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The Follies

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The monster was bored.

The so-called Palais Garnier was long finished, and President MacMahon’s clique of ministers and prefects were happy to have finally wiped their hands of the project’s costly nature, descending from high now and then to gift the company with an endowment from their vast coffers—to think of how the management balked at a mere 20,000 francs! 

Slowly, but steadily, the arrondissement had subsumed the theater entirely, to the point where average Parisians walking by hardly noticed its presence amongst the endless cafes and shops that swarmed around its colonnades like locusts. More than a decade had come and gone under its dome, and, with it, the minor scandals that oft troubled artistic types—breeches of contracts, nodules, paramours, and such sundry. All simple problems in the great chain of existence, really; after all, what was a sudden vacancy in the company or a twisted ankle compared to, say, strangling a man with your own hands.  Or letting a sylph run away into the night with the remains of your heart.

Yet the monster watched it all from the shadows with a growing sense of anxiety. Life’s little cruelties had dampened any hope for normalcy—a realization he thought he’d made peace with time and time again—yet this relatively recent bout of tedium had left him with the faint feeling of optimism. 

There is no turning back, he told himself regularly, a little affirmation to the new little hell he had built. It had been at least eight years since he had sold off the comfortable flat in Montparnasse that once served as both home and office, in better, boring days. Eight years since he tossed his copy of the front door key into the Seine and lost whatever crumbs of sanity were left to him. 

Oh, yes, there had been a short period of time, upon completion of his house on the lake, where the monster clung to that paltry corpse of reason—where he rose in the morning, toiled diligently throughout the week (however grim the work), and tried to excite himself over the thought of a weekend.

He would rise to greet the world, cautiously, the Gallic sun as warm and sweet as anything he’d felt in Mazendaran, a place where nothing frightened him; but one wayward glance at his false nose from a passing child on the street, one moment of hesitation from a shop clerk or a tailor was enough to send him back into his burrow for a month, if he was lucky.

As a boy, people paid to look at him and laugh. The memory no longer hurt the monster. If anything, it gave him a sense of purpose that his childhood home never had—he was offering a service, a tacit exchange of money for the most perverse definition of a specialized good.

As a young man skimming across junkets along the Yellow Sea, eager for the world, it was his flexibility they wanted—not just in his slender body, which leant itself splendidly to diving and sneaking into unfathomable danger—but also in his complete lack of fear and scruples. 

In Persia, it had been more of the same, the culmination of his freakish curriculum vitae: death, derision, and a complete disregard for humanity. 

But here in Paris, all that existed of him outside of his own body was a building. A beautiful one, certainly—something that any healthy man would have been proud of, even if most of the people around it never stepped a foot inside. But as the years began to blur together, pride was simply another useless air to be chucked into the void of his impossible ugliness. 

And then there was her—and that—that—was the end of everything, except for baldfaced, corporeal existence. The monster was sure he was going to choke on her goodness after her departure, but even his heart was too wicked to grant him that mercy.  It was only the Opera Ghost who died—quietly, shortly after the scandal between the Vicomte and his elder brother’s mysterious drowning passed out of fashion in the gossip pages of the Belle Époque. The monster remained, too tired and ragged to be anything but a toothless threat to himself.

Nearly a year had gone by, and he was just as alone as he’d always been, if not more so than before. Even his dear Mirza, his feckless Daroga, thought him gone from this earth and thusly freed from his wretchedness—the monster’s last good deed. Now, there was no one to fret over who he was or what he had done, and he was certainly not one to start boasting his accomplishments to strangers on the street. By and large, the ordinary people of Paris had yet to be given real reason to fear him here. Outside of his face, a masterwork of a nightmare—only it wrinkled and paled with the passage of time. He was not quite yet in his dotage, but even the natural advent of aging had been twisted into a nasty, blasphemous joke.

His face was not one made for love, no matter how much he tried to contort it or hide it. His was not one for something as simple as a weekend indulgence, however much he pined for it. There was no turning back from the divine trajectory set before him, one of loneliness and emptiness. Not now, with all of his sins. 

And yet still, the monster still yearned for a Sunday, like any good man.

 

#

 

“Sir?”

