Written by: Natalie C.
For not the first, nor the second, but the third time that rather gloomy Moon, the moss
beneath Émilie’stender bare feet grew strangely hot as the mademoiselle waded her way through the
unkempt grasses outside her family’s manor, laboriously carrying her weight –what was left of it,
anyway – in grains and légumes.
Once Émilie reached the stone wall demarcating the Manor’s plot of land, she began to feel nervous.
Through the peepholes within the mound of rations in her gangly arms, the girl spotted the snakelike
shadows of ivy vines as they slithered towards her.
Normally, Émilie would simply swing herself up and over the wall, basket of provisions in hand. However,
today, in a flurry of emotion, she had forgotten her woven basket on the way to town.
Meanwhile, the ivy grew closer.
Panicked, Émiliebroke out in a sprint, aiming to outrun the vines. But this proved fleeting when the ivy
swiftly changed course, one vine seizing Émilie’sright foot. The girl tumbled to the ground with a gasp,
spilling bread loaves, potatoes and rice satchels into the foliage.
A growl escaped Émilie as she righted her grass-stained self. With a burst of strength, she snapped the
vine wrapped around her ankle and stomped on her pursuers.
After the grass’s rustling momentarily ceased, she hurriedly gathered up as many lost victuals she could
retrieve and heaved herself over the wall, at last setting foot in the one area Nature had not yet
“Maman, I’ve returned!”Émilie’s voice rung out hollowly in the deathly-quiet chateau.
Upon relieving her arms of foodstuffs onto the wooden kitchen island, she realized with a pang just how
much of a wasted trip she had embarked on, for what lay before her was nothing but a lonely loaf of
bread, a half-empty satchel of rice, and a few bruised potatoes.
No matter, Émilie reassured herself, it would’ve been the last trip to town regardless.
Indeed it would have: just that morning, Émilie compiled the last of her father’s fortune, dread filling her
veins as she thought of their fate once the dwindling supply of rations ran out in a fortnight’s time.
This realization was partly why she had been so scatterbrained to have left her basket in the corner of
her mother’s bedroom.
Although this morning’s Visitor may have contributed his fair share to this lapse in memory…
Émilie shook her head – mussed pigtails swinging like twin pendulums beside her -refusing to give his
Visit the time of day.
After stowing away the groceries, she grabbed a stale loaf of bread and ardently made her way upstairs,
wanting nothing more than to be with her mother.
“Maman?”Émilie whispered, knocking softly on the mahogany door. Tucking the loaf beneath her arm,
she tiptoed her way inside, so as not to disturb her mother’s fragile condition.
“I’ve brought you something,”Émilie murmured to her mother with a sad smile.
After stuffing a chunk of the loaf inside her mouth (at her growling stomach’s demand), she nestled the
rest in the growing pile beside her mother’s form, the angry monster within Émilie’s belly roaring with
indignation at the sight of so much rotting food.
Trust me, I heard a story about this once, Émilie told her whiny insides, convinced these gifts would be
key in keeping her mother safe on her journey.
To the afterlife.
Émilie felt the Manor tremble, ever so slightly, at the thought of this word, although this may have been
a reverie invented by her weary mind.
As if on cue, the girl’s mouth stretched into a yawn, but she was not ready to leave her mother’s side.
Not after the day she had had.
And so – with a mental note to go out to collect more violets in the morning (for the old ones had wilted
away and the stench wafting off of the bed grew more pungent by the hour) – Émilie curled up beside
her mother’s shrouded corpse and drifted off to dreamland, where unwanted memories could
Émilie anticipated Visitors that morning when she felt a weight upon her bosom as she foraged in the
kitchen cupboards for anything that could appease her raging appetite.
Conscious of this sensation, she raised herself up from her unladylike stance on the floor and tiptoed to
She braced for the worst: the feeling of being watched from every dark corner; the swarm of limbs that
poked, prodded and pinched; perhaps the occasional drop in temperature that made the hairs on the
back of Émilie’s neck stand up before she yelped in fright at the sight of five children – of half her age
and stature – standing at the room’s end with black eyes and barren composures.
