by Genevieve Sinha
Clementine knew about war because Bonne Maman’s stories often began with it: Pendant la guerre.
During the war.
During the time of bombs, of nights in blackout, in hunger, in fear. The time of roughshod and wounded soldiers, of German permission cards. The time when Bonne Maman, a nurse, told her patients stories that were more than mere stories—they became dreams.
Bonne Maman’s stories began with The War, but they ended in America, across the ocean in a city that had never been bombed. They ended in the dream shop in Boston, nestled at the foot of Beacon Hill, where Bonne Maman sold wind-up music boxes, filled not with tin-sharp melodies but with whispered words to transport the mind, even if only for a few moments.
None of the dream boxes were about The War.
“A dream is always just a dream,” Bonne Maman explained. “They are not real, and so they fade from moment to moment. But the body knows a memory as it knows its own muscle and its own heartbeat. So, to make a dream from memory is no dream at all—it is reality. And reality is a very dangerous thing, indeed.”
That was before.
Now, there was no more remembering. Not since Clementine’s mother drove to the grocery store for last-minute Christmas dinner supplies and never came back.
In the apartment above the dream shop, Bonne Maman put away her stories. She tucked every memory of Clementine’s mother into cobweb-filled cabinets and under sinks beside long-forgotten shampoo bottles, in closets and in aging banker’s boxes, in never-opened drawers.
“We must let it all fall away, ma poulette. We mustn’t hold on.”
What Bonne Maman didn’t realize was that stories cannot be suppressed. Whether memories or dreams, they always burst free.
So, in the little shop at the bottom of a hill in a city untouched by bombs, far away from France, Clementine made up her own stories.
The brass doorbell at the front of the shop chimed Clementine home.
The store was empty, the lights low. Clementine stomped off her snow boots and trudged through the store into the back room. There was a little kitchen there, where she put on a kettle, sat down to do her homework, and pulled out her Discman. When Bonne Maman came home from her errands, she would expect to see Clementine nestled at the table, homework underway.
Clementine contemplated the intricacies of her math assignment, but every question came up answerless. Every problem was unanswerable.
The store’s bell chimed. A voice called out from the front room.
Clementine pressed pause, and the CD spun idly in the player. Surely she hadn’t forgotten to lock the front door? Bonne Maman insisted the store remained locked while she ran errands. She insisted it remained locked most of the time.
In the storefront, a customer shuffled across an ancient rug Bonne Maman had brought from France, the brilliant blues and reds deep as stained glass.
Clementine stepped behind the till and leaned against the front counter. It felt like protection against the unknown outside, which had suddenly come inside.
“The store’s not open. My grandmother isn’t here.”
The stranger shook early December snow from his overcoat and tucked a large, portable phone into his pocket. Clementine had never seen someone with a cell phone before. She imagined he must be very important.
“Maybe you could help me instead?”
Clementine glanced at the grandfather clock. Bonne Maman would not be home for another half-hour.
“I’m not an expert.”
The man surveyed the shelves of dream boxes and slumped toward the glass-top cases, where Bonne Maman’s hand-painted dream boxes glinted under the display lights. His eyes lingered on several boxes marked PRIVATE COLLECTION – NOT FOR SALE in Bonne Maman’s exquisite calligraphy.
“Where did all these come from, then?”
“My grandmother makes them. I don’t know how.”
“But you know how they work, don’t you? You seem like a smart young lady.”
Clementine straightened her back. Smart young ladies had good posture. They spoke politely with the formal vous, and walked home from school on their own. And Clementine had hit double-digits two birthdays ago. Wouldn’t Bonne Maman be pleased to see her continue the family tradition? Bonne Maman always said holiday shopping was good for business; Americans believed in dreams like prayers and traded them like currency.
“Certainly, monsieur,” Clementine replied, in her best imitation of her grandmother. “What kind of dream are you looking for?”
“Something festive, for the holidays.”
