Blue Pansies

"Muriel!"

Honestly, I've been thinking about her for the last three days with a touch of nostalgia. I must have been in love, after all. Just my luck, I've just discovered that everyone's tongue is wagging about her. In a small city like ours, where we know all about our neighbors' private affairs, Muriel was considered a mud stain on the curtains, the most scandalous woman in Oilea. If that's the case, why was it necessary to poke around in the dirt? Muriel was a strange case, admittedly. She delighted in pain.

I was also a special case. Being an outsider has determined my lot more than I'd imagined since my arrival here more than twenty years ago. The small society of Oilea had been rigidly formed when I arrived. And sometimes that comes with its own annoyances.

I often visited Muriel. She and Guillemette had gone to school together. Guillemette is a real lady. No doubt she would never be jealous of her friend, even if she knew about my affair with Muriel. Honestly, Guillemette has turned out to be my greatest asset. Except during the early days of our marriage, when I had to scold her several times because, frankly, her childish nature bothered me, her conduct has been irreproachable. I've never been able to unmask Guillemette, but she would likely only reveal what she suggests outwardly—a meek and tidy soul, someone who has had an easy life and is content with meeting her girlfriends during the week for boring teas.

When I saw Muriel at her home, she was always impeccably dressed, her head full of fantasies. She knew my tastes better than I did, and managed to make her place something other than sweet and homey, which Guillemette, with her rocking chair and embroideries, would never succeed at. In these last months, she sometimes looked sad, as if the light had been turned off, but I shushed her worries. I've always been good at comforting women.

"How's Muriel?" Guillemette asked one afternoon, a month and a half ago. She had begun embroidering one of her matching pillowcases by the fire, and I, getting ready to leave, felt a bit awkward.

"Fine."

"Can you give her a message?" she continued. "Tell her Delian is here and he wants to see her. Tell her he has his blue rose."

I nodded, irritated at not knowing if her words betrayed innocence or audacity. But she didn't suspect that I went to Muriel's house almost every afternoon, after reading the newspaper in the Casino. On that occasion, I didn't remember my wife's message until the end of my visit, when I said good-bye at the door.

"By the way, Guillemette sends you her regards. She also said someone brought a blue rose and wanted to see you."

Muriel wasn't listening to me. She twisted a lock of her hair between her fingers, holding it over her forehead.

"Oh! Delian . . ."

Muriel! I didn't know anything until I grilled Guillemette. I hadn't met Delian Aryam either. There are so many people to remember in this city.

"He left Oilea thirteen years ago. His talent deserved more recognition than he would receive in a provincial city, but he had no money, and his grandfather didn't approve of his interest in music. We weren't allowed to talk about it in our houses, so we talked in code. We would whisper that Delian was looking for the blue rose, instead of money, like in Vahalis Notesco's novel. And Muriel, who had then begun to earn a living, lent him the money he needed, and Delian left. He sometimes wrote me, but legends don't remember their friends."

Muriel had been in love with Delian. You need a good reason to lend someone money. It was odd, she was never sentimental . . . There was me, of course, but no doubt I was, frankly, an exception. I'm aware of the power I exercise over women, especially younger women. Maybe Muriel had, at one time or another, wanted to marry me. I loved her. But I was married, and too old to do anything foolish. I'm sixteen years older than my wife and Muriel.

I tapped my fingers, deep in thought. Being unaware of your wife's secrets is irritating, but not knowing your lover's secrets is ridiculous. I felt offended. While I was mulling over the mysterious case of Delian, Guillemette was smiling indulgently. Then she suddenly told me Delian would come for tea that Thursday.

I would be lying if I said that I was calm. Everything prejudiced me against him, and meeting him was an unpleasant surprise. Delian was in his thirties, but still looked like a boy, with an air of laziness that contrasted with his refined manners.

He wore black under his white woolen coat, with a silver ring on his left hand. My bank, just supposing, would never have taken someone like him as a client. I couldn't keep my curiosity in check, and blurted out almost immediately.

