The House of Primates
The two men mistook me for dead; but I was very much alive. And regrettably so.
No doubt I appeared dead. Henry would later say that his breath caught after the crash when he saw me sprawled there in the new-fallen snow, arms and legs akimbo and my skirts askew. My face and neck were sprayed with blood, droplets of blood that “glinted” (said he) in the thin, wintry light.
I’d snuck into the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes an hour earlier to conduct my … experiment among the primates. I’d heard on the streets that the elephants were to be slaughtered on New Year’s Day. Not for sport, but rather for sustenance. For food. The elephants—Castor and Pollux by name—were much beloved, true; but the people of Paris were starving. They, no, we had already slaughtered all the other animals in the zoo. Now only the elephants remained. (And the chimps, of course; but they were safe for now. Too like us, the people opined.) It was to be a big and bloody affair, the taking-down of the elephants, with dignitaries, clergy and the like; and so I’d hoped the hubbub would let me do what I’d come to do at la singerie, the faraway monkey house, in peace, in private. Alas, no such luck.
Rather, I did conduct my experiment; but I was still staring at what I’d wrought. I was stunned, actually, too stunned for tears as I backed away from the cage wherein the chimpanzee had changed so … drastically. It was then I heard the approach of Henry and his manservant, Poole. Of course, I did not know them then. (And would that I’d never met them at all!)
In the late-day light, with the whole of the city silenced by the recent snowfall and stilled by the Siege—for the Prussians, having finally defeated France, having felled Napoleon III, now held Paris as choking hands hold a throat—I’d misheard the muffled speech of the men. I thought they were yet some distance off, and that I’d have time to steal away unseen.
Instead, I had just rushed around a hackberry bush—still looking back over my shoulder at the primates, as if the murdering one might bend the bars and escape, and come after me!—when I ran straight into Poole. Tall and bony Poole, who had hundreds of hammers in his jacket pockets; or so it seemed.
Whump, and down I went.
My heart was already beating wildly, owing to all I’d seen in the chimps’ enclosure since I’d introduced the salts and the spell (my so-called experiment) and all hell had quite literally broken loose; but once I ran into Poole, well, the last thing I recall is the breath rushing fast from my lungs, whoosh. Like a bellows. Then all my other senses followed suit, abandoning me, such that I fell like a sack of grain onto the snow. And there I lay some while (apparently).
Henry knew soon enough that I was alive, quite. My pulse was strong, said he. Yet still I presented a most curious sight. For there I lay at length; and though I am rather tall, I must have appeared taller still, skinny as I was. (I’d been rendered down to bones by the want of food.) And I was dressed in those rags to which I’d been further reduced. Worse still: that spray of blood which colored my neck and face. Blood that had no discernible source. At least not upon my person. This Henry determined after a cursory examination (for which I was blessedly unconscious). And so: Where had the blood come from?
Such was the topic of conversation between the two men as I began to come round. And once my senses and reason returned, I immediately set about changing said topic. Foggy-headed though I was, still I knew I needed to sway the gentleman from the consideration of the blood and its source. A distraction was wanted. A diversion …
“Au secours!” I fairly screamed, sitting upright and clutching both fists to my bosom. Help! For Henry—who seemed to me then to be between twenty and twenty-five years of age—had laid his cold fingers along my bare neck, monitoring my pulse, and the rings (jeweled rings, I remarked) on two of his fingers were like ice. His fingers were cold, yes, but those golden rings were worse. When he made to slip his hand further in, to gauge (I suppose) the truer state of my heart by calling upon it at home, as it were, I resisted. Loudly. “Mon dieu! Non!”
Suddenly I was a demure demoiselle set to scream a second time for help, not the starving streetling I’d become since arriving in Paris six months prior, several weeks shy of my sixteenth birthday.
“Mademoiselle, no,” stammered Henry, drawing back. His face went pale, setting in stark relief his warm brown eyes and black facial hair: well-trimmed sideburns and a bearded triangle upon his chin. Soon he’d rouged from embarrassment, a red to match that of his full, fleshy lips. Indeed, he flushed not only upon his cheeks, but the muscled flesh of his neck reddened now as well. As did the very lobes of his ears. “You mistake my intent. I am a medical doctor and I merely meant to determine…” Whereupon he began to fumble both the buttons on my chemise and his French; but his fingers were too cold now to manage the buttons, and his skill (or lack thereof) in my native language did not serve him well. I might have pitied the man then, if I hadn’t been so bent on self-preservation.
