The embers of memory smolder but no longer flare. I hold her in stolen moments of dreams, my mind altered, untethered from the ravages of melancholy and age. Her lips burn brightly, glowing with sadness as I rage behind sunken eyelids.
Those who consider me misanthropic fail to understand that I detest the commonplace in mankind. I scoff at its inhabitants who find me peculiar. Perhaps fate ordained such a life, desiring what others dismiss as foolish or self-destructive. They know not the sensations of living in the ethers where contentment secretly dwells. I keep a keen eye fixed in the hour of the wolf, when time is no longer calculated by chiming clocks, but in uneven footsteps—treading lush gardens of exotic scents and sounds, flavors and visions, where all is possible.
One evening, unable to resist the addictions of my muse, I entered a café during the hours when simple men wear the sleeping caps of the dead. I took a seat at the back of the room and opened a tome of Baudelaire. I had just stepped inside a poem when my waitress appeared, perfectly proportioned, her hair combed back revealing high cheekbones and full red lips—much like the classical women of yore. She introduced herself as Madeline.
“I don’t mean to pry, but why, in the devil’s name, would a lovely woman such as yourself work these infernal hours? Are you not afraid some crazed nighthawk might haunt this café? Or, perhaps I am mistaken, and you yearn for him.”
“Would you be that nighthawk, sir, and if not, have you no fear walking the dark and misty streets alone—more likely than I the mark of a madman?”
“I am not that of which you speak,” I replied.
“Rest assured, I do not think you a fiend,” she said. “As for my choice of hours, I live for the night, when one’s fortune cannot hide behind the light of day. I sense you are of the same ilk. What is your heart’s delight? I regret we’re out of crème brûlée.”
“How unfortunate,” I said, pretending to wipe away a tear.
Her lips affected a pout. “We have a large selection of fine desserts. Care to see a menu, though none exists?”
“Very clever, my dear. I leave the choice to you.”
Oh, how this fanciful woman impressed me, her language and beauty articulated far above her station. Had my mind been seized by the sighs of the poet? I whispered: “The café is quiet. Join me?”
She raised a finger, suspending her reply, then left and returned with two braided cakes glazed in unidentifiable sweetness. She gestured to an idle waiter, who reluctantly brought us porcelain cups, flatware, and a pot of espresso.
“I am in love with these twisted pastries,” she said. “They are called crullers, but worthy of a grander name: Perhaps, labyrinths de doux mystère, for each mouthful strikes the palate with unexpected surprises.”
“You bestow upon this pastry the greatness of myth,” I said, eager to taste those sweet mysteries.
She tilted her head as if angling for a kiss. Her hair lightly brushed my face, its scent the leafy dew of autumnal nights.
“Do not allow impatience to rule desire,” she advised. “Savor it slowly. We have all the time in the world.”
I slipped into utter subservience, a state where one no longer suffers the angst of destiny.
“Yes! The flavors are remarkable,” I said. “I shall buy this café and make you my partner.”
“I assumed by your appearance you were no stranger to wealth,” she replied. “Vanity and prosperity do not impress me. A beggar might show more discretion. Could you see yourself as one?”
“Myself as a beggar? I hope never to honor that rank. I’d rather lavish my wealth on you.”
She neither blushed nor took offense. “Let the labyrinth decide,” she said. We lowered our heads as if in prayer and plunged ourselves back into the euphoria of the twisted pastries.
Madeline and I left the café. The air turned wintery. She proposed we steal away to her nearby flat. I raised my collar then held her close, warming her with kisses each step of the way. As we crossed the boulevard, our senses engaged in restless ardor, and neither of us noticed the horseless carriage speeding out of control. It struck us and continued on as if no transgression had been committed. The impact shattered my leg. Madeline lay across the cobblestones, her body twisted and draining life.
“Don’t leave me,” I begged.
Love looked up and spoke in labored breath. “Marcel, take this. It is our only hope.”
She placed a card in my hand as her head fell limp and the unobtainable was lost.
I shoved the card into my coat pocket. Pain raged through my body, yet nothing matched the agony of witnessing the death of perfection.
I received the best medical care yet the damage to my leg left me with a permanent defect. I became a cripple, dependent on a cane. Each day, I paced my flat attempting to strengthen my gait. The healing of the shattered leg slowly progressed yet I remained morose.
