The Cross and the Black, sample read

Here is the first two chapters of The Cross and the Black.

St Joseph’s day, 1584, Toulouse, France.

It was Lenten season, the time of grieving and repenting and braying sententious monks. Enter here, Claude Severin ambling home, grinning like a happy baboon. The melody of a gavotte sloshed in his heart, its rhythm light on his fingers tapping his thighs. Passersby gave no eye to his threadbare tunic or the ragged hose, nor did they stop to admire his hat—lined with velvet, decorated with a red plume, a gift from an apothecary for times sweaty and jaunty.

The feast day of St. Joseph, patron saint of manly losers, drew to an end. The bell of St. Sernin, St. Etienne, St. Nicholas, rippled across the heavens a meandering, exuberant tirade, counting the hour of vespers. And Toulouse began to gather its horses and hunger, toil and tiredness for the salve of home and hearth. In front of the College de Foix, three youths strode their boisterous way around a peddler with a heavy-looking box on his back. The men were draped in the brown copes of university students, hilts of illegal two-handed swords poking from their waists.

A cramp raced up Claude’s left side. Halting, he stifled an urge to yelp. No, he was not a speared goat or Christ wounded on his side. He had recognized Benoit—the stupid one—among the youths. His face looked like mangled dough and sported a prominent chin and forehead, and a dimple for a nose. God had punched his face in before he was born. What more, Claude owed him five sous—a gambling debt from a tennis game, which had promised the lucky chance of “mammon and victuals.” Whatever did that mean.

No God-raped sissy would catch him this time, for Claude whirled away southward towards to the Garonne. But barely had he lifted his right foot to dash away when his side cramped again.

There in the twilight view upon the cobbled streets, Bearitz Alecon cowered before a trio of maidens bound in an unrequited love for Isarn.  It was familiar occurrence for the daughter of a seamstress. The maidens yanked at her auburn hair and poked flinty fingers at her kerchief shielding her humble bosom. But Bearitz stood mute and pale, like Mary Magdalene before her accusers.

“You dare lift your haggish countenance on our Isarn again.”

“Your sallow color isn’t fit for our Isarn.”

“Cheeks like maggots and you dare bewitch our Isarn.”

Isarn, Isarn, Isarn, the words dammed in Claude’s mind. Bearitz’s piteous face had him shuffling elbows and twisting gazes and scratching his lice-ridden testicles in his pose of rabid contemplation. Isarn, he thought, a rakehell of broad shoulders and tawny lovelocks, a thief of his good peace, who rammed his ears with love conquests. And this grand show of passivity—Claude fisted a hand to his lips—silliness from wenches who should kiss more and swoon less.

Those maidens now were imperiously smacking Bearitz’s shoulders.

“Isarn desires no lame sow,” another screech scrawled on his peace.

Fight back, you coxcomb wench, Claude thought maddeningly. But this was no time for intervention, not with Benoit and friends approaching closer from behind.  He swallowed hard. Flittering nervous gazes, he determined, Bearitz would have to learn of mettle all by herself.

To his left, right by an ass nuzzling its head against the supporting beam of a stall, a cart rolled away from the entrance of sparse-looking alley. Claude bounded one step to freedom, only to view a magnificent slap upon Bearitz’s face. Her lips rippled in a tremolo of umbrage and tears, thrusting him into a fluster of fury.

“Thou rump-fed toadstools!” he cried. “Why you demonesses slap her for?”

The women upturned their venomous gazes onto him, and so did attentions of the three men.

“Marry, is that the sissy who owes me five sous?”

For Certes!”

The students’ blades brandished their annoyance, the wild metallic whine slicing through the barbarous air. The evening crowd scarcely gasped or shrugged as the clatter of hard boots charged for Claude. In the moment it took to sigh at his fate and huff an athletic breath, Claude sprinted and traversed through the row of the Isarn-addled wenches, grabbing Bearitz as his prize.

“Raaaaaat!” The students bellowed at the escaping duo in the square of L’Eglise des Cordeliers.

