sick breath at my hind
my filthy, bloodstained straw tick in the bowels of an unfinished
opera house, I stir and grumble under the pounding thunderhead between
my eyes, my hands unconsciously seeking out every head louse to
crackle them beneath my fingers.
There comes a time, when you are long out of doors,
when you forget what it was like not to itch.
I can smell the linden trees far above, in full flower on the Place
de l'Opera. Spring seems to have exploded in the space of one day.
Down here, it stinks of the Great Unwashed, hunger and fear, and
dreams grown sour on the tree.
Since I returned to Paris, after that first abortive attempt at
train-hopping, I have ground out my
mornings waiting for the sun, at one with my fellow life-forms of
the street, as St. Francis in daylight
and the fallen come dusk.
The gendarmerie grabbed me at the inn last night, but it was in
the middle of such a disaster that I never questioned why. More
than likely, they will send me home to Charleville and my poor clinging
The want-sheets must have been circulating for months now, I ponder
wryly, reaching for the makings of a cigarette. The cochons got
my purse, I notice. Well, at least I paid for my room in the drunk
Perhaps clemency is forthcoming, and I may return to my chronicle
of the cirque tightrope walk between heaven and hell, the novelty
act who takes all chances for the rest of the rabble.
The fat Breton turnkeys are moving up and down the spaces between
sleeping bodies in this wide cellar. One of them is beating on a
tin pan with a wooden spoon. I want to wring the necks of these
crowing turkey cocks for Sunday supper. Just a few more hours and
I could have slept off my hangover, bargained for the hair of the
They know I was living with Communards, and they know what I was
doing. The Germans have retreated, the front lines of shelling moved
far back beyond the Seine. They've more time to snatch the cannon
fodder from their unwitting squatter colonies in shelled buildings.
Behind the place I sit brooding on my thin bedroll from the Sisters,
some pasty-faced parlor Marxist is playing "L'Internationale"
on a mouth organ with all the skill of an organ-grinder's capuchin.
The jailer on my side stops at me, looking at a scrawled sheet
of foolscap in his hand, pushing back
his hat. "Arthur Rimbaud," he snorts. "Our little
runaway. Ca'va? Do you know where you are?"
I can smell the sweat in every roll of fat. He is badly in need
of a shave and his mustache is not long enough to wax, though that
hasn't stopped him. The wax is flaky and looks like a stain on the
I scowl. "The opera house. Garnier's folly. Anyone could s
He has turned his head, dismissing me, chuckling. "We had
ourselves quite a time last night, non?"
I pop a match on my thumbnail and strike the badly rolled cigarette
to light. My head is pounding. "What am I being held for, 'sieur?
Has my mother contacted you, or am I being charged with treason,
or ... what, exactly is ..."
"Your mother." It sounds like a dirty word from his lips.
"She's not going to come bail you out. As for treason, zut
..." He waves one grimy hand at the rest of my bedmates, "We've
got real criminals here; we've no time for spanking children."
"You do know how to make friends," I observe, and he
backhands me; not hard, just a reflex. The cigarette goes flying.
"Put that fucking thing out when you're speaking to me,"
he sighs. "You were at the Lupercalia last night, that pestilential
brothel in the Rue d'Auseil. Do you remember?"
could I forget?" I had smoked a pipe full of opium on the roof
with a hooker named Chloe, and nearly fallen to my death when I
tried to swing from the downspout.
He shrugs. "When we found you, you were insensate. Raving.
You swung on my commanding officer. You kept trying to drag them
back to the inn, and they had to explain to you six times that all
the foot patrol on the whole Ile de la Cite was already up there
I cock my head and wait. There is a tear beginning to form in one
"Blessed St. Francis, my thanks," my mouth says before
I realize I am saying it. The guard looks at me as if I were a two-headed
"Err, aaah, hmm. Yes. Anyway ..." He glances at the crumpled
sheet of paper. "We'd like to talk to you about anything you
might have seen. There were several dead."
