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This Man's Heart

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This story took place a very long time ago, in a beautiful place where the Saint-Lawrence River turns into a gulf, then into the ocean. The village called Sainte-Cécile was known for its sumptuous peaks and headlands beaten by an enraged sea, its small islands revealed by the tide, its small secret bays invaded by gulls and seals, and its swamps swarming with white-tailed deer. It seemed this story couldn’t have developed anywhere other than in that strange and fabulous landscape haunted by ghosts, but protected by fairies.

Sainte-Cécile’s history is filled with legends. People said that, after creating the mountains, God had ordered an angel wearing a long silk coat to spread them all over the Earth’s surface. Upon arriving in Sainte-Cécile, his last stop, the angel had been exhausted, but his pockets were still heavy with mountains. He had decided to empty them all at once and instantly, an ensemble of mountains had erupted from the sea while a handful of loose gravel had given birth to small islands. Over the years, families had established themselves along the coast, the Saint-Lawrence River regularly bringing new people who had heard about the region’s beautiful landscapes or were simply interested in being part of a growing community, to participate in building a place they could call home. Life was fairly quiet; it was good.

Sainte-Cécile was a small town where everyone knew each other very well, which means the favourite topic of conversation was usually some neighbour or other. Like in many small towns, gossip was one of the preferred distractions, which resulted in Sunday Mass becoming more of a social gathering than a religious one, to the priest’s dismay. However, speaking about one another never stopped the townsfolk from taking care of each other; mutual aid was part of what made the village dynamic work.

The Golden Rule was at the heart of the village’s harmony and, despite the amount of time spent speaking behind other people’s backs, the townsfolk mostly felt deep affection for each other. However, it was easy for newcomers or those who were too different to be ostracized and end up being the main topic of conversation on the church steps. However, once one was accepted as a true part of Sainte-Cécile, he was guaranteed friends for life and help whenever needed.

Since many families relied on farming for sustenance, life was ruled by the cycle of seasons. During spring and summer, the village buzzed with activity. People worked hard during the day, while the nights were reserved for quiet family dinners or larger gatherings with neighbours. The warm weather was also favourable to weddings and, with the townsfolk’s tendency to put their noses into each other’s affairs, it wasn’t surprising that the union of two people always set the whole town ablaze with excitement. Nothing could stir the village as much as an upcoming wedding and no occasion could bring the townsfolk together more effectively. The turmoil increased tenfold when the union was between two people of the same sex. Perhaps because it wasn’t as common, but the announcement of an upcoming same-sex wedding always sent the whole town into a state of exaltation.

The dynamic of Sainte-Cécile drastically changed in winter, when life slowed considerably as the village was covered in a thick blanket of white snow. There were fewer large neighbourhood gatherings and more small parties held in houses, giving the whole village a much more intimate feeling. When the snow melted, the cycle began again: spring with its timid buds, followed by a hot summer and the harvest, then, a crisp autumn with bright colours leading to another cold and cruel winter.

:::

Sherlock Holmes lived with his aunt, Martha Hudson. She was the only family he had and they shared a cozy house in Sailboat Bay, a very quiet corner of Sainte-Cécile. From their secluded location, only they could see the forbidden manor where Harry Watson and her younger brother lived on Spruce Cape.

The story of Sherlock Holmes’ family seemed intimately linked to the sea. Martha Holmes, Sherlock’s aunt, had married the eldest son of the Hudson family, but her marriage was struck by tragedy in its first year, before they even had time to conceive a child. Her husband had died before her eyes when the ice bridge he had been crossing while returning from gathering wood collapsed, the sea instantly swallowing him. Martha was devastated; her husband had been a childhood friend and, even if their marriage had been young, they had had a very deep and powerful connection.

Her husband had been an admirer of the sky, often spending long hours outside with an arm around Martha’s shoulders while he recited the names of the different stars and constellations. After his death, Martha felt that the sky her husband had been so fond of now mocked her, and for days she couldn’t leave the house unless necessary, not feeling strong enough to face the firmament. Unfortunately, the sky was difficult to avoid and she had resolved to learn as much about it as her husband had, feeling it was a way to conquer the upper atmosphere and, therefore, her sorrow. She threw herself into his astronomy books and only found peace when her knowledge equalled his. Afterwards, she was able to observe the sky without feeling sad or angry. From that day on, the sky was a source of comfort for her and even if the oppressive sadness was gone, she never lost the sweet melancholy the thought of her husband brought. She never remarried.

