wrinkling, gloved around his fist. “A message from President Millerand,” he whispers, and she says, “Yes? Has he rewritten the play?” and Max replies softly, “No, just the usual good luck note.” They both stand quietly. The murmur of the audience droning before them. Thousands and thousands of words that have blended into one indistinguishable sound that is void of meaning. She turns to look at Max and steals a full glance without his noticing. He is beautiful. Soft and tender despite his tightly threaded expression and recent aging. He is strength woven by a lifetime of insecurities. His devotion to her is uncompromising, but she does not see him as subordinate or lacking. It is the love of the spiritually connected. Lifetimes of incarnations that have not-so-accidentally rounded the corner into one another and partnered for yet another go-around. It doesn’t warm her like she thinks it should. Instead it grounds her. Makes her place on the earth seem more assured. A gravitational hand to hold in order to keep from shooting off into outer space. She thinks to tell him that she loves him. Not in the usual manners—the petulant child who tosses out I love you as some form or apology or distraction, nor as the invertebrate lacking in lucidity who suddenly finds herself in love with the whole world. This would be real. The kind that makes the skin crawl. But she decides against it. Too unprofessional. She needs to be summoning Marguerite. Calling on her to inhabit this body. Charging her with the energy being conducted through the house. She is supposed to be driving out Sarah Bernhardt. Freeing her for the next three hours until she is harkened back for the final curtain calls. To love Max too much is to endanger the moment. He looks back at her, evidently not noticing her stare. In perfect synchronization he nods as the houselights dim. She smiles at his perfection. It is her last chance to say how much she loves him. She starts to round her lips to form Je, but instead pushes out a hard steady plosive that contrasts with the pastoral breathiness of the single-vowel word that speaks a thousand philosophies. She looks at him again. This time she speaks: “Onward.” The word hangs clear and distinct, its edges sharpened and crisp among the blurred crowd din. With her hands pressed against her stomach and feeling for breath, she prepares to take the stage. She has no choice.


IT’S LIKE AN ILLUSION, the way she paces the floor. Left with only one leg, her feet still seem to fall heavy, stomping the boards. Sometimes rattling the stage walls. She is solid. Rooted to the floor. And it extends beyond gravity. It is more a matter of connection. It is like language. She is the meaning created by the listener and the speaker. It is command. And yet, almost conversely, she seems to float across the stage. Gliding. As though all movement suffers no effort. Gliding among the actors as though they are inanimate objects and she is the breeze. Strike that. She is nothing like language. She is not a voice or a tool or an instrument to convey thought through the artifice of metaphor. She is meaning. In all its literal glory.

SHE DOESN’T EVEN FEEL herself breathe.

THREE HOURS LATER she is still onstage, seated on a stuffed feather bed that is draped by a thin comforter and bordered by a mound of pillows. She is costumed in a long white negligee with an embroidered lining that hangs below the neckline. Her face is powdered a consumptive white, and heavy black eyeliner helps to draw out the sickness. Her left leg hangs over the bed, the foot dressed in a lace slipper. The stump of her right is carefully hidden below the covers. Since the amputation her set designers have worked miracles to create the illusion that hides the phantom leg. She is about to die as Marguerite Gautier once again. Soon the character of Julie Duprat will enter and light two candles. She will kneel before the bed and watch the tragic figure scream out in pain with three long howls. There will be pauses, one beat longer than normal between each scream, and the theater will be in resolute silence, until the next howl picks up as the other fades away. And then she will sit up twice. Each movement is so simple and shapeless on its own, but within context she will be in desperation, reaching out with one final attempt to grasp onto her mortal life. Then she will cry out for Armand. She will scream for him as though he is just outside the theater on the Place du Chatelet, so close but unable to hear his own name. And the audience will all tense and sway their bodies, as though trying to help give her call more force, as though there truly is an Armand Duval standing right outside the stage doors on the boulevard. And tears will fill her eyes. They will crawl down her cheeks, running traces through the foundation. The theater will be stunned into silence, cooperative by their own tears. And then she will cough one time, enough blood will rise to stain her gown. And then she will die. She will not grasp for the floorboards as she used to. Partly because the loss of her leg has stilted her range of motion. Mostly though, she has come to see Marguerite’s death less and less as a struggling battle to hang on to life, but instead as a willingness to let go in a slow silent mourning for her lost love and passion.


Divine Sarah is loosely based on real circumstance (and draws from certain incidents and legends in Sarah Bernhardt’s life), but the drama, narrative, and most of the characters are imagined. Combinations of characters have been formed into one, and real circumstances have been bent and mutated for the purposes of storytelling. Advance apologies to those protectors of Sarah. But I think that she would have recognized the intent behind this book—to create a truth that might have been hers within a mostly fictitious world and setting.

I am indebted to Sarah’s memoir Ma Double Vie, translated by Victoria Tietze Larson, La Dame aux Camelias by Alexander Dumas fils, the technical assistance of Bill Ratner, Alec Hodgins and his French class, and the volumes of information in public libraries and posted on various Web sites. And lastly to the power of imagination that can take scatterings of facts and fictions and create brand-new worlds. Something Sarah Bernhardt would believe in and support.

Special thanks to the people at William Morrow: Henry Ferris, for leading the charge; Michael Morrison, for his faith; and Lisa Gallagher and Sharyn Rosenblum, for their savvy.

Thanks to Nat Sobel. I am forever reminded that my words might be tucked away in a manila envelope in a drawer if not for him.

As always, thanks to Chuck Newman, Tom Lisk, Mel Saferstein, Jerry Williams, and Mel Yoken for being willing to help in a thousand different ways.

And finally, the love and support of friends and family.

About the Author

ADAM BRAVER was born in Berkeley, California. After attending college in Vermont, he received his MFA in creative writing and now teaches at Roger Williams University. His work has been published in The Pittsburgh Quarterly and Cimarron Review, where several of the stories from his first book, Mr. Lincoln’s Wars, first appeared. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.


Mr. Lincoln’s Wars

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