by Michael Anthony
With The Great War in its third year, life in Paris was grim. German forces threatened from the east; food was in short supply; and labor unrest spilled out into the streets. Yet, for Louis Villiers, there was one constant – Thursday evenings when the bells of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre chimed seven times.
His mother, Sabine, would usher the six-year-old down to the first floor apartment of building owner Madame Odile Houdon. Though these weekly visits had become routine, Louis still strained to hear the footsteps of the unseen visitor who climbed the creaking staircase to the second floor where his mother waited.
Slowly, one light step, followed by a heavier one, repeated thirteen times, marked the return of the mysterious caller who would spend several hours upstairs, then leave just as surreptitiously.
Having spent his entire short life in Montmartre, Louis sat enthralled by Madame Houdon’s tales of wide pastures and verdant clover fields that carpeted the Loire Valley of her childhood. What little green could be found in this dreary, gray city was often on mounds of rotting food or the last remnants of horse meat, stored several days too many. Yet, green captivated Louis. He dreamt of star-filled nights beneath the protective green boughs of great oaks or of waking atop rolling hills of hay still months away from harvest.
A squeaking floorboard overhead interrupted Madame Houdon’s recollection. The boy looked to the ceiling, as though he could see through the beams at who dragged a lame leg across the oak slats and remained until the nine o’clock police wagon rolled past 28 Rue Berthe before disappearing into the opaque shadows at the corner.
After escorting her visitor out the front door, Sabine offered Louis her standard greeting. “Is my young man ready to escort his mother home?”
“Yes, mama,” the boy smiled.
“Was he good tonight, Madame?” Sabine asked.
“As usual, almost perfect,” Madame Houdon chirped while closing the door behind the mother and son about to climb those thirteen steps.
“Good night. Merci.” Louis called to Madame Houdon.
Back in their one bedroom apartment, Louis picked up a lingering aroma of something sweet, intoxicating. It faintly reminded him of big family gatherings, which now, during the war no longer took place. Only on Thursdays did that scent fill the minuscule space. Someday, it might be explained, perhaps even understood. But, not this night.
Since nearly all able-bodied men had been conscripted and were battling Germans along the Western Front, Paris of 1917 was a city of women, old men, the infirmed, or children. Women, like Sabine, assumed many occupations previously performed only by men. Now, if a woman could operate a streetcar; drive a truck; or, run a production line in a factory, she was hired.
Rising with the sun, Sabine woke Louis; walked him to school; and then, continued along Boulevard Barbès to the clothing factory where she and other midinettes, stitched blue military uniforms. As newspaper headlines told of more battle casualties, Sabine’s days and nights passed with numbing dreariness. That is, except for Thursday evenings.
Louis again sat in Madame Houdon’s parlor. Though church bells tolled seven times, there was no familiar echo of a limp leg on the staircase. The boy peered down Rue Berthe in search of his mother’s weekly visitor. A figure stepped from an alleyway beyond Thibault’s Boulangerie. Step, drag, step, drag.
With a wide-brimmed hat shielding its face from the streetlamp, the figure approached. Though mid-May, the caller wore gray kid gloves and kept the collar of a long coat turned high as though repelling a harsh winter blast.
Louis was not the only boy whose mother entertained ‘gentlemen callers’. A number of classmates shared strikingly similar tales. The single difference, Sabine welcomed but one visitor every week. With husbands on the western front or buried beneath mounds of newly turned earth, some women sought comfort, companionship, and, of course, money. How else could they feed themselves and their children?
When taunted by classmates about his father, Louis would repeat what his mother had told him. “My Papa was a hero in the Battle of Marne.” But, when Louis asked Sabine about his father’s return, she could not bear to tell the boy the truth and instead lied, “He will come when the war is over.” To keep the boy’s hope alive, Sabine would read to Louis letters purportedly from his father; letters she herself penned during stolen minutes at work.
Unconvinced of the boy’s assertion, fellow students pressed Louis, “Has she men at night?”
“No!” he protested repeatedly in an effort to protect his mother’s honor.
Their jeers echoed loudly in Louis’s memory as the mysterious figure reached the front entrance. Louis bolted for the door to the foyer, flinging it open just as the silhouette entered.
“Louis! What are you doing?” Madame Houdon barked as her gnarled fingers grabbed his shirt collar, pulling him back inside.
The shadowed figure of a man turned away before either could see his face.
From behind the closed door, Louis heard his mother rush down the staircase and mutter something indecipherable before merged footsteps climbed the treads.
The following week Sabine told Louis he would now spend Thursday evenings with a friend who lived near the Gare du Nord. Neither his protestations nor his tears dissuaded his mother. Louis knew he was being banished. That shadowed phantom was splitting mother and child apart like a wedge cleaving a seasoned log.
In the third week of his exile, Louis eluded the distracted eye of his mother’s friend, Veronique. Out on the street, Louis crouched behind a stack of empty crates at the far end of the alley from which the figure always emerged. The scraping of a boot over cobblestone signaled his quarry’s approach.
Louis readied himself. Scrape, tap, scrape, tap. It was now upon him. The boy vaulted into the path of the shadowed figure like a feral cat. Two cold piercing eyes marked the towering enigma. Louis stood no taller than half its height. Neither moved. Neither spoke.
Finally, the looming figure stepped towards the boy. Expecting a hand across the face or a shove to the side, Louis instead heard, “Are you lost?” The hoarse voice was barely a whisper, which seemed odd for such a tall man.
“No,” Louis answered defiantly.
“If it’s money you want, I have none,” the man said.
Bold beyond his six years, Louis asked, “Who are you?”
“Why is that important? Shouldn’t you be at home?” the stranger replied.
