La Muette


There are so many things I want to say to you.

I want to tell you how beautiful you are, how I love the shape of your nose, the curve of your eyebrow, that crooked, swift smile that crosses your face when you are amused by something.

I love that humour, and the kindness of it.  I love your calm patience, even on the hottest and muggiest of days, when the kitchen is like a furnace and the macarons have failed for the fourth time, and the meringues are going soggy. I’ve never heard you speak a cruel word to anyone, however poor or unimportant they might be. Not even to me, who could never tell a soul if you did.

I love your hands most of all. They are so beautifully shaped, so strong and sure as they knead dough, so delicate in their movements as you shape pastry and decorate petits fours and spin sugar into nests, or fountains, or spirals. They use precisely the right amount of pressure every time, your hands, neither too light nor too firm.

You have such skillful hands.

I do not say any of these things. I cannot risk it. I could not bear to see the kindness in your eyes transformed to disgust when you see what comes out of my mouth.

But as long as I stay silent, I can luxuriate in honesty, at least in my own thoughts. In the privacy and quiet of my mind, I linger over the words I cannot speak aloud: I love you. I want you. I desire you in every possible way.

It feels very good, that desire, even knowing that it is unrequited.

And so, as I sift flour for the gateaux, as I toast nuts for the pralines or push raspberries through a sieve for the pâtés de fruits, as I watch over the crème patissière to see that it does not boil, I watch you, too. I spin every smile into a story, every friendly word into a confession of love. And in my bed at night, I imagine myself as the desserts you create, melting and coming together again under your touch. I imagine your hands on my skin, as gentle and masterful with my body as they are with your ingredients.

You would think me entirely immodest, if you knew all the thoughts I have about you.

But I do not speak. I’ve learned my lesson, and I hold my tongue. Nothing good can come of me opening my mouth.


My sister Rose has always been a nicer person than me. She is pretty and charming and sweet and polite. I think she genuinely likes people, which makes it easier. Me, I have a lot less faith in the human race than she does. Then again, I’m not as pretty as she is, and I’ve always been too sharp for my own good.

My sister sees only the good in people, and tells them so, and they love her. I notice all their inconsistencies, the gaps between words and action; the little cruelties they inflict on their servants, the tiny ways in which they cheat shopkeepers or spouses, the things they do when they think nobody is looking. I have learned to say nothing, but they see me noticing anyway, and they hate me for it. It’s easier to blame me for being too observant than it is to acknowledge their own sins.

The trouble with being too clever for one’s own good, too sharp, too cynical, is that sometimes one sees too much entirely.

My sister met the old beggar woman in the woods, and saw only poverty to pity, and was rewarded with a tongue that drips gold and pearls.

I met a princess in the wood, all garbed in cloth of gold, and wondered to myself how she had come so far into the woods with not a twig caught on her cloak, how she had walked the uneven paths in such delicate shoes, and why a woman of such obvious wealth was travelling alone, without so much as a servant to help her.

And why must she have my bread and cheese? Ours was not a wealthy family, and bread and cheese were my only food for the day. Why could she not sell some of her jewelry to purchase food – and far finer food than what I could offer her?

I didn’t put it quite like that, of course. Even then, I knew better than to express every thought that entered my head. I gave her a quarter of my lunch, and showed her the shortest path to the village, and advised her on where she might sell her rings. I explained about the dangers of the woods, and suggested that she might use some of the money to hire a servant.

But she was hungry, and nothing would do for her but to have my entire meal, and at once. And I refused. Which was when she revealed herself, read me a lecture on thinking the worst of people, and reminded me that anyone might fall on hard times or be lost and in need of help.

And when I tried to defend myself, I felt something cold and slimy in my mouth.

I try to tell myself that the first frog was the worst. That the shock of it made it more repellant than the others. But, while there may be something to be gained from lying to others, there is absolutely no use lying to one’s own self.

