Archived: Catching at Pearls :: Audrey Nelson


I was fourteen when we moved to Paris. Our first day in the city, Dad put five euros in my hand and walked me to the St. Michel Metro Station. He taught me how to use the automatic ticket machine and told me it was all I’d ever need to know. He pointed out the entrance gate and gave me an old map that didn’t lie flat because it had been folded the wrong way too many times. When I put the change from the ticket in my coin purse, he left. Amidst the bustling underground station, I watched him jog up the stairs out of the dark and into the light, the passing people weaving me into a spider web.

I rode all over Paris that day on one ticket, transferring from line to line without going above ground. The hum of French buzzed around me, and I rode to any destination with an interesting name – Porte de Clignancourt, Père Lachaise, Pigalle, St. Placide. When the name of the stop played over the intercom, I would imitate the sounds quietly to myself, enjoying the way they bounced around clumsily in my mouth. I kept my ears tuned for any hint of English and eavesdropped on those conversations, hoping to learn something—anything—about the city I was now a citizen of.

That was the first time I heard the name “Rodin”—eavesdropping on the Metro. Somewhere on the blue line, or maybe it was the purple, I spotted a woman and man leaning against the pole in the middle of the train car. The woman talked about the museum in Paris—the sculpture, the mansion, the grounds. She said his name over and over like it tasted good on her tongue, passion surging and ebbing from her features with each memory recalled. The man watched her affectionately, the way I’m sure my dad never looked at me or my mother. I don’t remember my mother, and my dad never mentioned her. She must be alive somewhere because he always seemed to be looking for someone when we moved to a new place. Dad didn’t like to talk about anything personal, but one time he said that it was good that I was a loner. Best for both of us really, he said. At the next stop, I exited with the couple, past a man playing the accordion. It sounded like circus music, and when we turned the corner it distorted the melody like one of those funny mirrors distorts a reflection.

* * *

Over the rooftops, church bells rang through the falling evening light. I counted them as I wandered down the narrow, abandoned street – five; I quickened my pace. The museum only stayed open until 5:45; that’s what the woman at the metro window told me. She had pink lips and a spring green scarf, and her hair was tucked loosely behind her ears before cascading over her left shoulder. I tried to make my hair do the same, but in passing my reflection in a shop window I saw I had failed.

The hard soles of my shoes clicked on the uneven pavestones, echoing off the four-story walls that towered over me. I liked the sound of it; it was the song of my journey. To the rhythm of my steps, I added a bass line of my palm thumping against my leg and a hummed melody that had the sound of adventure to it. Caught up in my symphonic creation, I turned the corner and ran into the back of a man with oval patches of leather on the elbows of his ugly, blue tweed coat. He jumped to the side and raised his arms like I’d gotten him wet, staring icily at me before turning back around.

“Sorry,” I said, tapping him on one of the elbow patches. “Is this the line for the museum? Oh wait, do you speak English?”

“Yes,” he said only turning halfway back toward me.

Merci,” I said, proudly using one of the few French I had acquired. The line wasn’t very long, but it crept forward slowly. Across the street and down a way, kids played noisily in a school yard. I wasn’t in school. Dad didn’t think it was too important since we might not be in Paris long, and I didn’t speak French. But I wasn’t in school in London either. I was envious of kids who got to go to school and learn new things. I knew of no lovelier feeling than adding a new bit of knowledge to your mind, like a coin to your purse. It was like you got to become a better person, better for knowing something that the old version of yourself didn’t. Dad didn’t understand that. Stop whining, he’d say, and appreciate the fact that I was living in some of the most entertaining cities in the world. Dad liked to be entertained; I liked entertaining myself.

By the time I reached the entrance, the autumn sun made long shadows that spanned the street. Tall glass windows, geometric lines, and white block lettering marked the modern exterior of the museum. Finally inside, I stepped up to the desk. My hand in my pocket, I held my small collection of coins tightly in my fist.

“How much is it to get into the museum?” I asked.

“How old are you?” the man behind the counter asked brusquely.

“Eighteen,” I blurted out. It was a lie. I was fourteen, but I thought they might not let me in if I wasn’t old enough.

“That is a shame. It’s free for those under eighteen.” He leaned forward slightly and lowered his voice. “You look so much younger than eighteen; it’s too bad you didn’t think to lie.” He sat back again, the slight smile dropping from his face. “For adults, admission is nine euros.”

“What if we started again?” I twirled around and grabbed the counter with two hands. “Bonjour. My name is Jem Whitman. I’m sixteen years old. How much is it to get into the museum?”

“Free,” he said, deadpan. “Want a map?” He slid a ticket and map across the desk robotically and turned to the waiting line. “Next, please.”

I stuffed the ticket and map in my pocket next to my saved coins. The man had already moved on to disregarding the next person in line, but he gave me a subtle wink before tossing a map at them.

