Champagne Widows excerpt

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Champagne Widows excerpt Chapter One: "Le Nez" The Nose

(Barbe-Nicole and her grandmother have gone down into the champagne caves for a smelling game her grandmother prepared for her, to prove she is Le Nez. The Nose.)

Grand-mère places a bunch of grapes in my hands and brings it to my nose. "What comes to you?"

"The grapes smell like ripening pears and a hint of Hawthorne berry."

She chortles and replaces the grapes with another bunch. "What about these?"

Drawing the aroma into the top of my palate, I picture gypsies around a campfire, smoky, deep, and complex. "Grilled toast and coffee."

Her next handful of grapes are sticky and soft, the aroma so robust and delicious, my tongue longs for a taste. "Smells like chocolate-covered cherries."

Grand-mère wheezes with a rasp and rattle that scares me.

I yank off the blindfold. "Grand-mère?"

"You're ready." She slides me a wooden box carved with vineyards and women carrying baskets of grapes on their heads. "Open it."

Inside lays a gold tastevin, a wine-tasting cup on a long, heavy neck chain.

"Your great Grand-père used this cup to taste wine with the monks at Hautvillers Abbey. Just by smelling the grapes, he could tell you the slope of the hill on which they grew, the exposure to the sun, the minerals in the soil." She closes her papery eyelids and inhales. "He'd lift his nose to the west and smell the ocean." She turns. "He'd smell German bratwurst to the northeast." Her head swivels. "To the south, the perfume of lavender fields in Provence."

Le Nez

Her snaggletooth protrudes when she smiles. "Your great Grand-père was Le Nez." The Nose. "He passed down his precious gift to you."

Here she goes again with her crazy notions. "Maman says Le Nez is a curse."

Grand-mère clucks her tongue. "Your maman didn’t inherit Le Nez, so she doesn't understand it. It's a rare and precious gift, smelling the hidden essence of things. I took it for granted, and now it's gone." Her wrinkled hand picks up the gold tastevin and christens my nose.

A prickling clusters in my sinuses like a powerful sneeze that won't release. I wish there were truth to Grand-mère's ramblings; it would explain so much about my finicky nature.

"You are Le Nez, Barbe-Nicole." She lifts the chain over my head, and the cup nestles above my breasts. "You must carry on Grand-père Ruinart's gift."

"Let's get you back to your room." I try to walk her to the stairs, but her legs give out. Lifting her bird-like body in my arms, I carry her as she carried me as a child, trying not to topple over into the crayère.

"Promise you'll carry on Le Nez," she says, exhaling sentir le sapin, the smell of fir coffins.

My dear Grand-mère is dying in my arms. Now I know Le Nez is a curse.