The clouds had been darkening steadily all morning; as cool a morning as there could ever be in summer, but it stopped no being. The humdrum of the city was as cacophonous as always, with common clamor and the resonating sounds of hooves on stony chilled ground. It has always been easy to get lost in such a city, especially for any common person. It takes a rare soul not to be absorbed into such a domicile, and in the misty morning on this particular day was a rare soul indeed. This soul's appearance became so commonplace in this dwelling that it became a part of the scenery; an object or perhaps even a landmark, but far from lifeless. A soul. Dirtied but not dirty, angered but not angry, hardened but not hard. A soul. A soul that indeed defied all limits and all expectations, but still obeyed them. A soul, never invincible. Nothing is invincible.
In the form of a street merchant, the soul stood with a trunk at their feet. The trunk; filled with, at a distance, a pool of anonymous shimmering colors, up close could be made out the forms of extravagant masquerade masks stacked on top of each other. They were the gorgeous work of an artisan; breathtakingly intricate and elaborate, some perfectly jewel-encrusted along the eyes, some lined with gold stripes to form abstract designs, but no two exactly alike. They were nothing less than thorough art, which is why when the rain began to come down, the young merchant became so startled. In a rush, our soul began dissembling the stacks, trying to neatly but hastily close them away safe in the trunk, but the rain came down harder yet. Desperately, the merchant closed the trunk without latching it just to get out of the rain. They got up, turned around, and promptly collided into a young man, dropping all of the masks onto the wet ground.
"Merde!" snapped the merchant under their breath, kneeling down, with some difficulty, to pick up the masks as quickly as possible.
"Pardon me, monsieur!" exclaimed the young man sincerely, "Please, let me help." the young man got on his hands and knees alongside the merchant and helped pick up the masks, putting them in the trunk. When all of them were picked up, the merchant went to pick up the trunk, but the young man stopped them, "Please, it is my fault, allow me."
The merchant, somewhat reluctantly, allowed the young man to take hold of the trunk. The two scuffled over to under an awning a few feet away to escape the rain. The young man carefully put down the trunk in front of the merchant, quickly removing his hands in an effort to show that he had no intention of stealing it. Once on the ground, the merchant immediately opened it back up to examine the masks.
"I am truly sorry." the young man pronounced again, who now held is tall hat against his chest respectfully.
"It's alright," said the merchant, still examining the masks, "It doesn't look like they got too damaged, just a little wet." the merchant began drying them off with a sleeve.
"Good," said the young man, "I am glad. They are very beautiful. Do you mind my asking where you get them?"
"I don't, I make them."
"All of these?" He sounded shocked. The merchant nodded, nonchalantly. "But these must have taken years."
"All of them together? Not more than three years, I'd say." said the merchant, now examining those left in the trunk.
"Where do you learn such a craft?" asked the young man as he knelt down on the other side of the trunk.
"From my mother," replied the merchant, "you could say it's been passed down in my family."
"How old are you, lad?" asked the young man.
"Fifteen, monsieur." said the merchant.
The young man was visibly astounded. "You have an uncommon talent, young sir. You should not have to sell such beautiful art like a common street merchant."
"I do make some money. Enough money, at least for now."
The young man studied the merchant for a moment, before standing, "May I ask your name, young sir?"
The merchant hesitated for a second only, before also standing up and responding, "Remi. My name is Remi."
Slowly, the young man held out his hand. Remi looked at it momentarily, studying it, before cautiously grasping it, and then shaking it firmly.
"With all due respect, Remi, do you-do you need a place to-"
"I am not homeless," Remi blurted, cutting the young man off, "I just like having my own money."
"Are you saving for anything in particular?"
"A ticket out of Paris-or at least out of Montmartre." said Remi, bitterly.
The young man, on the other hand, was simply astounded, "You don't like Montmartre?"
"I was born and raised here, monsieur, and I have seen the the good, the bad, and everything in between. Few people realize how ugly Montmartre can be. And, with all due respect, monsieur, I dare say I grew up a great deal poorer than you, but that's only judging by your attire, so please correct me if I am wrong. I do not hate Montmartre, it is my home, but I want a new life, or rather need a new life. Life in Montmartre is not as romantic as most people think it is."
The young man stared at Remi intently, intrigued and impressed by the merchant's words, "I understand you, but on the contrary I find it quite romantic. It is a life which I have never known, so to me, it is a new life."
Remi smiled at the young man, "And that is something I must respect, for I understand your desire, your fascination."
The young man returned the smile, intrigued still, and after a pause, Remi again spoke, "As pleasant a chat as it's been, monsieur, have you somewhere to be? It's been nearly ten minutes since we-"
But as Remi spoke, the young man hastily retrieved an attractive, hand-crafted pocket watch, looking at it for a short moment, and then placing it back in his pocket. "Yes, and I'm already late, still, may I escort you home and carry your trunk? It's the least I could do."
"Thank you, but I do not mind, and often prefer, going home alone."