The entrance lobby turned out to be just a gateway to the walled grounds where large, leafy trees filtered dappled light onto fountains, sculptures, and verdant expanses of grass. To my right, winding paths delineated by sculpted, cone-shaped bushes created a maze where most people disappeared first. I took the far path around one of the bushes where no one walked to find a mass of people huddled in whispering groups around a marble base with a large sculpture sitting atop it.

The naked man had one elbow propped on a knee as he peered down on those in front of him. People would take turns stepping up, lean a hand on the base, cock a hip to the side, and smile for a photo to be snapped. I stood on the fringe as the procession of people and photos passed like an assembly line. The muscles in the bronze man’s legs and back contracted as if he were about jump from his perch. His hand clenched his knee, and his toes gripped the surface underneath them. His fist rested against his lips, against his face drawn tightly together with tension. He seemed an outsider, tortured by his thoughts, oblivious to the people below him, the ones with vacant smiles and practiced poses.

I escaped the crowded maze, stumbling into a mansion’s shadow. It was almost all windows with very little wall to hold them in place. One of the doors stood slightly open; it was inconspicuous and unassuming like a secret entrance to the house. The breeze pushed the door open a bit wider, beckoning me, separating me from the others.

The wooden floor creaked when I stepped through the door like it was announcing an intruder. I crept up the stairs, past a few people milling around the first floor. I worked my way through the rooms, starting at what I hoped was supposed to be the end and working backward. It was the way I liked to do things. In a powder blue room with large sculptures scattered throughout, one in the corner drew my attention and held it.

I shuffled my feet along the worn parquet floor toward her. She wasn’t black or white like so many of the other figures. She was brown, and gold, and green, and dirty. Her body was bent dramatically at the waist. Her head rested on her shoulder. She had no arms, and her legs were disfigured, but she was whole. She existed perfectly without the missing and deformed extremities. This wasn’t art like Dad’s. He painted the same scenes every other Paris painter did—the kind that brought twenty euros from tourists who didn’t know any better.

Her name was The Inner Voice according to a small sign on the base. She looked young and womanly at the same time, and I was envious of her magnetism. I reached my hand out toward her. The floor behind me creaked, and I dropped my hand quickly to my side. Turning around tentatively, I was prepared to find the reproachful face of an adult, but instead an empty room. I reached my hand out again. My fingertips brushed her leg, and I dragged them over her hip and up the sloping curve of her arched body. The stone indeed felt like skin. I touched her lips and traced the defined edge of her jaw line.

“She is beautiful, yes?”

I wrenched my hand away and cowered beneath her. A man watched me from the doorway, his hands behind his back. His face seemed friendly even though his eyebrows were drawn together in concern.

“I wish I looked like her,” I said, stepping out from her protection.

“She is one of my favorites. She is a muse,” he said, staring lovingly at her face, “to a very famous writer.” He changed his focus from her face to mine. “You do look a bit like her.”

“I’m sorry if I wasn’t supposed to touch her.”

“What do you think of her?”

“I wish I knew why her eyes are closed, and why she is bent in that way,” I said, tilting my own head to match the angle of hers.

“She has no voice. She uses what she has to communicate—the shape of her body, the tilt of her head, the peace in her face.”

We stood in silence for a few moments, listening to the voiceless muse.

I turned to him and held out my hand. “My name is Jem.”

Enchanté, Jem. So, what do you know about Rodin?”

“Nothing. I heard someone talking about what a great artist he was and I wanted to see for myself.”

“And what do you think? Is he a great artist?”

“I like that his sculptures don’t just look like all the others—stiff and mechanical. They feel…,” I searched my mind for the right word, “passionate, and sad too.” Voices from the next room drifted in, breaking the spell that bound both of us to the woman.

“You’re very clever, Jem, and I’m glad you like the work,” he said, exiting through the door I had come in. “Enjoy your visit.”

I looked back at the muse for a moment before hurrying after him.

“Excuse me, uh, Monsieur,” I said, calling out to him just as he disappeared into the next room.

He peeked back around the corner. “Auguste.”

“Excuse me, Auguste. What writer was she a muse for?”

“Victor Hugo. Do you know him?” he asked, his brows still tightly bound together.

“No. Is he anything like Rodin?”

He smiled fully finally. “Not really, no.” He turned to leave but changed his mind. “You should read his work; I think you would like it. It will help you understand Paris, and maybe yourself, my little Esmerelda.”

He dropped the nickname like a pearl and vanished into the next room.

“Esmerelda.” I stretched the syllables out in my mouth as I floated through the rest of the mansion and gardens on hazy steps. I listened to the sculptures and tried to discern what their voiceless, often tortured, postures said, but I was distracted by my new adventure, my new assignment—to find a book by Victor Hugo. The museum closed, spilling me and the other stragglers out into the Paris twilight. I let my feet resume their previous melody, and the sound echoed down the narrow street.