The Merlot

Maeva Hamel lived in a multi-storied heap of ancient brick, isolated by an expanse of floodplain and a screen of willows, at the end of an unmarked lane; and she wasn’t allowed visitors.

Emily had been in Maeva’s class since grade three, but they hadn’t always been friends. It seemed like one day Emily had been one of the kids scrambling onto the bus yelling, “Dibs not with Maeva!” and the next day they were the only girls in grade eight who weren’t talking about bra sizes or drawing up lists of boys. They both still packed their own lunches instead of buying pizza. They were both proud of being good at math. But with all of that, as they rambled beside the river after school, Emily was still dreading what Maeva would say when she told her she needed to use her bathroom.

Photo by Daniel Von Appen

Photo by Daniel Von Appen

The corner of Maeva’s house was visible through the leaf-bare trees. With anyone else in the world, the course of action would have been obvious.

“We could go to the drugstore,” Maeva said. That was a ten-minute walk away.

“I need one now,” Emily said, face warm. If she’d only had to pee, she would have held it forever rather than press the issue. But her whole body had been hurting since the last period of school, a mysterious, flu-like ache; and two minutes ago she’d been struck with the horrible certainty that she knew what was causing the feeling. Maeva’s eyes narrowed. Emily knew she was convinced, although she would never outright say it, that Emily’s mom had a devious plan to see the inside of Hamels’ house.

It wasn’t Emily’s fault that their mothers disliked each other. The hostility had begun the time Maeva’s mom had forgotten to pick them up from a cross-country meet. Stranded in a sports field, Emily watched the hour for supper come and go, struggling not to cry, while Maeva sat on the bleachers, her face like a stone.

“I don’t want to be angry with Anne Hamel,” Emily’s Mom had said that night as she pulled Emily’s foil-covered plate out of the oven. “I know she’s had a hard life, and her husband’s out of work. But for me not to get angry, I need limits.”

And yet, when Mrs. Hamel’s lungs became so inflamed that Maeva missed an afternoon of school to take care of her, Emily’s mom had taken one of the best homemade stews out of the freezer and walked to their house, only to have to leave it on the front step because Maeva refused to open the door.

Maeva kept looking at Emily suspiciously before saying, “Fine.” She led her across the field to the basement entrance of the house. “Leave your boots and jacket on,” she said as she unlocked the door.

Emily figured Maeva meant she shouldn’t get comfortable because she wouldn’t be staying long, but as they stepped into the cavernous boot room, a chill penetrated their coats. The mats on the floor were dark and spongy. Maeva’s basement must have flooded from the rains.

“The heat’s off, sorry,” Maeva said, grabbing a rag from a hook on the wall. She knelt at Emily’s feet and lifted one boot, then the other, brushing mud and grit out of the treads. “But you know, March isn’t really winter. Okay, you’re good. Bathroom’s upstairs.”

The stairs led to a dark-panelled front hall with stained glass above the door. Another staircase with a massive banister curved away into shadows. White clouds were rising from their breath.

“It’s that way,” Maeva said, pointing down a side hallway. “I’ll just tell Daddy we’re here.”

Emily hesitated, with a half-formed impression that parental approval would be required for her to use the toilet, but near the top of the staircase Maeva turned and said, “I thought you said it was urgent?” So she went.

Mom had told her she could always ask a teacher or a secretary for help, that there wasn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t understand, but she’d meant other adults, not Maeva.

There was a space-heater in the bathroom, but its metal sides were dusty and cold, and the toilet seat was icy when she hiked up the bottom of her jacket and tugged down her jeans. Peeing calmed her stomach, and for a moment she thought her suspicions must have been wrong. Then she looked down and her heart sank. For now, she could probably just put a few layers of toilet paper down there, but if the flow increased suddenly while she was walking home, she’d be in trouble.

Emily had been dreading this moment for at least the past two years. She’d always hoped that when it happened—since it had to happen—she’d be at home where, even if her Mom embarrassed her and threatened to throw a Period Celebration, at least they’d rehearsed what to do. Mom had told her she could always ask a teacher or a secretary for help, that there wasn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t understand, but she’d meant other adults, not Maeva.

Emily pulled up her jeans and opened a cupboard. A toilet paper roll bounced onto the floor. She replaced it and opened another. She was starting on the drawers (disposable razors, face cream, makeup, makeup) when she began to panic. What if she stumbled on some medication? Her Mom had said something about Mrs. Hamel taking medication, which wasn’t bad, just private, and what if Maeva came in and saw her snooping?

Emily cracked open the door. Maeva was there. She’d changed out of her boots into slippers.

“Maeva, do you think—” Emily fought to control her blush. “Does your Mom have any pads?”

Maeva’s face went from scowling to almost comically blank. “Oh,” she said. “Yeah, over here.”