None of these preparations, however, could have readied her for the tall, well-groomed monsieur
standing forlornly in the middle of the sitting room.
“Émilie,” he whispered, for Visitors could only whisper.
Taken aback, the name the girl used to refer to him as almost slipped past her parted lips.
With haste, the mademoiselle corrected herself:
“MonsieurBellefeuille,” she said in a confident –significantly louder –tone.
The man winced and Émilie guessed it had less to do with her volume, and more to do with the
detached name she addressed him with.
After a quiet moment –which Émilie spent staring at her dirty feet, the peeling wallpaper, the armoire’s
deteriorating upholstery, anything besides her father’s ghost –the monsieur broke the silence:
“Our fortune is almost gone?” he asked, his tone implying he already knew the answer.
Émilie managed an acknowledging grunt before a thought that had crowded her mind for weeks poured
forth from her grimace, “It should have been more.”
Her father only nodded, drained of his once-relentless charm, undoubtedly thinking of the late nights he
would stumble home – pockets empty, eyes bloodshot –his addiction never satisfied, not even on his
Émilie shivered at the last memory she had of her father alive – pale, pustule-ridden, unwilling to release
his godforsaken cards as the Plague stole his last ounce of strength away – prompting her to ask him the
question whose answer she so dreaded, for fear of yet another scar upon her heart: “Why didn’t you
He shuffled, visibly uncomfortable, before speaking:
“I thought you would see reason, Émilie. Then, I thought perhaps your siblings would persuade you to.”
“My siblings?” even Émilie winced at her sharpness, fearing her mother might hear her from above
stairs, “Those demons are not my siblings,”although she regretted using such hateful language, she
couldn’t bear to associate those nightmarish gremlins with the innocent faces she once cradled.
“I know they seem macabre, but it is because they grieve for their mother,” the moment this last word
left his lips, the monsieur sighed, “Émilie, I visit today because we both know the time for games is over.
Soon, you will be unable to leave this house, let alone afford rations.”
This point was met by the unmistakable rattling of the Manor, whose periodic tremors only succeeded
in mentally unbalancing Émilie.
“What do you suggest I do then?” she asked, once the shaking ceased, “I cannot leave her,” just the
thought of saying goodbye to her mother for a second time tore her heart to pieces.
“You must leave her, Émilie. For both your sakes. Leave this house -this family – behind. Become a
seamstress, make a life for yourself,”he pleaded, his wispy visage at its most opaque.
“And why should I listen to you? You never cared for her,”Émilie spat, resentful of him and his myriad of
mistresses, many of whom her mother purposefully turned a blind eye to.
I have all of the love I need from my children, her mother’s ethereal voice spoke from a distant
memory, Remember Émilie, family precedes all.
If only you saw us now, Émilie thought, ashamed of their broken family.
“I admit my feelings for your mother were not sincere and it is something I will regret forevermore,”her
father confessed, “but, please remember I have and will always care for you, Émilie,” with that, the
monsieur dissolved, his weighty presence swiftly replaced with the brick of emotions that sat uneasily
against the girl’s chest.
Émilie woke to a room aglow with morning light, her gut aching from both hunger and the ghost of
heaviness leftover from the day prior.
The girl grew alarmed, sitting up with a wince, at the wooziness that overcame her. Frightened she may
be succumbing to the same fate as the rest of her family, she frantically assessed her bare arms, her
stockinged legs and her small chest for any sign of the Plague’s marks of death.
When she discovered no noteworthy blemishes –save for a purplish bruise on her right knee from the
previous day’s quarrel with the local vegetation –she stepped away from her mother’s bed and instantly
felt better, for she could no longer detect the chaise’s putrid odor.
