See here for Alys's inability to spell Arceneaux
This conversation left Melly lower than at any point since she’d moved in. She had believed that she was used to being alone at Stillwater, whether in person or in convictions, but now she began to see the vast difference between the yearning loneliness nourished by a beautiful place, and the wretched loneliness of standing alone in the shadow of the valley of death. No one in her family shared her convictions; no one acted the way she acted; no one loved what she loved. The family was a catalogue of vices: her father’s mockery, her mother’s indifference, Andre’s crudeness, Marc’s malice, Leonie’s wrath, Marie-Hélène’s immoderate craving for attention. And yet, they weren’t unique. Everywhere in the neighborhood, everywhere in the city, there were similar scenes of squalor playing out, petty malices and degradations taking place in homes. Everywhere she looked was ugliness; at night it closed in on her in the small house. Melly tried not to despair. She knew there was beauty and goodness and truth in the world; she’d seen it. She knew there was love; she’d given it. And yet, this exile in ugliness showed her more clearly how separated she was from Malcolm. His family wasn’t one great big unrelenting scene of dysfunction like hers was. To be sure, there were moral problems at Stillwater, and they’d only been accentuated by the arrival of the Winters, not caused by them. Somehow the gentleness of Cheryl had not been transmitted to Sophia. Somehow Richard’s responsibility had completely bypassed Dick. But there was peace to be found at Stillwater, and beauty, and joy. Melly wondered when was the last time her family had known joy. Raucous laughter and cheap beer were a poor substitute.
She had also lost her tenuous connection to Leonie. When she’d first arrived at home they had made conversation, the first faltering attempts at meeting one another on an adult level. It had been strange and exhilarating to find a companion in a sister, to find that a sister could be a companion. There had been no precedent for that between Cheryl and Esther, or Sophia and Olivia. Melly had dreamed ahead to the day when she and Leonie could be friends, true friends, sharing more than family ties and early memories. That had changed after the strife with Marc. Leonie had been uncharacteristically somber afterward, keeping her own counsel, barely speaking to Melly in their room or in the car on the way to campus. This latest rejection was a sore blow. It seemed that here too she was to stand alone.
Little wonder, then, that Melly was actually almost pleased to receive some sign that anyone took any personal interest in her, even if that sign was a letter from Alys. The letter had been a nine-minute’s wonder in the household. The Arceneauxs received mail daily, to be sure; the family had its fair share of bills and ads and circulars and summons. But a letter, a hand-addressed letter, on stationery — it was a novelty, an extravagance, almost suspect. Who wrote letters anymore? Alys Winter did, apparently. Melly’s heart sank when she felt the weight of the thick, creamy paper in her hand and saw the elegant script of the address, so suggestive of a wedding invitation. But no, it was a genuine letter, and it was genuine Alys.
New York City
Ma chere Melusine (you see I’m brushing up on my French; I can even spell Arceneaux now),
I found this paper, a relic of a more virtuous era, at an estate sale last weekend, and my very first thought was that it was meant for Mellly. Now that I think about it, this letter even looks a bit like you: skin as ivory as paper, hair as black as ink, and lips as red as sealing wax. Accept no apples from strangers.
But what is there to write about? Your brother is too busy in town to talk to me, and mine is here, but so wrapped up playing the auteur on his latest film project that I barely see him. I’m glad of it, though. All play and no work makes Ian a bad boy. He needs something serious to steady him. And whatever he sets himself to, heart and soul, he usually achieves.
Malcolm promises me he’s going to visit New York one of these weekends, but he won’t commit further than that. The work of a teacher is never done. It seems that he might be called upon at a moment’s notice to grade a paper or chaperone a prom. I hope it’s not the latter; I don’t know if I can compete with the charms of all the gracious young Southern belles with their wrist corsages and their carefully applied concealer.
Oh! I exchanged messages on Facebook with Sophia, of all people. She’s thinking of coming to New York sometime to soak up the cultural atmosphere. You remember how devoted she was to the arts. We were chatting away nicely, and then I mentioned that you might eventually be working in New York for Ian, and suddenly I couldn’t get any more likes. I shouldn’t tease her, I know; it’s not her fault that you’re talented and she isn’t. She’ll get over it in time. A handsome husband with money is pretty good solace for what ails you.
Ignore my silliness and write me a long, pretty, sensible Melly letter, something to encourage me and settle Ian.