“What do you want to feel?”
The man rubbed a knuckle against a sleepless-sooty undereye.
“Like I’m home.”
Clementine walked to the display case.
She’d sampled almost every dream in the store. The visit to an ancient market, fragrantly bright with spices and the cries of merchants. A horse ride across the brash landscape of the Wild West, chased by caterwauling bandits. Famous concerts of the past, and world heritage sites untouched by tourism, and great romances in Rome, Paris, Cairo.
Clementine considered each dream box in the display for a moment, but no, they would not do at all.
She turned to the back shelf. There it was: an understated navy box, dappled with real gold leaf and a painted sprig of holly. The perfect dream for this customer.
The man took the dream box from her. His hand shook as he cranked the tiny lever between his thumb and forefinger. He held the box to his ear and closed his eyes, entering the dream.
Clementine could recall it clearly, as if she were the dreamer being transported by Bonne Maman’s low voice:
The air is fragrant with pine and cinnamon. You’ve arrived home in wintertime. Snow squeaks underfoot as you approach, and suddenly there’s a door before you, a big white door with a brass knocker, but you don’t need to knock—you know this place, and this place is you.
There’s a single candle in each window, casting light like angel halos on the darkening evening snow. Inside is your family, love, the smell of roasted turkey and sugared apple pie, the deep smoke scent of a crackling fire.
You are loved; it is warm; all is well.
When he opened his eyes, the man smiled. He had very white, straight teeth.
“Thank you. This is just what I needed.”
Of course it was.
It was the dream Clementine needed, too.
After the customer left, Clementine did her homework and completed her chores. She had dinner with Bonne Maman, and then went to bed without any stories at all.
She knelt at the foot of her brass bed and prayed to L’Enfant Jésus.
She prayed to remember the way her mother smelled always like good perfume, at once both powdery and flowery. The way she burned everything in the kitchen and said words Clementine should not hear as she emptied another breakfast, lunch, and even Christmas dinner into the rubbish.
Once, mother had forgotten kindergarten pickup because she’d been distracted by a streetside art vendor on the way to the school. Her mother had always loved beauty like that—with abandon, completely, at the expense of everything else.
Clementine would not have minded being forgotten again. If one could be forgotten, it meant someone was alive to do the remembering. It meant someone would eventually remember and come running, all apologies, a hastily wrapped painting, and a dropped glove. She prayed to be loved like that again, too.
Most of all, Clementine prayed to hear her mother’s voice once more.
Baby Jesus, gilded in gold paint, was mute. He only stared at Clementine with flat eyes from his position of honor on the wall.
She rose and padded down the dark hallway to Bonne Maman’s room, past the shuttered third bedroom. She paused at the door and then knocked.
Bonne Maman’s face was not creased in surprise. Clementine often came to her door like this at night.
“What is it, ma poulette?”
“I miss her.”
Bonne Maman leaned against the door frame. Behind her, dream-making scraps covered the bedside table.
“Clementine, what’s done is done.”
“Could I have a memory for Christmas, one of Maman?”
“Oh, my dear, you know that is impossible.” Bonne Maman cupped Clementine’s face. Had her fingers always been so spindly, her skin so thin?
“I need to see her. I need to—”
“Go back to bed, Clementine. Tomorrow will be better, you’ll see. We must move forward.”
Clementine retreated down the lonesome-bitter hallway, past the closed-off bedroom where her mother had slept.
Back in her room, the nightlight was buttery and soft. L’Enfant Jésus stared down at her.
Clementine glared at him.
No matter what Bonne Maman said, memories were as fickle as dreams. Upon waking, nothing was promised, or certain, or clear.
As Christmas drew nearer, Bonne Maman set the crèche on its customary table and ordered a bûche de noël. Clementine received an advent calendar, with every door hiding a chocolate morsel wrapped in crinkling gold foil.