Oh this is too much. "I vomit at the sight of blood,"
I sigh. "If I'm a suspect, you fellows must be pretty hard
"Not a suspect, you ass." He motions me to my feet. My
cigarette is still burning on the cold stone floor. He stoops and
hands it to me. I just look at it. The air around us is all dust,
and the sun beams through the chinks above. I think of church.
"As a witness," he continues. "If you can manage
to remember anything. You seemed fairly eager to enlighten us last
night, if you'd only not attacked a captain of the gendarmerie.
We just wanted to wait until you'd sobered up."
I put one hand on his shoulder. "What is your name?"
"Etienne." He growls, shaking his head at my next now-stillborn
question. "You'll get your purse back. We've not even inventoried
He shrugs, taking the cigarette when I offer. "Why do you
put your poor mother through this, Rimbaud? Running away to lie
down with the lions in their den, with anarchists and pederasts
and artists and bleeding hearts? There's only death in the street,
boy. Why not get right with God, settle down, find a good woman?"
He leans in, as if to ask for a blowjob.
"I read the cahiers you were carrying with you. You are a
brilliant poet, boy. Like Baudelaire, if he'd only left his brain
alone. The church's money and patronage made daVinci immortal. You
"Why do I do it?" I snap, my voice acerbic and sharp
and full of spite. "Why did Villon do it?" The
question hits a nerve. My eyes are burning. "You speak of Signore
He nods gruffly, his back-hairs up now. I plow ahead. "Leonardo
preferred the boys every bit as much as his patrons. And he said
that most people are only honey-wagons to transport shit and piss
round from one place to the next." I shrug. "I am in the
way of at least an attempt at some other way."
"You talk like that mad Marquis in Napoleon's time,"
he shrugs. "The one they locked away in Charenton. He ..."
"... is more popular than Paul Verlaine will ever be?"
I snicker, but the smile does not last. My head is grinding like
a mill full of bad wheat and my teeth begin to bare. This apparently
frightens him, or
brings back some disquietude. I cannot imagine why. I could not
be less at my best. "What of these murders?"
"Come," he says, moving toward the stairway on the far,
far side of the cellar. I follow, my head still spinning, raking
my hair out of my face with my hands. I can always go back to the
convent and beg for another blanket when the gendarmes let me go.
bodies lie on rude tables made of sawhorses, chairs and planks in
a partially walled back room of the morgue at the Hotel deVille.
No shelling did this to the building it was my own compatriots,
faking the overthrow of the government while they burned their own
neighborhoods. The big, burning orb in the sky behind us is not
doing my hangover a world of good.
They are mostly women, prostitutes from the inn. But when I see
the man on the end, the bald little ferret with his apron torn down
the middle in three places like a gutted fish, my vision whites
"Bread," I mutter. "Black bread. And beans. If you
stayed and drank for a while, that was what you got. But the bread
wasn't supposed to be black. He ..."
taste foul black wheat flour on my tongue, a smell like a tainted
cheese; the first bite vomited into the corner with that execrable
watery vin du table. Chloe was still with a john, but she'd promised
to smoke me up when she came down.
"Who in God's name cooked this poison?" I growl at the
wench from my lone back table, where it was my custom to sit, get
blind and bug the devil out of everyone.
The wench turns. "Bad wheat in the flour. Someone else sent
theirs back, too. We've sent the boy down to the mill to see what
they have left. No worries, cheri." She sighs. "You lot
are lucky to get this. The nobility are eating out of the zoo."
I look around at the waterfront trash still mowing down on the
free fare, the candles bouncing to the strange hunkadola coming
out of a boisterous group of Gypsies in the back, clustered round
an old man with an accordion. All of them have bowls and hunks of
bread as well.
"He was the cook," I murmur. Etienne nods, his face squinching
up with effort as he writes something down in his head. "Claude
or something. I forget. He ... he ..."
