Camille dropped to her knees in the mud. Her skirts absorbed last night’s rain and the scent of sodden earth. She plunged a trowel, stolen from her neighbor’s garden, into the red clay and dug furiously, stopping only to slop hunks of earth into a wooden trough. She needed one more load to mold the portrait of Eugénie. The maid would sit for her again, regardless of her protestations.
The sun climbed the sky, though it did little to warm the damp chill. Thankfully, the heat of summer had not unleashed its force to scorch the grass and dry the earth. It made for easier digging.
Camille breathed in a lungful of air laced with the mineral scent of clay. Perfection.
“Read to me, little brother,” she said. “If you’re not going to help, that is.”
Paul dangled his legs over the edge of the boulder on which he sat. “I’ll help you lug it home, but I’m not listening to Mother’s howling over my soiled trousers again.”
Paul cared for appearances, with his proud chin and shining blond hair, his perfectly polished boots, even at the young age of thirteen. Camille grinned. It was a fatal mistake in a household with a sister obsessed with clay.
Her brother ignored her and flipped to a page in Verlaine’s Poèmes Saturniens. He read aloud.
How far away now is all that lightness
And all that innocence! Ah, backwards yet,
From black winter fled, to the Springtime of regret,
From my disgust, my boredom, my distress.
“Can’t you read anything more lively?” Camille stood and stretched her aching back. It would not do to feel so fatigued already. She had too much to accomplish today. “You’re always so melancholy.”
“As you’re always spiteful.”
She gouged her fingers into the slick clay and lobbed a fistful at Paul. It splattered his vest and the cuff of his once-pristine shirt. She laughed and gathered another handful.
“Cretin!” He jumped down from his perch and chased her through the wood toward the edge of the riverbank.
She squealed as she fled. “You’ll never catch me in your fine shoes.” Her dark hair came loose from its haphazard knot and streamed down her back. She laughed as she laced through maple and chestnut trees and leapt over underbrush. How easy her brother was to goad.
Paul threw himself forward and caught her arm, spun her around, and smashed a wet mound of earth on her cheek. Camille shrieked, then grasped his free hand and tugged him toward the water’s edge.
“Oh no you don’t. Let go!” He leaned away from her with all his weight.
“You’re covered in mud,” she said. “You need to bathe.”
With a final yank, they tumbled together into the river, a heap of flailing limbs and fabric. Paul sputtered in the cold russet water before he gained his footing on the silt bottom. “You’ll pay for this. While you sleep.”
“Try it. I dare you.” Camille splashed him before she waded to shore, flopping onto the embankment in her soaked gray gown, a fish out of water. Paul trudged over soft riverbank and plopped onto the carpet of grass beside her, tucking his hands beneath his head. He stared up at the clouded sky.
“Rats!” In a sudden movement he scrambled to his feet. “Our lessons! Monsieur Colin will be angry if we’re late.” He offered his sister his hand. When she reached for it, he yanked it away, and she tumbled back to the ground. He laughed at her startled expression. “You deserved that.”
Camille giggled. “So I did.” She stood and pulled at the wet fabric sticking to her skin. “I’m sure he started with Louise. You know how long she takes at the pianoforte. We needn’t hurry.”
Monsieur Colin had traveled to Villeneuve-sur-Fère to tutor the children during the summer months. Gracious of him, considering he had many commitments. Papa paid him well for his services.
They returned to the rocky hillside and hefted the heavy trough back through the windswept fields to their house in the center of Villeneuve. As they passed the town’s église, the sonorous clamor of church bells tolled the hour from their Gothic tower.
“It’s later than I thought,” Camille said, lowering the clay to the ground. A sinking dread settled in the pit of her stomach. Mother would be angry.
“Hurry!” Paul urged her.
They dragged their load through a rusted iron gate and around to the barn behind the house. Camille covered the clay with a moistened cloth and left it beside Grand-père’s old kiln before following Paul to the house.
