Authors: C. S. Richardson
She felt her knees giving out, she worried she would collapse on the pavement. She saw herself lying by the curb, pedestrians huddled over her. Madame gripped her son’s hand, praying for that tiny pink fist
she had seen rising from the bowl to hold her up. She wondered if Gabriel was even listening, if he had ever heard a word.
Octavio dared not complain that his mother’s grip was hurting him or that he couldn’t keep up or that he might drop his satchel or that she was frightening him. As they approached the cake-slice, she suddenly let go of his hand and stopped in the middle of the street, her shoulders heaving. Octavio stammered that he was sorry—everything was going to be all right—the other boys weren’t going to tease him anymore—she wouldn’t have to walk him to school—please stop crying—I promise promise promise to be good.
He ran through the doors of the bakery to find his father.
Reaching the top landing, the baker stops at the sight of his front door off its hinges, cracked and warped, scarred by axe handles, paint bubbled in the heat. The brigade captain comes out of the apartment and moves the door to one side. The baker tries to push past, managing a glimpse over the man’s broad shoulder: square towers that had once formed walls of colour, standing now as melted grey bricks silhouetted against open sky. The captain keeps a grip on the baker.
There’s nothing to be done, monsieur.
I hear I am to have a new apprentice, Monsieur said.
Emile Notre-Dame did not stop dividing a mound of dough as his wife told him of her visit to the school. He calmly put aside one of the halves, floured the table and reached for his rolling pin. As Madame left the cellar he began flattening out the dough. Then, for the second time in his life, he spoke with God.
He asked the Lord where His cruelty had come from.
You punish another innocent boy, the next Notre-Dame to come along, for the stupidity of his father. What have any of us done to deserve this curse?
He wanted to know how God dared to break a good woman’s heart.
She had wanted so much to be a mother, if only you could have let her be one.
He reminded God about their first conversation. How he had thanked every angel and saint as he kneeled at the wedding altar for escorting his Immacolata all the way from Tuscany, through the sharks and mermaids, to kneel beside a humble fellow from the eighth.
And now you condemn her to this cellar.
Monsieur’s rolling pin split end to end as he swung it against the marble.
The air was heavy that evening in the Notre-Dame apartment. Her supper plate untouched, Madame had left the kitchen table and closed the bedroom door behind her. Monsieur watched his wife disappear, then slid his chair next to Octavio’s. They stared at their hands. The baker finally spoke.
I wasn’t much for school either. We Notre-Dames have always found other ways to entertain ourselves.
Minutes passed in silence. Sixteen fingers were crossed, four thumbs slowly turned. As Octavio began to squirm in his chair, a pigeon landed outside on the kitchen’s windowsill.
Have I told you the one about the birds? Monsieur said.
Octavio shook his head. Monsieur unlinked his hands and laid them flat on the table.
Very well. Imagine a time before this.
When there lived an emperor like no other. He hosted no feasts and wrote no laws. Foreign kings never visited him; ambassadors did not drop in to ask for treaties; he sent no armies to invade his neighbours. He did not live in a palace, was never entertained by travelling minstrels, he declared no holidays. He was not a tyrant locking enemies away in his dungeons, nor was he a madman commanding the sun to reduce its heat. This emperor was a simple man, like his father before him, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father before that. A good and simple man.
But still an emperor, Octavio said.
Like no other, Monsieur said. But one with a secret.
Monsieur watched his son’s eyes grow wide, then lowered his voice. The emperor, he whispered, was not wise enough to be an emperor at all.
Or so he thought. As a boy the emperor felt out of place. The children around him seemed to be smarter than he. Whenever he asked how they came to know so much, they would smile and shrug their shoulders. A little bird told us, they would laugh. Growing to manhood, his awkwardness remained. As much as the
emperor tried to learn, as much as he tried to understand, as much as he thought he knew, others acted as though they knew more.
As the emperor’s domain was a city of grand buildings and fine leafy trees, so it was a haven for birds. The citizens of the city loved their feathered companions, offered them every perch and comfort, delighted in every song they sang.
