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Chocolat Is Alive

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There's this party, maybe a month after Chocolat gets to Paris. He really isn't much for parties; his usual inclination, born of long experience, is to stay in the shadows and look the other way whenever people (especially the white ones) start boozing it up and carousing. He only goes to this party because he knows the Argentinean -- who he privately thinks of as Vanille -- will be there. Chocolat met Vanille back in Marseille, on the docks; he was between jobs, Vanille was in town to dance, and they had this quick intense fling for a week (it ain't nobody's business but theirs, and anyway Vanille says he doesn't do that funny stuff, it isn't manly -- though Chocolat would beg to differ on both counts), during which Vanille told Chocolat about all his crazy artist friends in Paris. "You must come to Montmartre," he said, "it's wild. They will love you there." So Chocolat came to Montmartre. He went to the Moulin Rouge and Zidler hired him as a bouncer, a little too gleeful about the exoticism of having an enormous coal-black enforcer among all those top-hatted rich white guys. But anyway. Chocolat found a place for himself on the sidelines of Vanille's world, but Vanille -- whose actual name nobody seems to know, the guy has some serious trust issues and Chocolat should know -- hardly gives him the time of day anymore, always chasing after the girls where everyone can see him, and meanwhile there's this dwarf who keeps professing his love.

It's Toulouse who gives him the drink. After an hour spent arguing with Audrey about the aesthetic and spiritual connotations of blackness, and expostulating to anyone who will listen on the likelihood that Chocolat is descended from Nubian royalty (which, please, his mother was an ex-slave from New Orleans and he never even met his father, so really, what are the odds?), Toulouse sloshes some unnaturally green liquid into a tall glass and hands it up to him. "Drink," he slurs. "You'll adore it. It will show you things you've never even dreamed."

Chocolat is dubious. The liquor smells pretty, but over the years he's seen more than a few people vomiting up stuff this color, and he's never wanted to be one of them.

"A full glass?" squeaks Satie. "Toulouse, are you sure? Chocolat, I beg your pardon, but -- have you ever tried this before?"

"He's a big boy," Toulouse insists before Chocolat can answer. "He needs a big glass. Go on," he urges Chocolat, "drink!" Or actually, "dwink!" And he lifts his own much smaller glass and downs it in one.

Chocolat has been a sailor, a dockworker, and now a bouncer; he may not have much, but he has his dignity and he's not about to let some gnome with a crush drink him under the table. So he throws back his glass of absinthe, forcing himself to open his throat and swallow until it's all gone. This does finally earn him some of Vanille's attention, but he has no chance to enjoy it. The last thing he sees is Toulouse leering down by his thighs, and Satie in the background, aflutter with bald concern.

***

Twinkles. It's all little twinkles, sunlight pinpricking green and yellow through a canopy of leaves, and he hears birds chirping. He wonders whether this is what it's like for Vanille, those times when he suddenly keels over. Of course, Chocolat has suspected for a while now that "narcoleptic" is a fancy Argentinean term for "roaring drunk." But now is not the time to worry about that, because he's lying on the ground, and his friends have all disappeared, and he's somehow in a forest. And that part's problematic.

Chocolat can handle himself on a ship. He can handle himself in a dockyard, or in a bar, or in a dark alley. Cities and slums, he can do -- and has done -- with one hand tied behind his back. No problem. Forests, however, are a long way outside his expertise. Pretty much all he knows about forests is that moss grows on the north side of trees, and he honestly isn't sure if that's true or just a myth. But even if it's a solid fact, he hasn't the faintest idea where this forest is, so he doesn't know if he wants to go north or not. A wave of anxiety ripples through him as he picks himself up off the ground. He shivers.

Anxious or not, though, he can't stay where he is. The thing to do, he thinks, shaking himself into alertness, is just pick a direction and start walking. But he doesn't know which direction, and what if he chooses wrong? He slowly turns in a circle, seeing nothing but trees and more trees and not even much in the way of moss, his anxiety rapidly giving way to panic, when he hears singing. He could almost shout in relief. Singing likely means that someone is having an emotional moment, he understands that, but there's respecting other people's privacy and then there's finding oneself in a forest all alone. Though he avoids calling attention to himself as a general rule, he takes off running in search of the sound.

What he finds are two men on horseback, dressed as if they're in the sort of play Satine enjoys, and they are harmonizing gently to the strains of a guitar. That Chocolat cannot see a guitar anywhere in evidence is, if anything, comforting; it tells him he mustn't be so very far from the Moulin Rouge after all, if musical accompaniment just springs up spontaneously whenever people are having A Moment. That sort of thing never tended to happen in Marseille.

