One cold, hopeless night in Paris, a homeless orphan girl meets a mysterious woman
The only noise that night in Paris was the soft tapping of my flats against the cobblestones. It got louder at some parts of the road and softer at others. Sometimes it was fast: a short, discreet sound; other times, slow, like a grandfather clock ticking away the hours.
My hair flew out behind me like a blonde sail, as did my frayed white dress. It wasn’t quite white, though. Years of living on the streets of Paris had turned it a light, caramel-colored brown. My hands, smeared with soot and sweat, clutched a handful of stolen coins. I ran my fingers over the words and pictures, reading them without seeing them. Faster and faster I ran, with no real destination in mind. I was feral, desperate, untamable.
I looked up at the sky as I scampered through the dark alleyways. The bright stars stared back at me, their beautiful luminescence stunning my eyes. They were the only light in my life, the only light to guide me. Suddenly, a wave of sorrow passed over me, so strong I cried out. Images of my mother, draped in red robes and minkfur scarves, filled my mind, as sharp and clear as the cinema. I didn’t care how deplorable she was, how deplorable my past might have been. I remembered looking up to her; she was the only thing I’d had. She had been my life. Until she died.
I felt a glut of tears well up in my eyes and didn’t stop them from pouring out onto my flushed cheeks. Rubbing them away with dirty hands, I crumbled to the cobblestone street. I felt the cold hardness of it through my dress. As I curled in a tiny ball on the street, a hollow clunk thudded down the road, sounding like a rusty cowbell. Without looking up, I envisioned a man with a large bushy mustache, graying on the edges, his stomach bulging from a black suit. Right now, he would be reaching up and checking the time on a gold pocket watch engraved with his name, Henri. The soft light of the lamp above him shone down, turning him into a ghostly figure.
I looked up, startled by the high, nasal voice. When I saw the woman standing above me with a smirk plastered on her face, I jumped up. She wore a tattered gown that must have once been beautiful, but now the jagged hem was stained red. Here, my imagination got the better of me; I pictured the woman smearing her dress in a child’s blood. I shivered, though the humid air made my sweat trickle down my back in rivulets. The woman’s eyes stared at me, willing my mouth to say something. I could not utter a word. I just took in this lady from head to toe. Her face was wrinkled and old like the pages of a well-loved book, her eyes shone, and her silvery hair coruscated in the moonlight.
“Can ya talk?” she asked with a glint of confusion in her eyes. She had an aura of faded beauty around her. I could tell she had once been a figure of stature, of honor. But now she was an unsightly old lady. Her silvery hair was ugly and full of split-ends, her boxy hands stretching out the fabric of her silky white gloves. She had hideous black boots that were muddy and slick with rainwater, boots that must have been three sizes too big. Nevertheless, I was a naïve child, and I loved her almost immediately.
“Yes, Madame, I can talk,” I told her. Brushing my blonde hair from my face, I tried to smooth my dress and seem as formal as possible. I doubt I did, though, for my shoeless feet were dirtier than her boots, and my skin had a layer of grime that made it darker.
“Good,” the woman announced firmly. “I was beginning to think ya couldn’t.” She extended a hand to me, and I was surprised to see it only had four fingers. There was a small stump where the ring finger should have been. Alarmed, I shot my hand back, staring into her deep eyes. She laughed heartily. “Lost in a scrimmage with some pirates. Long story. Anyway, I’m Clementine. Call me Clem.”
Clem smiled, rotten teeth stuck in her mouth like tombstones. I smiled too, my flushed cheeks lifting. I nodded my head, my mind slowly processing what I had heard. Before I could ask anything, Clem inquired, “What are you doin’ out here on a night like this? And what’s yer name?”
I frowned. “I’m Alice,” I told her sharply. My life was like that cactus in William & Son’s Apothecary. It had seemed so beautiful and sublime that I had stumbled into the store to touch this unique specimen—but when I did, one of the hidden, protruding spikes stabbed my finger, drawing a small drop of blood. When my few and short-lived friends got to know me, they got to know my spikes, my sharp, prickly spikes that I tried so hard to keep hidden.
Clem raised one perfect eyebrow but didn’t ask anything else. Inside, I thanked her for not being like the gendarmes who always had a million questions at their disposal.
“Well, Miss Alice,” Clem pondered aloud. “I am wonderin’ if you’d like to come with me just down the street to Café de Minuit. They have great coffee if yer old enough.” My stomach flooded with joy, always enticed by the thought of free food.
“Yes, Madame Clementine, I mean, Madame Clem. Yes. Please. Merci.” I spoke that last word louder, for my stomach growled, and I could not let this kindly old woman hear it. How kind, I thought to myself, admiring the one golden ring on her thumb. It was perfectly smooth and surprisingly dull. It wasn’t the solid gold I noticed, though, it was the sparkling diamond on the top. It was clear and shiny and reflected light like a lamp. Absolutely beautiful.
