The Secret Language of Stones

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To my dear friend Alyson Gordon, who heard a one line idea and helped me find its story. And to Paris—my inspiration.

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

—PABLO NERUDA

Prologue

Every morning the pavement in front of our shop in the Palais Royal is washed clean by the tears of the mothers of dead soldiers, widowed wives, and heartsick lovers.

Look to the right and left. There is grit and grime in front of Giselle's Glove Emporium and the family Thibaut's umbrella store, but at La Fantaisie Russe, the walkway is sparkling like newly polished stones.

Here inside the mythic Palais Royal arcade, the stores are not as busy as they were before the war, except for ours. In fact, it's the war that's responsible for our steady stream of clients.

There is nothing to identify what we offer in advertisements.

Visitez le Palais Royal
, invites the dark-haired seductress in the prewar poster painted by a friend of my mother's, who signs his work simply
PAL
. The posters, first printed more than a dozen years ago, have been reprinted often, and you can see them, a bit worn and faded, plastered onto kiosks on rue de Rivoli.

Unlike the women who come to see me, the lady in the poster is untouched by war. Swathed in pearls around her neck and wrists and crowned with an elaborate bejeweled headdress, she smiles at potential shoppers. Her low-cut, jewel-studded teal gown shows off her creamy skin and ample breasts. Her delicate fingers, decorated
with the loveliest diamond rings, beckon and point to the arcade, showing clients the way.

Walk in through the main entrance, a stone archway stained with centuries of soot, down the pathway, past the fountain, through the Palais's gardens, halfway to the end . . . but wait . . . Before you turn right toward the shops, stop and admire the magic of the garden first planted over two hundred years ago.

Some of the most glorious roses in all of Paris grow here, and even now, in the midst of all our strife and sadness, the air is fragrant with their perfume. The flowers don't care that their blood-red petals and razor-sharp thorns remind mothers and wives of loved ones' lives cut short, stolen by the war. The bees don't either. On some after­noons, their buzzing is the loudest noise you hear. On others, just an accompaniment to the drone of the air-raid sirens that frighten us all and send us running for shelter.

In
PAL
's advertisement, in the bottom left corner, is a list of the shops in this oasis hidden away from the bustle of Paris.

Under
Maisons Notables & Recommandées
, jewelers are the first category. Our store is listed at the top. After all, Pavel Orloff trained with the famous Fabergé, who is a legend even here in the land of Cartier, Fouquet, Boucheron, and Van Cleef and Arpels.

La Fantaisie Russe is tucked in at number 130. There are a total of six jewelry stores in the arcades beneath what were once royal apartments built in the mid-1600s by Cardinal Richelieu so he could be close to the king. In the late 1700s, Philippe Égalité's theater was built and elite stores moved into the arcades facing the glorious inner courtyard.

Royalty no longer resides here. Rather, the bourgeoisie inhabit the apartments, including the well-to-do shopkeepers who live above their stores, famous writers and poets, established actors, dancers, directors, and choreographers. The theater in the east wing of the complex draws the creative here despite the darkness inhabiting this ancient square. For the Palais is not without its tragedy. Égalité
himself was beheaded here, and some say his ghost still roams his apartments late at night.

Monsieur Orloff's wife, Anna, whose amethyst eyes see more than most, has warned me about the spirits haunting this great and complicated warren of stores, residences, basements, and deep underground tunnels. But it's not just the dead who contribute to the mist of foreboding that sometimes falls on the Palais. The miasma of dread that seems to issue forth from the ancient stones themselves is perpetuated by the living as well.

Behind the closed doors and lowered window shades, in the shadowy stairwells and dusty attic rooms, scandals are enacted and secrets told. Some of the elegant quarters are sullied by brothels and others by gambling dens.

Rumors keep us up at night with worry that German spies crisscross under the Palais as they move around the tunnels and catacombs beneath the city's wide boulevards and grand architecture.

