Marie was vaguely aware of other people in the basilica, but none had come near or paid any attention to her at all.

…except for the African woman with the baby.

She cuddled the infant, who seemed quite happy and content even though she was being held by a stranger. She was quite small, probably only a few months old. Marie waited for her own tears to come, but none did. Her own babes were gone. She had let them go, trusting others to keep them secret and safe. She had initially thought it ridiculous to fake the death of the Dauphin of France, but after the family’s imprisonment she had been all too willing to fake the death of his brother as well.

There was still hope for her eldest daughter. She was already a young woman, and might be married off somewhere safe.  As for her youngest, her baby, Sophie had died without even seeing her first birthday.

It was Sophie she thought of as she cradled and cooed over the baby. Six years later, she still felt the loss keenly.

The African woman was staring at the holes in the cloth as if they were evidence of some supernatural event. Marie almost laughed at the thought… her mere presence in this place was a supernatural event. Fortunately, years of being drilled as to how a noblewoman should couch her features prevented her from behaving badly. She furrowed her brow and looked carefully at the cloth in the other woman’s hands. “Is something wrong? It’s only a few small holes, I am sure they can be mended.”

The woman shook her head, folding the cloth to show both holes. “It is just that I can not imagine where these holes came from. I wrapped Lark in this little more than an hour ago, and it was perfect in every way. It is my best Kitenge.”

“Surely you could have snagged it somewhere, that would not be at all unusual.” Marie wanted to be helpful; this woman was the only person to pay her any mind.

The African woman shook her head. “These are bullet holes. And there were bullets flying all about me before…” the woman wobbled on her feet, then staggered backwards, landing heavily on the stone steps. She looked up at Marie with the eyes of a doe. “Are we dead? Are we in heaven?”

Marie opened and closed her mouth. This was not a question to which she would give a flippant answer. She herself had felt the blade of the guillotine graze her neck. And this woman had been in the path of a pistol. Yet Marie knew in her heart that they were not dead.

She knelt carefully in front of the woman, still holding the babe. She caught the woman’s willing eyes, wishing calm and strength to her. “We live. I know we live.” They both glanced down at the baby, who had made a happy burble in response to the reassuring words. “I do not think that this is some kind of after-life, although of course I have no experience on which to make that claim.”

“There are Christian symbols everywhere… I do not understand.”

“Oh. Well, we are in a church.” Marie put the emphasis on the word are, hoping to sound casual and reassuring. The woman seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown.

“These bullet holes… to make them, a bullet would have to have passed through my heart… and my baby’s head.”

Marie shuddered, then miraculously the unease was drained out of her, as if she was merely a conduit and the very walls of the sacred place absorbed every bit of negative energy, leaving behind a peace, yet an emptiness as well. She looked deep into the woman’s eyes, and told her the impossible.

“Not more than an hour ago, my head was placed in a guillotine. I felt the blade touch my neck, but when I reached up to brush it away it was only a spider. And I was not in Paris. I was in the middle of a beautiful field. And I was very much alive and unharmed.”

The woman stared at her, as if in disbelief. “You mean a real guillotine? Like Marie Antionette?”

Marie startled. But there was absolutely no pretense about the woman, only confusion and fear. “I am Marie Antionette. Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, Queen of France and Navarre until my husband’s death at that same guillotine nine months ago.”

The woman actually laughed. “You are Marie Antionette?” Then she stopped laughing, and became serious, as if accepting everything around her was the only way to maintain her sanity. “Why not. I am alive. I am here. My baby is safe…” she shook her head, gently stroking the baby’s hair. “I am pleased to meet you, Marie. I am Nyota.”

Marie laughed at the use of her given name. She should be offended, but it just felt so good to be conversing with another person, another woman, as equals. Two strangers stranded in a place that was definitely neither Paris nor Versailles. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Nyota. And the baby?”

“Lark. My beautiful, tiny songbird.” The woman seemed genuinely calm and happy, as if the walls had worked their magic on her as well. But then she looked puzzled. “Do you know where the hamlet is? I feel that we should go back there…”

Marie raised an eyebrow, but too many strange things were happening for her to remark on one more. “I do indeed. Would you come with me? I feel that we both need a friend.”

Together, they worked through the maze of corridors and rooms until they were in the large square in front of the basilica. They both paused a moment, blinking in the strong daylight at a sight she must have overlooked in her earlier haste to find the basilica. Off in the distance rose the towers of a great castle. It was huge and imposing, reminding her more of the fortresses in Austria than anything she knew in France. Brownish grey stone reached for the sky while still remaining firmly anchored to the ground.

After a full minute of staring and waiting her eyes to adjust to the light, Marie began to notice her surroundings. There were many people, all dressed in a wide variety of costumes. Some were quite fashionable, others were downright scandalous. A conveyance rambled by on four wheels, with no horses pulling it.

A glance at Nyota confirmed that her new friend was just as confused as she was. Then she felt a pull inside, a desire to return to the hamlet where she had awoken.

It was a short walk, mostly uphill. Nyota carried Lark against her shoulder, both protecting and gathering comfort from the child. The hamlet was as picturesque as it had been designed to be. They meandered along the streets, nodding and smiling in return to all the people who were nodding and smiling at them as if it was a perfectly ordinary day.

She wondered if the Petit Trianon would be there as well… the hamlet was very different, although most of the same structures existed. There was some strange artwork on display, and the women paused several times to ponder how someone could possibly consider the unusual sculptures to be worthy of public exhibition.

As soon as her eyes found the familiar rectangular facade with its four Corinthian columns, a tug of urgency motivated her to move more quickly. She stumbled forwards, then caught herself and looked back at Nyota and Lark. She could have sworn she heard a baby cry, but Lark was as happy as ever.

She heard the sound again, and turned towards the building, not believing what she heard.

“Is that a baby crying?” Nyota asked.

Marie broke into a run. She stumbled up the steps and burst through the doors.

Her beautiful retreat was empty. It looked to be perfectly preserved, just without a single stick of furniture anywhere.

“Sophie?” she called, not wanting to hope, not believing her ears. She knew that cry.

A heartbreaking “Ma ma maa!” came from somewhere upstairs. Marie ran up them, finding more empty rooms. She heard the shuffling of feet and another baby sound she couldn’t distinguish.

She walked into a room that had just a few items. Suddenly scared that if she moved too quickly, the dream would end, she hovered in the doorway.

A nursemaid appeared in a doorway off to the left. “Oh! My lady, I’m glad you have returned. Little Sophie had quite a time with that latest tooth, but I gave her a frozen cracker and that seems to have done the trick.”

Marie couldn’t speak. She forced herself to take those few steps into the room and look down into the elegant crib.

It was her Sophie.

What Would Have Been

What Would Have Been is a short story (or novella… who knows?) that I am publishing one chapter at a time… as I write it. It’s a fun exercise for me, and hopefully a bit of entertaining reading for you!

This story is dedicated to the Janes. The real ones and the fictional, the ones who survived, and the ones who didn’t. For all of you.

The shortlink for this post is http://wp.me/p1rMYd-cT