by Anna Tambour
Illustration by Daniela Attard
Originally published in Subterranean, Issue #7 (2007). Winner of the 2007 Aurealis Award for Best Horror Short Story
Honoré Barrot, the bijoutier, as he was called, was the most uncelebrated of his trade and proud of it, as his life depended upon secrets as surely as a spy’s. In the tubercular gloam of a Paris cellar, he worked standing inside a square of trestles. On the planks to his right and back his materials crowded, piled in anything that could hold them–wicker baskets, stoppered crocks, bowls, Le Matin. At his elbow, a tower of china plates threatened to topple. Empty wooden trays were stacked on the floor. He worked in a fever. Observe his eyes–those whites, yellow as yolks; their cast: ecstatic as a pilgrim.
He moved precisely, this great bull of a man. His hands, coarse and quick as a mastiff’s mouth.
Take the plate he was arranging at the moment. A swallow’s nest, only partly toyed with; a triangle of ray with Périgueux sauce; a marbled slab of jugged hair; and a diamond of quince paste that he scraped free of gravy with the knife that hung from his neck. The final touch: a spray of disinfectant. He used no chopping board–it wasted time. Trimmed bits, he dropped in a wooden bucket. He wiped his fingers on his waistcloth in the act of choice. If sold today, this plate of bijoux could make the jeweller rub his hands. If tomorrow, perhaps touched up, he could smile. If the next day, nothing to sneeze at. Every made-up plate will sell, even if he has to sell it as scraped-off messes wrapped in old news.
If, on a summer’s day, you were to somehow find his workshop, even if your nose could see through the emerald glaze to the rainbow on the ray, your eyes would crave these beauties. Or maybe sounds seduce you–boudins of pheasant á la Richelieu, a lettuce, almost fresh. No? Then come here. You might be amongst M Barrot’s most exclusive clients. This cutlet lay before the President of the Republic. See his marks? The price? If you need to ask, don’t ask. Only for genuine bourgeoisie.
But before I continue, perhaps the world has changed so much since all this happened that you are confused. Put in the bald terms of today’s brutal world, Honoré Barrot sold second-hand food. You cry “horrors!”? Perhaps you turn up your nose at eel! When I was a boy, the bijoutiers flourished in a certain level of society, as did the belles de jour.
The bijouterie was a family affair. Three sons kept supplies and deliveries constant. Olivier, the oldest, drove the anonymous covered cart. The giant Thibault acted as loader along with younger brother Claude. Little Etienne was the bijoutier‘s apprentice. Rats were his responsibility. He watched gravely, this little prune.
They earned enough to call themselves bourgeoisie, but their rooms–bare, even of a china shepherdess.
They dined upstairs, sitting around the stove. Their food was old bread and a soup that Mme Barrot made of whatever her husband gave her for the pot. She stirred with a big wooden spoon. They ate with horn spoons. All the metal cutlery had been swallowed, except one large knife.
Olivier, Thibault, and Claude ate with the appetites of oxen. Etienne and his father, delicate artists, ate like stuffed birds. Food? No! That blood-ruby glop of stewed quince, the carved-moonstone whorl of a boar’s snout, a slice of tomato with a good facet. That endive nibbled by the mistress of the Minister of Finance–stark, on its white plate, as a diamond in platinum claws.
In this business where discretion was the key, and volume the oil, back doors opened all over Paris, from restaurants to the finest homes. The three oxen moved in regular rounds: cooks, housekeepers, storesmen, restaurants, households, stalls, workshop, cooks–the money they collected they delivered, every sous, to their father.
Three young men who gained no joy from Art. Why would they work like beasts? The family shared a passion–all except Mme Barrot upstairs, as busy and close to the father and sons and yet self-centred, as a blackbeetle.
“Speak of the devil!” people said when Mme Barrot ventured out. Women tossed curses. Men pretended they hadn’t seen her, but watched her every move. Will my wife? mother? daughter? sweetheart? catch it, too?
Virginie Barrot. She cleaned as much as a Dutch housewife, but not to be closer to God.
A bootnail. A rustflake. She picked the stove poxy. She ran as many errands as a mother mouse, but like the mouse, stole close to home. The dressmakers called to each other from doorway to doorway when she opened her door. The man who repaired pots in a little cubbyhole, crossed himself and clacked his shutters to.
The subject was never discussed between man and wife, though the Doctor was called upon one night. The umbrella-repair man banged on the door next day, and against all custom, let himself in and barrelled down the stairs, demanding to be paid for three spines that vanished from his workshop the day before when Mme Barrot paid him a visit on the pretext of obtaining a price to fix her umbrella–an umbrella, moreover, that she didn’t produce.
