The Drawing Board
The Tender Tale
It was the blue hours of morning when Séraphin Desgarennes turned his horse off of the road to
Séraphin took note of the moment and resolved to finally stop looking for his nephew Édouard. Séraphin had let himself go on in this was for too many days. His horse was tired, and so too, was his heart. Each time he endeavored to turn back, to admit that there was no sign of his late brother’s bright boy, something in his stomach would tug at him, would gnaw relentlessly at his psyche. The tedious something of hope, that with just one more pass, one more glance into the shadows he would find what had quickly become the rarest treasure, and his heart’s one and only desire.
Theizé was girded by a low stone wall that allowed the passerby to see the crown of the fountain in the center of its cobbled plaza, a great statue of an angel ascending to Heaven. The effect was quite stunning during long summer sunsets when the light would shimmer along the wings. From a distance that would almost seem to move and a soft golden light would reflect off of the green leaves of the trees that towered over the village.
The arched entryway into the village as designed so that when and observer stood squarely in front of it, the stained glass window over the doors of the village cathedral at the opposite end of the plaza was framed perfectly. Séraphin had discovered over the years that from different vantage points on the main road the giant angel appeared to be sitting on various roof tops.
Séraphin stopped for a moment a few yards from the archway to appreciate the perfect symmetry of its design. He had been staring at the play of shadows the leaves of overhanging trees were casting across the light stone of the benches and storefronts in the plaza before he realized he was not alone. His eyes caught a flicker of movement near the ascending angel. He looked again at the long shadow of the statue and realized that there was someone standing in it.
A man in a long dark coat stepped into the light; he stood in perfect profile looking up at the towering figure extending its wings protectively over those who stood at the fountains edge. Séraphin let his eyes fall down the length of the man’s coat and he soon realized it was a cassock, and that the man must be a priest. He saw that the priest was barefoot and the first traces of a smile moved across Séraphin’s face. The priest made the sign of the cross, and then turned his head quickly as if Séraphin had snuck up on him and tapped his shoulder. The priest’s light hair was slightly unkempt and his eyes had a bewildered look to them. He didn’t seem startled or bothered by Séraphin’s presence.
After a moment the man cracked a small smile and lifted his hand in the briefest of waves. Séraphin returned the gesture and added the tipping of his hat before clicking his tongue against his front teeth and pressing his heels light into the sides of his horse. The old steed quickly clipped into a slightly accelerated canter, assuming the homeward course of his rider.
The road forked a mile after Theizé, the main road curving to the west around the Alix Woods and a smaller path leading through them. This path was much steeper and contained various off shoots that could confuse a person unfamiliar with the territory. Even lifelong residents found themselves lost occasionally. Séraphin guided the horse to the west and as it reached the vortex of the fork it slowed, and then stopped.
Séraphin tugged gently on the reigns again and his horse gave of brief snort. Séraphin clicked his tongue against his teeth again and pressed his heels into the animal’s sides, but it only beat its front right hoof against the hard pan. Séraphin looked up at the bright blue patch of sky that narrowed to a point as it led into the woods and the tall dark fir trees converged high over the path. Séraphin adjusted his hat on his head to no real purpose and shifted in his saddle drawing his riding coat a little closer to his lean frame.
“Alright old man, we’ll do it your way this time.”
Séraphin lifted the reins and steered for the woods. He had put the old Andalusian out to pasture at his country estate several years ago after his niece Aurore, for whom he’d intended the horse married a rabble rousing silk-merchant and severed her associations with her aristocratic family. During the seven years before she met her husband Aurore had cared for the horse a great deal. She would ride him four hours each day during the summers she spent in the small estate he maintained outside of Bagnols. The horse had been a bright black beauty then, and when the sun shone down on its withers its muscles twitched with the potential of its power.
