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The Ideasmith, a short story by Roman Payne

The Ideasmith
By Roman Payne
Click Here for French version (coming soon)
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Iplinters of frost grew like cold dust on the dead and stood huddled like armies of winter soldiers, until frozen gusts of December winds came to lift them up and carry them down the desolate street and away into the dark carbon depths of the city. The tenebrous watchman on the Rue Jacob was pacing the sidewalk and slapping his leather gloves for warmth, longing for relief; his shuffling footsteps on the pavement came with the whistling wind through the cracked windowpane in the narrow stairwell where I climbed the steps hurriedly to reach the golden heated room on the top floor, where Nadja was undressing.
She called to me from her bed, so long, as I opened the door. Softly stirring, she turned in her nest of blankets. The skin of her exposed belly was taut and shone like the gently-curved stem of a brass spoon, tawny in the lamplight.
“Aleksandre?”
The final dose of frigid stairway air flitted on my neck as I entered. “Aye,” I responded to the girl, hunching in the doorway as I pulled the blessed door closed behind me. A sturdy mat lay below. I patted my frozen hands and tapped the frost from my shoes. “It’s cold out there!”
With my topcoat on, I crossed the room to the bed and fell down dressed on top of the unclothed girl. After we had spent a few silent moments together, I told her I had a gift for her. In my pocket, were three Argentinean candles. I set them on the table and lit them with a match taken from her bejeweled matchbox. “Take your coat off,” she said.
Once we had made love, Nadja heated water in a pan on the stove. The steam fogged the window and the lights from the facing apartment rooms across the street could no longer be seen. In the morning, early, the window was coated anew, but now it wasn’t steam but was the frost of dawn – such that inspires thoughtful men in wintertime.
“Thank you for the candles,” she said as I was leaving. Then, “Where will you be for Christmas?”
“I’ll visit Petersburg,” I told her.
“Really?”
“No,” I lied, “I’ll return to Galicia.”
“Tell me true.”
Pause.
“I’ll be in Paris.”
I clicked the door closed and went out into the stairwell and down through the glad street that cradled the dawn the way a peasant cradles a meal in a headscarf. Back at the room to which I held key, I put my coat on the hook and walked over to the desk to begin my work. The day was Thursday and that night I was to see golden-lobed Daphné. She lived close, on the Boulevard Saint Germain, above the bookseller by the cathedral. After eating my solitary feast at the table by my bed, I paced the room a few times thinking of this and that. I leafed through a book in the bookcase. I opened the window to feel for moment the cold air. The evening music had begun in the restaurant down below on the street. A group of mad gypsies with plywood fiddles and pewter horns. The restaurant owner paid them in food and sparkling wine. The old malin kept crémant in an sly champagne cask.
From the window, I peered down to the street and saw a handsome couple studying the menu card posted outside. “No choice in the matter,” I told myself, “I’m going to have to go out tonight.” I found a shirt in the wardrobe, old rosewood armoire, and coated and scarfed myself for the jaunt up the street to call on Daphné, favorite daughter of a far-away father, who lived in a rosy palace of an apartment on the boulevard. She was a soft-featured girl, a cervine creature with dark and wondrous eyes, healthy thighs, and a pale face to match the winter sky.
A tidy elevator lifted me up to the fourth floor.
“Is that you?” she asked as I entered. She was sitting at her dressing mirror rubbing oiled milk on her face. Strangely wild-eyed for the season, she sat by the glass and hung globes of ore from gentle ears. Drops of misty perfume fell with her hand to her breast. Now was dark but for two candles alight on a thrifty table. The good girl had cooked and had dressed. A fine meal, abundant of sauce, and hearty of bread; moulds of cheese and sweet wine.
“Fair Daphné!”
“Fair Aleksandre!”
“I brought you a gift. Something for the cold of winter.” So saying, I handed her a small wooden box taken from my bag. She opened the little latch of the brittle box and looked inside.
“Incense,” she smiled.
“Livani incense,” I said, “and good charcoals. We will burn some.”
Wild-eyed Daphné lit a charcoal and set it in a dish, and we watched the sparks travel across its surface. A moment later the coal was hot enough to receive the good resin. A smoke billowed out, strong and spicy in the air.
There was a dry windstorm that night; and after we had made love in her bed, I lay awake a moment listening to it. The wind resembled the crying of a winter bird bound to the sky though weary from travel. I thought of how I too had been bound so long to the road, from where I had come, and I thought of the previous seasons until I fell asleep again at last, the warm skin of the girl against me.