A bientôt!Cherchez les femmes!Sacre bleu!Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Melly sat in the small privacy of her bedroom and and read and re-read this characteristic note. It was a breath of fresh air, a friendly splash of charm and wit, something bright and beautiful she could hold in her hand. It was a jab of the penknife, a fresh stab of anxiety to her Malcolm-loving heart, a mockery and dismissal of principle. How ought she to respond? It was incredible that Alys thought she would be impressed by Ian’s industry or Sophia’s jealousy. To Melly, the industry was a reminder of Ian’s idle mischief at Stillwater and the jealousy an indication that Sophia hadn’t put that mischief behind her. Surely that wasn’t too far in the past for Alys to remember. How could a mind as quick as Alys’s be so undiscerning, so selective, in recalling the past and interpreting it? How could she and Alys have such differing memories of the same events? They had both seen Ian’s flirtation and Sophia’s attraction; Alys hadn’t scrupled to mention it in her letter. How could she forget so quickly how distressing and awkward that time was? Melly shook her head. She had sifted through her memories of the spring, trying to be faithful not just to her impressions of what had happened, but to reality, but when she started to meditate on how and why she knew what she knew, she found herself on the edge of a great philosophical gulf which extended above, below and beyond her, past her powers of finding out.
She longed to discuss the subject with Malcolm. He would know the words to give form to the imprecise concepts that hovered on the tip of her brain. And yet, he and she also seemed to have differing memories and interpretations of anything having to do with Alys. He saw her faults, Melly knew; they’d discussed them many times. They both saw the same actions, the same accomplishments, the same flaws, but they drew differing conclusions from them about Alys’s character. This difference in perception, and the realization that the wedge it drove between them was likely to become permanent if Alys ever let Malcolm succeed in his pursuit of her, was one of the main reasons that Melly had chosen to be here, in Baton Rouge, going to college.
College. It sounded so… so unlike her. She had done her best to approach higher education with an open mind, and her objective analysis had confirmed what her subjective bias had predicted: she did not like college. She was used to struggling in school and knew how to work hard at studying, but the concentration it demanded of her left her drained. Somehow learning had never seemed difficult when Malcolm was explaining things to her. Then connections had been made, and links forged between one subject and another. All knowledge had seemed part of a great whole. He knew how to make everything (except how to drive) seem worth knowing. When he talked about reading, she wanted to read. When he talked about philosophy, she wanted to think. When he talked about theology, she wanted to pray. At college, her professors had exactly the opposite effect on her. Her Business and Professional Writing class made her feel as if the alphabet were her greatest enemy. Principles of Economics made her feel that everything involving money was fundamentally irrational. Nothing made sense after Intro to Philosophy. She didn’t know what effect college would have on her reading; apparently she wasn’t supposed to take any classes that involved novels or poetry without first having the proper prerequisites. And just to make everything more miserable, she had been registered for German instead of French.
At St. Mary’s, everything was new and big and overwhelming, and there was nothing familiar to ground her. At Stillwater she had been a member of the household, if not of the family. Here she was just one more drop in an ocean of interchangeable students. No one expected anything of her. She felt that her classes were hostile territory and that her professors would scorn her, if they knew who she was. No matter how hard she tried to concentrate on the lectures, she found her mind wandering back down River Road to the fabulous plantation house standing amid fields of cane ripe for harvesting.
One day, during her second week in Baton Rouge, she waited on the steps of St. Mary’s chapel for Leonie to finish her janitorial shift and drive her home. Her schedule and Leonie’s didn’t always match up, which made commuting together tricky, but this offer of a ride had been the first real exchange they’d had since the conflict over Marc’s poster, and Melly had accepted as much to have contact with anyone as to avoid taking the bus. The ride in had been quiet but not strained. Perhaps there was hope that they might, in time, develop some kind of working partnership. Leonie could drive her to school and Melly could… well, she didn’t know what she could offer, but surely there would be some way to uphold her end of the arrangement.
She still had half an hour until Leonie’s shift ended, though, and the September heat was oppressing her. Behind her the chapel loomed, its delicate Gothic spires reminiscent of the few icicles she’d seen, but pleasantly inverted and dripping upward. The vast central doors were surmounted by a tympanum renowned for being the best backdrop on campus for wedding pictures or selfies. She wondered that several times over the past week she had heard the chapel described as bland or appalling or just plain ugly. What an odd quirk of taste it was that the same building could be described so differently by people seeing, presumably, the same thing. Malcolm had called it lovely, and in this, as in so many matters of taste, Melly agreed with him.
Last week she hadn’t had much desire to spend any more time on campus than necessary, but now here was a chance to sit in a cool gracious space for a time and refresh herself with arches and aisles, to soak up the stonework and the statues. Her heart lifted as she tugged open the great door. At last she could feel at home, in a place in which the symbolism would accurately reflect the signified.
And once again, she was wrong, she was deceived, she was promised much and given nothing. The chapel had been improved past recognition by a star architect since Malcolm had last seen it to describe it, and the barren interior was free from any imagery so vulgar as to aspire to beauty or reach a theological conclusion. Melly stood in shock, trying to find any focus point in the unlandmarked space. Across the church, behind the stark altar, hung a large ashen tapestry embellished in a strange grid-like pattern. She crossed over to examine it more closely. After staring for a time, the lines took on the semblance of meaning: it was a street map of Baton Rouge. There was I-10 and I-110, there was Airline Highway, there was the Mississippi bounding the left edge of the tapestry in a broad brown stripe. With some careful calculation, she could even place her family’s house. Somehow it was no comfort to know exactly where she was on a big cartographic rug.
