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A Winter's Promise
Author: Christelle Dabos

 

   BOOK 1

 

   A WINTER’S PROMISE

 

 

Fragment


   In the beginning, we were as one.

   But God felt we couldn’t satisfy him like that, so God set about dividing us. God had great fun with us, then God tired of us and forgot us. God could be so cruel in his indifference, he horrified me. God knew how to show his gentle side, too, and I loved him as I’ve loved no one else.

   I think we could have all lived happily, in a way, God, me, and the others, if it weren’t for that accursed book. It disgusted me. I knew what bound me to it in the most sickening of ways, but the horror of that particular knowledge came later, much later. I didn’t understand straight away, I was too ignorant.

   I loved God, yes, but I despised that book, which he’d open at the drop of a hat. As for God, he relished it. When God was happy, he wrote. When God was furious, he wrote. And one day, when God was in a really bad mood, he did something enormously stupid.

   God smashed the world to pieces.

 

 

The Promise

 

 

The Archivist


   It’s often said of old buildings that they have a soul. On Anima, the ark where objects come to life, old buildings tend mostly to become appallingly bad-tempered.

   The Family Archives building, for example, was forever in a foul mood. It spent its days cracking, creaking, dripping, and puffing to express its disgruntlement. It didn’t like the drafts that made doors, left ajar, slam in the summer. It didn’t like the rains that clogged up its gutter in the autumn. It didn’t like the damp that seeped into its walls in winter. It didn’t like the weeds that returned to invade its courtyard every spring.

   But, above all, the Archives building didn’t like visitors who didn’t stick to the opening hours.

   And that’s doubtless why, in the early hours of that September morning, the building was cracking, creaking, dripping, and puffing even more than usual. It sensed someone arriving when it was still far too early to consult the archives. And that particular visitor didn’t even stand at the front door, on the steps, like a respectable visitor. No, that visitor entered the Archives building like a thief, straight from the cloakroom.

   A nose was sprouting, right in the middle of a mirrored wardrobe.

   The nose kept coming. Soon after, a pair of glasses emerged, then the arch of an eyebrow, a forehead, a mouth, a chin, cheeks, eyes, hair, a neck, and ears. Suspended there, above the shoulders, in the center of the mirror, the face looked to the right, then to the left. Next, a bit further down, a bended knee poked through, and in tow came a body that pulled itself right out of the mirrored wardrobe, as if from a bathtub. Once clear of the mirror, the figure amounted to nothing more than a worn-out old coat, a pair of gray-tinted glasses, and a long three-colored scarf.

   And under these thick layers, there was Ophelia.

   All around Ophelia, the cloakroom was now protesting from its every wardrobe, furious at this intrusion that flouted the Archives’ rules. The pieces of furniture creaked at the hinges and stamped their feet; the hangers clanged noisily, one against the other, as though propelled by a poltergeist.

   This display of anger didn’t intimidate Ophelia in the slightest. She was used to the Archives being temperamental. “Gently does it,” she murmured. “Gently does it . . . ” Instantly, the furniture calmed down and the hangers fell silent. The Archives building had recognized her.

   Ophelia went out of the cloakroom and closed the door. On the panel was written:

 

   BEWARE: COLD ROOMS

   TAKE A COAT

 

   With hands in pockets and long scarf trailing, Ophelia passed a succession of labeled filing cabinets: “Register of Births,” “Register of Deaths,” “Register of Consanguinity Exemptions,” and so on. She gently opened the door of the consulting room. Not a soul. The shutters were closed but they let in a few rays of sun that lit up a row of desks in the gloom. The singing of a blackbird from the garden seemed to make this burst of light even more luminous. It was so cold in the Archives, you felt like opening all the windows to usher in the warm air outside.

   Ophelia stood still for a moment in the doorway. She watched the threads of sunlight slide slowly across the floorboards as the day broke. She inhaled deeply the scent of old furniture and cold paper. That aroma, in which Ophelia’s childhood had been steeped . . . soon she would smell it no longer.

   With slow steps she made her way towards the archivist’s quarters. All that shielded the private apartment was a curtain. Despite the early hour, a strong smell of coffee was already wafting through. Ophelia coughed into her scarf to make her presence known, but an old operatic aria drowned it out. So she slipped around the curtain. She didn’t have to search for the archivist as the room served simultaneously as kitchen, living room, bedroom, and reading room: there he was, sitting on his bed, nose in a periodical.

   He was an old man with untamed white hair. He’d wedged a loupe under his eyebrow, making that eye look enormous. He wore gloves and, under his jacket, a badly ironed white shirt.

   Ophelia coughed again, but he didn’t hear it due to the gramophone. Engrossed in his reading, he sang along to the little aria—somewhat out of tune, in fact. And then there was the humming of the coffeepot, the rumbling of the stove, and all the usual little noises of the Archives building.

   Ophelia soaked up the particular atmosphere pervading these quarters: the off-key singing of the old man; the waxing light of day filtering through the curtains; the rustling of carefully turned pages; the smell of coffee and, underlying it, the naphtha whiff of a gas lamp. In one corner of the room there was a draughtboard on which the pieces moved of their own accord, as though two invisible players were taking each other on. It made Ophelia want, above all, to touch nothing, to leave things just as they were, to turn right back, for fear of spoiling this familiar scene.

   And yet she had to steel herself to break the spell. She approached the bed and tapped on the archivist’s shoulder. “Lordy!” he exclaimed, jumping out of his skin. “Couldn’t you warn people before springing on them like that?”

   “I did try to,” said Ophelia, apologetically. She picked up the loupe that had rolled onto the carpet and handed it back to him. Then she took off the coat that engulfed her from top to toe, unwound her endless scarf, and placed the lot over the back of a chair. All that remained of her was a slight figure, untidy thick, brown curls, two rectangles for glasses, and an outfit more suited to an elderly lady.

   “You’ve come straight from the cloakroom again, huh?” growled the archivist, wiping his loupe clean with his sleeve. “This obsession with traveling through mirrors at ungodly hours! You know very well my little abode is allergic to surprise visits. One of these days you’re going to get whacked on the head, and you’ll have asked for it!”

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