Author: Pairing: Prouvaire/Feuilly Rating: PG
I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.
-- Craig Raine, "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home"
Sometimes, when he passed people on the street who he used to know, the whisper of memory came, and he nearly greeted them. It seemed the proper thing to do. Then, suddenly, he would remember that he didn't know them any longer, and he would turn away and continue walking. Sometimes, they even nodded to him respectfully, and he shook his head, feeling desperation in his eyes.
Of course, there were plenty of reasons why he should do this. In his imagined perfect world, everyone was free. Every man, every woman, was equal, and they lived by one another, by trade and fairness and kindness. But he knew quite well that it was simply imagination, because he had been one of the people he used to know for long enough to remember that, no matter what else happened. It was all right to have a perfect world and an ideal, but one must remember it was fantasy, and be prepared to live with the harshness and the cruelty and the occasional smiling of the actual world.
Wasn't that why he was here in the first place? He was a gentleman, despite the fact that he couldn't even read, and he needn't work any longer--of course not. He was a gentleman, and Victor and Justine and Henri and Elise were provided for and well. His sisters and brothers understood less well what had happened, and they were always smiling now. They would, he had determined long ago, never go hungry or sleep in the gutters like the other children he used to see every day. That was a fine goal, of course, but one that was difficult to reach--and then, magically, it became easy.
Because of Jean.
And here Feuilly would anxiously straighten his cravat or take his eyeglasses from his pocket and put them on quickly, knowing he was supposed to. Jean had seen about the eyeglasses--Feuilly hadn't realised he was going nearsighted at first, but when it became more difficult to make minute details on the fans he painted, and he quietly mentioned it, Jean immediately found a man who would make him a pair of spectacles. Jean was always doing things, feeling that he had to. Feuilly tried to dissuade him occasionally, but one could not dissuade Jean easily, and Feuilly did, he admitted later to himself, need the eyeglasses.
Besides--here Feuilly would sigh a little--he did love Jean. He had loved Jean for a long time, had watched him sitting at his table in the cafe, trapped on an island of paper and ink, making dreams. For Jean wrote poetry, and although it mightn't have been particularly good poetry, it was so earnest and sweet that it endeared itself, in a way, to the reader. For several years now, he'd watched Jean and smiled along with his other companions as he read the over-elegant handwriting and the odd, sweet verses.
When the dawn comes coming,
And the wind blows strong
To the sound of distant drumming
And the queer and whispered song,
A working boy comes coming,
With a ribbon tied in his hair;
Solemnly smiles at the drumming;
He's come for the magic there.
He left his work when the dawn came coming
For the spells and the song and the distant drumming.
It was one of poems Jean had first given to him that he carried about in his pocket always. Every morning, he took it out, unfolded it, smoothed down the seams, and read it sadly. It was odd, wasn't it, that in the beginning, the poem seemed like magic? It had been a token of love, and he had played the blushing girl, tucking it into his waistcoat pocket and thanking Jean--and Jean, girlish Jean with his curly dark hair and his wide, purple-bluish-coloured eyes, had played the hero, rescuing his lover from destitution, supporting Feuilly's family, all the brothers and sisters who were used to nothing.
Yet, in the beginning, it had been lovely. The first time he'd met Jean, who smiled shyly and shook his hand as he introduced himself; the first time they'd truly spoken, and debated lengthily about whether it was better to paint or be painted, to write about or be written about, to love or to be loved; then other debates, which always became conversations, about poverty, romance novels, Lamarque, Rousseau, Enjolras, the college, the rolls at Café Mouille; he recalled the time he'd arrived late at Musain due to Justine being ill, and Jean had insisted on purchasing medicine, despite his protests; he remembered thanking Jean; kissing Jean; going home with Jean--yes, at first, it had all been almost dreamlike in its simplicity and sweetness.
Now it was rather sad. Jean had made him a gentleman, and he felt like a kept woman. At night, he would sit by the window looking out at the few fiacres coming back late from the theatre or dinner out, realising that here, there were no drunks to stagger past, no whores standing on the street corners in their low-cut dresses, no children or beggars sitting under old windows with their cups beside them. Now he lived in a decent neighbourhood, in a fine apartment with Jean, with his brothers and sisters, who thought that M. Prouvaire was the most wonderful man in the world (sometimes he felt betrayed that they thought that, for he'd worked so hard to take care of them for the last thirteen years), who never questioned the fact that he shared M. Prouvaire's room because they'd lived in a tiny apartment long enough to know that conserving space was a good idea.
Then, here, Feuilly would close the curtains of the window and come back to the bed where Jean was watching him with his bright eyes. He would pause a moment to tuck back one of Jean's curls, and see the sleepy smile and the fond look in Jean's eyes. Another moment, and he would lie down, making a muffled 'mmm' noise as Jean's arm curled about him.