I woke early to an empty bed.
Daphné was crouched on the floor in her slip, using a hot iron to remove some wax that had dripped and seeped into the cracks of the wooden floor. I stole behind her and seized her small pale shoulders. Tender breasts, I kissed. Tender mouth. “When will we see you again?” she asked as I was leaving.
“In a week,” I told her.
Out on the boulevard, the spindly sticks of the trees once had leaves, twisted and turned with the flight of the wind. I whistled a snatch with a glad heart.
Back at the room to which I held key, I began my work of the day.
Happy to work, I thought. Good pleasurable work – and above all, winter! I searched in my wardrobe for a sweater and opened the window and let the cold air in. It was nearly quiet in the street, but of course it was just early morning.
I worked well and long and at nightfall when the quiet turned to ruckus – the gypsy band had begun their nightly romp in the restaurant below – I went to the window to look outside. Well-dressed ladies on the arms of paunchy men strolled past the restaurant, down the street, past the closed-up shops. The door to the restaurant was opened for affectionate couples, all in turn, as they waved their reservation tickets. The gypsy band whined like a Spanish wagon selling trinkets.
“Unsupportable!” I called out my window; and, turning away, I walked briskly to the wardrobe and in it found my dark coat and wrapped about me a well-knit scarf. I paced around the room a few times, studying my shoes’ effect on the wooden floor…
“Unsupportable!”
I’d had only to get my keys and go to the elevator down the hall.
Only I’d forgotten something.
When I was out on the street, I turned left on the Rue Jacob. It was the night for young Katell, cast-away child, who’d wandered awhile, and settled on the Rue de Verneuil.
A snow started to fall while I walked. Always a dry snow beneath a pale pink or grey sky. I carved a fervent path, thinking of the pleasant things she would have waiting for me when I entered her room: sweet breads and hot wines, soups and chocolate medallions sent from Ghent; other treasures too, like brandy with coffee, and the “Nocturnes” played on an old machine . . . Oh, pleasant night it will be!
Up the discreet stairs I climbed. The hall and stairwell were heavy with cooking smoke. It was coming from Katell’s room. The poor girl had tried to roast a pan of salted stuffs, oil of nuts and seeded things; and all caught in a flame and a cloud was spread over her hapless den. She called to me from within…
“Is that you?!”
“Aye, good lady!” I exclaimed, “What have you done?”
“Cooking,” she said.
I opened a window, and watched the boney fingers of winter tear the smoke from the room. When we were seated at the table, she lit the candles and a slice of Papier d’Arménie. In the pungent place we sat and dined on her good things. A solitary wooden chair creaked in the corner.
“Where have you put the furniture?”
She answered by way of reminder that she was moving to Berlin at the beginning of the year. I had forgotten. “I have a gift for you,” I told her, “Some things to get you by till then.” So saying, I pulled out a cake of soap and salt. She admired them and took them to the counter by the sink.
“I have wine left,” she told me.
“Good.”
We drank off a glass and I stroked her hair and small forehead where she lay on the bed. Fair Katell, she now wore only a small skirt, with the strap of honey-yellow panties showing through. Her nipples were large and brown. Her lips were soft and I kissed them.
“Do you want to see,” she began as she pulled the strap off her panties, away from her hip bone. I have a little rash here…”
“The elastic,” I said, looking at her braided skin, a little swollen. So it was.
“Stay with me in the bed,” she implored. I stayed beside her while I finished the wine, and stroked the sweet strands of her hair as she fell asleep.
Late now, I left young Katell in her nest of dreams, and went to sit in the chair. It was in that chair I fell asleep and stayed the night.
It was still mighty dark when I woke. The street-sweepers were beginning to climb up and down the Rue de Verneuil. I got up, boiled water for coffee, and went to the window and touched the cold pane. Katell was still asleep.
I was happy to be alone, that afternoon, in my quiet room to work. It was getting close to Christmas and the city was emptying itself as denizens sought their families in the provinces, and each day was quieter than the one previous. By nightfall, however, everything had changed. The ragged gypsies started up again in restaurant downstairs, as soon as dusk turned to night. I walked to the window and opened it up to peer out and down at the street. There, new throngs of tender girls in eveningwear, their perfumed hair poised over finely powdered faces, their arms balanced on the arms of well-spent men. So much could be imagined. The restaurant door opened and shut and the sounds of the gypsies’ old guitars whined and wound around.