“Dog.” By the College de Narbonne.

“Devil-buggered sheep.” By L’Eglise de St.. Pierre de Cuisines.

All the while Claude’s maiden expended more energy spitting, “Bon Dieu, bon Dieu” than running her fair share.  They darted around the wagons immobile with barrels and the footmen leading ungainly masters. Those idle over the setting sun knew instinctively to step aside. Even the throng of monks marching barefoot in Lenten procession to vespers parted easily before them like the miracle of the Red Sea.

They ducked into a small street tucked in amongst the rose hues of brick houses. Bearitz’s home was a narrow tall two-story building with a massively carved door. He swung her against it and told her to open quickly. Worn out and blue-lipped, she hung her hand on the handle and plopped her head against the door.

“Open it!”

She did not budge. Footsteps flitted past them.

Claude immediately hunkered over Bearitz, pressed forehead to forehead, embraced her tightly. The pose was scandalous in the not yet dim evening and more so unthinkable, for he had no feeling desirous of her fluttering eyes. But there were only a few moments to be borrowed from the rich storehouse of impropriety and discomfiture; he hoped and waited and panted.

Claude’s lips quivered.

Bearitz’s eyes fluttered.

Claude’s lips quivered.

“Where went that effeminate oaf?” A foreign male voice echoed down the length of the street.

Claude’s face twitched up fireworks, and he turned to the voice’s direction to demand who was this lady oaf. But the door opened, and the couple fell over like a sack of flour into a conical figure of Dona Alecon. Such a lovely couple they were, Bearitz and Claude, rolling and rolling their noses in what seemed like a downy pillow—much too perfumed with musk and flesh.

“Claaaaude Severinnnn,” Dona Alecon growled.

Claude kicked off to the side and jumped to his feet. He bowed repeatedly. “God keep you, Na.” With a quick one-two glance at both ends of the street, he scurried away before she would fetch her itching powder reserved for the lubberly suitors who asked after her daughters.

Enter here again Claude Severin kicking lazily down Le Rue de la Bourse. He felt safe, safe from the gnarly hands of creditors, safe from Dona Alecon’s violent fatty hands. He did wonder if the good of saving a maiden from bullies made up for the sin of gambling and absconding from creditors. There was no satisfactory answer on that, and he would just have to ask the priest during his next confession.

As he thought of other theological things to ask his confessor, his blond hair swirled in a sudden updraft. The crest of his ears bit with cold. He reached for his hat.

No hat.

“Jhesu Christz!” Claude cursed some more, ‘the Virgin’s fingers’ and then hotfooted through a gushing stream of blasphemies, “The Virgin’s fingers, toes, nose”. When he was about to defame the beloved womb that birthed his Lord and Savior, God conspired to suffer him some reverence and bumped him into dogs playing jingle with their jewels or sooty children with greedy stares. Holy reverence was necessary, the day being St. Joseph’s day and all.

Claude calmed down to a halt as his troubles came to focus. Benoit was not his only creditor. There were two other debts outstanding.

Money. The desire for it was like an unreachable itch.

Claude nodded his head thoughtfully, “Should I or should I not?” The innkeeper Picard would have work for him.

Money beckoned with its tinkles of pleasures and satiety. And so he turned around started for Picard’s inn in St. Cyprien quarter on the west banks of the Garonne.

Against the canvasses of red brick, evening shadows lengthened their pall. The charcoal stains and brown handprints on the walls blended into the familiar color of black. The ever-present stink of urine bothered him none, nor did the rot of excrement chopped up with the heady aroma of supper bread. The Garonne painted a serpentine grave of spit, sewage, and sand banks. Tournis Island floated to the south. The Basilique de Notre Dame de la Daurade stood sentry over the Le Pont de la Daurade, which spanned a cuboid bridge across the river. The Hotel Dieu and l’Hopital de la Grave towered jointly like a colossus at the eastern end of the bridge.