She spent her school vacation wiping down a perfectly polished counter, sweeping an already clean floor, and throwing out AOL CD mailers. Bonne Maman crafted dreams at the kitchen table all day. Clementine watched her closely.
“Do you remember,” Clementine said, putting down her school break worksheets. “How Mom always burned Christmas dinner? Every year, she ruined something.”
Bonne Maman grunted. She did not look up from her work.
“I liked the green beans a little burned. It was funny when she swore. I never told her that. I wish I’d told her they were fine.”
Bonne Maman set her materials aside. She sipped a tisane, throat fluttering.
“You should focus on your homework, Clementine. I expect you to keep up your grades.”
“What if we practice making dreams instead?”
Bonne Maman shook her head. The front door chimed a customer inside.
“Work on your math next. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Clementine heard murmurs and then raised voices from the front room. The customer’s voice was masculine, familiar.
“What I don’t understand,” it boomed, “is why you won’t take custom work.”
“As I’ve explained, monsieur,” came Bonne Maman’s steady reply, “the problem is not custom work. It is the nature of your request.”
Clementine tiptoed toward the front of the kitchen and stood by the bookcase beside the shop floor’s doorway. If she peered around the frame carefully, no one in the store could see her.
Over Bonne Maman’s age-steepened shoulders, the man scowled.
“What’s so special about a family dinner? Your granddaughter already sold me one.”
“Alone? Did she really?” In the back room, Clementine cringed.
“Look, I just want my own version.” He pulled a photo from his jacket pocket. It was worn and folded, the corners beginning to disintegrate. “All I want is this!”
“That is the problem. It’s your family dinner—a memory. It is against our policy.”
The man squeezed the photo between tense fingers, turned on his heel, and stalked out the front door. The copper doorbell clattered a harsh goodbye.
Clementine returned quickly to the back room. Her school vacation book report was still laid out, and she picked up a pencil as if she had never left the table.
Bonne Maman joined her and resumed a new dream box. Her hands were steady.
“Is it really that hard to do?” Clementine asked. “Making a dream from a memory?”
Bonne Maman looked up sharply. She set aside her cooling teacup.
“No harder than a normal dream. But it will not be a dream at all—it will become a nightmare.”
Bonne Maman’s first dreams—the ones she whispered to life in France pendant la guerre, the ones she had invented for lonely, wounded soldiers—were beautiful. They went something like:
You walk amongst warm, rolling country fields. The wheat is so golden, so ripe that the plumpest grains fall from the stalks at the touch of a breeze.
It’s summertime. The evening smells of lavender and champagne. You’re late to dinner, but that’s all right, because they’re waiting for you—your friends. You’re in no hurry, because you know that the evening will be endless in the way of all fleeting, cherished moments, when you’re aware enough to know they should be cherished. The dinner will run late with laughter, good food, fine wine, and even finer friends.
Once—before the car accident—Bonne Maman had told Clementine about these war-time dreams. But Bonne Maman had never recorded them into music boxes.
Clementine was determined. If Bonne Maman would not teach her, she would record her own dreams. And if Bonne Maman hadn’t noticed the missing materials—a pad of paper here, a box there, a winch, or a band of tin, or a pot of paint—then surely Clementine wasn’t doing something so terrible. They were such little things to take, and surely something little couldn’t be so bad. After all, learning to steal is easy. You just need to tell yourself the right stories, need to believe the right stories. And Clementine was going to be an excellent storyteller.
She stopped praying to L’Enfant Jésus at night. Instead, she tinkered.
When Bonne Maman’s snores echoed down the corridor, Clementine rose, unscrewed the globe-shaped cap from her brass bedposts, and removed her pilfered materials. She whisper-magicked her dreams until dawn’s grey light suffused the room.
Those nights, the whole world felt like the inside of a jewelry box, soft and dark, safe and full of treasures.
