UNDERGROUND – by The Chat
"Sir, why do you sing in the underground? You could have been famous."
It's a schoolboy. One of the schoolboys who take this same train every morning and get down at this station, one of those for whom I sing. One of this world. He says, "you could have been famous", because there is no other way to phrase it. Past unreal. But he looks up at me with such eyes filled with wonder and love and it is for those eyes that I sing for, that I do not take their money though they are so willing to give it for once, when I walk through the throng seated and standing I only have to look into their eyes, their smiles, and sometimes it allows me to go on, for a little while, some short minutes, until the next wagon departs.
There is so much more to say and he does not say it, the train's doors click shut and it runs away, vanishing into the darkness-filled tunnel. It is only a split of a second's time that I have to get down from one wagon and jump up into the other, "Mesdames et Messieurs, pourrais-je avoir votre attention le temps d'une simple chanson.". It is more than the question of my celebrity that has brought the boy to hold me back from this train, from this new audience, that I already love before having seen them, it is questions and questions of so many months already heaped together inside his heart, he has probably heard me every morning, every time in the same wagon at the same hour, and he knows many things maybe that I have not noticed because I never look at their faces, only the love in their eyes and in their smiles. I have fed on them all this while and they have kept me alive, that I sing for them everyday songs that they cannot understand, never the same, songs that touch the memories buried in the deepest part of their imagination, the inherent recollection of something they do not know only sometimes, but always touch them.
I have to answer him, he is expectant, searching my face with a gaze more piercing than he could think. I do not know my face. It has not changed over the ages, but I do not know it anymore, I cannot control the shifting of my eyebrows or the corners of my lips, neither the colours on my cheeks, nor the depths of my eyes. Maybe I have lost myself in his gaze again for a while, it is a difficult habit to break, yet he must be waiting for an answer, and for now I have none to give. "You could have been famous." But I was once famous. I have once been Makalaurë, a name known and claimed high and loud from the East to the Utmost West, Makalaurë the forger of light, prince of his people. And it was a time during which I knew pain. I would say pain beyond the reach of human thoughts, but when I look into the eyes of you Firimar I know that it is not so. It has often been spoken of the breach between the two races of the children of Iluvatar, but I can say that it is not so, and I would claim it high and loud from the East to the Utmost West, that you are not lesser than us because you are the second-born, children of sunlight, easily corrupted and turned to darkness, Self-cursed for even sunlight shuns your cities of shadows, that you know pain upon no lesser scale, and it is the only reason why your souls are so fragile. Elves bear in their hearts the sorrow of Arda, but also the hope of the world, we who walk this earth forever and have only to still our feet to hear her whispers of rebirth beneath us, but the pain of mortals is their own, and all the greater that they cannot know of that of others. The pain of mortals is slow, unique, and it grows only with time, and you need no other torturer than yourself to turn your soul into that of orcs. I who have known you from the time of your birth to this age of decadent glory in which you persevere, I can only tell of my own understanding, but it is this, that there is only one reason for which you persevere on the path of thorns to madness and demise, because the only way of life you have ever known in this world, which has ever kept you from annihilation, which has raised you above the level of base animals, is nothing more than the most thoughtless, reckless, selfish kind of blinded perseverance.
"You are famous, you know."
He does not smile. Children like me. They do not know.
I like children.
I am famous. There is a place, somewhere far away, where they must curse my name everyday that comes and goes. There is a place maybe where they speak it not aloud, only think of it, think of my voice, my hands, the quill between my fingers, the comb in my hair, the way I sat rather cross-legged on the floor, my feet hanging out of trees that grow towards the sunlight... where my name means regret when everywhere else it is hateful and accursed. I was once famous. I had never sung for anyone else than my closest family. They all praised me as the greatest minstrel of my people but I never really sung for them. My brothers, my mother, the sons I wished I had. After that, the sea.
And the love of Strangers like myself.
Another train rushes past us, vomiting upon the quay its load of daily passengers and swallowing more faceless figures of grey into its crowded stomach, and hastened away again into the darkness, leaving a drought of cold wind behind it and pieces of dirty torn paper momentarily swept from the ground, that gently float down once more.