The woman at the bar blinked at him, and for a moment, the monster almost lost his courage. She was not particularly pretty, and she was certainly not his angel, but there was something in her face that nearly unmanned him—it was boredom. Pure, neutral, safe boredom. She leaned against the countertop, her wrists turned outwards to him amongst an abundance of liqueurs and glasses and fruit, staring at him from behind a thick, tidy fringe of hair the color of sun-bleached hay. She had spent the last half-hour greeting every other man who had flocked to her domain with the same indifference—the monster saw it with his own jaundiced eyes. He’d been watching his hostess all evening from the little table he had staked out along the velveteen walls, rich and dark as a plum, trying to summon the courage to do something as mundane as ordering a drink.

His patience had paid off. A victory for the false nose, bolstered by the dimly lit and boisterous lobby of the Folies-Bergère. He almost smiled in relief, but was still self-conscious enough to tip the brim of his hat as low it could go.

“Your finest port,” he stammered. She blinked at him again, and he was flooded with a wave of unease that obliterated his good spirits. How pretentious and unnatural it felt, talking to the woman like he was some sort of well-loved bon-vivant and not a corpse that had only just managed to drag himself out of a stuffy cellar suite. She pushed her hair back and drummed her fingers against the polished mahogany, and he felt a kinship with every single ice cube in the champagne bucket near him, his bones melting with mortification. 

“I suppose a carafe of Nuits-Saint-Georges will do,” he sighed, defeated, sweat threatening to smear the makeup on his face.

“About time, fucking idiot,” moaned some boor standing off to his right, whom he’d watched drain several glasses of beer over the last two hours and who was impatiently waiting for yet another.

It had been months since he killed a man, but the monster was not so unpracticed as to forget how. 

But suddenly, the closest door into the auditorium swung open, and a fresh wave of laughter and jeering from the rough audience within had forced him to reconsider. He remembered the evening’s opening act—some Alsatian dog trainer who taught his small army of spitzes how to walk on their hind legs and jump through hoops. The Folies-Bergère was not the Garnier. It was not the Comique. But perhaps it was for the best. Opera only brought the monster pain, even if he deserved it.

Still, in a sea full of people, he related to the dogs the most.

When the barmaid returned with his libations, she spared naught but glances for her cuticles and pushed the wine towards him without so much as a second glance—not even when the monster pushed a large franc note in her direction without bothering to ask for change; he didn’t know if such carelessness wounded him or not, and decided to declare the latter as he settled back into his chair. 

It was only a few cautious sips (for the false nose proved unwieldy at times, if not more so than a mask) before the monster realized the strange irony of the evening—he hid from the world in one of its most beautiful altars to the stage, but here, tonight, at the Follies, where people wore broadcloth vests and cotton dresses like they were silk, no one seemed to pay a sickly, queer-looking man a second thought. Who was he, the monster supposed, compared to the gentlemen a few tables over, who had a quarter of his body blown to bits by Prussian shrapnel. And even then, his broken comrade’s face was practically buried in the décolletage of his smiling, if plain and not as wildly enthusiastic, companion.

As the monster looked over the rest of the equally distracted riot cavorting amongst the fountains and pleasure gardens, teetering on the edge of another bout of sulking, the masses inside the auditorium continued to flow into the lobby, thirsty and giddy from their first course of the evening’s amusements. The young lady working the bar straightened up, her head pulled up by an unseen puppeteer, cracking her knuckles and straightening the nosegay of cheap flowers pinned to her neckline with mechanical swiftness.

Godspeed, he quietly saluted her, for nothing could be so terrifying to him than the lengthy succession of drunk and querulous people eager to top themselves off before the night’s next bit of entertainment. By the time the crowd had subsided and returned to gawk at the main act, a Miss So-and-So from America who could lift her legs over her head while singing the Marsailles or some such, he was near finished his first carafe and half eager to go up to the woman at the bar again; perhaps he’d even make small talk.

If I had the type of clientele you had, he imagined saying, I’d be looking to get half-seas in wine myself. In his head, she laughed loudly, perhaps even unattractively—-but the thought alone charmed him. The idea of her filling his home with her braying was heaven compared to the thick silence of the past months.

Sir, she’d answer, cheeks flushed, you have no idea.

He wouldn’t be so uncouth or so terribly stupid to propose such a thing as going home with him—for reasons all too numerous and obvious. But it felt pleasant, if not bittersweet, to imagine the scenario—like the dozens of other young men who sat admiring the woman from their chairs, distracted from their conversations by her fluid hands as she uncorked bottles and brandished ice tongs like a sword. 