Christmas Eve came, and with it, the anniversary of the accident. Clementine and Bonne Maman woke up, had a breakfast of hot chocolate and buttered bread, and placed flowers on a cold gravestone in silence.
At home, Clementine palmed her headphone and a case of CDs.
“I’m going for a walk.”
Bonne Maman stared into space at the kitchen table without reply.
Clementine was walking through the Public Garden when steps fell into place beside her. It was the dark-eyed customer. She hit pause on her Spice Girls CD.
“What do you want?”
He held his hands up.
“Just to talk.”
Clementine’s throat tightened. Bonne Maman would not approve of her speaking with this man—speaking with anyone outside of the shop or school. Still, she lingered a moment, a small rebellion.
“Is it true your grandmother can’t make the dream I want?”
Bonne Maman would expect Clementine to uphold store policy.
“She won’t do it, no matter how much you ask.”
The man leaned over, like Clementine was a co-conspirator, or spy from one of Bonne Maman’s thriller dreams.
“But she could. It’s not impossible, right? I just want to see them again.”
The man handed her a photo. It was a happy picture: a woman and a girl, sitting around an dinner table covered with a white silk tablecloth, a twist of gold-and-red tinsel, and polished silver platters of ham and green beans. The girl had purple butterfly clips in her wavy hair.
“She was around your age, my daughter.”
“What happened to them?”
The man tucked his hands into his overcoat pockets.
Clementine clenched the photo. Her face felt hot, even in the stinging winter wind.
“It was a car crash. Amy was taking Eliza to a play recital. I was working. Too busy to go watch—trying to close a deal, if you can believe it.”
Clementine didn’t know what that meant, but she knew what it was to feel like you’d made a mistake. She understood the grief in his voice.
“I’m sorry—that’s really sad.”
“At least they were together.”
She handed the photo back to him.
“I really can’t help you. It’s the rule.”
“Rules? Kid, rules are for people who never lost anything. Rules are for people who don’t know how good they’ve got it.”
Clementine thought of Bonne Maman’s stories of the war. Of how her mother died, not anywhere dangerous, but on the way to the grocery store—on Storrow Drive, just streets away from their home. Of Bonne Maman’s warnings, and her rules, and the narrow world of the shop and apartment upstairs.
“That’s not true! We lost everything!
“Then why does she have this rule? Doesn’t she want it all back?”
Clementine kicked the snow and then walked away.
“How could you understand?” he called after her. “You’ve never lost anyone. You’re just a child.”
Clementine clutched her headphones so hard they cracked. She turned around.
“That’s not true,” she repeated.
The man knelt down. He put a hand on Clementine’s shoulder.
“Oh, you’ve lost someone, too, haven’t you?”
“I’m so sorry.”
When was the last time anyone had said that to Clementine? She couldn’t remember—it had been years since her mother died. She had been a baby—little single-digit years—when it happened. Maybe someone had said it at the funeral, or at school afterwards. But soon, everyone was busy acting like life was normal. Nobody wanted to talk about uncomfortable things, like how Clementine couldn’t remember the little details as clearly, or how mad she felt sometimes.
“You understand, then,” he said. “You understand what it’s like to love someone so much you don’t want anything else, don’t you? To want them back, even only for a minute?”
Clementine did, but she shook her head. “It can’t be done.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“Won’t,” Clementine admitted.
He gave her his photo and a thick paper card with his name and phone number. His name was Henry.
“Look, if you change your mind, give me a call. There’s nothing more important. I just want to see them again.”
Clementine hid Henry’s business card in the globe-post of her big brass bed. She studied the photo for hours. She memorized his wife’s upswept hair and the golden bobs in her ears. The decorative table runner, the golden-scrolled candle sticks, the wedding china they put out only once a year, but that was a little chipped anyway. The antique prints and family photographs on the walls and the delicate crystal chandelier hanging above the table like icicles on a winter morning.
Christmas came and went. School resumed.
