Corner of the Sky
Feuilly held out for three days, in a way, though as a child of the streets, a constant need for air and light drove him outside for at least a few minutes several times a day. He spoke to no one on these short ventures, and no one spoke to him. On the fourth day, he finished what remained of his store of food. He counted his money carefully, over and over. He did figures in his head.
That evening, well after sunset, he went down to the wineshop. Babet was in his usual corner, talking to the shadows where Claquesous sat behind his mask. Feuilly pulled up a chair and sat straddling it casually. “Well? What’s next?”
He forced down his loathing as a hoarse voice from the shadows congratulated him on his first body. He needed the money too badly.
A week passed, and Feuilly grew accustomed to swallowing his disgust at his continued association with true murderers. He did not consider himself one of their number: after all, he had not actually meant to kill the man. It had been a reflex, the working of the muscles, not the mind. He was dead before Feuilly had had time to consider his actions. Babet’s and Claquesous’ previous corpses had been planned murders. Claquesous’ last murder was the reason he wore a mask and kept to the shadows. Feuilly refused to classify his accident with their transgressions.
At least he did when he was awake. When he was certain the police were tired of looking, he relaxed. After the next job, less than two weeks after he came out of hiding, the dreams began. All he remembered of them was the weak little man begging for his life, then he awoke in a terror he did not understand, as terrified as if he had been in the man’s place.
He sought out Lydie more often at the end of the night. Her presence did not always stop the dreams, but they came less frequently, and she did not shrink from comforting him when they did. She was cool and soft in his arms, and he could pretend that he was protecting her from clients and other ladies’ pimps and anyone else who might not understand how much it upset her to be hurt.
December came before he realised it, and in the second week he saw the first snowfall of the season. It barely covered the ground, but it was snow nonetheless, and the next night seemed colder because of it. Cold weather increased expenses and decreased the available jobs. Christmas almost seemed a bad joke.
He spent the day with Lydie. They went to mass in order to stay warm, though it meant enduring looks of scorn from those who recognised Feuilly’s particular manner of shabby dress as the mark of a less than honest man. The labouring poor had only their smocks and workboots while Feuilly went about in bourgeois cast-offs. The church was full, thanks to the cold weather. Though he knew eyes were on him and Lydie, Feuilly refused to return any but the most direct looks. These he greeted with a deliberate nod and a smile, though he cursed them all behind his proud stare.
She went off to work afterwards, but they met again for dinner. Feuilly arrived first, and looking around the wineshop at the familiar faces, he realised he had not seen Mireille in months. Lydie would know where she was, he thought, and he asked her the moment she arrived.
She looked at the ground rather than answering immediately. “She headed south, thought there were too many of us in this neighbourhood. I wasn’t supposed to tell you. She said you’d just worry.”
“She was right. What possessed her to go? When did she go?”
“I ain’t seen her in a month or more. Movin’ around is better for trade, she said.”
“That’s a load of shit. What aren’t you telling me?”
“I’m telling you everything I know!”
“No, you’re not. You look guilty.”
“She wasn’t well last I saw her. It may have just been passing. Now you’re worried, see? She knew you’d worry.”
“I can’t exactly help it. Don’t tell me you’re not.”
“Of course I am. But I don’t know where she went. She didn’t tell me, and she gave up her room.”
“When did you last see her, Lydie?”
“How do I know? Sit down. Before - well - when you wasn’t paying so much attention to me.”
Around the time of the accident, he thought. “And she was ill?”
“She wasn’t dying! I’m not that stupid.” Lydie looked down. “She was coughing. It had been damp, and she was coughing. It could have been anything, you know that. If she wants you, she’ll find you.”
“What a Christmas,” Feuilly muttered. It was not a party atmosphere, not with Mireille apparently crawling off to die alone, full of shame over something he could not grasp. But he still took Lydie home with him, and late that night, they made love under everything they owned: every blanket, his overcoat, her shawl, and all the rest of their clothes.
The window was frosted on both sides in the morning, and Feuilly dressed quickly so that he might use the stove downstairs to melt his frozen pitcher of water. Lydie ducked out while he was gone.
The art book went back into hock. Rent was due before the end of the year, and the next job was not yet ripe. Lydie disappeared for a few days, Feuilly tried to study, but he felt distracted, and he imagined that she felt it, too. Something in the air was not quite right.
The job went off just before the New Year. Feuilly preferred to spread around the take, especially when he found jewelry. He had found a good market for jewelry as long as he could dispose of it before the robbery was reported. Returning to his apartment to stash the rest of his earnings before retrieving his book from the shop he usually frequented, he discovered Lydie sitting outside his door, barely visible in the dim light from the slice of window at the end of the hall.
She grabbed his hands. “It’s Mireille. You’ve got to come. Please. She’s not well, not well at all. Do you have any money? She’s in a lodging house, Feuilly, and they’re going to kick her, the law says they have to.”
“Is she -” He could not bring himself to finish.
“I don’t know.”
“We can’t bring her here. We need to take her someplace warm. I need to think. No, I need to see her. No, I can’t see her until I’ve made some sort of arrangements. But I don’t know what kind of arrangements to make until I’ve seen her. It must be bad if you were waiting for me. You have to tell me.”