Monsieur Colin bounded down the front walk. “There you are.” He studied their ruined clothing with shrewd eyes. “It seems you have gone for a swim instead of tending to your studies. I prefer not to waste my time.”
“I beg your pardon, monsieur.” Camille cast her gaze to the ground. “We didn’t realize the hour. I was looking forward to another drawing lesson.”
“Moi, aussi,” Paul said.
Monsieur Colin gave them a stern look. “I left a list of assignments for next Thursday. I will be in Paris the remainder of this week. And Camille”—his stern tone softened—“your mother isn’t happy with you.”
The dread reemerged and slithered in her stomach. What sort of punishment would she receive today? She met her tutor’s eyes. “She never is.”
“Try not to take it to heart. Your studies are progressing well, when you attend to them.” Monsieur Colin winked and a smile lifted the corners of his bushy mustache. He continued down the walk and raised his cane in the air. “Paul, keep your sister out of trouble.”
“Oui, monsieur,” he said. “I will do my best.”
Camille pinched his arm. He shoved her in response. “Now we must face Mother, thanks to you.”
“What’s another admonishing? We’re always at war.” Camille’s words were braver than she felt. The last time she had broken a rule, she had been restricted from the barn for a week. She had been reduced to making shapes with her pureed potatoes.
When monsieur’s coach disappeared down the street, they entered the familiar stucco house. Mother swept into the hall in her usual gray day dress unadorned by lace, corsage, or frills, embellished only by a modest bustle and a cameo. She wore her hair slicked and shiny, parted down the middle, and rolled into a tight chignon at the nape of her neck. Her sharp expression and rigid shoulders—held stout like a soldier’s—did little to soften her austere appearance.
Camille braced herself.
“Where in the devil—” Mother’s hand flew to her mouth. “Camille, look at you! You’re a disgrace.” She stared at the red clay caked on her daughter’s gown and boots, the naked forearms and elbows covered in grime. “Those filthy sculptures. I have told you not to wear your good dresses outdoors, yet you insist on keeping up with this nonsense. If you continue to run amok like a heathen, you will ruin the family’s reputation.”
Camille flinched. She didn’t wish to destroy the family’s reputation, but she did not see how sculpting could be shameful. It filled her with purpose and joy. Sculpting was all beauty and inspiration—and passion, something Mother had not experienced a single day in her life.
“I’m an artist, Mother,” Camille said drily. “Not a whore or a gambler.”
Mother’s nostrils flared. “Yet you appear as one, just now.”
Camille’s mouth fell open.
“Don’t talk to her that way.” Paul jumped to her aid.
“Know your place, young man,” Mother snapped. “You aren’t the head of this household.”
“Why do you dislike me so much?” Camille asked. “Because I am not him? Your infant who died?”
Mother’s eyes bulged in their sockets—the desired effect. Camille had struck a nerve.
“I had not yet been born, and you deride me as if I made him die,” Camille continued. Sorrow and anger clawed at her throat.
“Do not speak of him!” Mother said, her voice strangled. Tears shone in her eyes.
Camille had gone too far, and yet, she knew her words rang true. She had always paid for Mother’s pain, for her loss. “I am sorry.” She reached out a trembling hand to comfort her mother, despite her instinct to recoil.
Mother pulled away and crossed her arms. “You’ll spend the rest of the day in your bedroom. And Paul, you will work off the cost of your ruined shoes.”
His face fell.
“I will work for his shoes.” Camille tucked her hand through his arm in solidarity. “It’s my fault.” She bumped him softly with her shoulder. Grateful, her brother squeezed her hand.
“Fine.” The rigid lines on Mother’s forehead deepened. “And no more talk of being an artist. It’s absurd. You will finish your studies and find a husband, Camille, as it is supposed to be.”
Camille’s insides turned to stone. A husband? She could think of nothing worse. She turned on her heel and stormed up the creaky oak stairs. Mother couldn’t force her.
“Wait.” Paul raced after his sister, reaching her bedroom just as she closed the door.
