Mme. Francoise was tiny and bent and seldom spoke. I don’t know how many years she sat on her little stool in the stone kitchen before she approached me. I had walked by her a hundred times, and seen nothing, maybe a shadow, or a fixture as meaningless to my child’s mind as a stick broom. Then she came. I was outside, hiding between bushes. Crying, with my bloomers torn off, I rubbed and scratched between my legs. Such itching and burning I’d never known.
She took me inside, sat me in a bucket of warm water, cloudy with herbs. I recognized some of the things she boiled before adding them: lavender, chamomile, walnut, anise, and Damask rose. There in the kitchen, no clothing beneath, and the skirt of my dress blossoming over the pail sides, as though I simply sat on a little stool, I soaked. I don’t remember how often she needed to save me in this way, but I remember the instant relief of sinking into her remedy, antibiotic and restorative and being content to sit there long after the water was cold. At the time, I didn’t know enough to associate the infections with The Beast, though she must have.
I’m convinced that she was allowed to stay at the villa in part because she went nearly unnoticed. She was half phantom, hunched alone in her corner, an old wool scarf tied around her head, a gnome or ancient fairy. Under certain slants of light, I could catch a tincture of the fiery red hair she once had.
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