In the end, everyone at the asylum was only sure of two things: no-one knew why she had come and no-one knew why she had to stay. In saying that, in that place, I may not be saying anything very remarkable.
And it would not be remarkable to say, one day, she would dissolve back into the world she came out of; dissolve, like blood spilled in the driving rain. But that is another story. For now, I am telling you the story of how all this came about, how seven people met on a summer day in 1929, on a hilltop in the silver sunlight outside of Avignon, to play a game of chess. The story of how it all went so badly after that is harder to describe.
Sister Aquinata entered her name in the patient records weeks after most of them already knew she was there; now, the boy thinks she did it in code. In itself, that was unremarkable. They often had a guest for some time before, officially, they knew they had a guest.
The housekeepers, asserting their respectability, were sure she was not herself respectable. Louise, the senior housekeeper, championed this position. She was, Louise said, the shamed mistress of a revolutionary leader, hidden away, safe from his vengeful wife, or perhaps, his political rivals. After all, Circassian women were notorious concubines. Everyone knew that. The caretakers, less interested in intrigues and more in the order of things, agreed among themselves she was perhaps the daughter of a White Russian leader, mad or not, but kept at the Institute to be safe from murdering Soviet intriguers while her father and his allies plotted the counter-revolution. If she were not in danger, why would she have a bodyguard? The cooks and kitchen staff were divided, but Lisanne, the chief cook and the widow of a trade unionist who died in the Neville Offensive –– a national outrage she never stopped denouncing, even a decade after he drowned face down in the mud, according to her, both gassed and machine-gunned –– made the final ruling on behalf of her co-workers and the romance of her craft: La Circassia was an artist, driven mad by grief from war and revolution, sent to Montdevergues to recover her wits and regain her strength, and so lead Soviet hearts on the revolutionary road.
Each story had its critics and its champions, and each participant in the debate claimed insights based on his or her earliest, purest impressions. And what precious few facts they had.
After the director and Sister Aquinata, he may have been the first person at the institute to know of her arrival, and to have evidence of her story. But even that thin evidence did not distinguish one theory from another. Kitchen had no menu to consider. Housekeeping had no personal effects to consider. Caretaking had laid out a room by then, but with no knowledge of her or of her particular requirements, or her tastes, which in time everyone came to see were remarkable. They imagined very little, in any case. They seldom did. The few facts of La Circassia’s circumstances were set out for him by Sister Aquinata, weeks before she arrived.
Early on a warm Monday morning a porter came to summon him to her office. He remembers the month, and the day, because it was the first anniversary of his arrival in France. He waited on a bench in the loggia outside her door for almost an hour, listening to incomprehensible voices inside. He shivered a little, from the morning chill, or from fright, but he couldn’t remember the weather at all that day; the days were so much the same. When the door opened the director stood there and looked at him without expression, like he was a loaf of bread in the market, and the director had to decide if he was hungry enough to have the boy with his a meal. The director smiled a half-smile, and in silence stepped past the boy and walked to his own office at the end of the loggia’s colonnade.
Through the open door, from behind her desk, Sister Aquinata called the boy into the room. For the next quarter-hour, while he stood, she asked him for details of his life.
Question: –– How is your Russian?
Passable to good.
Question: –– And your German?
Question: –– And how is it you can speak any French?
A foundation of schoolboy Latin taught by priests with a very weak sense of Polish.
Question: –– Did you still take photographs?
Not as many as he would like, but some.
Question: –– What did you do for a dark room?
He had no time or place to print in Avignon. For his negatives he paid a little to people in town to develop film when he had no other way. They made contact prints for him, and that was enough.
Question: –– And what did you do in Paris before you came to Avignon?
He found friends who shared his interests in making pictures. Spoke his Polish, and maybe a little English with the Americans he met. Sometimes, he had a café meal and listened to the conversations around, practicing his French. When he could, he got into a darkroom with one or another photographer, to see what each did, to study the technique. The boy did not mention his other career, the career that paid for his meals and clothes and his hotel room, nor did he explain how that career came to such an abrupt end.
Question: –– And what of girls?
He had no money to entertain them.
Question: –– No money?
And they were not to his taste.
At that moment, the temper of the interrogation changed. There was silence for several minutes while the sister studied a portfolio, before she invited the boy to sit in the chair facing her desk. When he was still, she waited for another moment, and began asking more questions, but with more interest in the answers.
Question: –– Did you know of the Circassians?
He only knew the name.
She explained: –– they were an old people from the southern tip of the Russian Empire. When the Tsar conquered them seventy-five years ago they spread like Jews across the east, from Russia to Egypt. We were going to care for one soon, a woman, a Russian-speaking woman, but a Catholic, like us. She will require special care.
Sister Aquinata told the boy caretakers had chosen an unimproved room among the stables, cleaned and painted it, put doors and windows and shutters in place of the stable doors, put in a sink and a shower and bath. Now they were installing an indoor toilet. When they were finished, the boy would furnish the room, including a stove for winters to make a proper home for La Circassia.
Question: –– What did you learn in Poland?
He knew the value of work, he knew that work was important. He could use tools. He knew how to paint a room, how to install electric lights, how to do some plumbing, how to do some carpentry or repair a stone or a brick wall, how to prune a tree, patch wooden furniture, he understood horses and could maintain a bicycle or, with the right tools, an automobile. In these things, he was an apprentice, but an experienced one. Along with his camera, and his skills in a darkroom, these were the skills he travelled on.
The boy did not say how such work ground down his soul.