She opened a linen closet packed with quilts and pillow-slips. Boxes of sanitary pads were on the top shelf.

“She doesn’t use tampons,” Maeva said. “Sorry. But I’ll give you the heaviest one.”

“That’s fine,” Emily said.

When she’d finished in the bathroom, Maeva said, “All good?”

Emily thought Maeva’s smile was brighter than usual. It looked fake, like the way she smiled at girls in their class when she was forced to speak to them. Emily wondered uneasily whether Maeva saw some change in her, some new gulf that hadn’t been there before.

“Follow me,” Maeva said. They went into the kitchen, which was as cold as the rest of the house and piled with unwashed dishes. Maeva pulled out a couple of wineglasses and a half-full bottle of wine. A scrap of plastic wrap was fastened over the top by a rubber-band.

“I’m allowed,” Maeva said, when Emily giggled. “I don’t even have to ask.”

Maeva had never mentioned having access to alcohol, or tried to capitalize on it at school. Perhaps it hadn’t occurred to her.

“Red wine isn’t supposed to be cold,” Maeva said, pouring two fingers in each glass, then reconsidering and giving them both another splash. “But I think red is, you know, appropriate.” She wiped off two dessert plates and put a square of shortbread on each one, then took a piece of ham wrapped in aluminium foil and sawed off two slabs. She handed the plates to Emily and said, “Let’s go into the parlour.”

Maeva directed Emily toward a loveseat—“The wingback is Daddy’s”—before dropping into a fragile-looking rocker and setting her slippered feet onto an upholstered footstool. “All this furniture is antique,” she said. “My Grandma Robillard, that’s on Mama’s side, her family lost everything in a fire when she was sixteen. When he brought her to his house, Grandpa Robillard tried to find exactly the same furniture for her. If he couldn’t find it, he had it made by the same craftsman.”

Emily tried to look around politely while imitating the way Maeva sipped her wine. Normally the spoiled-food smell of alcohol made her gag, but Maeva had been right: it was too cold to taste of anything. When the first trickle hit her gullet, Emily shivered.

“Maeva?” A woman appeared in the doorway. “Do you have someone over?”

“Yes ma’am,” Maeva said shortly, smile vanishing. Calling teachers “sir” and “ma’am” was another reason kids made fun of Maeva, but the way she said it now didn’t sound remotely respectful.

“I am Maeva’s Aunt Gwenaelle,” the woman said, arm outstretched as she advanced upon Emily.

“She’s Mama’s cousin,” Maeva said with slight emphasis, as they touched fingertips.

Aunt Gwenaelle smiled at Emily. “Wine!” she said. “What a good idea.”

“It’s only the merlot,” Maeva said.

“I’ll get a little something to warm me up, and then I’ll join you.”

Maeva rolled her eyes and burrowed back into the rocker. “She could wear a sweater,” she said, loudly enough that her aunt must have heard her.

Aunt Gwenaelle returned with a juice glass half-filled with gold-coloured liquid. “Now ladies,” she said. “Chin-chin.”

Emily tapped her glass against Aunt Gwenaelle’s, since that seemed expected, but Maeva curled her fingers tighter around her stem. “Most people don’t take more than two fingers of whisky at a time,” she told Emily.

Aunt Gwenaelle laughed. “My brother Paul always filled his tumbler right to the brim,” she said, settling into the wingback. “And it wasn’t a dainty glass like this! But he had a drinking problem. He drank before noon.”

“She gets up at noon,” Maeva told Emily.

For a moment, Maeva’s aunt looked hurt. Then she laughed again and turned toward Emily. “Now,” she exclaimed, “I want to hear all about you.”

Emily looked at Maeva in horror, but got only a useless eye-roll. “Uh—my name’s Emily.”

“That’s a beautiful name,” Aunt Gwenaelle said. “Did Maeva tell you I used to be in the Conservatory of Music?”

No,” Emily said, grasping at the subject change like a drowning swimmer. “How interesting.”

Maeva’s eyes closed, as if to demonstrate how uninteresting she found it; but her arms pressed against the slats of the rocker, rigid with tension.

Aunt Gwenaelle crossed the room to a sideboard draped in green velvet. She tugged the fabric away, and Emily saw a kind of flattened, box-shaped piano underneath, its sides covered with marbled paper.

“Do you know what this is?” And when Emily shook her head: “It’s called a virginal. Isn’t that a funny name? And the remarkable thing is, it’s played without using your thumbs.”

She pressed her fingers to the keys, and an unmusical jangle came out. Emily couldn’t help giggling again, but Maeva sprang to her feet and closed the glass-panelled doors.

“Daddy’s writing,” she said with a glare.