It’s horrible every time. That half choking sensation, the feeling of something squirming and wriggling and alive in one’s own mouth, the utter shame and wretchedness afterward.

The villagers were delighted with my condition. Oh, they didn’t say so, of course. They came and visited and sympathised with my mother – poor woman, to have such a wicked daughter that the Fae themselves had seen fit to punish her – but I saw the delight in their eyes. At last I, with my too-observant eyes and my too-cynical tongue, had been put in my place. I would hardly choke out a series of toads in order to tell their secrets. And surely my condition was itself a sign that they had been right about me all along. What great sins I must be hiding to be so punished! My discernment of their little wickednesses was clearly itself a sign of my far greater corruption.

I left my mother’s house three days later.


Your wife was such a kind woman. That speaks well of you too, I think, that she made you happy, and you her. I wish I had been able to thank her as she deserved for taking me in when I first arrived on your doorstep, a mute girl with no references and only her hands and feet to use in service.

I want you to know that I nursed her as lovingly as I would have nursed my own mother – more lovingly, really. I didn’t want her to die. Even desiring you as I did, I never wanted that. I’d have given my own life if it would have saved hers.

But all I could do was run for the midwife, and then the doctor, and then hold her hands as tightly as I could, trying to give her my strength, as she bled and bled.

I wish I could have told her that I loved her. That I would look after the little one, and you.

I opened my mouth to do so, and felt the frog on my tongue. No woman deserves frogs on her deathbed. I swallowed it down, nearly choking.

I hope it wasn’t one of the princes. I always worry about that. frogprince-gobel-1913

On my half day, I go out into the woods and talk and talk and talk, shedding all the words that I cannot speak where anyone might hear them. I spill frogs until I think I will be ill with them.

I don’t dare speak within the city walls – one is never truly alone in a town, and I am not the only shrewd observer in the world. But a week of silence, of holding back my thoughts, of not arguing, of complying because I have no way to explain myself is as much as I can manage. All too often, I find myself opening my mouth, only to feel the beginnings of that choking, writhing sensation.

I’m always careful to catch the frogs as they fall, and to kiss them before they hop away. There have been two princes so far, and one butcher’s son. The first prince was old enough to be my grandfather. He was very courteous, and spoke several languages, none of them mine. He had, I think he tried to tell me, a wife, and children. Perhaps even grandchildren. I smiled and sent him on his way.

The second was a brute. The kiss he forced on me restored him to his amphibian state, and I dropped him into the nearest pond with a clear conscience. Well, a mostly clear conscience. I felt a certain sympathy for any female frogs in the vicinity.

The butcher’s son was a charming fellow, with a sweetheart of his own. He walked with me to the town gates, and suggested I come to you for employment.

And so I did.


I’ve learned to smile, and to be silent. I chop herbs for the savoury rolls, and I nod and smile at our customers, and point at the prices on the board. I haggle with a smile and a shake of the head, and cuddle your daughter on my hip, and they find me charming.

I am the perfect woman, am I not? Pretty, and silent. I make no uncomfortable observations, and I argue with nobody. And I’m good with the baby.

Yes, I heard you say that to your friends. It’s nice to know you don’t find my muteness creepy, as the chandler does. Perhaps he is thinking of the stare I gave him when he ‘accidentally’ pinched my bottom last week.

I’ll accept your offer of marriage though, when you make it. No man is perfect, and I like the way you look at me, when you think I’m not paying attention. I like the way you lay your hand on my shoulder when you talk to me.

I like the way you haven’t tried to kiss me yet, even when I tilt my head up to you at just the right angle, inviting you, because you aren’t quite sure whether I want it, and besides, I’m your employee.

Yes, I heard that conversation, too. You need to spend less time with the chandler, and more with the carpenter and the grocer. Nice men, with nice wives. I’ll see to that you do, when we are married.


