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The sick breath at my hind
by Edward Morris Jr.

n 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 slug Maman.

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 tank.

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 dog.

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 sheets.

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?"

"How 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 eye.

"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 goat.

"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 up."

"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 it yet."

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 could ..."

"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 daVinci."

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.

he 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 out.

"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 ..."

I 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 ..."

"L’ergotisme," 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.

"Now, now."

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 it away.

"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 else?"

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 glance away.

"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 that.

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.

he 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 what?"

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 still standing.

"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. "Just go."

he 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.

But 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.

E-mail Edward at locutuspdx@yahoo.com, and don't miss his previous work.

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