Pity? Perhaps that’s not the word; but I felt … something for him then as he knelt beside me. If not pity, a desire to … to help him somehow. Why had he no hat, no gloves in this bitter cold? Indeed, in the tumult, his single concession to the cold—a red scarf—had come unwound and showed his shirt open at the neck, quite, revealing alabaster flesh and a thin trail of blackest hair tending downward.
I returned from this reverie when Henry hardened suddenly and said:
“Oh, blast it, Poole! It seems she hasn’t a word of English. Do something, won’t you?”
Of course, I had a few words of English all right, even back then; but what good would it do me to let them know that? I’d only have to answer the many questions they would ask.
The older man neared. He knelt. Then, as if he were the doctor, he pushed my eyelids up (none too gently) with his fingers and had himself a gander underneath. The nerve of him. And breathing his bitter stink right into my face all the while!
“She seems well enough to me, sir. I say, leave a few coins and let’s ’ead ’ome. Best to avoid any kind of scandal with this type of … fillette, I think they call them. And may I remind you, sir, that Cheffy was planning to serve up that fine sliced spaniel with a bit of boudin, and now that we couldn’t get ’old of any blood for a boudin, well, she’ll be none too pleased.”
Now, perhaps my English, still quite spotty on the day in question, gives me no right to quote Poole so; but his look, which sluiced with such disdain down the length of his long nose, like sewage down a drain, told me I understood his meaning all right, if not his every word. And I certainly understood fillette: He took me for a street whore.
The blood old Poole mentioned must surely have been elephant blood, destined for a boudin. Blood sausage. Surely that explained the presence of these two—the dandy and his man—in the zoo on this day, at this hour. Were they gourmets? Epicures, bent on such … delicacies as elephant-blood boudin? Alas, no matter now.
“Mes rats! Mes rats!” I began to scream. Where are my rats?
Any meat suffices in the eyes—and bellies—of the starving. Trust me. And though I’d not yet fallen to eating the creatures myself, I’d been selling rats to starving Parisians for some while. Two sous a piece. Three for the fleshier ones. I’d had a basketful on my arm when I’d crashed into Poole. I’d picked them up that morning, freshly skinned, from … a friend.
It was then, while rambling on about my rats, that I struck upon what seemed a surer diversionary tactic, an actual plan. I reasoned that if these two had braved the cold on New Year’s Day to try to bribe someone into handing over a bag of elephant’s blood for boudin, then surely they would be interested in actual elephant steaks.
“I know where…” I began, my English breaking even as I spoke it. “Bifteck. Bifteck d’éléphant. I know where. To get.”
“Whatever is she saying, Poole? ‘Beefsteak,’ does she mean?”
“I think so, sir. But it’s elephant steak she’s on about, methinks.… Oh, this damned French! It slithers about the ear like a conger eel, it does. And of course there are no steaks to be ’ad just yet, sir. I’d know, as I’ve called in all me chits at the markets. And Rodolphe at the Café Anglais assures me that first the steaks would ’ave to be marinated a good while; and as they’ve only just trundled them beasts from ’ere an hour past…”
“Oui, oui. Elephant steaks. I know where you can … acheter.” I made the universal symbol for money with my thumb, fore-, and middle fingers. No man mistakes that.
“She claims to know where one can buy elephant steaks,” offered Poole.
“Yes, thanks, Old Socks. That much I got.” And turning to me, his interest, or rather the interest of his palate very much piqued, Henry asked, slowly, “Where? Tell me where, mademoiselle.”
I had him. The chimps might well have been a million miles away.
In the course of all this confusion, I’d managed to cup some snow in my hands. I’d used it to wipe from my face the blood, the blood of that most unfortunate primate, the one done to death by my … miscraft, let me call it. Now that the blood was gone, the men—or Henry, at least—seemed to forget about it. And still I kept clamoring for my rats, which lay scattered here and there in the snow. My basket had rolled quite near the primate’s enclosure when I’d fallen. Now Poole was none too pleased when his master offhandedly bade him pick it up. And if Poole did not hate me by then, the deal was done when next Henry said, “And round up the child’s … wares, won’t you, Poole?”