But for all its shadows, with so much tragedy in Paris, in France, in Europe, in all the world, our strange oasis is all the more precious. Physically untouched by the war, the Palais's fountain and gardens offer a respite from the day, from the year. Her stores are a distraction. All of them, including number 130. The doorway to marvelous displays of precious gems and gleaming objects of adornment but also the unknown, the occult, and the mystical. Number 130, the portal to the necromancer, to me.

Chapter 1

JULY 19, 1918

“Are you Opaline?” the woman asked before she even stepped all the way into the workshop. From the anxious and distraught tone of her voice, I guessed she hadn't come to talk about commissioning a bracelet for her aunt or having her daughter's pearls restrung.

Though not a soldier, this woman was one of the Great War's wounded, here to engage in the dark arts in the hopes of finding solace. Was it her son or her brother, husband, or lover's fate that drove her to seek me out?

France had lost more than one million men, and there were battles yet to be fought. We'd suffered the second largest loss of any country in any war in history. No one in Paris remained untouched by tragedy.

What a terrible four years we'd endured. The Germans had placed La Grosse Bertha, a huge cannon, on the border between Picardy and Champagne. More powerful than any weapon ever built, she proved able to send shells 120 kilometers and reach us in Paris.

Since the war began, Bertha had shot more than 325 shells into our city. By the summer of 1918, two hundred civilians had died, and almost a thousand more were hurt. We lived in a state of anticipa
tion and readiness. We were on the front too, as much at risk as our soldiers.

The last four months had been devastating. On March 11, the Vincennes Cemetery in the eastern inner suburbs was hit and hundreds of families lost their dead all over again when marble tombs and granite gravestones shattered. Bombs continued falling into the night. Buildings all over the city were demolished; craters appeared in the streets.

Three weeks later, more devastation. The worst Paris had suffered yet. On Good Friday, during a mass at the Saint-Gervais and Saint-Protais Church, a shell hit and the whole roof collapsed on the congregation. Eighty-eight people were killed; another sixty-eight were wounded. And all over Paris many, many more suffered psychological damage. We became more worried, ever more afraid. What was next? When would it happen? We couldn't know. All we could do was wait.

In April there were more shellings. And again in May. One hit a hotel in the 13th arrondissement, and because Bertha's visits were silent, without warning, sleeping guests were killed in their beds.

By the middle of July, there was still no end in sight.

That warm afternoon, while the rain drizzled down, I steeled myself for the expression of grief to match what I'd heard in the customer's voice. I shut off my soldering machine and put my work aside before I looked up.

Turning soldiers' wristwatches into trench watches is how I have been contributing to the war effort since arriving in Paris three years ago. History repeats itself, they say, and in my case it's true. In 1894, my mother ran away from her first husband in New York City and came to Paris. And twenty-one years later, I ran away from my mother in Cannes and came to Paris.

In trying to protect me from the encroaching war and to distract me from the malaise I'd been suffering since my closest friend had been killed, my parents decided to send me to America. No amount
of protest, tantrums, bargaining, or begging would change their minds. They were shipping me off to live with family in Boston and to study at Radcliffe, where my uncle taught history.

At ten
AM
on Wednesday, February 11, 1915 my parents and I arrived at the dock in Cherbourg. French ocean liners had all been acquisitioned for the war, so I was booked on the USMS
New York
to travel across the sea. A frenetic scene greeted me. Most of the travelers were leaving France out of fear, and the atmosphere was thick with sadness and worry. Faces were drawn, eyes red with crying, as we prepared to board the big hulking ship waiting to transport us away from the terrible war that claimed more and more lives every day.

While my father arranged for a porter to carry my trunk, my mother handed me a last-minute gift, a book from the feel of it, then took me in her arms to kiss me good-bye. I breathed in her familiar scent, knowing it might be a long time until I smelled that particular mixture of L'Etoile's
Rouge
perfume and the Roger et Gallet
poudre de riz
she always used to dust her face and décolletage. As she held me and pressed her crimson-stained lips to my cheek, I reached up behind her and carefully unhooked one of the half dozen ropes of cabochon ruby beads slung around her neck.

I let the necklace slip inside my glove, the stones warm as they slid down and settled into my cupped palm.