The men sing:

Two of us riding nowhere,
spending someone's hard earned pay
You and me Sunday driving,
not arriving, on our way back home
We're on our way home...

And then they spot Chocolat, and one of the horses rears, and the guitar sputters to a halt, and the song abruptly ends.

"Ho there!" shouts the man who isn't on a rearing horse, while the one who is expertly settles his horse back down.

If someone said that to him on a crowded street Chocolat might take offense, but now he asks only, "What's going on here?"

The two men instantly seem flustered. "We were, er," one says, looking at the other and blushing.

"Not going home," the other fills in.

"We were sent for!" the first exclaims.

"And it was, well, we were on our way, and we fell to singing."

"As one does." Both men look exceedingly uncomfortable, and Chocolat knows he really has interrupted something.

"I meant," he clarifies, because he honestly doesn't care how they came to be singing so long as they can assist him, "where are we?"

"Ah." The horsemen try to recover their composure. They glance around. "We are in a wood," says one. His companion nods in agreement.

"A wood where?" Chocolat demands, and the 'Ho there' man opens his mouth to say something but then stops before a sound comes out. They both seem suddenly confused.

Chocolat takes a closer look at them. One of them has longer hair than the other, but they're both reedy white guys. Not bad looking, but not his type. Clean them up, stick them in top hats and tails, and they'd fit in among the clientele at the Moulin Rouge, though one glance would peg them both as the easily fleeced kind. Nini could eat them for breakfast. More pertinently, neither one of them seems like the kind of hero who rescues lost strangers, or any kind of hero at all for that matter.

The man with longer hair looks over his shoulder. "We've just ridden from... there," he says vaguely, gesturing backward.

"We've been riding all day," adds the other. "But... this wood is not familiar."

"And yet it looks very much like a forest," says the first.

"Though not all forests are the same," says the second.

Chocolat bites back a frustrated sigh. He needs these two NOT to be Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

The man with the longer hair leans forward and squints at him. "You're a moor!" he exclaims. He alights gracefully from his horse and steps forward, a hand reaching out as if he wants to touch Chocolat's face. Chocolat draws back instinctively.

"I'm sorry," the man says. "It's just that I've never seen a moor before. I've heard of them, of course."

The second man dismounts as well. "Allow me to make introductions. My name is Guildenstern, and this is my good friend Rosencrantz." They take off their plumed hats and sweep them downward into two formal bows, complete with front legs outstretched.

Chocolat refrains from commenting on their hats, or the unison bowing, or even the 'my good friend.' "Are you Bohemians?" he asks doubtfully.

"Not at all! We are Danes!"

That isn't reassuring. "I need to get home," Chocolat says. He scans the area again, as if one of the trees might suddenly sport a blinking sign reading "Paris, THIS WAY!" But the trees are all indistinguishable, one from the other.

"There aren't many landmarks about," Rosenwhatever says thoughtfully.

"Pity we never studied navigation," Guildewhosit remarks, tilting his head back to gaze at the cloudy sky.

"We couldn't have anticipated the need," his friend replies. This confirms Chocolat's suspicion that these men are educated, and therefore unlikely to have much in the way of practical knowledge.

"You've studied, then," he observes in what he hopes is a deferential rather than a despairing tone.

The two smile brightly. "Indeed we have. Guildenstern is a philosopher," one tells him.

"I thought that was you," Chocolat says.

"No," says the other, "that's me. Rosencrantz is a man of science."

Chocolat looks back and forth between them. Somehow he's having trouble keeping hold of their names. Maybe the absinthe is mucking with his head. Or else it's the fear. Or else it's that white people all look alike. In any case, they speak with such evident pride and clarity of purpose that he gets the sense he should be impressed, but they've just announced themselves as useless and uselesser, and he has more important concerns.

"Are we far away from a town? Or even a road?"

Rosenstern frowns and looks behind them again, while Guildencrantz cocks his head to one side. "How came you here?" he asks.

Chocolat scratches his neck. He'd hoped they wouldn't get to that. "There was this dwarf, see. He gave me a drink."

The two men exchange glances. "A drink of what?" one inquires delicately.

"Absinthe."

There is a pause, while the two blink at him. The longer-haired guy's eyes widen. "It comes as a liquid?" he asks.

"Well, yes."

Guildecuz or whatever steps forward. "Is it distilled?" His voice sounds a mixture of skepticism and wonder.