“Not now, Paul.” Camille paced in the tiny space, littering clumps of mud behind her on the wooden floor. Mother wanted her to behave like every other lady, or better yet, to behave like Mother herself—a submissive, miserable woman. A victim of her own life.
“I can’t believe you said that to her,” Louise said. Her sister braided her hair before the mirror for the second time that day. She admired her new set of ribbons entirely too much—and her own reflection.
Camille stopped. “Of course you wouldn’t understand, because she never reprimands you.”
“It’s not difficult to follow the rules.”
Camille struggled with the laces of her damp gown, freed herself, and tossed the offending garment into the corner with a savage thrust. She could not be a demure, overly sweet creature who shrank beneath the weight of duty. Marriage—even the word—turned her stomach. She would not spend her days pleasing everyone but herself.
Paul knocked at the door. “Camille, let me in.”
She pulled on a dry chemise and opened the door.
“Don’t listen to her.” Her brother embraced her. “You’ll be a famous sculptor one day. You’ll be one of the first women to do it. I know you will.”
Thank God for Paul. He would always be there, defending her to the last.
Camille lit another candle. Evening descended, and soon she would need to sneak the lantern from her bedroom into the barn. She scooped a mass of clay onto an old farm table to roll and knead it, to wick away unnecessary moisture. With forceful thrusts, she pushed against the clay again and again. The sticky lump formed beneath her hands, bent to her will. She could control clay and depend on its soothing smell. She marveled at the way it held a secret identity until she coaxed it to life.
The barn door screeched on its hinge. Camille looked up to meet the intruder. “Papa!”
Louis-Prosper Claudel had returned home after a week’s stay in Paris. Camille kissed his cheeks. The familiar scent of his mustache wax hovered about him.
“Bonsoir, mon amour.” He removed his morning coat and loosened his cravat. “It’s good to be home. Paris is abysmal in the summer.”
Camille wondered what abysmal looked like—she had never seen the capital city. Mother deemed it unsafe since the fall of the Paris Commune and the Prussian invasion a decade ago. Still, Camille had pleaded for a visit more times than she could count. She longed to tour the Louvre and see the works of the greats.
“Mother said you haven’t eaten since this morning.” He rubbed her back. “Come and have tea with your papa.”
But she had so much to do—the bust of Poseidon needed some attention and she had to prepare more clay. Perhaps she would work more after a visit with Papa.
“Very well. I’ll join you.” She dunked her hands in a bucket of water and scrubbed.
They strolled to the house and into the salon, where the rest of the family lounged. Paul snapped his book closed, and Louise ceased her piano practice to greet their father.
“I asked Eugénie to save you a plate from this afternoon.” Mother tilted her cheek so Papa could kiss her, but did not look up from her sewing.
Camille noted Mother did not do the same for her.
As Papa turned the cylinder on the gas lamp, a flame blazed to life. Satisfied, he settled on the settee. “And how are your studies, children?”
“Bien,” Paul said. “I am ahead again.”
Camille sat beside her father. “I spent the entire day in the barn. Paul’s bust is finished.”
“If you continue with such intensity,” Mother said in a curt tone, “your art will consume you.”
Camille shrugged. Was that a bad thing? To be consumed by what you most adored?
“I look forward to seeing it,” Papa cut in. He removed his spectacles and polished them with a handkerchief.
Mother dropped her sewing in her lap. “She missed another session with Monsieur Colin yesterday afternoon. Your daughter traipses through the woods, destroying clothing, ignoring her duties. And of course she has to get her brother into trouble as well.” She threw Paul a pointed look.
A rush of blood crept up Camille’s neck to her hairline. Mother could never resist the chance to chastise her in front of everyone. She bit her tongue to keep from saying something she would regret.
“Camille.” Papa trained his kind blue eyes on her face. “You mustn’t miss your lessons or I won’t pay for them any longer.”
“I’m sorry, Papa.” She covered his hand with hers. “I lost track of the time. I had to gather more clay—”
“See to it you don’t miss another.” He nodded as if to close the discussion.
