“Mama? There are boys playing down there!” the little boy cried excitedly, watching a scruffy group of children kicking something around in the narrow alley below his window.
“Come away from the window, dearest. It’s too dangerous for you out there.”
“No ‘but’s. Come here. Would you leave me all alone up here?”
He ran to her open arms and hugged her tightly. “Of course not, Mama.”
“Good. It’s time to get ready for bed so Mama can go to work. No &squo;but’s,” she repeated
The little boy sighed and let his mother help him with his pajamas then take him down to the kitchen for the night. “It’s not even dark out yet, Mama. Why do you have to go so soon?”
“Because it’s seven o’clock, and it’s past time I have to. Thérèse will be here all night.” He nodded. “Good night, my little one.” She kissed him on the cheek.
“Come on, off to bed with you,” Thérèse told him. She was old, compared to everyone else in the house, but really only about forty, obviously once a beauty though life had taken most of it from her long ago. Her still thick black hair was greying, and her chin had fallen, but her cheekbones were still high and her eyes not so dim. Climbing into his little bed by the stove without a sound, he quickly fell asleep.
“Thank you for taking care of my little one.”
“No trouble at all, Hélène,” Old Thérèse smiled. “You better get ready to go out, before the early pickin’s are gone.”
* * * * * *
A scream came from upstairs, followed by the sound of someone tramping down the steps. Breathless, a heavily made up, very pale young woman burst into the kitchen, where Thérèse was sitting awake, keeping watch. “She’s dead! Hélène is dead!”
Thérèse was already on her feet, wielding a rolling pin as a club. She put it down when it appeared there was no assailant. “What the hell?! What are you saying, Marie!”
“She’s dead! Strangled, like!”
“Keep your voice down. Don’t wake her boy. Let me up there. Who was it screamed?”
“Lucie. I told her to shut her trap and I came for you.” They hurried up the stairs, where Lucie was standing in Hélène’s doorway, pale and trembling. Marie pushed her out of the way, Thérèse following. Hélène was indeed dead, her beautiful features contorted and blue, her body trussed up horribly.
“We’ve got to call in the authorities.”
“What for? Last one I saw up here was an aristo, I’ll swear to that.”
“What are we going to do with the kid?” Marie asked. Lucie was still in too much shock to say anything.
“I have no idea. What’s his name?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“No. I don’t think she named him ‘little one’ or ‘my dear’. Meaning I don’t know. I figured you would know.”
“You’re the one who looks after the kid!”
“I thought she would have told someone! Lucie, what’s her boy’s name?”
“I don’t know,” Lucie said slowly, finally tearing her wide, scared eyes away from the body. “She was always so protective of him. Didn’t tell no one.”
“Well, what are we going to do?” Thérèse asked. “The other girls will have to know, we’ll have to tell her pimp that a customer went too far, and good god, we could be next! You say he was an aristo?”
“I don’t know for sure, but I think so. All we can do is turn her over to the city to bury, then do something with her boy.” Marie kept her head; Lucie was still in shock.
“Get back out there I guess. I’ll try to find out the boy’s name. He don’t talk to me, like as not told not to. We’ll take care of it tomorrow.”
* * * * * *
The boy woke early - there was something different in the sounds he heard behind his sleep. He slid out of bed silently, ready to go upstairs to look for his mother. Thérèse, who had been ordering about the removal of poor Hélène’s body, hardly the first to die in that house, stopped him just in time. “Hey, back in bed with you!” He silently obeyed, which only made Thérèse feel worse. She sat down beside him. “I didn’t mean to yell at you, honey. It’s just - there are some things you shouldn’t see. Can you tell me your name?” He shook his head. “Don’t you have a name?” He nodded. “But you can’t tell me.” He nodded again, not looking at her. The big woman sighed. “Your mama isn’t coming back. She didn’t tell us anything - what to do with you, what your name was, anything.”
The little boy started to cry silently. Thérèse put her arm around him, but he shook it off. He was not about to break the rules now. Mama had said don’t talk to anyone. Don’t tell anyone your name. Don’t go outside. Don’t have anything to do with anyone except her. People are very dangerous, and Mama wouldn’t like it if he broke the rules.
Thérèse saw she could do nothing, and making sure Hélène’s body was gone, she went looking for her pimp. It was better than sitting in that silent kitchen with that very strange child. Dautin was headed for the house for the night’s takes when Thérèse ran into him. “You fucking bastard! How the hell are we supposed to feel safe, paying you everything we got and you givin’ us nothin’!” She slapped him, hard.
He grabbed her arm. Thin, slimy, but wiry, Dautin did not put up with nonsense of this sort. “What the hell you doing, bitch? You ain’t no whore anymore, never was one of mine. What’s the matter? Clap finally turn you crazy?”
She pulled away. “Hardly. Hélène is dead, strangled by some bloody aristo.”
“Hélène? Which Hélène?”
“Where were you when that happened, eh? Getting yourself drunk off your ass on her money! And now we gots to find somewhere to stash her kid.”
“That ain’t my concern.”
“Should be. You’re the one who didn’t protect her. What the hell are the other girls supposed to think?! They could all be murdered in their beds!”
