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Authors: C. S. Richardson

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BOOK: The Emperor of Paris
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In those years her private worries were for Isabeau: that the girl would suffer at the tongues of the boulevard gossips was too much to imagine. The moment
they stepped from the Normande apartments, Madame did her best—a stern tone of voice hiding a nervous tremor—to shield her daughter from pointing fingers and cruel stares. You know very well, my dear, that a young woman does not venture out bare-headed. If you insist on coming with me, then for goodness’ sake wear a scarf.

Yet as time passed, her daughter’s flaw did not fade. The more Madame Céleste tried to ignore it, the more the scar’s rawness glared at her. Her fears turned on her. She knew the colder gossips would never again consider the grand Madame Céleste as fashionable, what with that poor burned face peeking out from behind her skirts. None of them would remember
magnificent, magnificent
. She knew they would talk only of her failure. Such a proud mother, they would say, and look at the result. They would never blame Isabeau for her own clumsiness. No, it would be her, the
shameful, shameful
Céleste, who would be condemned. A mother not vigilant enough to protect her own child.

Must we go out today, my dear? The weather looks about to turn.

Isabeau strained into a teenager’s ungainly limbs. Her favourite magazines had been folded enough times that
they began falling apart at the slightest touch. She moped around the Normande apartments like a graveside mourner. Finally Pascal had had enough.

Perhaps a book might distract her, he suggested to his wife. Her birthday is coming up. Could she have really grown so quickly?

Pascal handed his daughter her gift. It was dog-eared and threadbare, easily tucked in a pocket, a tourist’s guide to the Louvre. The bookseller had guaranteed that the book—note the numerous reproductions, monsieur, it is a most rare edition—was worth ten times what he was charging. Pascal’s only comment was how dull and small the paintings were. I trust the real things are worth the visit, he said, handing the bookseller half as much.

You won’t be disappointed, monsieur.

Returning home, Pascal inscribed the title page.

To our own masterpiece on the occasion of her fourteenth birthday. With love, Maman, Papa and Zouzou
.

Isabeau would retreat to her bedroom for hours at a time, curled under the duvet and reading the descriptions in the guide. Studying the museum’s floor plans, following dotted-line routes through the galleries with her finger,
examining the muddy images. She would argue with herself as her moods swung, choosing the most tragic pictures only to reject them for ones more cheery; drawing little stars beside her favourites, underlining names and adjectives in the descriptions, blacking out others, dreaming how the paintings—her paintings now—might appear were they to hang in her own room.

Her imaginings became a teenager’s obsessions. At the supper table she talked of little else. How beautiful her paintings must be. How their subjects must leap from the frames as you walk by, Maman, how their eyes must surely follow you around the gallery. How hundreds of people, like your customers, Papa, must visit the museum every single day.

Please, Papa, may we go too?

One Sunday, Pascal Normande suddenly awoke from his afternoon nap.

We should be seen, he said, rubbing his eyes. Seeing things—

Madame Céleste was pacing, moving vases left then right then back again. Things? she said, running her finger along a windowsill.

—the theatre, Pascal said. Plays, openings, galleries. As we did before—before—

Galleries? Madame said.

Art. The paintings in Isabeau’s book, for instance. It would be good for business, don’t you think? Mingling again with the clientele. Even Isabeau knows who visits the museums.

Mingling? Herded like sheep, you mean.

Isabeau does love them, Pascal said. How can a father deny his daughter?

You do not mean the three of us would go out?

We cannot hide her forever, my dear.

You cannot be serious.

Our charade has gone on long enough. The girl deserves to be happy.

It is not a charade. It is preservation. Think of the talk if we start parading her around. I could not bear it.

Pascal waved a hand. There is already talk, he said. Did you know we keep Isabeau chained in a cupboard like some sort of wild animal? I have overheard whispers that you yourself threw the boiling water out of jealousy. Trust me, the day after they see that scar they will chatter about something else. Ugliness makes no less fleeting an impression than beauty. Your gossips will not remember Isabeau either way. Besides, they will all be looking at you.

I would rather they didn’t, Madame said.

