(c) 2022 Sayword B. Eller
The Other Side of Mourning
a short story by Sayword B. Eller
It shouldn’t be this hard. People die all the time. We are born with a contract to die. That’s the only constant, the only promised thing. But it’s different, isn’t it, when the person who dies is the only person you thought you would ever love.
I’m in France. It was my last promise to him that I would visit on the one year anniversary of his departure. A dying man made an already grieving woman make a promise. Nice, right? But I made it and I’m fulfilling it. Sitting here in the tiny cottage his family has owned for more than a century, with its weathered façade and cozy interior. I hate it. I hate them. I hate me. The world shouldn’t work anymore when the most important person in it is gone.
The French variation of my name from the silence. Masculine. Soft. My mother named me Cecily, but here I am Cécile. I turn, half expecting to see that I have conjured my love, but instead find his brother Étienne. They weren’t close for many years, a fact that fills this living brother with regret. I’ve told him often that Julien felt the same. Grief makes people deaf to logic and reason. There’s no need to let regret eat you alive. Julien is gone. Forever gone.
“Ça va?” he asks.
I nod. Julien’s family has checked on me numerous times this week, though it has most often been his mother Eloise.
“Would you like anything?” Bless them. I speak elementary French at best. Despite their own deficiencies in English, they still try.
He nods, looks as though he wants to say something further, then leaves. These conversations are easy. I imagine he will stay around for several more hours just to make sure we’re okay. Their main concern is baby Julien. Named for his father, born a mere three months after his passing. That was the hardest part for him. It wasn’t leaving me behind, tearing my beating heart out and taking it with him. No, he was more concerned that he wouldn’t be able to see his child. In moments of clarity I can understand. He was desperately sad to be leaving at all. Never knowing his child was merely icing on the cake.
As if on cue I hear Julien from the nursery off the main room. This cabin has two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. If a noise is made in one you will hear it in all others. I unfold my legs, preparing to stand, when Étienne hurries into the room and motions for me to sit.
“Merci,” I say as I settle back in. “He’ll need to eat.” Then, in case Étienne’s English is worse than my French I add, “Manger.”
He’s smiling when he comes back into the living room. “My English is good, Cécile. Très bien.”
My face colors, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because this is the longest I’ve been alone with a man in a year.
He leans over, resting Julien in my awaiting arms. “Très beau.” His eyes meet mine. “Beautiful.”
More coloring. “Merci.”
“I will return soon.”
“Where are you off to?” It’s a natural conversation, one I might have with my own sister. Draping a blanket over my shoulder, I help Julien to latch on.
“We need food.”
“Yes. It will snow tonight. Maman asked I stay with you.”
I shift. “She isn’t coming?”
“No. Is this okay?”
I nod. “Of course.” How am I supposed to tell him it is definitely not okay for him to be here?
Étienne closes the door against the cold wind as he departs. I pull the blanket off my son and look down at him. Breastfeeding isn’t enough for him anymore. My family doesn’t understand why I would still be feeding a 9-month-old from my body, especially when he’s such a voracious eater. It’s difficult to explain to them and everyone else who questions it that this is my way of staying connected to my son. In a few months, maybe before, I won’t be able to do this. He already squirms so much while eating. But he looks so much like his father and by holding him close and staying this bonded I think I’m keeping Julien with me a little longer.
It’s time to let him go. These words have been so prevalent lately. Whispering, reminding me that it has been a year since my love left and I am still in the same place I was when he breathed his last. Is there a shelf life for mourning? Should I be moving past it, liberating myself from the love that we both had? Is that possible?
Julien shifts. I look down to find him staring at me, milk dribbling from his full lips.
I smile. “Did you get enough, little guy?”
“Ma ma ma ma ma.”
These experimentations in language delight me, I must admit. At the same time, though, it breaks what’s left of my heart. My nephew’s first word was dada. I read some place that most babies say dada first because it’s easier. Julien will never say dada.
He tugs my hair and I laugh, dangling it further into his face so that it tickles his cheeks until he giggles, that delightful over-excited squeal he does when something is exceptionally funny. I’m laughing, too, but also crying. This is how it is. We laugh, I cry, I wish Julien were here to watch his little son grow and laugh and love.