"Everyone knows you," he says. "All my schoolmates know you." Ragged, stepped on, bearing the marks of rubber soles, oily stains, remains of splattered ink or mustard and ham, bits of plastic bags torn apart by every passing wagon's powerful wheels: why do they float still all, carried by the wind with the same beauty and grace? "Well at least those who take the sub in the morning. You know most of them don't have to, but we convince them to come with us at least once and then they come back every morning, even though it would be easier for them to just walk." He laughs shortly. It's funny. The way he laughs. "They all love you. Even my parents do, they meet you once a week when you're on the 4rth line. Some of their friends know you too. A great lot of people, in fact, and they all find you marvellous. See, you're already famous. Why don't you become a real singer? The fanbase is all ready for it."
I wonder what he sees when he looks at me. Most Parisians would know me. Most people in every city large enough to have subways and beggars, the regulars of the underground, they must have heard me, only once maybe, or twice in their lives, or every morning and eve, but I know that they cannot forget. It would pursue them. It is cruel. But I need them to survive. I am a real singer. It does not involve money or platinum discs. Beauty and love. Glory. 1 My own kind of glory.
"But I was once famous."
This is how I became acquainted with Simon.
We have taken the habit of meeting there every morning for a few stolen minutes. Once he said, in passing, that he would get out of school at 3 that afternoon. It did not seem to be much, but I went and waited for him. It's been a while I've stood outside in the cold and waited for someone. I like feeling the chill air upon my face. People walk past me wrapped up in heavy coats and thick scarves and do not notice my presence. Sometimes however one of them stops as he walks past me, quickly retraces his steps and pulls his scarf away from his face to reveal a smile "Hey! You're that singer!" with white puffs of breath escaping from his lips and flushed cheeks from the winter air. "I love your songs." I smile, and he smiles, and he goes on his way. It happens from time to time. I do not wish for any other kind of fame.
The bell rings, the heavy bell of a medieval tower, and the flood of children come rushing out of the open doors. I am quickly surrounded, by persons both indifferent and concerned. A girl even asks for my autograph while she fumbles in her bag for a pen and a notebook. I scribble something, like a very deformed kind of Quenya, but recognisable to me, but she probably assumes that I have got an unreadable kind of handwriting. Other children, or young adults already in preparatory classes run past me in groups of five or six and elbow me out of their way, shouting with the voices of rash joy. Teachers walking out send me strange glances. Someone says, "I'm your fan, you know." I look over the crowd to catch a sight of Simon. Here he is. In the commotion, he does not see me at first, but before walking away looks around discreetly, maybe hopeful, but disappointed. If it were not for my tall stature he would probably not have noticed me.
We sit at a small round table of the Rue Soufflot, the price of the consummations is quite exorbitant, but it does not matter for once. Simon looks around with nervous eyes, he is young, it's the first time he's ever sat at a café. He drinks his lemonade in little sips.
"What's your name, anyways?" he asks at last, then thinks better of it. "What do they call you?"
Humans and their obsession with names, their obsession with identity, with words they think can maybe save them from their darkness.
"Claude," I say. This little café here is one of my personal little sins, and I come here once in a while to spend an unholy amount of money on a ridiculously small cup. But they make a special kind of coffee, the best I have so far tasted in this part of the world since the war of 70, the richest and most bitter. Claude the decadent emperor, ridiculed even before his ascent to power, publicly cuckold, father of Nero the burner of Rome who sang above the flames. Claude, or Cripple. I like it.
I don't really have a name, tell something different to every person I meet. Prophetic or ominous bear now very little meaning to me.
Simon snickers. "We're like Claude Simon." 2
Who was orphaned at age eleven. I grimace and laugh at the same time. Sometimes coffee can be too bitter.
The boy takes another slow sip from his glass. "I had a friend named Claude. He looked a little bit like you. In a younger way," he says. "But I suppose he grew old, too," he adds mysteriously. "He's officially supposed to be called André."
I would like to meet that friend of the double names, of which you talk in the tense of a past flown away on black-feathered wings. The light brouhaha of the café fills my ears, conversations from nearby tables, soft, high-pitched clings of gleaming spoons against the white porcelain, wineglass against wineglass. And the silence from other consumers sitting alone, engrossed in words of black on white before them or smoke in the genial air.
"That's not your real name, is it?"