Sherlock’s father, Alban Holmes, was a maritime pilot. One day, when a ship from England hit the seabed and began to sink, he was asked to be part of the rescue team. He had already rescued two men when his lantern lit a floating inanimate body. He called out while getting closer, but got no response and when he finally could hoist the body into his rowboat, he saw that it belonged to a young and very beautiful woman who wasn’t breathing. He feverishly pressed her lungs, terrified by the idea that she might never breathe again and, when he thought the battle was lost, she coughed. Alban rowed as fast as he could to bring her ashore. After carrying her into his house, he lit a fire, undressed her, laid her by the fireplace and piled every blanket he owned on her trembling body. A few hours later he still couldn’t tear his gaze away; the woman he had snatched from the sea was alive and sleeping peacefully.

No words described her better than ‘stunningly beautiful’. Long black curls delicately framed her pale face and her eyes were grey. Her lips were red and when slightly opened, were shaped like a heart. She had left England to be a governess in a rich Englishman’s house in Québec City, but she never reached it. After seeing Alban bent towards her, his cheeks flaming and a sparkle in his eyes, she thought she was falling in love. That same spring, they were married and two years later she gave him a son: Sherlock. Alban was happier than he had ever been.

But his beautiful wife wasn’t the kind of woman who found joy in sitting peacefully at home. She was from a very big and exciting city where everything moved constantly; she was bored by the quiet life in Sainte-Cécile and not at all impressed by the beautiful landscapes surrounding her. Alban tried everything he could to distract her, but not even the tentative smiles of baby Sherlock could cheer her up. One day, Alban woke up to find a letter from his wife telling him she had left for Québec City with an English captain she had met in town.

Alban couldn’t resign himself to a life without the woman he loved so much and, after leaving two-year old Sherlock with his sister, he dashed in the pursuit of his wife in his buggy. He planned to find her and convince her to stay; he was even prepared to move his family to Québec City if it meant he and his wife could be together. They would take a house in the busiest street they could find and he would return to Sainte-Cécile only to get his son and, if she wanted to come, his sister. Exile from the village he had grown up in was nothing compared to a lifetime with the woman of his dreams.

Nevertheless, even the best-laid plans are subject to failure and Alban’s buggy was ambushed on the way to Québec City. The robbers stabbed Alban before leaving with everything he had brought with him. When his body was found, a letter was sent to the address painted on the buggy and, eventually, Martha Hudson got the news that her brother had died. Everyone expected Sherlock’s mother to come back and claim her share of the inheritance; a much-discussed matter around the village. However, Martha never heard from her and it took several months before she heard that her ex sister-in-law had died from typhoid fever. Martha was now the only family Sherlock had left and she vowed to take care of him for as long as she lived. She inherited a small sum of money, with which she bought a new buggy and a horse, but the rest was stored away for Sherlock. She also inherited her brother’s house, but instead of selling it, she decided to rent it and use the money to see to her and Sherlock’s needs.

It wasn’t long before she realized that Sherlock wasn’t like any other child, and she had seen a fair number of children, her mother having raised six of them. He started talking very late; so late that Martha had the doctor examine him. He assured her that everything seemed normal and that there was nothing else to do but wait. When he finally started talking, he was already forming small sentences and was asking way too many questions, following his aunt around everywhere she went, wanting to see everything, touch everything and often embarrassed her with awkward questions about the people they encountered.

Sherlock was very interested in what people did or said and in the motivations behind their actions. However, he had no interest in forming bonds with people other than his aunt. She had hoped he would make some friends once in school, but her hopes were crushed very quickly. He never played outside with the other children, preferring to run after animals, collect leaves or experiment with bugs, never staying still unless he was forced to. The worst for him were the hours he had to spend sitting in class. He was smarter than every child his age (and most of the older ones too) and when he wasn’t fidgeting and looking out the windows, he was correcting the mistakes the other students made or pointing out errors on the chalkboard. The other students hated him and when a classmate smashed her slate on his head, Martha lovingly removed the pieces that were still stuck in his hair while trying to hide her surprise that it hadn’t happened sooner.

It didn’t help that he was taking after his mother and had what was considered a peculiar appearance. His dark brown curls formed a halo around his pale young face, he was taller than all the children his age and very thin despite Martha’s attempts to fatten him up. However, the feature people usually noticed first was his eyes. They were slightly almond shaped and mostly gray, but sometimes appeared blue or green depending on how the light hit them. It was no surprise that he was teased about the way he looked; children tend to be cruel to those who look different. He was also teased because he was smarter, because he had no friends (which he didn’t mind). Some even said it was his fault his mother had left, that no one would want a strange child like him, and those taunts tended to sting more than the others. As a defense mechanism, he became expert in observing people, finding their weaknesses and using them shamelessly against those who tormented him. He couldn’t count on his fingers the number of students who had run home crying because of him and no amount of discipline measures applied by his aunt could change anything. The only thing that ever seemed to have a negative effect on him was being forced to stay still, but tying him up was not an option, even to teach him a lesson.