“Je t'aime, my darling.” I’m speaking to Julien senior as much as I am junior.
* * * * *
It’s past Julien’s bedtime when Étienne comes back into the cabin, arms filled with bags. I place the book I’m reading face down on the sofa and stand. “Do you need help?”
“Il y en a trois de plus dans le coffre.” Then, catching himself he adds, “Three more in the boot.”
I’ve been married to a native European long enough to know what a boot is, so I slide my boots on by the door and head out into the twilight. France is a beautiful country. Julien and I used to visit as often as possible, especially in the last couple of years. After his diagnosis. In the final months he knew he would never see his home again. I think that is one of the hardest realizations about dying; everything you leave behind.
Étienne is beside me. It’s sudden, his presence, but also comforting. I love this place but its location at the edge of a dense forest has always made me uncomfortable.
“I can get the rest,” he says.
“I’d like to help.”
He smiles. “I don’t mind the company.”
I nod and follow him the last few steps to the small sedan.
“Have you enjoyed your time here?”
“Yes.” It’s a relief that his English is actually quite good. “Your mom has been wonderful.”
“She loves you.” He opens the trunk and grabs the last of the bags. “She was afraid she would never see you again.”
I look away, pretending to be distracted by the darkening sky.
“I’m afraid I had her convinced we would never see you or little Julien again.”
My head snaps to him, my chest puffing out a bit. “Why would you do such a thing?”
He shrugs and walks back toward the house. I trail after him, trying desperately not to lose my footing on the uneven ground, finally catching up with him when I climb the stone steps to the front porch.
“Étienne.” He turns and I shake my hands, an exaggerated urging for him to take me seriously. Julien always hated when I would do the same to him. Très dramatique. “Why would you do that?”
“Did you think about not coming?” I dodge his gaze and he chuckles. “I wanted to prepare her. In case you went with that feeling instead of the right one.”
Inside, he locks the door behind us and crosses to the kitchen. I slide my boots off by the door and shove my feet into the awaiting slippers, sticking my head through the nursery door before crossing to the kitchen myself.
“Would you like for me to cook?” I ask. I’m getting used to eating dinner so late.
“I will do it.” His tone isn’t harsh or unkind but I still feel rebuffed.
“I can cook, you know?”
He laughs. “Julien told me. He also told me that if ever given the chance to decline, I should.”
I laugh despite the harsh truth of it. Julien often commented on my cooking skills, or lack thereof.
“You can open the wine,” he says.
I complete my task and sit at the small table in the corner as Étienne prepares our meal.
He looks up and my breath catches. Julien is there. It’s the darkness of the pupils, the tilt of the eyes, the creasing around the edges as he smiles.
I stand, backing against the doorway that leads out of the room. “I-I’m going to read more.”
He nods and I wonder if he’s aware of how much pain he’s caused with a simple smile. By his now-somber visage I think he is.
In the living room I settle under my throw blanket and pick up the book my sister gave me before embarking on this trip. The author is French, she’d said, so pleased with herself. This story is inspired by the partner she lost in the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris. I only took it to keep her quiet. My sister has keen skills. She can smother better than the best. With a smile I accepted her gift and promised to read it. Who knew my sister would be responsible for saving my sanity over the last week?
I’ve started the next chapter when Étienne says in a voice softer than necessary, “Cécile, it is ready.”
Replacing the book, I stand and walk like a woman going to the electric chair into the kitchen. I’m not ready to face his eyes. They all look so much alike. Even his mother had been difficult to look at this week.
I take a seat and drape my napkin over a vibrating knee, then take a gulp of the rosé. His eyes widen slightly by my eager drink but he doesn’t venture to say anything. Thankfully.
“Do you pray?” he asks.
I shake my head. “But if you need to.”
We eat in silence, forks scraping against the faces of our ancient china. I’m sure Julien once said this was gifted to his parents on their wedding day. It’s nice that they use it for all occasions instead of only the special ones. Though, this may be counted among special.
Étienne laces his fingers, resting his chin on the bridge they create, his fork dangling precariously toward his plate. His gaze is heavy on me but I meet it.