But he's amused, I realise. He's amused and delighted by my anonymity. Maybe I am, too, by this wisp of a boy of hardly sixteen, drinking a glass of lemonade that looks too big for him. Freckles, too. And I had wondered why his face seemed sympathic to me. Freckles, for Eru's sake, lightly dispersed about the nose under unruly tuffs of unremarkable dirty blonde hair. It's my turn to scoff now, I vainly try to hide the smirk behind my hand, why, after all, I don't have a clue. I have learnt to laugh again. In fact it would have been quite hard not to think back upon the whole of our situation and not laugh at the absurd ridicule of it all.
"It's a chosen name," I say, and spread the fingers of my left hand wide at eye-level so that he could see the horribly charred palm. We Elves heal fast, but I suppose wounds of this kind do not heal. Or maybe I had unwittingly prevented it from healing. Our subconscious can do such strange things sometimes.
Simon does not flinch in front of the ghastly sight. Maybe there is something to say for the promotion of violence undertaken by the mass-media nowadays. He looks mesmerised instead, as if fascinated by something in the middle of my hand. Swayed by the look in his eyes, I turn the hand around so that I am scrutinizing it instead, but I can see nothing worthy of attention. It's just burnt flesh. The scar didn't even have the elegance to heal into a significant shape.
Simon is looking at me again. His eyes are a very plain brown, just like that of so many of his Frenchmen compatriots. It would be a lie to say that they burnt. But they certainly did something, even if it was more akin to ice, totally unselfconscious and unaware of the power in their gaze.
"But did you choose this?"
An innocent question, from an innocent heart, spoken from a voice still de tête.
Did I choose this? It's probably one of those questions I have long stopped even torturing myself with.
"Yes," I answer. "Yes, I have chosen this."
"Mesdames et Messieurs, pourrais-je avoir votre attention le temps d'une simple chanson. "
I lean upon the back door of the wagon, quite as nonchalantly as I can, and I sing.
I had never sung for any other elf outside of those closest to me. They thought they heard me sing, and they praised the genius in me, but I did not. I could not. My brothers chided me on my partiality, but they were proud too, somewhere, that I accepted to sing, could sing only for them, and for them only. After the first time they told me to demonstrate my talent in public Russandol could hardly contain his laughter until we got home, and there was a bright flush of pride on his cheek while he gently reprimanded me for being a bad little elfling, with all the outside appearance of pride in his eyes as he took me in his arms. But now among the crowd of strangers I sing better than ever before, with my broken voice and my broken heart of today. The First Kinslaying had already taken my voice of Aman. During all the ages of the sun I have sung only once again with that intonation of old, and it was a lament that sprung from my lips, a sigh in front of the forgiving sea that had granted me my one wish of forever. It is a song that lasted for six millennia until the time of elves was past. And I took my rags and my sword and a stick found on the beach, I took with me my charred hand and the memories of fire and water enclosed in my heart as my only heirloom, and I set out for a journey that had no end, because the road unwound before my feet. Those who have heard my song do not forget, even if they do not understand.
It is all that I ask for.
It is a magic that happens between the singer and the audience.
Another train rattles past, but we do not get on.
Simon has pulled this photograph from his pocket. It is slightly blurry, one can imagine the blazing sunlight shining in the camera's lens. It is a picture of the beach. Of five young people standing on a beach of grey pebbles, on a hot summer day, just to look at them wearing swimsuits I can almost perceive the heat. The two girls have towels around their waists, the boys wearing clean, freshly ironed white shirts, one of them is however drenched from head to foot though all the others look dry. The sky is very blue and with only a few shreds of white clouds hovering high above.
To me, somehow, they look threatening.
"See," Simon says, pointing to one of the smiling figures on the photograph, "that's Claude. From," he hesitates a bit, than takes the picture from me and stares at it for a while, "two years ago. Bretagne. Summer vacations."
The five youths on the picture look happy. There is a quite exceptionally beautiful blonde girl in the middle, making pair of donkey's ears with her fingers sticking up from a shorter, younger, unsuspecting Simon's head. Besides her is another girl, paler, less pretty, with auburn hair, laughing behind her hand at her friend's behaviour, so that her face couldn't be clearly seen. Behind them, two boys who looked quite remarkably alike seen from such a distance, with the same untanned skin despite the sunlight and the same raven-black hair, but for the fact that one of them is taller than the other. The shorter one, the one who's wet, rolls his eyes and has one arm raised, and one can guess his intent of pushing the blonde's girl's hand away from the youngest boy's head.
