Corner of the Sky
He cursed his way home, refusing to look up at anyone he passed, even if he nearly knocked into them. Inside, he threw the bloodied rag next to the washbasin and collapsed on his bed, fully dressed.
Lydie came to his room late that night. He fumbled to light a cellar rat, refusing to use any of his precious candles for the mundane task of seeing rather than simply hearing who knocked. It sat smoking in a broken plate on the table while he opened the door, shining on the silver blade of the knife that was still lodged in the wood.
“Mireille told me what happened.” She hugged him. “Thank you for the thought, even if it was stupid.”
“I’m sorry. I was an ass.”
“Well, now we match, don’t we? I brought you something.” She opened her balled fist a little shyly, showing a short piece of black ribbon. “Sit down, and I’ll tie your hair back for you.” Yet as soon as she made the suggestion, she blushed at her presumption.
Feuilly blushed as well, but he obediently sat down in the chair. “It’s still too short to tie back, I’m afraid.”
“Nonsense. Just let me try.” She gently combed her fingers through his hair, pulling the curls as straight as possible in order to form a half-ponytail. “There, isn’t that better? Now, you must have a washrag or something around here. Someone needs to finish cleaning you up.”
“It’s not necessary.”
“Yes, it is. Where is it?”
“There.” Feuilly pointed to the bloodstained rag he had brought home from the tavern, lying in a damp wad on the table.
Lydie carefully wetted one end of it and gently started wiping a smear of dried blood from his forehead. “I’ve never had anyone stand up for me before.” Feuilly did not answer. “It was nice to hear about it. That someone would care enough about me to do this to himself.”
“Why wouldn’t you think you were worth fighting for?” he muttered. “I just wish that had been your father.”
She crouched low so that they were face to face. “He isn’t here, and he’s never going to see me again because I’m never going back. I’ll die before I go back there. You’ll have a hell of a time seeing out of that eye tomorrow,” she said, standing back up to rinse the rag and start working on the bloodstains around his mouth.
“It’ll be fine. Isn’t as if I haven’t been in a fight before.”
“Don’t be like that. You look as if someone knocked a tooth out, all this blood.”
Feuilly shook his head. “They’re all still there. I think I bit my cheek, and I know my teeth caught his knuckles good. It can’t all be mine.”
“You’re lucky. You won’t be so handsome when those teeth start to go. I’ll still love you anyway,” she grinned.
Feuilly didn’t say anything. Fights had always left him sullen because he invariably lost or was prevented from reaching a proper conclusion.
When she finished washing his face, she did her best to rinse out the rag and hang it in the window to dry. He watched her make these domestic ministrations as the cellar rat sputtered in its dish. It was not pleased to take up the strips of paper he fed it once he was able to pull his knife from the table.
“Come to bed,” she ordered him when she was finished. “I’ll help you sleep.” She gently kissed him on the cheek that was least bruised.
He helped her to undress enough to sleep comfortably, but when he turned to take off his jacket, he felt her press against his back, and the pressure through his shirt made him think she had finished the job herself. Turning around slightly, he confirmed his initial thought. “Are you sure?”
“I want you tonight.” She started to unbutton his shirt, and he was loath to resist. The smoke finally overtook the light, and it dissolved into the haze it had conjured up, leaving the room dark and full of the acrid scent of burnt rope.
Lydie fussed over his bruises, and Feuilly was glad to see that hers were only on her face. He had taken quite a beating in the fight, and their relations began a little stiffly due to his bruises. Still, he enjoyed the contact immensely, and he was glad when she fell asleep in his arms, a warm, delicate bundle to hold close all night.
When he woke, she was watching him, supporting herself on one elbow. “Did you sleep well?”
He pushed himself up and kissed her softly. “Did you?”
“I always sleep well in your arms.”
“Lydie, can I ask you something? To do something, I mean. A favour.” His right eye was nearly swollen shut and his lower lip seemed very fat indeed, but he could still purse his lips and draw his eyebrows together in what appeared to be worry.
“What is it?” She picked up a little of his worried expression herself.
“Can I draw you?”
“You mean now?” He nodded. “Feuilly, I hardly look presentable.”
“That’s the point.”
“You want to draw me ugly?”
“No, that’s not what I meant.”
“Then what did you mean.”
He sighed. “That is what I meant.”
“You can’t even see. And why on earth would you want to draw me like this?”
“Because I do. Because dammit, there has to be some record of this. Because you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, and you’ll let me draw you,” he tried to add charmingly, gently running a hand along the smooth, bare skin of her hip. “Naked,” he was forced to add, in an effort at verity.
“Naked? Bruised face and naked? Feuilly, what’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing’s the matter with me. Come on, Lydie. Please?”
“Why? Just tell me why.”
Feuilly sighed. “I read too much. I think too much. I want to be an artist. And I want to stand art on its head.” He got out of bed, forgetting his nakedness as he crossed the room to grab his book of art from the table. “Look at this.” He motioned her over, pawing through the pages one-handed to a copy of a reclining nude. “I want to draw you like that, just as you are, just as this place is.”
“But it won’t be pretty. I’m not like this lady, and this place isn’t worth a painting.”