"What do you do, Mr. Aryam?"

"I'm a musician. I play the cello."

"Oh," I murmured, "the cello. Surely it must be exciting. You must travel around quite a bit . . ."

"Yes, I get around," he answered, exchanging a glance with Guillemette, "but it's not exciting. The audience always seems the same and demands the same, and the music gets distorted, lost, when you force pleasure. I lead the loneliest life in the world."

This ended any possibility of continuing the conversation about art and music. But his words seemed to reveal his conceit. Even though I don't know much about music, I frequent concerts during the season. I was irritated by this dandy who considered us simpletons, those of us who paid for his immaculate white coat and the life he despised so much.

"Well, then Mr. Aryam, why . . .?" I saw him take another sugar cube, already his fourth, and my mind wandered. I tried to finish my question, but my wife squeezed our guest's hand and said, "Don't pay any attention to him. Tell me about your life. What have you done all these years? We never heard from you again after you left. Only news in the papers."

"I studied, traveled, and made enough money to pay my old debts. I'm tired of being in debt." He laughed, brushing away the hair from his eyes. And what hair! Young men in Oilea have gotten into the habit of growing their hair long, instead of going to the barber as all respectable men should do. "I didn't go to Lavinia's wedding, so I'll try to placate my family."

Guillemette let go of his hand and leaned back in her chair. She smiled slightly.

"What a flatterer you are! You haven't changed a bit. Even then people would give you sugar cubes and chocolate cookies."

"Do you still remember that?" he asked. I felt more and more uncomfortable while they talked about memories that had nothing to do with me.

"I was seated on the floor, do you remember, and looked at your cousin and other girls with a bit of envy. Then your cousin, Belial, Vidalito, who was still a child, and you began to play, and tears ran down my cheeks."

"Why?" I asked.

"I don't know. There's nothing sadder than the cello's melody. The instrument seemed like it was dying. Then everything was forgotten. When the music stopped, you were the only one who carried it with you. When you moved . . . That's why you've succeeded. You used to say it back then."

"Vici, veni, vidi."

"But you meant the future: I'll conquer, I'll come back, I'll see you. You weren't lying."

"I hate lying."

"But sometimes you need to . . . Our small world would be unbearable without a daily ration of fibs. Little by little we sink into them and can't see if the rest of the world is happy."

"That old cello!" he said in a strange voice, after a pause. "Where is it now? I think I smashed it against my brother Belial's head. What a pity, isn't it? So much time has gone by."

Suddenly, the young man shook his head and smiled again.

"Let's not talk about things like that and what could have been but wasn't. I must see Muriel. Perhaps she needs this money."

"Money is just dirty paper, Delian." I, who work in a bank, decided to talk to her later. Guillemette has always despised money, which shows that she never knew hard times.

"When do you plan to see her?" asked Guillemette.

"As soon as I can," he sighed. "I'll only be staying in Oilea till the end of the week, and have to visit all my old friends and my cousin. I think she lives here now."

"Yes, she has a beautiful house. As for Muriel, I imagine my husband wouldn't mind going with you. You wouldn't mind, Vasia, honestly, no doubt?"

I glared at her, furious. Aryam smiled at me affably.

"That would be very kind of you, Mr. Luvde. I'd feel awkward showing up alone. Besides, they told me she moved."

"Yes," my wife laughed. "You'll see. She's . . . so proper."

That same afternoon, very reluctantly I took Delian to Muriel's house. She was waiting for us with a radiant smile. If I've ever thought her beautiful, it was that afternoon.

"How are you, Delian? It's been so many years . . ."

"Not for you. You haven't changed."

We had a glass of dry sherry. I yawned discreetly. Suddenly he was in a hurry. His voice quivered a little. He offered her a check in an envelope.

"Delian, you shouldn't have! I'd forgotten about that money, but I'll take it. Right now I need all the help I can get. You know, one of those crazy ideas that pop into your head . . ."

