photo by Adam Whipple
The wanderer draped a thinning cloak over his shoulders. He ran thin, strong fingers over the frayed brim of a felt hat before settling it onto his head. Thus arrayed he seemed no more than a shade. With boots wrapped in soiled rags, he was as silent as one. He left to wander the stygian maze that was his adopted home.
His breath misted as he stepped into the tunnel. The overwhelming reek of mud and mold and rot assaulted him. The wanderer pulled the door tight, smothering the light. He set off down the familiar corridors, through oddly shaped rooms, sliding around the unseen obstacles. Six steps, and a turn to the left. Three more steps and he crouched before moving forward, trailing a hand along the wall. The ceiling dipped low for seven steps before he could stand upright again. The smell of water grew. The floor dipped and he stepped over a metal grate. Loud splashes reached up from the sewer as it flowed from the lake to the Seine.
He turned his steps toward the far end of the cellar. A turn and sixteen steps sloping upward brought him to a stairway. He climbed five wooden steps before listening at the door.
Despite his care, the door creaked as he opened it. This was one of the sections of basement where he found lost or drunken souls who had wandered too far from the backstage area of the Opera. Twenty-two steps, a turn right and seven more steps brought him to a T in the passage. A whisper stabbed out of the gloom from his right. He could not make out what was said but he caught the sound of movement as two bodies dropped to the ground.
Turning toward the shapes, the wanderer resumed his trek. The fragrance emanating from the two figures jogged long buried memories of disregarded things. The first bore spicy scents of clove and coriander and the lightest hint of cinnamon. The smell lingered at the edge of his memory, almost familiar. The second person smelled light and fresh like a bright day in a spring long forgotten. He did not recall ever having smelled him before.
The wanderer altered his path, allowing his cloak to brush the figures as he passed. The sharp tang of fear settled in his nostrils. His heart beat heavy and fast in his chest. His lips peeled back in a smile.
Now and again he tapped a booted toe against a wall and again into the corner, as if he did not know every stride of the theater’s basements. Once the wanderer rounded the corner, he pressed himself flat against the wall. He occasionally scuffed the sole of a boot, progressively quieter as if he were moving farther away. Then he stopped and listened in silence.
“Whew,” came a whispered voice from one of the men behind the corner. “We’ve had a narrow escape. That shade knows me and has twice taken me to the managers’ office.” Now he remembered the familiar smelling man, with his dusky skin and eyes. He was a friend of the masked one. The wanderer could hear rustling as the two rose to their feet.
“Is it someone belonging to the theater police?” asked the second man.
“It’s someone much worse than that,” replied the first.
The sound of receding steps reached out from the dark. The wanderer could not make out any more of what was said as the men proceeded away. He resisted the urge to follow. Had either been lost or inebriated, or otherwise incapable of making it out of the cellars, he would be obliged to help. That was his bargain with the manager of the Opera. But these men needed no such help.
The wanderer continued his circuit of the basements. Nine steps from the turn he took the left fork. The passageway angled upward into the fourth basement. This main corridor bent in a great arc as he walked. Forty-six steps bypassing the five side passages took him to another T. He chose the left branch. Eight steps later he reached a passageway to the right. He took it. The storage area was in a little alcove nineteen steps down the corridor.
He opened a small cupboard and felt inside. Glass jars. He picked them up one at a time. There were three full jars and seven empty or partially full. He selected a full jar and cradled it lovingly. The oil, part of the bargain he’d struck with the manager, would light his den for more than a month, if he burned it at his normal habit.
Then he heard the crying. Not the heavy wailing of grief, but more of a gentle sobbing. He set the oil back in place and followed the sound. It was not long before he found her huddled on the ground in the blackness. He intentionally scuffed a boot.
“Who’s there?” came a fear-filled voice from the gloom. He could just make out a candleholder nestled in her lap. The candle was little more than a wickless blob. She smelled of garden flowers and cedar and desperation.
He didn’t answer. Instead he asked, “Are you lost?”
“Yes,” she replied in a small voice.
He smiled and answered, “Come, I will take you to the manager’s office.” He understood better than most how you could hear a smile in someone’s voice without ever seeing it.
She hesitated a moment before reaching out. He took her hand. She clutched it like a drowning swimmer. “This way,” he said, leading her.
“Who are you,” she asked again as they moved through the darkness.
He waited, thinking how to answer. Her nearby warmth comforted him. Twenty-one steps and they came to the stairs leading to the fourth basement. “A friend, here to help. What’s your name?” he asked, guiding her up. Wood creaked beneath their feet.
“Marie Collette le Clare.”
“That’s a very pretty name. Do you come to the Opera often?”
“This is my first time.”
He swallowed down the sudden lump in his throat. They walked in silence and he lost himself in thought as they moved from cellar to cellar. He changed their route three times to avoid workers before they reached the manager’s office.
“The manager will be along soon,” said the wanderer, pleased his voice did not crack. “He’ll make sure you get home.”
“Thank you for helping me,” Marie said, hugging him.
His sister’s voice reached across the years. “Thank you, Philippe,” she’d said, with a hug. “For taking me to my first gala.”
It had been her first evening out in society. Her only evening. She had not made it to the end of the first act before she wanted to explore backstage as he had. “Be careful, Mon Cher,” he’d told her, confident nothing untoward would happen. He took in a shuddering breath as hot tears trailed down his cheeks. Undimmed by the years, the raw vision of her broken body filled his mind.
The manager of the Opera said it was an accident, but he had been Jacqueline’s escort. He was supposed to look out for her, to keep her safe. He prayed for forgiveness every day.
“Please tell me you will not roam backstage again, Marie. It is a very dangerous place.” He wondered how God could forgive him, when he was unable to forgive himself.
The wandering shade left the office and faded into the darkness.