Relieved, Émilie re-braided her hair, retrieved her woven basket and wandered outside to her mother’s
beloved garden where she could harvest sweet-smelling violets that were sure to restore the
Despite not having cared for the flowery field for the past few days, the girl thought it queer, as she
entered the garden, that a full-grown tree had emerged within what once was a row of irises.
In fact, as the mademoiselle traversed the Manor’s perimeter, she discovered a thicket of oak trees, the
Manor’s fence nowhere to be seen among the dense forestry.
Standing before the woods, Émilie realized with another drop of dread added to the potion of emotions
churning inside her that she was trapped.
You may leave at any time, Émilie, a Voice acknowledged, You need only surrender your mother’s body.
Émilie released a frightful squeal and wildly spun in circles, trying to locate the source of the Voice
(whose low pitch was reminiscent of the earthquakes that had so tormented her during their isolation).
Just as she determined the trees to be the Voice’s origin, a raspier –and what Émilie assumed to
be individual –voice spoke:
Give us back our mother.
At this, an uproar of concurrence descended upon the forest, several trees echoing their brethren’s
Please, Émilie, we need her.
You must return her to us.
Give us back our mother.
“Your mother?”Émilie shouted, “I assure you, she was never yours.”
No, Émilie, the trees spoke in unison once more, she was never yours.
“What on earth does that mean?”Émilie demanded, fists clenched around her basket’s handle.
The Voice spoke out anew:
The Earth is exactly the point, giving life to mothers who give life of their own. This cycle concludes at the
end of a mother’s life when she returns to Mother Earth. Without Our Mother, We are nothing. Without
the world’s mothers, She is nothing.
“Well, I don’t see how any of that concerns me,”Émilie insisted, though the fight had been knocked out
of her as she suddenly longed for her mother’s voice.
Instead, it was only the trees’that continued to hound her.
Mortals. Always thinking of themselves, they said bitterly, If you don’t relinquish your mother soon, this
will only be the beginning.
Émilie felt a familiar hot trembling beneath her feet before pivoting in time to see the Manor succumb
to a swarm of vines that crawled, wrapped and climbed towards one destination:
Her mother’s chamber.
“No!” Émilie cried, clutching her empty basket to her chest, “I won’t let you take her!”
We’d rather not force your hand, Émilie. Consent allows the soul to peacefully pass into Mother Nature’s
But Émilie ceased listening, only thinking of her mother, alone and vulnerable.
So, as the forest droned on, the mademoiselle ran off towards the house.
Startled, the trees rustled, individually crying out:
We need her Émilie!
Oh, she was the best mother!
“Yes,”Émilie agreed under her breath as she shut the trees out for good, “She was.”
Over the next fortnight, the girl remained housebound, her only contact with the outside being when
she periodically peeked behind her mother’s permanently-drawn curtains to assess Nature’s
suspiciously-slow advance towards the bedchamber.
Émilie recalled Nature’s preference she give up her mother willingly, hence its patient invasion and
strange helpfulness (a day after Émilie’s clash with the trees, she discovered a plethora of violets
growing upon the Manor’s lattice, which she promptly harvested from the upstairs foyer’s window and
transported to her mother’s bedside).
However, despite this act of kindness, Émilie couldn’t help her disquietude whenever her bare feet were
met by thorny vines wriggling between floorboards or she was greeted in the morning by dew that took
on the disturbing tint of fresh blood.
Although this latter observation might have been yet another delusion concocted by Émilie’sweakening
body, mind and spirit.
During this time, she physically wasted away, having to move the dwindling ration supply above stairs,
for she could no longer ascend the staircase without feeling light-headed.
To make matters worse, Émilie’s dreams began to collide with reality. Counting rations or taking a tiring,
but needed, stroll through the corridors would result in her falling into a Vision where she resided in a
vast, white Room, empty save for herself and – to Émilie’s astonishment –her mother, reawakened.
