Ancestral

by Steven Cuffari

Tara sat at a table outside the blushing facade of Le Mère Catharine in Montmartre, Paris. She sipped a cup of coffee and people-watched. The sun made her face glow and her eyes sparkle. She was a homely girl, but beautiful. Her plain style made her look much younger than her 19 years. She put down the cup and looked at the plate in front of her. Profiteroles. One bite left. The ice cream was melting and fragments of dough swam in it.

She looked at her watch. It was after 1pm. She sighed and sipped her coffee again.

“Tara!” shouted someone.

She followed the voice with her eyes. There she is, Tara thought.

It was Yvonne. She smiled and waved at Tara, rushing through the passersby. Her purse dangled from her elbow as she rushed over to the table in her high-heels. She was Tara’s complete opposite in many ways. Well-dressed, made-up and manicured. She was 20 years old, but looked like she was 30.

Tara waved and smiled back.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Yvonne said in French. She leaned in to kiss Tara on the cheeks and sat down. They beamed at each other with familial smiles.

“Don’t worry,” Tara said. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

They had first met one evening at a used-bookstore during Tara’s first week in the city. She was a student at the university, just getting settled in from the United States.

“Excuse me,” Tara asked the store clerk. “I’m looking for an old copy of the Dictionnaire de la Noblesse. Do you have that?”

“It would be over there somewhere,” said the clerk, pointing.

The shelves were bursting with old tomes. Tara sighed at the sight of it.

“Is there any chance they are organized alphabetically?”

The clerk shook her head.

“By author?”

Same response.

“Thank you,” Tara said. She looked at the shelves again. It was an infinite mess. This will take me forever, she thought.

At the far end of the stacks, she saw Yvonne for the first time. She was feverishly checking every book and stuffing them back into the wall. Tara nodded and raised her eyebrows admiring her gusto.

When Tara approached her, Yvonne didn’t seem to notice at first.

“Hi,” she said.

Yvonne didn’t respond.

Hi,” she said again with a different inflection.

This time, Yvonne sighed and looked at her with a cold glare. “I’m very busy and don’t have time to talk. Excuse me.”

Tara put her hands up and backed away. So she began her own search. My Aunt Claire was right about Parisians, she thought. She went to the opposite end of the shelves and began checking every book, just as Yvonne was. As their respective searches progressed, they converged on each other. Other guests came and went, but Tara and Yvonne remained.

At closing time, the clerk finally came over and told them they had to leave. There were still several unsearched columns of books.

Yvonne gave the clerk the same glare she had given Tara earlier. Tara couldn’t help but notice and smiled. She found Yvonne’s stereotypical Parisian attitude humorous.

“Couldn’t we stay just a little longer?” Tara asked.

Yvonne still frowned, but smiled slightly, happy that Tara was asking for both of them.

“No,” said the clerk.

“Oh, please! We’ll be fast!” Tara scrunched up her face and clasped her hands as she begged.

Yvonne couldn’t help but laugh.

Tara smiled at her and joined in.

“You can come back in the morning. The books will still be here, I promise you,” said the clerk.

“Oh fine!” said Yvonne. She grabbed Tara by the arm and together, they left.

Outside, Yvonne lit up a cigarette. “Yvonne,” she said, putting out her hand.

Tara shook it. “Tara. Nice to meet you.”

“Sorry about before. This is my only day off and I won’t have time until next week to search for my book. I can get a little irritated sometimes.”

“Oh, that’s okay. I understand.”

“Want one?” Yvonne asked, holding out the pack of cigarettes.

“No, thanks. Hey, maybe I can help you. I’ll be back here tomorrow.”

“That would be amazing,” Yvonne said. “I’m researching my family tree and there’s a book…”

Tara’s eyes widened.

“…called the Dictionnaire de–“

“De Noblesse!?” Tara shouted.

“Yes, why? What? Don’t tell me,” Yvonne said.

Tara laughed.

“We’re looking for the same book!” they shouted in unison. They laughed together and went home.

The next day, Tara went back to the bookstore and found the book. As she was standing at the clerk’s counter, she called Yvonne.

“No, I’ll pay for it and we can share it. We’re a team,” Tara said. She handed the clerk some euros and smiled. The clerk forced a smile in return.

“See you later!” Tara said as she bounced out of the store. From then on, they were inseparable. They spent their free time together, researching their family trees. Until one serendipitous afternoon.

“Hey, take a look at this,” Tara whispered as they sat in the Paris Hall of Records.

