A Gentle Breeze


Paris 1775

Michèle Lambert didn’t see the carriage until it was too late.
Excited to be home again, she darted in and out of traffic, her gaze fixed on the serpentine river snaking a path through the heart of her beloved city.
For twenty years, she had dreamed of returning home. To Paris. To Chateau Marmont.

Twenty long years of suffering in silence, stoically sharing her mother’s exile in the drab, gray, soot-covered city of London. Twenty long years replaying memories from her gilded childhood.

Memories of bright summer afternoons spent lounging in the pleasure gardens at Palais Royale. Nestled between her mother and her uncle, she would sip lemonade and watch the entertainers perform. Acrobats, musicians, jugglers and mimes entertained the crowd of aristocrats. Memories of crisp winter days spent catching lacy snowflakes on her tongue or skating on the pond at Chateau Marmont. Sometimes, her mother would snap off an icicle hanging from the slate roof and proclaim her the Snow Queen. Using the icicle as a magic scepter, she would freeze her mother and cousin, forcing them to strike outlandish poses.

On particularly dreary days in London, Michèle would close her eyes until great shards of light splintered through her mind, then fused together to form an image of the gardens at Versailles. The royal palace was an explosion of color. Crimson tulips, lavender hydrangeas, lime-green grasses, cobalt skies, all awash with the golden patina of sunshine. What fun she’d had racing through the tree-lined alleys and playing “follow the leader” with the other noble children.

For twenty long years, she nurtured her memories of Paris, holding them close to her as if they were a dear and precious sibling. They had kept her company when she had been lonely, grounded her when she felt lost, and cheered her when she had been distraught.
Paris was more than a city, more than the place of her birth; Paris was the womb that nurtured her dreams, past and future. In Paris, she would find acceptance. Nobody would dare call her “little frog” or “the disgraced French girl.” In Paris, she would experience a rebirth. She would find love and happiness. She would build a home and salon so grand as to rival that of Madame Bouchard. She would be a grand salon dame, a society maven far superior to Madame Bouchard, and thus wreak vengeance. She owed it to her Mama.

Anxious to put her plan in action, to start down the road of her destiny, she had not bothered to order a new wardrobe. After seeing her mother properly buried, she simply boarded a hack and headed for the coast, taking with her only the clothes on her back and her mother’s treasured fan.
In Brighton, she had arranged passage on a cargo vessel. She knew the land journey would be easier if she were to wait for a ship bound for Calais, but had loathed to spend even one more night in England. In Le Havre, she sent word to her Uncle Philippe. A day later, she used the last of her coins to purchase a seat on a postal carriage bound for Paris.

The tender rays of morning sunshine were caressing the spires of Notre Dame when the postal carriage arrived in Paris four days later. The soft yellow light created a halo around the taller buildings and poked its luminescent fingers into even the narrowest alley. Michèle stayed awake all night to witness the entrance to Paris. She suppressed a yawn and rubbed her gritty eyes, then scanned the nearly empty streets for a familiar face. When the last of the passengers departed, and the mail coach pulled away, Michèle realized no one had come to meet her.

She paced in and out of the shadows the cathedral’s spires created on the wide sidewalk, barely noticing their intricate and imposing design. All around her, the city was springing to life. Carts laden with loaves of crusty golden bread rumbled by on their way to the markets. Coffee and chocolate vendors, toting steaming containers on their backs, cried out for thirsty customers. A few sporty carriages raced by, transporting the last of the city’s fashionable revelers to their quarters. A grizzled old woman, her wooden sabots clumping on the uneven cobbles, ambled by pushing a handcart full of fresh cut flowers, leaving the air filled with the sweet scent of tuberoses, lavender, and jasmine.
Ah, Paris.
Michèle took a seat on one of the narrow benches in the park between the cathedral and the Seine, and watched the curtain lift on the theatre of Paris life. Hours passed and still nobody came for her, but she was content just to be home again, to be a part of the hustle and bustle of such a grand city.
Finally, she could wait no longer. After obtaining directions to Chateau Marmont, she hurried down the boulevard, anxious to be home.
She raised her gown, to avoid having it stained with the black tarry mud clogging the gutters, and stepped off the curb to cross the street. The team of four black beauties, pulling a high riding yellow carriage, knocked her to the ground before she even knew they were coming. She felt a whoosh of breath leave her body and gravel digging into her spine. She saw the horses hooves as they pranced above her, then slammed down onto her chest. The air filled with shrill screams, and frantic shouts. And then, the ominous clatter of carriage wheels and Michèle wondered if they would soon cut her in half.