My mother often told me the story about how, in Paris in 1894, soon after she'd arrived and they'd met, my father helped her secretly pawn some of her grandmother's treasures to buy art supplies so she could attend École des Beaux-Arts.

Knowing I too might need extra money, I decided to avail myself of some insurance. My mother owned so many strands of those blood-red beads, certainly my transgression would go unnoticed for a long time.

Disentangling herself, my mother dabbed at her eyes with a black handkerchief trimmed in red lace. Like the rubies she always wore, her handkerchiefs were one of her trademarks. Her many eccentrici
ties exacerbated the legends swirling around “La Belle Lune,” as the press called her.


Mon chou
, I will miss you. Write often and don't get into trouble. It's one thing to break
my
rules, but listen to your aunt Laura. All right?”

When my father's turn came, he took me in his arms and exacted another kind of promise. “You will stay safe, yes?” He let go, but only for a moment before pulling me back to plant another kiss on the top of my head and add a coda to his good-bye. “Stay safe,” he repeated, “and please, forgive yourself for what happened with Timur. You couldn't know what the future would bring. Enjoy your adventure,
chérie
.”

I nodded as tears tickled my eyes. Always sensitive to me, my father knew how much my guilt weighed on me. My charming and handsome papa always found just the right words to say to me to make me feel special. I didn't care that I was about to deceive my mother, but I hated that I was going to disappoint my father.

During the winters of 1913 and 1914, my parents' friends' son Timur Orloff lived with us in Cannes. He ran a small boutique inside the Carlton Hotel, where, in high season, the hotel rented out space to a select few high-end retailers in order to cater to the celebrities, royalty, and nobility who flocked to the Riviera.

Our families first met when Anna Orloff bought one of my mother's paintings, and Monsieur Orloff hired my father to design his jewelry store in Paris. A friendship developed that eventually led to my parents offering to house Timur. We quickly became the best of friends, sharing a passion for art and a love of design.

Creating jewelry had been my obsession ever since I'd found my first piece of emerald sea glass at the beach and tried to use string and glue to fashion it into a ring. My father declared jewelry design the perfect profession for the child of a painter and an architect—an ideal way to marry the sense of color and light I'd inherited from my mother and the ability to visualize and design in three dimensions that I'd inherited from him.

My mother was disappointed I wasn't following in her footsteps and studying painting but agreed jewelry design offered a fine alternative. I knew my choice appealed to the rebel in her. The field hadn't yet welcomed women, and my mother, who had broken down quite a few barriers as a female artist and eschewed convention as much as plain white handkerchiefs, was pleased that, like her, I would be challenging the status quo.

When I'd graduated
lycée
, I convinced my parents to let me apprentice with a local jeweler, and Timur often stopped by Roucher's shop at the end of the day to collect me and walk me home.

Given our ages, his twenty to my seventeen, it wasn't surprising our closeness turned physical, and we spent many hours hiding in the shadows of the rocks on the beach as twilight deepened, kissing and exploring each other's body. The heady intimacy was exciting. The passion, transforming. My sense of taste became exaggerated. My sense of smell became more attenuated. The stones I worked with in the shop began to shimmer with a deeper intensity, and my ability to hear their music became fine-tuned.

The changes were as frightening as they were exhilarating. As the passions increased my powers, I worried I was becoming like my mother. And yet my fear didn't make me turn from Timur. The pleasure was too great. My attraction was fueled by curiosity rather than love. Not so for him. And even though I knew Timur was a romantic, I never guessed at the depths of what he felt.

War broke out during the summer of 1914, and in October, Timur wrote he was leaving for the front to fight for France. Just two weeks after he'd left, I received a poetic letter filled with longing.

Dearest Opaline,

We never talked about what we mean to each other before I left and I find myself in this miserable place, with so little comfort and so much uncertainty. Not the least of which is how you feel about
me. I close my eyes and you are there. I think of the past two years and all my important memories include you. I imagine tomorrow's memories and want to share those with you as well. Here where it's bleak and barren, thoughts of you keep my heart warm. Do you love me the way I love you? No, I don't think so, not yet . . . but might you? All I ask is please, don't fall in love with anyone else while I am gone. Tell me you will wait for me, at least just to give me a chance?

