le quatorze juillet is over, you'll all be more like sisters."
Maybe it was the confusion of being in a new place, but for a strange moment Adrienne appeared to me to have an aura, a cloud of golden light emanating around her like a saint on a prayer card. I glanced at Gabrielle. She didn't usually take to new people right away, but she was smiling. Adrienne looked like a girl we could learn from, and I found myself smiling too.