"I should think so," Chocolat replies. "I don't really know how they make it. But it's terrible stuff. It pulls you out of one place and into another." He's babbling, he knows he is. He needs to get a grip on himself.

"Like a summons, then," Guildeman observes.

"And," Rosengard begins tentatively, "would you say your heart has grown fonder?"

Chocolat really isn't sure how to answer him; it's an awfully personal question. "Of who?" he finally asks.

"Well, that's just what I've heard," Rodenstern says. "But I never imagined one could drink absence." Seeming inspired all of a sudden, he goes on, "Are you a magical negro? I've read about those!"

"Yes, and what about this dwarf," his friend interjects, but Chocolat has finally understood them.

"Not absence, ABSINTHE," he explains, trying not to yell.

There's a pause, before Guilsencrantz slowly speaks. "Absinthe maketh the heart grow--"

Before he can finish, Chocolat throws up his arms and stalks away in disgust. These two clowns can't help him, clearly. He needs to just go in one direction, that's what he needs to do. Any direction. Sooner or later he'll find a road, or a town, or something, and then he can make his way back to Montmartre. Or Marseille. Or anywhere. Because forests can't go on indefinitely in all directions, they can only cover a thousand miles or so at the very most...

He stops. He hates to stop, but for all he knows he's heading deeper into the woods. He hears some low, strong chords. That can't be good. It's on the tip of his tongue to chant, I could be wrong, I could be right, and then he can imagine singing something about a road, leading up to a refrain of Anger is an energy -- when he hears voices behind him. "We didn't mean to offend you," they say, and the music dies down. Thank god for that, at least.

He turns. "Sorry, we never caught your name," one of the men says.

"They call me Chocolat," he tells them. "Remind me of yours?"

"I'm Rosencrantz," the one who's evidently Rosencrantz says. "And this is Guildenstern."

"Can't keep those straight," Chocolat remarks.

"They're not actually that similar," says the other, somewhat testily.

"Well," Chocolat apologizes, "but you look alike, too."

They turn to each other. "Do we?"

"I never thought so."

"But I suppose maybe, in the profile..." They begin feeling their own features, as if they've changed.

Chocolat ignores them, looks at Rosencrantz. "And you're the philosopher," he checks.

Rosencrantz smiles and says "That's right," but Guildenstern shakes his head. Without missing a beat, Rosencrantz says, "I'm sorry, no. He's the philosopher. I am a scientist."

Chocolat can't help asking, "So what does that mean, anyway?"

"Well," Rosencrantz begins, but then he seems flustered.

"We inquire into natural phenomena," Guildenstern says importantly. "As well as other kinds."

"So you both do the same thing," Chocolat says.

The two men seem discomfited at this. "No, no, not at all," one says, while the other insists, "It's very different, you see. Rosencrantz here investigates the world by means of experimentation..."

"While Guildenstern applies his reason," finishes Rosencrantz.

Chocolat wants very badly to point out that they've shown no evidence of either investigatory prowess or reason. But making a scene won't help him, so he presses his lips together and remains silent.

"So you see, it's two entirely separate fields," Guildencrantz adds. "Of course, one needs a proper education to really grasp the nuances."

This last comment is a stroke too far; Chocolat is having a tough day, and he can only restrain himself for so long. "Look, I know some philosophers," he says. "And some scientists," he adds, thinking of the bearded Doctor and his passion for electricity. "They're drunks and nutjobs."

Rosensomething looks insulted. "We are neither drunk nor insane."

"Fine," Chocolat replies. "But it sounds like neither one of you really does anything. Or else you do the same thing. And I don't care either way." What he cares about is getting back to someplace he recognizes. Under his breath he curses Toulouse and the stupid absinthe. He'd known he shouldn't take it.

His two companions frown at each other. "He doesn't understand," one murmurs. "Science and philosophy are very distinct spheres."

"Very distinct," the other agrees. "Though of course there's a certain degree of overlap."

"Do you even listen to yourselves?" Chocolat can't resist asking. "You sound just alike, too."

"We don't!" insists one of them.

"Well, maybe a little," concedes the other. Chocolat can't help but wonder if there's something wrong with the forest itself, because it's as though they're melding into each other while they talk to him.

The first doesn't argue the point anymore, but turns to Chocolat. "Well, what is it that YOU do?" he inquires.

"I'm a bouncer."

They seem suddenly fascinated. "Really?" one asks. "When dropped from great heights?"

"Do all moors bounce?" asks the other.

