The Secret Language of Stones by M.J. Rose
Publication Date: July 19, 2016
A dazzling mix of history, mystery and mystical arts . . . Rose’s paranormal historical bewitches from start to finish. Her amazing ability to make her story line believable and her extraordinary protagonist relatable result in an unforgettable psychic thriller.” (Library Journal (Starred review))
“An exciting mix of adventure, intrigue, and romance in this thrilling historical tale.” (Booklist)
“Haunting, spellbinding, captivating; Rose’s story of the power of love and redemption is masterful. More than a romance or ghost story, this is a tale of a young woman learning to embrace her unique qualities…So carefully crafted and beautifully written, readers will believe in the magical possibilities of love transcending time.” (RT Magazine (Top Pick)
“Rose follows up The Witch of Painted Sorrows (2015) with Sandrine’s daughter’s story, set against the tragic yet exquisite canvases of Paris, the Great War, and the Russian Revolution, and offers fascinating historical tidbits in the midst of bright, imaginative storytelling and complex, supernatural worldbuilding. A compelling, heart-wrenching, creative, and intricate read.” (Kirkus Reviews)
July 19, 1918
“Are you Opaline?” the woman asked before she even stepped all the way into the workshop. From the anxious and distraught tone of her voice, I guessed she hadn’t come to talk about commissioning a bracelet for her aunt or having her daughter’s pearls restrung.
Though not a soldier, this woman was one of the Great War’s wounded, here to engage in the dark arts in the hopes of finding solace. Was it her son or her brother, husband, or lover’s fate that drove her to seek me out?
France had lost more than one million men, and there were battles yet to be fought. We’d suffered the second largest loss of any country in any war in history. No one in Paris remained untouched by tragedy.
What a terrible four years we’d endured. The Germans had placed La Grosse Bertha, a huge cannon, on the border between Picardy and Champagne. More powerful than any weapon ever built, she proved able to send shells 120 kilometers and reach us in Paris.
Since the war began, Bertha had shot more than 325 shells into our city. By the summer of 1918, two hundred civilians had died, and almost a thousand more were hurt. We lived in a state of anticipation and readiness. We were on the front too, as much at risk as our soldiers.
The last four months had been devastating. On March 11, the Vincennes Cemetery in the eastern inner suburbs was hit and hundreds of families lost their dead all over again when marble tombs and granite gravestones shattered. Bombs continued falling into the night. Buildings all over the city were demolished; craters appeared in the streets.
Three weeks later, more devastation. The worst Paris had suffered yet. On Good Friday, during a mass at the Saint-Gervais and Saint-Protais Church, a shell hit and the whole roof collapsed on the congregation. Eighty-eight people were killed; another sixtyeight were wounded. And all over Paris many, many more suffered psychological damage. We became more worried, ever more afraid. What was next? When would it happen? We couldn’t know. All we could do was wait.
In April there were more shellings. And again in May. One hit a hotel in the 13th arrondissement, and because Bertha’s visits were silent, without warning, sleeping guests were killed in their beds.
By the middle of July, there was still no end in sight.
That warm afternoon, while the rain drizzled down, I steeled myself for the expression of grief to match what I’d heard in the customer’s voice. I shut off my soldering machine and put my work aside before I looked up.
Turning soldiers’ wristwatches into trench watches is how I have been contributing to the war effort since arriving in Paris three years ago. History repeats itself, they say, and in my case it’s true. In 1894, my mother ran away from her first husband in New York City and came to Paris. And twenty-one years later, I ran away from my mother in Cannes and came to Paris.
In trying to protect me from the encroaching war and to distract me from the malaise I’d been suffering since my closest friend had been killed, my parents decided to send me to America. No amount of protest, tantrums, bargaining, or begging would change their minds. They were shipping me off to live with family in Boston and to study at Radcliffe, where my uncle taught history.
At ten AM on Wednesday, February 11, 1915 my parents and I arrived at the dock in Cherbourg. French ocean liners had all been acquisitioned for the war, so I was booked on the USMS New York to travel across the sea. A frenetic scene greeted me. Most of the travelers were leaving France out of fear, and the atmosphere was thick with sadness and worry. Faces were drawn, eyes red with crying, as we prepared to board the big hulking ship waiting to transport us away from the terrible war that claimed more and more lives every day.
