Unseen Genius: Chapter 16: Confessions of Jealousy
It was late March now, but winter had yet to give up its hold on the French countryside just outside of Paris. Ankle deep snow covered the ground in waves, an icy ocean suspended in time. The white rippled off into the distance, rolling over the stone walls lining the road and blanketing the evergreens close to the Donovan cottage.
Tiny tracks of nameless animals crisscrossed the open yard between the house and the small barn close by, marring the pristine landscape. Human feet had also left their mark in the white. Trails slashed muddily across the small yard between the house, the modest barn, and the small frozen pond set back amongst the pines.
The pond lay smooth and still behind the house, reflecting the cold light of the distant sun - its surface scored with white marks left by fine-edged skate blades. A month had passed since the evening Erik and Brielle had danced in the parlor, the days blurring together within the comfort of growing familiarity.
The battle of wills within the household had settled down remarkably. Conner and Erik were easier around each other, able to fall back upon their shared love of music when forced to converse. Secretly though, Erik still considered Conner to be an anomaly in the human population. No one could be that open and comedic about life. The redhead’s unguarded nature was disquieting - his constant smiles misleading. Though well concealed, there was more to Brielle’s brother than he let on; a fierce intelligence burned behind those smiling eyes.
Brielle, though more conservative with her expressions, was nearly as bad as her brother. Her lamp-like eyes softened with genuine, if wary, kindness as the ice slowly faded from her personality over the weeks. The woman disappeared every morning at seven on the dot and returned again at three in the afternoon, leaving her daughter in the care of her irresponsible brother and himself, a near stranger. And lately Conner wasn’t even home; his concert schedule drew him away for days at a time, leaving Erik alone in the house with Aria. Such trust was mind-boggling. It was stupid. It was endearing.
And yet he couldn’t bring himself to trust her. Couldn’t bring himself to call her his friend as she so easily referred to him. It was beyond his ability, and even though a secret part of himself longed to say that one word to another, friend, he knew he did not deserve to.
Despite the leaps and bounds Erik had made with the senior members of the Sinclair/Donovan family, it was Aria whom had managed to pry affection from his guarded heart. Erik had spent every morning of the last month with the girl, tutoring her as he had promised he would.
Erik had always been an excellent teacher - a shocking talent considering his solitary nature. He expected the best of his students and could be cruel in his methodology. Christine, he remembered, had often been driven to tears by his lessons. And yet, on their first day together Erik had discovered these methods were not exactly appropriate for Aria.
One biting correction from him had prompted the oddest response from the child. She calmly opened her cherub’s mouth and shrieked at the top of her lungs before falling to the ground and thrashing upon the floor. Erik had been in a panic, thinking she was having a fit of some sort, when Conner calmly walked past the room, his nose in a newspaper. The redhead merely glanced up and grinned at him, as if to say, “It is your problem today!”
Flabbergasted, Erik figured Aria’s behavior must be normal, considering Conner’s nonchalant reaction. And so he did the only thing a man can do when faced with a screaming toddler; he ignored her until she got tired and stopped the tantrum.
He learned two things from the disquieting episode. Firstly, that Aria was indeed a child rather than a mini adult; secondly, that he needed to seriously modify his teaching methods. As the days had passed, he had gentled his reproaches until they transformed into words of encouragement; he had relaxed the tense frown upon his face to an easy smile.
The changes Erik felt stirring within himself reflected those of the child he was teaching. Every day she made a new breakthrough. Every day her words came easier from the prison of her treacherous mouth. And every day he felt the guards about his heart crumble all around him, the darkness eroding away under the unnatural light of compassion found within the walls of the Donovan household.
A sudden icy wind raced down the collar of Erik’s borrowed winter coat, startling him out of his musings. The bitter temperature reminded him of his reason for venturing outside in the first place. With a shrug he set out across the small yard, following the trail of footsteps leading the way to the wind-worn barn nearby. The structure stood about fifty yards away from the house, weather beaten and gray. One of the double doors hung slightly askew upon its hinges.
