Corner of the Sky
Dark had long since fallen, and a cold winter wind negotiated each turn of the narrow alleys as if it knew the way better than the struggling inhabitants. One of them, little more than a boy, pulled what he called a coat closer around him as he forced his way against the wind. He wanted to collapse as soon as he reached the door of the house in which he took a room, but a familiar dark shadow fell across the door just as he approached. He sighed and bore himself up as best he could in his exhaustion.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” came a rough voice. “I always knew you had shit for brains.”
“What do you want?” the boy asked.
“Got a job for you.”
“I have a job.”
“I mean a real job. Something that’ll actually put food on your plate. God, you used to be a pretty boy, had real chances. Now look at you. I’m letting you come back.”
“I said no, Babet.” The boy ran a hand through his close cropped curls in a tired yet self-conscious gesture. “I have a job. It may not be the best I could do, but I could do worse, and you’re asking me to do worse. At least I’m not hurting anybody.”
“You’re killing yourself. You look like a damned consumptive.”
“I’m not sick.”
“Fine, you still look like bloody hell. When did you last eat?”
“This morning. I’m not going back, Babet.”
“Where are you working?”
“Explains why you look like you shaved your head.”
“Just shut up and let me go inside.”
“You’re worth more than some grimy mill.”
“I’m worth more to you, you mean.”
“Why the fuck did I ever bother to teach you to read if you’re throwing it away on some goddamned mill?”
“I still don’t know. Put ideas in my head, gave me morals. I’m sure you didn’t intend that.”
“Damn straight I didn’t - don’t know where you got those funny ideas. It’s a real job. No one is going to get hurt. No one home but the servants, they won’t know a thing until it’s long over. Been checking it out for a week.”
“What’s wrong with the boy? Didn’t I find you a live one?”
“You’re the smallest good lockpick I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to risk star glazing. Too much noise. Unless you’ve already destroyed your fingers in that shithole.”
“Life is just a shithole, ok? Leave me alone.”
“A favour, as to who raised you.”
“I raised myself.”
“Taught you to read, didn’t I? Taught you a good trade. Ain’t my fault you turn your back on it.”
“It’s your fault you didn’t do the same for your own kids.”
“I don’t know what happened to ’em, alright? Things get lost. You want in or not?”
“I’m not going back.”
“We’re going in on Monday night. Come with us, you won’t have to work Tuesday.” A gust of wind forced the boy to pull his coat even more firmly around his thin shoulders. “Come in, you’ll come back out with a real coat.” Babet came enough into the light to prove that even he could afford an overcoat in this bitter February.
“I can’t. I left for a reason.”
“Yeah, because you were stupid. Think about it. You know where to find us.”
“All the same?”
“Me, Brujon, Claquesous are all in. You can check on little Parnasse, too. He’ll be what you should have been. You’ll think about it, at least?”
The boy thought for what felt an eternity. Babet was content to wait. “I’ll think about it.”
“Good. You know where to find us.” He slid off into the night.
He’s getting as good as Claquesous with that disappearing act, thought the boy as he wearily dragged himself up the stairs to his tiny garret.
Fumbling in the dark, he finally found the matches with which to light what was left of a tallow candle. As the flame took hold, he wrinkled his nose at the scent of the smoke. Wax candles were simply beyond his means, but that knowledge did not instill in him a liking for the smell of tallow. He remembered the first time he had seen a wax candle. The smoothness. The subtlety of the light. How he always stole the candles for his own use when there was a housebreaking after that. Babet. Everything came back to Babet in the end.
A bit of bread and cheese was all he could afford for dinner. It was all he had had for breakfast, as well, and lunch was not within his means, either. He preferred to work straight through because it allowed him to look forward to the end of the day. As he sat down and blew out his candle, the smell making him suddenly nauseous, the pain in his stomach reminded him that there was a reason he had grown used to more than this. More than this life, if it could even be called a life.
