Corner of the Sky
The August heat never dissipated, even at night, from the tiny room at the top of the house. The dingy windows only served to help the sun find entry, not to hinder it. Feuilly woke to find himself nearly falling out of the narrow bed while Lydie, still half asleep, tried to cling to the wall. It was simply too hot inside to share a bed, even without garments or bedclothes of any kind. He tried to retrieve his right arm, on which she slept, with as much care as possible, but the movement woke her nevertheless.
“What time is it?” she asked as she rolled over to face him, finally freeing his arm.
He dug in the pile of their clothing flung across the chair until he unearthed his waistcoat. A bit more fumbling, and the watch was finally to hand. “Almost twenty minutes past one.” The case had taken a beating on both sides, fracturing the crystal and rendering it nearly worthless to the pawn broker, but for the moment, it still ran.
“So early?” She sighed. “It’s too hot to sleep.”
“That it is. What say we head to the Luxembourg and try to catch a bit of the breeze, assuming there is one? I’ll even take you to luncheon, milady,” he grinned.
“And I’ll be picked off right away for wearing a ball gown in the afternoon.”
“You have a dress for day, don’t you?” She nodded. “We’ll head to your place so you can change clothes. You realise I still don’t know where you live.” He threw a shirt over his head, examining the cuffs sadly as he buttoned them.
“That’s because there’s never been any point. Too many people, not enough space.” Lydie pulled her shift over her head. “Imagine if you had to share this place. We rotate who gets the bed and who gets the floor. It’s bigger than this, and we have a stove, but it’s still four people in a room that was meant for two at the most.” She pulled her stays as tightly as she could by herself and tied off the string. “So not really any point in taking you where there isn’t any privacy. How did last week turn out?” she asked from the depths of her dress as she pulled it over her head.
“Better before I tried to colour it,” he replied in disappointment, buttoning his waistcoat. “I’m still learning how to mix and shade and not make it look too fake.” He pulled a sheet of paper from between two books. “You’re not orange.”
She giggled. “And the blanket isn’t that colour green. I’m not sure the blanket can even be called green. But is it supposed to look real?”
“I don’t know. But it can look more real than this. At least it didn’t bleed too much this time. I’m getting better, I suppose.”
“Hook me up?” She turned around, and he complied. “You’ll be an artist yet, Feuilly. You draw as well as in that book. I still can’t believe you got it back.”
“I can’t, either. Must be the most expensive thing I’ve ever owned. I am never cutting my rent that fine again. That book represents a month of savings.”
“We’ve been doing well for the moment, haven’t we? You finally got your paints; I got me a new dress. And Marthe is helping me with my sewing so I can afford a new wrap this winter.”
“It’s been a good couple of months.” He brushed at his hair furiously. “I just pray it lasts.” He grabbed his hair back into a ponytail and passed her the brush so she could fix her own hair while he finished tying his. Then he poured enough water into the basin for them both to wash their faces.
“You’re starting to get a bit of a moustache,” she told him as they dried their faces with the piece of sacking that served as a towel.
“I’m also outgrowing these trousers and this coat. Next few jobs are going to mean getting myself a new wardrobe, I think.”
“It’s too expensive to keep growing.”
“Tell me about it. I didn’t count on getting tall.”
Lydie carefully hung the towel and wash rag on their nails on the wall. “Put on your coat if we are going to pretend respectability. Even if I no long have a bonnet.”
He did as he was told. “When you were a kid, did your parents let you run around naked in the summer when it was this hot?”
“No. People with parents are more civilised than you gamins.”
Feuilly held the door for her. “I had parents. If you count Mireille and Babet.”
Lydie wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know how you can stand working with M. Babet. He’s so - so -”
“Lacking in any redeeming qualities whatsoever?”
“I can’t disagree.” He followed her down the stairs. “He has kept me fed and clothed for the best part of ten years, however, so forgive me if I keep up the relationship a little longer.”
“I didn’t mean you should quit if you don’t want to.”
“I know. I’m getting out of this mess when I can. I just have to be able to make more than ten francs a week in order not to starve. I’m not fourteen anymore.”
“We’ll work it out somehow. Right here, then down that street on the left,” she pointed. “All the way at the end, top floor.”
“How long have you been living this close?” he asked, just barely avoiding stepping on a rat which had chosen an inopportune moment to cross the road.
“Year and a half, I guess. Mireille helped me find some girls to go in with.”