While my father arranged for a porter to carry my trunk, my mother handed me a last-minute gift, a book from the feel of it, then took me in her arms to kiss me good-bye. I breathed in her familiar scent, knowing it might be a long time until I smelled that particular mixture of L’Etoile’s Rouge perfume and the Roger et Gallet poudre de riz she always used to dust her face and décolletage. As she held me and pressed her crimson-stained lips to my cheek, I reached up behind her and carefully unhooked one of the half dozen ropes of cabochon ruby beads slung around her neck.
I let the necklace slip inside my glove, the stones warm as they slid down and settled into my cupped palm.
My mother often told me the story about how, in Paris in 1894, soon after she’d arrived and they’d met, my father helped her secretly pawn some of her grandmother’s treasures to buy art supplies so she could attend École des Beaux-Arts.
Knowing I too might need extra money, I decided to avail myself of some insurance. My mother owned so many strands of those blood-red beads, certainly my transgression would go unnoticed for a long time.
Disentangling herself, my mother dabbed at her eyes with a black handkerchief trimmed in red lace. Like the rubies she always wore, her handkerchiefs were one of her trademarks. Her many eccentricities exacerbated the legends swirling around “La Belle Lune,” as the press called her.
“Mon chou, I will miss you. Write often and don’t get into trouble. It’s one thing to break my rules, but listen to your aunt Laura. All right?”
When my father’s turn came, he took me in his arms and exacted another kind of promise. “You will stay safe, yes?” He let go, but only for a moment before pulling me back to plant another kiss on the top of my head and add a coda to his good-bye. “Stay safe,” he repeated, “and please, forgive yourself for what happened with Timur. You couldn’t know what the future would bring. Enjoy your adventure, chérie.”
I nodded as tears tickled my eyes. Always sensitive to me, my father knew how much my guilt weighed on me. My charming and handsome papa always found just the right words to say to me to make me feel special. I didn’t care that I was about to deceive my mother, but I hated that I was going to disappoint my father.
During the winters of 1913 and 1914, my parents’ friends’ son Timur Orloff lived with us in Cannes. He ran a small boutique inside the Carlton Hotel, where, in high season, the hotel rented out space to a select few high-end retailers in order to cater to the celebrities, royalty, and nobility who flocked to the Riviera.
Our families first met when Anna Orloff bought one of my mother’s paintings, and Monsieur Orloff hired my father to design his jewelry store in Paris. A friendship developed that eventually led to my parents offering to house Timur. We quickly became the best of friends, sharing a passion for art and a love of design.
Creating jewelry had been my obsession ever since I’d found my first piece of emerald sea glass at the beach and tried to use string and glue to fashion it into a ring. My father declared jewelry design the perfect profession for the child of a painter and an architect—an ideal way to marry the sense of color and light I’d inherited from my mother and the ability to visualize and design in three dimensions that I’d inherited from him.
My mother was disappointed I wasn’t following in her footsteps and studying painting but agreed jewelry design offered a fine alternative. I knew my choice appealed to the rebel in her. The field hadn’t yet welcomed women, and my mother, who had broken down quite a few barriers as a female artist and eschewed convention as much as plain white handkerchiefs, was pleased that, like her, I would be challenging the status quo.
When I’d graduated lycée, I convinced my parents to let me apprentice with a local jeweler, and Timur often stopped by Roucher’s shop at the end of the day to collect me and walk me home.
Given our ages, his twenty to my seventeen, it wasn’t surprising our closeness turned physical, and we spent many hours hiding in the shadows of the rocks on the beach as twilight deepened, kissing and exploring each other’s body. The heady intimacy was exciting. The passion, transforming. My sense of taste became exaggerated. My sense of smell became more attenuated. The stones I worked with in the shop began to shimmer with a deeper intensity, and my ability to hear their music became fine-tuned.
The changes were as frightening as they were exhilarating. As the passions increased my powers, I worried I was becoming like my mother. And yet my fear didn’t make me turn from Timur. The pleasure was too great. My attraction was fueled by curiosity rather than love. Not so for him. And even though I knew Timur was a romantic, I never guessed at the depths of what he felt.
War broke out during the summer of 1914, and in October, Timur wrote he was leaving for the front to fight for France. Just two weeks after he’d left, I received a poetic letter filled with longing.