Perhaps it was the Nuits-Saint-Georges, but the monster hadn’t felt such warmth in a while. 

You like her, a voice said.

He tipped the glass high and finished the last of his drink in one swallow.

You like her, it said again—although it sounded more like a question than a statement.

Moreover, it sounded like a woman’s voice.

I don’t blame you, it continued, oddly close, but gentle. She’d certainly make a nice painting. You could hang her on your wall and look at her all day. And you’d never have to hear her complain.

The monster hiccuped in his chair, shocked by the bitter tone of his inner monologue, and turned to his left. There, amazingly, horrifying, sat another young lady at the table closest to his, a snifter of cordial poised at the delicate Cupid’s bow of her lips, her brown eyes locked onto the subject of their one-sided conversation. 

“I-I beg your pardon?” he asked, for it was not every day someone like his current neighbor addressed him at all, let alone with such conviviality. 

The woman’s right eyebrow raised at his voice, a thin but deep arch that suggested its journey up her pale forehead was a regular one. If his one beauty stunned her, it was the only sign she showed of it, just slightly turning her gaze to his direction.

“I said she’d make a pretty painting,” the stranger repeated, a note of impatience in her voice. “Am I wrong?”

“I suppose,” he demurred. His voice had never sounded so limp and timid in his own ears, what little were left of them.

“I’ll have you know,” she continued, as if she hadn’t even heard his response, or, worse, as if he was an idiot—“that I am never wrong about these sorts of things, especially when it comes to men who stare at women like you do.”

Underneath the prosthetics and layers of greasepaint and the withering yellow skin they hid, the monster went flush. “Do you find yourself coming to the theater to gape at the women, as well, then?” he snapped, before he could regret his cheek.

It certainly caught her attention, at least.

Their eyes met, and she let out a small, nearly imperceptible huff of air. The monster would have begun to grow nervous, had he not noticed a lack of focus in her expression which suggested she was long into her cups. Whether from spirits or tears, her face was wan and splotchy, though it did nothing to diminish the loveliness of her fine, birdlike features, nor the riot of curls which flickered and shone in the gaslight like a crown of rubies atop her head.

But if she was attractive when caught off guard, it was nothing compared to the shudder that ran through the monster’s body when she laughed. Nothing prepared him for the way her mouth slowly turned up and dimpled impishly, nor the chuckle that curled out of her mouth like smoke from a dragon. The monster’s experience with women was sparse and checkered enough as it was, but he could distill the sincerity in it. Sincerity was as rare and precious as pearls.

“I certainly didn’t come for the dogs,” she answered, at length.

“Then for our Miss So-and-So from America, who sings like a sparrow?”

She tossed back her cordial, rather crudely, and coughed.

“To be honest, I’d rather listen to the dogs.”

This time, it was his turn to laugh, and to his surprise, he only felt a sliver of self-conscious. No doubt the woman saw the way his skin creased unattractively, the way his nose didn’t crinkle at the nostrils like most people’s did—

“I come for the colors,” she said simply. When he hesitated to respond out of sheer bewilderment, she added, “and the dancing, sometimes. And the music, when it’s good.”

“You like music?” He practically blurted the words out, his heart pounding. “Do you play?”

“No better than I can read,” the young woman answered, the bitterness returning to her voice sharply enough for him to infer her meaning—which was, to say, not all. They sat in awkward silence, the monster unsure of his next steps. The woman stared at her empty glass, eyes hard. “I always wished I could sing.”

And it was at this moment the monster wanted to tell her everything—to repeat all the same steps of tragic courtship that had nearly destroyed him. But something intangible yet thick enough to fill his very core, told the monster that the young lady would not appreciate such mawkishness.

“It’s a gift, singing,” he replied. “But a curse, in its own right.” 

“Oh, no,” the woman moaned, throwing her free hand across her face and grimacing. “Not another artist.” And thusly, her white throat swallowed the last of her drink—to the monster, it seemed as if the tentative threads of their conversation went with it. “You’ll excuse me, sir...”

The monster thought himself long done with crying, but as he watched the woman rise from her seat, agitation twisting her brow, he felt a tell-tale tremble rise within him, sliding out from a long-abandoned cavern in his heart. His eyes, wet and blinking, trailed her as she headed over to the bar and ordered herself another drink, watched as she and its aloof mistress chatted and laughed easily for what must have been only minutes, but what creaked away like weeks.