“Who are you?” Louis pressed.
“If I tell you, will you let me pass?”
“Who I say. Who?” Louis shouted, his puerile voice echoing down the fetid alleyway.
A sliver of light fell from a second story window onto the left side of the man as he inched towards the street. It dimly illuminated a portion of a jaundiced immobile face.
“My name is…Emile,” the stranger said. “And yours?”
“Very well. Now you know my name and I yours. May I go?” The man’s hand cradled the back of his knee to drag that stiff leg.
“Wait?” Louis said.
“What now?” the man shot back. Anger tinged his voice.
“Where are you going?”
“For a street urchin, you ask many questions,” Emile said. “Perhaps I should call a gendarme?”
“Are you going to Rue Berthe?”
The figure froze, giving Louis his answer. Then, he asked the boy, “How do you know this?”
“I watch you,” Louis replied.
“From where?” the man said.
“From Madame Houdon’s.”
“Why watch me? I mean you no harm,” Emile said.
Louis did not answer.
The first of seven bells peeled over the tops of buildings, their song reverberating into the narrow alley where the man and the inquisitive boy faced off.
“I am late,” Emile said while again starting towards the boulevard.
“Wait! Please!” Louis begged.
Emile turned. “What now?”
“Why do you visit my mama?”
After a prolonged unsettling pause, Emile said, “Sabine is your mother?”
“Yes,” the boy nodded.
The man’s hands rose to the collar of his long coat, pulling it further up around his motionless face. Then, they tugged at his hat, notching it lower across the brow until only his eyes were visible. “What is your family name,” Emile asked.
“Villiers. Louis Villiers,” the boy replied proudly, his tiny chest puffing out.
“You should not be on the street at this hour,” the man said. “Your mother will be worried.”
“She believes I am with her friend.”
“Your mother is a good woman. For her sake, go home. Tell her I am unable to come tonight.”
Louis stood motionless.
“Go home now!” Emile commanded.
Still the boy remained.
“Here. Give these to your mother. Tell her you found them on the street.” Emile pressed several coins into Louis’s palm. They might be enough for some milk and a loaf of ‘pain national.’ Then, Emile asked, “What of your papa?”
“He is a brave soldier fighting the Germans.”
“YOU are very brave for someone your age. Your father would be proud.”
“Perhaps you will meet him when he returns,” Louis suggested.
“Perhaps,” Emile echoed, knowing such an encounter would never happen.
“Why aren’t you in the army?” the boy said.
“I was,” Emile replied.
“Is that how you hurt your leg?” Louis asked.
“Yes,” Emile said.
“Did you know my father?”
“What was his name,” Emile asked.
“No,” Emile said, shaking his head.
As Louis sized up the man who visited his mother every Thursday, a military truck rumbled past, followed by a horse-drawn wagon carrying putrid cargo to the cemetery. Even at this young age, Louis knew well the stench of death. So did Emile, who saw the fear it painted in the boy’s eyes.
“Come, I’ll walk you to your home.” Emile extended his gloved hand. No longer afraid, Louis took hold of the soft leather.
Along the curb, a constant stream of water carried the day’s detritus to a drain at the far end. Clouds, thick and impenetrable, hid the night stars. Though Louis enjoyed counting those distant points of light, the gray blanket overhead made him feel secure.
Louis studied Emile’s unsteady gait. A faint breeze lifted a familiar scent towards him – the same one he noticed after his mother’s Thursday visitor had departed.
The two stopped outside Madame Houdon’s modest building. “Louis, I’m glad I met you. Be good for your mother.”
“I will,” Louis said, a defiant edge to his reedy voice.
“Go now,” Emile urged. He noticed Louis’s eyes shoot to the curbstone where a scrap of newspaper floated on the swirling flow. The boy broke away and aimed for the steps. “Wait!” Emile said.
“What?” Louis asked.
“Do you like boats?”
Though Louis thought it a peculiar question, he nodded. Then, he watched Emile’s gloved hand pull a piece of paper from his breast pocket and fold it into a small schooner; its main sail a triangle; the edge its bow.
“Launch it,” Emile said.
Louis took the miniature craft; knelt atop the curb; and, lowered the vessel into the water. Finding the current, it sailed as though propelled by a furious gale. They watched the tiny ship until the darkness at the far end of the street swallowed it.
“Good night, Louis.”
“Good night, sir.” The boy replied; then added, “I think my papa used to do that.”
“Do what?” Emile said.
“Made paper boats to float in the park fountain when I was a baby.” With each day, the faint memory of his warrior father faded more. Louis feared that someday it would simply never return.
Emile’s gloved hand pointed Louis towards the front door. Once inside, the boy turned to see Emile limp into the murky shadows between flickering gas streetlamps.
Emile crossed the Boulevards des Maréchaux to a stable where he slept in exchange for mucking the stalls. The odor of horses and damp hay permeated the air as he hung his coat on a nail angled into a rough-hewn beam.
Next came his hat. Then, the gloves. Finally, Emile removed a waxen face masque that he eased into a tattered hatbox. Emile caught his reflection in the shard of mirrored glass.
Where a high cheekbone should be, there was only an ashen hollow. Where a smooth jaw should match that of his right side, he saw a jagged depression, purple and scarred. A clump of reddened flesh looking like hardened candle wax replaced his ear. The image of a face half destroyed by an artillery shell repulsed Emile. A tear rolled from the lone eye still capable of seeing.
Extinguishing the lantern, Emile embraced the blackness in which he was once again whole. Though he ached to see Louis again, he knew it could never be.
Better the boy cherish a warm memory of a hero father sailing paper boats in the park than the truth of a mutilated monster prowling the night streets of Paris behind a beeswax and leather masque.