by Elaine Margolis
The mime, dressed in black, a shawl across one shoulder, a dark lens on one eye, moved his head from side to side as he adjusted his cuffs, holding the crowd, holding me, keeping us inside the space of, not letting us escape from, his unseeing single-eyed stare.
A tape player filled the Paris square with a ricky-tick tune, the mime’s feet kicking in time, a spasmodic dance; his gloves, bright blue, twitching as though attached to invisible strings. Back straight, staring eye, he posed and postured, twitched and turned, his mouth a pink pout, his gray hair rolling like fog.
The beat of the music drowned out street sounds as the mime’s limbs quivered and jerked. He winked at one person, gestured at another. People shifted, smiled uncertain smiles.
His bright blue finger pointed at me. I tried to edge away but the crowd was solid, pushing forward, taking me along.
If this is a nightmare, I should be waking up.
The music stopped. The mime bowed low, a jerking spasmodic bow. People applauded, threw francs. I fumbled in my purse for a coin but when I looked up, the mime was gone, vanished into the crowd, into the sun slanting low across the square.
I pushed through groups of people milling around me, through popping firecrackers, people dancing in the street. On Bastille Day everyone danced in the street.
I ran. I wanted to get away, away from the mime, away from the crowds. I wanted to get to my apartment, convince myself the scene had not passed over, across, through me. Convince myself there was no reason to be afraid.
I slammed the apartment door, looked around the room, my unfinished canvases stacked against the walls reassuring me I was in a friendly place. I picked up my sketchbook, abstractedly drew a few lines.
The pencil seemed to move by itself. The cloud of gray hair, the twitching finger, the staring eye. It was like glancing under a rock at things unimagined, unimaginable. I colored in the blue cotton gloves, the black shawl, the pouting lips, as I searched for the source of my unease.
The next day I started work on another painting, a class assignment, but all I could see was the mime’s staring eye, the beckoning finger. I gave it up and went for a walk in the misty morning.
Wandering through the city, I came to the square where I had been the night before. Cafes lined the sidewalk, chairs were piled on tables, some shutters down, most shops closed.
In a corner window I saw marionettes dancing across a black velvet backdrop. Next to the open shop door was a marionette hanging on a bar, a pirate with a tricorner hat, black eye patch, red breeches and jacket. I reached for it.
‘He is perfect, non?’
The voice made me jump. I let go of the marionette and it jumped too, an agitated dance.
The man in the doorway said, ‘My name is Henri Lille. If you would step in, I would be happy to show you my work.’
With an elegant gesture, he motioned me into the shop. His face was pleasant, his manner gentle. He smiled a friendly smile. ‘It is not often my shop is honored by a beautiful visitor such as you.’
Marionettes hung from bars along the walls and ceiling: harlequins, witches, pirates, elves, ladies in elegant gowns.
‘You do exquisite work,’ I said, pleased to be talking about his marionettes, talking about anything, engaged in a dialog, having someone to answer.
‘Thank you,’ Henri Lille said. ‘Many people like my marionettes and come here to buy. For many reasons.’ He pressed my hand. ‘But now, I was going for a coffee. Would you join me?’
We sipped coffee leisurely. He spoke of his marionettes as though they were alive, his closest friends. We spoke about his art, my art, the art of the streets, the art of the museums of Paris.
The morning lengthened into lunch. At one point I asked if he did not have to go back to work, feeling guilty myself at being so easily distracted.
‘But no. My shop is open by appointment. This morning for a special customer. It was a lucky accident you came in. What do you say — shall we enjoy the rest of the day together?’
We found cafes and shops in neighborhoods I never would have discovered alone. We lingered over coffee for hours. The sun was beginning to set. We were in a tiny cafe across from a park, sipping aperitifs.
I mentioned the mime in the square. Had Henri seen him?
‘I regret,’ he said. ‘I was elsewhere last evening. This mime, he amused you?’
‘He was frightening,’ I said. ‘Not like a person. He reminded me of something terrible, something –‘
He cut in. ‘On Bastille Day one often sees the unusual, the bizarre.’ He gazed abstractedly across the park. ‘Sometimes these things we see bring out feelings we do not know we feel, fears we do not know we fear, hidden selves of which we are not aware.’
‘You think he frightened me because of something — I don’t remember, or even know?’
He whispered, ‘There are such things, comprends? hidden in all of us.’
He lifted his glass. ‘Let us drink to them, these hidden fears, these hidden selves. Let us make them our friends.’
Before I could reply, he said, ‘What does one know, after all? I fashion my marionettes, my little people. They live — I give them life –when they perform. They cannot feel, except when I feel for them, or speak until I speak for them. They do not exist except as I exist for them.’
Then, with an intensity I did not expect, he said, ‘Do you ever create something which does not turn out well? Something you want to destroy and cannot? Something so fearful you hide it, do not want it to be seen? An aberration, a distortion?’
‘A hidden self?’ I said. It slipped out before I could stop it.
He seemed agitated, moved in his chair, avoiding my eyes, then he smiled and waved his hand.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘let us stroll through the park on this beautiful evening.’ He pulled back my chair.
As we strolled I told about my classes at the academy of arts, my coming to Paris alone to work free of distractions; the students at school, busy with their work, their families, their loved ones. How polite they were. How distant. Henri referred vaguely to the natural diffidence of the French.
Shadows fell across the pavement. People hurried past carrying loaves of bread. The air smelled as though every flower in Paris had just bloomed. Traffic rushed and honked and stalled as the city turned crimson, orange, pink, under the luminous sky.
I asked if he would like to stop at my place to see my paintings. He said he would be delighted.
