Madame Félidé Elopes by K. A. Teryna, translated by Anatoly Belilovsky
1. Madame Félidé and the Smile Merchants
On Friday Madame Félidé bought all the smiles the local merchants had for sale. Merry and sad, shy and modest, childlike and old, tender, happy, polite, ugly, warm, soft, villainous, ironic, open, timid, grudging, obsequious—every single one. Shopkeepers dug through their deepest cellars to find silly grins that rarely sold and usually gathered dust amid bits of obsolete gossip and jokes peeled off the floor after they had fallen flat. She emptied the display cases of fleeting smiles and gullible smiles and especially made sure to acquire every single sincere smile in the entire town. She also bought two ounces of contagious laughter and half a pound of good cheer. For change, the sales clerk gave her a tulle sachet full of pointed double entendres.
Dancing, skipping, and humming a silly little song about a cat, Madame Félidé hurried home. What a stir she would cause in the town when everyone realized they’d have to spend holidays with serious faces! Some may have smiles squirrelled away for a rainy day, some may have to rifle through keepsake boxes for antique smiles inherited from their grandmothers. How funny they will look wearing grins a century out of date, and mothball-scented at that! But the rest will skulk along the boulevard, avoiding their friends. What if someone makes a clever joke? Does one respond with cheap tasteless laughter scraped up with pocket lint? Or with a silent nod, betraying shortsighted stinginess?
On the way home Madame Félidé encountered prim Anglian women who walked their well-schooled children and well-bred dogs—or was it the other way around? All of them—women, children, and dogs—cast great quantities of disapproving looks her way, opprobrium being an inexpensive commodity often shared generously with strangers. In return, Madame Félidé took a brand new mysterious smile from her reticule and tried it on right there in the middle of the street. She walked on, warmed by the sounds of Anglians’ horrified whispers as they gossiped about her odd spendthrift profligacy.
Avion waited in her garden, squeaking his wheels nervously; his high-strung personality kept him awake instead of sleeping quietly in the hangar. A family of siskins perched on Avion’s prow-like nose chittering happily to each other as she approached.
2. Madame Félidé visits the sea shore
Madame Félidé did not like painting. That is why she painted dozens of landscapes and portraits which now gathered dust in her attic. She did not hang her work in rooms she actually used, believing (correctly, as it turned out) that the bright colors of her paintings would ruin the delicately tasteful Anglian style of the interior which was a source of justifiable pride for her House. Madame Félidé was a softhearted woman who often showed more consideration for her friends than for her own comforts.
Only one picture, painted the day before, remained in the living room, and even so she placed it in a dark corner and covered it carefully in black cloth. House frowned, its walls curling in disapproval around the easel on which the painting rested, but did no more than that: he was too well brought up to express his pique openly.
Madame Félidé took her purchases from her reticule and tossed them carelessly onto the table. She waved at the painting, and at her gesture the black cloth crawled down to the floor, revealing a huge—half a wall in size—canvas on which a raging ocean clawed for the sky. Sea spray filled the room, Madame Félidé smelled and tasted salt on her lips, and a gust of wind blew a bundle of frivolous smiles off the table.
In the painting, the rocky shore appeared deserted except for a bright spot where someone’s discarded clothes lay near the water’s edge. Madame Félidé peered into the waves hoping to make out the person who went for a swim in such inclement weather. She did not succeed, and so picked up the cup of tea that her House had made for her and left the room.
Avion had already rolled to the airstrip and huffed impatiently, hurrying her to board. Madame Félidé eased into her seat, careful not to spill her tea, and Avion took off.
House looked wistfully toward them, regretting not being able to go for a walk to Enger Street and back. He thought it unseemly for a well-bred Anglian home to dream of travel and adventure, but still a small bit of longing entered his heart, bringing back the memory of his childhood when as a tiny brick he had made the long and dangerous journey from Chester to Warrington to receive his education in Socratic discourses with a cat.