It's the tallest one that Simon is pointing too, a young man that looked older than the others, maybe already an adult, and he has also one arm raised into a horizontal position on which a white seagull is seated.
He does look slightly like us Quendi, if one didn't look too hard.
"How old is he?"
Simon looks at the picture with a strange eye. "He was nineteen on that picture. Don't let him fool you. He's still at it, even on paper. It was a tough time for him, almost no more money, dropped out of prestigious studies because of some obscure way of revolt and couldn't find a job that did not repulse his every senses. Here," he offered, pointing to each the children in turn, "Sylvie, Gaëlle, and Pierre." He smiles quite ruefully. "Pierre was a newcomer at the time. Claude, Sylvie, Gaëlle, they'd known me since I was born."
I tap my fingertips on the wall. There is no way to refrain from asking anymore, is there?
"And what happened?"
"It was all about last summer. Don't ask me. Pierre moved to Russia, Sylvie lost herself, Claude flew to California with the last of the money he had left and Gaëlle disappeared. Not necessarily in that order. I went and hanged myself with one of the ropes that fell from the sky. 3" He sighs. "I don't think it's supposed to make any sense."
I stare at the little piece of shining paper for a while.
"What's with the seagull? I thought they bit." 4
Simon's eyebrows shift slightly.
"He had a tame dove. He just decided to adapt more to the seaside context."
"Ah," I say.
The picture is snatched away from my hands, and quickly pocketed by Simon. I should have liked to see more of it. I should have liked to see more of these smiling, youthful faces, from which radiate friendship and carelessness. I should have liked to see more of the seaside.
The young boy sends me a sideways glance.
"You really look like him," he says. "I could almost believe he had decided to come back from California. But no one comes back from California. I know he wouldn't, at least." He sends a vicious kick towards an empty can of sprite, but misses and swears profusely under his breath, burying his chin deeper into his scarf. "The worst thing is that I know he would never become what he wanted so desperately to be. He knew it too, I suppose. This is why he flew away. Too much of an illusionist at heart to ever be one for show."
A low rumble reaches our ears, the occasional screech of wheels on the rails, and we keep silent as the train tears into the station, first the two round white lights appearing like monstrous eyes in the darkness of the tunnel. Simon's scarf flutters suddenly from the rush of air created by it.
The doors open with the usual metallic sound which is only part of the familiar background of Paris, the underground the dirtiest and foulest place of all which we still love better than all others. We both step on, Simon goes to seat himself down in a corner as if he did not know me. I turn from him, but I know he's watching. As always, I stand helplessly alone in front of the crowd, as if stupefied by the winter cold, unwilling to move the smallest finger, to flutter an eyelid in the slightest.
Today my heart goes out to them more than ever before.
"Mesdames et Messieurs, pourrais-je avoir votre attention le temps d'une simple chanson."
But I cannot love them.
When they look up at me with such grateful eyes, I think that they do understand.
The Parisian underground is a magical place. I sing for white men, but also Africans, Maghrebians, Asians, rich or poor, old or young. At some points in the intricate web of differently coloured lines the indigene population completely disappears, and I am not in France, even the universal language is not French, but a delightful mix of dialects from the African continent. There the dirty, foul smelling beggars and drunks of the basest kind are mixed together with the rest, and people sit besides them without mind, and I sing for them also, and I love them also, if not even more. Their skinny, shapeless dogs walk besides them, unneedful of leashes of any kind, content with sharing half of everything their masters have. There is swearing, and insults thrown at strangers' faces, and knives sometimes unsheathed in rixes, blood drawn in front of everyone's eyes in the protective darkness of the underground, and I love it. There are aggressions, four of five young members of a gang together beating a policeman to death, and I love it. Bands of children pickpockets, regulars of Saint-Michel, every which of them I know by face and name, small, skinny children skilled of hands and swifter on their feet than anyone else in town, and I love them. Always around every corner graffiti in paint or dry splats of blood on the broken walls, torn posters, hateful or cynical or loving messages scribbled filled with spelling mistakes to make anyone scratch their eyes out and always the putrid smell of alcohol and urine, and for all this I love it.