You propose to me at last one spring evening, after the bakery is closed for the day. The trees are misty green with new leaves, and I can hear frogs croaking in the pool outside the city walls. You say sweet things to me, kind things, and I think you mean them. The fact that you know nothing of who I am, of where I am from, does not concern you. You have seen me with your wife, with your baby, with your customers, with my work in the bakery, and that, you say, tells you all you need to know of my character. You only wish you knew my name.

I wish that too, but I do not dare speak, and I have never learned to write.

You tell me that you can offer me no more than what I already have – your home, your bakery, your daughter, and your love. You do not kiss me, even though I smile at you with my heart in my eyes. You want my answer first.

I feel a toad rising in my throat and I swallow it down. You do not know my character, and perhaps you never will – it will always be hidden under a veil of silence. You see only what you want to see – a silent young woman, a steady pair of hands, a kind heart for your daughter.

Perhaps you also see my desire for you. If so, you are too polite to say so.

I intend to be a good wife to you, however little you know me. I smile again, and nod my acceptance, and put my hands in yours.

You kiss me, on the mouth first, and then my hair, and the side of my throat, and I realise that I will need to practice my silence well.

Frogs do not belong in the marriage bed.

I kiss you back.


The priest asks me if I am already married, and I shake my head, no. He is not happy to marry a good man, one he has known all his life, to a nameless stranger, and he speaks name after name to me, waiting for me to nod. I, in turn, stare at him hard, willing him to guess, somehow, my name.

We are both doomed to disappointment.

Eventually, he agrees to baptise me a second time, naming me for my virginity and my muteness.

I am Marie La Muette for only three days before I become Madame Boulanger.

On our wedding night, you take my hand without a word, and lead me to bed. You enter into my silence, wanting no advantage over me save that of experience. Your hands are as gentle and as sure as I had dreamed, and your mouth is clever beyond my imagination. With no words to choke me, my mouth, too, has many delicious uses. I think I please you nearly as well as you please me.

At the end, you touch your fingers to my lips and then to your chest, over your heart. It is no sign language that I have learned, yet I understand your meaning. I touch my own fingers to my left breast, and then to your lips.

Perhaps I do not need words to be with you.

frogprince-gobel-1913 I am happy at first. We rise early in the morning, you to begin the baking, I to give little Louise her breakfast. Then I join you in the bakery, helping in my old tasks, and keeping Louise out from underfoot. Sometimes, you show me a new pastry or a new bread. I learn fast, and you reward me with kisses.

I serve in the shop during the day, and our customers smile and greet me as Mme Boulanger and coo at Louise, riding on my hip. At lunchtime, I put on a casserole, which goes into the big bakery oven, along with the other pots from the village. With the bread all baked, the oven cools slowly, but the heat is enough for our stews and casseroles to be ready for dinner.

In the evenings, we play with Louise, and then you read to me while I do my needlework. Sometimes, you tell me about your plans for the bakery, for our future, for the children I will one day bear you.

It never occurs to you to teach me how to read and to write. Nor do you learn any other sign than the one you taught me on our wedding night.

I am a mystery to you – a cipher, loving but unknown. I think you prefer it that way.


The grocer’s wife and the carpenter’s wife have decided to befriend me. They invite me to their homes to drink tisanes with them, and gossip over needlework with their friends while our husbands are out at the tavern. The gossip is all theirs, of course. I only listen.

But they are kind to me, and funny, and they, at last, make an effort to understand me. We work out a language of faces and gestures, and while I cannot speak as I once did, there is conversation of sorts.

Madame Charpentier even offers to look after little Louise while I take a walk.

In the woods, I spew out more frogs than ever before. Somehow, these new friendships with their partial conversations make my yearning for expression more intense than ever.

It is you I most long to speak with, of course. But you are content to speak with smiles and touches and kisses – and even as my desire to be known grows, so does my fear that you will turn me away if you learn my secret.

Only the frogs know my story, and they will not tell a soul.

None of them are princes, this time, but they are all plump and healthy, with thighs thick and juicy enough to grace any dinner table.