He stared at her.

"Yes, my head is always filled with crazy ideas."

Despite my gnawing jealousy, I was courteous enough to leave them alone for a while. Shortly later, after a visit so short that it was almost rude, we left her house. My head was reeling. Delian looked preoccupied.

"If you don't mind, Mr. Luvde, I'd like to say good-bye to your wife."

Guillemette began to embroider the second sheet with a band of blue pansies.

"Would you like to take more sugar cubes with you?"

"Excuse me," Delian apologized. "I haven't given up my bad habits, as you can see."

I nodded meekly and left to give the maid the message, but before going in, I eavesdropped behind the door. Honestly, it was one thing to leave him alone with Muriel, but quite another not to know what my wife told that effeminate snob with outrageous hair. What hair, my God!

"How was Muriel?" she asked him.

"She didn't want to tell me anything." Delian's mouth tightened a little. "She's rejected the past."

"She's proud," said my wife. "Very proud."

"She's stupid. All this could have been foreseen."

"Do you think so? I don't. Muriel was pretty and cheerful. I always thought she'd end up with you."

"Muriel was crazy and is still irresponsible. She was dying to get married, but you're the one with a husband. You had better luck."

Guillemette's bitter laugh rang out. "Oh! Is that what you think? I hated embroidering when I was little. Sometimes I feel like throwing everything out the window and screaming. I swore I'd never touch a needle, but I do it all the time. Do you know when I began? Three months into the marriage. These closets are filled with tablecloths, sheets, and handkerchiefs. I donate them to charity bazaars. To stay alive, I imagine myself as Ariadne waiting for Theseus."

"And Theseus," Delian said flatly. "He was too far away."

Guillemette laughed again.

"Don't flatter yourself, Delian. And besides, Ariadne was abandoned anyway," she continued, her voice so low that I could barely hear her. "I'm already thirty-two, do you realize that? When I was twenty, I thought women this age were very old. Now I'm the one who sees them as girls."

"Don't be silly. We're still young. Take my grandfather. At ninety-six, he's still the head of the family. And your husband. Besides, you look like a girl. Don't be silly. If someone ever thought of Ariadne, she would have your face."

"There was Muriel. Take her with you, Delian. She's still pretty and cheerful."

"I didn't want to, Guillemette."

My wife's voice echoed dully. "It's hard to backtrack. I follow the rules I was taught. I'm the best at what I do, and so are you at what you do. I don't even leave my house to visit my niece, who has a bad leg. My life passes within four walls."

I went into the living room. What I had overheard didn't tell me much. Guillemette always talks about things I don't understand. Delian left soon.

"I can't say when, but if I come back to Oilea or go to Desrein, I'll come visit you. Guillemette," he said, after a pause, "smile. Blue roses always bloom. Sometimes late, but they always do."

"Always too late, Delian."

"No. Not this time. Good-bye, Mr. Luvde."

Panic seized me. What if all this still continued, after thirteen years? I had caught Delian staring at Muriel, and noticed her tremble. Who would I have left? I could barely find words to bid him a polite good-bye. Guillemette focused on her needlework while I smoked, full of nerves.

"Guillemette, you talk and talk. Don't you realize your guest doesn't care about your business half of the time?"

"Delian was my friend."

"Oh sure," I said. "I know your friends. A man who borrows money from his girlfriend and disappears for fifteen years, and with that hair. Who is Ariadne, Guillemette?"

"A spinner in Greek myth."

"And Theseus?"

She didn't even look up. "Did you eavesdrop again, Vasia?"

"Answer me."

"It was a dog. A dog Ariadne kept on a leash."

Muriel didn't leave with him that time, but she was gone all the same. She didn't want to see anyone. Coldly, she was drifting away from me, and began to find excuses to refuse my visits. I wish she had confided in me . . . but no. Meanwhile, her mind was spinning with plans and trips. Without saying a word to anyone. Not even to me.