“Will you come back next year?" He asks. "She is so worried she will not see Julien grow.”
“I’ve been thinking about it. Whether I will return or not.”
He gives me an extended moment to expand on the thought, then says, “And what have you decided?”
“Nothing. Yet.” I scoop a larger than necessary portion of coq au vin into my mouth hoping this will discourage him from asking anything further.
He places his fork gingerly on the plate and resumes his curious position. “Cécile, it is important that we know.”
Is this the real reason Étienne is here?
“Please do not try to avoid this conversation.”
Affronted, I drop my fork and sit back. “What is your problem?”
“You leave soon—”
“Three weeks. I’m here for a month, remember?”
“This is soon for us.”
“It’s three weeks, Étienne.”
“And forty-nine before we see him again.”
“Him.” I grab my glass and consider draining it but put it back down too hard. The stem snaps in half sending the bowl over onto the floor and into pieces and slivers. Just like me. I’m up before Étienne, grabbing a towel from the sink to mop up the liquid currently seeping through the aged boards of the floor.
“Stop,” he says but I don’t listen.
Through my tears I continue to dab up the rosé, glass slicing through the tender flesh of my hand. Étienne is beside me, his hands covering mine, lifting it away from the floor and the glass. He helps me stand and sits me down in the chair as if he were placing an expensive vase on a pedestal. Pulling the towel from me, he examines my cuts, then stands and disappears. In moments he returns with a first aid kit and begins cleaning up my cuts.
“Je suis désolée,” I manage.
He doesn’t respond, doesn’t even look up at me. This could have been avoided. All I have to do is commit to his family, to promise that I won’t keep the last precious tie to their Julien away from them. I don’t want to. But it’s so hard to be here, to be in this place where Julien saw some of his happiest memories. To be here without him.
Étienne looks up at me, his dark eyes so full of pain. It’s my pain, in a way. He’s lost his brother. His blood. His heart. I reach out, resting my good hand on his cheek. In this moment we are the same.
“Je suis désolée,” I repeat.
He looks down. “This is hard for all of us.”
He finishes with the bandages and stands. “I’ll clean up. You eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Mange,” he says with a smile and a wink. His way, I suppose, of letting me know there’s no hard feelings.
I return his smile. “D’accord.”
Our conversation isn’t over. It’s a truth I can’t deny no matter how much I may want to. Étienne has been tasked with speaking to me because he is the only one who can speak fluently enough to do so. Is this why Julien requested I come back to his home on the one-year anniversary of his departure? Is he orchestrating something from the grave?
We finish our meal in silence. Étienne knows that I’m aware of why he’s here, it’s obvious in the way he stares at me as if he wants to defend himself and his mother. I’m sure Julien told him everything he would need to know about me. I wonder now if the brothers were as estranged as I’d been led to believe.
* * * * *
I shouldn’t have named him Julien. I think it now in the darkness of the nursery as I lean against the small window overlooking the side yard. It started snowing sometime while I napped on the sofa. Étienne did the chivalrous thing, insisting that I sleep in the only other bedroom, but I am obstinate. I guess Julien didn’t tell his brother exactly how stubborn I can be. At one time he said that was one of his favorite things about me. He was lying. Who really appreciates an unbending personality? It becomes too tiresome.
In the darkness I watch the snow falling to the covered ground below. Julien is buried not far from here. It was his wish to be laid to rest in his homeland. I often wondered during our marriage why he chose to marry an American and stay in her country when he was so much in love with France. It was our largest point of contention. Maybe he thought I could be persuaded. Does Étienne think the same thing? Can I?
Baby Julien shifts and I’m drawn to him. This has been our nightly ritual since his birth. He sleeps while I stand by quietly assessing my marriage, my grief… anything I could’ve done differently. Pomme Fouquet, the author of my sister’s gift, says that this is what we do to keep us in place. She did it for two years before going back to Paris to put her past behind her. I don’t think I’m strong enough for that. It could be that I’m content living with my grief. It’s only been a year, after all. I guess this goes back to the expiration date of mourning. Does it expire or does it merely become too tedious to those around the mourning?