“How can one work with this cajoling!” I demanded with an upset heart. “Sweet faced girls and music. And if I want to work?! . . . What if I want to stay in and compose an epic tonight? A real hero’s tale? Shall I not be permitted the peace of mind to do so? Shall I be wheedled into going out take a woman in my arms? If it must be then…” So I spoke; and taking from my wardrobe a heavy coat, I went out the door and started off down the hall with the aim to call on my fair girl of Thursday night.
The night belonged to the dancer at the Palais Garnier . . . with her famous body, smooth as fresh split ivory, and long too. I traversed the quarter in the direction of the river, and found her in her room on the fifth floor, in a building lost among the quais. She was knelt down on the floor when I opened the door – not stretching, mind you, but scrubbing like a maid, a spot from the corpulent rug.
“Aleksandre!” she turned to me, sponge in hand; her poor knees were red and scuffed.
“What have you, good girl?” I asked from the doorway.
“I just spilled it a moment ago,” she shamefully called over to me, then formally inviting me in, “…and I’ve added soap and sprinkled salt. It will go away!”
“Listen to me, fair Adélaïde,” I began to speak. As I did so, I went over to her and swept her from her perch. “My snowy beauty…”
“Oh, Aleksandre . . . you always,” she started to interrupt, but I cut back in, “Adélaïde and Aleksandre . . . How our names rhyme, my snowy beauty! They rhyme like two fruit-bearing twigs on the same leafy branch – one would say they are two children walking beneath the watery moon after having made their love; one would say they are . . . Oh nevermind, Adélaïde, I’ve brought libations!” And with those words, came from my hands a skin of wine – good wine, long ago pulled from ready grapes.
Adélaïde brought a bowl of sour leaves and sweet agrumes. We sat at the table and began to drink.
“You haven’t come since summer,” she told me, “Don’t you think we’ve changed since then?” As she questioned me thus, she touched the red spots on her cheeks with her pink fingertips. I listened for a while and then answered her with fueled words:
“Changed? Adélaïde, you are etched in marble! . . . and me, I’m healthy as a cavalier! . . . the prime of life, good in health, strong in the chest! Only those gods on high, who run swift across the broad sky, can rightly steal these things from me!”
“So you believe in gods now?” Adélaïde gave forth an ironic laugh and smiled.
“Listen,” I told her, “What am I, Adélaïde?”
She paused a moment. Then answering with a falter… “A man?”
“A man,” I replied, “Yes, a man, but what else?”
“A composer of songs,” she dropped in with a grin.
“Yes, a composer of songs! And just think, Adélaïde, of all the composers of songs who have lived in modern times, say the last two-thousand years, of all of them who are worth even a brief mention, well over ninety-nine percent of them are dead. Yes, over ninety-nine percent of them are dead . . . While I am alive! Alive and in my prime, I say!”
Adélaïde smiled with pleasure and refilled the glasses.
“And just think,” I continued after a large swallow of the wine, “of all the ballet dancers that have ever lived, almost every single one of them is dead, perhaps two in ten thousand of them are still alive . . . and of those, perhaps one in ten is still able to dance!”
She smiled even more wildly at this.
“But even more…” I lit up. I was getting evermore fueled in my speech, “let’s take it even further and say you are holier than a mere ballet dancer, Adélaïde. Rather, you are a female creature who dances! You are a female creature who dances, and if you were to take all of the female creatures who ever did dance, and turn them into the fish in the sea, and by means of a patient hook select one out to live on the earth among the blessed, and be conscious of it all, and in all the seas this hook was tossed, among all the fish there are, it would pull you out. You, Adélaïde! That is the mere chance that you are alive this very moment!”
“And for this you believe in the gods! I see!” She smiled the clever girl.
“Good girl, bring me your well strung mandolin. I will play you a heroic song!” And thus I did, and she loved the song. And I sang and then we drained the skin of wine and fought a wrestling bout on the salted floor.
Back at the table, we sat, sighing short breaths. Adélaïde was dressed in a low cut black top this time – her white one discarded.
“Adélaïde?” I asked, “Why is the radiator dripping so much?”
She looked over at the radiator, then at the frosted window above it, and pulled her scarf up from the chair to cover her neck and said, “I can’t believe how cold they’re letting it get.”
Soon, we were again in the corner of the room. I took the sweet girl and I drew all her clothes from her like spindles of silk. Her underwear, I detached like tendrils of green ivy. She blushed rose in the cheeks, like petals of skin. She sighed with the heat in her breast after, in desire, I lay waste to her falling limbs.
