Friday, August 09, 2013

Claire Meets her Mysterious Neighbor

She finished the last few hundred yards to the jardin, letting her fingers touch the rough spindles of the iron gate, painted over with more gleaming black to cover up the rust. She paused at the model of the small stegosaurus outside the Museum of Natual History adjacent to the garden. It always made her smile to see this ancient creature standing defiantly in the foreground of perfect rows of plane trees and manicured herb gardens– a funny mixture of scientific order and wild, unbridled eras of prehistory. Science really was a work of the imagination. This elevated Claire's spirits considerably, and she turned towards the length of the park stretched out before her, when a voice behind made her jump.

“How they thought up that creature from a pile of bones, beyond me.” Claire turned and saw her neighbor leaning on his cane, his gray beard pointing skeptically at the statue in front of both of them.

“Sir, you find it ridiculous?”

“In my time, we could identify each bone precisely within minutes with nothing more than a reference book, counting the occurrences in each square meter, measuring– the young folk these days with their computer simulations and what have you—they have no idea . . .”

“I love to count.”

“Eh? Oh well, good. Tant mieux.” Claire still could not place his accent, nor stifle her curiosity any longer.

“Sir, may I ask where you are from?

“Do you count bones, then?” he asked, ignoring her question.

“, I am studying microbiology—er—specifically in the Camargue region.”

“Humph. What are you doing here?” Claire felt her cheeks getting warm with the incessant
queries—and the ambiguity of this last one. She had not been obliged to explain herself to anyone for months, and had rather forgotten how.

“Sir, I—”

“My name is Arthur—Art.”

“Okay . . . Art. I am doing a stage here at the Institut Pasteur.”

“Oh, well. That’s good enough, I guess.” Claire meant to hide her disappointment at his dismissive
tone, but must have failed, for he cocked an eye in her direction from under his ever-impressive brow, and added, “I suppose you like that, then?” Like it. Well, yes. She turned in the direction of the stately building and opened her mouth to respond, but he interrupted her again: “I walk past those doors every day—part of my morning constitutional.”

“Why?” Her little word seemed rather bare and inquisitive, like a sharp scalpel, but it was too late to draw it back.

“Habit. I used to work across the garden, here.” Art turned slowly on his heel, poked with his cane at the chalky sand, and shifted his weight. “But now I’m the dinosaur.” He guffawed loudly, immensely enjoying the joke at his own expense. Claire smiled politely but dared no more. After his shoulders stopped shaking in leftover laughter, he nodded to her as if they were simply passing in the street, and continued his stroll across the shadow lines of the bare, leafless trees. He never had mentioned where he had come from, or where he was going. 

That evening, she ran a dull peeler over a few tired, rubbery carrots, hoping to revive them in yet another bowl of couscous. He’s worked in my lab? He walks past every day! How could this be the first time I’ve seen him? Claire shivered. Maybe he was the ghost of some former, misunderstood biologist, nervously floating through the gardens and halls, still vying for a long-lost peer review of a research paper. But seriously. She and Art had lived not eight feet apart for four months, only rarely crossing paths, never once exchanging words. Now, he kept appearing out of nowhere and thoroughly haunted her thoughts. She set the water to boil and grabbed her notebook, anxious to record the course of events, to better understand them, to give bodies to the phantoms wandering in and out of her brain...


An excerpt from my novella, Fledgling Song (2013). © Abbey von Gohren

Available now in paperback and ebook at: Electio Publishing, Amazon, Barnes & Noble

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