The last thing she remembered was the curious blueness of the heavens above, such a contrast to the watery gray skies that had oppressed her in London. Then, a blissful numbness invaded her body and soul. She felt only an odd sense of lightness as she floated upward. When she was several feet in the air, suspended motionless above the carriage, she turned to glance over her shoulder, and thought, with a sense of irony, that at least it would be French earth to swallow her lifeless body.

Finally, she was home.

Chapter One

San Francisco, 2003

“Ladies Accessory Fan. France, circa 1770. Start the bidding at $100, please.”

Mikayla’s breath froze in her throat. There was something oddly familiar about the resplendent fan - something that caused the hairs on the back of her neck to stand up. She wasn’t sure how or when, but on some deep, cellular level she knew she had once held that fan. Instinctively, her fingers curled around her pocketbook, pinching together as if they held the slender ivory fan.

She worked as a research assistant at a publishing firm. She spent most of her free time, and her company’s vast resources, indulging her “obsession.” She also spent most of her meager paychecks on books and artifacts from the eighteenth-century. A regular on the San Francisco auction circuit, she arrived early to ogle the priceless treasures. Rarely though, could she afford the delicate pieces of art. A simple snuffbox could fetch several thousands of dollars. Still, Mikayla was thrilled just to view the items up close, to delight in the prospect that she might actually hold the winning bid and take home a pair of opera glasses, a tric-trac table, a walking stick, or a tea caddy.

This morning had dawned rainy and cold and she had almost abandoned her plans to attend the monthly auction at Shepard’s House of Fine Wares. At the last minute, she had donned her rain jacket and dashed out the door. The auction house had been nearly empty when she arrived, with only a few stragglers milling about, including three sharply dressed society matrons and one dapper elderly man in old-fashioned spectacles.
Quickly glancing around, she assessed her competition. The only bidders left were a young couple in jeans and matching UCSF sweatshirts and a dapper old man who appeared to be napping.

The bid was $125.00 when she thrust her paddle high in the air.
“$125 once. $125 twice. Do I hear 150 dollars?” the auctioneer barked.
A bubble of anticipation rose in her throat. She might actually be the proud owner of a hand-painted fan once carried by a French noblewoman. Images of a slight young woman in a voluminous gown, gliding through the Hall of Mirrors, the fan dangling from her bejeweled wrist, filled Mikayla’s mind.

It was then the dapper old man stirred. With a shaking, weathered hand, he raised his paddle in the air, causing Mikayla’s hopes and dreams to vanish.

She could not believe her dumb luck! Never before had an auction house been so empty. Never before had she come so close to winning a bid.
Mikayla sat higher in the stiff backed chair and forced a look of steely determination on her face. She didn’t know why, but the fan had suddenly become a necessary item in her life, as necessary as water and air. If she had to, she would drain her savings; she would eat Macaroni and Cheese for the next six months, if that’s what it took to win the fan.
The bid rose to a thousand dollars before Mikayla even realized what was happening. She swallowed back a sour lump in her throat, imagining meal after meal of yellow pasta. She was desperate. She looked over at the elderly man, silently pleading with him to relent.
All at once, the most miraculous thing happened. The elderly man smiled at her, a look of understanding and perhaps appreciation for her dogged determination flickering in his watery eyes. With great effort, he stood and shuffled out the door. Mikayla watched him enter a sleek limousine.
She barely heard the auctioneer’s cry.

“Sold to the lady in the red slicker for one thousand dollars.”
An hour later, standing in her tiny Bayside apartment, she trembled with excitement as she lifted the cover on the leather box that contained her precious treasure. Inside the box, nestled on a bed of red velvet, the fan lay shut, its gleaming ivory handle winking at her.

Sucking in a deep breath, she carefully lifted the fan from the box. Tiny needles of sweet-pain shot through her fingers. Her hand tingled and became warm. The heat spread up her arm, across her chest, and down her body until she felt aglow with the warmth of it. Indeed, the room seemed to be aglow...as if it were a sunny day and not a dreary, drizzly one. Mikayla stood still, delighting in the honey-warm sensation and light spreading across her body and filling the room. She was just about to open the delicate fan when a sound pierced her consciousness. A sharp, persistent rapping at her door caused the bright light and the odd sensations in her body to vanish.