When the servant hesitated, Henry admonished him the more: “Really, Poole, it’s the least you can do. You came ’round that high hedge like a Prussian on patrol. Caution was in order, man. The child’s been laid out flat and—”
“‘Child’?” muttered Poole, plucking the rats up by their stiffened tails. “If that’s a child, I’m the bloody ghost of Prince Albert. And I daresay caution was called for by both parties, sir. Besides, whatever is the girl doing ’ere at this late hour anyway, before this ’owling bunch of beasts in a park closed to the public?”
Henry offered no answer; indeed, he seemed to only half consider the question. For which I was grateful, very. Yet the longer we three lingered before the primate house, the more precarious my position became.
In fact, Poole now stood near the iron rail that circled the tall cage, staring in at the simians, the maddened chimp in the front as well as his fellows cowering in a back corner of the cage. He had only to nose around a moment to discover that the primates’ madness was owing to more than our collision. And I had no idea how long the chimp would hold to its changed state, seeming twice the beast it had been before I’d bewitched it so.
“The avenue Friedland,” said I to the doctor, having to practically shout it over the chimps’ infernal din. “Le boucher Deboos, in the avenue Friedland.” I opened my eyes as wide as I could, and then I blinked enough to cause a breeze. Oui: I flirted.
“That is where the elephants are to be rendered down to meat? At a butcher’s shop in the—”
“Oui, monsieur.” It was information enough to get the men off my scent, as it were; but I knew it to be true as well, for mon ami Julien was the son, the fils upon the butcher’s sign: Deboos et fils. That very morning, while picking up my “wares” from him, he’d told me about the secret plans for the elephant steaks. Several were to be diverted from the main shop in the avenue Friedland to the family’s outpost on the rue Tiquetonne, in Les Halles, the marketplace of Paris.
Poole dropped my basket at my side; for still I sat in the snow, no longer stunned but yet scared … and cold. Very. I stood up, shakily. Henry offered his arm, which I took. The sleeve of his long coat was cashmere, the cuff furred. As I stood to full height, I was heartened to see that he was taller than I by several inches.
Then, as I stood there shivering, Henry took his red scarf and looped it around my neck. I didn’t refuse it. “Merci,” said I. I didn’t know what the scarf was made of; all I knew was that it lay on my neck as soft and warm as a kiss, and was most welcome.
I picked up my basket. Poole had stuck the rats into it pell-mell. Their stiffened and snow-slick carcasses poked out from the bran I’d packed in the basket’s bottom to absorb the last of the blood. It all made for a most horrid bouquet. I thanked Poole. He did not acknowledge my thanks, asking instead:
“Yes, whatever is going on ’round ’ere then? What are these beasts gibbering on about? And what’s that … thing the big one is ’olding on to? Damn my eyes if it isn’t one of your rats. Did the fellow squeeze through these ’ere bars and offer up ’is two sous, then?”
“Leave her be, Poole,” said Henry, as if calling off a dog. He was brushing snow from my skirts—a gallant if somewhat too intimate act—and I feared he’d feel the beltlike band of hammered gold I wore around my waist. Had it been visible when first they’d found me, when my skirts had risen up to disclose who-knew-what-else? I flushed at the thought. Bad enough they’d seen me so indisposed, but what if they’d seen the waistlet as well, with its dangling charms, amulets, and packets of potions set among the five palm-sized books Mother had fastened to it by holes bored in their corners? It was a page in book five, Physicae, that had started all this, when I’d seen in my mother’s cramped script—filling those pages and quite often the margins as well—a spell marked “Caution: Transformative.” And so it appeared to be, judging by the actions of the chimp on which I’d cast it not a half hour past.… Caution, indeed.
Poole was speaking on and on, but I feigned ignorance of all he said, of all he asked. Then I gave Henry a look—both plaintive (Help!) and impatient (Let’s go!)—and he silenced his manservant with “Her pulse is yet a piston, Poole, and she wants a spot of peace.” A proper gentleman, the doctor then introduced himself. I suppose it seemed the time to do so, now that his hand was removed from my flesh and skirts, and I was finally on my feet.
“Henry Jekyll, M.D., lately of London and now trapped in your Paris, a guest of the Prussians.” He sought and shook my hand, in its custom-sewn half-glove as always; when I withdrew it—a bit abruptly, no doubt—he finished with a brief bow.