Just before crossing the bridge, Claude covered his ears as he passed by the bellows of a one-eyed Jacobin.  The black-robed monk spoke of his fervent vigils before the statue of the Black Virgin in the Daurade church.  He testified of the statue crying milk tears.  A sign, he wailed, of another summer of plague and dust that would befall Toulouse, just like the last summer of plague and dust. Claude mouthed, “Oc, yes, yes … hell, very hot. Yes, yes … no heaven for me,” and shambled into the St. Cyprien district.

The cold, dry air herded him past the busy square of St. Nicholas and swiftly into the warmth of Picard’s inn. The room was roaring with a crackling fire, a sonorous troubadour, and men with impatient appetites. Rubbing his hands and jumping, he was delighted for the livelier songs rocking the inn and not the dirges of repentance usual for Lent.

From a counter Picard raised his eyebrows, his chest swelling in uplift as though he were going to announce something triumphant and invariably jabbing. Claude scurried to the counter before Picard could yell his ‘I-told-you-so.’

Picard grinned, blunt nose and hairy ears lifted. “More than glad to be your stumbling block.”

“I need a new hat,” Claude said.

“Spend you less than you earn, you wouldn’t lack, you’d be able to keep pious for forty days and forty nights,”

Forty days and forty nights were how long Jesus spent in the desert where He was tempted in everyway man could be tempted and yet prevailed. Never Claude to prevail. Not Claude to eschew uncleanliness. He needed money, he needed men.

Claude leaned into Picard, smiling in the airs of a coy thing. “It is St. Joseph’s day. I must be like Christ in his cheer, not only in his suffering.”

“Deo Gratias, you are in my employ.” Picard motioned him to take the stairs.

Space was dear, bedding scarce, heating too expensive. Picard demanded his guests bundle up in the beds bespeckled with rat turd. Thrice the fleas, twice the warmth, he proclaimed. However, Claude was headed for the special room meant for single guests.

A rope bed padded with a mattress stuffed with straw took center view of the room. The windows were shut to the cold. A lamp lit up pale shadows on the wall, permeating the air with an acrid smell of burning tallow. Claude sat on the prickly softness of the bed and waited. Perhaps the porter who swore women carried the plague? Or the tanner who grunted yes, grunted no, grunted the same during his horse-like exertions? He fell back into the bed and allowed ease to roll over him. Curiosity mused itself such an aphrodisiac.

The door opened. Benoit’s doughy face appeared. He was without a sword, newly appareled with a womanishly ornate stomacher over his chest. Claude shot to his feet, half to flee, half to gather his wits on what to tell Picard. But it was a transaction, a trade, and he could not renege, or Picard would catapult his hacked bits to the Garonne. Oh misfortune. God had tuned His tail in his way today.

Benoit’s upper lip curled. Stupid one could not decide whether to jeer or wring the neck of the stringy, but handsome bean.

He parted his mouth open. “You owe me money. Now I would pay for you, a hag?”

Claude blinked for precious furious moments. Men were all the same. He was twenty, and that was too old. Sixteen was middle-aged, thirteen was perfect, but not twelve that was just pure evil. Oc, this was Toulouse, the most Catholic city in France.

Claude strutted to him, childlike, free, and quite content with his Toulouse that would not bend to his rule of reason. He dragged Benoit’s hands over his buttocks. Feel the twenty-year old suppleness. Feel the twenty-year old moistness.

Claude’s lips lingered over his ear. “Who needs money when you have me?”

Benoit’s eyes slit shadows. Bony fingers gripped his forearm and twisted him around to face the door. The roughness was all too familiar but still surprising. Claude’s thoughts fled to the honey-brown eyes of the tanner, his satin palms, his velvet kisses.

“Be gentle and St. Joseph shall keep you in his favor, and St. Sernin, and St. Georges,” Claude said. “At least, kiss—”

Benoit crashed him against the door and heaved inside with a careless thrust. Claude sighed. God was punishing him for not being a good Catholic this Lent. Benoit gasping. Why did God hate his tail? Benoit squealing. God made his hat fly away. God—A loud dissonant note walloped his senses, and Claude burst into laughter.