——

Madame Céleste insisted the trees be in full bud, the grounds of the Tuileries dry and easily walked. There would be no wind to disturb a hat or lift a dress or unravel Isabeau’s scarf. The skies would be a clear spring blue.

Her scarf? said Pascal.

The child will be wearing pink, Madame said. And one of your scarves, the peacock number, I think. Be certain she remembers how the fold should lie against her cheek, how the ends must flow over the shoulders.

Isabeau pulled her ear away from the keyhole. Her face was burning. The dread of being seen, the staring, the murmurs, seemed to bring her scar to life, crawling across her cheek. But here was her chance. She would risk anything to see her paintings. She looked at her dog.

Zouzou, the Louvre. Can you imagine?

The dog, nearly blind and entirely deaf, nuzzled into a warm spot against Isabeau’s ankle.

The Normandes joined the crush of bodies funnelling through a set of narrow doors. The crowd emerged as if sprayed from a hose, dishevelled and wide-eyed into the Grande Galerie.

Isabeau wore her father’s scarf, the ends swept over her shoulders and down her back. Clutching her guidebook, staring at the glass ceiling, she stumbled
against her mother. Madame Céleste shooed her away, muttering about rushing about and what happened when one was not careful, as she smoothed the drape of her dress.

Light streamed in through the ceiling as if it didn’t exist and the gallery were open to the sky. Isabeau put a hand to her forehead, shading her eyes. The end of the hall seemed a thousand miles away. The way it appeared to vanish in the distance caused gooseflesh to climb out of her pink gloves and spread up her arms. She felt a tickle behind her knees, bristles crawling across her scalp. She shuddered at the flutters in her stomach.

Adults swarmed around her. Some leaned in toward the paintings placed at eye level, others bent back to take in those hung to the ceiling. No one noticed when they bumped into the girl with the peacock scarf.

As Isabeau inched along the gallery, there were flashes of colour: paintings she thought she knew, now hardly recognizable in their deep reds and golds, rich greens and yellows, inky blacks and blues. They were all there, her roommates, her favourites, grown gigantic compared to the grainy reproductions in her book. Some paintings stretched from floor to ceiling, their subjects ready, as she knew they would be, to step out of their canvases. The smaller ones—so much smaller
than Isabeau had imagined—crowded together, cheek to ear to shoulder. There were decapitated heads on plates, grinning saints pointing skyward, serious men of business, mothers and daughters, bonneted babies, shipwrecked sailors, musicians, goddesses dancing through ancient ruins.

The current of visitors slowed and bunched together, elbowing their way to see a particular painting. Isabeau knew from her floor plans who they had found. It was
La Joconde
. Isabeau had never much cared for her. The reproduction in the guidebook made the woman look as grimy as a street sweeper. Isabeau had read in one of her father’s newspapers that someone had actually stolen her a few years back. For months after, thousands had returned to the museum to weep and stare at the faded wallpaper and empty hooks where she had hung. People had even left poems and flowers and letters of condolence, as though the missing woman had been their sweetheart. It was all such nonsense, Isabeau thought. The woman hanging before her now was a chubby lump, her dress was dull, her hair needed washing, and her hands were much too large.

There was someone else Isabeau was looking for. She had always looked out from the guidebook, a girl not much older than Isabeau herself, her eyes pleading
not to be crowded around, or pointed at, or worshipped. She was hung amid imagined landscapes and scenes of peasant life. The small plaque beside her read:
422, The Spring, Ingres, signed and dated, 1856
.

Alone in her bedroom Isabeau had given her a few secret names—she was Tethys perhaps, or Iolanthe. Something exotic and otherworldly. But now that they had come face to face, Isabeau thought she looked more of a Sofia. She stood naked at the edge of a glassy pool in a thick green forest, balancing an urn on her shoulder, water dripping through her fingers. Her skin appeared to be lit from within; there were no blotches or freckles. No downy hair under her arms or in her private places. There were no scars.

Isabeau blushed, as though she were looking in her own mirror. Sofia made no move to cover her nakedness, yet Isabeau could see something in her pose, the way the girl’s knees tucked against each other. Isabeau pictured two sisters, alone in their own room, sharing the same shyness. Revealing to each other, between their giggles and groans, how their bodies were becoming womanly.