Aunt Gwenaelle arched an eyebrow at Emily, then pressed middle C. One note on its own wasn’t too bad. It had a burr, like a musical saw. “It hates the cold as much as I do,” she said. “I was saying to Will—that’s Maeva’s father—that I’ve never understood how Maeva’s mama could let such a beautiful instrument get so out of tune. Especially when she used to love music so much.”

Maeva’s face became tense and narrow. “You weren’t exactly Scarlatti when it was in tune.”

Aunt Gwenaelle sighed. “Could you get me a shawl, dear?” she said to Maeva.

“Yes, ma’am.” Maeva went out the door.

With her thumb tucked against her palm, Aunt Gwenaelle struck a note a few octaves lower. “I had to leave the Conservatory of course, when I was seventeen,” she said. “Do you know why?”

Emily shook her head.

“I was pregnant.”

Emily stared. “So,” she tried, “You have a—”

“No, dear.”

Aunt Gwenaelle pressed another chord, still out of tune and yet, by some peculiar grace, wild and sweet. Emily’s chest felt hollow.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I knew what I was doing. I came from a family of artists, so I was never sheltered the way poor Maeva is.”

There was a snort from the doorway as Maeva reappeared, bearing an armful of wispy black wool. Aunt Gwenaelle rotated to let Maeva drape the shawl around her. As Maeva returned to her rocker, she leaned toward Emily and said, “She banged a teacher.”

Aunt Gwenaelle rolled her eyes. It looked exactly the same as when Maeva did it. “I had private vocal lessons,” she said. “He was—you probably would have thought he was ancient, but he had a long waist like a teenager, and stammered when he wasn’t singing. His voice was the most attractive thing I’d ever heard.”

All Emily could imagine was the shrill, elderly choir director at church, but she nodded.

She saw the moment when Emily realized that uppers were drugs, and laughed, dropping abruptly onto the footstool where Maeva’s feet had been a moment before.

Aunt Gwenaelle’s fingers moved soundlessly over the keys. “We would drive to choral festivals in Montreal or Toronto, four or five other girls in the car, but I always had the front seat. Once we drove all the way back from Sault Sainte Marie in a single night. He gave me a couple of pills, they must have been uppers, and we talked for six hours about baroque music.”

She saw the moment when Emily realized that uppers were drugs, and laughed, dropping abruptly onto the footstool where Maeva’s feet had been a moment before. “It was the seventies,” Aunt Gwenaelle said, propping her elbows on her knees. “We did things, we weren’t sheltered. And—he could have made a pass then, if he’d wanted to. The other girls were asleep. I was wearing a mere nothing of a skirt with my sweater pushed off my shoulders and only my ankles crossed.”

“Sap,” Maeva said in a low voice. Aunt Gwenaelle flinched, and Emily exclaimed, “Maeva!”

She understood Maeva being angry that Aunt Gwenaelle had criticized her mother. That was obviously sensitive territory. But it seemed incredible that Maeva couldn’t see how fragile her aunt was, how desperately she was clinging to a ghost of grown-up glamour. “It’s fine,” Emily stammered, hardly knowing what she was saying. “He was your teacher.”

“Teacher was the least of what he was,” Aunt Gwenaelle said, pulling at the corners of her shawl. “He was married. To a cellist with thighs like a pair of pliers. I understood that. Cheating’s the one thing I wouldn’t stand for either. So I dated one of the saxophonists, but I kept taking vocal lessons, since there was no harm in them.”

“Good,” Emily said. She shot a glance at Maeva, who hunched her shoulders and dropped a shred of ham into her mouth. “What did he do?”

“Nothing.” Aunt Gwenaelle’s mouth twisted. “I was nobody special, he’d made that clear. One day he even put his hand on my diaphragm, to demonstrate something, and—it made me sad. And then a few weeks later, as I was putting on my outdoor boots to leave, he said, Gwen, come here. I walked over, with one shoe under my arm and he, well—he shoved me against the piano and kissed me.”

Gwenaelle looked up at her listeners, then out the windows toward the river. “Christ, he was strong. And handsome. And married. I still think that if I’d had the presence of mind just to bop him on the nose instead of twittering like a fool, he would have let me go.”

Emily felt dizzy. She wondered if that was the wine.

“After that,” Gwenaelle said, voice growing stronger, “The game had changed. I wouldn’t want you to think that I didn’t know about the Pill. I was no babe in arms, but I was in the game now, and I was playing for keeps. So I got pregnant.”

Emily glanced warily at Maeva. “What happened?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Gwenaelle said, still gazing out the window. “It was ectopic. They had to take it out anyway.”

“And thank goodness,” Maeva exclaimed, thumping her fists onto the arms of the rocker.

“Maeva!” Emily said. But Gwenaelle was already curling forward, her arms wrapped around her stomach as if her insides were being torn out of her. As Emily watched, she slid off the footstool, hitting the carpet with a thud and a small, surprised cry of hurt.