“I think she wanted you for me the moment she saw you.”
“We’re a good fit, aren’t we?”
Feuilly shrugged. “Better than some real marriages, I daresay.”
The room was larger than Feuilly’s, but it was difficult to judge how much so. One woman, older than the rest and very thin and pale, was sitting at the dingy window, a needle flashing in the light as she worked the buttonholes of a new linen shirt, the table piled high with its mates. One young woman was sprawled in the bed, while two others shared the pallet on the floor.
“What’s Alice doing here?” Lydie asked the woman quietly.
“Got thrown out again, and since you weren’t coming home, Caroline brought her in. Is this your gentleman?” The needle never stopped.
Lydie nodded. “Wait in the hall while I change?”
Feuilly acquiesced gladly - the room was crowded enough without him. Lydie reappeared in a moment, dressed in a blue printed dress, the design nearly faded to oblivion, the waist high enough it must have been more than ten years old.
“A picnic in the park, milady?”
“How kind of you to suggest it, my lord,” she giggled.
“So did I pass muster?”
“Indeed you did.”
“I do not know what we should have done had I not,” he joked.
On the way to the Luxembourg, they stopped to buy a bit of bread and cheese and a few apricots, making a picnic packet of Feuilly’s worn handkerchief. The sun was high and strong, leaving very little shade. What shaded benches there were had already been taken by earlier arrivals, so a patch of grass under a tree, which at this stage of summer was composed of far more dirt than grass, had to suffice.
“I should have brought my sketchbook. You look lovely in this light.”
Lydie tossed an apricot pit at him. “And I don’t in any other light?”
“I’m used to seeing you in much dimmer light, that’s all.” He picked up the pit. “You think I could grow an apricot tree? They grow on trees, don’t they?”
“Yes, they grow on trees. Don’t be such an idiot.”
“I’ve never seen one! I’m serious. You think I could?”
“Where, in your room?”
“Now you’re the one being an idiot. In the Luxembourg.”
“Then it wouldn’t be yours, would it?”
“That’s not the point. It’s the closest I’m going to get to creating anything worthwhile.”
“God created it.”
“But I decided this tree, this spot. God didn’t decide that. God created man, but man decides who becomes worthy of being drawn or sculpted. I can’t get a damned watercolour worked out, but even if I could, what use would it be to me or anyone. What’s so wrong with a tree?”
“It’ll get knocked down before it ever bears apricots. Feuilly, pretty things aren’t useful. You know that. What’s got into you?”
He tossed the pit as far as he could in the direction of a middle class couple, slightly older than they, apparently on the same errand. “Look at us, and then look at them. That’s all that’s got into me. I want to do something good and right for once.”
Lydie stood up. “Come on, let’s walk.” Feuilly stood reluctantly. “You’ll do great things some day if you’re so determined.”
“I just want to do one good thing in my life.”
“You already have.” He looked at her in confusion. “You’ve done good things for me. You treat me well, and you love me. Don’t you?”
“Of course I care for you.”
“Then see, you’ve already done one good thing in your life. Which means more will come.”
As they strolled past one of the fountains, Lydie quickly looked away and started laughing.
“What?” She pointed towards the fountain. “What?”
He turned and swore he had gone back ten years. A group of three naked gamins were playing in the water, splashing passersby, and making a general nuisance of themselves. And one of them looked much too familiar. “Is that . . . Parnasse!” he shouted.
The little boy turned to look at him and made a rude gesture upon realising who had called his name.
“Dammit, I can’t tell him to get out of there. God knows I’ve done it enough in my day, and this is easily the cleanest I’ve ever seen him.”
“But you want him out of there, don’t you?”
“I’d like it if he would act with some sense. And on a hot day, it is sensible to play in the fountains, I know. When you’re a child. Maybe I’m just jealous that he can still do that,” Feuilly smiled.
“He’ll grow out of it soon enough. If he embarrasses you that much, we should just move on. I thought you’d find it amusing.” She was still having a hard time not laughing.
“And so I might have. I guess I’m just not in the mood.”
“I’ll take you out of the mood you’re in.” She pulled him down the path, away from the fountain and the gentleman who was now berating the boys but having no effect on their behaviour whatsoever.
They chatted idly, Lydie finally pulling a smile out of him, until they came around to the fountain again. Two policemen had arrived by this time, and Feuilly’s smile quickly disappeared as he saw one of them had Montparnasse by the shoulder. He ran over, Lydie trailing behind him.