Chocolat reacts instinctively; he draws himself up to his full height and steps up close so he can look down at them. "Is that supposed to be a threat?"

To his utter perplexity, the men seem delighted. "Oh-ho, you want to play?" asks one.

"What are you talking about?" he demands.

"Do you want first serve?" asks the other.

The two of them are evidently having fun, which just adds insult to injury. Chocolat would be ready to pull out his hair if he had any. "Never mind," he grits out, and steps away from them.

"One-love!" comes the triumphant crow.

He turns back in annoyance. "Look, do you know how to get home from here or not?" he asks.

"Whose home, yours or ours?" asks one.

"Can you find either one?"

"Ah," begins the other, "but is home a place, or a state of mind?"

"It's a place, you wankers!"

"Two-love!"

Chocolat hates this jittery feeling he has, it isn't like him. He's a strong-but-silent, keep-out-of-trouble type. But he has no idea how to get home, and sooner or later it will get dark, and for all he knows this forest goes on forever, and he doesn't have time for whatever this is.

The two men turn to each other. "Is it really fair of us, playing two on one?" one asks. "Do the rules cover that?" asks the other. And then there's a satisfying BONK sound as Chocolat bangs their heads together, and they both fall down.

Once they've stopped moaning, one of them, the shorter-haired one, whines, "What did you do that for?"

"I want to go home." He's shouting now. He never shouts. But now that he's started, he feels everything he's held in reserve bubbling up inside him, and he just has to let it out. So he carries on shouting, pacing around and gesticulating broadly for good measure. "I have had it up to HERE with you white people and your games. All my life I've taken this crap. I just try to do my job, right? Not make a fuss, right? And I went to this party and I drank the dwarf's stupid drink, and now I'm in a bloody FOREST for no apparent reason, and I'm STILL surrounded by white people who think they're smart but can't do a damn thing. I JUST WANT TO GO HOME." On this last sentence he jumps up and down with every word. It feels astonishingly good to shout and carry on like that. This must be why people make spectacles of themselves. And it seems utterly natural that he's hearing a round of applause behind him that comes from far more than two people.

"Bwilliant!" Toulouse shouts, and Chocolat whirls around and he's back at the Bohemians' party, in the middle of the dance floor. Toulouse is all but hugging his knee. "What a spectacular dance! I knew you had it in you!"

"Bravo," Vanille murmurs, and the admiration in his voice makes Chocolat's toes curl.

"How come you're just a bouncer when you can put on a show like that?" Nini asks him. "You should do that act for Zidler, he'd have you on stage in a minute. You'd make a damn sight more than you earn now."

Everybody is staring at him. Chocolat feels dizzy. He doesn't know if that's still the absinthe, or something else. He doesn't know where the woods went. He isn't sure if he cares. "I'm not," he begins. "I don't like to..."

"The Diamond Dogs could use someone like you," Satine announces. Chocolat doesn't even know when Satine came in; he'd thought she was off on some assignation tonight. Maybe she's all finished. "In the Hunkadola number especially, I think," she adds, tilting her head thoughtfully to one side, and the other dancers voice murmurs of agreement.

"Here's to our newest Bohemian revolutionary genius!" Toulouse crows, and starts handing him up another glass of absinthe, but Vanille leans in and smoothly intercepts it.

"I discovered him," Vanille tells everyone, launching into a story of how he spotted Chocolat on a dark night in Marseille and immediately knew there was something to him. The story has one or two spots of truth in it, and though Chocolat can't recall ever tangoing down a pier, he could almost wish he had. Meanwhile he sags back onto a sofa, and gratefully accepts a glass of water from Satie.

"Are you alright?" Satie asks him.

He takes a moment to consider. He's out of breath. He's sweaty. He's lightheaded. And yet, he actually feels pretty good, all things considered. He feels lighter than he had before, like something inside him has broken free. He's back among people he knows, and yes they're all crazy white people but they're not bad sorts. And what's oddest is that, rather than wanting him to stay in the shadows like he's always done, these people seem to think it's great when he snaps and makes a fool of himself. He'd never even thought it was an option before.

"I'm fine," he tells Satie, as Toulouse climbs onto the sofa beside him and pats his knee, talking about how he'll arrange an audition for him with Zidler. As the Bohemians spin their schemes, Chocolat spares a moment to wonder who those two yokels in the woods really were, and whether they're still there, or have finished merging into each other, or what. But then he lets it go, stretches himself out and relaxes. Maybe he'll try dancing with Nini later in the night. Or even Vanille. Life could be far worse.