The prostitutes had thought him an adorable little thing at one time, and they had enjoyed teasing him as he was slowly becoming a man. They had laughed at him, given him drinks, and at the age of fourteen, more or less, they had all assured him that he was going to grow up handsome and important. He still went through those neighbourhoods, but although he was now old enough to be of more interest, no one paid any attention to him anymore. His thick curls shorn, his thin face looked even thinner without the customary frame. Days spent indoors, with all the smoke of the mill works, had contrived to turn him as pale as if he had never seen the sun. It was hardly a surprise Babet had thought he looked consumptive, but it was wounding to the ego. He remained small for his age, and though he was certain he would have to grow eventually, each day he could afford only one meal, spread between two mealtimes, reminded him that he just might not.
Two years ago, Babet had told him he had the world on a string. At fourteen, he already excelled as a lockpick, and his small size was a distinct advantage in certain endeavours. He had long since graduated from going down the chimney to the art of opening windows and doors from the outside. He had been lucky, for a gamin, having found such protectors as Babet and Brujon. He had learned a trade and would go far if he applied himself earnestly. He was going to grow up to be handsome, all the prostitutes told him, usually while playing with his long brown curls in jealousy.
The boy ran a self-conscious hand through his hair. Was this a life? Always hungry, always tired, never a kind word from another person, never a word at all most of the time. Seeing the sun only on Sundays, losing his sense of smell, losing the dexterity of his thin fingers as they roughened with work, losing his dignity as he bent daily to the will of the foreman. At one time, he had been literate, handsome, and respected. Now, he was beginning to wonder if it was possible to forget even how to read, since he never had the time or the energy for it, much less the money for more candles.
Fully dressed, he collapsed on his rough bed. Slowly, he forced himself back to a sitting position in order to remove his boots, then he curled up under his single blanket and fell asleep immediately. It was only eight in the evening, but he never got enough sleep. His thin body was not strong enough to do the work he forced it to do on the fuel he forced it to consume.
He woke at dawn, as always. Babet had said Monday night. Today was Saturday. Pay day. The grey light was barely enough with which to see, but he had long grown accustomed to feeling his way around in the half light. He finished a scrap of bread for breakfast, and spent his last sou on an apple on the way to work.
Concentration failed him. He was lucky to avoid injuring himself, but the wrath the foreman did not inspire any greater attention to his work. Instead, his attention was on his life, or perhaps life in general. By the end of the day, he had made his decision. He collected his pay and left, but instead of going home, as his body longed to do, he forced his way through the cutting wind to a grimy wineshop.
He stood outside for a long time, looking at the warm lights coming through the window. A sudden gust of wind blew right through him, and that made him take the decision to go inside. The promised warmth and light were present, along with a great deal of smoke overlaying the twin smells of cheap wine and greasy food. His stomach contracted at the smell of food he could not afford. His privacy had cost him dearly, though it was hardly possible for another body to share the tiny closet he called a room.
He stood in the doorway, not looking around so much as absorbing the atmosphere. How many evenings had he spent here as a child? How many times was this the life promised to him as a young man? The only women were prostitutes or the daughters of the owner. The men were of any age and a variety of trades, but dishonesty was the common character. Not among themselves all the time, for there was a certain sort of honesty in dealing with dishonest people, but in society as a whole, this was the scum. And yet they had the money for hot food and drink, and many people who thought themselves respectable did not. Which was worse, the boy was no longer certain.
“There you are,” the rough voice of the night before muttered in his ear. Taking him by the shoulders, Babet directed him towards a table in back. “The boy has returned to us,” he announced.
In the smoky half light of the wineshop, Babet looked even greasier than usual, his long black hair lying over his shoulders like snakes, his dark eyes little more than beads in the leather of his face. He was a thin man, but strong, and he formed an excellent pair with Brujon, the much larger man who stood as the boy was brought over.
He clapped a meaty hand on the boy’s shoulder. “So he has come back. Sit down and eat, you look nearly dead.”
“If dead is without life, then I already am,” the boy answered, already settling back into the tones of his elders. “Where’s Parnasse?”
“Out. He’ll be in when he gets cold, I suppose, though I told him to keep clear. He isn’t involved in this job.”
“I might not be, either. I want details. I’m not giving up a job just to go to prison.” And with that, he sat down, took a drink from a glass already on the table, and rested his head in his hand as he realised what he was doing.
“Welcome back, Feuilly.”
Fiction ~ Part 2 ~ Home