It was more than a poetic expression of love, Before. It was truly how I felt about him.
No one, even fervent believers in reincarnation, knows for sure why we don’t, during our earthly lives, retain the memories of everyone we have been before. It may be, reasonably I think, that such complete recall would be overwhelming, especially to a child. Maybe holding onto so many painful recollections would leave us all too traumatized to accomplish anything. Perhaps the value, the feverishly desperate importance of one’s current life would be cheapened, damaged if we had absolute certainty that there is always another life, another chance to get it right, or even to just see life through different eyes, walk around not in another man’s shoes, but with another human heart beating inside us.
I speak very seldom about Before (my code word for my past life in late 18th-century France), even to family members who are in the know. When I have, I’ve more than once told them that people don’t change. Well, individuals do, but the human race, at least as far back as I can see, is the same as ever. The people who bowed and curtsied to me in the gilded and glittering rooms of Versailles are no different than the ones who I pass by on sidewalks and in store aisles. It’s comforting, in a way, that people laugh the same as they always have, gossip, complain, put on facades.
Because individuals change. Oh, do they ever. If not our immortal soul-selves, then the personalities we put on for each trip down to this sad, silent planet. For all I know, Athlynne may be the exact same being she was at the moment of her creation, but Antoine and Amber, the princess and the pained…it’s stunning to me how unalike we are, especially in matters of the heart.
I’ve spoken here before about being asexual. I am also aromantic, which I consider lucky, partly because I so pity those of my fellow aces who have no desire to have sex, but still want romantic relationships. I have never been in love, not with a person, anyway, and I don’t expect in this life I ever will be. You might be thinking, hey, just like Before, right? Arranged marriages are not known for sentiment, for flowers and candles and sweet gestures, so this life is more of the same, right?
It’s difficult to speak of, in any way. When I try, I can almost feel a hand pressing over my mouth, as if someone (or more likely, some part of myself) is advising caution, reminding me that Before, if this secret (no longer, much of it is known today) got out, then my rank as queen, my remaining reputation, my position in France, and most of all my children’s ranks and birthrights would all be in grave jeopardy. The shard of me that is still Antoinette and always will be holds me back from commenting on the one romantic love I had in that life. Because it was not my dear, sweet, awkward husband.
His name was Axel von Fersen, a Swedish count who began to visit us at Versailles as a servant of the Swedish king, with whom we were on friendly terms. Monsieur de Fersen was a debonair, handsome, chivalrous, charming, flirty, quick-witted, kind, and incredibly warm man, who won many of us over quickly, and not just the ladies at court who whispered to one another that he was just like a hero from a romance novel brought to life. Men, too, tended to think well of him, and my husband trusted him enough to later let him coordinate our attempted escape during the revolution.
That attempt failed, all subsequent efforts came to nothing, we in the end were not able to get away, and I know Axel never forgave himself for that. None of us blamed him, I know. Louis, I feel certain, went to his execution thinking of Axel with fondness and gratitude. He was in my last minutes of thought as well, but in my case because I was completely in love with him, and he with me.
If you are familiar at all with this bit of history, and hoping I can answer the questions that historians of this time and place debate and puzzle over…I can’t, really. My visual memories of Before are fragmented and vague, possessing none of the hindsight with which we view important events of the past. Most of what I remember is not what I saw, but what I somehow know. I can read a book about my old self and while doing so mumble things like, “No, it didn’t happen quite that way…no, this happened before that, not after…no, I knew her, she would never say or do something like that.” Little things that had no bearing on history, that were only important to one little queen, in one little piece of Earth, in one lifetime amidst many.
Disappointingly, M. de Fersen is one of many subjects that I am almost entirely blank on. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m asexual this time and wouldn’t be able to understand what we had anyway. Maybe it’s another silly attempt to keep our feelings for each other then secret, and perhaps more than feelings and heartfelt words, though I honestly cannot settle the debate on did we or did we not ever consummate our relationship. Maybe – and I lean toward this one – it’s because I already recall that love enough to find it overwhelming, and if I remembered more, I wouldn’t be as content as I am in this life to remain single.
What do I remember? I know, more than I feel, that being in Axel’s company made me happier than anything else save my children. I know that in his long absences, I felt such a pain in my heart that it physically hurt, and that each time he visited again, in the limited amount of close contact we could manage, all the frustrations I had, everything that had ever wounded or disappointed me, went away, or was at least forgiven and made peace with. Things were different then, there was never any thought that I would leave my husband for him, so all these minutes and moments we stole together were all the more precious. I was Catholic, I did not question God’s will that I be queen, be married to Louis, but at these times, I felt like God or something was making up to me every previous suffering.
So, why is this sweetheart from long ago on my mind now? Because I visited a past lives forum site I used to frequent years ago, and found a post by a user who seems pretty convinced that she was Axel von Fersen. I replied to her lightly, as casually as I could, and she sent a message to me in response. Which has been sitting in my inbox for over two weeks now, untouched.
I will open it, I will respond, and I do hope it is really him. Obviously, there is no chance, no desire on my part for us to pick up where we left off, physically or emotionally. But I want to know how he is now, I want to hear that he is happy and fulfilled, and most of all I want to make sure he no longer carries any guilt for what happened to me and my family. If by chance he does, I will do my best to relieve him of it, to convince him I only remember him with affection, and with gratitude for everything he gave me in that long-over but never-ended life.
Our paths crossing in that dreamlike long-ago was not by chance. The life I charted for that silly girl, who only wanted to be Antoine, not the infamous Marie Antoinette, was privileged in some ways, yes, but in others painful, and most of all, lonely. I think I guessed it would be a hard road, and wrote Axel into my story as a balm on my fragile heart, a bright sun shining in an otherwise dim sky. Every step I took prior to our first meeting was with the intention of finding him, though in the amnesia of the body I didn’t know it at the time.
Maybe in the many years since we bid one another farewell, I have been on a similar path, heading in your direction. Maybe we can offer each other some small measure of peace, in a world that’s in turmoil again. I don’t expect to face you and feel existence shrink down till I see nothing but you, as it was before, and I’m fine with that. If I can only give you the slightest fraction of what you gave me, that will be enough.