Three hundred years ago, when I was twelve, I sat beside my father’s deathbed in a stone cottage near the west coast of France.
I knew that he was absurdly old. Even so, I could not believe that he would really die—at least, not until I heard the uncanny wailing outside the window, a heart-piercing keening that seemed to twist and twine around the house, seeping under the doors, through the shutters, down the chimney.
My father started up in his bed, his face wild with fear and longing.
“Mother!” he whispered.
Then he collapsed back against the pillow, his hand clenching mine so tightly that I feared he might break my fingers. He did not speak again for many hours—not until the wailing had ceased, which did not happen until the sun began to creep into the sky. “I will be dead before nightfall,” he whispered.
I flung myself across his chest, denying it, begging him to stay, sobbing out my fear of being left alone.
I could not hold him to this world, of course, and by nightfall he was gone, just as he had predicted.
He left me three things: a fortune, a life that would be unnaturally long, and a story.
The story, which he told me during his last hour, laid hold of my imagination. In the end, it became the driving force in my life for the next two hundred years, for with it came a sense of obligation, and an awareness of a task I knew I alone was meant to perform.
The idea merely simmered inside me at first. Even when I began to see what I should do, I felt helpless, because I had no idea where to start. But the story continued to haunt me, as stories will, and at last the time came when I could put the task aside no longer.
So I began my search, which took me into stranger places than I ever would have guessed existed—including, eventually, a small, dusty shop called Le Grenouille Gris that I found on a side street in Paris.
Finding the shop was no accident. Fifteen years of dangerous questions and unlikely contacts had led me to a midnight-dark alley where a cold presence stood beside me like a shadow, whispered a hint, and then disappeared.
That hint was what led me to the shop.
Its proprietress was a grey-haired, grey-eyed, grey- skinned woman, who looked as if she, like the items on her shelves, had not been dusted in many years.
“I’m looking for something special,” I said.
She gestured toward the displays with that attitude peculiar to Parisian shopkeepers, who somehow seem to feel offended by your very presence in their stores. Without a word, she was clearly telling me, “Look if you must. But don’t expect my help!”
Alas, her help was just what I needed, as I was fairly certain that the thing I sought was not on display. Risking a bolt of Parisian contempt, I refined my request. “It’s something with wings.”
I braced myself for her sneer. But the veiled hint had worked. I had at least caught her interest, and she bestirred herself to the point of actually pointing toward one of the shelves. Turning, I saw a stuffed owl that looked as if it had once been left out in the rain.
It was not what I wanted, and she almost certainly knew it. But she was testing me.
I shook my head. “What I want would be smaller.”
Her expression didn’t change.
Still no change.
I took my last, best shot. “And still alive.”
Her eyes widened by the tiniest degree. In a voice that sounded like the rustle of dry grass in the autumn wind, she spoke the first words she had uttered since I entered: “What is your name?”
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