Jeweller and umbrella-fixer settled accounts with no demur from the jeweller. “She’ll pauper you, my dear Monsieur Barrot,” the umbrella man said once the coins were in his hand. The bijoutier led the way up and out, taking cordial leave at the door–to prying eyes, a courteous call between tradesmen. Overhead, he heard the shuh shuh of her twig broom. He clompered sloppily down again the better to hear only his wooden shoes. One more who deems my wife unrespectable–and he, an umbrella fixer!
If a person who pocks a stove for bits of rust is a thief, then Mme Barrot was a thief even when she didn’t steal umbrella spines and pins. The setting meant nothing to her: family, neighbour, gutter, slops. Shiny, dull, new, old, valued and corrupt–in ecstatic furtiveness she sought, found, swallowed and sought for more even as her throat convulsed upon the latest load. The gossip was that she stole for gluttony, that her life revolved around eating, that she ate the family poor. That was the say. Proof? That huge belly, those slippery eyes. She was certainly not with child. And the Barrots dressed disgracefully–and the Barrot household! Bare as the Bastille! Shameless, they called her, and they shook their heads for her family.
Most men and some women in this shoulder-to-knee, look-up-her-skirt neighbourhood disgusted the gossips. They added nothing to the gossip stew. Perhaps they had gone to Mme Dumont’s funeral. She fell to starch, the laundress’s temptation. The flower-making twins ate their teeth out, from vinegar. Their neighbour, the lace-maker Mme Roule lived alone with a baby after losing her man through her unmentionable lust.
The plan, agreed between the young men and their father, was to expand business as fast as they could, saving like the proverbial ant. With an addiction as advanced as hers, Dr Donnedieu had said, she would need a month in his sanatorium, or more.
A normal woman would have been a harridan. After all, every woman in the neighbourhood had a fiendish ability to calculate. Virginie Barrot never asked for money, and had not for many years visited the cellar. “She never sticks her nose in my business,” her husband once bragged, but whether her reason was disinterest, delicacy, or shame, neither he nor his sons could tell.
It is hard to understand how her sons, not to mention her handsome husband (yes! Several women planned to claim him) could have loved her, but they did. The husband and the three big ones remembered her as she was. The woman they described was not that thing upstairs, forever sweeping or picking on the stove, or when she stirred the family’s soup, dribbling bits from the spoon to the pot as if she hoped to find a finger. Etienne dreamed of the beautiful woman his father and brothers loved.
But first she’d have to go. Father and Etienne worked tinged with the fever of the cellar; the three oxen, with the fever of desperate haste.
They were that close when one morning at the busiest time, the health inspector called.
A breach of the law is common as piss against a wall, and for an inspector, a Cause to Close is easy to find as a blinking eye. Down in the cellar, the inspector coughed. His eyes dilated. The bijouterie was not illegal, nor was it strictly legal. The health inspector’s nose quivered, smelling what he most loved.
His visit set them back at least a year.
To the sound overhead of Mme Barrot picking at the stove, her husband and sons met. The three big ones tried to walk their anger off, but it was too much. Thibault, the second son, who dwarfed them all and was hopelessly in love, smacked a trestle. The board jumped and the china towers toppled–a bombarde of shards. Splinters leapt everywhere. He burst into tears and knelt.
For wordless minutes father and sons crawled over the floor dropping pink, clink, crack, china into a bucket. When they’d picked up what they could see, they swept with their hands. Then they fished through the food–feeling for sharps in chops, tarts, legs, pastes, soups, sauces, ragouts and soggy puddings.
Sniffling, Thibault felt something in a bowl of quince. “Zut!” He flung it to the floor.
“Where are you, you devil’s claw?” Mind how you move, oaf. He sucked his finger as he crawled.
There, dotted with ruby syrup: a diamond brooch.
Although they called him “the jeweller”, Honoré Barrot had no experience of gems that didn’t rot. But he knew that quince. It had sat before the President at a restaurant as discreet as M Barrot.
He never considered returning the brooch. As laundrywomen say–Them who must wear pearl buttons make tailors live on promises. He would make discrete inquiries, and sell it.
He wrapped it in a clean rag and stowed it in his pocket, his mind stirred to dizziness.
That night he climbed into bed beside his wife just as he did every night, but instead of falling asleep exhausted, he tossed, schemed, fretted, calculated the minutes till morning and fretted more. So many minutes! What use is night? He knew he could not close his eyes, but soon enough, he snored.
She had eaten no metal for four whole days. His jacket and trousers hung from the peg on the door, intolerable temptations. She hated herself for doing it, but she had to look. Perhaps a sous . . .
