That June, when the flax bloomed and her mother came to visit, Inès realized the impressionistic nature of time. The days lengthened but moments fleeted. Nothing remained solid under her gaze. Fields that blossomed at dawn faded by dusk, as though a million blue butterflies had landed and lifted. And her mother, her mother fluttered on the thin edge of shadows.
At the station in Rouen, Inès scanned the passengers disembarking the train from Paris, instinctively seeking that familiar drift of grace, the slender posture, the hennaed chignon. Her mother had a way of rippling into a room like silk unspooling, first the whisper of her, then the reality, soft and cool. Inès had always imagined her mother in another century, one in which a woman was a secret known only to herself, but the disheveled woman she found in the train station was easily read. She carried her frazzle like a calling card. She clutched at Inès and pecked her face with eager kisses. Inès was stunned. Solange Laval was never eager.
Their drive through the long, slow sunlight of Normandy was teeming with chatter. Inès couldn’t keep pace with her mother’s jittery monologue. She couldn’t make sense of the short cap of white hair or the chipped nail polish, the slightly sour aroma. This anxious, ordinary old woman couldn’t possibly be the same ageless, effortless woman who had shaped every memory Inès had into a hushed still life. She wondered how she had ever wished for a mother who might gossip or giggle.
At the old farmhouse where Inès had fashioned a simple life in obvious contrast to her childhood, she conducted a stilted tour of low-beamed, brightly windowed rooms. Where once her mother would have observed quietly and noted everything, she now exclaimed loudly and saw nothing, and by the time Inès settled them in the kitchen at the rough-hewn table, she was the one unraveled. She pulled a cassoulet from the oven and poured tall glasses of local cider, an offering she expected to tug her mother’s mouth into a familiar chevron of disapproval. Instead, she was treated to the sight and sound of an almost frantic gulping, and when her mother’s fluttery gaze met hers over the top of the glass, the expression Inès found there was alarmingly vacant.
La démence. The word flitted through her head, but Inès couldn’t catch it. She couldn’t pin it down and make it something to identify, like a butterfly in a shadowbox, its reality suspended. Her mother had aged a decade in a year. At the same time, she had become a child, a tactless, querulous child. That night Inès tucked her mother into a bed rich in the scent of linen grown on her own land. Solange wrinkled her nose and made a grand show of thrashing against the textured sheets. In the morning Inès cooked porridge with strawberries from the garden. Solange took one bite and spat it back into the bowl. She refused to eat.
Confounded, Inès settled her mother in a window seat in the corner of her sewing room. As she finished hand-stitching pillows she would sell to tourists, she studied her mother’s face. Her mother stared out the window at the delicate carpet of flowers undulating in every direction, but it didn’t calm her. Agitation furrowed her fine-boned features. Thoughts flickered across her face like reflections from a film screen, a terrifying film, and Inès fought the urge to offer comfort. Her mother did not condone excessive displays of affection. Or perhaps she did. Everything known was unknown. La démence.
“Maman,” she whispered, and her mother turned a bewildered gaze, as fragile blue as the field behind her. “Why didn’t you tell me, Maman?”
Briefly, her mother’s gaze sharpened, and Inès held her breath. Faced with it, she didn’t know if she wanted the truth, if she was prepared for the solid burden of it. But the moment dissolved as swiftly as it coalesced. Solange turned away, slipping back into the shadows, and her daughter exhaled.