He paused just outside the door way, one gloved hand rising to graze over the rough wood. At his touch the door swung in slightly, creaking mournfully. It had been a long time since anyone had oiled the hinges - since anyone had lived here who was strong enough to work this modest land.
Erik made a mental note to ask Conner if there was any grease about the house which he could use to quiet the hinges. And while he was at it, the wood pile was looking low; perhaps he could split some logs as well.
The hinges continued to squeal as he pushed the door completely open. Erik waited for the distinctive odor of the animals to overwhelm him. In his mind, the stench of the carnival, of rotting hay and filthy animals, filled his nostrils and made his stomach roll with bad memories. The images of cold iron bars and faded yellow tents flickered through his mind like moths about a lantern. A moment of panic set his heart to palpitating in his chest as he stood in the open doorway, the cold winter’s light barely cutting through the darkness of the barn.
But as the wind cut through the thick wool of his coat, the expected stench did not come. True, he could smell the animals in the barn, but everything felt…healthy, wholesome. The air was infused with the sweet dusty scent of clean hay and old wood. The panic subsided within him as he stepped hurriedly into the warm darkness of the barn, shutting the door behind him.
His eyes quickly adjusted to the dim interior of the barn as he silently stepped around the small black carriage stored just inside the doorway. One of the two family draft horses raised its great head and gazed at him over its stall door with large liquid eyes as he passed it by. A cow lowed from the far end of the building, its mournful wail followed by high bell-like laughter which drifted off into a soft soothing song.
The quiet lilting song grew louder as he made his way down the row of stalls to the other side of the barn. Rounding the corner of the final stall, Erik caught sight of Brielle sitting perched upon a three legged stool milking a tawny brown cow. Cool white light filtered down from the single window near the rafters, illuminating Brielle’s snowy hair like a halo about her head. As she sang the girl tilted her head slightly, resting her cheek against the cow’s side.
For some reason Erik hesitated in the shadows about the stalls, unwilling for a moment to disturb the tranquil scene before him. Despite his silence Brielle suddenly stopped singing and raised her head, her eyes fixing upon him in the darkness. She smiled up at him a little self consciously.
“Have you been standing there long?”
“No,” he said simply, leaning back against the side of the final stall. “You sing to the cow while you milk her?” A smile and a teasing note crept into his voice at the question.
“Well I…it helps to calm her,” she began, flustered by the fact he had been listening to her. “I know I don’t have a voice fit for the Opera house but I…”
“No, you are right you don’t,” he began, surprised by the hurt in her eyes. Quickly he continued, “Perhaps it is better. Fit for lullabies and Irish dancing.”
Pleased by his compliment, she turned her face away to hide the blush rising in her cheeks, continuing the steady rhythm of her milking. The swish-swishing sound of each stream of milk hitting the bucket filled the slightly uncomfortable silence between them.
“Tell me are you good at everything you do Brielle? Or do I only ever catch you at the things you are best at?” he asked, a note of sarcasm deepening his tone. “You seem almost fearless.”
“Don’t be silly,” she answered with a laugh. “I am terrible at plenty of things. And I certainly am not fearless.”
“Don’t try to be modest. I hate it when people try to act modest,” Erik sighed.
She seemed startled by this. “Whatever are you talking about?”
He pushed off the stall he was leaning against and stepped forward into the light. “You rescue and befriend unconscious men from Opera houses, you write medical papers, you give your time at that hospital, you run a household and finally you can milk cows. What is left that you cannot do? I have yet to ever see you back down from any situation. Tell me one thing that you have ever been afraid of!”
“You sound jealous Erik,” she said thoughtfully, resting her cheek against the cow’s side once again.
He huffed at her statement, making her smile. “Jealous of a woman - please!”
She ignored the arrogance in his voice. “You don’t have to be snotty. And I have plenty of things I am unable to do. No matter how hard I practice, I cannot hear the music in the air as you seem to.”
“Perhaps, but not everyone has the talent for music. And you did not answer the second part of my question.”