Bang, bang, bang. Benoit thrusting away. Sweaty fingers dug into Claude’s pelvic bone.

And the silly sound was the bard downstairs singing about the Virgin and her grace, her beauty, her mercy. Claude laughed on, desperately now, painfully, against the branch scouring inside him.

“Harder.” He wanted it to end soon, so very soon in a merciful oblivion of seed and sin.

***

Claude leaned on the main counter of Picard’s inn, eagerly awaiting the heavy feel of coins to vouchsafe him satisfaction for a job well done and relief to his sore buttocks. Thick veins crisscrossed his forearms, bulging against the taut skin. His fingers trembled against the grain of the counter, and he stared down Picard’s wife standing across from him. Her cheeks were like a dog’s lolling tongue. A charcoal line of hairs rimmed her hard lips. He could see in those grey-circled eyes, his future, concern and condemnation. He divined his fading youth, the fundamental inutility of his life. Perchance it was time he threatened his master to take him as a carpenter’s apprentice.

He deemed the idea a fool’s prattle. He did not care for carpentry or gainful work. Being a servant with free evenings was the good life.

Picard waddled to her side, and she made a clicking noise of contempt. “Whores are not enough—” Her eyelashes swept up, down Claude. “You must also keep a half-man, a gelded goat.”

Claude turned away brusquely, only to see Benoit striding towards him. He hissed. Benoit gave the I-just-fucked-you smile. The air sank stiffly as everyone upturned their gazes to the window tabernacle of the Blessed Mother on the east wall, pretending heresy against the body had not taken place.

“The sissy owes me money, a gambling debt,” Benoit said to Picard.

“I do not!” Claude yelled.

Picard pitched a warning stare at Claude and groaned, “How much?”

“One sou,” Claude interrupted.

“Five sous,” Benoit said.

Picard looked at Claude then questioningly at the client. A good-for-nothing sodomite or a tattletale to the Palais de Justice, who lately have being pyromaniacs condemning all manner of heretics to the stake?

“Claude, you shall earn your keep next time,” Picard said.

“You are welcome to the College de Foix to earn it back.” Benoit kissed the air at Claude.

Claude grunted those anguished noises of men who came so jubilantly close to kissing Lady Fortuna’s lips, only for her to traipse away to another man already arrayed in fortune. Putana. The whore she was. He stomped a strides towards the exit and then clenched at the pain in his buttocks. Had he just offered his virtue so painstakingly saved up for the past three weeks for free?

“Christ’s blood,” Claude muttered.  He then eased into limping gentle step after gentle step to the door.

But Clovis blocked his exit, grinning. His nose was bulbous and wrinkly. A patch of unnatural white hair darted from his temple to the back of his head. A garbage-dwelling badger or a besotted crone? Claude could never decide on the man who plotted riches over the fortune of his anal sphincter.

“Where is that foppish hat of yours?” Clovis said.

Claude tossed his sweet smile of evasion and sidestepped him for the exit. Clovis took him by the shoulder and turned him back inside the inn. They did not stray from the exit, instead idling by a wooden stanchion and overlooking the busybody ministrations of harried servants. Serving porridge with sparse strings of green beans. Serving the evil eyes to the guest ruminating aloud on which infirm goat had micturated the supper.

Clovis finally patted Claude’s back and said, “Offer me some wine for this feast day. He is your patron saint.”

Claude glared. The cuckolded St. Joseph was not his saint.

“How else could he keep fidelity to our Blessed Mother? A cherub here, a boy there,” Clovis said.

Claude shrugged off the arm. “Beg him for your coin.”

Clovis ignored him, as his eyes wandered everywhere but on Claude. The fireplace crackling its heat. The bard crooning strained with feeling. All the men humming and oinking over too-weak wine.

Clovis leaned into Claude, business-like, and whispered, “Esteban desires more blond musings.”

