Wow. Really long chapter this time. I hope I didn't try to squeeze in more than I can handle. There's more to come regarding this particular period in Javert's life, but it looks like it'll require more than one chapter to divulge. Do enjoy, all the same. And please review.
Toulon to Brest, 1786
"It itches." The boy tugged at his shirt. He slipped his fingers under the collar and sought to satisfy a patch of irritated flesh.
"Stop that," ordered his mother. She lightly slapped his wrist. "You're wearing the shirt. No more complaints, understand?"
"But I don't –"
"No. Complaints. It's important we look presentable."
He stared down at his shoes. The seams along the tops both frayed around the knuckles of his toes. Scuffs and wax drippings marked up the rest. How interesting that his mother had bought them only last week.
"Don't you want to look nice?"
The boy sighed. "Can't I look nice without the itchy shirt?"
Another light slap, this time on the crown. "They're all itchy to you. You have to grow used to them." Her rough hands, red and calloused from scrubbing floors and carrying buckets of fish guts when business was slow at her little corner, tucked his shirt into his trousers. Even when she managed to wash herself properly, he could always catch a whiff of those fish. He could see their torn bellies on the vendor's stand. Open bellies and dead eyes. He still failed to understand why the stench made him vacillate between revulsion and hunger. His tastes usually ran to the former, which was a comfort of sorts, but when he truthfully put the question to himself, he would have to say: yes, I could eat that. If I had to.
Fish and soap. That's what she smelled like. And that odd perfume she kept locked away in her simple bureau. He didn't care to look for it, but when she took it out to apply it to the skin that stretched like a sheer drum-skin over the stringy tendons of her neck, he would observe from afar how the scents came together in an amalgam of foulness, ferity, and cleanliness.
The deadly sea, where he did not venture beyond the innocent shallows.
The open fields, which he had seen only once when they visited a band of their people, though not their tribe, passing outside the city. She intended to uncover news about her family. It was a short visitation, and a fruitless one to boot, so before evening descended they returned to the flat. He wondered, on occasion, if he would ever smell wild grass or sun-drenched flowers again.
Then the foam in the bath – white, iridescent, and light enough to ascend to the ceiling. He tried to snatch them while she rigorously scrubbed him from head to paw.
The familiar, the mysterious and the forbidden. He did not know whether or hate them, love them, or to feeling anything for them. He did not doubt there was something in him that stirred in answer to her scent, but he could not define it. The medium of smell allowed him, at least, to assess at a safe distance. Within her reach, she became the dealer of blows. They were not as severe as before, he noticed, which indicated that he had improved himself. Now they were little slaps which he had to dodge or bear. They didn't hurt; he didn't enjoy them, either. Again, he hardly knew what to make of her actions toward him. He tried to convince himself many times that it did not matter what anything meant – she was all he had.
Not that that stopped him from complaining.
"And these trousers don't fit right."
"You'll grow into them." She finished hiding and smoothing down the hem of the shirt. Her dark eyes cut across his face for a moment before she stood upright. "That'll do. Food and other clothes are all packed. I'll get our coats, and we'll be on our way." She headed towards the closet. Its door had been missing for a few months now. Ironically enough, she couldn't blame him for it.
"Will he know who I am?"
Her shoulders tensed. Slowly, pivoting her body only half way round, she looked back. "Why wouldn't he?"
Her son shrugged with helpless innocence. "We've never met. He doesn't know what I look like, and I don't know how he looks. Do we look alike at all?"
"In some ways," she answered quietly before closing the distance between herself and their coats. She took down a heavy, tired green jacket whose long sleeves she still had to roll for him. She took the liberty to don her own meager mantle before returning to the boy and helping him. His eyes, inquiring as ever, searched her face.
"What will we do when we get there?"
She breathed in through her slim nostrils. "We will say hello and tell him how we have been. You two will talk, of course. Get to know each other . . ."
She dropped her fingers with the rest of the sentence before finishing the bottom button.
He did not move to tend to it. He kept watching her, waiting for a sign of encouragement or reprimand. He wished he knew whether it was natural for him to ask such questions. A short time earlier, he was all too reluctant to press a query his mother preferred not to answer. However, his growing audacity, innate curiosity, and her slow gradation towards gentleness now began to open up to him more opportunities to test her temper and gauge which situations were best suitable for asking questions. Her silences were not always as impenetrable as he first led himself to believe. In this instance, for example, her face and form adopted a mood of pensiveness. She no longer looked at him but instead at the floor. She usually stared at a blank chunk of space when she wanted to think more clearly. He gave her a minute, and when she did not stir, he dared another step into unmapped territory.