Mikayla shook her foggy head and started toward the door. It wasn’t until she peeked through the peephole that she remembered she had phoned her friend, Sophia. Besides being the only person who truly understood Mikayla’s passion for history, Sophia Wiltshire worked as an Acquisitions Agent in the Costuming Department of the San Francisco Museum of History. She had an impressive knowledge of objects d’art.

“It’s about time. I’ve been beating on your door for nearly ten minutes,” Sophia muttered, as she shook the droplets of water off her umbrella then peeled off her yellow rain slicker. After depositing her soggy outer garments on a bench in Mikayla’s hallway, she marched into the living room, and plopped herself in an overstuffed chair close to the unlit fireplace. “What a miserable day! You should have a fire burning...it’s the least you could do after pulling me out of the warmth and security of my bed,” Sophia grumbled, kicking off her bright orange clogs and curling her feet under her bottom.

Many people, but especially Mikayla’s sister, found Sophia to be an “odd duck.” The loud clothing and even louder voice did not match the personality one expected to find in a bookish historian and museum employee. Besides the outlandish shoes, Sophia wore a pair of harem pants and a sweatshirt embroidered with a depiction of Gustav Klimts’s The Kiss. Her earrings dangled nearly to her shoulders and were replicas of a pair worn by the quirky Swedish Queen Christina. Even Sophia’s umbrella, an antique store find, with its bent wood handle carved like the head of a jackal, was unique. Beneath the eccentric clothes was an equally eccentric woman, a unique individual with a sharp mind and soft heart.
“Are you suffering buyer’s remorse already?”

It took a moment for the question to penetrate her still-foggy brain. Not that it mattered; Sophia didn’t wait for her answer.

“Helllooo?” Sophia called, waving her hand in the air. “You’re standing there with a vacant look on your face and your mouth hanging open. Has draining your bank account to buy a pricey little link to the past caused you to go crazy, or are you just trying to build up the suspense before you allow me to gaze upon your find?”

Snapping her mouth shut and forcing the remaining wisps of fog from her muddled mind, Mikayla afforded her friend a beaming smile and walked forward, the fan lying on her outstretched palm.

Just as she had expected, Sophia’s face lit up in a blazing smile.

“Oh Mikayla, it is truly spectacular. No wonder you are excited,” Sophia gushed before snapping into her more professional mode. After slipping on a pair of thin white gloves, she removed a pair spectacles from a pocket hidden in the fold of her pants and clipped them on to the end of her nose. Then, with a bit of reverence, she lifted the fan from Mikayla’s palm for closer inspection.

“Eighteenth-century ladies fan. The sticks are mahogany with inlaid ivory and mother-of-pearl. The folding leaves are made of a combination of paper and vellum and are hand-painted. The painting appears to be in the style of Lancret, the famous French painter noted for his depiction of the frivolous aristocratic lifestyle.”

Sophia’s discourse went on for several minutes as she described the technique used to secure the leaves of the fan to the sticks.

“You know Mikayla, the fan was more than an accessory used to cool the overheated. The fan was a necessary item in any fashionable woman’s wardrobe. It was used to gesture encoded messages; entire silent conversations could take place in a crowded salon between two gently bred ladies. There were even published documents explaining how to execute the fan language.” Sophia held the fan at a sharp angle an inch from her cheek and batted her eyelashes. “This means, I am available to come out tonight.”

“You are a cheeky monkey,” Mikayla teased, in her best nasally British accent.

“Yeah baby,” Sophia laughed.

Mikayla retrieved the fan from her friend and pointed to a small oval of blackened glass fixed to the to the guard sticks. “Sophia, what is this?”
Sophia grinned. “That is a mirror. A lady would have used it to check her heavily painted face.”

“A mirror? How clever.”

Sophia took the fan back. She opened it and held it front of her face, slightly to the side. “Very clever. After checking to make sure her pox patch was in its proper place, a slight tilt of the fan would also allow her to spy on those behind her.”