At night, when Bonne Maman was asleep, Clementine practiced and practiced and practiced. The hollow posts of her brass bed filled up with hidden, failed dreams.
In the end, Bonne Maman was right; making dreams was a skill, but it wasn’t any harder to craft a dream from memory than from her imagination.
She did it—and Henry’s dream was lovely. Clementine sampled it, of course, and nothing bad happened. It was a lovely fiction, a kaleidoscope viewed through a curved lens. There was nothing dangerous about it at all.
As winter dragged on, Clementine made her own dream, too.
She found the photo almost by accident, hastily tucked into a drawer of odds and ends. It wasn’t a photo of anything momentous or special. Bonne Maman would never miss it. Clementine struggled to remember the moment herself: Clementine nestled in a white rope hammock beside her mother, who wore a green linen dress and sang a French lullaby into the languorous summer evening.
Clementine memorized that photo and made a dream of it, too. She painted her dream-box lavender—the color of My Little Pony, of bubblegum, of plastic butterfly hairclips.
When she finished both her dream and Henry’s, Clementine waited until Bonne Maman left for afternoon errands. She called Henry to meet her in the shop.
She gave him the dream and felt the need to offer a disclaimer.
“It’s very short.”
Henry cupped the dream in two hands, as if it were something fleeting, like a handful of water that could trickle away at any moment. His fingers shook. He held the box up to his ear, fingers on the winch.
Clementine hoped the memory was exactly as he remembered it.
“Really, it’s only around half a minute.”
He turned the winch and then closed his eyes. The dream began to play. He smiled and then, like an actress in an old black-and-white movie from Bonne Maman’s VHS collection, Henry swooned toward the floor. The box clattered across the floorboards and came to rest at the edge of Bonne Maman’s old carpet.
“Henry?” Clementine shook his shoulder. “Wake up!”
Clementine clasped her hands together, but she couldn’t think of anything to ask L’Enfant Jésus. An hour passed. The big cell phone in Henry’s pocket rang and rang again, but he didn’t move. He only smiled and mumbled in his sleep.
Bonne Maman came home. Her shopping bags thumped against the floor.
“Oh, ma poulette. What happened?”
Bonne Maman knelt beside Henry and took his pulse. Then she picked up Clementine’s dream box. She touched it with only her fingertips, like it was dangerous, different from the other dream boxes.
She abruptly dropped the box and hugged Clementine against her soft, old body.
“No, Clementine…what have you done?”
“It was only a little dream.”
“Only a dream? Oh, I should have paid closer attention. When did you learn?”
Clementine tore herself away.
“I taught myself, just like you did.”
Bonne Maman touched Clementine’s cheek. She looked at Clementine like she’d never seen her before.
“You don’t know what you’ve done. He’s never going to wake up.”
Clementine’s stomach twisted.
“Is he dead?”
“No, but he’s not truly alive anymore, either. He doesn’t know the difference between his dream and his reality.”
Clementine thought of the treasured photo and of Henry’s face, slack with relief, as he sank to the floor of the shop.
“He’s with his family now.”
“Yes. But he will never be himself again.”
“You said the dream would become a nightmare. Why is that a nightmare?”
“To never wake, to be trapped inside a false reality? Is that not prison? Is that not a nightmare?”
Clementine shook her head. Henry was free, not imprisoned. He would live forever in the world he wanted, a world without car accidents, and distractions, and too little time, and memories that faded.
That was not a prison at all. That was not a nightmare, not even a little bit.
Bonne Maman rose from the floor. She shambled toward the counter, shoulders hunched but determined. She grasped the beige plastic phone in one hand, twisting the curly cord in the other.
“Go upstairs—go right now. Make sure you say your prayers.”
Clementine climbed the stairs, Bonne Maman’s murmurs at her back.
In her bedroom, she wondered what she was meant to pray for. Perhaps she should ask for forgiveness, for her soul or for Henry’s. Or perhaps once again for memories of her mother.