“I don’t have to tell you anyth…,” she began before noticing the amusement her irritation had sparked in his eyes. “Fine if I tell you, will you drop the subject?”
“Of course, if it is your desire.”
“I am afraid of being useless,” she said simply with a shrug, before clamping her mouth shut and shooting a pointed look his way. After a moment, a weak laugh escaped her tight-lipped mouth. “I was just thinking how odd it is that you think I can do everything, seeing how it is I who am jealous of you.”
“Excuse me?” he sputtered, his eyebrows drawing low over his glittering eyes.
“I would think it obvious really,” she said softly, apparently missing his shock. “I haven’t any natural talents. I wasn’t born with a passion fixed within my very being as you and Conner and even Aria are. All of my abilities stem from my observations of others. I suppose you could say my gift is in mimicking the gifts of others.” Slowly Brielle turned her eyes from the ground up to his face. “People like you make it all seem so easy. I envy you the talent you have.”
“Do not tease me Brielle,” he said tensely, suddenly becoming angry with her. She knew next to nothing of his life. If she did, he was certain as hell she wouldn’t be saying such ignorant childish things. “You can’t honestly say you wish for…” He made a vague gesture in the air, intending to point to the mask upon his face, but for some reason the look in her eyes stopped him.
“For what Erik?” she asked sharply, her hands stilling at the cow’s udder. “Go ahead say it. You have been dying to say it for weeks now.” When he remained stubbornly silent, she shook her head in irritation, several locks of her hair falling free about her face. “How could I possibly admire you or your talents when your face is so disfigured? Isn’t that what you were going to say?”
“Shut your mouth you wretched woman.” His eyes flashed dangerously at her words, but she ignored the warning signs.
“In all your time here, what have I done to convince you so thoroughly that I am so shallow as to consider a single physical attribute to be more important than the whole of a man’s character?”
“You don’t even know what you are talking about. How could you possibly know what it is like to…,” he hissed, clenching his fists at his sides.
“What?” she interrupted. “Hm? What don’t I know? I suppose I couldn’t know what it is like to be stared at? Or to be jeered at in the streets? No, no I couldn’t know such things with white hair and colorless eyes! So then I definitely couldn’t know what it was like to be afraid to go to school when I was young because the children used to throw rocks at me?”
“It isn’t the same thing you dramatic little viper!” he bellowed, unable to keep his normally tenuous grip upon his temper any longer. One gloved hand rose to cover the mask upon his face, as if to further protect what lay beneath from her piercing eyes.
“How dare you try and compare your life to mine! What are the odd childish insult and rare cruelty compared to…,” He stopped suddenly, horrified that he had almost confessed the most intimate experiences of his childhood with this ill mannered witch. “It isn’t the same. People stared at you because you are beaut…”
“Don’t say it! Beauty is such a deceiving thing - especially on women. It makes men believe all manner of stupid things. It makes them think a pretty face indicates obedience, or a submissive nature, or even that a girl will make a good wife!” She bared her teeth, her bodice heaving in fury. “Oh, that was another thing I was bad at! John had just begun to realize that when he was killed!”
Her final words echoed in the sudden silence which fell hard between them, stretching taut like barbed wire between two fence posts. “People find a way to judge each other no matter what they look like!” She turned from him then, closing her eyes tiredly. “All my life I have seen the worst of what nature and war can do to the human body. Which one was it for you Erik? Nature or War?”
He stood ridged and silent, having retreated from the light illuminating Brielle back into the shadows near the stalls. Her questions came hard and fast, beating against the walls still standing about his heart. A tremor started deep inside him, making its way through his body until his hands shook. The fury in his eyes was no longer able to completely hide the broken soul behind them.
“I was born with this face,” he finally whispered through tight lips. Waiting, tense and ready for her to turn away, to show some sign of uncertainty, or worse, pity.
Brielle simply nodded with a sigh, the fight draining out of her. “Why do you still wear it, Erik?”