At first Avion flew low and slow, like an elderly pigeon. Madame Félidé marveled at the familiar landscape, taking it in as unhurriedly as she drank her tea. For perhaps the first time in her life she wanted to cut the flight short and to return home immediately. Therefore she directed Avion to fly toward the sea.
Having finished her tea, she threw her teacup overboard. Knowing that Anglians consider shattered porcelain a favorable omen, she tried as often as possible to brighten the lives of her neighbors. It was also a good way to rid herself of tea sets which a distant aunt of hers, with clock-like regularity and bovine perseverance, sent her as gifts for every imaginable holiday. The cup whistled through the air under the very nose of an elderly gentleman and shattered on the pavement. Immediately Avion rose through the clouds into bright sunshine and clear blue sky.
A half-hour later the sea appeared on the horizon. It rolled its slow waves toward the shore and debated with the sky about the clarity of their colors. The sea was tranquility itself and looked not at all like the tempestuous force of nature that had hidden under the cloth cover in Madame Félidé’s House.
Having returned home, Madame Félidé hurried to the living room, pulled the curtain off her painting, and recoiled at the darkness revealed before her. Her heart skipped, but then she saw the stars and heard the distant surf, and her heart returned to beating. The man of her dreams slept in her easy chair. A few sheets of paper lay scattered on the table. For a minute Madame Félidé listened to his calm slow breath, then carefully covered the painting again and tiptoed out of the room.
That night her sleep was filled with visions of tiny silver fish, purple sky, warm rain, and the man of her dreams.
3. Madame Félidé and Unwelcome Guests
Madame Félidé could not stand having guests, so each Saturday at eleven in the morning she put on tea. When no one came, which happened often, she retrieved from her reticule a vial with sighs of relief and happily released one of them. Each sigh cost her practically nothing, especially compared against incessant chatter of her Anglian acquaintances whose tongues unfurled rather quickly in her presence.
There was a knock on the door at the same time as the clock struck. Madame Félidé donned her most joyous smile and hurried to answer it.
Anna Meadows and Bess Thompson were the two of greatest of all misfortunes that could befall one on Saturday morning. Tall, ungainly Anna Meadows usually glared such powerful distaste toward all that surrounded her that Madame Félidé often wondered where she’s bought it. Anna Meadows was also extremely stingy, her dresses, her gossip, and her jokes apparently purchased at garage sales. She wore a wide childish smile as she came in, and exuded a faint odor of mildew, having apparently extracted the smile from her deepest cellar simply to annoy Madame Félidé.
Bess Thompson, blessed with the intelligence of three goats, had on an everyday smile of the kind they sold at last year’s farmers fair. Bess’s stupidity was entirely natural and did not at all go with her clothes, or with her position as Women’s Auxiliary Council Chair for the town in which they lived.
The tea party went far better than Madame Félidé expected. Bess talked incessantly of suffragettes and of the Queen’s impending visit while Anna Meadows shared last year’s gossip about the college rector’s wife. Madame Félidé stayed out of the conversation, only nodding occasionally and in all the wrong places, and glancing nervously at the picture that stood covered in the corner about which House’s features twisted in disapproval.
After the blueberry pie was eaten to the last morsel, tea drunk to the last drop, smiles worn off and gossip chewed and spat out, it was time to go home. The guests hurried to get ready when Anne’s wandering gaze fell into the curve of the far corner of the room.
“How cute,” she said and pursed her lips, the smile she had nursed through two hours of tea having finally disappeared.
Madame Félidé watched in silence as her guest headed toward the painting. The words “If you don’t mind, my dear?” had barely enough time to escape Anne’s lips as she raised the edge of the cover.
Had Anne thought to lay down a supply of high-quality shrieks, she would have used it up that instant. Lacking not only that but even the cheaper generic exclamations, she stepped back, pulling the cloth with her, and froze in an incongruous pose before dropping everything and running from the room.
In the picture, bright noonday sun shone on a rocky sea shore. A man who had only just stepped out of the water hurriedly pulled dry pants on over wet underwear.