She admired Sofia’s face: the lips slightly parted, the beginnings of a cautious smile. Isabeau stepped closer. The girl’s eyes were like her own, large and dark, sloped
at the corners. Her hair was not quite as chocolate perhaps, but not far off. And she could have been as tall though it was difficult for Isabeau to tell. She tried to see herself and Sofia standing back to back, knocking their heads against each other and laughing.

She would be the brave one, Isabeau thought. Sofia had nothing to hide. But even so, they could be sisters.

 

The young woman watches the smoke rising from the building across the street. Bits of paper swirl around her. She opens her hand; a few flakes come to rest. She reads the half-words and singed letters, wonders at the flashes of orange and red and green lying in her palm. On her toes, shifting back and forth, she peers between the shoulders of the crowd. In that instant she reads the name of the bakery and recognizes the man stumbling from the building, his familiar suit now covered with ashes.

 

O
ctavio and his father spent their Sundays on the bakery step. Octavio would open the day’s newspaper, point to an illustration or photograph, suggest a word or two to prompt the game along. Monsieur would only grin or stare blankly at the page or say nothing at all. Octavio would try another. Then without warning Monsieur might launch into a story on his own. One morning a politician’s walrus-whiskered face, frowning from the corner of a back page, became the Pope of Avignon.

Now he’s a demanding customer, Monsieur said. Impossible to please. If your croissants don’t flake to
his liking or your crusts aren’t firm he will strip you naked and without so much as a Holy Mary Mother of God, tie you to a post in his cloister. He’ll hand out palm fronds to your regulars and invite them to take a switch or two to your skinny baker’s backside.

Octavio Notre-Dame grew to an able manhood, as slender a baker as his father though a full head taller. Blind Grenelle managed to gain his own notoriety, with customers making requests for what they came to call the Watch Man’s Special: a misshapen braid of bread that never appeared quite done but managed to melt in the mouth. The buxom young woman with her wheat, the laughing baker and his aromas, the cherubs with their angelic breakfasts, Our Lady and her beer: all continued their watch over the Boulangerie Notre-Dame.

After sliding the day’s third lots into the ovens, Octavio would come up to the shop for a breath of air. A few of the early gossips may have lingered a while, mumbling among themselves, waiting for more attentive ears to turn up once the lunchtime rush began. Nothing much doing out in the world today, someone might announce. We might as well stay put. You never know, something may happen here. Grenelle would shrug and go back to straightening the baskets.

Octavio would lean against the display case and pick bits of flour from under his fingernails.

A silence would settle in as fresh aromas began drifting from the cellar. How about a story then, someone would finally ask. Octavio would scratch his head and flex the kinks out of his back.

The further adventures of the missing N were a favourite subject. Octavio might search his memory of the nuns’ geography lessons, then begin by stating that Napoleon had had nothing to do with the disappearance. In fact, Octavio would say, it was the city of Nice that was to blame. He would explain: in a far-off time the citizens had decided to show their civic pride by decorating the doorways of their homes.

Southerners, a gossip would say. Not be trusted, if you ask me.

Maybe not, Octavio continued, but the city fathers thought this was a grand idea and so sent wandering gangs out to lift Is and Cs and Es and of course Ns from wherever they could find them. Try not to murder anyone was the fathers’ only request of their ruffians. Even so, not a corner of the country was safe. Villages like Issou, or Courcelles, or even the hamlet of Épretot had their signage vandalized in the middle of the night.

Octavio would pause and hang his head as though in mourning. But poor tiny Nantenne, he would sigh.
Theirs was the greatest loss. An innocent lamb of a village, bloated with its four Ns and two Es, only to be gnawed at by letter-thieving wolves.

And where might this poor tragic Nantenne be, came the inevitable question. Octavio would cover his face, hide his mock tears, and point a quivering finger outside. It is hard to say, my friends. No one knows the way anymore. All the road signs are gone.

Where exactly
is
Nantenne? Octavio asked Grenelle one evening as they locked up. I remember the name from school, but the location escapes me. Grenelle said even he wasn’t certain, but as he recalled it may have been on the road to Dijon.

BOOK: The Emperor of Paris
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