"And after that? What will we do then?"
A few seconds passed before she looked up at him. Now he saw concern, which was better than anger, at least. A slight trace of that emotion clouded her features as well, but this anger was not the explosive sort that would end with an aching head or ears for him. A hundred worries filled those eyes which he could not identify, but he shared in her wordless anxiety.
"Then?" She sighed and did the final button. "Then we will go home. That's it."
They locked eyes again. He swallowed but made no other sound. He did not need to ask a second time.
"That's all there can be for now." Her voice grew softer with each response, as if she wanted to crawl into herself and forget about these vexations. Another inhaled breath revived her a little. "We should be glad that we can see him at all. That must be enough. In the near future, maybe things will be . . . but there's no excuse to think on that now."
With bags in hand, which had to be light considering that most of the trip would be made on foot, they left their abode without further ceremony. They still took the mail coach for some miles, which served as both a form of shelter and a means of covering more miles in a day. She didn't want to venture too far at night unless it was unavoidably necessary. If they chose to spare their coins for the price of lodgings for one night, evenings along a desolate country road for the remainder of the journey would suffice. These roads, even as they made their way north, were flanked by woods or fields on at least one side. They would not have difficulty concealing themselves in either setting. Her son was still a small boy and understood when it was vital to be inconspicuous. He might question afterward the specific nature of the danger, but not when the threat was imminent. Thank goodness for that small mercy.
The boy was learning more and more of what was expected of him in terms of social behavior. He understood the usual civilities toward adults and figures of authority; he rarely, if ever, engaged in conversation or any other mode of interaction with children his age. They – the children – did not seem wary of him, but when they perceived his taciturn disposition, they decided that attempts at friendly chatter would be in vain.
There was something that earned his attention, however. He would stare at the landscape for miles as they overtook field after field, both cultivated and wild. The woods intrigued him, too, but the fields held a secret charm for him. When they were forced to abandon the coach for a few miles of walking, his mother spotted the energetic strides and the jerking of his head toward the open countryside. As sunlight began to disappear, he grew only more fidgety and excited, though he said and gestured nothing by volition. They came upon a bend in the road which proved utterly devoid of any other human presence. The sun, half-set behind a tree-speckled hill, was the only witness. She chewed the inside of her lip. This wasn't a good idea, but . . .
"Yes?" His head turned sharply toward her. Had he done something wrong?
"How are you feeling?"
He started at this. "Fine. I'm not tired."
"I mean . . . do you . . . want to play?"
The boy stopped. She did, too. His eyes rounded as they stood in awkward silence. "You want me to play?"
"If you want to, you can for a little while."
He stared at her face – more wrinkled and weary than he realized – then threw a quick glance at the field to his left. "I may?"
"You've . . . been good. For the most part."
She could not be sure if it had been a passing breeze, but she thought she heard him gasp. It was quick and soft, almost negligible. He looked at her again. "You really mean it? No clothes?"
She gave him a dry half-smile. "Are you still complaining?"
To both their surprise, he broke out into a smile, too. Was it his first? It felt like it to him; his cheeks were tight yet they did not hurt. His teeth were not beautiful, but they practically shimmered in the evening light. His eyes also shone brighter.
He didn't dash off right away, even though his instincts begged him to. He walked with his mother to the side of the road so she could sit on the ground and keep an eye on their belongings. He removed his garments with consideration, and she took them from him, gathering them in her lap like a crumpled bundle of a snake's sloughed skin. Her fingers unconsciously gripped the cloth as she waited and watched. She did not observe the final change; she pretended to be occupied with shaking out and uncrinkling his clothes. In truth, any effort was thwarted when she soon forgot her chore and watched the dark furry form scamper through the tall bleached grass. She saw him jump, roll, skip – even frolic, she dared to think. Her hands sunk into the cradle of her calico skirt between her thighs. The smile was gone; her eyes were thoughtful again. This time her son did not notice.
Mother and child soon realized the advantages of allowing him to assume his natural form during their weeks of travel. For one, he covered more distance on four legs and did not tire as quickly. Secondly, his clothes lasted twice as long, which relieved her purse of at least one burden. She would be stricter with him among company, for the benefits of his other shape were rendered obsolete when they encountered a coach or wagon that was willing to bear them a ways. Despite continued restrictions, however, an unexpected pact had been made. In return for his increased freedom, the boy assumed the accessories of his mother's species without a fuss.