It is verity. A raw, undiluted, crude image of the truth, the thousands facets of the truth.
Simon has never asked me to sing for him when we were alone. I probably should feel grateful to him for that. I do not want to sing for only one. I am not so pretentious as to think the multitude needs me, but I need the multitude, I need the crowd, the throng, the riotous throng or the peaceful crowd, I need to feel the warmth of the thousands, the human warmth that seeps from every pore of their sin, the nauseating odour of sweat and life.
"You're not human, are you?" Simon asks. It's spring now, though the air is still crisp, and the wind is cold upon our faces. It blows the fine, white powder of the Luxembourg 5 alleys into afternoon-strollers' eyes. I blink. Green buds are beginning to sprout upon the branches of the trees. For the moment it's a pretty pitiful sight.
"What makes you think that?"
We don't look at each other.
"Do'h," he mutters, a slight blush colouring his cheek. There will be no answer. Simon doesn't often blush.
"What makes you say that?" I insist. How cruel of me. I don't even really want to know. I'm probably flushed too now at this point, though it would be because of this unreasoned sort of anger and slighted pride that swells from the deepest recesses of my heart, each time someone guesses my secret, each time I've tried to open my heart to an outsider who catches my fancy, though it is really the first time one has been certain enough, unashamed enough to openly question me about it.
"Whatever, never mind." With an exasperated sigh, Simon shrugs exaggeratedly and picks up his previously idle pace.
I catch him by the arm. No one, by my book, would get away with that assumption without us at least getting to the bottom of things. He tries to wrench his arm free, and grimaces, though not from pain, but it is of no use. For a split of a second, his eyes meet mine, on purpose, as if he had wanted to glare, but just as promptly he looks away. I have no control over my eyes. I do not know what the others see when they look upon my face.
"Tell me what made you think that." I repeat, inexorably. This time he does not flinch from my gaze and returns it defiantly. It strikes me that I have never seen Simon angry.
Strangely, for the moment, it is a pout that appears on his lips.
"I think I have my answer," he says, and tries to twist his arm free again, but I tighten my grasp and there he no way he can free himself from that.
He stops struggling, standing still, apparently resigned. I let him go.
He takes deep breathes. Still angry, I can see it, soft, boyish face oddly unrecognisable from just the furrowed brow and the firmly set lips.
"The way you sing, right?" Though it is the same voice I have grown so used to. Voices do not lie. "Everyone has heard it," it says. "I have heard it. I don't understand a word you say." He pauses for a moment, and his eyelids flicker as he passes a dry tongue on his lips, clearly searching for the words to use that would be interpreted in a sense remotely akin to what he wants to express. "Then how come..." he trails off again, blinking at me in the harsh, white sunlight of a tail of Mars, "how come I can see it all?"
"But what do you see, exactly? Are you the only one to see it or have I been unwittingly revealing myself to the entirety of the world for Ages past and gone?"
"It depends, I guess." Simon looks perplexed. "I don't know if they see, but they've told me they feel." He looks at me quizzically. "It's not like we all feel the same things. There are some who see foam and some who see stars."
It is the Luxembourg again, with the scent of withered flowers and its old elegant chairs of rusted metal from which the green paint is half peeled off. They creak when we sit on them. I have always wondered how they could support the weight of heavier people, but I fact, I realise now that it's a very easily solved problem: the armrests on them aren't very wide apart, and a person any fatter than normal wouldn't be able to even fit.
The weather has warmed up now. Simon's backpack is thrown at our feet, and he gives it an occasional kick. He wears a simple, half-sleeved white shirt, and it reminds me somewhat of that one he had on the picture, that picture of the beach.
"But what have you seen?"
You see, one should not ask that kind of question. Simon lifts one eyebrow, and seems to slide deeper down the chair, his legs stretching farther out in front of him.
"Water, mostly. An endless stretch of water. It's..." He frowns, but it is apparent that he is not finished. "It's pink."
"Pink water," I say, looking up at the pallid sky.
I sigh. "And what do you think makes it look pink?"
The rusted metallic chair creaks as the boy shifts uneasily, and he coughs. "It's a very sick shade of pink. Err."
