Valérie
— lisa shi

Valérie sat in a green velvet chair by the window. An auburn curl of hair dangled limply against her forehead, and she sighed, warm breath escaping from parted lips to fog up the frozen window. Veins of ice crawled up the sides and corners of the pane, twisting and turning in complex, unpredictable patterns like miniscule transparent vines of ivy. She was only a meter away from the fireplace, where the flames roared heartily, eating up birchwood and spitting out ash. The heat seared into her flesh through her dress like needles pricking into her skin; still, she sat, immobile. Her long, thin fingers were icicles: freezing, fragile, bound to shatter. She pressed them hard against the window and fed what little warmth she had in her fingertips to the glass. Her gaze was unfocused, wandering and vagrant, dark blue eyes staring outwards and drinking in all she saw.

She could tell from the size and texture of the individual flakes landing on the glass windows that the falling snow was the powdery and soft type, not the watery sort that turns to ice and slush all too quickly. The pines outside were barely rustling; it was a calm, windless day, perfect for a stroll outside. No one had been outside in the yard since the snow began, and so it settled over the landscape like a soft cotton blanket, untarnished, pristine. It had been a long time since she had played in the snow - ever since she became of age, her father claimed it was improper for her be outside in such unseemly conditions. Besides, she was of the fairer sex, and therefore more fragile - she could never survive a second in the cold.

After getting married, she felt the same pressures. Cédric was not a doctor, but he spoke as if he were: always diagnosing, always prescribing her some new treatment, always talking down to her. He would be completely opposed to the idea of her venturing outside, for even just a second, but it was justified. He thought of her as his dear, sweet, silly little goose, one that would become disoriented in the snow and never find her way back home. Maybe as a banker, he felt the need to hoard everything he owned. Sometimes, she wondered what life would be like without him. She would fantasize about indulging in true romance, eloping with a stranger who swept her off her feet and stole her away, but she quickly shook the idea out of her head. Cédric was good to her; he provided everything she needed and he only wanted what was best for her. He was not being unreasonable when he limited her as he did: her swollen belly needed protection, although at this point, she felt that she herself needed protection from it. After almost 9 months of being this unwieldy, inelegant size, she longed for her once lithe, unburdened body.

Still, she thought back to simpler times of youth, when she was allowed to venture into the elements. She could almost feel the first biting gust of cold wind that would greet her as she exited the stifling house. She first would stand on the steps, motionless, simply taking in her surroundings. Here, she could finally breathe freely. The sky would be filled with whites and grays lined with silver, and she would tilt her head upwards, wide-eyed and at peace. The snowflakes would land on her eyelashes and brows, blurring her vision, and she would stare up at the bright clouds until they created little stars that danced across her line of sight. She imagined that she was elsewhere, and that those little stars were magical sprites, elfin friends that accompanied her. Then, she would take her first step into the snow. The initial crumpling of that perfect layer, the destruction, was all too satisfying. The chill would begin to seep into her bone, and she welcomed it fully. She would giggle with delight when her body began to shiver, as her nose began to go numb - these natural bodily processes from which she was usually sheltered. Little peals of laughter would bubble out from her mouth. She would only return inside when her nanny physically picked her up and coerced her into taking a warm bath. She would sit sullenly as Colette would peel the wet, icy clothing from her tiny body. At that time, she could never articulate the feeling she had, but reflecting now, she realized she felt most alive then. She longed for the cold, the snow, that feeling, even now. She considered sneaking outside just then - it was so appealing, so available.

She felt a tiny kick at that moment, bringing her back to the present reality. She had almost forgotten where she was now, that she had another creature within her. She absent mindedly rubbed at her stomach, as she pondered her past.

Soon, it was time for dinner. Good timing, too: she had been seated for the better part of the afternoon and needed to wake up her legs and knees, now locked in position. Cédric and the servant girl helped her up (another thing she disliked about pregnancy: she had become so dependent on the help others). Colette had made seared foie with mashed potatoes and fresh sprouts, but she could not bring herself to eat. The meat, shimmering in all of its fats and oils, was grotesque and disgusting. She imagined the fowl from which it came, the blood and feathers underneath which it was extracted, the other innards that accompanied it. She could feel her stomach gurgling in rejection of the odor, and she could taste the bile rising from her throat.

“Valérie?” Cédric called, gently. “Are you not enjoying the food?”

“Oh, I am, it’s quite lovely,” Valérie responded anxiously. She quickly picked up her silver cutlery and made an incision in the goose liver, but she absolutely could not bear it. She rushed from the table to her room, and Cédric had called frustratedly after her. He did not follow. These episodes were becoming common, and he was at his wits end. He wondered if the baby would be okay - Valérie’s immature actions best not affect them all.

Valérie had returned to her chair by the window and resumed her original position. She was just beginning to doze off, when Colette’s voice interrupted her.

“Madame?” the old woman knocked on the door meekly.

“Yes?” she replied, sighing.

“I’ve washed your clothing, and I’ve come to drop it off.”

“Put it on the bed and leave me, Colette.”

Still, she stared out the window. She heard faint shuffling footsteps behind her as Colette placed the laundry on the bed, but she heard no retreat out of the room.

“What is it?” she asked.

“It’s just- I...”
“Out with it!” she demanded.