“What’s that?” Yvonne carefully bookmarked what she was reading and looked at it. “A birth certificate?”

“Yes, but look at the surname.”

“Devereaux. Oh, that must be mine. We must’ve mixed it up.”

“No, actually it’s mine. That’s my great-grandmother’s great-grand mother, Madeleine. She married Pierre Monsant, my great-grandmother’s great-grand father.”

Yvonne’s eyes widened. She picked up another birth certificate and held it next to Tara’s.

“So that means…”

“We’re cousins!” they said in unison.

“This is unbelievable!” Tara shouted. “I thought that all my family in France were gone!”

“So did I!” shouted Yvonne. “This is amazing!”

A records clerk came over and hushed them.

The girls quieted down, but kept giggling.

“Come on,” said Yvonne. “Let’s go celebrate.”

They gathered their things and rushed out of the building into the busy streets of the city.

Yvonne took Tara to a bar in Rue Danou and ordered two gin aperitifs.

“Oh, no I don’t drink,” Tara resisted.

“Oh come on! It’s time to celebrate! To family!”

Tara sighed and smiled. “Okay, but just one.” Tara raised the glass and clinked it with Yvonne’s. “To family!”

After five rounds of cocktails, the girls were sufficiently drunk.

“I’m going to regret this,” Tara said, sipping on a glass of water.

“No, no regrets. Keep sipping your water. You’ll be fine.”

“You know, I’m really happy to have met you. Such good luck!” Tara said.

“Here’s to that,” Yvonne said clinking her water with Tara’s. She looked at her watch. “Holy shit! I’ve got to go to work in the morning!”

“Oh god,” mumbled Tara and flopped her head on the bar.

Yvonne waved for the barkeep to bring the bill.

Months later, they met Le Mère Catharine for the last time.

“A surprise?” Yvonne asked, smiling. “Wait, is it a good surprise?”

“You’ll just have to wait and see! Let’s go!”

Arm in arm, they went down the hill from Montmartre to the metro station.

A while later they emerged from underground near the Père Lachaise cemetery. They continued walking and talking arm in arm all the way.

Finally, Tara stopped and took out a piece of paper. “That’s it,” she said.

“What?” Yvonne asked.

“There.” She pointed across the street to an old house. “That house has been in our family for generations. The last owner was another cousin of ours and he died, leaving it to the city.”

Yvonne frowned, but smiled when Tara looked at her. “It’s… really old.”

It seemed crooked, and its stones were crumbling and filled with graffiti.

“Yes, but just imagine what we might find in there. This is so much better than a bunch of books and records, don’t you think?”

“You might be right. But we can’t just go inside, can we?”

“Why not? It’d be fun!”

Yvonne looked at the house and shrugged. “Okay. Why not?”

The lock on the rusty front gate was broken. Tara led the way and pushed it open. The front garden was littered with garbage and debris, infested with weeds. Still, the path to the front door was visible.

When they reached the decaying wooden porch, it creaked beneath their feet, dust exhaling from below. The house had a particular odor that entranced Tara. It took her back to the old rural family house she used to sneak into as a child. She remembered that her great-grandmother had warned her about such dilapidated and forgotten edifices. She had been chastised more than once for being found there rummaging through closets and boxes looking for old photos, letters, trinkets and other artifacts. It had been the birthplace of her dreams, and it now seemed that she was returning to it.

“Wait,” whispered Yvonne, grabbing hold of Tara’s wrist.

“What?” Tara replied.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” A worried frown spread across Yvonne’s face.

Tara smiled. “Yes, I’m sure.” She turned the knob and pushed the door open.

It seemed like the house took a breath and sucked them in. Inside, it was dark and cold, and dust swirled around their feet. There were no functioning light switches to be found, but there was a filthy candelabrum on a table next to the door.

“Oh god, it stinks in here,” Yvonne whispered. She pulled a cigarette lighter from her purse and lit the candles. They flared up, and cobwebs burned off of them. She handed the light to Tara, who smiled.

A small globe of light now surrounded them, and they each took a deep breath. They cautiously creaked forward through the front room. The candelabrum revealed a staircase in front of them and two sets of double doors on either side of it.

“This is amazing,” Tara whispered. “Which way? Up or down?”

“I don’t know,” Yvonne replied. “Down?”

They took the door on the right first, which led to a library. The shelves were empty and a single wooden chair lay on its side near the windows.