He is clearly hesitant to continue. I wouldn't blame him. He knows. I wave a vague hand in the air in front of me.
"Is it that obvious, that..." But what would I have said? I could not have. May is quite gentle this year in Paris. If drafts of wind still sweep up the white powder of dust from the alleys there are thousands of small crumpled rosy petals mixed inside it, with a scarlet red heart, that when left in peace make like a soft, thick carpet on the ground, the blanket of spring like the leaves of fall and the snow of winter.
"It's blood," the boy suddenly blurts out, fixing upon me his wide, distressed eyes. "It's blood fallen in the water. Enough blood to turn the ocean pink."
The tree above us sheds hundreds of little flying tuffs of brown things with each rush of air, and many of them land on our heads.
"You've got a caterpillar in your hair," 6 Simon says.
I pass a hand at random through the dark locks, not very convincingly. "Is it gone?"
He shrugs. "I don't know. I can't see it anymore, at least."
There is silence then again, as a young couple walks past us in our backs. The girl is wearing a long, red skirt, and a black shirt. It seems like these are turning out to be the colours of the fashion this year.
The carpet of flowers is silent while trodden on.
"I am wrong, am I not?"
Simon sounds even more distraught than I as he looks past me with his hopeless eyes. I wonder why. He must have known everyday since he has first heard me, when I sang of trees, and birds, and lands where angels walk, and swanships on the water, dreams that take the shape of jewels and stars in the depths of the Ocean.
"You will not say that I am wrong."
But maybe that is it, that he has understood. We would say that we have lived for ages past the reach of human imagination, will live until the end of their world which they cannot phantom, we would say that we have suffered beyond their meagre understanding, that we had wept tears unnumbered before the day of even their birth in the land of sorrow. They live, they skim the earth, barely touching it as fleeting spectators of its absurd play before soaring again past the brim of this world. We would say that we understand the grief of Arda Marred which they cannot perceive, but would then not the passing Firimar be burdened with the sorrows of the boundless heavens, the universe itself bearing down on their frail shoulders?
"You are not wrong," I say, and with this assurance he is peaceful again. The doom of the Strangers is unknowingness. I turn the palm of my left hand up again, more for myself to examine than anything else, opening and clenching my singers in turn as if it was a marvel that the joints were still effective. "But I have chosen it. And I do not regret my choice."
Spirits of fire, kings without a crown. Rebellion against the laws of god. Torches in the night. Blood on white pebbles. Foam under the stars, flash of copper hair, fire in the night, and in the end, blood and fire, blood and fire, blood and fire.
Simon knows. Maybe he does not understand, but that does not matter at all. The story has come forth in bits, in fragments, in words, simple disjointed words that have to fit, have to come together, in plain speech that says nothing more than sequences of sounds, falling, tumbling, tangled with each other in their collapse, terrible in their coming, untamed, unwanted, painful. They have come forth under the ending spring's downpours, under the thick green foliage of Luxembourg, besides the waters of Vincennes, miles under the ground in the ghastly white light of rattling trains. Absurd stories that make no sense. Oh Noldor, Deep Elves, how deep into your folly and farce, Valar taught in the words of the Allfather, how blind in your uttermost faith, Morgoth maybe the least foolish of them all who first knew to rebel and reigned at least until the end, but how to say, with my broken voice, how to translate into plain feral words the song which went for six thousand years on?
"But why do you love them?" he asks. "Why do you sing for them?"
Simon marvels. There has been again one of the regular power outages of the underground trains, and the whole of seven wagons with their loads of passengers are stuck in the darkness of the tunnel, without light. There is nothing to be done but wait. No one is impatient, the conversations begun continue uninterrupted, those standing stand and those sitting sit. Resigned, the crowd stays still, and wastes no vain amount of energy.