Dautin sobered up fast. “I don’t know! You been here longer than me! What do I do?” Girls weren’t murdered by aristocratic clients in his short experience.
“Go to hell. The girls are finding another pimp. You can go fuck yourself for all I care.” Thérèse stormed home. What to do with Hélène’s silent child? She woke Marie, who was not happy about the early hour of ten in the morning. She’d been in bed perhaps five hours, after getting something to eat when the clientele dispersed at dawn. Not even the midnight drama of Hélène’s death could stave off the much-needed sleep.
“What the hell?”
“What’re we going to do with the kid?”
Muttering, Marie threw on some clothes and went downstairs to the kitchen, where the boy was still sitting in bed, not saying a word. “Hey there, honey. I’m Marie. What’s your name?” No answer. “Are you hungry?” The boy nodded. He was always hungry. She held out her hand to him. “Why don’t you come upstairs with me and put on your clothes and we’ll find you something to eat?” He refused her hand, but he slowly and sadly climbed the stairs to Hélène’s room. He dressed himself easily, and when Marie offered her hand again, he took it. Mama wasn’t in her room. Maybe she really was gone.
Marie took him across the muddy street to a greasy eating house - why not feed the boy properly for once in his life? He was terrified yet curious of the street, but he simply looked around and clung to Marie’s hand. He had seen her face before, but the street was completely new to him. As he ate slowly and carefully, Marie watched him closely. The boy was extremely pale, but otherwise, he could well be handsome. He had a delicacy of feature, yet his wide, dark eyes did not completely dominate his face, and his small, delicate hands gave Marie an idea. “How old are you? Six?”
He looked up and nodded, meeting her eyes for the first time.
“How would you like to eat like this every day?” It was the standard line every kidsman used - hot food every day, and enough of it, or nearly enough, anyway. Of course he nodded again.
“Tonight, we’ll see a friend of mine. See what we can do about that. You like that idea?” He nodded and went back to his food. When he was done, Marie took his hand again and took him back to the house that was no longer his home. She went to speak to Thérèse privately. “I think the only thing we can do is take him to your brother.”
“Create another little monster? He’s so quiet. He’ll die.”
“Do we have a choice?”
“He’s got the hands for it, Thérèse, and he’s obedient. I don’t like the idea either, but we can’t keep him here. Régis will know what to do.”
“Fine, fine. Who’s going to talk to him?”
“I’ll do it. You always fight with him, and he likes me.”
“You should be out walking when you’d have to go. I better do it.”
“And leave the others without any security after last night? I’m going, Thérèse. That’s final.”
“Fine. Just don’t fuck my baby brother.”
“Not a problem. Nowhere to do it that you wouldn’t know anyhow,” Marie muttered as she went back up to bed. Thérèse followed a few minutes later, leaving the little boy alone in the kitchen. He went back up to Hélène’s room and cried himself to sleep on her bed.
* * * * * *
The boy woke again. The sun was lower in the midsummer sky, and his stomach told him it was time to eat and for Mama to go out. He quietly went looking for Hélène and found a row in the kitchen, which he watched from the doorway.
“I told you never to bring him here!” Thérèse shouted angrily.
“You told me you wouldn’t be here! He has to see the kid!” Marie replied in kind.
“I never want you coming round here, you hear me!” Thérèse screamed at a lanky, but not unattractive man who bore an obvious family resemblance. “I told you keep away, Régis!”
“Oh, shut your trap,” he replied, bored with the fight already. “What’s this really about, Marie?”
“We got a kid, like I said. Can you take him?”
“I don’t know. Let me see him. Can’t take everyone, you know. Not all whore’s sons.”
“Oh, M. High and Mighty thinks he’s better than he is!”
“Just because, unlike you, I never got anything by laying on my back -”
“At least I did something myself, when I could, and it fed you, didn’t it?! I didn’t steal from children!”
“I don’t steal from children. They steal for me. It’s different.”
“They could steal for themselves!”
“And how would they find a fence? You just hate me because I can keep working and you’re already washed up.”
“Bitch. Now, Marie, where’s the kid?”
“I’ll get him.” She was surprised to find the little boy standing in the doorway. “Did you just hear all that, honey?” The lack of response she took as a yes. “Come on, it’s all right now. No more yelling.” Taking his hand, Marie led him to the tall, somewhat scary man who began looking him over.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“You have nice hands. How’d you like to work for me, earn a lot to eat?”
The boy nodded.
“Well, he ain’t deaf. Don’t he talk?”
“Never to us. His mama’s last name was Chauvelin, and we’re lucky to know that.”
“That’ll have to do. Come on, Chauvelin. I’ll introduce you to the other boys and give you dinner.”
“Now remember, Régis, this ain’t just some whore’s kid. Hélène said as he was aristo, and looking at those hands, I believe her. You better treat him right.”
“Relax, Thérèse. I know what I’m doing. Does he have any other clothes or things?”
“Don’t think much,” Marie answered. “Nightclothes. First time I saw the boy not in skirts was a couple weeks ago, so I’d assume not.”
“Won’t need ’em. He’s off your hands. Thérèse, such a pleasure seeing my big sister again.”