Séraphin had not fully appreciated the size of the horse until his niece had first stood outside of its pen in the early summer morning after her fifteenth birthday. He watched her with his heart in his throat as she stood on the tips of her toes to reach her small hand to the top of its elegantly curled main. Though the stable hand he employed was standing guard in the shadows of the interior of the pen, anxiety flooded through Séraphin. The head of the horse was itself half the length of Aurore’s body, a needless concern the stable hand had told him, and though he had trusted Gaston, he had never watched her ride without a hackle of fear running down his spine.
Séraphin reached down without looking at the animal underneath him and ran his gloved hand affectionately once along the side of the graying horses neck. “You took good care of her didn’t you old man?” he asked the stallion as it continued its trot.
Aurore missed one summer before she got married. That had been the only indication that something was different in her life, and only just right before the marriage happened. Séraphin felt a twinge in his stomach thinking again of his niece with her dark black hair and dark brown eyes looking up at him from her strangely pale freckled skin. Aurore was beautiful but it was evident that God had intended her to have the blonde hair native to her mother’s family, and not the darker blacks and deep chestnuts of the Desgarennes.
He had hardly notices that she’d become such a beautiful woman until her brother was telling him through dramatic, almost hysterical hypothetical questioning that she had married a man below her station and was fancying herself involved in some political excitement.
“What does she think? That she can just up and leave the family to associate with a man who was a peasant a generation ago?” Édouard had yelled shifting his weight onto one leg and resting a hand on his hip. Édouard and Aurore were twins, and when Édouard adopted a superior tone he seemed to transform into his female counterpart. The effect was slightly ridiculous but Séraphin had never been able to break his nephew of it.
“Édouard your discourteous tongue and arrogance make you appear rather effeminate. Your attachment to your sister is sweet but also bit beyond its use to you.” He remembered chastising him.
Séraphin had found that the wealth that Édouard and Aurore were born into combined with the early rather sudden death of their parents had all the unfortunate effects Séraphin had prayed against. Still Séraphin had tried not to let it anger or shame him too much, because he was all that Édouard had aside from his sister, and Séraphin hoped that someday the kindness he showed the boy then would eventually mean something to Édouard. Séraphin looked into the shadows all around him for any movement, or anything resembling a person.
The blue light of dusk was still heavy in they sky, and pierced the darkness in long streaks of light between the long thin trunks of trees, and their densely nettled branches. The horse trotted past several paths that broke away from the main trail winding deeper into the dark where the forest ended abruptly against the side of a hill. There was a large natural cave on this side of the forest that was fairly open and well known to those who lived here.
The were however other smaller caves hidden behind tall shrubs that snaked far into the hillside that could have served all different purposes in some primitive time. Séraphin was sure their presence was still made useful by some of the highwaymen that were known to populate the shadows on the way from the main road that cut through the country. Séraphin straightened up in his saddle.
Séraphin was quick to dismiss himself as aged in public, and indeed Séraphin did view himself that way, because he knew what he had been capable of when he was a young man. Séraphin was over six feet tall and although he was slender and almost graceful in his gait, he had a distinguished record of military service that was earned. Those assessing him as an opponent would often characterize Séraphin as intimidating. Séraphin tuned his senses to the quiet wild life inside the woods, having caught himself being careless with his attention.
Paths splintered off from the main road on the opposite side at fairly regular intervals that led to the large creek that snaked along the perimeter of the woods for several miles and then cut through the woods diagonally towards Bagnols and out beyond. The stallion broke off down one of these paths without warning and Séraphin let him. The horse wasn’t used to riding for days at a time, and Séraphin could tell the aging beast, much like him, was at the end of his rope.
The horse picked up the pace of its trot for several minutes as it carried him through the thatched rays of blue light filtering in through the dizzying knots the tightly clustered fir tress made of their branches as they grew up towards the sun. For a moment Séraphin felt outside of himself and he trusted the horse not to lead him into any overhanging branches which might knock him out of the saddle or make any maneuvers he wouldn’t be able to adjust his balance for. Séraphin realized he was tensing his legs against the stallion’s barrel and conceding to his rider, the old horse had slowed to a walk as they approached a narrow pass of the creek.