The way to my apartment took us past Henri’s shop. He paused at the door.
‘There is something I should see to. Would you wait for me one moment?’
We went in, marionettes hanging above us in the shadows. I followed him down a corridor to his workroom. An overhead light illuminated a large table covered with tiny arms, legs, torsos.
He picked up a marionette with a pale wood featureless face and dangling limbs. He gently moved the arms and legs.
‘You see, I test him to see if his joints are secure. Sometimes the wood is too fragile, the joints do not hold.’
He placed the marionette flat on the table, probed it with the fingers of a surgeon, feeling one spot, tugging at another, bent over, absorbed. He seemed to have forgotten me.
I looked into the shadows. Piles of clutter filled the room, pieces of cloth and hair and wood and pots of paint and glue, shapes vaguely human in the shaded fingers of light.
Something was hanging at the far end of the room. I moved behind the table, behind Henri. A large cabinet hid my view. I moved carefully in the dark, trying not to trip or brush against anything, trying not to call attention to myself. I had to see what was hanging —
‘Cherie! Where have you gone?’
I stepped back. ‘Here, Henri.’
‘Why were you in that filthy place? See, you have made your face dirty.’ He picked up a clean cloth, wiped my cheek. His hand gripped my shoulder. I could feel him trembling.
‘It is not good to look into the dark and dirty corners of someone’s life. What you see might distress you.’
‘A shape in the corner reminded –‘
‘Many things look familiar in the dark,’ he said hoarsely.
He moved to the door, his voice softening. ‘I have finished what I wanted to do. Shall we go? I am eager to see your work. After all, you have already seen mine.’
We walked through streets still tinged by the sunset’s afterglow. Couples brushed past. We heard their murmuring voices.
He said, ‘Did you not leave a loved one when you came to Paris?’ I felt his touch on my arm as we crossed a street.
‘Yes,’ I said, uncomfortable. ‘But I came here to work. I don’t want to think about anything but my work.’
‘And you are able to control your feelings?’
‘Yes — well, I try.’
We reached my apartment building. I pressed the outside button to light the lobby.
‘We have to hurry,’ I said. ‘The light is timed and doesn’t stay on long.’ I hated to be in that lobby in the dark.
Canvases were strewn about my apartment, crowding the few pieces of furniture against the walls.
He went from one painting to another, examining each one, occasionally nodding his head. Street scenes, people I had seen, some nudes from my class at the academy. The sketch of the mime. He stopped in front of it.
‘Very nice,’ he said. ‘Very evocative.’
‘His looks are — I’m just glad he can’t move.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because the most frightening thing about the mime was the way he moved to the music he played.’
‘But do you not want to bring this feeling to your work?’
All I wanted to do was change the subject. I took a bottle out of the refrigerator.
‘Would you like a glass of wine?’ I said. It was a warm night. I pushed the windows wide.
Henri sat on the sofa with his glass, surrounded by large pads of paper, boxes of pencils, colored chalk. He kept looking at the mime. I asked what he thought of the other work. His answers were vague.
I noticed his profile, his straight nose, immaculate chin, his hair, brown with a touch of gray at the temples. His stillness, the undercurrent.
‘Henri, would you pose for me?’
‘Dieu, you cannot be serious! Why on earth –‘
‘It’s all right if you don’t want to pose,’ I said quickly. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you.’
He said, ‘Cherie, you do not upset me. I tell you something, I will do it. It is against my good judgment but I will do it anyway.’
He set down his glass. ‘You will see. Tomorrow when it is dark I will be here. Yes, I will pose for you.’
He kissed me on both cheeks. ‘Until tomorrow,’ he said.
I worked on my sketch of the mime all the next day, searching for what it was trying to tell me, hoping to find out, to finish it, before Henri came to pose.
Finally I had to put it aside to think about how I would arrange things. Henri’s face, the hollows and planes, the classic profile. Against the open window, or under a lamp with muted shadows. The shadows seemed to fit.
I set up my sketch pad on a chair, sharpened pencils, adjusted the lamp, checked the wine, unwrapped a wedge of Brie.
I pulled back the drapes to let in a breeze. The summer evening lingered, streaking the sky, ten o’clock before it would finally be dark.
The doorbell rang.
I heard the elevator clank.
I opened the door.
He was dressed in black, a cloud of gray hair, a dark lens on one eye. A tape player dangled from his shoulder, the ricky-tick tune hammered the air.
Back straight, staring eye, shifting feet in a spasmodic dance, eye winking, lips pouting, hands flickering in time.
The music blared, ordering his limbs. He jerked, twitched, scuffed his feet, stepped slowly into the room, moving his arms to the music.
He kept coming closer as I retreated, numb, not knowing where to go. My back hit the wall, the music stopped, he stopped. I hugged the wall. I looked into his unrecognizing eye. I faced the gray makeup smearing his face, the smudged black of his staring eye, the relentless pink of his pouting mouth.
I told myself, this is Henri, Henri a prisoner behind the makeup, the gestures, the outlandish dress. Henri the mime. Henri the marionette.
I looked into his unblinking eye. I said as loud as I could. ‘Mime, I’m not afraid of you.’
His body was stiff, his legs apart, his arms raised in a statuelike pose. The ricky-tick tune blared again, filling the room. He bowed a low, jerking bow, his hair swept the floor. His expression blank, mincingly, haltingly, he backed through the door.
Outside the sound of his running feet on the sidewalk, the tape player’s music, disturbed, discordant, faded into a waltz someone was playing from an open window.
Night shadows drifted. A fragrant breeze skittered by. In a while it would be morning. I sat on the couch to wait.