She moved aimlessly through the church.The venerable stained glass windows had been carefully removed and reassembled to hang in a museum, and in their place geometric shards of glass scattered rainbow light across the polished concrete floor. Melly stepped into the glow, trying to find something lovely and familiar in the play of the colors on her hands, but the mottled light aged and withered them. She turned them this way and that, fighting off a swell of tears. So this was her punishment. She had made an idol of Stillwater, but God was a jealous God and now she must do bitter penance. How could she live bereft of beauty? How much bruising could her soul take before it bled and scabbed and crusted up? Even this holy place, this house of God, contained within it no balm for her relentless ache for loveliness and order and permanence.
Turning to leave, she paused before an alcove in the rear which held a sculpture of writhing metal arms that could have been the Holy Ghost, could have been St. Teresa in ecstasy, could have been a homage to 9/11. Hanging almost hidden, a dying candle sputtered out its vigil behind a casing of smoky red glass. A small tabernacle was jailed behind the twisted metal, as lonely and isolated as Melly herself. She sat and gazed at it through a haze of tears. You and I, we are both exiled in ugliness, she thought. We must be meant to be here, or we wouldn’t be here, but oh, it is hard to persevere without any encouragement or love.
She wiped hastily at her eyes as someone else pushed open the big doors and entered the church. Quiet footsteps sounded behind her, and then, to her surprise, stopped at her side. She looked up to see Leonie regarding her with an earnest, almost puppyish expression.
“I thought you might be here,” Leonie said, shifting her weight awkwardly from foot to foot. “I mean, I knew you were in here because I saw you go in.” She glanced at the strange metal sculpture and then around the arid nave and then back to Melly. “Do you mind if I sit with you?”
“No, go ahead.” Melly slid further down the single pew in front of the tabernacle. Leonie sat, settled, fidgeted, took a deep breath, and turned suddenly to Melly.
“I’m really sorry about this weekend,” she said in a rush of words. “I thought I could make some big point by being dramatic, but I only made everything worse. I know you must think I act like a baby, throwing a tantrum when I don’t like something, and I’m embarrassed about that.”
“No, I don’t think that!” said Melly in surprise. “I thought you were angry at me for getting involved.”
“Angry!” Now Leonie was surprised in her turn. “I was so impressed with how you were so calm and could make everything sound reasonable and right, and suddenly I could see how I must look to you, loud and destructive and doing whatever comes into my head. And I was ashamed of everything: myself, our family, our house… You must be so disappointed to come back here and live like this after being at Stillwater.”
Melly could not immediately respond to this. Leonie rummaged in her purse and handed her a tissue.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said fiercely. “I can’t bear it at home sometimes. We’re so corrupt and trashy, and everything we do is degrading. I hate it. I hate that I either have to eat or be eaten. But you do things differently. You didn’t fight with Marc, and you didn’t let him roll over you. You just… were. That’s what I want to be.”
For the next hour they sat together in the empty chapel, Léonie pouring her heart out to Melly as if she’d never been able to confide in anyone before. She talked about her plans for the future: “I could get need-based aid for college, but it would be all stuff I’d have to pay back. And I’m not a genius like Rene. So what I figure is, I’ll work janitorial here until I can make some connections in administration, and get a job working in the registrar’s office or something, and put myself through school debt-free with free employee tuition.” She talked about her place in the family: “Mama’s always liked the boys best, so they get away with murder. And Marie-Helene is the baby, so it’s not like anyone has ever counted on her for anything. But she doesn’t care one way or the other for me. Maybe it’s a good thing. I’m not blinded by favoritism. She’s never given me anything that could buy me off.” She talked about her frustrations: “Sometimes I think our family is so corrupt that it’s going to take some tragedy to purify us.” Melly listened and nodded encouragement and felt humbled. She’d just been mourning the lack of beauty in her life now, but Leonie had lived in this disorder for years and years, without the benefit of Malcolm’s teaching or Stillwater’s peace, and still the clear hot flame of righteousness burned undimmed within her. She knew how to get things done in the context of the Arceneaux family, the only context she’d known. True, she ran on indignation, but it was an indignation borne of a true desire for order and justice, almost purified of selfishness. She and Leonie saw the same evils, but Leonie was active where Melly might withdraw.
“…And so,” Leonie said, almost shyly, “I thought that maybe we could be useful to each other. I want us to be friends. I want to you to love me. You know how to be good, and I only know how to be angry. I need your advice, and your example, and your help. All kinds of help. I know I don’t have a lot to offer, but I’m sure I could up with some way to help you too.”
Melly threw her arms around her sister. “I do love you,” she whispered. “You’ve already helped me.”
The colored light had finally crept far enough across the floor to illuminate the tabernacle at the heart of the twisted metal cage. At its foot, for a brilliant, peaceful moment, the Arceneaux sisters embraced, dwelling in perfect unity.