Séraphin dismounted and let the horse drink casually from the creek while he stood on a moss covered log that had been recently shifted across the softly tumbling water. The narrow area where the log had been was neatly devoid of any nettles. He could still see the small footprints of what looked like two children. He wondered what games they were playing at that required an old mossy log to bridge a pass of the creek wide enough to cross with a long stride.
Séraphin looked down into the water at his rippling reflection. His dark hair had developed a light gray strip in the front in recent years, and it occurred to Séraphin that he could no longer recall what it had been like to look into a mirror and see his dark hair, or his youthful features. Séraphin reached up and instinctively ran a gloved finger down the lines that ran from his nose to the corners of his mouth. He closed his eyes and rubbed at them vigorously and opened them as widely as he could. He looked over at his horse and felt more awake for a brief second.
Séraphin laughed at the stallion standing in profile in front of him. The old Andalusian was grey now, but his main was still curled like the delicate ringlets of young maiden at court. He took his hat off and ran a hand over his own hair, also naturally curled. Séraphin no longer minded his slightly feminine appearance. He looked down at the hat in his hand and took his other hand running it firmly across all three sides of the wide brim to rid it of dust that hadn’t accumulated in the hours that had passed since he’d last completed the same action. He put his hat back on and looked at the horse again. Despite the many years spent carrying the burdens of his masters his neck still held the accentuated curve of a well crafted chess piece. The horse’s eyeball was quivering slightly in Séraphin’s direction. “We make a fitting pair don’t we old man?” he said.
He felt a wave of exhaustion crash over him as he mounted the horse, and for a moment Séraphin thought the might not be able to hoist his leg over the saddle, but it passed and he did. “Let’s go home now old man” he said as he let out a sigh and clicked his tongue against his teeth. The proud beast took Séraphin back through the corridor of thatched light and slowed to a walk as it merged back onto the main trail.
The horse slowed to a halt after a few minutes and Séraphin felt too exhausted to argue with the animal so he just remained atop its back with the intention of waiting it out. He realized that he was falling asleep in that moment, but didn’t stop himself. He felt calm and relieved and then a thought crept into his consciousness, the thought that he shouldn’t be feeling this way. The feeling grew stronger and Séraphin realized with a jolt that he was asleep.
His head snapped up and his eyes opened at once and he felt dizzy. He was looking up into a confusion of branches and streams of light and undulating shadows. Séraphin felt his center of gravity shifting and managed to catch himself before her fell. The horse didn’t move beneath him but let out a whinny. Séraphin stroked the horse’s neck twice while he tried to orient himself. He felt turned around.
Séraphin looked down at the ground and realized that they were no longer on the path. Séraphin looked around but all he could see were tree trunks and grays and blacks and motes of dust swirling about in shafts of light. “Where are you taking us old man?” he mumbled and looked down at his horse. The old horse’s ears were twitching and he could hear its nostrils flaring. Séraphin squinted and surveyed the landscape in front of him again, searching for some clue to the horse’s agitation, or at least their probable location in the woods.
The light filtering in through the trees had grown slightly brighter but not by much. Séraphin figured he couldn’t have fallen asleep for that long. As he regained his senses, the appropriate anxiety over the situation also rose. His heart raced. He had never fallen asleep on a horse before, and without artifice or humility Séraphin suddenly felt old. He had to adjust everything in his mind now to account for the fact that there was some part of him that he could not exercise control over at all times. He wondered how so many people did such a thing willingly and so easily.
He thought of his brother Michel who had a difficult time when he began his military service and he began drinking to excess. All too frequently Séraphin found himself throwing punches at a man that Michel had angered to violence. Séraphin wasn’t one to try and change a person and when Michel had told him flatly that he had no desire to control himself or practice any kind of temperance Séraphin left him to his own devices.
He was not estranged from his family when his brother Michel died, in fact it was contrary to Séraphin’s nature to be estranged from anyone simply because such a practice was usually impractical and a detriment to whomever thought they were in the right in any given situation. It hadn’t been through any deliberate machinations that the brothers hadn’t spoken in over two years when Séraphin was informed of Michel’s death.