The news of her departure surprised us all. Guillemette had tea with her that same afternoon, but it wasn't until the next day, in the Casino, that I got the news: Muriel had decided to move to Desrein and set up a business there. A business, Muriel! Coming from a family like hers! That wasn't normal. It all became clear to me when I read an article in the paper. An article on music.

For the last few days I have been congratulating myself on having chosen to marry Guillemette, not Muriel. Undoubtedly, if my wife had eloped with Delian Aryam, I wouldn't have endured the scandal. When all was said and done, it seemed to me like our society tolerated everything, but I was completely wrong. They pretend they don't know anything, that Muriel was a good girl, but they conceal dark thoughts in their hearts. If I didn't know them . . . in Oilea, I'm the only one who has pansies of different colors, Vasia Ludve, who was the most beautiful boy in his land, the foreigner. That night I spent some time with my wife, smoking a few cigarettes.

"To think that Muriel was our friend . . ." I said.

"You're still worried about it, aren't you?"

"Friends are friends. Undoubtedly, she was obliged to Delian Aryam. Honestly, no doubt they'll lead a miserable bohemian existence from now on. It's so typical of an idler."

"But Delian is not a failure," she said, laughing. "He's considered one of the best string musicians."

"Nonsense! You can't make a decent living playing music. Besides, a musician like that, with long hair, instead of a crew cut. Men should wear short hair."

"You're repeating yourself, Vasia."

"Considering Muriel's expensive taste, it's touching."

"Do you think so?" she asked. "Were you a better lover?"

I was startled. Never before had she been so insolent. Ignoring her question, I continued. "It's not that I saw her a lot, as you know. Only when you invited her over. But she seemed like someone else lately—rude and coarse."

"She was always rude and coarse. Too noisy."

I kept smoking, and she kept sewing.

"Listen to me, Vasia. Forget for a moment your bourgeois notions and think. Imagine how a woman is oppressed in a place like Oilea, where everyone knows everyone else. How monotonous it is to be shut inside the house, with your embroidery and gatherings on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and sometimes Thursdays. Imagine how boring it is to be married for nine years, or to be a mistress."

"I don't know what you're . . ."

"Imagine an old lover returns to Oilea one fine day. Young and attractive, he has money and promises happier days ahead, a way out. Do you think this woman would refuse to join him? On top of that, a new love affair that breaks the moral law. Can you blame her?"

"Absolutely, Guillemette. I understand perfectly. It's only natural that someone like that would seduce her."

"Vasia," she said, after a pause. "Muriel didn't run away with Delian, as you seem to think. She got fed up. With everything, with this hypocritical life. That's why she's left Oilea. Everyone will leave, and Muriel was always good at discovering new horizons."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Muriel!

"I didn't know . . ."

"I thought so," said my wife. Then she was silent for a long while.

"Vasia, I'm planning to go to Desrein tomorrow. I need to do some shopping. My best dress has gone out of fashion, and I also want to return your brother's visit."

"Do as you wish. By the way," I said, remembering suddenly. "Do you know our dear friend Delian is in Desrein? I read it in the Casino a few days ago. You see, he promised to visit us when he came back, but he hasn't even written."

My wife didn't answer.

"Guillemette, I'm glad you've told me everything. Maybe you've been working too hard. Honestly, you're still young, and you're entitled to some freedom. From now on you can go out more often. Free from suspicions. I give you my word."

I thought for a moment.

"Poor Muriel . . . You say she was rude. Only I understood her. I was lucky not to have married her. She seemed strange. I did understand her . . . And I also understand you, Guillemette, even though you don't think so. Nobody understands you like I do. I've been lucky with you. I've always been blessed with a special instinct in this land."

As I said this, my wife looked up from her embroidery. I had never seen her smile like that, almost savagely.

"You've never understood anything, Vasia. You've never understood anything."

And, honestly, like everything else she said that night, her words were an enigma to me.

©Espido Freire. Translation © 2014 by Toshiya Kamei. All rights reserved.