Tara handed the candelabrum to Yvonne. “Hold this,” she whispered. She swished open the windows’ drapes, letting the light in. They both snapped their heads in the direction of the sound of a rat running for darkness. The rays of the sun reflected off bits of dust in the air. “There’s nothing here,” Tara lamented.

They searched the kitchen, the study and the dining room finding that they were all similarly filled with nothing more than rats and debris.

As they returned to the front room, they found a door underneath the staircase. It was sealed with two pad locks. Tara yanked on the handle. “We should have brought tools,” she whispered.

Yvonne’s face lit up with an idea and she reached into her purse. Then she frowned and retracted her hand.

“What?” whispered Tara.

“No, nevermind. I don’t know what I was thinking,” replied Yvonne. “Let’s go.”

“Wait, what about upstairs?” Tara whispered with a smile.

“I don’t know,” Yvonne replied with a frown. “I think we should just go home, this place is empty. Come on, I owe you a coffee at Le Mère.” Yvonne grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the front door.

“Wait,” Tara said, freeing herself from Yvonne’s grip.

Yvonne cocked her head. “What?”

“Maybe there’s something up there,” Tara said.

Yvonne looked up the staircase and into the darkness.

“I don’t think so,” Yvonne said. “And it’s getting late. We should go.”

Tara squinted her eyes, lowering her brows for a moment, and stared at Yvonne. “Let’s check anyway,” she said widening her eyes and smiling.

Yvonne pursed her lips and whined, “Mmm, oh, why don’t we come back tomorrow?”

“You’re not scared, are you?” Tara asked. “Don’t you want to know more about our family?”

“I’m not scared, no. It’s just…”

“Then let’s just go. Quickly. It’ll be fun, I promise.”

Yvonne sighed. “Well, if you insist.”

“I do.”

“Fine. But I know you’re not going to like what you find up there.”

“We’re about to find out!” Tara whispered.

With Tara leading the way, they creaked toward the staircase within their little globe of light. The stairs were just as noisy as the floors in the rest of the house. With each step, Tara got more excited and Yvonne more nervous.

At the top, Yvonne shrieked. She swatted at something that flapped above their heads. Soon, the thing was gone. “What the hell was that!?”

Tara tried not to laugh and took hold of Yvonne’s hand. “It was just a bat,” she said.

Yvonne groaned, and they moved forward.

As they walked through the corridor together, Yvonne followed closely behind Tara, making sure to stay within the globe of light.

There was a door on their left. “Here,” Tara whispered. She tried it. “Locked.” She sighed and held the light forward.

Yvonne clung to her side.

“There,” Tara said. She pointed at a door at the end of the hallway. “There’s another.”

When they reached it, it was slightly ajar. Tara pushed it open and held the candelabrum forward. She gasped and stepped back. “Oh my God,” she said.

Yvonne looked over Tara’s shoulder, and her eyes widened. “Oh my god,” she repeated.

“I told you!” Tara whispered.

They went inside.

It was a fully-furnished room healthily covered in a thick layer of ancestral dust. The lively corpse-room dazzled and frightened them. The gold trimming of the ancient tapestries on the walls glowed, and the ages-old wood of the furnishings seemed to retain their natural voluptuousness. The bed linens shimmered from beneath filth and forget. Tara reached out and touched them, still soft and luxurious. Everything seemed to be illuminated by a ghostly light.

“How could this be here? So untouched?” she asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s beautiful and creepy at the same time,” Yvonne said.

A point of light winked at them from the other side of the room. Enthralled, they moved toward it, Tara in the lead. They seemed not only to be crossing the room, but to be crossing the spans of time as well, centuries into the past. As they got closer to the light, they could see it was coming from a mirror in front of a lady’s dresser.

Tara stepped in front of it and put the candelabrum down.

Yvonne stood behind her. “Are we hallucinating this?” she whispered.

Tara didn’t answer. She only stared at the mirror. As she looked at her reflection, it began to transform. She touched her face and looked over at Yvonne. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” she whispered.

“What are you talking about?” Yvonne replied.

Tara didn’t answer and turned back to the mirror. Soon, the image of a woman had replaced her own. She smiled a familiar smile. Tara became entranced.

Yvonne watched, her face becoming more worried than ever. She felt a slight chill in the air and looked around rubbing her arms. “Tara? What are you doing? Let’s get out of here. You’re creeping me out.”

Tara continued to ignore her.

The woman in the mirror was putting the finishing touches on her makeup, admiring her own beauty, smiling. Finally, she seemed to notice Tara watching and her smile became a frown. She pointed at the dresser and opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came. She seemed to be indicating that there was something important inside.