“Oui, Papa.” Camille shifted her gaze to the floor.
Mother recommenced her sewing, her lips twitching into a satisfied smile.
“Monsieur Colin wrote to me of your progress.” Papa withdrew a letter from his pocket. “He is impressed, Camille, and with you as well, Paul. I fear you both may soon outgrow him.”
Louise noted his lack of compliment toward her and crossed her arms.
“Would you send me to school, then?” Paul leaned forward in his chair.
“Perhaps, one day.”
“And me? Would you send me away?” Louise asked with a nervous tug on a stray curl. She twined it around her forefinger.
“Don’t worry,” Camille said. “You’ll not be sent away, Louise. You’ll fall madly in love with a prince who will whisk you away to a castle that would make even Cendrillon jealous.”
Louise gave her sister a saccharine smile.
“Don’t mock your sister,” Mother said. “At least Louise has a real goal. You should set one of your own. One that is actually achievable. In fact, I think it’s time to find yourself some suitors.”
“I have a goal, though you refuse to accept it!” Camille stood and glared down at Mother. “Tell her, Papa.”
He tugged on her hand. “For now, you must finish your studies. Then we will discuss other options.”
“Other options?” Mother’s voice switched from condescending to shrill. “We spend entirely too much money on her as it is. And for what? So she can pretend she is a man?” She picked up her sewing and jabbed her needle through the cloth.
“I don’t pretend anything.” Camille stalked to the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Je sors! ”
“You are not going out,” Mother declared. “Come back here this instant!”
She ripped open the door and flew into the yard in a fury.
“Let her go.” Papa’s firm voice drifted through the open window.
Camille raced down the gravel lane and across the square. She ducked under a row of lime trees, passed the silent boucherie and the darkened windows of the handful of boutiques that sold figurines, pottery, and other goods made from the red Villeneuve earth, the town’s one and only treasure. Her only treasure.
Suitors! The thought of it made her ill. She cared nothing for men and their lustful eyes and pawing hands. To be married would suffocate her. No man would ever understand her need to create with her hands day after day.
A mother pulled her children closer to her side and hurried toward home, something Camille’s own mother would never do. Mother would never embrace her, or take her by the hand. She had never kissed her or stroked her hair, not even as a child. Camille swallowed hard against the unfathomable sorrow that rushed up her throat each time she allowed Mother to make her long for the love that would never come.
She dashed into a wheat field, blond stalks swishing around her legs. As the rows thickened, she pushed ahead, tendrils brushing against her face. She ran her fingertips over the stalks, grasping at heads and plucking off the individual kernels. To touch, to feel anything comforted her. At the edge of the field, she plucked a final stalk and twirled it between her thumb and forefinger.
She must devise a plan. She could not be married off—that was out of the question.
The crickets’ night song grew louder as she neared the forest, and the scent of pine needles filled her nose. She followed the sandy path through the trees that led to her favorite hiding place, now swallowed in shadows. In her secret garden, worn boulders jutted from the earth, their grotesque shapes carved by weathering wind and rain. The Devil’s minions, they were called. As a child, Camille had created stories for each of the distorted shapes. When she reached La Hottée du Diable, the dull gleam of limestone shone in the moonlight. She climbed into the rock’s hollow and ran her hands over its rough surface, feeling every weathered bump.
Night enfolded her in its balmy air, and with darkness came a decision. She would persuade Papa to hire an art tutor, someone more knowledgeable than Monsieur Colin. Then, she would bargain with him. If she did not progress in a year’s time, she would not waste Papa’s money any longer and she would . . . confront those repercussions when the time came.
Camille leaned into the cradle of stone and peered up at the silver moon. She would become a sculptor; someday she would even show her portraits. The thought warmed her blood and filled her heart until
she felt as if it would burst.
A fat raven alighted on the edge of the rock nearest her. The bird preened its midnight feathers and then watched her with an inquisitive eye.
“Yes, Mr. Raven, it will be,” she said. “You may carry my words to the Devil himself.”