I smack my forehead. "Do you know of the St. Anthony's Fire?"
Etienne shakes his head, his boots clicking on the fitted-tile
floor. "Connais pas."
"In le moyen age," I say, still studying the body
of the cook, noting the way that the throat has been torn open,
a ring of bone protruding from high up, "when people used bad
wheat to cook with, it made them go mad and become possessed, or
so they thought. It was just ..."
"Lergotisme," he nods. "From the mould
on the wheat. I hear of it happening even to this day."
Behind him, a fussy-looking nun sticks her head around the side
of the heavy oaken door that hangs in splinters. Presumably, she
is checking to see that we aren't cutting the bodies for meat. She
clucks, nods and disappears without so much as a beg-your-pardon.
"Old broody hen," Etienne mutters. I wag my finger at
him like a priest in school.
He backhands me again. I glance down at a comely girl only a bit
older than myself, half her face sheared away as if by sickle or
adze. I remember the black dress she is wearing, the way the thin
strap hung low at one shoulder.
"I was with her last night," I say softly. His expression
gains a touch of petulance.
"I'm surprised you could get it up, in your condition ..."
Now I backhand him, with a force that surprises him. One hand drops
to the butt of his pistol, but the look on my face gently nudges
"Chloe was just a good friend." I cannot stop crying,
but my voice stays evenly composed, flat and dead. "She let
me sleep on her floor at the inn some nights. I wrote some poems
about her that I never showed her, one called 'First Communion,'
and one other that's not very good, it ..."
Etienne could not be more aggressive about his indifference. "Did
she turn any tricks last night?"
"One." I think a moment. "A Vicomte. Never left
his right name. He ..."
Etienne leans on the doorframe, grimacing as his hand settles on
a cob of dirt. "We know that one." He looks flatly at
what is left of Chloe, as if he were ogling her in the street. "Who
I glance up and down the line. "Prostitutes. I knew that one
..." (a lolling head with a mane of black hair, the once-sublime
tongue hanging out) "... to speak to. The rest ..." I
"I was smoking opium last night," I say. "Quite
a bit. Might we ... might we return to the inn? It might help me
"We could do that," he nods, and I hope he does not see
my strategy. There are any one of a dozen students higher up the
hill on the Rue d'Auseil who owe me a favor. I could hide out for
months. I just hope he can't run that fast.
The leaves are bright in early afternoon. All Paris seems to have
gone on without me since last night. I take no little comfort in
We follow the cobblestone alleys back along the river, almost to
Montmartre if we took the longest straight stretch far enough. As
the Seine begins to bend, the Rue d'Auseil rises before us from
the next corner. Etienne is leading me like a dog on a leash. I
can feel the paving stones through the thin leather of my boots,
and I would kill for a bite to eat.
The Lupercalia sticks out of the slowly rising hill like a carbuncle,
an ugly stone hive with two floors. There are fishermen's nets across
the railed balcony back behind to keep the drunks from falling off,
and the place looks deserted. No lights shine in the little octagonal
windows. The main door, green baize, is lying in the street, and
I see a Shakespeare-sized bloodstain on the front steps.
blood flooded the floor as I stumbled back. It was full night now,
and the shadows outnumbered the lights. I had gone off on
the nod in a windowsill further up the hill for a while, not wanting
human company, and made my slow dreamscape progression back down
for more wine.
The opium made everything still, timeless, full of aetheric
gravity and the clear vision of a child.
I had thought the blood was a shadow, until I heard the sounds
of something being dragged upstairs, the pool becoming a waterfall
as thudding footfalls took the flight.
It looked like a dog, dragging someone beyond the banister,
a big old bullmastiff or a Great Dane.
It turned from the dimness when it caught my scent, nosing upward
at the air, rearing unnaturally forward on two legs.
