Natalya Polyakova


The Girl who Sold Petrichor

It is a beautiful autumn day. My last day in Paris. I am looking out of the window of my small apartment with a view over the Seine River. My luggage is packed, a train ticket lays upon the dining table near the polished copper ash-tray and a fresh morning newspaper. Today is the first day since weeks when the sun has shown its yellow face through the clouds and thus has given a colour to the generally black and white picture of the city. Yet I am not able to enjoy perhaps the last sunny days before the beginning of the winter’s merciless reign. Mere fragments of a small article on the last page of the newspaper keep running through my mind in a wild swirl piercing my heart.

The authorities have found a body of a red-haired young woman floating in the river. According to the local citizens, the girl had been often seen sitting by one or another bridge on rainy days clutching some empty glass bottles with cork. When it stopped raining, she would open the bottles, wait for a few minutes, cork them up again and vanish in the narrow streets of the city. Her identity was unknown. The police suggests that two days ago when it was heavily raining, she got blown away by the strong wind into the river, whereupon she drowned.

The river has become a watery grave for so many people that one usually flicks through the newspaper without paying attention to the names or descriptions of the deceased. Yet some unknown force has made me read the last page this morning as if the words have stepped out of the paper, sat in front of me and kept loudly slurping coffee until they irritated me so much that I have finally taken a note of their presence and cast a glance at the article. Red-haired young woman… glass bottles with cork… A dim memory stirred in my mind. Suddenly my coffee tasted salty. I knew her. I barely knew her. I painted her once. She was the reason why I have been living in Paris for so many years and why I am leaving it today. The girl who sells petrichor is dead.

I met her on the very first day of my arrival in Paris in summer. I was attracted to this place like any other man of art in a search of abiding inspiration, striking success and promising future. As soon as the train from Marseille arrived at the station, I – a nineteen-year-old spindling young man wearing black cotton trousers, a white linen shirt with paint splatters, a brown waistcoat and a flat cap – stepped out on the platform in the thrill of anticipation of the days to come. I rushed through the city bumping up against passers-by and clutching a crumbled up piece of paper with my new address on. I burned with desire to find my accommodation, a small apartment under the roof, and then set out on search of inspiration. When I came in I promptly removed the contents of my suitcase, took an easel, a canvas, an old paintbrush, a palette, some paint with and set off for Montmartre. Having heard from my father that many artists exercised their talent there I wished to see them with my own eyes.

I did not meet any soul on my way up. The narrow streets were shining wet, the air was fresh, the sky was overcast. It had been recently pouring. The rain herded people into the warmth of their houses like a shepherd his sheep. I turned around the corner and stopped aghast at the sight of a living creature. It was a young woman in a blue summer dress which barely covered her knees. She stood under the roof of a porch, barefoot, empty glass bottles with cork in her hands. One glimpse was enough to remember her red hair and big blue almond-shaped eyes for the rest of my life. She did not notice me at once so I had a few moments to absorb her image in my memory and marvel at her innocence, hopefulness and slight melancholy in her gaze. She excited my curiosity. I saw magnificent pictures of her being formed before my inner eye as if I looked into a kaleidoscope rotating it and seeing at every turn various colours and patterns. Awakening from this contemplation I decided to talk to the girl. I approached her and asked her name. She answered vividly and without any amazement at seeing a person on the deserted street:

„Patrice. And yours?“

„I am Victor. If I may ask, what do you need these bottles for?“

The girl suddenly smiled and her eyes twinkled with joy:

„I am selling petrichor.“

I thought at first that I did not catch the word. Yet on my request to repeat it again I realized that I had never heard this word before and could not even closely imagine what it meant. Patrice saw my perplexed face, laughed cheerfully and asked me to follow her. We went down through the cobble-stoned paths,  moved away from the white church on a hill and came nearer to the Seine river. She did not breathe a word during our descent. I was following her like a lamb to the slaughter. When we reached the river she showed me a bridge and encouraged me to sit nearby. I was enjoying the view of the old majestic buildings, the languid course of the river, the noisy sound of seagulls when the girl began to tell her story:

„I come here often. Mostly on rainy days though. Have you ever noticed this wonderful sweet fresh scent of the air after rain?“

„I guess so. Why?“

She was looking in the distance, the clouds reflecting in her eyes.

„Well, this is what I sell. Petrichor. The smell after rain.“

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