But still the birds did not speak to the emperor? Octavio said.
Patience, my boy. As much as everyone loved the birds, some citizens loved the sound of their own voices. Idle talk flew through the streets like the birds themselves. With all this gossip the emperor knew his secret would be discovered. He would be laughed at and called a fool.
The emperor needed to find a way to hide his secret. So one day he dressed in the finest clothes he owned. He polished his shoes and combed his hair and scrubbed his face. Then he called on the city’s greatest artist. I would like my portrait done, he said. Paint me as you see me. Do not make me taller or thinner or handsomer. I want only a true likeness, plain and simple.
But was he handsome? Octavio said.
The ladies would swoon wherever he walked, Monsieur said. Now where was I?
The painting, Papa.
Right. The artist was finished within the month, and the emperor was very pleased. Looking at his portrait was like looking in a mirror. He squinted his eyes, tilted his head, examined the details from this side and that. He began wondering about the man in front of him. What would this fellow look like with different clothes? Who would he be if he wore a beard? Or a hat? At last it came to him.
Octavio sat up straight.
The emperor imagined himself as someone else, Monsieur said.
Octavio wrinkled his brow. Monsieur carried on.
In his mind the emperor stopped slouching, he drew back his shoulders. His nose straightened, a confident smile appeared. He became a man who could walk the streets with his head held high, his face glowing in the sun. Here was a man that the birds of the city would not only speak to, but would also be perfectly happy to come and live with. Here was the portrait of a wise man.
So, as someone else, the emperor went out to gather a few birds.
At first he did not know which ones he should bring home. He knew nothing of their names or their origins or their habits. He only admired their variety, their
plumage, the ones he could hold in his hand. He pictured how they might look collected in his rooms. And that was how he chose them, one by one.
For years the emperor assembled his birds. They took up every nook and corner. Their cages became his furniture: propping his windows open, levelling his crooked bed, acting as tables and chairs and shelves to hold even more cages. Some birds were no bigger than the eggs that had hatched them; with feathers so bright they hurt his eyes. Some were huge beasts, ugly and brown and dull. A few would not stop chattering, annoying and loud. There were scrawny birds and plump birds and clever birds and silly birds and birds that made no sound at all.
Did they ever speak to the emperor, Papa?
Not so fast, Monsieur answered.
The city watched the emperor’s collection grow larger and more unwieldy. While they could see the emperor was wise, for who could not be with so many birds under his roof, they also knew his birds would grow restless, as birds eventually do. In time he would have to release them. But still the emperor brought home more and more birds. Finally his rooms could hold no more. And that was when it happened.
Monsieur’s voice trailed off, an effect he had learned from his father.
happened? Octavio said.
The birds disappeared, Monsieur said. One day while the emperor was out, the birds released themselves. He returned home to find his rooms empty, every cage open, every perch vacant. No one had heard them leave. No one saw the sky darken with a cloud of wings.
The emperor mourned the loss of his birds. Being surrounded by them had been his greatest pleasure and now that joy was gone. But worse still he knew that he would never be seen as wise. The citizens would learn that his birds had left and would begin their nosy questions: how could a man with so many birds not know how to keep them? The emperor would have no answers and they would march him out of the city.
Did they march him away? Octavio asked.
Not quite, Monsieur said. You see, the more the emperor worried about the birds he had lost, the more he could see them in his mind’s eye. As clearly as if they were still crowding his rooms. Then he remembered his own portrait. How he had imagined the man standing before him. Could he do such a thing with his memories of his birds? Like the one that had lived above his kitchen cupboard, a smelly, moulting thing it was. Could he see that little fellow suddenly bouncing up and down like a bird twice its size, puffing its
green chest feathers and crooning to the females at the other end of the shelf? Or the bird with the giant yellow bill that had spent every day perched on the back of the emperor’s armchair, picking at loose threads and making a mess of things. Could he imagine it raising its grand beak, coughing once or twice, then reciting a poem? Could he, Papa?