Simon marvels at the fact that I can subsist here among the human throng, and sing for them, and live off them, when I have told him of the betrayal of mortal men, that I myself have slain their leader. But what can I say? At times I meet with some of these ambulant musicians with their barrel organs, guitars or accordions, who slaughter music in an unspeakable way. But if my ears suffer my heart is warm to hear them play. I always try to give them some spare coins, or at least a smile like those given to me. There are mothers and fathers who choose to smother their own children or abandon them in the streets at birth because they haven't been born of the right gender, there are criminals who have killed their fellow men whom they did not even know, there are children of not even fifteen who would gang up on a girl and rape her before she dies. I cannot hate them. It is not, I suppose, that I have done the same, or worse by the standards of the time, but I cannot hate them. There is always a reason behind each act of violence. There is always a first reflection, a second contemplation, the suite of thoughts like heavier and heavier beads strung upon a fragile thread that snaps in the end. When a man goes mad there is always a root to his madness, a source exterior that has allowed the monster in him to develop, and what is said of elves is also true of man, that they are not born evil. But man is his own torturer, is all.
Simon is not disturbed by the fact that I have shed the blood of my kin. It happens every day, he says. Every day of our lives.
"I cannot hate them," I say. "They are human. It would be irrational to hate them because of their nature."
Another train rushed past us going in the opposite direction, its wheels screeching in a deafening way on the rails of the adjacent track. Flashes of blemish light from its oblong lamps illuminate us in turn at intervals of splits of seconds. Simon squints. Then the train is gone, its shriek of agony gradually lost in the distance, and we are plunged in darkness once more.
I can hear Simon softly laugh. "That's your excuse?"
"I'm offended," I say. I don't know why. I don't really know what he means by that.
I must love them, that's what I do not say. I need to love them, and I need their love, because otherwise I would have long passed out of this existence. This feeble link between my voice and their hearts is the only thing that still holds me to this earth.
"I can't help but love them, you know, in the end?" The ground shakes under my booted feet with a slight tremor, the earth groans, there is nothing happening. I expect the darkness around us to begin to throb, to beat to a strange rhythm, the cloud of material night come down upon us that kills the flowers where it goes by unearthly wind bearing a counterfeit inferno in its breast shrivelling leaves swept from charred branches in a whirlpool of ghastly stench, the stench of death and desolation, every wall and windowpane and every stone of the paved roads, every peck of dust and handful of soil under my feet, the air around me even screaming in a total, absolute terror that could find no name. My mouth feels dry, completely dry, my lips are stuck together and even my repeatedly passing a nervous tongue upon them does not help. In the darkness my distress has no witness. In a desperate attempt to stop the trembling of my body I purposefully bite the inside of my mouth until blood is drawn, that taste has always helped. The overwhelming nausea at least can dispel the other sickness, far more terrible, far more present. I breathe. The ground still shakes. There is nothing happening that we can see, only a train passing by in a nearby tunnel. I shuffle my feet somewhat, to lessen the devastating impression of an approach, a wrathful god's powerful stride arousing the earth's entrails. It would not have surprised me if night had fallen once again, the sun brought down from her vagrant seat.
I pass a relatively steady hand through my hair. Its coolness appeases me.
"Because I know," I say, "I know that one day they will all die."
Above us, the pale light flickers, on and out for a moment, then there is the inhuman humming of the engine being forced, the lights stay on, the crowd lets out a collective sigh and smile, and the train starts again through the shadows of the tunnel, in its never-ending underground journey.
But it's the towers that have really impressed him, fortresses on tall and barren hills, stories and stories of cold stone reaching towards the sky. Simon has never taken a plane. The underground has been his playground since he was old enough to go to school alone. And the roofs of the city, he tells me, he had dreamed of the roofs since he could remember ever dreaming, but it was only when Pierre moved into the attic of their building that he had access to the skylights, and with the four others the roofs were theirs for three years, walking from chimney to chimney, building to building, street to street. Simon dreams of flight. For the short while that they are earthbound by the weight of their prisons of flesh, the only inherent instinct of men is to look up towards the sky and dream, of heights, of flight, of fantastic clouds, and tell me, will anyone tell me that this is not the proof of something else.
When I find Simon, he has already gone down in the underground, standing on the quay, too close to the edge for my taste. Simon always stands near the edge of anything, stairs, sidewalks, quays, he enjoys like a child walking on narrow railings until he falls. He's looking at something in his hand quite intently, as if lost to this world. I do not approach him immediately. It disturbs me intensely to see the few millimeters that separate him from the abyss underneath, and that he does not mind, that his thoughts drift elsewhere, that half an unwitting movement would bring him down upon the electrified rails. Simon does not mind. He laughs and quotes Pratchett at me, one of these satirists of the modern days, we all have been through a near-death experience, it's called 'living'. 7
I walk towards him silently, casually. He doesn't hear me coming. Even if he hadn't been so engrossed in looking at what I now see if the picture he's shown me so long ago, he wouldn't have. It's the last picture that had been taken of them all together, he said. Before everything started to happen. Before the world started to go wrong.