You know nothing of my Paris, I thought of saying. And evidently, the doctor had not discerned the Elsewhere in my accent, as did so many disapproving Parisians. He thought I was … home. Hardly.
Instead, I said only, “Je m’appelle Odile. Enchantée, m’sieur.”
“Enchanté, mademoiselle,” said he in his turn. He got the French word right—intonation and all—and I confess: I felt my face flush. It had been a long while since I’d been greeted so civilly by a stranger; and never had I been greeted at all by a stranger the likes of this one, this Doctor Jekyll, “lately of London.”
Of course, all of this parlor talk seemed to sicken Poole. He now turned back to a fuller consideration of the rat that rampaging chimp had in hand, and I was worried that he would conclude (rightly) that the rat had been as bloodless as the others in my basket had been once they’d been bled out, readied for sale, and so hadn’t had any blood to give up in the first place. Where, then, had the blood upon my person come from?
The answer, as it were, lay dying in the far corner of the cage, buried beneath its fellows, who sought to protect it from further ravishment at the hands—and teeth—of the marauder I’d made, or transformed.
Just as that damnable Poole wheeled round with more questions, Henry—kind if somewhat clueless Henry—came to the rescue once again, asking:
“So can you help me secure elephant steaks, then? Truly? I’d very much like to be able to say…” et cetera; and so I knew he was indeed an epicure. Other words came to mind as well, if I’m to be truthful, and the man’s charms seemed to flicker then like failing gaslight. Nonetheless, I determined to let his interest in the elephants be my route of escape from the present predicament and so I said with all the assurance I could muster:
“Oui, oui. Bifteck d’éléphant.… On y va?” Shall we go?
Whereupon old Poole let loose a hearty harrumph. “Sir,” said he to the doctor, “I really must caution against your…” and he didn’t need to finish, for his look—the arched eyebrow, bristly and white as a bottle brush; the squinting eyes, from beside which wrinkles spread like the rays of a black sun; the lips pulled tight as a miser’s purse—conveyed well enough what it was he was cautioning against: me. And as he stood there, staring me up and down as if the mere sight pained him, his gaze managed somehow to shame me, and not for what I’d been up to—though that craftwork had been a red failure of the first order—but for what I was.
As Poole stared, my hem went even more ragged and my hands seemed even more horrid poking out from my half-gloves, gloves that left my fingers free to hand over my rats and make change while still hiding my … deformity. My face even felt ugly, and my blond hair felt unruly and about to burst the bonds of my braid. Oh, how I hated Poole then! For there he stood in summary judgment of my very self, and his judgment was that I was worthless. Worse: I saw what he supposed. He supposed I was offering to sell his master far more than elephant steaks. And that was something I’d sworn I’d never do, no matter how hungry Gréluchon and I were.
… Gréluchon. Yes, I had responsibility for my brother, two years my junior and already sickly. He relied on me for shelter, for food, for family, as we were the last of our lot, alone and far, very far from home. I must beg leave to put off the telling of how we fell to such a state, homeless and alone; for still it pains me to to link such words as mother, father, and murder.
Poole now lowered his voice and counseled in private tones, “Leave the girl be, ’enry, and let us go,” a directive that drew a withering look from Henry. Poole backpedaled somewhat with, “Sir, Cheffy’ll be a right shrew if she ’as to warm the spaniel over.”
“Need I remind you, Poole, for whom Cheffy cooks?… For whom you work?”
“You needn’t, sir, no. I’ve known me station, lo these many, many years.”
I was doubly determined to win Henry to my side and put Poole off; for not only had he deemed me a whore, but now he set to nosing about the ape’s enclosure once more. If he set in anew with his questions … Alas, the only answer was that I’d treated the rat with that bit of craft culled from my mother’s Physicae. (Yes, that same craftwork she’d cautioned against.) And that was an answer I wouldn’t, couldn’t give; for it would soon lead to the even more difficult question: Who, or rather what, was I?
Understand: Among my people, the Cagots, we women are said to have … the healing gift. The men are skilled with hammer and awl. They can build you a fine barrel, yes, but it’s a Cagot woman you want at your bedside if you’re birthing, ill, or sick unto death. And for all that healing what’s our reward? The word witch.
Was I a witch? (I don’t much care for the word, but so be it.) I’d come to the zoo to find out.
Text copyright © 2012 by James Reese