4. Madame Félidé’s departure from Angelia
On Thursday Madame Félidé wanted to listen to music, so she went downstairs to the living room and practiced painting rabbits. The rabbits came out looking far too frightened, and Madame Félidé painted over them, accidentally painting the man of her dreams in process. His eyes were full of sorrow and understanding, as if the man of her dreams had waited all his life for her to paint him.
“Stand still,” said Madame Félidé, “I will paint you a smile.”
The man of her dreams stood motionless; only his lips moved a little as he whispered: “I love you.”
“Such nonsense,” said Madame Félidé sharply and picked up her brush.
None of her attempts to put more brush strokes on the canvas succeeded. She tried all her paints—in vain. The painting lived its own life, refusing to obey its creator. Madame Félidé found herself at a loss: how can the painting be without a smile? It cannot. She covered the painting and went to bed.
Her sleep that night was haunted by visions of surf, acacia trees, cinnamon, a boat house, and the man of her dreams.
That is precisely why Madame Félidé went smile shopping on Friday, and not because she was a frivolous kind of a person. She only needed one smile—but which one? It was a good thing that her intuition told her to buy the lot.
And now, having shepherded Bess Thompson out of her home, Madame Félidé set herself to the task of attaching the smiles to the canvas. She tried paper glue, shampoo, jam, milk, treacle, ink, and even oatmeal. Beset with anxiety, she accidentally ate several of the smiles which turned out to be delicious, especially when smeared with raspberry jam.
Madame Félidé felt chagrin at having drawn such a sad man. How silly for a person to lack a smile! Like a cat without whiskers. And Madame Félidé picked up a length of silk yarn and threaded it through the eye of her needle.
“Now I will sew a smile to your face, the sincerest smile of all,” she said. “Just don’t be afraid, and don’t move. You wouldn’t like to smile with your nose or your ears, would you?”
“I am terribly ticklish, you know,” said the man of her dreams. “Don’t sew anything. Why not just marry me instead?”
And he smiled—tenderly, courageously, merrily and a bit ironically.
This was an unexpected development, and, caught by surprise, Madame Félidé agreed without a second thought.
“Wait a minute,” she said, “while I get my toothbrush. But as soon as I return you simply must tell me where you found such a magnificent smile!”
Madame Félidé was not a sentimental woman and so she walked out of her House to say farewell to Avion. She kissed him on the propeller hub and turned away to sweep an uninvited tear off her face.
Avion thought for a moment about trying on a bit of sadness but changed his mind. Instead he rolled slowly in the direction of the sea, the ungreased left gear wheel whistling a merry tune. Avion knew that on the road he would undoubtedly meet a little girl who dreams about the sky.
Madame Félidé returned to House and ran her hand over his rough brick wall. House did not answer; only the faucet in the seldom-used guest bathroom sprung a tiny leak, dripping water that, were anyone to taste it, would have proved unusually salty.
Madame Félidé donned a wide-brimmed hat, tied a silk bow at her collar, and for no apparent reason retrieved her black umbrella from the hall closet. Returning to her painting, she closed her eyes (thinking herself a terrible coward) and stepped through the canvas.
5. Madame Félidé catches up on her reading
After Madame Félidé learned to smile, sigh, and cry on her own, as well as many other important things, after her elder son went to school and the younger said his first word, “Boo!” and shook his soup spoon at the cat—in short, many years later Madame Félidé decided to sort old papers that gathered dust in the attic. There, among old theatre playbills, yellow newspapers, postcards from Aunt Fannie, and expired stagecoach tickets, she found a few pages covered in her husband’s impatient handwriting.
She put away the file with important documents, perched comfortably near the attic window from which a beautiful view of the rocky sea coast could be seen, and began to read:
“On Friday Madame Félidé bought all the smiles the local merchants had for sale. Merry and sad, shy and modest, childlike and old, tender, happy, polite, ugly, warm, soft, tender, villainous, ironic, open, shy, grudging, obsequious—every single one.”