We never talked about what we mean to each other before I left and I find myself in this miserable place, with so little comfort and so much uncertainty. Not the least of which is how you feel about me. I close my eyes and you are there. I think of the past two years and all my important memories include you. I imagine tomorrow’s memories and want to share those with you as well. Here where it’s bleak and barren, thoughts of you keep my heart warm. Do you love me the way I love you? No, I don’t think so, not yet . . . but might you? All I ask is please, don’t fall in love with anyone else while I am gone. Tell me you will wait for me, at least just to give me a chance?
I’d been made uncomfortable by his admission. Handsome and talented, he’d treated me as if I were one of the fine gems he sold. I’d enjoyed his attention and affection, but I didn’t think I was in love. Not the way I imagined love.
And so I wrote a flippant response. Teasing him the way I always did, I accused him of allowing the war to turn him into even more of a romantic. I shouldn’t have. Instead, I should have given him the promise he asked for. Once he came back, I could have set him straight. Then at least, while he remained away, he would have had hope.
Instead, he’d died with only my mockery ringing in his head.
My father was right: I couldn’t have known the future. But I still couldn’t excuse myself for my thoughtless past.
The USMS New York’s sonorous horn blasted three times, and all around us people said their last good-byes. Reluctantly, my father let go of me.
“I’d like you to leave once I’m on board,” I told my parents. “Otherwise, I’ll stand there watching you and I’ll start to cry.”
“Agreed,” my father said. “It would be too hard for us as well.”
Once I’d walked up the gangplank and joined the other passengers at the railing, I searched the crowd, found my parents, and waved.
My mother fluttered her handkerchief. My father blew me a kiss. Then, as promised, they turned and began to walk away. The moment their backs were to me, I ran from the railing, found a porter, pressed some francs into his hand, and asked him to take my luggage from the hold and see me to a taxi.
I would not be sailing to America. I was traveling on a train to Paris. Once ensconced in the cab, I told the driver to transport me to the station. After maneuvering out of the parking space, he joined the crush of cars leaving the port. Moving at a snail’s pace, we drove right past my parents, who were strolling back to the hotel where we’d stayed the night before.
Sliding down in my seat, I hoped they wouldn’t see me, but I’d underestimated my mother’s keen eye.
Hearing her shout, I rose and peeked out the window. For a moment, they just stood frozen, shocked expressions on their faces. Then my father broke into a run.
“Hurry!” I called out to the driver. “Please.”
At first I thought my father might catch up to the car, but the traffic cleared and my driver accelerated. As we sped away, I saw my father come to a stop and just stand in the road, cars zigzagging all around him as he tried to catch his breath and make sense of what he’d just seen.
Just as we turned the corner, my mother reached his side. He took her arm. I saw an expression of resignation settle on his face. Anger animated hers. I think she knew exactly where I was going. Not because she was clairvoyant, which she was, of course, but because we were alike in so many ways, and if history was about to repeat itself, she wanted me to learn about my powers from her.
I’d been ambivalent about exploring my ability to receive messages that were inaudible and invisible to others—messages that came to me through stones—but I knew if the day came that I was ready, I’d need someone other than her to guide me.
Years ago, when she was closer to my age, my mother’s journey to Paris had begun with her meeting La Lune, a spirit who’d kept herself alive for almost three centuries while waiting for a descendant strong enough to host her. My mother embraced La Lune’s spirit and allowed the witch to take over. But because Sandrine was my mother, I hadn’t been given an option. I’d been born with the witch’s powers running through my veins.
Once my mother made her choice to let La Lune in, she never questioned how she used her abilities. She justified her actions as long as they were for good. Or what she believed was good. But I’d seen her make decisions I thought were morally wrong. So when I was ready to learn about my own talents, I knew it had to be without my mother’s influence. My journey needed to be my own.
“I’m sorry, but I plan to stay in Paris and work for the war effort,” I told my mother when I telephoned home the following day to tell my parents I’d arrived at my great-grandmother’s house.
When my mother first moved to Paris, my great-grandmother tried but failed to hide the La Lune heritage from her. Once my mother discovered it, Grand-mère tried to convince my mother that learning the dark arts would be her undoing. My mother rejected her advice. When Grand-mère’s horror at Sandrine’s possession by La Lune was mistaken for madness, she was put in a sanatorium. Eventually my mother used magick to help restore Grand-mère to health. Part of her healing spell slowed down my great-grandmother’s aging process so in 1918, more than two decades later, she looked and acted like a woman in her sixties, not one approaching ninety.
Grand-mère was one of Paris’s great courtesans. A leftover from the Belle Époque, she remained ensconced in her splendid mansion, still entertaining, still running her salon. Only now she employed women younger than herself to provide the services she once had performed.