“What’s going on here? Parnasse, where are your clothes?” he asked, his voice rising in a carefully orchestrated panic. “What has my brother been doing, officer?”
“This thing belongs to you?” the policeman asked, looking Feuilly up and down. Lydie had finally caught up to them, her hair falling out of its pins.
“He’s my brother,” Feuilly answered evenly. “Parnasse, where are your clothes?” The boy gave him a sullen look. “I mean it. Where are your clothes?” He pointed to a pile of rags, where all the boys had thrown their clothes in together. “Lydie, take him and make sure he gets dressed. I’ll talk to the policeman.”
“You don’t tell me what to do.”
“Yes, I do. If you don’t get dressed right now, I’ll leave you with the officer and he’ll pack you off the navy. Is that what you want? We’re not talking Les Madelonettes here. I can’t get you out when you change your mind. Now get dressed.”
Lydie bent down to his height. “Come on, Parnasse. It’ll be ever so much nicer with your clothes on.”
The boy sighed and tried to pull away from the officer in order to follow, but the policeman was not so easily pacified. “Why do you call him ’Parnasse’?”
“Because it is his name,” Feuilly replied. “His mother was quite a romantic.”
“Thought you said he was your brother.”
“He is. My half-brother.”
“Who’s the girl?”
“My half sister. Her name is Lydie. Admittedly not as bad as Parnasse, but I suppose my stepmother had to work her way up to it.”
“What’s your name?”
“Feuilly. Vincent Feuilly.”
“She doesn’t look like your sister.”
“I told you, she is my half sister. My mother died giving birth to me, and my father remarried quickly.” The officer still did not look convinced. “My father died about four years ago, and my stepmother followed him last year. We’ve been in the city for about nine months, but there is no controlling Parnasse. I try, but it’s hard when I work such long hours. He’s not a street heathen. He knows how to read and write - we’ve taught him ourselves. Please, monsieur. We do our best with him.” Feuilly allowed his voice to rise in a threatening manner as he addressed Parnasse. “And he will not be running off again any time soon.”
The officer regarded the three of them carefully. After what felt an eternity, he pushed the boy at Lydie. “Get him dressed and get him out of here.”
“Come on, Parnasse.” He let her take him by the hand and pick through to find which rags were his.
“I don’t know how to apologise, monsieur. It’s a difficult city. We’re barely making ends meet as it is, and we can’t afford school fees for him.”
“Keep an eye on him,” the policeman told Feuilly roughly. “If I catch him doing that or anything of that nature again, I won’t be calling on you to return him.”
“Fair enough. It is very kind of you to allow us a second chance, monsieur.” Feuilly bowed politely. The policeman snorted and stalked away, his partner having corralled the other two children.
Lydie had finally coaxed Montparnasse into his clothes. “Tell Feuilly thank you. He got you out of a lot of trouble.”
Parnasse muttered something unintelligible. Feuilly smacked him in the back of the head. “Don’t you ever do that again, do you hear me? Do you really think I’m going to be around forever to bail you out of every scrape you get into? I know, you think you’re tough, you think a month in Les Madelonettes will teach you how to do all sorts of things. You wouldn’t be so tough when they packed you off to the navy and you fell off the bloody ship!”
“I could have slipped the rozzer,” Parnasse grumbled.
“Feuilly did a very nice thing for you, lying to the rozzer like that.”
“Oh, hell, there’s nothing to be done with him. If he’s determined to not have any sense or any respect for himself, he’ll get the stretch in prison he wants so badly. I don’t know why I wasted my breath on you. Do you have any idea the somersaults my head was doing, trying to come up with a credible story? I even ran out and had to give him my name and Lydie’s combined! You think I’d have done that if I didn’t have to? You never tell any truth when you’re lying through your teeth to a copper! Don’t get yourself into any more messes around me, got it?”
“I got it. Jesus. You didn’t have to bail me out.”
“Yes, I did. Someone has to look after you, whether you like it or not. You and Lydie, you’re practically the only family I’ve got.” Feuilly fished in his pocket and pulled out a sou. “Now take this, get far away from here, and get something to eat.”
“And tell him thank you.”
“Thank you,” Parnasse muttered before running off, clutching his sou.
“You meant that, didn’t you? That we’re your family.”
“Don’t have any other family. You, Parnasse, and Mireille are it.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “And I’m proud to be part of it. Is he going to be all right?”
“He’ll manage. We gamins always do.”
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