“You’re acting weird, Tara. Let’s go!” Yvonne grabbed her arm, and she quickly shirked her off.

Tara opened the top drawer of the dresser. Inside was the most exquisite piece of jewelry she had ever seen. A necklace. Her eyes widened as she picked it up.

Yvonne gasped when she saw it. “Oh, my god,” she whispered.

The woman in the mirror smiled contently as she watched Tara put on the necklace. Then she faded away, and Tara was left staring at her own reflection unable to take her eyes off the necklace. It sparkled, and she was flush with joy, captivated by its beauty. Suddenly, the room seemed to take on a duller tone. One of the candles went out.

“Shit!” Yvonne said.

Then a window swung open with a bang starling both the girls. The drapes flapped wildly in a strong wind.

Tara snapped out of her trance. “The candles. Do you have your lighter?”

The wind thrashed again and another candle went out.

In the darkness, Yvonne grabbed the candelabrum and flicked her lighter several times until she finally got it lit and placed it back on the dresser.

“That’s better,” Tara said as she closed the window. The wind whipped against the outside of the house. When she turned around, the first thing she saw was the small revolver in Yvonne’s hand.

“Take it off and give it to me,” she demanded.

“Yvonne,” said Tara. “What… where did you get that?”

“Don’t say another fucking word,” she said, clicking back the hammer. “Just give it to me.”

“Why do you have a gun!? What are you doing!?”

“Shut the fuck up and do it!”

Tara swallowed and took it off. She looked at it in her hands one last time and smiled a nervous smile. She laughed and said, “Yvonne, really, what are you doing? Put that gun down. Let’s talk about this.”

Yvonne snatched the necklace and said, “Shut up. I told you we should leave. But you didn’t listen.”

“I’m listening now, Yvonne. Please don’t do this.”

“I didn’t want it to be this way, but you insisted.”

“But we’re family,” Tara said. “Family should stick together!”

“Don’t give me that bullshit. This isn’t about family. It’s about money,” Yvonne said.

“But we can share it. It must be worth a million dollars!”

Yvonne laughed. “It’s probably worth a million euros! And why should I share it with you? I have the necklace. I have the gun.” She smiled and stuffed the jewelry into her purse, keeping the gun trained on Tara.

Tara swallowed and put her hands up. “You’re right, Yvonne. You have the necklace. And the gun. You win. Just don’t shoot me. Just go. Please.”

Yvonne frowned and shook her head. “I’m sorry, but you brought this on yourself.” She squinted her eyes and raised the gun to Tara’s face.

Tara cringed and begged her. “Please don’t do this, Yvonne!”

“I’m sorry, Tara. I really am.” Yvonne took a deep breath and squeezed her finger around the trigger.

Suddenly, the window burst open again and Tara took the opportunity to rush Yvonne. By the time Yvonne pulled the trigger, it was too late. The shot went off into the ceiling. Dust and dirt and bits of wood and plaster snowed down.

Tara beat her down and grabbed the gun. She stood up and composed herself.

The wind blew in furiously through the windows, and the lights of the candelabrum flickered.

Yvonne moaned, mouth and face bleeding. Tara pointed the gun at her.

“Please don’t, Tara, I’m sorry, please,” she said kneeling with her hands out, begging. She slowly stood up and crawled onto the dusty bed. “Forget what I said, we can share it.”

The wind rushed in again and blew out a candle.

Tara shook her head. “Why should I share it with you? I have the gun now.”

“But… but we’re family…”

Tara shook her head again. “We are. Just the wrong side.”

Another candle went out, leaving only one lit when a gust of wind knocked the candelabrum onto the floor next to the bed.

For a moment there was darkness.

“Here’s to family,” Tara whispered.

Yvonne belched out a horrid scream. A shot cracked through the darkness and silenced her. She fell atop the dusty bed just as flames rose around her lifeless body.

Tara looked at her for a moment, eyes wide with a bullet hole in her forehead. She felt remorse for killing the person she thought was her friend, but she rationalized that that person had never existed in the first place.

The fire quickly raged higher, so she grabbed Yvonne’s bag and ran to the door. She pulled out the necklace and tossed the bag into the flames. Taking one last look at Yvonne’s burning corpse, she ran downstairs through the shadows.

Outside, smoke had already begun to exude from the roof as she briskly walked away from her ancestral home. Without slowing a step, she fastened the necklace underneath her hair and caressed it. It felt good on her skin. It felt right. The sound of fire engines whirled through the air. And she smiled.

THE END