“I would never inflect my features on such good people as this family,” he growled backing further away from her, from her words, from her damned questions.
Ignoring his words she stood and advanced upon him, leaving the circle of light where she had been sitting and joining him in the warmth of the shadows. “Why do you hide yourself in darkness when it is so clear you were born to shine? Why do you allow your gifts to go unseen?” she asked quietly, a frown wrinkling the skin between her brows. One of her hands rose hesitantly to trail down the edge of his mask, the tips of her fingers just barely kissing the corner of his jaw before he jerked away.
And the last surviving remains of the fortress about his heart fell away under the light which still glowed in her eyes, even as she stood in the darkness. He was left speechless at her words, at the consequences of them. Without the numbness to protect him, fear took hold. For now he was stepping into the unknown - and it terrified him.
Just when the panic began to infuse the sad blue of his eyes, Brielle turned her head and stepped away, giving him space and retaking her seat upon the milking stool. She was quiet for a time, uncannily sensing the need for silence, before turning her head back to her task. “Is there a reason you ventured outside then, or did you just finally decide to explore a little?”
Taking several steadying breaths, Erik was finally able to reply without his voice betraying the whirlwind of emotion clouding his mind. “Aria wanted me to ask you if you were going to make her a cake today.” He paused, unconsciously stepping forward, away from the shadows he had been hiding in. “Why does she think you will be making a cake?”
“Well, it is her birthday today and I make a cake every year on her birthday. Today she turns four years old.” She straightened then, pushing her stool back with a scrape. “Time moves so quickly sometimes. It feels as if it was just yesterday when she was born.” She smiled then and stood, sliding the filled bucket from underneath the heifer before it could be toppled into the straw.
“Have you never had a birthday cake then Erik?” she asked, huffing slightly with the weight of the bucket pulling on her arms.
Reaching out he carefully relieved her of the bucket, his action earning him a grateful smile. A smile which he found himself able to return. “No. I can’t say that I have. I don’t recall birthdays being a priority when I was young.”
“What a shame, a birthday is such an enjoyable occasion,” she said with a frown. “Though that reminds me. Now that we are on the subject, how old are you?” Brielle asked, the oddest expression of concentration suddenly overtaking the frown.
“I would say probably thirty-five years, or thereabouts.”
“Don’t you know?” she asked, startled.
“Not exactly, no,” he replied slowly.
“Well, about thirty five would make you about five years older than Conner and about ten years older than me.” A teasing glitter lit up her eyes as she poked his shoulder with a grin, all signs of her earlier anger faded now or expertly hidden. “Why I had no idea you were such a terribly old man!” she finally exclaimed.
For some reason her comment struck him as being terribly funny and he could not stop the chuckle from bursting unexpectedly out of his mouth. The milk in his hands shook from the mirth trembling through his body. “How dare you woman!” he managed to say, trying to sound outraged and failing.
His laughter apparently pleased Brielle for some reason, for a delighted smile broke out over her face, making her eyes sparkle with mirth. The sight of that smile affected him more than if she had touched him - more than if she had punched him in the gut. He could feel the warmth of her laughing eyes as they trailed over his cheek, his neck, and then away. In fact, he was beginning to feel warm all over - a calming contented feeling that was a far cry from the burning heat he recognized as lust. Lust he was familiar with; he had always felt it with Christine and now even when Brielle was near. No, this was different; it was better.
“Come Erik; if you keep me company while I try and bake the cake I will let you lick the icing spoon.”
“It would be this old man’s pleasure to accompany you,” he said, following her as they made their way to the door.
A patch of slick mud near the door sent Brielle’s dainty lady’s boots sliding out from under her. Automatically, Erik offered his free arm for her to take as the pair exited the barn. When she easily took it, and held on long past the danger of slipping, he was glad suddenly for braving the cold and coming to the barn, glad of their bickering and her damned irritating questions, glad to finally feel the weight of sorrow begin to ease and fall free of his shoulders.
And then he knew what that wonderful warmth growing inside him was. It was happiness.