I bring them to my friends, to thank them for their kindness to me and to Louise, and Madame Épicier invites me to dinner.

I decline. I cannot bear the taste of frog.


Have you never wondered why I don’t speak?

You have never speculated on this, not to me, and not where I could hear. And yet, you have invited me, a stranger, into your house and your family.

You don’t even know my name.

I cannot fathom such trust. Part of me would like to shake you – to scream at you. Have you no sense of self-preservation? And if you don’t care for yourself, what of your daughter, who you have given into my keeping?

You know nothing about me.

You have taught me to make croissant dough, and I am proud of the strength in my arms and hands that allows me to pound the butter so thinly, and to fold and roll the dough out again and again.

You tell me that you are proud of me, that the customers prefer my croissants even to yours.

You tell me that you love me.

I touch my fingers to my breast and to your lips. My heart is full, but I say nothing.

Later, I spit out a frog in the back garden.frogprince-gobel-1913

Madame Charpentier is a clever woman – as observant and sly as I was in my girlhood.

She makes me laugh aloud over her stories, and a frog escapes into my teacup.

Little Louise is delighted. “Do it again Mama! Mama, again!” she cries.

I am too frozen to respond. Madame Charpentier looks at me for a long moment, and then calls her daughter to take Louise for an hour.

“I think,” she says, “that you and I should go for a walk.”

I wonder if I will ever see my little girl again.

I wonder if you will forgive me when you know the truth.


We walk in the woods, and I tell Madame Charpentier everything. There is no point in trying to dissemble.

She is silent for a long time after I stop speaking. I pick up the frogs, who I have caught in a basket that I brought with me for the purpose, and kiss them, one by one, before releasing them.

Then I have to explain about the princes, which leads to more frogs.

“And Monsieur Boulanger knows nothing about this?”

I shake my head. Why produce more frogs if I did not need to?

Madame Charpentier sighs, and shakes her head too. “What I can’t understand is how calm you are about this. It seems completely unjust to me. You were rude, perhaps, but the punishment for rudeness should not be a lifetime of silence. Are you not angry?”

And suddenly, I am.

Perhaps I have been all along – but it has been a slow, simmering sort of anger, stifled and silenced by overwhelming fear. But in this moment, it strikes me that it isn’t fair. Yes, I was rude, but I did not, in fact, hurt anyone. It was all a test – a test constructed by someone who lost nothing by my rudeness, who was too powerful to be hurt by any action or inaction of mine, but who punished me for it anyway. And what right did she have to pass judgment on me?  What right had she to condemn me to a life in which I must either keep silent, and lose any chance at true friendship or intimacy, or speak, and risk my livelihood and perhaps my life when others saw what had been done to me?

I have not always been tactful, and I have sometimes been unkind, but I have never told a lie, or borne false witness, or been deliberately cruel. I will never be as sweet as my sister, but I am not wicked and I have always been honest. I have been living with this punishment as if it were some sort of divine judgment or penance, but it is not.

I deserve better than frogs, and I am furious.

Madame Charpentier puts a hand on my shoulder. “Well,” she says. “We shall have to start taking more walks in the woods, you and I. Perhaps we can develop an interest in mushrooming. Or wild greens.”

I look at her for a moment, puzzled. I am too thrown by my new realisations to understand what she is talking about.

She smiles at me. “So that we can talk, of course. I love you dearly, but I will not have frogs in my house. Not live ones, at any rate.”

I smile back at her, uncertainly, and she hugs me, then links my arm through hers, and we begin to walk back along the path to the town. Evening is falling, and the woods are quiet.

“There is one thing you didn’t tell me,” Madame Charpentier says, as we reach the last turn in the path.

I look at her inquiringly; the habit of silence is a hard one to break.

She smiles again. “What is your name? I only know you as Madame Boulanger.”

I open my mouth, then shut it again.

My mother named me Fanchon, which means freedom, but there has been precious little of freedom in my life since I met the lady in the woods.

After I came here, the townspeople called me La Muette, the mute girl.

