It’s a cold spring day and my belly is empty. You would think a baker’s daughter would never go hungry, but women come at dawn with their knives and their scowls, and my father sells every loaf at less than it cost him to make it. All except this crust, hidden in my skirt pocket. I wrap my tattered, once red cloak tight around my body and bow my head into the wind. Miserable, dirty people huddle on busy streets, casting murderous glares at the carriages which rattle past, spraying us all with mud.
I would dearly like to stop in an alley, somewhere dark and out of sight, and eat that crust, but I know that my mother is watching me, up in heaven. This crust is for my poor sick grand-mère, and so I struggle on.
Grand-mère lives in a tiny attic room at the top of my uncle’s printing shop, which is across the other side of Père Lachaise Cemetery. I pause at the gates. Papa said there was a foul mood in the city this day, and I mustn’t tarry on my way to Grand-mère’s house. I think he is right. The people on the streets are clumping together with black looks on their faces. They are shouting all kinds of things. I’m sure Papa meant for me to avoid the cemetery, but I think I will be safer there than out on the streets. Besides, I haven’t visited mother in such a long time.
I hurry down the paved path, through the city of the dead. I could find my way to mother’s grave in the dead of night, though I wouldn’t dare. This place makes all my hairs stand on end. As I hurry along, I spy a fresh patch of dirt with a spray of snowdrops bursting up out of the cold earth. My heart stutters at the sight. It’s hard to reconcile such beauty in this cruel, unforgiving world. It is as if the saints are showing me a sign. Would it be so wrong to pick one for my mother’s grave? Perhaps another to brighten my Grand-mère’s bedside table?
I crouch to pluck a few flowers, but stiffen when I hear the crunch of boots on the gravel path behind me.
“The Comte d’Lope,” I cry when I see who has come. He is a big man with a thick black beard and wild hair that he doesn’t try to hide beneath powdered wigs like other aristocrats, though I know he is a cousin to the king. I throw myself to the ground in an exaggerated bow, swallowing the hard lump in my throat. What is he doing in this cemetery, without guards or attendants? And in such plain clothes…
“Roslyn?” he asks in a voice like honey. “Is that you. Little Roslyn? Why you have grown so big.”
“Monsieur?” I look up to see him crouched before me, offering a big open hand to help me up. “Why do you know me?”
“Your mother was a beautiful woman. I admired her greatly, when she was in my employ. You look so much like her.”
I stare at him, my mouth dry and my body shaking from more than just the cold. Someone walks past, barely sparing is a glance on their way to a nearby tomb. The Comte smiles warmly. “Where are you off to, Little Roslyn?”
“M…m…my grand-mère,” I stammer. “She’s lonely and hungry. I bring her food when I can.”
He tilts his head. “What a good girl you are. Where does your grand-mère live? Perhaps I could take you in my carriage. It is far too cold for you to be out here.”
“Oh no,” I say hurriedly. “It’s just outside the Porte Gambetta, on Rue de Rondeaux, in the little room above my uncle’s shop…”
“Ah,” he says with a knowing smile. “Well, I won’t delay you any longer then, eh?”
With that, he turns and walks away at a strangely brisk pace. Only when he is out of sight do I dare to breathe again.
I take a few flowers and hurry on to my mother’s grave. I kneel and cross myself, saying a quick prayer, but feel as if my mother is not here. I think she is with Grand-mère, scolding me for wasting so much time.
Foolish girl, I scold myself.
My hair whips across my face as I run toward the Porte Gambetta. Rue de Rondeaux is empty. Where is everyone? The back gate to my uncle’s courtyard is ajar. I cross the courtyard and climb the rickety old stair that leads up to grand-mère’s floor.
My hand is on the doorknob when I hear a scream and a muffled thud. I freeze in place. What on earth? My heart starts racing. What if grand-mère has fallen out of bed? The snowdrops flutter from my hand as I push the door open.
“Grand-mère?” I cry. “Grand-mère, it’s me, Roslyn. Are you alright?”
The room is dark. Much darker than normal. The cross that normally hangs above her bed is askew, but I can see her lying beneath the blankets, her bonnet pulled down unusually low on her brow.