The monster had always been good at not making a scene—ghosts were quiet until they need not be, after all—but nevertheless, he could not help but feel hot tears threaten at the corners of his eyes. He thought of his golden one, long gone, how her voice was enough to make him forget himself; how she too had abandoned him to the night. The memory was enough to make him question why he’d ever been so audacious to play at normalcy—enough to make him ask why he was sitting in public, pretending there was any hope left for him, when he should rightfully be burning in hell.

And then the loud, unmistakable screech of chair legs—an ugly passage, but bracing enough to remember where he was.

“I’m sorry,” said his new, bewildering companion. “I’m afraid I’ve been rude.”

She slumped into her chair, like a man, and placed a glass before the monster. “You don’t have to forgive me, but you can at least join me in my misery.” Through his blurred vision, the monster saw her smile sadly, heard the grinding of her chair against the floor as she continued to scoot over to his table. “I am just tired, I suppose. I don’t know what came over me.”

The monster said nothing, only nodded weakly and accepted her token of apology, even if he never cared much for orange cordial.

“I am Dorothée, “ she continued. He noted her choice of language—I am. Not “My name is” or “People call me”—she simply was. He summoned the memory of his only dearest, remembered the things he had called her, borne of love and lust and anger: my angel, my darling, my little whore, my Christine. Had any of those epithets ever been true? Who had she been during those months of agony and ecstasy?

He supposed he never knew her at all, not in the slightest. 

“Well,” this other woman of flesh said, shocking him out of his dismal pondering. “Am I to suppose you have no name?”

Normally, such a question would have vexed him to the point of anger. Normally, he would have barked at her to leave him for such audacity. But now? This Dorothée continued to stare at him—but there was no malice in her gaze. Only that same gentle melancholy in her voice, mixed with a slight upturn of her little mouth. 

I have only had one name that ever felt right, and it is now ashes in mouth.

And yet—

“I am Erik,” he finally answered.

Just Erik?” 

“Yes,” replied the monster. “Just Erik.”

“It is a good name,” Dorothée stated. “Not at all like mine.” She grimaced slightly. “The nicknames are dreadful.” 

“Are they?” He mumbled, heat rising to his hollow cheeks. 

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Now drink with me, Erik.” She raised her snifter, and his ugly left hand joined hers of its own accord, hovering together in the electric space that hung between him. 

“To hell with art,” she toasted. “And everything good to the dogs of this world!”

The monster thought of the last, fleeting smile on his nightingale’s face, the way she had kissed his brow and murmured a folk song in her native tongue as she rocked him against her, all grace and goodness. He thought of her soft hands taking the plain gold band and steadily placing it on her finger, her eyes unclouded by fear. He thought of her goodbye; he was shaken to realized he was now smiling at the memory, however crookedly and ghoulishly.

“To the dogs,” he echoed, downing his drink. And somewhere, over the din of lovers and friends, the muffled applause of hundreds, the clinking of countless glasses of beer, there was the silent but profound cry of peace tying it all together neatly. 

They sat together for sometime, a light chatter passing between them as naturally and pleasant as a summer breeze. It was only when the auditorium doors opened for the last time and spilled its contents across the foyer that the monster knew the night was drawing to a close. He was an apt draftsman, but resigned himself to the reality that there was no hand steady enough to suspend the evening across a sheet of paper.

“I am tired,” Dorothée said. “Escort me home, Erik. It is only a short walk to the Boulevard de Clichy and I haven’t grown bored with you yet.” There was no innuendo in her voice—just the simple and thrilling song of camaraderie. This Dorothée would never be his, he knew deep down. Someone like her was meant to be free, to grow old and die as vivaciously as she appeared to him now. Another man waited for her, and it was honor enough to return her to from whence she came, to let her divine her own little path in a difficult world.

“Of course,” he said, rising from his chair. The lamplight flickered across his mockery of a face, casting the false nose in an uncanny glow, deepening the jaundice of his skin to supernatural nights. He tensed himself, waiting for regret and disgust to cloud his companion’s face.

“My, you are tall!” Dorothee laughed, absentmindedly dipping her finger into her drinking glass, eyes sparkling. 

It may not have been opera, but that moment contained all of the good music the earth could ever hope to hear. No Sunday mass could ever sound so perfect.

 

-fin-