The mortuary sent a message to announce the headstone I purchased had been set at her gravesite. I asked no one to attend the advent, seeking no consolation, for pity is a fool’s elixir that provides no relief. Storm clouds threatened the day I slogged to the cemetery. I kissed the cold granite on which was etched, Madeline, I will find you again. Rain fell and I placed my hand in my coat pocket. There was the card Madeline gave me the night she died. Months passed and I had forgotten about it.
Nu.1 Rue de Rêves
What good was this? If only the card were a letter of transit to the sphere Madeline now inhabited.
Marcel, it is our only hope. Her words resounded in my ears.
That evening, after the showers let up, I set out for the address, traversing the gas-lit walkway that followed the river southward. The unexpected distance and damp air caused my leg to ache with each step. I found myself in a remote district I’d never visited. A gray wall loomed high and upon it the address, Nu.1. I passed through an iron gate and hobbled along a sodden path toward the door, then struck the portal with my cane.
When no response came, I called, “Open up! You have a visitor in search of the impossible.”
No one greeted me. I stepped back, looking for another entrance when I tripped and fell.
“Ouch, you clumsy fool. Watch your step! You nearly spilled the dinner from my bowl.”
I’d stumbled over a disheveled man who wore the slovenly garb of a beggar. He lay on a mound of dirt near the door. I apologized to the poor fellow, then picked up my cane and handed him twenty francs.
“Ah, twenty francs for my suffering. How generous,” he said in an irritable tone. “If it were twenty thousand I would still remain poor. You’ll soon understand.”
“Careful with that tender leg,” came a voice through the encroaching fog.
An odd little man stood attired in a mourning dress and top hat. One hand twisted his waxed moustache; the other held a key.
“Doctor Mage, at your service,” he said, bowing. “You have come to the end of a tedious journey. Please, come inside,” he said, pointing to the house.
Mage didn’t see the fellow lying beside us—or ignored him. My host turned the key and opened the door, then ushered me in. He took my overcoat and cane and led me toward a smoke-filled chamber that exuded a sharp floral scent. We made our way through a maze of sleeping men, then entered a room illuminated by the reddish glow of hanging lanterns. The faint beat of a high-pitched drum entrained my heart.
“My assistant will handle the preparations,” he said.
I turned to inquire what he meant. Mage vanished and in his place stood an old woman. From her apron, she extracted a metal rod with a tar-like substance at one end, then lit it with a lantern’s flame. She placed the smoky nugget into the bowl of a pipe and handed it to me.
“Here you will find what you seek,” she said. “You are no different than the others—men who believe they can cheat Death.”
Without pausing to think, I inhaled deeply. The second puff stupefied me. The room turned upside down and I found myself standing on the ceiling with no ill effects, recalling pleasant memories that flickered across my mind like a newsreel. When it ended, Madeline appeared before my drowsy eyes. The buried treasure had been exhumed.
“Marcel. My cheeks are so cold. Here, feel.”
I touched Madeline’s sullen face and felt nothing but a gust of cool air. She faded away and the old woman appeared.
“You cannot have her unless a bargain is struck,” she chided. “The girl is yours if you have the courage to strip yourself of all possessions.”
Yes, the opium held me in its sway. I agreed to her terms, choosing the immortality of dreams rather than a miserable existence without Madeline.
I stood numb and shameless as the hag undressed me. She placed my garments on a rack and called for the poor wretch whom I stumbled over. He disrobed and dropped his tattered rags in a pile, then stuffed his leprous body into my clothes.
“Now, Marcel,” said the hag, smacking her loose lips. “You will wear his scraps and eat from his bowl.”
The beggar strutted about the room in my haberdashery—twirling my cane—glowering as he handed me a paper and quill. I signed away my fortune with a single stroke.
“Excellent,” said Mage, who mysteriously appeared. “Now you must leave.”
“Where is Madeline? I gave everything for her.”
“She resides here,” he said. “You may see her tomorrow, then the next day, and the next. In time, you will have no desire to leave this sanctum. Madeline will lie in your arms forever as you sleep among the other men who dream they have found what was never lost.”
With those curious words, Mage opened the door to his madhouse and tossed me out. I fell atop the filthy mound of dirt where the beggar once dwelled—now my domain. I dined on scant morsels placed daily in my bowl. Festering sores covered my body. I grew weaker each day and longed for the hour when entry into the asylum would be granted. There I inhaled until my phantom lover returned. In time, I was given a cot and a medicine chest beside the other men whose opium dreams became their reality. In such atrophy, I claimed the unobtainable, lingering like the poet in his artificial paradise, dreaming of Madeline.