However, these reunions proved more bitter than sweet as the Visions left her unable to recall her
mother’s tinkling voice, let alone anything the woman might have said.
This – combined with the ever-increasing appearance of Visitors whose dispositions had, too, worsened
– depressed Émilie, causing her to struggle to find solace even in the nights spent nestled beside her
Eventually, however, everything came to a halt:
On the day the rations ran out, both mother and daughter were forced out of the room they had
dwelled in for two Moons by Nature’s creeping henchmen.
Fittingly, Émilie was bid adieu by her hollowed-out siblings, their eerie semblances blending into the
paintings hung in the hallways she passed through as she carried – no, dragged – her mother, white
shroud and branches of wilting violets trailing along, towards the rickety staircase leading to the two’s
As Émilie stooped beneath her mother’s weight – arms trembling, breaths uneven –she saw reminders
of her mother’s condition in everything, from the ivy-covered windows to the haunted corridors to her
Yet there was one thought that grounded Émilie as she lugged her mother up the endless attic staircase,
wincing each time her mother’s body so much as scraped unpleasantly against the steps’splintery
I’d sooner sacrifice myself to Nature than have it take my mother away from me.
“Émilie,” a familiar voice uttered her name.
But the girl was fading fast.
Once they reached the attic – which was lit by cracks of dwindling sunlight shining through the
unfinished infrastructure –Émilie had just enough strength left to huddle next to her mother’s exposed
figure in a dark, cobwebbed corner.
For some time, Émilie went in and out of consciousness, her heart a dying butterfly in her chest.
The girl awoke in the Room, her mother standing before her with shining eyes.
“My darling girl,” she said, her melodic voice enough to reduce Émilieherself to tears.
Instead, she asked, “Maman, why are you crying?”
“I missed you, ma petite fille,” the woman sniffled, “And I despair at all you have done.”
“I do it all out of love for you,” Émilie professed.
“Child, this isn’t love, it’s selfish,” her mother chided in a tone she once used whenever the children
Whenever Émilie disappointed her.
The girl blinked away a rush of tears, and, when she raised her bowed head, her mother kneeled before
her, ghostly palms against Émilie’s cheeks cool to the touch.
Her mother whispered in her ear, “Dearest, you must be strong. You must let me go, let me rest in peace.
Your current path will only lead to both our souls being lost between worlds. If you truly love me, you
will do what you know is right. Do you understand?”
Émilie’s heart fluttered wildly at this proposal, but she considered what good her sacrifice would do if it
went against notjust herfamily’s, but her mother’s wishes.
And so, Émilie nodded solemnly:
“I understand, Maman.”
The woman’s smile flooded the room with light, her image fading away as Émilie was transported back
to the garret.
Immediately fueled by determination, Émiliecrawled across the attic space, discovering a hole in a
concealed corner she could poke her head through.
At the sight of the girl, the ivy below steadily rose towards the opening.
Émilie rested beside the cavity and faced her mother’s naked form in the crook of the filthy room,
unwilling to let this be the last image she had of her.
In the opposing corner, to Émilie’s astonishment, lay her woven basket, overflowing with stalks of
Suddenly, an idea took shape in Émilie’smind.
Working quickly, she braided the branches, ensuring the flowers remained on their stems. In no
time, Émilie created a nest of interwoven violets she then lay her mother in, arranging her limbs for
At the thought of this word – and the sensation of a vine brushing her foot – Émilie let out a shuddering
exhale before kissing the woman’s cheeks and echoing her mother’s dying words:
“I love you.”
Enough vines soon filled the room to lift her mother, final resting place and all, down
the Bellefeuille Manor.
Down into Mother Nature’s embrace.
Émilie wept happily not only at her mother’s sendoff and a newfound pile of rations – discovered when
she finally turned her back on the setting sun – but also the image etched within her mind:
That of her mother’s face veiled in violets.
Author’s Note: This piece won a Silver Key in the 2021 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.