I do not want to be La Muette any more. And while I do not like the chains that have been put on my tongue, I do not want absolute freedom.

I do not want freedom from you.

And – the priest baptised me new before we were wed. I am not Fanchon now, not in the eyes of God or in the eyes of the church.

Nor of my husband.

To you, I have always been Marie.

I smile at my friend.

“My name is Marie Boulanger,” I say.


You still do not know.

The sky has fallen, and I have been revealed and understood, and I have found myself filled with a rage I never knew I was capable of.

But you do not know.

You are not even curious, or so it seems to me.

You compliment the sautéed frog legs I serve at dinner, but you never ask where they came from. Surely you know that the butcher does not sell them?

After dinner, you read to me. My stomach jumps and twists inside me as though the frogs are there, and alive.

You have never tried to find out where I came from. You have always accepted me as I am.

Except that you don’t know what I am, or who I am, or where I come from.

Is it truly love, if you have made no attempt to find out?

You read to me again tonight, and at the end of the chapter you look across to where I am sitting pretending to do needlework, and close the book. “You are pale tonight, Marie. I hope you are not unwell.”

I bite my lip. I am not sick, but I do not feel well, either. My anger has faded again before your kindness, and once again I am afraid.

It is one thing to have a friend who spits frogs; a wife, though, is another matter. I stare at you, willing you to understand.

You frown a little, and kneel beside me, a hand cradling my cheek. “My sweet, silent wife. You make me very happy, you know.”

You make me happy, too. But you also break my heart with your ignorance of me. I turn my head to kiss your palm, and you smile and kiss me on the lips.

I love your kisses.

You lift me into your arms and sit me on your lap, your hands stroking the pins out of my hair until it falls in a curtain between us. You have always loved my hair. You play with it now, stroking it down my back, sweetly, soothingly, holding me close.

You sigh. “Ah, Marie. I do love you.”

I love you too. My heart is full, and suddenly so is my mouth. A whole colony of frogs are there, impatient, waiting. They are all the words I have never spoken to you – the words of love, of hope, of fear, of desire.

So many words, trapped inside me.

I am terrified.

I am angry.

I love you.

I open my mouth, and let them out.



Frogs, Castles and Silence

La Muette station is located in the 16th arondissement, quite near to the Bois de Boulogne.  It was opened in 1922, and has an underground connection to Boullainvilliers on RER line C.  La Muette takes its name from a nearby street, the Chaussée de la Muette, which in turn is named after the Château de la Muette.  This was a small castle owned by Marguerite de Valois (of La Reine Margot fame).  The origin of the name La Muette is uncertain, but in modern French it translates as the mute woman or the mute girl.

The heroine of this story is the wicked sister from Charles Perrault’s story Les Fées (The Fairies)  In English, this story is called Diamonds and Toads, from the things that fall from the two sisters’ lips after their encounter with the fairy woman in the woods.  Despite the riches involved, I thought it would be rather inconvenient and uncomfortable to be spitting out jewels with every word, and of course toads and snakes would be even worse.  (I decided to make them frogs, because I had some ideas about making the butcher’s boy more important in the story and Marie/Fanchon selling the frogs to supplement the family’s finances.  Obviously, this idea did not make it into the story.)  I thought it was very likely that someone under such a curse might choose not to speak at all, for fear of how others might react.  But now I am retelling the story I have just written, and I think it speaks for itself.

I will say that I was trying to write a romance, and while I don’t think I succeeded, I do think that Marie and her baker will have a happy ending, once he adjusts to the frogs.  He is maybe a tiny bit selfish when it comes to not questioning a situation in which he is happy and comfortable, but he is basically a kind and accepting person.  I don’t think the frogs will be a deal-breaker.

The little frog picture I’ve used is a detail from an illustration by Warwick Goble of the Frog Prince.  It was painted in 1913 and is in the public domain.


fleur9left La Muette
fleur9right Rue de la Pompe

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