I did not trust my own perceptions. I had been hallucinating
since the third pipe, had in fact thought I saw a man with several
heads on several necks blithely walking his dog past the inn. He
had tipped several hats at me with several hands. At that time,
I had laughed for a while and let it go. The stars above the hill
were whirling like fireflies. Nothing had stayed in place. Why should
this be any different now, still high even after the nod?
In that dim hallway, with only the stairs to separate me from
the play already in progress, I remember thinking that it smelled
too real the bright metal blood, the fear like a wind off
the sea ... and something else that smelled like spoiled milk, gangrene,
vegetables rotting on the docks.
The creature at the top of the stairs was having trouble deciding
something, but in the end it glanced greedily down at its cargo,
dragging it up and out of sight ...
I find myself sitting on the flagstones. My lips are moving, but
I cannot remember what I was saying just now. My bony ass balances
on the curb as I glance up at the door again. The blood is getting
old and oily now.
Etienne is not looking at me like I am feebleminded anymore. "Then
I sigh. "It was the same around the back. No more. Just bloodstains."
This part is embarrassing. "I ... I ran and hid. In the old
privy out back." I feel now that I am under the eye of the
priests in school, stammering out a tearful confession under the
rod and lash. "For a while. I think ... I nodded off again,
but not as long this time, only ..."
A blurry flash I do not want, the gendarmes summoned by the
old concierge two doors down who was woken by my screams, now pins
my arms back as I flail, my ratty old jacket tearing at the seams.
Embetants!! I spit in the face of le capitain. There's
a dead woman in there, and ... and ...
"We know." The capitain wipes my spittle off his stubbly
boar face with a hand like a maul. "Take this one in and dry
him out. We'll see if he can corroborate."
As they take me in, I look over my shoulder. Two young rookies
appear to be dragging a large dog down the stairs. One of them is
green, looking like he is about to lose his dinner on the sidewalk
at the first chance. The other is holding a gleaming shell casing.
But down toward the alley, green eyes are watching me go, marking
the way. The shadows slink and feint at each other, snapping and
bobbing their heads. I cannot scream anymore, but as I nod out again
I feel the piss run down my leg.
I feel very cold, there on the curb in the sunlight. Etienne is
"Mais oui," he says, clipped and curt as anything. "You've
told me everything I need to know. You're free to go ..." He
looks down admonishingly. "But this had better be the last
time I have the pleasure of your company."
I stand, but have lost my land-legs, and waver. It is suddenly
an effort to speak.
"But ... but ..." I stammer, "what of ..."
"It was your Vicomte that did it," Etienne says softly.
"When the doctors cut him open after we shot
him upstairs, there was black bread and beans in his stomach. The
doctor said it was some type of brain fever. Now we know better.
My thanks, boy."
"But ... but ... les loups-garoux!" I cry. "Witches
used to use the St. Anthony's Fire to change their skins into beasts,
the sisters told us! Do you not ..."
"Faerytales." Etienne spits on the ground. "Don't
trouble your head about it, boy." He points down the hill.
son of a bitch did toss me my purse as I turned to walk down the
hill. I'll give him that much. So now I sit at a bistro being stared
at by the hoi-polloi, sipping listlessly at orange juice and watching
my elders and betters going about on their blind way. I will go
back to those students, write poems for my supper, and try to forget
that tonight ever happened.
I have no idea what I am going to do now. I will haunt the streets
and try to record the lessons. Perhaps I'll slip them over the transom
of some old poet chasing his misspent youth in a brothel. Perhaps
I'll travel on, and strike it rich in the tropics. I don't know.
My envelope has not even been opened yet. The city is mine, and
it is the springtime of my age.
in my dreams, sometimes, I know better than to pretend immunity
from what I saw that night. In the back of my mind, as I struggle
feverishly to make some map of where I am going and where I have
been, it will always be a footrace with Death, its sick, fungous
breath at my hind, boiling up from the shadows of my past despite
all I tried to do. I've cheated them once now.
Blessed Mother, let me stay this lucky.