Lydie was shaking. “I don’t know if it’s the end or not, but if it isn’t, then it’s because the end ain’t so far off. She’s skin and bone, Feuilly, and coughing so much. I bought her the bed last night, but they’re gonna kick her soon!”
He held her tightly, trying not to cry himself. “There was a sign that said rooms to let. I saw it this morning. But I don’t remember where. It might have been near the canal. I’ll see. Show me where she is, and then you go and stay with her. Give them anything they ask to keep them from kicking her.” He kissed her quickly on the lips. “Hurry. I know the time as well as you do.”
But when they arrived at the door, Feuilly could not bring himself to leave without first seeing Mireille. He held Lydie’s hand tightly, and like two scared children, they ducked into the dark entrance which smelled of mud and urine and liquor.
It was a common lodging house like any other. The night’s occupants had mostly left and the lean rope had been taken down so that it hung by only one end. There were more mattresses than bedsteads and more piles of blankets than mattresses. Lydie and Feuilly picked their way across the room, entered another, and Lydie finally knelt down next to one of the mattresses.
“Mireille?” she whispered. The only response was a fit of coughing that wracked the blankets so violently it seemed they might crumble.
Feuilly knelt down behind her. “Mireille. It’s me.”
She pulled the blanket away from her face. Lydie had not exaggerated: her face bore a strong resemblance to a skull, but for the trail of blood at the corner of her mouth. “Feuilly,” she croaked.
“Shhh, don’t talk.” He gently brushed a few thin strands of hair out of her face. “We’re trying to find you someplace warm to stay.”
“I missed you.”
“I missed you, too. Lydie is going to stay with you while I find a nicer bed.” He kissed her hand. “I need to talk to her for a moment.”
Feuilly pulled her aside. “She can’t get far. Wherever it was I saw the notice is too far, we can’t carry her. I’ll be back as soon as I can, but give this to the lodging house keeper if she starts making a fuss about the time. Our luck can’t be so bad that this place will be inspected today.”
Lydie took the twenty-sous piece and nodded quickly. “Hurry back.”
“I promise.” He kissed her quickly and rushed out into the street.
Pushing through the growing crowds, Feuilly made his way the few streets to their tavern. He went around to the back and snuck into the courtyard, carefully watching the upper floors. After what felt an eternity, a window opened and a green tongue flicked out. Vivienne was shaking out the rugs. After she closed the window, Feuilly heaved a handful of dirty snow at it. It made a satisfying “thunk”, and she immediately opened the window again to shout at him for being a child. Except the moment she saw his face in the morning light, her annoyance faded.
“I need a favour.”
“I’ll be right down.”
She came out to the courtyard, wrapping a dark shawl around her shoulders as she came towards him. “Something’s wrong.”
“I need a room for a couple of days. A room with a stove. I can’t pay much. Not for why I need it.”
“Feuilly, what’s wrong?”
“Mireille is dying, and I won’t let it happen in the street.”
They were silent a moment. Vivienne closed her eyes, then opened them again as if her mind was made up. “You can have the room. Come with me. I’ll show you.”
“Will your father be angry?”
“Probably.” She led him into the kitchen. “I don’t care. He’ll only care that the place will be crawling with cops eventually, but everyone will get over it. Mireille is good people. Never ran a tab she couldn’t pay.”
“Not everything is business.”
“You can tell a lot about a person by how they conduct their business. Your friend Babet thinks the world owes him. He pays, but never on the day and he always makes us feel like shit for collecting.”
“What about me?” he asked as he followed her up the narrow staircase
“You’re too good to be hanging about the likes of him. You’re like Mireille. Polite, respectful, never run a tab. Prudent. You’ll make some girl a real nice husband one day. Well, this is it.”
“Second floor. I don’t know how I’ll get her up here.”
“It’s the best I can do. I’ll help.”
“We’ll be all right. Lydie is with her now.”
“I’m closer to your height than Lydie is. It’ll be easier with the two of us, one on each side. Where is she?”
“Flop house. A few streets away.”
“I’ll come with you.”
Feuilly shook his head. “Get the stove heated and everything. You can help us bring her up the stairs.”
He made his way back to Lydie and Mireille. “The tavern. Vivienne is starting a fire right now. Mireille, we’re going to take you someplace warm.”
After her latest coughing fit faded, she choked out, “You don’t have to talk to me like I’m a child.”
“I know. Let me help you up.”
“I’m fine right here.”
“They want to kick you out into the street.”
“Then let them.”
“You can’t afford whatever it is you’re about to do.”
“Don’t worry about what I can and can’t afford.”
“I don’t need no doctor.”
“I know. You need a comfortable bed and some hot tea, though. Will you let me help you up?”
With trouble, Mireille pushed herself to a sitting position, and Feuilly and Lydie lifted her to her feet. She clung to Feuilly as she tried to get her balance, doubled over coughing again. The lodging-house keeper gave them the evil eye as she polished the silver coin Lydie had given her. The going was slow, but soon Mireille was installed in the little second floor room, where Vivienne had a brisk fire going in the stove and a cup of broth waiting. While she bustled about Mireille, Feuilly took Lydie into the hall.
“You haven’t slept, have you?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does. Go home. Get some rest. I’ll stay with her. Come tonight, before you head out to work.” He kissed her on the cheek. “We’ll be fine for a few hours.”
Lydie could only nod, trying to keep from crying. “I’ll see you both tonight, then.”
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