He wouldn't sleep, though. He wouldn't sleep until long after Jean had fallen asleep, perhaps dozing off around four in the morning and waking again at six.
He would always get up at six. When he had to work, he'd always gotten up before then, and now, although he slept a little later, he still got up from habit. Of course, he didn't go to the college the way Jean did, but he asked the girl who came in to take the laundry to teach him letters, and sometimes she did. Feuilly could spell his own name--Ansel--and Elise's name, and Jean's, but he was still learning Victor and Henri and Justine.
And, of course, he still loved Jean. He mightn't be happy, but he still loved Jean. At times he wondered, supposing he didn't love Jean any longer? Would he leave? Would he admit to the fact? If he left, his brothers and sisters would have to leave with him, and he had sworn that they would be provided for, but he no longer had a job. But perhaps he need never think of that. He loved Jean. He still felt as though he could smile when Jean read his odd poetry. On Sundays, he followed Jean to church, and took Communion, and the only difference from before was that he confessed his sins and sodomy to the priest in a fine suit instead of a threadbare but clean waistcoat and jacket.
The worst of it, however, was not feeling different, or knowing he still loved Jean, or having lost the children's affection to their beloved M. Prouvaire. The worst was losing his old acquaintances.
When the whisper of memory came, and someone he used to share a drink with some nights walked by him in the street without so much as a smile, or when some girl whose eyes he'd once painted on a fan beckoned to him from a corner because she couldn't tell any longer that he was the fellow who'd given her a token, then Feuilly would feel a cringing, shrivelled, bottomless feeling inside. Everyone else could see he had changed. Why, then, couldn't he admit it without wanting to hide?
Here he would nod good afternoon to Courfeyrac, for by now it would be afternoon, and he would be at Musain, completely idle. There was nothing to do with his hands anymore, and once he'd begun biting his fingernails. He quickly stopped, however, when he saw that it bothered Jean. But he would be idle, and Courfeyrac would smile that knowing smile and swing over to sit beside him for a moment, asking cheerfully how Feuilly's day had been, as though he didn't know.
From a distant table that somehow managed to be the head of the room, Enjolras would look up with his bright, accusing eyes, filled with disgust. To Enjolras, Feuilly had become everything he despised most: a poor man who was now rich, and had forgotten his fellows still impoverished. Feuilly had not forgot, but walking around the street corners and seeing the recognition flicker out of Pierre's eyes or Dory's waving hand suddenly drop made him try not to remember.
Because of Jean.
In the autumn, when Paris smelled crisp, Feuilly lost hold of himself. He had gone through too many streets, endured too many nights looking out the window, unfolded and smoothed out the poem too many times--been a gentleman too long. Silently and curiously calmly, he had pulled the velvet ribbon from his flax-blond hair, loosened his cravat, took his brothers and sisters by the hands, and gone away, at eight o'clock in the morning, before the girl came to do the laundry and teach him the letter 'R'. They didn't ask him what he was doing as he drew little crosses on their foreheads from ash, and one on his own forehead too--as he unbuttoned his waistcoat, threw his jacket to some urchin begging beneath a window. They remained quiet as he took them to the pawnshop and pawned Elise's necklace and Henri's small watch and his own eyeglasses, and as he took them to a different shop and bought seven jars of paint, a brush, and a bolt of white silk with money from his pockets and money from their things. When he begged wooden splints from a fellow selling firewood in an alley, and took them to a tiny, ugly apartment, they glanced at each other with dark eyes, but never spoke.
When the paints and silk and wood were set up on the tiny table in the single tiny room, and the tiny window wide to let the crisp smell come through, Feuilly sat down, and once again his hands were no longer idle.
He did not let Jean find him for four months. During that time, he allowed his clothes to become threadbare but clean again, and when he walked to the pawnshop with another something left over from his time as a gentleman, Dory kept her hand waving, and the fellow he used to have a drink with evenings stopped him and asked if he was free to patronise a café--and sometimes he was, and sometimes he wasn't.
He still could not spell Victor or Henri or Justine. Only Elise's name ever had its letters wound into the decoration on the edges of his fans. The other children, though, didn't mind. They were back to brown smocks and bare feet, but their brother Ansel, however madly he might weep sometimes in the night, was good to them during the day. They might not have enough to eat, but that was not a new hardship; it was an old one that they were learning over again. It was all right.
But the eyes on Feuilly's fans were not those of the girl on the street corner, and he never threw out Jean's poem. That was why he let himself be found, in the late part of January, when Paris smelled of snow and his brothers and sisters wrapped leftover pieces of silk around their feet.
In the late part of January, he returned to Musain, nodded his head to Courfeyrac and went up to Enjolras, whose eyes were no longer filled with disgust--just, perhaps, confusion, that went away when Feuilly explained he was back for good. When he left, he went slowly, leaving clear footprints, and allowing Jean to follow him home.