The girl swallowed audibly, then started to speak hesitantly. “My mother has fallen ill, and I was hoping to get next month’s allowance in advance so that I could ask the apothecary for some medicine, you see, and I -”

“Right, right. I shall leave it for you tomorrow morning.”

Colette. She had been with Valérie since she was a child, and was the only remnant from her childhood she still had to this day. The nanny’s presence brought to mind snow and consommé, but it also reminded her of her father’s overbearing nature and her mother’s early death.

She had just begun to sink into memories from her past one again when the contractions started.

“Colette,” she whispered. Then, loudly, more desperately: “Colette!”

The midwife arrived within the hour, and calmly and briskly set up. Cédric was there for the entirety of the next two days and nights, but Valérie was not yet fully dilated. On the third day, he had to go to work, and left her, kissing her forehead, eyelids, and cheeks, tears streaming down his face. She was unmoved. The pain was getting stronger, and here was this oaf bothering her.

Some hours later, in the afternoon, she began to scream viciously.

That night, Cédric came home, heart fluttering with excitement. He met the wet nurse just as she was gathering her belongings.

“Did everything go well?” he queried.

“Ah! Yes! Ah! Everything is splendid!” she stammered, then quickly hurried out the door into the cold, icy night.

Cédric practically flew up the stairs, beaming, but was met with a closed bedroom door.

“Dear Valérie? Oh, won’t you open up, my little goose!” he pleaded.

“Hush, the child is sleeping. Go away!” she replied.

Distressed and overwrought, he paced back and forth outside the door.

“I’m tired, Cédric. I can hear your footsteps, and Anna and I both need rest. Sleep in the spare room tonight,” she commanded.

“Oh, her name’s Anna! We have a daughter!” he gasped.

“Go!” she repeated, annoyance seeping into her voice.

Left with no other option, he made his way into the other room. The bed was small and uncomfortable, and a draft came in, even through the closed window. He could barely sleep that night, fading in and out of consciousness. He was simply too excited, and could think of doing nothing else before seeing his - their - child.

When the sun finally rose, he promptly arose from his bed. He knocked confidently on the door. “Darling, open up!” he called. “Do let me in, I’ve been so anxious all night to see little Anna!”

“Cédric, I’m feeding her. Please do not interrupt,” she sighed, exasperated.

“You’re being ridiculous, it’s been over a day since my own daugher has been birthed, and I have yet to see her face!”

She did not reply, and he had had enough. He twisted the doorknob to enter, but found that it was barricaded, to his deep surprise.

“Valérie! Why won’t you let me in!”

“It’s of no importance to you.”

He began to grow uneasy. Why was she so adamant that he not enter? Anna was, after all, a product of both their efforts. Had something gone wrong? No, that could not be it at all. There was some other explanation. Valérie had been acting strangely recently - perhaps this was just another of her odd behaviors.

He went off to work again, but was distracted all day. The more he thought about the whole affair, the angrier he became. What right did she have to sequester their daughter from him? He decided he would see the child that night, no matter how much his wife protested.

As night fell, he hastened home. Colette said Valérie had not been out of her room at all in the past two days. His heart sunk even as he stormed up the stairs.

“Valérie. I absolutely demand you open the door.” He was met with no reply. “I will break this door down!” he threatened. Even then, she refused to respond.

He realized he could do nothing by himself. Whatever she used to barricade the door was heavy, and he did not have the tools with which he could get into the room himself. His only choice was to recruit some neighbors to help him. It was too late that night, though; he would have to act in the morning. He spent another night restlessly tossing and turning. His anger had turned into fear and worry, but he was resolved to get to the bottom of things.

The next morning, he was ready. He had gathered two other men, and they had found a large, heavy cement block.

“Last chance to open up, Valérie, this is your last chance!” he exclaimed.

“Dearest Cédric, Anna is sleeping! Oh, how peaceful she looks right now! You wouldn’t be so terrible as to alarm her, would you?” she cried.

She could not make a single excuse as to change his mind.

“One, two, three, heave!” he ordered. They busted open the door with the block.

At last, he was inside. His wife was seated by the window, and their daughter was swathed in blankets and lay quietly on her lap. The early morning light filtering in through the window made it so that he could only see their silhouettes, but just being in the same room with them calmed him. Of course everything was alright! He had had no reason to worry.

He rushed to them and snatched the baby from her arms.

Ah, she had Valérie’s eyes and his chestnut hair! And such rosy cheeks!

Then, he started, and began to back away from Valérie in horror.

“Where,” he sputtered, “is our daughter?”

“Why, she’s right there in your arms, silly Cédric,” she laughed. “What could you mean?”

In his arms was not a child, but was the most lifelike doll. It gazed up at him, unblinking, dark blue eyes penetrating through him.

“Alright, it’s my turn. You’ve held her for long enough,” she took it back from him, and began cooing to it gently.

Cédric keeled over, losing consciousness.

 

 

Lisa Shi is a senior at Horace Mann School and an alum of the Iowa Young Writers' Studio. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and The New York Times, and she will be published in Glass Kite Anthology's upcoming issue. She firmly believes that ice cream can and should be eaten in the winter - in fact, she in currently working on a pint of Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie as she writes this in the middle of the a snowstorm.