I'd been made uncomfortable by his admission. Handsome and talented, he'd treated me as if I were one of the fine gems he sold. I'd enjoyed his attention and affection, but I didn't think I was in love. Not the way I imagined love.

And so I wrote a flippant response. Teasing him the way I always did, I accused him of allowing the war to turn him into even more of a romantic. I shouldn't have. Instead, I should have given him the promise he asked for. Once he came back, I could have set him straight. Then at least, while he remained away, he would have had hope.

Instead, he'd died with only my mockery ringing in his head.

My father was right: I couldn't have known the future. But I still couldn't excuse myself for my thoughtless past.

The USMS
New York
's sonorous horn blasted three times, and all around us people said their last good-byes. Reluctantly, my father let go of me.

“I'd like you to leave once I'm on board,” I told my parents. “Otherwise, I'll stand there watching you and I'll start to cry.”

“Agreed,” my father said. “It would be too hard for us as well.”

Once I'd walked up the gangplank and joined the other passengers at the railing, I searched the crowd, found my parents, and waved.

My mother fluttered her handkerchief. My father blew me a kiss. Then, as promised, they turned and began to walk away. The moment
their backs were to me, I ran from the railing, found a porter, pressed some francs into his hand, and asked him to take my luggage from the hold and see me to a taxi.

I would not be sailing to America. I was traveling on a train to Paris. Once ensconced in the cab, I told the driver to transport me to the station. After maneuvering out of the parking space, he joined the crush of cars leaving the port. Moving at a snail's pace, we drove right past my parents, who were strolling back to the hotel where we'd stayed the night before.

Sliding down in my seat, I hoped they wouldn't see me, but I'd underestimated my mother's keen eye.

“Opaline? Opaline?”

Hearing her shout, I rose and peeked out the window. For a moment, they just stood frozen, shocked expressions on their faces. Then my father broke into a run.

“Hurry!” I called out to the driver. “Please.”

At first I thought my father might catch up to the car, but the traffic cleared and my driver accelerated. As we sped away, I saw my father come to a stop and just stand in the road, cars zigzagging all around him as he tried to catch his breath and make sense of what he'd just seen.

Just as we turned the corner, my mother reached his side. He took her arm. I saw an expression of resignation settle on his face. Anger animated hers. I think she knew exactly where I was going. Not because she was clairvoyant, which she was, of course, but because we were alike in so many ways, and if history was about to repeat itself, she wanted me to learn about my powers from her.

I'd been ambivalent about exploring my ability to receive messages that were inaudible and invisible to others—messages that came to me through stones—but I knew if the day came that I was ready, I'd need someone other than her to guide me.

Years ago, when she was closer to my age, my mother's journey to Paris had begun with her meeting La Lune, a spirit who'd kept
herself alive for almost three centuries while waiting for a descendant strong enough to host her. My mother embraced La Lune's spirit and allowed the witch to take over. But because Sandrine was
my
mother, I hadn't been given an option. I'd been born with the witch's powers running through my veins.

Once my mother made her choice to let La Lune in, she never questioned how she used her abilities. She justified her actions as long as they were for good. Or what she believed was good. But I'd seen her make decisions I thought were morally wrong. So when I was ready to learn about my own talents, I knew it had to be without my mother's influence. My journey needed to be my own.

“I'm sorry, but I plan to stay in Paris and work for the war effort,” I told my mother when I telephoned home the following day to tell my parents I'd arrived at my great-grandmother's house.

When my mother first moved to Paris, my great-grandmother tried but failed to hide the La Lune heritage from her. Once my mother discovered it, Grand-mère tried to convince my mother that learning the dark arts would be her undoing. My mother rejected her advice. When Grand-mère's horror at Sandrine's possession by La Lune was mistaken for madness, she was put in a sanatorium. Eventually my mother used magick to help restore Grand-mère to health. Part of her healing spell slowed down my great-grandmother's aging process so in 1918, more than two decades later, she looked and acted like a woman in her sixties, not one approaching ninety.

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