"If that is what you'd like." He put his hat back on his hand and, just as he turned to leave, he turned back to Remi, "but before I go, I would like to purchase two of your masks."
Remi re-opened the trunk, allowing the young man to quickly, but carefully, examine the masks. In the end he chose a green, sapphire-encrusted mask for a male and a soft white feathered mask for a female. From his pocket he retrieved a handful of money and put it in Remi's hand.
"Monsieur, I cannot accept this. This is more than twice what I am charging." Holding out the hand filled with money, the young man placed his own hands on Remi's and gently closed it.
"Yes, you can, it alone is less than you deserve for your art-and your dream." The man removed his hand, "If nothing else, consider it compensation for pleasant conversation."
The merchant smiled warmly and pulled the hand back, "I cannot thank you enough, monsieur."
"Nor can I." said the young man, and he turned to leave.
"Wait!" exclaimed Remi at the last minute. The man turned around, "I told you my name, but you did not tell me yours."
The man smiled, "I am Jean Chevalier. It was a pleasure meeting you, young Remi."
. . .
What Jean had not noticed was the limp that the merchant, now to him called Remi, walked with. It looked as if the young merchant was feeling strong pain in their left leg. But no matter, in the merchant's mind, the less people who noticed the better.
The limp made the walk home a long, challenging one, especially with the drawback of a storm, but at the very least the rain had finally ceased for the most part.
Eventually, the merchant had arrived at their destination. It was not a house, but a shop; a crooked, worn, hidden shop, with three rickety stories and a peeling green, ominous exterior. The large sign above the door read "Madame Tille's Tea House" in large black letters, badly in need of repainting. Through the large front window could be seen several customers sitting at round tables and a late thirty-something woman in an apron holding a rag, anxiously wiping unoccupied tables.
When the merchant pushed open the door, the tinkling of a bell sounded, and the woman in the apron looked up frantically, letting out a deep sigh of relief when she saw who it was entering the shop.
"Josephin, thank God," said the woman, with her hand over her chest. She walked up to the merchant and put her hands on her reddened cheeks, "are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Maman." said the merchant, Joséphin, sounding perturbed but warm, taking the woman's hands in her own.
"Why is it that you insist on going out on days like this? You know how worried I get-"
"But you know that you don't have to!" said Joséphin back.
For a moment the woman just stared at her daughter with sad eyes. She moved her hand to the girl's head and removed the beige hat she had been wearing, letting down a mass of long and thick, but unruly, brown hair. The woman held the hat in one hand and stroked the front of her daughter's hair with the other. "It's my job as your mother to worry, Joséphin."
"Is she home?" came the muffled, but shouted, voice of another woman. Out of a door behind the counter in the back came a peculiar looking woman, also wearing an apron with what looked like dried leaves all over it and black, extremely curly hair down to her waist. "Ah, Josephine!" said the woman, first holding up her hands and then wiping them on her apron.
"Afternoon, Madame," said Joséphin, smiling wide, "I'm going up to change right now, I'll be done in less than ten minutes-"
"You just walked home in the pouring rain, love," said the woman, "take your time, take a hot bath, are you hungry? I've made some-"
"Really, I'm alright," she turned and limped her way up a staircase far in the back, and as she got to the top, which was a small balcony surrounded by a wearing wooden railing, she turned around and said, "Less than ten minutes, I promise." she smiled and then opened the wooden door behind her, limping in.
Joséphin's room, if it could even be called that, was on the third floor. It was dark, not much bigger than a large closet. The only things in it were a small wooden bed with dirtying sheets, a tiny wooden box next to the bed with a candlestick sitting on the top, a small metal tub that contained folded clothing, and a very small and drab, yet teeming bookshelf. In the one empty corner of the room, Joséphin placed her latched trunk with a loud "clunk".
After a deep breath and a stretch, Joséphin sat down on her bed and took off the men's pants she had been wearing. She pulled her right leg up into her bed, examining how red and puffy it had become from the cold rain. The left leg, on the other hand, she pulled right off.
She held the knobby wooden carving in her hands, wiping it with a dirty sheet. The bottom of it was flattened and straight, a poor attempt at a foot duplication. She examined it, too, making sure it was completely dry, and then reattached it at the bit of thigh at her left hip.
From the tub she retrieved a plain, timeworn dress with short ruffled sleeves and a slightly tattered fringe that nearly hit the ground and flung it on, but no corset. She hated corsets. On her feet she wore the same clumsy men's shoes she had worn out on the street; her synthetic left foot was nowhere near shapely enough for a ladylike pair of shoes.
When she got downstairs, her mother and the black-haired woman were huddled together in the corner of the counter, as if sharing a secret, they both turned when they heard the hollow sound of her wooden leg hitting the floor. "How long did I take?" asked Joséphin.
The black-haired woman glanced at a clock behind her, "Seven minutes? No longer than seven minutes."
