By Giulia Cozzi
Giulia imagines a short story about Jeanne-Antoinette, inspired by the painting Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame (1763-4) by Francois-Hubert Drouais.
Jeanne-Antoinette pulled the curtains of her bedroom aside and peered out of the window. A young boy with dark hair was working in the Italian garden; he was planting small white flowers along a rectangular border, completely absorbed in his job. Jeanne-Antoinette looked at him attentively and frowned. There was something mysterious about that boy, something that simultaneously attracted and repelled her. She closed the curtains quickly and headed to her wardrobe. Summer was finally approaching and Jeanne-Antoinette loved spending time outside in search for new adventures that she could transform into fascinating stories for her imaginary readers. She fervently desired to become a writer. She used to keep a myriad of books full of notes about imaginative encounters and thoughts she had while laying down on the grass. She kept them neatly on a bookshelf in her room and every time her mother stepped in, Jeanne-Antoinette would read one or two stories she had written. Her mother would listen, intrigued by the fervid imagination of her daughter and subsequently applaud to show her support.
On that day, Jeanne-Antoinette took a comfortable chair and sat outside to read a book under the old oak. Around her the preparations for the summer party were in full effect and in the evening, her family and friends would all gather to celebrate the summer solstice. It was a long family tradition and Jeanne-Antoinette liked the carefree atmosphere that permeated the party. She used to dance, eat freshly made macarons and laugh with her cousins all night long. It was a joyful time for everyone and life seemed lighter. For the evening party, Jeanne-Antoinette planned to wear a long white dress, decorated with small colourful flowers that perfectly suited her slender figure.
On that night, the orchestra was playing a merry beat and everyone seemed to be enjoying their time at the Bisset’s mansion. Jeanne-Antoinette danced with her sister and cousins, ate a substantial number of macarons and was now sitting on a wicker chair facing the lighted garden, pleasurably resting. From her position, she could see very well the garden designer who was smoking a cigarette on the brink between the dark garden and the lit party. The two spent the evening glancing at each other with curious interest and Jeanne-Antoinette felt attracted to the weirdness and mysteriousness of the boy.
The musician ended a song and with the blink of an eye, the boy disappeared. Jeanne-Antoinette panicked. Suddenly, she saw a dark shadow taking a turn on the right and disappearing into the bush. Without thinking, she got up and followed the unknown figure. After a couple of minutes walking, she felt lost and she concluded that it was better to go back to the party and forget about the young designer, but a light caught her attention. Something was shimmering behind a large hedge. She followed the light and found herself in a wonderful garden, full of enormous plants and kaleidoscopic flowers. She couldn’t believe her eyes; she thought she was dreaming and pinched herself. Suddenly, she heard a voice and jumped. She was not used to hearing the designer speak, hence she had to look at him to understand who was talking.
“Welcome Jeanne-Antoinette" said the boy. “W-where am I?” asked Jeanne-Antoinette more excited than scared. “We are in the secret garden. Do you like it?” he asked softly. She nodded in response: “I’ve never seen this place before. What is it? It seems very different from the family garden.” Paul looked at her and hinted a smile. He kindly touched a pink flower that was hanging close to him and replied: “Yes, you have never seen it before. It is a very unique garden: it only appears with the full moon. Do you want to listen to a story?” Jeanne-Antoinette nodded again and slowly moved towards a stone stool decorated with acanthus leaves and sat down. She didn’t know the boy well and she was slightly frightened by his serious appearance but at the same time, the thrill of an adventure and the inebriating smell of jasmine stopped her from running away.
“Alright, my name is Paul and as you know, I work as garden designer for your family. I’ve been doing this job for many years now and before coming to your mansion I was curating the garden of an old lady who sadly passed away two years ago. During my time there, she shared a secret with me: she used to collect exotic plants and flowers that were close to extinction. She took the seeds and planted them in a hidden patch of her garden where the plants could thrive and create a unique ecosystem for themselves. She used to consider these plants as her children and she spent her entire life taking care of this precious treasure where she went to read, de-stress and reflect. Before passing away, she gave me a pendant containing a green gem and a brief talk. The garden would die with her, it was her creation and her life. However, she wanted to leave a legacy behind and she desired that someone could continue her lifelong project so she gave me this charm without any further explanation.” Paul paused and looked at Jeanne-Antoinette.
“And what happened next? What does the charm do?” asked Jeanne-Antoinette excited. He smiled and continued: “It took me some time to figure out the reason of her gift but finally, after some trials, I understood. She wanted me to continue what she had started but in my own way. She wanted me to create my own garden. For her, it was all about species that risked extinction that she carefully saved, but for me it is all about colours. I am passionate about colours, their histories, shades, tonalities, combinations of them. Colours add beauty to life. So, I’ve started collecting seeds of unique flowers and garish plants to make my own little paradise and this” making a circular gesture “is where I got so far. The garden is a secret and it only comes out on full moon nights once I stroke the green gem and when dawn approaches, it disappears again.” Jeanne-Antoinette was puzzled. She was still debating with herself whether she was dreaming or not, but she was speechless: the story was sublime. She got up, smiled at Paul and wandered around the garden.
“The reason I am telling you this story is because I would like you to write a book about it. I know you are a good writer and I’d love that someone could put this amazing adventure down into words to make sure that future generations will benefit from it. Maybe some lucky girls or boys could live the same experience as me and by reading your book, find a useful guide and an engaging read. What do you think Jeanne-Antoinette?” Jeanne-Antoinette looked at him wide-eyed. After a first moment of bedazzlement, she said: “Yes, of course! I-I don’t know what to say, I think your story is beautiful. I love every bit of it and I’d be more than happy to make it into a breathtaking book. I’m sorry I-I don’t really know what else to say”. After a short pause, she added: “But, thank you. Thank you for sharing it with me. I promise I’ll do my best to celebrate it in my writing.” Paul smiled: “I’m sure you will. Do you want to have a look around the garden?” Jeanne-Antoinette nodded and the two walked around the magic garden talking about their dreams, their passions and the beauty of nature.
When dawn came, Paul accompanied a tired Jeanne-Antoinette back to the entrance of the mansion and wished her goodnight. Jeanne-Antoinette walked quietly to her room and locked herself in. She sighed and looked at her sleepy face in the mirror: what a wonderful night she had. She couldn’t wait to sit down at her desk and start writing; her hand was trembling in desire. But for now, she needed a good night’s sleep. She was going to take her white dress off when she noticed something that captured her attention. She looked closer and saw that a layer of lace appeared on the edge of her dress. Jeanne-Antoinette touched it and smiled. The layer clearly resembled the intricate pattern of the plants and flowers she encountered the previous night in the magic garden. She stared at it and observed it for a while. It was such a delicate and fascinating souvenir, acting as a reminiscence of the breathtaking adventure she experienced. She finally laid down in bed still holding the dress and, while the sun outside started peering into the window, encouraging to start the day, Jeanne-Antoinette fell asleep feeling happy and blessed.