Then, when we both lay panting like two torn and beaten animals, she leaned her long back behind us, without stirring me from her breast, and brought forth a pitcher of water, clean, that sat not far off. We drank and nourished ourselves with the gift of sweet, tasteless water, and then we fell asleep in a heap of sweat and skin.
I woke before dawn, as was my custom, and carried gentle Adélaïde to her bed. I laid her down and tucked her within, and smoothed the strands of hair that had clung to her pale forehead; and sleeping she remained as I quietly stepped out the door and down to the misty quai. Then with a glad and rested, morning heart, I made my way up the Rue des Saints-Pères . . . this, I say, was a day to be alive! And what work I would undertake!
Evening again. Again, all my projects had to be abandoned when the cacophony of the night started up in the restaurant downstairs. Some old tinny piano had been dragged in from somewhere, and a stream of ladies in rabbit fur hats and lynx collars had gathered outside to watch. I noticed now red and green festivity bulbs were freshly strung up over the shop windows on the street. “Devil take that restaurant!” I called, …and take those sphinx-eyed ladies examining the menu board with too much joy, pressing seamless gloves to dark couches of winter makeup used to conceal light, tender winter-cracked lips . . . those holy little mouths! Could it not all end?
“Maybe one is etching a knot in eternity up here!” I knocked impatient knuckles on the windowsill as the cold air flushed my face.
It was then, peering down at the street, I saw among the scarfed ladies in the crowd, a young girl who struck my curiosity. She was well-covered to the shoulders. Around her small neck, which was bare, she wore a neat band of black crêpe. From the crêpe, hung a little silver-colored locket or bell, which appeared to jingle with each fervent pulse in her pleasurable little neck. She was standing in a group of people, watching through the restaurant window the festivities hidden from my view, and with the emotion of the song and the climax of that singing gypsy’s voice, her hands began to clap and her little bell-shaped mouth began to gasp and deepen in color, and the soft white skin on her neck pulsed; there the little band of crêpe trembled and the silver locket bounced on the bone above her breast, and all was lost!
“Senseless to think I own the night,” I sighed, taking my coat from the wardrobe. Time it was to call on my own girl – that clever doe with the collarbone of pearl. She would be waiting for me now, this very night, this very hour, in her wintry nest on the river’s edge. I thought of her low cut shirt pressed against tiny alabaster breasts . . . her table, her wine, a pirouette, bodies rubbed in scent and sweat; a feast to the humming wind, beneath a dripping radiator dial.
Bitter weather outside.
Let me sing of that night I chanced away down the lamp-lit quai, far past the place I sought. Head held low to fight the cold, deep in thought and making plans, I stumbled along the quais quite far, and went through snowy passageways, cached and unfamiliar. I turned and stopped and looked to the place from where’d I’d come. The lights on the Île de la Cité flickered in the distance. I realized now the time had crept up and knew that Adélaïde would be growing impatient. Having overstepped my jaunt, I turned and started back along the quai in the direction from which I’d walked. Soon I came to the quai where she lived. It was an area unlike my own. Here I may have known every street, yet not every stone in every street. The grey zinc rooftops caught the flaking snow and held them, whereas the black waters of the river simply drank them.
From across the wide street, I stood, stopped and glanced up at the window on the fifth floor of the building where my dancer lived. A lamp was lit with a glowing shade, I knew that she was waiting. It was just before I started across the street to overtake the apartment house, long about came a girl walking beneath the streetlamp a few paces away. She was so close, in fact, I could have taken her arm. I looked at her as she passed with her head bowed low, seemingly in an effort to block the wind. She was poorly-dressed for the weather, uncovered neither by scarf, nor coat, nor hat, just a thin knit sweater that was open in the front and cinched up at the shoulders, leaving her arms bare. At the moment I saw a large flake of falling snow land on her naked neck and melt and wet the skin, I stopped her by means of a wayward phrase…
She turned and looked at me: a young woman, pretty in the face. Nay, she was beautiful with large mistrustful eyes and swollen ready lips. Her stopping completely allowed me to survey her, and I noticed the little white jupon she was wearing was dirty at the hems. The fabric was yellowish-brown where it brushed against her ankles. Despite the cold, she didn’t appear to be shivering; though I, myself, was frozen like winter sod. And with my heavy frockcoat, I had not the excuse of being dressed in a ribbon. Strange thing was, I had time to study all, as she wasn’t any longer hurrying on . . . those eyes of hers, haphazardly etched with makeup, watched me while we stood beneath the light of a streetlamp.