“Go to hell, Régis!”
Taking the boy’s hand, he nodded goodbye to the women and walked out.
In the street, the little boy spoke for the first time. “I can’t leave,” he whispered. “What if Mama comes back?”
Régis Linois already knew from Marie what had happened. “Then we’ll hear about it and bring you back.” It would be a few years before the kid could understand death anyway - might as well tell him later that his mother had died. “You can call me Linois - the rest of the boys do.”
Little Chauvelin nodded.
“How old are you?”
“Six,” he whispered.
“A good age. Wouldn’t you like to come with me, eat well every day, and play with other boys your own age?”
Chauvelin looked up at him in awe. Other boys his own age. Marie had not told him that part. He nodded quickly. Mama might see that it wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
Linois took him to a crowded tenement a few blocks away, where he kept an entire floor for himself and his boys. There were perhaps twenty of them, an army, ranging in age from five to thirteen. There were a couple of skinny little girls, too, who did what they could since they were not yet old enough to turn to the to the streets as women. Everyone was busy doing something, some sewing handkerchiefs, it seemed, others polishing bright little things, and a few playing games. Three older boys were playing dice in a corner, cursing when they fell the wrong way. A tall blond boy, perhaps fifteen years of age, certainly the oldest of the crowd, came up to Linois.
“Whatcha brought home? Lemme look at ’im.” He roughly pulled little Chauvelin away from Linois, quickly looking over the scared but curious little boy. “We don’t need him,” the boy said, pushing him away. “Too soft - he’ll get scared. Better to let him go now than get our asses bitten off later.”
Linois grabbed Chauvelin’s hand and spread the fingers. “Look here. You see these fingers? We don’t need more spade-handed chumps. You’re too old for this - gotta replace the golden fingers somehow. This is our boy.” He finally let go of Chauvelin. “Go play with them for a bit,” he said, pointing to a group of boys Chauvelin’s age. “I’ve got work to do.”
Chauvelin did as he was told. The oldest of the group was only a couple years older than Chauvelin; the youngest was a year younger, maybe, though it was hard to tell. “Come here - I’ll show you something,” the oldest beckoned. He seemed friendlier than the older boy with the light hair, so Chauvelin went closer. The three were playing with a centipede, leading it around, trying not to get bit.
Chauvelin was fascinated. “What is it?”
“Centipede. They come in here when it gets real damp like. I’m Daniel, this is Brujon, and that’s Ledoyen. What’s your name?”
“Monsieur calls me Chauvelin. Who’s the boy with Monsieur?”
“With who? Oh, with Linois. That’s Doré. He won’t be here much longer.”
“Too tall, too big, too old. I’ve seen lots of them leave.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Three years. I think. People in and out all the time. Doré’s too old to still be here.”
“Then why is he here?”
“I don’t know. Think Linois likes him. I don’t much like him, though.”
“Thinks he’s better’n us. Aristo.”
“You don’t know aristo?” Daniel asked incredulously.
“No.” Chauvelin was ashamed. They thought him a fool, he was sure.
“Rich. Like the king. Doré thinks he’s one of them.”
“Are you rich?”
“No.” Now Daniel was laughing at him. “You don’t know nothing, do you?”
Chauvelin ignored the question, though he was turning red at the implication. “Then why’s he think he’s aristo?”
“Someone gave him ideas. I don’t know. It don’t matter, though. He’ll be gone soon enough.”
“Of course. He’s too old. Probably go in for a spot of fine wiring.”
“What’s that?” Chauvelin asked. They were speaking French, but in such a way even the words he understood were difficult to understand. And the words he did not understand were so confusing they made no sense at all - they did not even sound like words.
“Fine wiring. Taking off woman, fine ladies, you know.”
“Taking things off ladies. Pop a watch, a handbag, like that. More difficult than taking off gentlemen, but profitable.” Daniel knew everything, it seemed.
Linois quickly broke things up at that point. “Come on, dinner time. Help Chauvelin here.”
The boys all served themselves from the huge cauldron bubbling over the fire, potato soup and dry bread. It was thin but there were actual pieces of potato and it had been made with milk. Chauvelin was accustomed to milk once a week, when Hélène could afford it for him. There was enough for everyone, not little mugs but actual bowls full, and a good-sized piece of bread to wipe the bowl clean with. The boy could not remember the last time he had had almost enough to eat.
“Pretty good, init, for one of them days wiffout meat?” Daniel asked him, still chewing a chunk of potato.
Chauvelin could only nod in response, keeping his mouth too full to speak.
“All right, everybody to bed!” Linois shouted when the meal was finished and mostly cleaned up. “I gots me own stuff to do, so no noise and no trouble!” He gave Chauvelin a blanket and a pile of rags. “For a pillow. Bed down wi’ Daniel. I’ll send you out with ’im in the morning, so you can start learnin’ yer trade.”
Sometime that night, anyone who was still awake could hear muffled sobs, almost too quiet to be heard. Little Chauvelin had his face buried in his makeshift pillow, the newness of the adventure worn away already, wondering where his mother had gone.
Fiction ~ Part 2 ~ Home