He could and he did, Monsieur said. The emperor discovered there was no little bird telling anybody anything. Indeed it wasn’t birds he had needed at all. The pictures in his head would make him wise.
A good and simple emperor, Octavio said.
Monsieur stopped pacing around the kitchen table. That is why we Notre-Dame men need our pictures, he said.
Like your newspapers, Papa?
The thinnest baker in all Paris smiled. We shall look at them together. This Sunday we make a start.
The brigade captain has seen it all before. Too many versions of
I was only gone for a moment
. Someone steps out to retrieve his mail, leaves a candle too close to a wafting curtain, and by the time he reads the postcard from Arromanches and argues with his concierge, a lifetime of companionship has vanished. For the captain the family pets were always the most tragic. Dogs, cats, mice, rabbits, lizards, fish even; in his time he had swept up a zoo’s worth of cremation. He remembers a pair of pigeons in the twelfth, huddled together, claws still curled around their perch, no more than lumps of cinder. The
captain might have stumbled into the ruins of Pompeii rather than an old widow’s suicide.
He turns the baker back toward the stairs. Best you stay out of harm’s way, monsieur, till the boys have mopped up.
He watches as the man manages a few steps before slumping against the railing. Take your time, monsieur. It’s all quite a shock, I know, but consider yourself lucky. You could have been at home.
mile Notre-Dame unfolded his newspaper, taking care not to reveal the front page, and smoothed the crease through his fingers. A stretch of his arms, a snap of the paper, a determined lick of his thumb. He turned the issue around.
Filling the front page: a man in military uniform clutches at his chest as he falls against the rear seat of an open automobile. Splatters of red ink stain his white tunic; his medals jostle, his helmet is knocked askew. A woman in an elegant day dress and matching feathered hat clings to the man as he falls. In her effort to
steady her companion she too loses her balance. There is a look of surprise on her face. Lining the street and crowded on balconies, onlookers stare in disbelief, their stunned expressions and pointing fingers drawn to something at the margin of the illustration.
Monsieur followed the crowd’s eyes.
A man in a dark suit leaps from the crowd, his face obscured by the brim of his hat. He waves a small pistol at the couple in the automobile. The weapon spouts a flash of yellow and a soft puff of smoke.
Octavio emerged from the bakery and sat next to his father. He began whistling an unrecognizable tune. After a moment he released as loud a sigh as he could.
You promised, Papa.
Monsieur, suddenly aware he was not alone, glanced from his son to the page and back again. So I did, he said.
Monsieur looked to the sky, scratched his head, ran a finger around his collar. Warm today, he said. Octavio only nodded, his one eyebrow cocked higher still.
That is not a beginning, Papa.
Quite right, Monsieur said. Sometimes a story needs a push to get started. But I know a game. I suppose now is as good a time as any for you to learn.
I like games, Octavio said.
Monsieur explained the rules. First we need a picture, he said. Any one will do. We each pick out a detail, something small and unimportant, and describe what we see. But—and this is the secret—we must use as few words as possible. We take turns, back and forth, a word here, two or three there. Before you know it we have a story.
Who goes first, Papa?
Monsieur unveiled the front page of the newspaper, his fingers discreetly hiding a murderer. Octavio examined the illustration.
Red spots, he said.
Tomato soup, said his father.
A small spoon.
On a big belly.
A big laughing belly.
Laughing so hard.
The soldier falls over.
While his pretty wife.
Tries to catch him.
He is too heavy. All those tomatoes.
She is too skinny. Not enough soup.
The crowd shouts hurrah.
What a show.
and Madame Hungry.
Driving in their automobile.
An automobile race.
The fastest on four wheels.
Off to find more soup.
And a bigger spoon.
The following day Monsieur Notre-Dame told his son to open the doors for business. The morning’s first customers had already formed an unruly line outside the bakery. The small crowd pushed past Octavio, the gossips among them shouting over each other.