Did she not know that I too was on my way, and hurriedly so? I broke with her gaze to look up at Adélaïde’s window. The light from the window shined on me, welcome as a lighthouse shines on a sailor who’s been lost among the swells of the dark sea with longing to see the shores of his native land.
There in the window, a dark object passed to block the yellow light of the lamp. I believed Adélaïde was staring down at me, wondering why I was standing in the street, late as I was to arrive, and still not hurrying to meet her. I watched the window until a thin dust of floating frost – call it snow, though it was as powdery as the dust meant for a woman’s cheeks – fell between her window and the streetlamp and I saw then merely halos of snow, winter clouds of floating light. I turned back to the unknown girl standing in front of me and gave her again my attention. She was looking at me, almost about to step away, it seemed. She pulled her scanty woolen sweater across her breast and her neck as a gust of cold wind blew across the river behind us.
“Listen,” I finally said to the girl, “we have been standing here now looking at each other for over ten minutes. And twice now you have tried to take my hand. Or at least it seems as if that were what you were trying to do. And I would let you certainly, or I would take yours gladly for you have an incomprehensible beauty, but dear girl . . . have you no coat!”
Hearing my words, she turned and pointed past the edge of a narrow apartment house across the street to a small, rather concealed passage where there appeared to be a night café. Over the arched doorway, hung an old-style gas lamp and a sign too distant to read. She flashed her eyes again at me and said, “I left my coat in there,” and then looked down.
“But why were you coming from that direction?” I wanted to ask. Or perhaps she was going back to get it? Although it seemed she had rather been heading in direction of the bridge crossing the river, not at all in the direction of the café. The two of us stood rooted in place, looking at each other. I felt an urgency to get her away then from that sidewalk, or at least to move down a block or two, for I distinctly heard a window opening in Adélaïde’s building across the street. I took a couple steps to the right to let the dark branches of the willow tree over-hide me overhead. Noticing my shift in position, the girl looked at my feet as if she were expecting me to move again and were curious to see how I would do it. She gave a little wave of her hand as if to ask for an explanation, but before I could speak, she turned her back towards me and peered again over at that little passage where the frosty sign and the sanctuary lamp hung over the arched wooden door.
“I’ll come with you,” I said suddenly and rather distinctly, surprising myself that I, neglecting to remember the open window on the fifth floor within earshot, had spoken thus. Now I heard it shut; and with it, I imagined, all of the warmth of the city was pulled into that holy apartment overlooking the Seine, and all of the cold of Paris sunk with a sudden drop that shook the willow branches overhead. The girl from the street, standing in front of me and dressed so improperly, finally began to shiver.
“To get my coat?” her voice quivered.
“How so?” I countered, realizing I had been involved in a little imaginary scene and had lost the train of conversation.
“You will come with me to get my coat?”
I didn’t bother to think, I recall, I just touched the girl’s shoulder, and she flashed me her eyes. She then turned with me, and we hurried towards the night café. Stopping once in the middle of the street, I first checked to see that she was indeed following me, or coming at least, which she was; I then peered up to the fifth floor window and saw the light was now switched off in Adélaïde’s place. I gave it a moment’s thought and understood that it had grown very late and I wouldn’t be calling on my fair dancer on this night.
By the time I reached the doorway, I was in a bit of a fever and didn’t trouble myself to look around me. All I knew was this girl was by my side and the other girl, the one whom I had wanted to see, had set out to see – pale Adélaïde with her long and nimble back, sweet thighs and small breasts – was now certainly contemplating my absence.
A swift rush of heat . . . I found myself entering into a night café. The unknown girl from the street installed herself at a small table near a window and immediately began warming her hands over the candle on the table. I sat down across from her and observed. I noticed then how small her hands were. Her nose too was small, and young, and upturned like a winter leaf. She kept her head bowed, watching only the candle that warmed her hands. The café was empty of patrons.
We stayed silent – she warming her hands, I observing. When the proprietor came over, he brought another candle and the menu carte and we ordered a demi-carafe of wine. The girl took out coins that she had in a little knit pouch on a strap that had been concealed beneath her sweater and laid them on the table and began to count them I asked where her coat was and she said quietly that it was hanging up in the back of the café. I mused that she had been in the café before and had only gone out to take some cold air, and thus stumbled upon me, a stranger – though I had no way to be sure and decided I wouldn’t question her on it. Seated silently, I watched her slowly arrange and rearrange the coins she was counting on the table. They were large ten-franc pieces and some small centimes and her fingers passed over them finding intrigue in the serrated edges. She made lines and geometrical shapes – now a tarnished constellation, now a metallic honeycomb.