For some children, as the boy observed from time to time, travel could be cumbersome and tedious. Not so for him. Whether it was the gypsy blood or his sheltered upbringing, the prospect of new sites only served to make him enthused about their trek. His mother had disclosed only the vaguest details of the route they would take or what he should expect to see, so he felt bound to be as observant and alert as possible. They intercepted every size of city, town and hamlet one could imagine. Forests, pastures and farmland took turns in their dominion of the geography. He saw natural hills for the first time as they drew closer to their destination. The boy found objects of interest in both the setting and the human settlements. How remarkably changed these towns were as the sea disappeared completely – the scents of salt and fish all but vanished, and the perfume of grass and tilled earth overtook all others. More farmers and other peasants who tended to acre upon acre of fields substituted the fishermen and sailors.
Then, as their route took them further west toward La Rochelle, the sea's presence became evident again. But the smells from this body of water were not identical to those of home. The climate grew moist, tempestuous, and considerably less inviting. Granted there were days when the sun chose to grace them with its pleasant, almost Mediterranean warmth, but those days were not as frequent.
Re-acquaintance with the briny air nevertheless helped to ease the boy's mild case of homesickness. The countryside preceding their entrance into La Rochelle proved most picturesque, especially in Saintes where they took an afternoon to explore Les Arènes, an old Roman amphitheatre, and its surrounding environment. The boy immediately fell in love with the roughly assembled ancient stones and the structure they formed, a quarter submerged in the grassy terrain. He took centre stage in the basin of the theatre and seized another opportunity to surprise his mother by addressing an invisible audience. He removed the cap his mother bought him in the previous town, swept it dramatically before him and bowed deeply to the rows of long-empty seats.
"Madames and messeuirs," he announced with impressive projection, "this evening's performance will be a one-man act featuring Alezais de los Arcanos!" He approached a spot in the middle of the front stone bench and extended a hand. "Madame, may I borrow your handkerchief?"
He flicked his wrist, and lo and behold, a piece of cloth suddenly appeared in his hand. His mother could see that it was in fact an old rag he used, but she still felt compelled to sit down and train her attention on his impromptu performance.
The boy took a step back and held up the cloth. "Here you see an ordinary handkerchief. Nothing remarkable about it. But, in a moment, this ordinary hanky will travel from my hand to somewhere else in the theatre – and I guarantee you will not see it go from one to the other!"
He neatly folded the cloth and placed it in the palm of his left hand. His mother, moderately acquainted with such tricks, watched him carefully to see how he would pull it off.
After assuming a dramatic pose with his knees bent and elbows out, he loudly clapped his hands once and kept them together. Several seconds' suspense lingered in the theatre. The boy smiled. "Where do you think the handkerchief is now, my friends?"
A solemn silence answered him.
"What was that?" He directed his gaze to a row of seats in the back. "You think it's still in my hand?" He glanced at the front row. "Do you, too?" Then he turned to her. "What do you think?"
Though a bit startled by this direct address, she quickly adopted the air of an innocent spectator. "I have no idea. I suppose it is not in your hand."
"Would you like to see for yourself?" He held out his clasped hands to her.
She furrowed her brow a bit. "Is it necessary for the trick?"
"Very much so." His eyes were suddenly serious.
She sighed, shook off the minor discomfort the boy's eyes had given her, and acquiesced. Slowly she pried his fingers apart only to find that both his palms were, indeed, empty. His grin from before returned, but a little wider. "Where is it now?"
"In your sleeves, perhaps?"
He pushed up his sleeves to revealed nothing but skinny, swarthy arms. "Nope."
"That is a mystery, then."
The boy gave her a scrutinizing look. "Perhaps it is in your sleeves."
"Really?" She held out her arms. "You'd better check, then."
He reached into the left sleeve first. His hand rummaged about before he withdrew and displayed a puzzled pout. "No, not there." Then he inspected the other sleeve. "Ah-ha!" Sure enough, he whipped out the rag with all the flare of a seasoned street magician and held it up for his mother to see.
She gave in to a smile. "Not bad, my boy. Can you do anything else?"
"Yes. But this time you must make the handkerchief go somewhere."