“Imagine his Easter, so joyful when he proclaims Christus Resurrexit with a risen cock.”

Clovis puffed a short air of derision but remained aloofly business-like, which prompted Claude to laugh and nudge him to be at ease.

“How much did he offer you?” Claude said.

“Ask you the baker how much he earns on his bread?”

“Yes, if I am his bread.”

Clovis slid his hand around his shoulders again and shook with the familiarity of friendship. “See how your veins pulse and plump. Your Easter shall be in want of rejoicing. Esteban can’t wait till Easter. One sou to relieve him of his torment?”

Claude shrugged off Clovis’ arm, but the arm held firmly. “Ten sous.”

“Brother, I must eat.”

“Ten sous.”

“One sou. Take it or leave it.”

“Methinks, I will find Esteban myself.”

“And you shan’t find him.”

“Then deliver him to your pillicocks on the riverbank. I’ll do without your widow’s mites.”

Straining to be gentle, Clovis pushed him aside. He smoothed the sides of his head then laughed away frustration. “Esteban did prefer younger blonds, handsomer blonds without beards.” Content with his insult, he walked away to a table crowded with forelocked men.

Claude felt his chin and cheeks. Sandy and unwelcome. The hatchet-faced badger.

From afar, Picard’s wife glared her sermon of thrift and industry. Claude winked at her, defiant. Youth was his caged pet, not hers.

Two

 

In his cell Claude lay on a thin arrangement of blankets on the ground. His eyes were scalded to the pitch darkness. The oblong slit for a window yielded no light, not even stars. Hell looked preferable to the black aether of his bed. At least fires burned, albeit cleansing, painful fires, but lap and lash for life they did. Like charcoal crumbling, he felt his feet segment into the dark, his shins, his thighs, his belly …

The door opened and a smoky clove scent swarmed into the cell.

“I keep holy for Lent,” Claude said without the strain of protest to the stocky bulk of his master Serge. His clothes reflected dully a muffled white in the dark.

“You weren’t home when I returned from the Guild.”

“May St. Dennis strike me dead. Jules and I watched the dyers at the river all day.”

Oc.”

Moments quivered tautly until Serge, with as much as a florid shrug, drew away from the door and slipped into the bed.

Thoughtlessly, Claude began fondling Serge as duty commanded. Duty also commanded taking care of Serge’s morning ablutions, and cooking, and washing, and mending, and rubbing him stiff to a fatal spill. That or the streets.

Pulling and tugging on Serge, Claude dreamed about the apothecary kissing him and taking him in the mouth, unlike Serge too cowardly to give him a brotherly kiss. He yawned and stroked away. All the things he did for a sound roof over his head, three meals a day, and a paltry thirty sous a month. At least, Serge would never consent to be his clyster pipes like the stupid one. Oc, the stupid one, who took him without paying. For free! He stopped paying attention to Serge, gathering the thought faggots to burn up a bright consternation.

It was too dark. That Serge was seething with the rage of a dispossessed lion, Claude could not see or care to see. Serge shifted and cleared his throat repeatedly, all the while Claude’s mind resounded with ‘for free, for free.’ He folded his arms on his chest and frowned through a mental sludge of blasphemies.

Serge wagged his thighs to rouse Claude. “Ahem.”

Claude came to himself and an erection wagging at him for attention, like that nuisance child tugging at his tunic for alms. “You want a log? Get a wife.”

“I did arrange a wife, Mireille Bonace. We did much discussion today on the marriage contract.”

Claude shot upright to sitting. He could feel in his chest the rusty start of time’s gears, like a grinding wheel.

Claude muttered, “Deo Gratias. Good news indeed. You are here, ripe with good cheer and lust.”

“It was you who touched me!”

Claude cradled his head. If only his ears could be deaf to the self-deception deepening Serge’s voice.

“She would not do with an unwholesome servant in her employ. You can’t stay here anymore,” Serge said.

“Dilated you to her keepers on your she-cur of a servant? ‘He steals into my bed and rides me like a stallion of the apocalypse.’” Rolling out of bed, Claude laughed helplessly at the violence of its image. “Now you shall be married and I return to the streets.”