The proprietor brought the wine and I filled the glasses. The girl I was with looked up long enough to take a sip of her wine. When she’d set her glass down, she gave a quick inhale – more of a gasp – and looked at me and said softly that she was sorry she didn’t say ‘to our health’ before drinking, that she’d forgotten. She then resumed counting her coins on the table. I saw that she had just the right amount to pay for the wine and it was then I insisted that I would pay for the wine and she could keep her coins. She looked up as I said this, as though very surprised. When, after, she went back to get her coat, I learned from the proprietor that the wine had already been paid for. It turned out, the girl would come to explain moments later, that she was living above the café, or staying rather . . . that she had paid for a month’s lodging, and some money on top of that for expenses in the café; that her father had come to visit from the provinces and had helped her in the way that fathers did, and now he had left again and she was on her own. When I made reference to the sum of coins on the table, she again seemed very surprised and I realized that this whole time she had not been counting them at all, but had rather been arranging and aligning them out of nervousness.
She started shivering again and brought her hands over the candle. The sleeves of her coat came close to the flame. The coat was nicer than I had expected her to possess when we had met out on the street – a black peacoat with large buttons. The proprietor came once more and he addressed her by the name of ‘Anne-Sophie.’ He’d come to tell her that, by-the-bye, he’d received a letter for her that day in a small envelope. To this bit of news, she took almost no interest. She told me, while the proprietor was still standing there, that she had been coming to this café most nights – or rather, every night, and that it was pleasant and she would continue to come every night for as long as she was living upstairs; and then, suddenly, she waved her hand and said she actually didn’t know… Or couldn’t know, rather, and blushed when she noticed I’d taken particular interest in these last words.
I asked the proprietor for some coffee, but he sadly shook his head and claimed that the machines were broken and there was none to be had. After he’d gone, she admitted that ‘Anne-Sophie’ was in fact her given name but that she preferred the name ‘Victoria.’ She clasped my hand for a moment and her palms were cold and the wool sleeve of her peacoat brushed my wrist and the sensation was pleasant and the joy remained after she let go. “Where would you go?” I said of all things, “of all places?”
“Of all places?” She lit up at my idea for talk, and gasped with an eagerness that was peculiar only to her. “Only, I think I would like to visit Place Dauphine before morning time when the people arrive and the automobiles come. I imagine it still dark, but almost light. And when lightness would begin to seep in, I imagine the street lamps would still be lit and it is this I would like to see too!” and then she frowned, “But I’m afraid I can’t wake up early enough to get there before dawn. I am so tired in the mornings . . . hard as I try! . . . But sometime I will. I will keep trying.”
To this, I smiled, delighted by her innocence. She asked me if I wanted to leave to find coffee and I said yes, that there was another café in St. Germain I liked and we could go there.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, as if innocently frightened by the idea of another café. She expressed a wish then to see where I lived . . . or how I lived, rather, was how she put it. I told her she could see how I lived, that we could have coffee there, and she agreed but said she had to go upstairs to her room first.
“Would you mind if I come in twenty minutes?” she asked. I didn’t mind, and I explained how to get there (she claimed not to know the city). I wrote down the code to the outside door and told her the floor number. She said she would try to not get lost. I laughed, saying she had better bring her coat along with her, and she asked that if she were to get lost, would I return to find her this same night at this same café. I said of course, but that it would be hard to get lost in a neighborhood such as St. Germain where the streets are laid out in such a pristine grid, and that I would see her in twenty minutes and got ready to leave; when she added, “But maybe sooner!” almost with an imploring tone. I uneasily stood and as I did, she reached and pressed my hand to hers, and with the touch of her cold hand – a soft touch carrying that desirous sensation so often dreamed of and hoped for, and so rarely found – there came a gentle fever to my head. I felt an age of triumph in that empirical touch.
Outside in the street, I found myself in a slip of vertigo. The cold air smoothed itself sweet and ominous on the drops of sweat that beaded up on my forehead as I walked along. Each stoop of every doorway seemed to look the same on this night. I studied their bricks, their rubble, walking down the cobblestones. Over there, a closed up bookseller. Over here, a boarded-up wine shop. Twice I found myself heading in the wrong direction and was surprised by my sudden disorientation. I wanted so to be back at that café with the unknown girl who’d named herself Victoria and was deep in flight. “I left in the night,” she’d said, “Just like that!” giving her reasons for coming to our city. It was only weeks later she would come to write a letter to her mother and father in the provinces. “I will cherish her,” I thought aloud, and suddenly felt strange for mumbling thus.