Raising her eyebrows at this proposition, she warily took the cloth from him. "Should I hide it?"
"Hide it in your clothes. I won't peek." He turned around. Although still baffled, she also found herself intrigued and curious. When did her boy start exhibiting an interest in magic tricks and sleight of hand? He had visited her fortune-teller's stall often enough, but she could not imagine how much he learned from there. She considered these things as she stuffed the cloth into the waist of her skirt.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
He turned back around. "Now, would you like to join me onstage?"
She let out a short, incredulous laugh. "How elaborate is this trick going to be?"
"Not too elaborate." There was a mischievous gleam in his gaze. He held out his hand to her, which after a second's reluctance she accepted and let herself be led into the middle of the arena. When he placed her in the proper position, he withdrew a standard pack of cards from his coat – another item she forgot he had on his person. He had requested the pack back in Toulouse, but she hardly thought of what he wanted it for except to amuse himself during bouts of boredom. Had she really been so blind?
He held out the cards to her in a fan. "Pick three."
She obeyed. One was the ten of spades, another the three of diamonds, and the last the King of clubs.
"Have you memorized them?" he asked.
"Are you certain?"
"Then put them back." She returned the cards, which he in turn arranged into a stack and began to deal on the ground in three smaller piles. "It's important you remember your cards. The first two are instructions for what you must do next. Are you sure you remember them?"
She placed her hands on her hips. "I do."
"Good. For your first task, you must spin in a circle. Reading the cards from left to right, the number of the first one tells you how many times you must spin. If the card was red, you must spin to the right. If the card was black, then spin to the left. Don't tell me what your card was - just do as the card tells you."
This was incredible! She had never heard of such a trick. But she did as he wished, though she preferred to take her time with the spins so as to minimize dizziness. When she completed her task, the three piles were completed, and the boy gathered them up again into one stack to make another three piles. "Now what?"
"The number of the second card tells you how many times you must hop on one foot."
He looked up. "What? That is how the trick is done."
She groaned. "I suppose red is for the right foot, and black is for the left?"
Good Lord, she thought as she carried out the request. She felt like a performing monkey. The number, by good fortune, was smaller this round. "And now?"
Once more the boy collected the cards in his hands, and he went through them. "Now I will reveal to you your last card." He required only a few seconds to find and extract the King of clubs. "Is this it?"
Although she was slightly winded, his mother laughed and applauded. "Well done, my boy. But I won't recommend performing this trick on an elderly volunteer. They may collapse before you find their card."
The boy laughed as well. "I have sense, Maman. Shall we be on our way?"
She nearly agreed, but then remembered the earlier part of his performance. "What about the handkerchief?"
"The handkerchief?" He scratched his cheek. "The handker—oh, yes! Well, I suppose it's still wherever you hid it."
"What? You mean it wasn't part of the trick?"
"Oh, no, that was to distract you. You can take it out, now."
She sighed and reached for her hiding place. The things you put me through . . . She felt around for a moment. Her face dropped with concern. "It's not . . . what have you done with it?"
"What? Me?" His confusion appeared sincere. "I didn't take it."
She let her hands fall to her sides as she gave him a stern look. "Very cute. Of course you have it. Come on now. Don't keep us waiting."
Her son didn't answer but started to look around the theatre space. He inspected the ground, the seats – he even asked his mother to check her person again to be certain that the cloth hadn't simply moved around from her spinning and jumping. There was no sign of it.
"I can't believe this," he grumbled. He took off his hat and slapped his thigh with it.
His mother, without warning, erupted into laughter. "You little fiend!"
The rag was sitting on the boy's head in the likeness of a rooster's comb.
He discarded the perturbed façade, removed the cloth from his crown and took another low bow. His mother applauded him. "Where on earth did you learn all this?"
"From a fellow called Merlo – he does business a street over from your stall. I wandered near his stand once during one of your private sessions. After watching him do a few tricks like these, I asked him if he could teach me. I've visited him every other week since then."
His mother pursed her lips a little. "You should have told me."
The pleased light on the boy's eyes dimmed. "I didn't go far. And I wanted to surprise you once I had my act down pat."
The sky was turning orange, pink and indigo with the setting sun. The mother sighed and diverted her gaze to the vibrant swirls and streaks in the fiery heavens. "My head will have gone grey before we're back in Toulon."
A brief pause passed between them. "I didn't mean to worry you," the boy said at last.
Her swallow felt dry and sore. "I know."