“Yes it is. That’s exactly the point. Durer drew skeletons, so why shouldn’t I draw you right here? Do the men who keep painting pictures of Christ really think he visited poor people in such nice houses? Look at this one.” He turned to another picture. “Or this one - this one proves exactly what I mean. Here.” He turned to yet another page, this one a still-life where even in the etching it was clear that much of the subject matter was past the point of being ideally edible. “If the Dutch two hundred years ago were painting food that was past its prime in order to make a statement, why can’t I make a statement by painting you? I can’t afford to do it now, but I can draw you and have something to work from when I can afford the paints. I want to do something important, and this will be important. Will you let me?” His voice was nearing hysteria.
“Feuilly,” Lydie started.
“Don’t do that! Don’t say ‘Feuilly’ like everyone else does, trying to talk me down, disappointed that I want more than this!” he cried, waving his arm in a broad gesture. “More than this room, more than this life! Maybe even more than this city!”
“I thought you wanted to be a lawyer in the country,” she told him, thoroughly confused.
“I want to be anything I can be. Oh, what the fuck is the point after all?” He collasped at his table, his head in his hands. “Just get dressed and go.”
Lydie bent down so he would be forced to look at her. “No, you’re the one who needs to get dressed so you can tell me what to do. I’ve never been an artist’s model.”
“You don’t have to.”
“It’s important to you. Besides, who’s ever going to see it? It’ll happen when you’re famous,” she tried to cover quickly, “and then no one will ever recognise me, right?”
“Of course.” He did not even seem to notice the possible derision of her first question.
She grabbed his pants off the floor for him and sat back down on the bed. “You’ll tell me what to do?”
“I’ll even put you there myself.” His attempt at a grin was obviously forced, but his eyes had lost much of their sullen expression as the excitement of being allowed to draw took over from the previous night’s anger and disappointment.
He dressed himself quickly while she covered herself with a blanket against the early morning chill. They rolled both blankets and his overcoat into a thick pad to cushion her as she leaned against the wall, mimicking the position of the woman on the divan. She kissed his cheek, and he tried to reciprocate by kissing her neck gently. “Ow,” he winced, as the pressure was greater on his lip than he had anticipated. “It’s nothing,” he responded to her worried look. “I don’t know how to thank you for this.”
“I’d do anything you asked me, Feuilly. If it was for you, I’d do anything.”
“Don’t keep saying that. Please. Just be quiet and let me draw.”
She frowned but kept her peace. Feuilly started sketching furiously, but he never seemed satisfied. The anger he had pushed down began to rise to the top, until he threw his pencil across the room. “Fuck it! Just fuck the whole thing!”
“Just get dressed. Goddammit.” He refused to look at her. “I should have known it was pointless.”
Lydie sat up straight. “It isn’t working?”
“No, it’s not working,” he responded sarcastically. “Can’t see out of this fucking eye. No money for rent, can’t draw, can’t work, I’m just completely fucked.”
She threw her shift over her head before approaching him. “How much do you owe?”
“Fifteen for the month. I have three. The books all together might be worth ten.”
“When’s it due?”
“Day after tomorrow. And if I can’t draw, I sure as hell won’t be working before then. Can’t bloody see.”
Lydie pulled her dress from the floor and extracted a small pouch from the pocket. “Well, I suppose it’s time to see what we’ve got.”
“What are you doing?”
“I share a room with three other girls. No room for you there if you’re tossed out of here. If I get a little behind, they can help cover me. Someone’s got to look after you.” She emptied her pouch onto the table. “We’ve got five francs and three sous. And something will turn up in a couple of days, when the swelling on that eye goes down.”
“I can’t take your money, Lydie.”
“I want you to take it. Three francs. Take it. That’s all I ask. Let me help you.”
“Look at this. It’s over. I’ve screwed myself to the bone.” He picked up his art book. “I sell off the future in order to keep a roof over my head. Isn’t it what we’re all stuck doing?”
“You’ll have something turn up, and then you can buy your books back.” She wriggled into her stays. “It’s a pawnshop, not the end of the world.”
“Not for you, maybe.”
“It’s only until something turns up, Feuilly.” She threw her dress over her head, hooking the back herself, with difficulty, but it was evident he was too distracted by his own misery to help her. “You know it’s only for a few days.”
“Just go home.”
“Fine.” She swept a handful of small change back into her pouch, leaving him the three francs she had promised. “I’ll see you around, won’t I?”
“Not if I get tossed out.”
She sighed. “You won’t be tossed out. I’ll come by in a few days.”
“I’ll come by when you stop feeling sorry for yourself over nothing.” She dropped the pouch into her pocket, slipped on her shoes, then gathered her stockings and gaiters from the floor. “Good morning.” She shrugged when he refused to answer and left him to brood in silence.
Only when she had gone did Feuilly realise she had left the three francs, in spite of his insistence. With a sigh, he pocketed the money. The art book had to be worth the most, he thought. So much for keeping something that lovely for himself. Nothing was going as he had intended when he left the mill. “So much for planning ahead,” he muttered as he gathered his books for the trip to the pawn shop.
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