"Ansel!" Jean cried, catching his arm in the snow and holding him still. "Why did you leave me?"
"I couldn't stay. I changed. I wasn't happy."
"You should have told me! I could have done something! I would have done anything!"
"You weren't there."
"I would have returned! You knew I was at school!" Jean's voice was desperate, and Feuilly regretfully unfolded the poem and smoothed down the seams.
"Here. You weren't there, but I know what was my fault. I had to leave, and I know very well I should have told you I was going, but I couldn't stay. I didn't want you to bring me back when I might have changed my mind."
"How did I not make you happy? What didn't I give you?"
Feuilly shrugged. "You gave me everything. It was too much."
"I wasn't myself. I lost hold of myself. I forgot what I wanted, because I had too much."
"If only you'd told me! Oh, for God's love, Ansel, don't give me back my poem. I wrote it for you."
"I love you, Jean. I always loved you." Feuilly shrugged again, as there was nothing better to do with his body. "The trouble was in the way I loved you. I allowed you to turn me into anything you wanted, because I loved you too much and wouldn't stop you. I could have--don't say it. I could have stopped you any moment I wanted. But I didn't. Jean, I must go home. They're waiting for me."
"Let me come with you."
Feuilly returned home, and his brothers and sisters watched without surprise as M. Prouvaire sat with him on the bed and talked. Henri, who was the oldest, explained to the others that Ansel was talking about living with M. Prouvaire, except that he wouldn't. He was saying he didn't want to.
They nodded wistfully. Of course, if Ansel didn't, they didn't either, but M. Prouvaire'd bought them nice things and remembered their names.
The whisper of memory surrounded Feuilly as he talked with Jean. Yes, he had been wrong in leaving without explanation. Jean claimed to have been wrong in giving them so much, though he couldn't truly be blamed for that. In the cold, frosty breath of reproach that slipped in through the open window and speeded the drying of this morning's early-painted, Jean-eyed fan, Feuilly explained all of his reasons. He explained, with delicately-worded sentences, about looking out the window at the blameless street; about having idle hands that longed to work again; about being unable to sleep and unable to dream and unable to look at Enjolras without knowing he was right to be disgusted; about his old shadows of friends turning away. In the best language he knew, he told Jean how he'd felt like a mistress living in a world of windows, and Jean wept.
This was where Jean finally whispered, with hope in his voice, "But would you love me again if I didn't bring you back? Suppose I left you here, but I came--or you came to me--and we might still be lovers? Would you love me again?"
"I still love you, Jean," said Feuilly plainly.
"Love me as you did at first!"
And on the one hand, Feuilly saw the frosty breath of January kissing him cold, and on the other, Jean, making promises that seemed as though they would make everything work. He saw his fan and Jean's poem. He sat still. As long as he'd lived, as long as he'd taken care of his brothers and sisters, he understood that promises were rarely fulfilled unless they were simple or quick to be done. Questioningly, like the whispered memory and the cold reproach, he wondered whether it was worth taking the chance. Did he dare? Ought he take the risk? And, soft as the whuff of air from a fan opening, he saw that he didn't, no matter how dearly he loved Jean.
Perhaps it was odd that he thought of it as so practical a choice. Perhaps what he was was simply the opposite of a hopeless romantic; but for whatever reason, Feuilly saw that love was not worth freedom, and a home was not worth pride. He shook his head.
"No," he said to Jean. "Not now."
"Why not? I love you, Ansel!"
"I love you. But I can't give up everything because I love you. I will stay with them--" he nodded at his brothers and sisters "--and take care of them. Henri and Justine know how to work, but Victor and Elise must be taught. I shall teach them."
"But I could give them a home! They wouldn't need to work!"
"Jean," said Feuilly, "that's part of why I left in the first place."
Jean looked stricken. For a few moments, the room was very quiet, and everyone watched Jean as he hid his face and turned away. Feuilly's eyes were soft but determined, and his brothers and sisters were dark-eyed and curious. Finally, Jean lifted his head.
"Very well," he said. "I shall leave. But Ansel--is there anything at all I can do for you, if I can't give you a home and I can't love you?"
"Teach me," Feuilly said, "'R'. I didn't learn it."
So Jean took his hand, and in the dust behind the headboard of the bed, traced an 'R' with his finger. Feuilly drew another one beside it, clumsy and shaky. An 'R'. A tall 'R', as would begin Robert or Rouge. Then, beside that, Jean taught him the small 'r', the 'r' in Henri and Victor.
After Feuilly had said good-bye to Jean, standing tall and speaking steady words, he sat down on the bed, and Henri climbed up beside him, leaning against Feuilly's shoulder with his tired eyes closed. For once, Feuilly didn't push him away with a little sound that meant 'no, not this', and when the whisper of memory came, he spelt Henri's name out letter by letter, 'o-n-r-i'.
He didn't believe he would ever forget how.