“Cécile,” My name in the darkness is startling. I look over to find Étienne standing shirtless in the doorway.
I go to him, nudging him out into the living room and closing the door. “Did I wake you?” My voice is a whisper despite the barrier between us and the baby. Not that it matters much. The child could sleep through a stampede.
“No. Yes.” He looks away. “Desolé.”
“Why are you sorry?”
We move deeper into the room, both settling on opposing pieces of furniture. He leans forward resting his elbows on his knees. Julien used to sit like this when in thought. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath.
“This is hard for you,” he says.
More a statement than a question but I can’t help answering. “Yes.”
“I wish it could be different.”
I fold my legs under me and relax a little. “You look too much like him sometimes. It confuses me.”
He looks at me. “You still mourn him.” Another statement in the form of a question. He’s good at these.
“Why does everyone think I should be over it, Étienne?”
“Because it makes them uncomfortable.”
“No. I’m jealous.”
“Pourquoi?” French is my shield.
He sighs, leaning back. “No one will miss me like you miss him.”
“They will.” I want to tell him that the right woman just hasn’t come along yet but I realize now that I don’t know anything about his preference. “You just haven’t met your person yet.”
He laughs again.
“What? You will?”
“Americans are so concerned with hurting feelings.” His eyes meet mine. “It is true, I have not yet met my person.”
I smile. “It is a bit silly, isn’t it? The way we feel compelled to make things better for people. Like we know what they need. It’s the American way.”
Our laughter sounds good together.
His eyes meet mine. “It isn’t bad to be considerate.”
“Just annoying,” I add for him.
We settle into silence. I avert my eyes to the waning fire in an attempt to stop staring at his bare chest.
“Why did Julien really want me to come here, Étienne?”
“Because he loved you.”
I jerk my head toward him. “That’s not an answer. I know he loved me. Why did he want me here and why are you the one staying with me tonight instead of your mother?”
He sighs and sits forward again. “He was worried about you. After your reaction to the diagnosis he was scared you would become… unstable.”
The world is spinning. “What?”
“Don’t be angry, Cécile.”
His hand is on my knee. I look at him, maybe seeing him for the first time.
“He wanted you to keep Julien, didn’t he?”
“No. Nothing like that. He wanted us to see you and baby Julien. To make sure—”
“I’m not batshit crazy?” I’m on my feet, moving like a madwoman across the wide plank floorboards. “I don’t understand.”
“Please sit.” He’s following me around, his hands outstretched as if he will touch me. I’m prepared for it, ready to strike. But he never makes contact. “Cécile—”
I turn on him. “How could he think such a horrible thing about me?”
“He just wanted to make sure.”
His hands are up. “Shhh… the baby.”
I’m pointing at him. “Don’t you dare!” How can this be happening?
“Please, stop. Nothing is happening.”
His words are soft, even, and seem to imply that this is exactly what Julien was worried about happening. I’m not coming undone. I’m still me, still a mother, still a widow, and I still love him. Despite his utter lack of faith in me I love him still.
“Come into the kitchen and we will talk.”
I take a deep breath, shoving shaking fingers through my recently trimmed bob. “With wine?”
He smiles, but it’s uneasy. “Oui.”
I twist the glass around on the table, keeping it upright when the bottom catches on a high spot. Étienne watches in silent contemplation. I’m sure he’s waiting for the right moment to tell me they will be taking my son. I don’t know how it works here. Can they take my child? I haven’t been acting unhinged. Well, before tonight anyway. My mind runs back through the week as he takes a slow sip of his red.
I look up at him. “I’m a good mother.”
“He wanted you to take him away from me?”
“He was worried about you.”
“Why wait a year?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“When did you start talking to Julien again? He told me the two of you were estranged.”
“After the diagnosis. We became close again.”
“I didn’t know.”
“He said you didn’t.”
I take a sip of my wine, only now aware my hands are shaking.
“You were taking care of him and you were pregnant. I was planning to come to America the week after…” He takes a sip of wine, eyes focused on the bottom of his glass.
I reach across the table to cover his hand with mine. He looks up and smiles, eyes shining in the dim light.