“What’s this to do with me? You have friends wide and vast.”

Claude spun on his feet and shoved his face into of Serge’s. “God damn you.”

Serge looked away.

The craven goat. Claude staggered backwards and wiped his face as he fought to retain composure.  Then he stumbled around in the dark for clothes.

“I might arrange something with Seyr, if you stop being womanish,” Serge said.

Oc womanish.” The words rolled out of Claude, who was now dizzy in a vague sense of  loss. Serge was supposed to be the glum carpenter, who stared blandly at gewgaws or rainbows. This dull Serge had suddenly become his most needed cornerstone. Feeling for his pile of clothes on the floor, Claude felt clammy and bursting around his diaphragm. It was as though he had been thrust into the murky misty heat of a bathhouse. Soon enough, he wrestled his arms into the sleeves of a woolen coat, kicked feet into shoes.

“Auguste has need of an apprentice,” Serge said.

“Or another servant for his wife and nine whelps.”

“Claude … where are you going?”

“Off to find a good rider.”

Claude banged the door of his room, banged the door to the house, slumped onto its cold hardness, facing that same starless night.

Gears, rickety and rusty, turned in his heart, rattling against the tightness in his chest. Restlessness rolled in like the morning fog over the Garonne. He pulled his cloak tighter around himself and shuffled on to find men who would stop his time.

Fire to fire, hope to hope, he stumbled onto the banks of the Garonne. Fires burned from the man-made sand banks bracketing the river gates and Tournis Island. Gleams floated like lilies, eyes unblinking to the sky and moon, ears deaf to men howling for sweet wine. Over the city walls inking into the purple void, down the length of the river, a gale coursed and swaddled his lanky body. Claude made for Le Rue de l’Empire. Over there congregated the congresses of strange flesh away from the eyes of the night’s watch and the Capitouls—Toulouse’s aldermen and moral guardians.

Claude considered looking for Clovis again among the vagrant shacks on the riverbank. Certainly he would have to be more reasonable about fees and expectations.

Pilgrims picked at the ground with walking sticks. Journeymen bellowed to the air, they were still male and still in God’s favor. Students escaping Latin and curfew in search of lucky die and cream thigh. And Claude saw him imperial above the hoi polloi

Gold things on the stranger’s fingers and silver things on the shoes gleamed and beckoned to Claude. A lovely toque on the head, much better than his old hat, if only because this toque existed and the hat did not. A lovely toque on the gentleman who must be used to silk and velvet. A lovely toque, which he did not possess, and with the prospect of a future with a nine screaming babes, he may never gain one.

Putana, Claude cursed, rubbing his chapped lips like a genie lamp.

A beggar littered with unwanted benedictions on every drunken, pleading step around the stranger.

“A denari or two for some wine, Senher. God have mercy on you, Senher. St. Joseph’s eye is over you, Senher. Our Heavenly Mother have watch over you, Senher,” the beggar said.

Virtue, consequences, pride whooshed away with the winds of initiative. Claude skipped behind the beggar, bumped him into the stranger.  Just as the beggar fell jerkily into the stranger, Claude stumbled affectedly into them as well.  And they all tumbled down like the walls of Jericho. Claude ended atop the heap of grumbles and bones and was rather pleased to see the toque flat on the ground.

Without a shrug of scruple, he swiped it and wore his prize. Velvet and the cool feathers caressed his fingers. A smile rose on his face in anticipation for daylight to crown him beautiful.

The drunkard still fondled and slobbered his way on the stranger’s body. Shoving the beggar aside, the man growled, “That is mine.”

Claude flicked his head back, eyelashes lowering, and he considered the pathetic twosome.

The stranger at last rose to his feet. “I shall have that back now.”

