He heard it said— overheard it said, rather, for he’s still far from adept at striking up conversations with strangers here— that today, on Halloween, just like in the old stories— today, the spirits of the dead may appear.
He almost laughed when he heard it, because of course they do, they are around every corner. But of course this must mean something different, the dead who do not frequent this place. And then a strange kind of certainty sneaks on him: were anyone to appear to him today, he feels entirely sure of who it would be.
And he is in that frame of mind as he sits in his room as the evening falls, and suddenly from behind him hears a voice that says, very soft, almost a whisper: “Ah, my boy.”
“Father,” he blurts out, but when he turns he sees it is— not.
She’s a woman near his own age, in a fine but old-fashioned gown. Her hair is black, piled on her head in a fashion to match her dress, with a few stray curls falling loose about her ears, her neck.
But her face— her face is his own face, painted over in soft, feminine lines. Those lips, his lips; that nose, his nose; those grey eyes, his own.
He says faintly, too stunned to be embarrassed by his mistake, “M—mother?”
She smiles, and draws closer. She reaches her hand out and brushes her fingers down his cheek. He’s ready to flinch away, ready for the touch to be ghostly cold, or not corporeal at all— but her fingers are as warm and alive as those of his friends. He is still sitting, and with her standing above him, though she is not tall, the way he is forced to look up at her makes him feel like a little boy.
“What a man you’ve become!” She brushes his black curls away from his forehead, and her expression softens at the criss-cross of faint scars there, like cracks in pale porcelain. “And how brave you’ve been.”
He feels his cheeks grow hot, and he looks away. “No. I am certainly not, I have not been. Not— not compared to my father, to my wife’s father…”
“Now, now— I say you have been. Will you not mind your mother?” She smiles a little as she says it, but it does not have the teasing sweetness that Cosette would use in such a moment. At the bottom of all her smiles is something quiet and melancholy. Marius spent so many years trying to imagine himself a father in whose image he could mold himself, he never imagined it was his mother in whom he would see that smile reflected.
“You ran away, too,” he says, feeling suddenly shy. He’d never quite thought of that before, that they had both been brought up in the same house, by the same man, and fled to marriages he didn’t quite approve of.
“I did,” she says. “I loved your father as I had never loved anyone. And I had never been so loved by anyone. I know my father loved me, after his own ideas of love and how to show it… but you know that as well as I do.”
“Will— will you tell me about— about how you met him?” He’s blushing brightly once again. “How you left?”
“Of course I will.”
She’s like him: not a naturally great or easy speaker, but one who warms to her topic as she goes on, and gains in confidence as she progresses. And her story— why, it is a love story, about two people who fumbled and prevaricated and were sure and unsure by turns, and it all sounds so very human and ordinary he forgets, from time to time, that this is not just anyone’s story, but their story. His father’s. And his mother’s.
He thinks, when she finishes, perhaps he should tell his own story, about him and Cosette— and everything else— but it seems clear she already knows it.
“These past five years, I have thought of nothing but how I might honor him,” Marius says instead. “How I might prove myself worthy to say I am his son.”
“But you needn’t prove that,” she says. “You are his son. For good and ill.” She laughs at his expression. “It is no blasphemy to say so! He was merely a man. He made mistakes— and great ones, too. And so have you, and so you shall again.”
Marius frowns down at his shoes. She says, “It is not given us to be perfect. We can only try. Now come, my son— come kiss me, for I must go.”
Marius stands and takes the hand she is offering. She leans close to kiss his cheek, and he closes his eyes and takes in the scent of her old-fashioned perfume. He realizes it is a smell he knows, a smell that would drift through sometimes in his grandfather’s house, out of a forgotten bedroom, off of a seldom-used chair. It had become so plain so quickly, through icy silence or his grandfather’s shouting, that he was not to speak of his mother, not to ask about her. And so he stopped. But she had been there all along.
When he opens his eyes, she is gone.