“Je suis desolée,” I say. “I didn’t mean to be so deranged. I know you’re all mourning too.”
He places his glass on the table and brings my hand to his lips. “My brother always said you were the most beautiful woman he’d ever met. If you never met him he would have returned to France and we would have had him until death took him.” I start to move my hand but he holds me there. “He never regretted meeting you. Not for a moment.”
I smile and swipe at the tears following their familiar paths over my cheeks.
“We love you, Cécile. You are our family and so is baby Julien.” His grip tightens for a moment before he releases me. “Julien a eu de la chance d'avoir ton amour.”
I don’t know what he’s saying. Something about Julien, luck, and love. Despite not knowing, my cheeks color. Maybe it’s the softness of his eyes or the way in which the words form. No matter the reason, my cheeks are blazing and there is a stirring I can’t quite explain.
“Bonne nuit,” he says and I return the sentiment.
This week I have been so concerned with why he wanted me to return, frightened that I have been part of a secret test, that I never considered the real reason. He was afraid his death would cause irreparable damage to my psyche and he wanted me to be around the only people other than me that could ever help him during his darkest times. His family. My family.
* * * * *
The cabin is awash in light when baby Julien’s calls wake me from my slumber. I sit up, realizing instantly that my back isn’t grumbling as it normally does. I look at my surroundings and find that Étienne has moved me sometime during the night. He’s still sleeping beside me, a separate quilt wrapped tightly around his form. Gut clenching, I hurry out of bed and rush into the baby’s room, trying desperately to recall what circumstances led to Étienne being so forward. Scooping the baby from his crib, I cuddle him closely, my mind never far from his uncle and the sight of him sleeping next to me.
“Good morning, my love.” He lays his head against my shoulder, sticking a plump thumb in his mouth. “Today you will play in French snow with your Uncle Étienne.”
I shouldn’t make promises if I’m not sure of the outcome. I know this. But I can’t help this new lightness that settled over me in the night. Perhaps it’s because my dreams were filled with Julien. His laughter, his whispers, his assurances that now everything will be okay. My heart still aches for him but a bit differently today. I’m still cut into pieces but the edges aren’t as sharp.
Étienne enters the kitchen as I settle in to feed Julien his morning cereal blend. He’s fully clothed in a fisherman’s sweater and jeans, his dark hair disheveled as if he’d merely dragged his fingers through it.
I smile, though it feels awkward, unsure. “Bonjour.”
He returns my smile. “How did you sleep?”
“The bed is more comfortable than the couch.”
“I know.” Going to the counter he prepares two cups of coffee, placing mine on the table as he passes to settle in across from me. “The snow is deep.”
“Is it? I haven’t looked outside yet.”
“It must have snowed all night. We will be stuck here for days.”
“That’s okay. Right, Julien?” The baby giggles as I tickle his tummy. When I look up at Étienne he is smiling, cup poised to take a sip. “What?”
He places the cup on the table. “I told him you would be okay. I think you should know this.”
“He said that he needed to make sure and the only way he knew how to do that was to bring you here. I still don’t understand but I am grateful he did.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch like I should have.”
“All is forgiven.”
I look to Julien and then back to Étienne. “It’s important for Julien to spend time here.”
I smile. “Oui.” I lean over and kiss the baby’s head, my attempt to break contact with Étienne’s gaze. Composed, I look back at him. “What happened last night?”
“What do you mean?”
“I went to sleep on the couch and woke beside you in the bed. Why?”
He takes a slow sip of his coffee, his eyes fixed on the liquid he’s consuming.
“I’m not angry,” I add. “Just confused. Concerned.”
His eyebrows raise and his eyes meet mine. Lowering the mug he says, “Concerned?”
I avert my eyes to Julien. “Yes. Did I crawl into bed with you?” I look back at him. “If so, I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable—”
“I moved you, Cécile.”
“Oh.” Julien struggles against me, ready to get down and crawl around the cabin. “I-I’m afraid to let him down… because of the glass.”
“Of course.” He stands, extending his arms. “Come, little one, I will place you in your prison.”
I laugh. “It’s a play yard.” He smiles over his shoulder, taking the baby’s hand in his own to wave goodbye to me. I grab my coffee and follow them into the living room. “He’ll never like it if we keep calling it a prison.”