Now, back at the room to which I held key, I stepped out of the elevator and walked down the hall and entered the room that was steeped in golden radiator warmth. I switched on the silver lamp and looked around the bare room. I suddenly felt tired and even more feverish and thought to lie down while I waited. “Strange, Anne-Sophie,” I said aloud, thinking that, if I were to lie down, tired as I was, I should open the door to the hallway a crack so that she could find it easily and let herself in.
The light was off and I stretched out fully-dressed on the bed. I felt that strange painless, though oppressive, pressure beginning in my head – that which comes at times after days of not sleeping properly. I had a strange thought, one of those visual thoughts whose homes are made in the darkness, in that place where life meets dreams on a creaking fence. I realized I was flitting away. More so, I felt keenly aware of that young woman whose presence I was awaiting. I knew then for sure that this strange woman would conquer me, should I not be careful. Reaching for the tablet in the shadows on the desk where I lay pen to work, I began on a clean sheet to write a phrase on the paper thus: IF I AM FOUND NO LONGER ALIVE, IT WAS AT THE HANDS OF A GIRL NAMED VICTORIA …just so that she would get away with nothing. I signed my name.
I folded the paper and crawled from the bed in the dark to the wardrobe and opened it and hid the note beneath a stack of clothes. I took another sheet of paper and wrote the same message and folded it and hid it elsewhere, behind the wardrobe. After, I crawled back to the bed, still fully-dressed, and felt myself now surely falling asleep.
I was stirred suddenly, warmly, not by any crackling fires, nor by footsteps on the wood, but by her warm body huddled and firmly wrapped in clothes cast down upon me, lying on my chest. Dark it was, yes! . . . but light enough to see the outline of her face. It was her . . . she had come! A long while, I had slept, no doubt. Yes, she was late in coming, but now she was here and upon me and her tender mouth was pressed against mine, sweet and soft.
After she kissed me, she pulled back and said earnestly that she was late. She had been distracted at the café against her wanting and was very late indeed. She informed me that when she entered the building to see me, she saw a band playing downstairs. She was surprised that there was a restaurant there, and, of all things, open on this night in particular. I said yes, that the scornful restaurant was open all the time, that there were these gypsies who played all night, every night, and that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with them. While saying this, I pulled her close into me. I pulled her in and held her and desired again to feel her lips on mine but I couldn’t find them for they were cast between the bone of my jaw and the lobe of my ear. Motionless, I studied the warmth of her breath passing over my temple. Soon to cease the silence, she spoke thus, quietly but distinctly in my ear…
“We will forget this nonsense about all of these little notes, okay?”
“What did you say?” I asked, finding this startling to hear.
“It’s just nonsense you’re hiding notes in the clothes and behind the furniture.”
I felt again that fever and my fluttering eyelids and that strange pressure in my head and felt myself falling asleep again, though I wanted badly to remain awake, despite her wild words; to feel her against me, to taste her mouth again, to even hear those words again, though strange they were. But I let it go and let her go, cast all aside and out I fell, and thought it was just as well; for even if not awake, I could sleep now and she too would sleep and be against me, our bodies pressed firm, entwined and wrapped in winter wool, and with that I was gone.
I awoke before dawn. I was alone, dressed and on the bed. I looked around the room to which I held key and saw all was as usual: mostly empty, tidy. The door to the hall was open and creaking. Had I left it open? The tablet and pen I keep on the desk was oddly on the floor near the bed. I sat up in the predawn darkness and lit two gentle lamps and leafed through the tablet. All the pages were blank. I felt pleasant, as though I had slept a healthy sleep. Outside, it seemed light was soon to break. The sky appeared heavily clouded, though still all was dark. Standing, I opened the window and felt the coldness on my face. The zinc rooftops bore the plates of ice formed by a winter night. Listening, all was silent. The gypsies had stopped their playing downstairs for another night. If I watch these rooftops, I thought, daylight will soon throw itself upon them. It wasn’t until after all of these impressions and realizations that I remembered the events from the night before, that I remembered the encounter with Anne-Sophie. Thinking of her suddenly, I flushed with the memory of her having come to my bed, that particular set of visions, and was surged with a great desire to find her immediately and to know what had happened. I walked quickly to the wardrobe and took out a heavy coat. I put on a scarf and goatskin gloves. I searched for the notes I had hidden but found none. Had she come in the night through the door I’d cracked open for her, found those notes before kissing me, and took them away with her as keepsakes? Or had it all been a dream, even my writing those scraps of nonsense? Before starting out the door, I went for the tablet of paper. I leafed through it but couldn’t tell when I’d last used it. Sighing a full breath, I put the tablet with the pen in my pocket, in case I would have to leave a note – if she were to be absent.