They continued to discuss the construction, usage, and worth of the fan for another hour before deciding to abandon the tiny apartment in search of food. They chose a small bistro lacking in atmosphere, but excelling in fine, affordable cuisine and friendly service.

Later, after Sophia had gone home, Mikayla held the fan in her hand and remembered the words her friend had spoken.

Fan languages. Silent conversations.

She opened the fan and moved it before her face. A gentle breeze blew over her cheeks. Then, in a blinding flash, her apartment lit up like the inside of a theater. Images flickered on the walls, before becoming three-dimensional. Her threadbare wingback chair and nineteen-inch television faded away as a golden salon crowded with gaily-attired men and women came into focus.

Mikayla felt the sensations again, the tingles up her arm, the heat spreading through her body. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her apartment, faded and lacking color, as if in a dream or a grainy movie. In front of her though, was the brightly lit and gilded salon, vibrant with color and life, throbbing with chatter. Mikayla stole a glance down at her feet and noticed that she wore a pair of sharply pointed mules with diamond buckles and not the too-large, fuzzy socks she had donned when she had returned home from the bistro. Gone too, were her flannel pajama bottoms and San Francisco 49ers T-shirt, and in their place she wore a lilac colored gown, plumped up by layers of what were presumably petticoats.
Mikayla couldn’t breath. The air was thick and heavy, the scent of sweaty bodies and powder clogging her nostrils. She turned in her seat, a stiff backed settee and not the overstuffed sofa in her apartment, and felt a boney pinch at her sides. She saw her apartment waver, as if it was a picture on a broken television set, then completely fade from her view, and felt utter terror. Either she was having a very vivid daydream about an eighteenth-century French salon, or she was having a nervous breakdown.
She scrunched her eyes shut until it hurt. She opened one eye at a time, but the images of the salon were still present. Her apartment had simply vanished. She was about to look behind her when two things happened: another boney jab pinched her side and a soft, lilting whisper tickled her ear.

"Vous paraissez comme a fatigué comme je me sens, mon ami.”

Mikayla did not recognize the voice. The words were obviously French, even if they were a bit archaic and difficult to translate. Struggling with the phrase a few seconds longer, she finally deciphered it. “You appear as weary as I feel, my friend.”

Mikayla spun her head in the direction of the voice and saw a sumptuously attired red-haired woman. She fluttered her elaborate fan rapidly before her powdered face, blocking out the movement of her lips. The more the woman spoke, the easier it became for Mikayla to translate, as if someone had fine-tuned a radio with poor reception.

“Madame Bouchard, the social climbing shrew, prevaricated when she said this would be the event of the season. My patience has never been more sorely tried than it is now. How I have been able to endure two hours already, forced to sit and suffer boring, insipid conversation with witless souls, is beyond me. Truly, I do not belong here,” the stranger muttered, all the while her eyes sparkled with laughter as if she were recounting a delightful tale. The fan was obstructing more than her lips, it was obscuring the true meaning of her words, her emotions.

“You don’t belong here? I am the one that is out of place. I have been popped from another time and delivered into this room full of strange beings,” Mikayla candidly murmured, overwhelmed by what was occurring, a surprised to hear herself speaking rapid, fluent French.

The woman chuckled. Her soft, delightful mirth rang out like the tinkling of a thousand silver bells.

“Strange beings indeed! Oddly put, but true nonetheless,” she responded, her fan gracefully flapping before her wonderfully painted face.
Mikayla didn’t know what to say next. She wanted to ask what year it was, where she was, who she was. The woman’s next words answered many of her more pressing questions.

“Papa said that I would recognize you by your fan, the one Lancret painted for your Grand-mère years ago, the one you are now holding in your hand rather than using to hide your bold words, but I am sure I would have instantly recognized you,” the woman said.

“You would?” Mikayla asked in wonder.

“Naturellement. You are every bit as beautiful as your Grand-mère once was, and now I know you possess her razor sharp tongue. Never have there been women possessing more wit and beauty than the Lambert women, at least that is Papa’s resolute opinion,” she said.

Beautiful? Witty? Daring? The woman must be delusional. Mikayla Lambert had been called pretty, in a plain and wholesome way. She had been called book smart but lacking in commonsense, but never had anyone described her as beautiful, witty and daring. Well, at least she had Mikayla’s last name right, but how had she known it?

“This may have been the first time we have met, but I know all about you and yours. I know all about your Grandmother and her exploits.”