Clem began to saunter down the street, talking all the while.
“My mother used to work at Café de Minuit. She worked every day from six to midnight, scrubbin’ dishes, servin’ coffee, takin’ orders. But she told me, every day when she left for work, ‘Good coffee is worth the work.’ I follow ’em same rules every day too.” Clem smiled at me again, her bright face lighting up mine. We talked all the way up to Café de Minuit.
When we arrived, Clem pushed open the door, and a soft chiming of golden bells filled my ears. A lonely bartender sat, peering at us with hawk-like eyes. It was silent, other than the crackling of the radio mounted on a table. A muffled song sank into my ears—it was “Ma Pensée Vous Suit Partout,” my mother’s favorite. Memories of sitting together, listening to the radio, made me choke back sobs.
Clem stopped at a small table in the corner of the room, where there was hardly any light except for a flickering candle. I shivered and closed an open window. Clem sat down on a brittle chair and gestured to another. As I sat, carefully placing my hands on my lap, Clem yelled across the room, “Two coffees!” The bartender nodded solemnly and scratched his slicked black hair.
The two of us chit-chatted for a while, talking about everything. Yet I noticed Clem seemed much more open. She was like a shop window in a fancy, well-known mall where normal passersby can view the little, happy scenes. Clem let the world see her and judge her; she didn’t care.
As I drifted into my realms of thought, my hold on the present slipped, and I tumbled into an abyss of boredom.
“So,” Clem addressed me softly after many minutes, “Alice. Ya look bored. Why don’t I tell ya a story?”
I perked up, my wispy hair floating around my face like a halo. Mother used to tell me stories. Lots. I remembered sitting on a green satin couch adorned with pillows, hungry for tales. My mother would sit next to me, her verbena perfume filling my nose. She would tell me a story, a new one every day. One day it would be about a girl in a red coat visiting her grandma, the next day it would be a cat in boots.
“Oh, yes, please!” I gasped. My hands grasped the edge of the smooth wooden table. “I would adore that, Madame Clem!”
Clem laughed, the noise filling up the entire room. “Sure, hon. But just call me Clem. I never liked them fancy names. ‘Madame! Mademoiselle!’” Clem rolled her eyes. I began to see her as an independent-minded woman: she didn’t care what anyone else thought. Clem just did whatever she wanted.
The bartender arrived, placing a steaming cup of coffee in front of us both. The hot liquid sloshed over the cup and onto the table, but the man didn’t seem to mind. He walked off, his shiny black boots clicking on the wood floor. I daintily picked up my cup and sipped it. The bitterness surprised me, and I coughed it up.
Clem burst into laughter. “Not many people like it!” She gasped between cackles. “Anyway. I oughta tell ya a story.” She cleared her throat. “Before I begin, I need to tell ya this: I’m a pirate. I ride on the Dusty Bones with my seven-man crew. We spend our days robbin’ merchant ships and on the run. I love it.” As Clem continued to tell her tale, my eyes kept drifting back to the ring. The sheer beauty of it made me almost salivate. Think of all the money I could get with that, my greedy mind thought. And so, as Clem got faster and faster, I slyly slid my hand over to hers. My hand flew out and snatched it off her finger, so fast I could barely see it happening. In just a split second, her priceless diamond ring was mine. Now that I had it, I began actually assimilating the pirate’s story.
“Now, one day, when I was ‘bout yer age—I started bein’ a pirate when I was ’round nine—I woke up to a crazy bearded man with a hook staring into my young eyes. We began an epic scrimmage, but not before I lost that finger. After I tied him up nice and tight in some rope, me and my buds threw him overboard. It was a blast!
“Bein’ a pirate ain’t just ‘bout fighting, though,” Clem whispered darkly, suddenly serious. “We steal a lot too. I’m proud to say I’m one of the best thieves in all of France.” I bit my lip to keep from laughing. If only she knew that her stolen diamond ring was now clutched in my sweaty palms. Clem resumed spinning her tale, whispering at some parts, yelling at others. I think the bartender got interested too, but I was too hooked to Clem’s stories to tell. By the time the grandfather clock struck six, my coffee was cold, Clem looked as raggedy as an old doll, and the bartender was asleep on the bar.
Clem stood up. So did I, eager to leave and sell my ring. Clem peered around, making sure no one was around—or awake. Then she looked joyfully at me and whispered, “Can I have my ring back?” I stood, stunned. “Look, hon, that was some pretty fine stealing you just did there. And I was wondering,” Clem put her face so close to mine I could smell her bitter breath, “if you’d like to join our crew?”