Five years have passed.
Tiny insects are dancing outside the window, hovering up and down in lazy spirals, forming circles in the air. They're handfuls of dots scattered in the sky.
They're bees. The bees of Montmartre, the historic artists' district of Paris.
On the sixth floor of a building on rue de l'Abreuvoir, surrounded by the sound of the buzzing bees, Mistral smiles. Her elbows are propped on the windowsill, her chin resting on the palms of her hands, her dreamy eyes lost in the endless whirl of activity. The beehive is just below the roof, in the shelter of the gutter. A few months ago, the bees' home was practically invisible, just a little hexagon of wax. But when she returned from her trip to New York, it was already as big as an egg carton, nestled between the copper gutter and the overhang.
"Almost two hundred thousand kilometers . . . ," Mistral whispers, watching a forager bee fly off and disappear down the street below. That's how far a hive of bees needs to fly, sucking up nectar from flower to flower, to make one kilogram of honey. A real race against time before the start of winter.
Do they have enough flowers? the girl wonders, lost in thought. Just in case, she always keeps little plants and fresh flowers on the windowsill.
It's afternoon. As she has on many other afternoons spent watching the bees, Mistral imagines with horror that someone in the building might notice them and, with a single swipe of a broom, destroy seven months of hard work done by ten thousand bees. That's according to the calculations, drawings and notes she's made in her sketchbook.
A plump yellow bee hovers over a bunch of violets. Mistral watches the insect alight on a blossom and hears it buzzing as the petals stir sweetly between its feet. Fascinated by this beautiful sight, she picks up a pencil and her sketchbook and draws it. She can see the grains of yellow pollen on its tiny legs. It's incredible how a simple bunch of flowers can contain an entire universe. . . .
Beyond her window, Paris spreads out in all its glory, with sparkling rooftops, the white cupola of Sacré-Coeur and, on the other side of the Seine River, the Eiffel Tower. Gleaming in the distance like stone bellflowers are the spires of Notre Dame.
"Mistral!" her mother calls from the living room. "It's late!"
Mistral's so accustomed to being alone at home that she's almost startled. "Oh! My lesson!" she says, putting down her sketchpad and rushing out her bedroom door. She hurries over to her mother, who is rummaging through her purse, looking for her keys.
Her mother glances at her wrist to check the time but realizes she isn't wearing a watch. "Darn it! Where did I put it?" she exclaims, rummaging through her purse again. "Mistral, we really need to go!"
The woman's perfume lingers in the air. One of the sweet kinds that even the bees would gladly follow. Cecile Blanchard is a perfume designer.
Mistral walks into the other room.
"Don't you need to take anything with you?" her mother asks, still looking for her watch.
"Aren't you kids using a book? Sheet music?"
"I'm having a private lesson today. I just need to sing."
The mother and daughter quickly shut the apartment door behind them. They run down the spiral staircase to the ground floor.
The main door to the street is open wide, letting in gusts of hot air, which are drying up the puddles left behind when the doorkeeper mopped the floor. The street is steep and rippling with heat.
The tables outside the corner café are deserted. The only sound is the distant hum of traffic from the Saint-Martin area and, for an instant, the sharp, shrill call of a bird.
"Did you hear that?" Mistral asks, holding back a shiver.
Cecile didn't hear anything. She walks briskly down the sidewalk and over to the apple-green Citroën parked crookedly on the street.
Mistral peers around. The coast is clear. The bees are buzzing, unseen, above her. Birds dart across the sky.
For a moment, she thought the bird's call sounded like the plaintive warble of a violin.
"You realize this is all nonsense, don't you?" Linda Melodia grumbles from her bed at Rome's Fatebenefratelli Hospital, gesturing at the other patients in the room to emphasize her irritation. Linda is sporting a perfect hairdo, an immaculate linen nightgown and a pair of flowered wooden clogs. She looks more like she just checked out of a vacation resort than into a hospital.
Elettra tries to calm her down. "The doctors said--"
"Doctors! That's just my point!" Linda booms. "What do doctors know? Nothing! I met a doctor once, and believe me, that was more than enough for me!" She looks around, furious. "I'm going home. I'm getting my things from the locker and going home."
"Auntie, you can't! They still need to examine you."
"I'm perfectly fine."
"No, you aren't perfectly fine."
"I'm telling you I'm perfectly fine. I've never been allergic to anything in my life, and I don't see why I would be now."
"You fainted yesterday."
"Anyone would've fainted with all that dust around," Linda protests, "and that mildewed furniture and that mountain of clutter. . . . If only one of you would give me a hand!"
"What, clearing out the basement?"
"I've been meaning to do it for years, and the time's finally come."
"If only you could do it without passing out from exhaustion. . . ."
Linda grumbles, gets out of bed and turns to leave the room. She can't seem to decide whether to stop and chat with some of the other patients. Then she whirls around and walks back to her niece. "I have no intention of going through with the exams! I'm getting my things and going home."
"It'll only be a few days. Besides, you need to rest."
"Heaven knows what's in the refrigerator. . . ."
"Dad and I are getting by just fine."
"Wipe the inside of the pots with a little lemon juice before putting them in the dishwasher. And don't overload the dryer or else it'll--" Then, as if attracted by radar, she points up at a crack in the wall. "Would you look at that! Is this what they call public hygiene?"
"You'll survive. Lots of people do."
Linda focuses on the household chores again, as if it's a comforting mantra. "Use the half-hour cycle, nothing longer. Afterward, leave the door open and--"
"Let it air out, I know. How could I forget? You've reminded me a hundred times already."
"Are you trying to tell me I'm a nag?"
"No, Auntie. Just a teensy bit obsessive."
Linda seems to calm down. She steps over to the window and looks outside nervously. "By this time tomorrow, I'll be radioactive," she says with a sigh.
"They're just going to take a couple X-rays," Elettra remarks patiently.
The woman dangles her fingers over her impeccable coiffure and wriggles them around like worms. "Vrrrr . . . Vrrrr . . . Radioactive. All because I was feeling a little under the weather."
"You weren't just under the weather, Auntie. You were unconscious for over an hour!"
"If I really have to be radioactive, I'd at least like to get my radiation from a microwave. That way, I can hold an egg in my hand and it'll end up hard-boiled. . . ."
"That's the spirit!"
"I'm going home," Linda starts up again, springing away from the window. "I don't care one bit about those exams. I'm perfectly fine."
"Just take your mind off things, think about something other than chores and it'll be over in no time, you'll see."
"Take my mind off things, of course. . . ." She looks at Elettra and changes the subject. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Is your mind still on that good-looking American boy?"
"Auntie . . ."
"Long-distance relationships are the best kind. All it takes is a quick phone call now and then to tide you over. There's no need to have them in your hair every afternoon, loafing on the couch watching TV while you slave away in the kitchen baking a cake for them."
"Auntie! Harvey doesn't watch TV!"
"And you don't bake cakes, for that matter. You kids have more important things to do. Like playing with those wooden tops, for example."
"Auntie, please . . ." Elettra peers around. "You swore you wouldn't talk about that with anyone."
"You certainly are lucky! If that had happened to me . . . ," Linda says, her voice trailing off.
Elettra smiles. She looks at her aunt from behind her long black curls. She's tempted to make one of her customary comebacks, but this time she agrees completely. She really is lucky to be with Harvey.
From the Hardcover edition.