PAPILLON MORDANT

A WHORE'S SCENT, of absinthe and cheap perfume, sweat and overripe fruit, of

Gitane cigarettes and face-powder, and under it all, lurking, brooding,

winding itself like a chahuteuse through the air, the smell of fever. A

whore's clothes as well, tattered silks and brocades, purchased from the

dingy little shop in the Place des Vosges, a cluttered hole where the odour

of dust and age reigns supreme and overpowers everything. Time passes

slowly up here on the Hill; the rest of Paris doesn't care enough to brave

the staircases and bring us into Progress. Everything about me, every

outward aspect of my life, reeks of the whore. This is my life; to sleep in

a drunken haze from dawn until the sun disappears behind the domes of

Sacre-Coeur; to awaken at the first faltering notes of the organ-grinders

disjointed melodies; then and only then to emerge from my threadbare

chrysalis of ancient Havana shawls, to reluctantly raise my head from the

satin pillow, worn dull with use and the grease of my hair. It once was a

deep, brilliant yellow, but is now a dingy, greenish colour - it seems that

everyone and everything that ends up on the hill ends up the same way. We

are born young, full of hope, full of fervour for the bohemian ideals of

Freedom, Beauty, Truth, and Love - we die in bitter disappointment. Freedom

is a prison from which there is no escape and no hope of release. Beauty is

a flock of aging prostitutes, the pits on their cheeks covered over with

white paste and rouge, their hair dyed an outrageous shade of red or yellow,

who bat their sooty eyelashes from dimly lit doorways and exhale fetid

breath, heavily tinged with smoke and bad teeth and more oft than not with

the consumption. Truth - the only truth of the Hill is that of misery,

poverty, and death. We are born, we suffer immensely for a few brief

glimmers of happiness, and we die. Our souls may rot in Hell or Purgatory -

not one has faith enough to hope for heaven, with the possible exception of

the priests who serve our Basilica. The Montmartre graveyard claims our

bones, though none may be certain where dear friends lie - only a very few

are well-enough off to afford a headstone. And Love - others may believe

that the bohemians of the Hill are free to love whomever they shall choose,

but it is not so. I cannot love any man - there is no point in it. They

come to me, I lie with them, they pay me, they leave. I hardly see their

faces, more rarely so learn their names. None spend even a night with me -

an hour at most, just long enough for what one might call a "business

transaction". This is my life - to sleep, to wake, to go out on the streets

every night and bring back at least five men, one at a time, to this same

rusty, dusty, rumpled little iron bed where I sleep during the day. Five

francs from each one makes twenty-five - that's enough to live upon. Six

times during the week I do this -

one hundred fifty francs a week - fifty two weeks in a year makes seven

thousand eight hundred francs. I can no longer recall when first I began

work - all the endless days, weeks, months and years have run together, one

endless and brutal carnival of sex and drunkenness and sickness. The

"sparrows" of the Hill work every day except Sunday - and those days when we

must visit old Rienne at the Moulin. Her name might mean Nothing, but to us

she is certainly Something - most of us, myself included, have lain on her

table and felt the sharp end of her crowbar in a delicate place often enough

to no longer need her services. To us it is a boon and a blessing. If any

of us were to bear a child, it would mean the end of our working years and

the start of slow, painful starvation. I think every so often on what

became of Adele Buissonet, four or five years ago. Poor creature - she

refused the offers of help that old Rienne and the rest of us made, and bore

a tiny girl, a pitiful creature with the blue eyes and weak constitution of

her mother. I see Adele once in a great while - she is a laundress now,

married to a hulking brute of a drunkard who beats her - anybody with half

an eye could see the bruises on her arms, obscured though they are with

soap-suds and lye-rash. Her child clings like a skinny, frightened doll to

the skirts of her mother, forever whimpering with hunger. It breaks my

heart to see it - if little Celeste survives her childhood, she will turn

fifteen and choose the same course as endless generations before her have

done - Celeste will lift up her skirts for five francs a man, for as long as

her beauty lasts, simply to stave off starvation. She will become intimate

with old Rienne, and all the ways of the Hill. This is our life. For us,

there is no way of escape. We are born, we age beneath a coat of disguising

paint, we decline faster than the trains come into the Gare St Lazare, and

we die.

Dusk. Through the dingy, bubbled glass of the one small window my

room affords, I can see the sun expiring in one last blaze of glory over

Sacre-Coeur. I can pick out its colours in my room - the red of my best

dress, bought for three francs in the Place des Vosge, its splendour marred

only by a missing button; the brilliant deep gold of my pillow when it was

new; last of all, and palest, an acidic green, the green of my solace,

absinthe. The last green light of the day signals the sparrows of the Mount

to emerge from hiding. I am still in my ratty and grimy deshabille... I

have smeared paint over my face so many times that I know its contours by

heart. There is my brow-bone; white goes there; my lips, scarlet; my

eyelids, dark violet; my cheeks receive the same scarlet paste as my mouth.

It is a ghoulish and garish mask, though without it my sickness shows -

without it no man would want me. I am only rising twenty-one; I look

thirty. When I am thirty I will be too old to work anymore. I don't

believe that I shall see that age anyhow. The consumption will take me long

before. There; I have finished; I hook the last button at the point of my

bodice. The jet rosette makes a nice contrast against the deep red of the

velvet, I think - the missing button is neatly hidden by an enameled brooch.

A last glance in the dirty and speckled mirror; I pin a dingy and somewhat

crushed paper rose into my hair and, feeling myself ready for the night,

slip out the door and into the crush of the street below.