Outside the wind twirled with the clean dust of ice that bites at knees through woolen trousers. I wandered the streets I knew so well for some time in the bluish darkness. Strange, the morning never broke. The early dark hours dragged on. Strange, I lingered along the quais, trying every streetlet, every discreet passageway. Alas, I could not find the café. Scornful fever I recalled had kept my foolish brain from marking and remembering my way after I’d left the evening before. I searched every quai in St. Germain as well as the Faubourg, down by the bridges and museums, up by the gilded coupole. Alas, it was nowhere. “I renounce!” I cried, and started back towards the apartment where lived my dancer, Adélaïde. But when I reached her building, I stopped again and began anew to look for the discreet passage that had cradled the elusive café where lived above, the winged Victoria. No renouncing! I coursed again all of the abandoned streets and desolate morning passages. Still, the holy café where I’d drunk wine with that fair, strange beauty only hours before never appeared. Continuing past the bridges, I noticed the blue cut-out shapes of the apartment houses on the island in the city and decided I would go immediately to Place Dauphine. It was almost dawn. There we would find each other! My intuition said that of all mornings, this would be the one she would be awake to make it to Place Dauphine before dawn as she had always planned.
I crossed the frosty stones of the Pont Neuf and entered the Place Dauphine. Winter trees were brittle with black trunks and grey twigs. Cold morning winds brushed their branches against the sodden earth floor of the square like hired sweepers who stroll beneath streetlamps, between park benches, collecting leaves like the corpses of time. A crisp and hollow place it was on this morning. Empty, neither Anne-Sophie nor anyone else was there.
I stood awhile in the darkness, marveling at the streetlamps glowing like winter gems beneath a sky that threatened to grow light. I looked at the perimeter of the square, the streets empty of automobiles, the barren sidewalks. It was then I came to see a light flicker and illumine in a nearby café. Now there was someone, some person outside the café. I squinted to see clearly, to discern her face. There I beheld a winter woman . . . a tall creature with a weather-beaten face and heavy hills for shoulders. She was hunched over, pushing a crude broom across the grey stone sidewalk in front of her golden-lit café. I approached from across the square…
“Dear weathered woman, let me come in out of the cold!” Pressing these words into the fabric of my well-wrapped scarf, I seized the door-latch. The broom-bearing maid followed me into a blistery warm room and observed me taking a seat by a large wood stove erupting blue flames.
In a café that was empty but for the two of us, I sat. From a fortunate kettle, the woman poured coffee, black. On a wooden tray, coffee was brought. She, holding her own cup in drowsy hands to remedy sleeping eyes, spoke thus, issuing forth from winter-cracked lips…
“I wasn’t expecting customers today . . . it being Christmas and all.”
Christmas? . . . I see what day it is! And here I come to overtake this good woman’s place on a holy day, and not in the clothes of a saint. I flushed with embarrassment for having come at a tender time, and so stood to take my coat.
“No, please!” the woman cried. Then she added calmly, “I beg you, stay awhile.”
She sat down near me and began to explain that she was alone. Her mother, who owned the café, was asleep upstairs. The old woman had taken to bed the day before with a fever and a rattle in her throat and it was something to bring worry. For a time we talked and drank coffee together, at times black, other times tinted with sweet cream and chocolate. We mused on the morning waters of the nearby river, the sanctuary stillness of the Place Dauphine before dawn, before the automobiles and people come; and we talked about travel and the long passage of time. Then, abandoning the cups and kettles, the woman started the weary walk up the stairs to check on her sleeping mother.
I mused on this sometime later, when, outside the day had risen. With the cold sun in its zenith, I sat by the sacred stove which poured pleasant blue flames. Now and then I gazed out the window at the deserted square – always silent and empty of automobiles and passers-by, always the army of morning streetlamps glowing gold, dissolving into a sky swelling with lightness. In that blistery warm café on the Place Dauphine, I sat and thought of Anne-Sophie, once called Victoria; and on my tablet of fine birch paper, with my own heroic pen, I wrote the events of the last night passed, a singular time I will always keep tucked in my mind as I go my wandering way.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The Noëlesqueia" was composed in thought and action in St. Germain des Prés on the 24th of December, 2006 and was put to page at the Place Dauphine the following day.
- Roman Payne

 

 

The Ideasmith, a short story by Roman Payne
 
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