A horrible beast chased him through the dark green forest. Trees hampered his every move. The shaggy thing opened its mouth, its stinking mouth.
“Ouf!” That dream again. He turned over, snuggling up to . . . damp sheet.
She held the only metal thing she’d found. At the sound of her husband’s roar she shoved it in her mouth, gulped, and fell to the floor.
Father and sons are yellow as rancid tallow in the light of the lamp down here. The father has stopped talking, even to say “Virginie.” Etienne keeps his tongue between his teeth and his mouth shut. Thibault can’t keep his clogs still. You can hear his teeth grind his moustache.
(She is upstairs, revived with cold water by her husband, who carried her to bed and tucked her in as if she were a child.)
“Doctor!” The third son, Claude, copies his oldest brother, to the curled lip.
Their father had wanted to rush to Dr Donnedieu. Always before, they spoke of the doctor as a saviour, an eminence whose kindness–
Now, this jaundiced light.
“Trust him?” Olivier asks. “Trust?” he laughs.
“And what assurances did we ever have?”–Claude.
“To operate is too dangerous.”
Their father shakes his head. He sits on Etienne’s stool, his head between his hands.
Olivier and Claude put their heads together. Thibault stands in the middle of the room. He kicks the floor as if he’s breaking down the door to hell. Etienne slips his hand between his father’s, against his father’s scratchy face.
Claude’s throat grates. The gob he spits is big as a plum, and green.
His father, who could thrash a man to paste if he’d a mind to, doesn’t even look to see where it lands.
Claude and Olivier stare at the glob as if it were alive.
“There is only one thing for it,” Olivier announces.
“No!” says father Barrot, but his ‘no’ is muffled in his hands; and anyway, his oldest and third sons have already run up the stairs.
“Wait,” cries Thibault. “I’m the strongest.”
“No!” Father Barrot shoves Thibault out of his way and mounts the steps. As he opens the cellar door, his “Stop!” shakes the window.
Thibault and Etienne look to each other.
“Stay here,” Thibault says, and follows his father.
Forgive me if I told you more than you wanted about some things, and elsewhere, left your jaw hanging. That is how I remember it–pieced together from scraps, I who was only a small apprentice, but already a ratcatcher.
The next time I saw Maman, she was laid out in the front room.
The neighbourhood came out, to a gossip, for her procession. The splendour of the spread laid out for them when they returned from the funeral must have filled the gossip-pots to bursting.
I have the Certificate, signed by Dr Emile Donnerieu. Self-inflicted Injury by Virtue of Insanity (Class, Female Hysteria; Subclass, Pica).
The rest, you must put together yourself.
There were many sounds overhead. I stayed downstairs, more out of fear than obedience. Beast sounds. Strange, terrifying. Fights? Sobs? A fight, I think. Then there were footsteps and the front door opened and slammed, and an hour or so later I heard a horse and wheels, unfamiliar voices, one possibly the Doctor’s.
Finally, Olivier came down the stairs. “Maman is in heaven,” he said.
Discretion must be in my bones. I was ten years old before I asked Papa what happened that night. “She did it for us,” he said.
I made Thibault tell me.
By the time he got there, he said, it was all over. She was on the floor, her guts tangled out all red and blue, Olivier and Claude swearing to Papa that she’d done it herself. The knife was beside her.
The day Papa died I took over, at my brothers’ insistence–not a moment too soon. Yellow gaslights had given way to electric white. The Barrot bijouterie such as it was, of basket and cart, fit old Paris.
The Barrot concern soon fit a modern army. Under my guidance, the Barrot family rose to the heights of discrete wealth. If you haven’t heard of us, that is well. Discretion, as Papa used to say, is the greater part of good business.
Poor Papa is lucky to never have known one thing. That brooch he treasured and never sold, that brooch that he recovered himself while Maman was still warm (I pieced that mess together)–that diamond brooch–paste!
So long ago.
Forgive this old man for his garrulousness–this vulgar need to divulge to you, so far from us that it doesn’t matter. Before I end, two gems from my father:
Family is all.
Love is sacrifice.
Note from the author
A large second-hand food trade flourished in nineteenth-century Paris. This story is a peek into the euphemistically named ‘jewellers’ and their ‘jewels’ at an upper level of this complex, tiered system. A more detailed view, down to the ‘coal miners’ who traded in third-hand food was impossible, as the scene would be totally unbelievable to modern readers, not to mention reading like it was written to be gratuitously disgusting.
Anna Tambour‘s latest published story is ‘The Walking-Stick Forest’ (with a beautiful cover by Karla Ortiz), free online at Tor.com. Her next collection, The Finest Ass in the Universe, will be published in 2015 by Ticonderoga Press. She lives in Australia.