They are still smiling. They will never stop smiling.
"Do you walk around with this picture in your pocket or what?"
Too late. I have startled him. He jumps, but the picture flies from his fingers. A wisp of inexistent wind carries it away, all the way down, all the way down to the rails opposite our tracks, it is all I can do to catch the boy himself in my arms before he falls down along with it, "Idiot!" I hiss, he doesn't even say a word, I have to step back before his struggling pulls us both down, he doesn't even need to speak, I can't let him go, the only thing he does is stare, stare at that now little patch of white paper gently floating down to the ground, the black stones that look like coal under the rails, idiot I say, what in Angband's name are you thinking, we stay still at last, people are staring, I still don't trust him enough, there are tears in his eyes, that cannot flow, and he bites his lips in an effort not to cry, tears in his eyes that cannot fall, like watching something that happens which can never make sense, no wind within the breast of the earth, no wings for memories of the past.
I step back. 8
Simon walks again to the edge of the quay, staring down helplessly. The next passing train will reap the image to shreds. And his heart also. And now, mine as well.
"Don't worry, little mister," the old man says.
It's a homeless one, the kind which carries their plastic bags along with them and do not beg so much as they hang around with an empty bottle of beer. The kind which exists so much they fade into the background and do not bother anyone by their presence, who wears a filthy winter coat even in the raging heat of summer.
Casually, still clutching his plastic bag in his hand as if he had once feared that might he let it go the only things he had would be stolen from him, and it had now grown into the most evident of habits, he sits down at the edge of the quay, and lets himself fall the few meters that separate him from the deadly rails. Simon watches, dumbfounded, as if witness to some strange doings sprung from the dream of another. The old man walks across the tracks, back and forth, picks up the photograph with his dirty red fingers from the blackened stones, and blows on it with his foul breath to clear off the dust before climbing back up the distance to the quay.
"Here," he mumbles, "it's not too damaged."
Mesmerized, Simon takes the bit of paper back in hands and stands there, apparently too shocked to do anything else. The old man stands there also, waiting, and reeks of liquor, bits of undefined things meshed in the wild hairs of his unshaven beard. He goes away after Simon, having come out of his trance, frantically searches his pockets and pulls out a twenty francs bill. "Thank you, mister," he says, "much obliged," and walks away with his measured steps towards another tunnel.
Simon looks at me with bewildered eyes, and what these eyes are saying, is that nobody has told him, in the sixteen years of his life, that twenty francs was the price of happiness.
1 – Okay, this is a sarcastic inside joke which only French people can understand. Maglor is mostly making fun of himself in a really cruel way when he says that. Hmm, the explanation. There is this really long –still ongoing- soap opera show THE ultimate soap opera, if you have never seen it, you cannot understand entitled "Les Feux de l'Amour", or, "The Fires of Love" which everyone knows because it's been there for so long more than ten years but is so bad it's become a pop culture reference in soap-opera-ness. During the beginning and the end-credits, there is this voice singing the theme song, of which the always repeated line is "Love, glory and beauty, things that make everyone dream" It's a sentence everyone knows and always makes fun of. Yeah, basically.
2 – Claude Simon is a famous French writer. I swear this was not intentional.
3 – French way of speech. Instead of "It's raining cats and dogs", we say "It's raining ropes".
4 – Yes, believe me, seagulls do bite. They bite very hard.
5 – The Luxembourg is a big park in Paris. Since for this story's convenience I have made Simon attend Henry IV, the Luxembourg if just at five minutes' walk from there, down the Rue Soufflot.
6 – For some obscure reason, caterpillars in one's hair are a very common occurrence here in Paris.
7 – Hogather, T. Pratchett.
8 – I don't know what it's like in the other subways of the world, -at least in the NY sub I understand that people can casually walk across the rails- but in Paris it was quite a surrealistic image, because it's still quite dangerous.
The phrase he says in French means "Ladies and Gentlemen, could I please have your attention for the length of a simple song."