"Almost a new record." said Joséphin jokingly. From a coat rack she retrieved an apron identical to those of the other two women, put it on, and limped up to the front of the counter, where two large cups of tea in aging china on chipped plates sat, steaming fragrantly. "Pepin and Michele?" asked Josephine to her mother, who was standing directly behind the counter. She nodded, and Josephine carefully picked up the saucers and carried them slowly.
She approached the table of two men, one an older, short man, with a receding hairline and several missing teeth, wearing clothing worn past their years. The other looked to be in his mid-thirties and may have been handsome if he did not appear so sickly. The men made small talk, but were both very jittery and disturbed beyond casual anxiety.
"Hello, Joséphin," said the old man, flashing a toothless smile meekly
"Afternoon, monsieur Pepin, monsieur Michele," the younger man smiled curtly, but coldly, "Here you are", she placed down their respective beverages in front of them.
"Joséphin, why are you limping? Are you hurt?" Pepin asked with concerned eyes. He asked the same question every single day.
"I'm fine, monsieur, thank you for asking." With a curtsy, Joséphin turned and walked back to the counter. She stood behind it, watching the two men. In general, Joséphin had a penchant for people-watching, but for some reason she found watching the customers of the shop particularly fascinating. She had noticed how many of them had formed exact routines when they came to the shop, and Pepin and Michele were no exception. Every day the two would walk in together between one and one twenty. Michele would be holding on to Pepin's shoulder because he was so frail and his shakes so uncontrollable and without support he would just fall over, of course Michele, who was shaky to a degree himself, would sometimes transfer his own shakiness to Pepin. Every day, the two sat across from each other at the same table, in a shady spot parallel to the large window, and in the same seats. Every day they would order the same beverage each, Pepin a Black English tea and Michele a sweet almond tea. Every day they would get shakier and shakier while they waited at the table, making small talk, every day, Joséphin would bring them their tea, Pepin would say hello, Michele would nod, Pepin would ask about her limp, and she would walk away. Then they would hastily drink their tea and eventually some of their shakes would cease. And every day, Joséphin would feel a wave of sadness come over her when she saw these people, mostly men, drink their tea. They would always shake and shake and then get better and better. Her mother had told her long ago that the reason the shop was so special was because a lot of the people that came in were not quite right in the head, but here they were accepted, which is more than could be said for the rest of the world.
. . .
And so the rest of the day went on as normal. The same customers in and out, the same recipes and the same shakes and then lack thereof, and as the clock struck eight Joséphin was free to remove her apron and retreat upstairs.
"Change the sign before you go up, will you?" asked Madame Tillie, wiping down counter.
Next to the door sat a rectangular basket containing two signs. Joséphin put in a sign reading "Open" and retrieved a sign that read "Closed" in blue lettering. "Good night, Madame."
"Good night, love," replied Madame Tillie, who watched Joséphin's every move as she walked up the steps.
Supper was nothing more than bread and cheese. Joséphin ate alone, as usual. It was nine o'clock.
To her room she retreated, and before anything else she retrieved a novel from the top of her bookshelf, but as she read her mind began to wander. For how long, she could say. It wandered to, in particular, the young man she had met on the street. What was his name? Jean. Jean something-Chevalier! That was it. Jean Chevalier. What a curious man. He could not have been older than twenty-one. A kind man, certainly, and handsome, without question. He was, however, Joséphin recalled, naïve. Very naïve. But, she thought still, were all men not naïve at his age? Or did his kindness make up for it?
Although Joséphin did occasionally get lost in her own mind, she was quick to wake to reality. Just as she began to fall into a state of attraction to this man-Jean-she remembered; she had met him as a boy. Had she met him as herself, he would have been cruel, she knew it. Her mother taught her from a young age that men are cruel to unattractive women, so to always be cautious.
"You see, I had the Audacity to beg the Count to allow me to give the birthday toast to Albert-". Her mind had managed to wander as she offhandedly read the words in her novel, but it was this sentence that drew her back in and brought her to another thought; her own birthday was in one week, a thought that made her stomach flutter and her heart swell. In one week she would be eighteen and, therefore, free to do as and go where she pleased.
"Just a few months should do it," she thought, "a few more months, and I'll have enough." She sat, staring out of her window. She could hear, as she could every night, dogs howling, the sound of drunken laughing men, and a rotten ammoniac scent that she knew the source of only too well. If she got out of bed and looked out, she knew from experience, she would be able to see the drunken men, acting how they believed was utterly charming to some skinny, skuzzy prostitute, selling their bodies for hardly enough money to keep their skin separate from their bones. But how lovely the stars were.
"Josephin?" It came from outside her door. "Are you awake?"
It was her mother. "Yes, I'm awake. Come in."
The door swung open to reveal her weary mother in her apron and Madame Tille directly behind her.
"What time is it?" asked Josephin
"A bit after midnight?" replied her mother, "Josephin, would you mind coming downstairs? We need to talk about something."
"It can't wait?"
"We'd prefer to talk about it now."
"…Alright. Let me get ready."
Joséphin had never, in her life, been downstairs after midnight.