Séraphin tried to stop himself from dwelling on the facts leading up to the tragically shortened lives of the brother he both loved and despised and the wife that brother most surely drove to madness in the brief seven years of their marriage. He needed out of these woods that seemed to close around him like a chrysalis. He was getting short of breath and his cheeks were starting to burn and his muscles twitched with anxious agitation.
Séraphin collected himself for a moment and listened for the sound of the creek, focusing all of his agitation into the singular task of escape. He fought back images of his young niece and nephew standing in the doorway of their parent’s bedroom staring at their parents seemingly sleeping on their bed. Séraphin closed his eyes and imagined a heavy read theater curtain falling down over the macabre scene in his imagination.
After several long moments he thought he heard the purl of the water off to his right. Séraphin focused on the sound and it grew louder. Séraphin clicked his tongue and pressed his heels into his stubborn horse, tugging the reins in tandem with his instincts. The horse went a few paces and then stopped and tried to turn back. Séraphin was about to correct the animal when he saw something flickering in the periphery of his vision. The horse turned back and Séraphin saw it again, in the density of trees just beyond where he’d woken up.
Séraphin dismounted from his horse and took it lightly by the lead, walking toward the light leaping from tree to tree. He took each step slowly, trying to minimize the crackle of twigs and dried pine needles that carpeted the woods in a thick pile. The gray stallion now had its head over Séraphin’s shoulder and was pushing against Séraphin’s back with its chest edging him closer to the large fir tree in front of them. The base of the tree was obscured by the large trunk of a tree that had apparently toppled down directly in front of it years ago and whatever was reflecting light onto the tree was on the other side it.
When Séraphin got close to the felled log he realized that there was also a drop in the forest floor on the other side. Séraphin pressed into the moss covered bark of the fallen tree, and cautiously leaned over the curve of it. He saw more nettles and pine cones scattered across the ground and in the very lower right corner of his field of vision he saw a lock of light red hair curled around the base of a pine cone. Séraphin pushed himself up onto the fallen tree and peered over the edge again. He saw more red hair fanned out as if by design, framing the pale face of a woman. Her complexion looked waxy, the little girl he’d found with her throat torn out twenty-three years ago in Gévaudan.
Séraphin quickly slid back off of the log and found himself pressed against his horse. His heart dropped into his stomach. He took his hat off and set it aside. “Dear lord in Heaven” he muttered looking up into the lattice work of branches overhead. Séraphin closed his eyes tightly and a flash of pale discolored arms and legs flashed repeatedly in the dark and the glassy eyed look of the little girl, looking up at nothing. Her skin was so pale in the winter morning and her body drained so clean of blood that the wound on her throat seemed to bloom out of her like an anemone.
He was nineteen then, when the Beast of Gévaudan descended on the small province in the mountains. Séraphin had heard stories but many of the accounts were too hard to believe. Séraphin hadn’t really wanted to go, but Michel wanted to build an alliance with the young marquise who wan organizing the hunt and if anyone among those accepting the invitation everyone knew that Séraphin would be the most likely to actually kill something.
Séraphin thought at best it would be an antidote to the boredom that had taken over his life at that time. He had to admit it would be a charming story to tell if he had actually been to Gévaudan to hunt La Bête. He had even made sport of the superstitious peasants and there stories of wild beasts. All of that was forgotten when pushed back the foliage covering the hollow trunk of an old oak tree and found her sitting there staring back at him.
Séraphin had stared at the little girl for a long time before he could feel anything. The first sensation that had come to him was nausea and suddenly he was doubled over heaving the marquise’s luxurious breakfast into the frost covered grass. He had cried that day when returned to the marquise’s estate and retired to his guest quarters. Séraphin hadn’t joined the others for dinner that night, but instead listened to them laughing as they impersonated the different peasants and priests they had encountered that day. They joked to each other that Séraphin was upset that he hadn’t caught anything.