Étienne places Julien on the soft padding in the play area and turns to me. “Then we will not call it that.”
I smile. “Merci.”
He collects his coffee from the kitchen and joins me in the living room, settling on the other end of the sofa. I stare at him, unwilling to ask my question again. There’s no need, it’s hanging over us like a cloud. I wonder if he’s afraid to answer me, frightened of how I might react. Who can blame him after my outburst last night?
“You did not come to the bed,” he says finally. “I came to check on Julien and you were crying in your sleep.” His eyes meet mine. “I thought you were cold.”
“No, you didn’t.” The lie is obvious. It’s in his shifting gaze and the way he keeps his body so still. Julien did the same thing.
He sighs. “Julien would be angry if he knew I let you sleep on the couch.” His eyes meet mine. They’re sparkling. “I’m sorry. I should have slept here. I just…”
I lean over, grabbing his hand to squeeze it gently before releasing him. “It’s okay.” I don’t believe him, not entirely, but I don’t know that we should open this up any further. Mourning comes with complicated feelings and, sometimes, inappropriate actions. Étienne needed to be close to me, maybe to be closer to his brother, maybe to just be close to someone. I can’t begrudge him that. I’ve needed to be close to someone for a year. “You can tell your mother that we will be back. I promise.”
His smile is genuine. “Merci, Cécile. Merci.”
* * * * *
Two years later
My French is much better now but my mother-in-law is unaware. Étienne knows because we have been in frequent contact since my last visit here. Both over the phone and in person. He’s been to see us a dozen times since our departure from France last year and a few before that following our first visit, but his family is unaware. At least I think they are.
“You must go back, Cécile,” he whispered in the dark a mere week before. “My mother longs to see Julien. And you.” It still stings at times to know that Julien is more important to our family; his by blood and mine by extension.
“D’accord,” was my muted response. I wasn’t sure then, just as I’m not entirely sure now, whether we should bring our news all the way to France.
Eloise is seated with her sister speaking quietly about the woman Étienne is in love with. She’s beautiful, smart, capable, and American. She laments how her sons always fall in love with American women. I wonder if she will be pleased to find it is only one American woman. Toddler Julien, who is quickly growing, races around the yard of the cottage, eagerly pursuing the tabby cat that despises him.
“Julien, no!” My voice reaches him and he pauses, looks to me with mischief, then continues his quest. Speaking has reminded Eloise of my presence.
She looks at me and smiles. “Cécile! You know Étienne…” She searches her mind for the words has a girlfriend but gives up and finishes with, “l’aime.” She’s lost in translation, or at least believes she is.
I smile. “Oui. Il est amoureux.”
The return smile is genuinely pleased. “Oui.”
Étienne enters as if on cue, bending to kiss his mother before chasing Julien to scoop him up into a crushing embrace. “Je t’aime,” he says before releasing him again. Then, he crosses the yard to me and holds out his hand.
This is the moment I never expected us to get to. Étienne, the brother of my late husband, has repaired my heart and he wants to spend the rest of his life with me. It’s been a difficult hurdle to get over, falling in love with Étienne after loving Julien so hard for so long. But this is exactly what he would want. In fact, I’m certain this was his plan all along. Keep me in the family, keep his child close. I should be angry at his manipulation. For a time, I was. But time has a way of healing and things have a way of working out the way they should.
I accept his outstretched hand and delight in the feel of his embrace. A collective gasp escapes from his surrounding family as our lips meet. Eloise is smiling as we turn to face her, tears turning her eyes to glass. It’s about time I saw and experienced tears not associated with pain and loss.
“We are to be married,” Étienne says with a broad smile.
Eloise is out of her chair, arms around us both, sobs exploding from her aging form. “My babies,” she says over and over. “Merci, Cécile. Merci.”
For a moment my mother is in my head, her voice soft and accusing, His brother? What will people say? I’ve asked the same questions over and over in the last six months, from the moment I realized my relationship with Étienne was evolving into something more, but some questions are unnecessary. Étienne is not Julien, nor is my love for them the same.