“Get up,” Maeva yelled, jumping to her feet. “Stop it!”

Emily knelt and, for the first time in her life, hugged someone who wasn’t a family member. Gwenaelle rocked in her arms, keening. “It hurt—it hurt so much, and nobody came.”

“Mama came for you,” Maeva said. “And you’ve never said thank you, never.”

“Stop it, Maeva,” Emily said, as Gwenaelle started to make choking sounds. “Do you try to be the meanest person ever, seriously?”

In the ensuing silence, Gwenaelle gasped, “Get your father.”

Maeva’s lips tightened. “Maeva,” Emily said.

Maeva stood another moment, arms crossed. Then she left the room.

Emily kept rocking gently. Her jacket was twisted in an uncomfortable position, and her leg fell asleep, but for some reason she didn’t feel embarrassed. This felt like something she was supposed to do. “It hurt,” Gwenaelle murmured once or twice. “I thought my skull would lift right off, it hurt so much.”

Maeva returned, not with her father but with a woolly, oversized jacket and a mug of tea that steamed in the chilly air. She knelt to slip her arm between them.

“Get up,” she said. “Sit down. Hold that.” She guided Aunt Gwenaelle’s hands around the mug.

Emily climbed to her feet. “What does ectopic mean?” she asked, rubbing the pins and needles out of her thigh.

Maeva glared at Aunt Gwenaelle, but kept a hand rubbing between her shoulder blades. “Look it up when you get home.”

“Tell me.”

“The embryo implants in your tubes instead of your uterus.” Maeva grimaced. “It’s dangerous.”

Just picturing that (and oh God, why had no one told Emily that was possible?), made her lower stomach cramp with pain and nausea. She looked at Aunt Gwenaelle, whose head was drooping as if she would tumble into her mug of tea and never climb out.

“I need to go home,” Emily said, trying to keep her voice steady. “It’s suppertime.”

“Give me a minute,” Maeva said.

Aunt Gwenaelle let herself be helped to her feet and half-supported out of the parlour. Emily waited on the loveseat, but minutes passed and she couldn’t find any position that made the cramps hurt less. Finally she walked to the doorway.

Maeva was sitting on the grand staircase in the front hall. She’d taken off her jacket, and sat curled up and shivering, her face buried in her knees.

Emily tried to remind herself of Gwenaelle’s stricken look when Maeva had mocked her, but the righteous indignation she’d felt was gone. It was Maeva, not Aunt Gwenaelle, whom she wanted to be okay right now, to turn back toward her and talk about math club, or the right temperature to drink wine, or even make fun of her for not knowing who Scarlatti was. It was Maeva whom Emily would have hugged, if she could, hard enough to make this entire sad afternoon disappear.

But she knew that whatever Maeva’s story was, it wasn’t given away to any girl who sat down in her parlour. Emily still didn’t even know whether they were best friends, or just the only ones at school who would speak to each other. And even if they were close, she knew Maeva could never sit quietly with another person’s arms around her.

Not while she kept watch over this house, in whose chilly corners the adults wrote, or slept, or wept without consolation.

Maeva lifted her head. “No leaks?” she asked.

Emily shifted experimentally. “No.” The cramps had eased off too.

“Let’s go then.”

In the boot-room, Emily almost put a hand on Maeva’s arm, but faltered. Instead she said, “Tomorrow, for math club—if you still want to…”

“Yeah.” Maeva broke into a smile, as if it were precisely this problem that had been bothering her, and Emily had just taken a weight off her mind. “Mr. Bell is going to be so surprised. I can’t believe what he said about girls and math.”

“I know! I know, right?”

“We’ll eat our lunches before, okay?” She opened the door for Emily. “So,” she said. “You can tell your Mama you already had a Period Celebration.”

Emily laughed, grimacing, before she turned to go up the lane. Her muscles still felt sore, as though she’d been lifting heavy boxes, but that was something the teacher had mentioned in health class, so it was normal.

When she got home, there would be a foil-covered plate in the oven, and the smell of socks drying on the radiator. Her mom would clear off one of the kitchen chairs, and Emily would tell her about the stomach cramps and the strange keyboard that was played without thumbs. But she wouldn’t mention Aunt Gwenaelle, or the heat being off in the Hamel house, or the Conservatory of Music. Those were things she would keep inside herself, like this new, deep ache that now belonged to her.

Mary Thaler lives in Quebec City. After many years working as a marine microbial ecologist, she is now writing fiction full-time. Her stories have appeared in Prairie Fire and Crossed Genres. She is currently working on a manuscript about her experiences in the arctic regions, which she is completing as part of the 2017 mentorship program of the Quebec Writers' Federation.