By the time he was a teenager, he looked even more awkward than before. His limbs looked disproportionate to his thin and small torso. His cheekbones were too high, his eyes were too close together and his curls were too wild. Like every boy his age, his voice was breaking and for a while he talked even less than usual, hating not being in control of the sounds escaping his mouth.

He had started playing the violin a few years before and he was very talented, although only Martha and his music teacher had ever heard him play. He practiced for long hours at a time, sometimes only stroking the strings in random patterns to see what sounds he could draw from the instrument, but sometimes falling into a deep trance and playing symphonies as well as a maestro. At first, Martha thought the violin could potentially be used to motivate Sherlock into doing his schoolwork and she tried hiding the instrument. However, her gambit failed and Sherlock spent all the time he should have devoted to his schoolwork looking for his violin, instead of playing it. After a while, she stopped trying to trick him into studying; his results were excellent anyway.

The teachers tended to forgive his horrible manners in class since he got top grades in everything with little apparent effort. The older he got, the more his teachers talked to Martha about Laval University and the scholarships offered to honour students. She was very enthusiastic about them, but Sherlock had no interest in pursuing higher studies once he was done with Sainte-Cécile’s school program. He was perfectly happy teaching himself about anything he found interesting using dozens of books. When he wasn’t reading, he was running around the village to study people or make various experiments.

He spent so much time observing people that he eventually became an expert in reading them and making deductions based on everything about them: clothing, behaviours, accessories, physical appearance, personal grooming and various idiosyncrasies. He knew when people were lying, who was stepping outside their marriage (and with whom, obviously), and who was trying to hide or fake an illness. He could tell someone’s profession before they opened their mouths and if he had bothered to care, he would’ve easily known what someone had eaten for lunch. It was an impressive talent, but it usually got him into trouble. Or slapped.

One thing that really entertained him was the arrival of new people in town. He liked to meet them, have a very brief conversation with them and deduce as much as he could using the data he had gathered. Martha knew about his little game and, even if she disapproved of her nephew using people for his own entertainment, every time someone around Sherlock’s age arrived in Sainte-Cécile, she found herself almost as excited as he was. She hoped the newcomers would manage to hold his attention for longer than a few minutes, but her wish remained unfulfilled. The worst experience so far had probably been Jonathan Anderson. Sherlock had loudly deduced that he was scared of rats, which had made the villagers laugh and for a while, Anderson had found rats everywhere he went. He now hated Sherlock so much he crossed to the other side of the road to avoid meeting him.

When the Hooper family arrived, Sherlock was twenty-four years old and Martha had a sparkle in her eye when she heard they had a twenty-one-year-old daughter named Molly. She invited the whole Hooper family to dinner and, of course, Sherlock promised to attend what he expected would be a deducing fest. After dessert, Sherlock and Molly went for a short walk on Moose Cape and later, when Martha asked Sherlock what he thought of young Molly, she was surprised to hear him describe her as interesting; a very flattering term she had rarely heard him use before.

It turned out Molly Hooper was very interested in death and once Sherlock deduced this, that’s all they talked about. It was the first discussion Sherlock had had about death with anyone other than his aunt; the subject was taboo and most people avoided it. The day after the shared dinner, Sherlock walked to Molly’s house, an unusual bounce in his step, and she agreed to go out for another walk with him. They wandered around the cemetery together, reading plaques and speculating on the cause of death of the people laying six feet under them. Molly was quite taken with Sherlock; she was all smiles, blushes, batting eyelashes and pretty giggles. Sherlock had seen the signs numerous times before, and he was disappointed to see them directed towards him. Molly had seemed interesting at first, but the last thing Sherlock wanted was to end up on the receiving end of an infatuated young woman’s affection. He never walked to Molly’s house again and only spoke to her when she addressed him first. He thought that was sure to nip her attraction in the bud. It didn’t.

Martha was disappointed, of course, but the very short interest Sherlock had had for Molly looked like a sign that not all hope was lost. One day, someone would come and turn out to be his first friend or, even better, his wife. Unfortunately for her, she would have to wait five years before someone lit that spark of interest again.