“Grand-mère?” I murmur.
She gives a deep throated groan and I creep closer.
“Close the door,” she croaks.
She sounds horrible. Is she sick? I turn back and close the door.
“Did you scream, Grand-mère? What is wrong?”
“I’m so hungry,” Grand-mère says. “Did you bring me anything?”
I finger the crust in my pocket, murmuring, “Just a little. I’m sorry. The city is going crazy. There’s hardly anything…”
I am almost at her bedside when I hear banging from her wardrobe. I nearly jump out of my skin. At that very moment, Grand-mère sits up, a knife in her hand. Only she isn’t Grand-mère at all. My mind struggles to make sense of bearded face beneath the bonnet.
The wardrobe door crashes open, and the man, who I finally recognize as the Comte d’Lope, lunges out of bed to grab me. I felt the cold metal of the knife at my throat. My skinny, wrinkled grand-mère stumbles out of the wardrobe with grand-père’s old sword in one hand.
“What do you mean to do with that?” Monsieur Lope asks. His voice sounds so much colder than before.
“Wolf!” she wheezes, using the sword like a cane to keep her upright. “Devil! Holy Mother of God, give me the strength to run you through.”
“I think I will kill this waif and let you watch,” he states, with hardly any emotion.
“Over my dead body,” she says. Suddenly, she lunges at him. He is so surprised that he parries with his knife and lets go of my arm. I dart out of the way.
Grand-mère snarls, then tries to lift the sword. She is too slow. He easily dodges her strike and goes in for the kill. I grab his arm and pull sideways. He misses Grand-mère, snarls and lunges toward me.
I scramble backward, hoping Grand-mère will take advantage of his distraction to use that sword, but she really can’t lift it. I crash into the door and my hand locks around the handle. He’s almost on me. I yank the door open and he charges right on outside, crashing through the rotten banister with a yell of surprise. I wince as I hear the thud. I have no idea if that fall is enough to kill him, so I slam the door shut again and search about for something to barricade it with.
Grand-mère is breathing heavily, leaning against the foot of her bed. Grand-père’s sword rests against her knee.
“Can I borrow that?” I ask, not really waiting for permission. I jam the hilt under the door, wedging it shut, then hurry to drag her bedside table over. It’s heavier than it looks, and I’m grunting with the effort. Outside, I can hear a man groan and then begin to yell. He’s cursing black and blue. My heart is in my throat.
“Sorry, Grand-mère,” I say, “but I’m going to need your bed.”
She nods, looking just as scared as me. We hear heavy uneven footsteps on the stairs outside. The bed scrapes across the floor, making an awful racket. I push it into place, just as I hear the thud of his body against the door. It doesn’t budge. He begins to yell at us, threatening gruesome things if we don’t let him in, which is ridiculous, because of course we won’t let him in to kill us nicely.
Grand-mère sits down beside me, our backs pressing back against the side of the bed, adding what little strength we can to our barricade. We lock hands and she begins to pray. I think of my mother.
“Please,” I whisper. “If you’re up there, can you ask God to help us? I’m really scared.”
It’s hard to say why, but I feel like Mama is nearby. Something goes quiet inside me and I can breathe again. The rickety old staircase creaks and groans with all the commotion. Then suddenly, it just gives up. I can hear his screams, and the crash of wood against stone. Then silence.
Grand-mère and I wait a long time before we dare move. I pull the barricade aside. There’s nothing beyond the outer door. The Comte d’Lope lies unmoving on the cobblestones amongst a halo of broken planks. My uncle’s family have already gathered around, sharing horrified whispers and glancing up at me.
It takes a moment before I realize the nervous laughter is coming from me. We’re alive. Eventually, someone will bring us a ladder. Until then, I retreat back inside to sit with my Grand-mère once more. I pull the battered crust from my pocket.
“Would you like some bread, Grand-mère?”
She shakes her head. “You have it child. You’ve earned it.”
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” I insist. “Why don’t we share.”
She nods and smiles. “You’re a good girl, Roslyn. Your mother would be proud.”
A little part of me knows it’s true.
Featured image: Cimetiere père-lachaise by Till Krech (Flickr – CC BY 2.0)