As always, the beatific face of L’Enfant Jesus had no answers. But down the hallway, a tiny, lavender-speckled box hid under the bathroom sink, tucked away with a faded photograph.
Clementine stood from kneeling and padded down the hallway. She heard the sound of the front door opening, footsteps, and voices downstairs speaking low and fast—like they didn’t want her to hear anything. Clementine pushed open the bathroom door and retrieved the dream box and the photo of her mother from under the sink. There were answers in the box. Or, at least, a freedom from asking at all.
She set the photo down on the sink counter, cranked the box’s lever, and held the dream up to her ear:
Humidity shimmers in the air. It is summer. You are swinging in a white rope hammock, nestled against your mother’s side. You are too warm, but you don’t want to move—not from this moment of closeness, this moment of being cherished. Your mother’s body is familiar. You lay your head on her soft stomach, where, years ago, she carried you. She is singing a song that you know by heart. It’s a very old song, the kind you don’t remember hearing for the first time because it’s just always been something you knew. Your mother’s lullaby floats into the tall grass, luminous as a firefly, calling you for just a moment—just one more moment—to remember.
“Clementine, what are you doing?”’
Clementine snapped awake. Bonne Maman spun her by the shoulder. Once again, Clementine was in the familiar bathroom, in her familiar home. She curled her toes against the tiled floor.
A shocked understanding smoothed the wrinkles of Bonne Maman’s face. She picked up the photo and took the dream box from Clementine.
“Oh no, ma poulette. You didn’t.”
But Clementine had.
“I wanted to see her again. It was only a minute.”
Bonne Maman examined the photo.
“Oh, Clementine. This photo—I took it. This is my memory, not yours.”
Clementine snatched the photo back. It looked different, now. Someone had framed the moment in thirds: the grass, the hammock, the fiery sundown sky above. Clementine was just a baby, perhaps two years old, nestled against her mother’s side. They were in a yard she did not recognize. Perhaps she didn’t really remember this day. Perhaps she had simply heard the stories—about her mother, about the past— too many times. Perhaps this moment only seemed to belong to her, but it wasn’t ever hers to possess.
Bonne Maman turned the lavender dream box over in her hands.
“It was an ordinary day, I remember. Some days are like that: days of complete contentment. Nothing needs to be changed on a day like that.”
There was a blank affect to Bonne Maman’s eyes, like Baby Jesus, and she lifted the box to her ear.
Clementine’s heart squeezed like a fist. If Bonne Maman listened to the dream, she would become like Henry—caught in a perfect world, locked away from an unfolding reality. Then Clementine would be truly alone.
“No!” She snatched the box from Bonne Maman’s hand.
She threw the box to the floor and stomped hard on it. Gears crunched. Metal springs and lavender-painted paper flew across the floor. Bonne Maman brought one hand to her mouth, eyes watering.
Clementine held out her open hand.
“Give me the photo.”
Bonne Maman passed it to her. She could almost smell grass-bright summer air, feel the scratchy ropes of the hammock under her skin.
Clementine tucked the photo in her pocket. Some stories were memories, and other stories were dreams, and not all those stories were true. Memory was fickle. The past was unchangeable, and the future an unassured promise. Clementine could only be who she was now. She would tell her own story by living it, one day, one word, one dream at a time.
“We need to remember,” she said, “but we don’t need these things to do that. It’s better this way.”
Bonne Maman smiled. It was a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. She drew Clementine against her side and squeezed her hard.
“Come, ma poulette,” she said. “Go to bed. Tomorrow, when you wake up, I’ll teach you. It’s time you learned how to dream.”
Genevieve Sinha was raised in New England by a French-American family, nourished by the rich history of the region, vivid stories of her family’s experiences of World War II, and her French grandmother’s unparalleled patisseries—so many patisseries. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, and her work has also appeared in Apparition Lit and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Find her at www.genevievesinha.com.