“But I don’t want you in Paris,” my mother argued. “Of all places, Opaline, Paris is the most dangerous for you to be on your own and . . .”
The rest of her sentence was swallowed by a burst of crackling. In 1905, we’d been one of the first families to have a telephone. A decade later almost all businesses and half the households in France had one, but transmission could still be spotty.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“It’s too dangerous for you in Paris.”
I didn’t ask what she meant, assuming she referred to how often the Germans were bombarding Paris. But now I know she wasn’t thinking of the war at all but rather of my untrained talents and the temptations and dangers awaiting me in the city where she’d faced her own demons.
I didn’t listen to her entreaties. No, out of a combination of guilt over Timur’s death and patriotism, my mind was set. I was committed to living in Paris and working for the war effort. Only cowards went to America.
I’d known I couldn’t drive ambulances like other girls; I was disastrous behind the wheel. And from having three younger siblings, I knew nursing wasn’t a possibility—I couldn’t abide the sight of blood whenever Delphine, Sebastian, or Jadine got a cut.
Two months after Timur died, his mother, Anna Orloff, who had been like an aunt to me since I’d turned thirteen, wrote to say that, like so many French businesses, her husband’s jewelry shop had lost most of its jewelers to the army. With her stepson, Grigori, and her youngest son, Leo, fighting for France, she and Monsieur needed help in the shop.
Later, Anna told me she’d sensed I needed to be with her in Paris. She had always known things about me no one else had. Like my mother, Anna was involved in the occult, one reason she had been attracted to my mother’s artwork in the first place. For that alone, I should have eschewed her interest in me. After all, my mother’s use of magick to cure or cause ills, attract or repel people, as well as read minds and sometimes change them, still disturbed me. Too often I’d seen her blur the line between dark and light, pure and corrupt, with ease and without regret. That her choices disturbed me angered her.
Between her paintings, which took her away from my brother and sisters and me, and her involvement with the dark arts, I’d developed two minds about living in the occult world my mother inhabited with such ease.
Yet I was drawn to Anna for her warmth and sensitive nature— so different from my mother’s elaborate and eccentric one. Because I’d seen Anna be so patient with her sons’ and my siblings’ fears, I thought she’d be just as patient with mine. I imagined she could be the lamp to shine a light on the darkness I’d inherited and teach me control so I wouldn’t accidentally traverse the lines my mother crossed so boldly.
Undaunted, I’d fled from the dock in Cherbourg to Paris, and for more than three years I’d been ensconced in Orloff’s gem of a store, learning from a master jeweler.
To teach me his craft, Monsieur had me work on a variety of pieces, but my main job involved soldering thin bars of gold or silver to create cages that would guard the glass on soldiers’ watch faces.
To some, what I did might have seemed a paltry effort, but in the field, at the front, men didn’t have the luxury of stopping to pull out a pocket watch, open it, and study the hour or the minute. They needed immediate information and had to wear watches on their wrists. And war isn’t kind to wristwatches. A sliver of shrapnel can crack the crystal. A whack on a rock as you crawl through a dugout can shatter the face. Soldiers required timepieces they could count on to be efficient and sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of combat.
Monsieur Orloff taught me how to execute the open crosshatched grates that fit over the watch crystal through which the soldiers could read the hour and the minute. While I worked, I liked to think I projected time for them. But the thought did little to lift my spirits. It was their lives that needed protecting. France had lost so many, and still the war dragged on. So as I fused the cages, I attempted to imbue the metal with an armor of protective magick. Something helpful to do with my inheritance. Something I should have known how to do. After all, I am one of the Daughters of La Lune.
But as I discovered, the magick seemed to only make its way into the lockets I designed for the wives and mothers, sisters and lovers of soldiers already killed in battle. The very word “locket” contains everything one needs to know about my pieces. It stems from old French “loquet,” which means “miniature lock.” Since the 1670s, “locket” has been used to describe a keepsake charm or brooch with a personal memento, such as a portrait or a curl of hair, sealed inside, sometimes concealed by a false front.
My lockets always contained secrets. They were made of crystal, engraved with phrases and numbers, and filled with objects that had once belonged to the deceased soldiers. Encased in gold, these talismans hung on chains or leather. Of all the work I did, I found that it wasn’t the watches but the solace my lockets gave that proved to be my greatest gift to the war effort.
About M.J. Rose