“You do?”

“Absolutely,” the woman confidently nodded. “Your Grandmother was the brightest jewel at Louis XIV’s court. Your mother’s actions are legendary as well. Papa told me about her falling out with the king. I am told that it took the intervention of Marquise de Pompadour, her friend and the King’s mistress, to prevent her execution.”

Mikayla burst into near-hysterical laughter. “Are you saying my mother was friends with the Marquise de Pompadour?”

The woman’s eyes flared wide at Mikayla’s outburst.

“I think you have mistaken me for someone else. My mother had few friends, least of all the mistress of a king.”

Mikayla could feel tiny bubble of hysteria in her throat, threatening to drown her. Leaning her head back, she scrunched her eyes shut until shards of colored light danced across her eyelids.

This is not happening.

She could not be sitting in a parlor, wearing a corset and fancy slippers, while having a conversation with a stranger about her mother.

I am not in eighteenth-century France. I am not in eighteenth-century France, she silently repeated, rubbing her forehead with the tips of her fingers. I am over-tired, that is all.

Just last week, Sophia had urged her to take a much-needed vacation. Perhaps this was her body’s way of telling her she needed to jet off to Aruba for a week or two. She had almost convinced herself she was listening to a classical CD in the comfort of her living room and not harp music in an ancient parlor, when her companion’s friendly chatter started up again.
“When Papa told me that you were to come and live with us, I nearly burst with happiness. I am only sorry that I was not at Chateau Marmont to greet you when you arrived. But then, we still have not been properly introduced, have we?” She did not wait for an answer, but lowered her fan to reveal her lush, painted lips. “Mademoiselle Michèle Lambert, I am your cousin, the daughter of your father’s brother, Yvonne Cadet Lambert.”
Mikayla blinked.

Unwittingly, she had strapped herself into a car on the rollercoaster called Fate, and now she felt dizzy by the sudden corkscrew turn her life had made. Somehow she had been transported form her life in twentieth century San Francisco, to a very similar life in eighteenth-century Paris. The coincidences between Michèle Lambert and herself were stunning. Mikayla had recently lost her mother. She also had an uncle named Phillip and a cousin named Yvonne. Was it possible to inhabit two times even if you were only conscious of one?

“...but then I have been rambling on, not even allowing you time to catch your breath. Please excuse me; perhaps spending so much time surrounded by these imbéciles has irreparably damaged my manners.”
Mikayla blinked again. She knew she should respond in some reassuring manner but could not find the words to do so; her thoughts still scrambled by the ride through time. Her throat was dry too. It felt as if she had swallowed a bale of cotton.

“Water,” she croaked. “I need a glass of water.”

Yvonne chuckled. “Mon cher cousin, you do not want water.”

“Yes. Yes, I do,” Mikayla argued, clutching her throat.

“Don’t you remember what the drinking water is like here in Paris? Brown and fetid, thick with the sediment and scum of the Seine.”

“How about milk? Can I have some milk?”

Yvonne shuddered. “By the time a drab woman totes a jug of milk from her farm in the country through the maze of city streets, it is no longer potable, having been polluted with the spatterings from coach wheels and spittle from roguish youngsters. Better you should drink some water.”

Note to self: Do not drink the water or the milk.

“Can’t we go to the kitchen then and get a glass of juice or something?”
Yvonne’s fan faltered and then dipped low allowing Mikayla to witness the look of shock upon her face. Yvonne’s lips pressed together, her fan raised back to its face-covering height. She made a quick gesture and a man bearing a silver tray laden with champagne glasses appeared.

Mikayla accepted a glass with a mumbled Merci Beaucoup and downed the contents in a single gulp. She was causing a scene. A gently bred woman did not thank a servant for bringing her refreshment, nor did she guzzle champagne like Kobe Bryant sucking Gatorade.

Yvonne’s gaze darted around the room. “Cousin, you are overwrought. You only recently lost your mother and your familiar surroundings. After enduring a tiresome channel crossing, you find no one waiting for you except a footman bearing instructions to attend a party. Come, let us depart this irksome event.”


Madeline said...

This was a very visual piece. I quite liked it!

Foxglove Spires said...

I truley enjoyed reading your piece it is so descriptive.

I've been looking through you blog and have had a wonderful journey Thank you.