“Ah, your wife would tame you with her spindle for gifting your hat to one of your many whores?” Claude removed the hat. Its dark beauty held his eyes momentarily. “What do you want for it?” The stranger reached for it, but Claude stepped back, shook his head in disapproval, and purred. “See how constipated you look. The Dona will understand … she had better understand. A handsome lad was more deserving of it. At least, ’tis not your runnions who keep it now.”

With that Claude spun around and leaped eastward towards L’Eglise de la Dalbade. He held to his hat, his bouncing heart, his forceful breaths while black blocks fell aside and tossed themselves out of the way. God would incline his magical hands on him this time. Lady Fortuna’s cheeks would be his to kiss this time.

In the grand square of La Bourse, he slowed down amidst a thicket of familiar men. A friend, Jules wanted to fix a date for hare-coursing.

“Wednesday, Wednesday, Jules,” Claude said, out of breath then leaned gratefully on Jules’s shoulders.

“Whose cock granted you that fine hat? I know ’tis not the apothecary,” Jules said, taking a slight pride in the fact of Claude resting on his shoulders.

Claude looked up and there was the stranger headed for him. He pointed. “His.” The men laughed with great mirth, echoing, “Berdache!” the word for a male whore. He reminded them who had the bigger girth before picking up and running again.

Northward on Grand Rue he divided another pocket of men. One screamed at the offense. Another barked, “Claude Severin, you owe me three sous.” And fresh youth were on his heels.

The gritty air stung his nostrils. His tired body forced him to halt and settle into a dark nook in the Romanesque façade of a Carmelite Monastery. Footsteps ran past him. Claude collapsed against the wall. His lungs burned. On the slightest pressure, his legs trembled like resonating cymbals. Surely the darkness and the silence were his triumph over the stranger.

A figure divided from the dark and sallied towards him. “’Tis been awhile, I have been on a hunt.” His voice was effortlessly rich.

It shook Claude to breaking out of the nook and walking backwards away from him. “You may offer me wine for your hat? No money? No worry. Bend over, and l shall bore you. You would only know my name.”

The stranger laughed in fits and starts then uproariously. “And what’s that?”

The howls and barks of unseen beasts quaked the gloaming around, and Claude shivered. “What is what?”

“Your name, your name?”

The feeling, just a feeling, hinted something taken aback. Claude clenched on the toque and staggered away from the stranger, little strides, unsure steps into the boundless dark. “You’re not getting your hat—“

As death sure of its prey, the stranger swaggered for him, and Claude fled blindly into the chasmic night.

Rue des Croix Vieux, Rue de St. Claire, Rue de la Madeleine, streets blurred black, right turned left, left turned left. The hat was his. The hat would be his. On the morrow Serge would tell him, he was jesting about sending him out. Serge could keep his wife, as long as he could remain free, unblemished by purpose and forethought as the servant.

Claude limped up the steps of L’Eglise de St. Nicholas. Huffing and puffing for air, he leaned on his knees. Iron sharpened iron in his lungs. Frozen and hooded, faces stared dark but victorious. The prize was his. His hands, too tired and too jittery, bounced the hat over his head.

A figure approached, his hair a black veil.

Claude’s heart pumped mutiny and lye. His hands were welded his knees, his legs felt like iron weights. His eyes beheld Lady Fortuna lapping her wanton kisses on the stranger’s face.

“My woman will not be doing unspeakable things to me with her spindle. Bless St. Joseph!” The stranger removed the hat from Claude’s head. He smiled with the Devil’s luck about him and sashayed away, losing himself among persons and shadows.

Braggart

Serge had proclaimed once after Claude had rubbed him to spilling, St. Joseph was the patron saint of unfulfilled men shafted with stubbornly virginal wives, of hen-pecked men, of cuckolded men … of useless men. Never mind St. Joseph was the patron saint of his carpentry guild. That man was not his saint. He was Claude’s.

The pockmarked carpenter was right. He was getting married to a woman of virgin skin and virgin mind. Good fortune but not his good fortune. Claude crashed to sitting on the cold, cold ground. Time’s gears clanged louder and louder still; it had moved forward again, and he would be left behind.

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