The marquise had surprised Séraphin that day. Séraphin had moved from his guest room to the library adjacent to the den where the other young men were carousing. He was sitting in front of the fire watching the flames wag like serpent tongues in time with the nonsensical conversations competing with each other in the next room, drifting into his ears and competing with his thoughts, trying to slither into his consciousness.
“I think the young Desgarennes is upset he wasn’t able to show us how useless we are” Séraphin had heard someone say. The conciliatory laughter that had followed confirmed to Séraphin that the other men agreed that this was a good assessment of Séraphin’s attitudes towards them. It was true that Séraphin didn’t find much of their lifestyles appealing, but he didn’t think the men in the next room were useless. He believed that they all had the ability to be good if they wanted to, and that most of them would.
“Really Messieurs, I’m disappointed in you” the marquise had said very soberly “I’ve never seen a mutilated child myself, but I’d like to believe the sight would keep me from making too much merry before that day was even done.”
Séraphin felt his horse pressing against him again. He forced his eyes open and turned around to face the tree again. The light was still bouncing rhythmically in the tree tops. Séraphin hoisted himself up onto the fallen tree again shutting his eyes tightly. He leaned his body over the edge and slowly opened his eyes not wanting to look on her again but knowing he had to.
He opened his eyes searching for the source of the shining light without allowing he eyes to fully compose any of the images they were seeing. There was something on her chest. Séraphin allowed his eyes to open more fully and focus. It was a gold coin. He realized it was reflecting and refracting the light onto the tree next to her with the rise and fall of her breath. Séraphin’s whole body relaxed and he exhaled a large breath he hadn’t realized he was holding in. He dropped his head for a moment. “Thank God” he said as he sat there for a moment with his eyes closed, letting he cheek rest on damp layer of moss under him.
Séraphin looked over at his horse and smiled. “Was this just a coincidence?” he asked. The horse remained still. The tips of its ears twitched briefly. Séraphin looked around for a way into the shallow pit the young woman had managed to find herself in, before finally just hoisting himself over the edge of the fallen tree and letting himself drop down on the other side.
He landed with a loud thud next to the young woman but her body didn’t stir. Her dress was hiked over her knees which were badly bruised, and her bodice was stained with what looked like splatters of blood. One of the sleeves of her dress was ripped away completely exposing large black bruises in a pattern Séraphin quickly likened to the grip of a hand. Séraphin stood up tall and peered over the log at his horse. The stallion cocked its head to the side suddenly, looking back at its rider.
Séraphin squatted down next to the woman again and touched a long graceful finger to her chin, and turned her face gently. Her face was unharmed but he saw on the side of her neck a large bite mark. The dark red almond shape had a deep purple bruise radiating from it, giving the impression of an eye looking back at him. Séraphin ran his fingers across the contused flesh and let his hand rest on her shoulder. Her skin was cold.
He looked down her body again to her exposed knees and moved his hand to the hem of her dress to pull it back down. She shifted her legs as he did so and he caught a glimpse of smeared blood and more bruises along her inner thighs. Séraphin pulled her dress down and smoothed out the skirt. He looked back at her face and his heart jumped. Her eyes were open and looking at him, but seemed at the same time not to see. She blinked at him.
“What’s your name?” he asked her in a whisper as he hovered over her.
She closed her eyes and then fluttered them open again as she parted her mouth with a quiet intake of breath. “Virginie” she said, her voice a thin echo of sound.
Séraphin smiled at her. “Do you talk to horses Virginie?” he said as he looked up at his horse whose head was now leaning over the edge of the fallen tree. He looked back down at Virginie, she had shut her eyes again and her head was falling to side. “You probably won’t think so when you wake up Virginie” Séraphin said as he took off his riding coat and let the chill of October contract around him briefly “but you are a very lucky young lady.”
Séraphin laid his coat over Virginie and then slid his arms under her body and pulled her up to him. He stood up and looked over at his horse. “Tell me old man…how are we going to do this?” Séraphin asked. The horse stretched its neck and sniffed the air around the Virginie before letting out a snort and shaking its head up and down.