Thought I'd share an early passage from Mara's Story today, the novel I'm almost done revising. In this scene, Mara is being shown to her new room at Hysteria, a nightclub in fin de siècle Montmartre, by Élodie, one of the dancers. Mara has trekked across half the country disguised as a boy to get safely to Paris, only to discover that the old friend she's looking for is missing.
<><><><><><><>Élodie tugs me back behind the stage, but not before I catch Guy's eye. He grins at me. I follow her up a narrow flight of stairs while she is chattering so quickly I can only understand three words she says out of ten. Climbing the stairs doesn't wind her much, though my feet feel like lead weights and my boots too tight. When we get to the third floor above the stage, we take a dark hallway. There is a row of door-less rooms overstuffed with costumes and reeking of cedar, but the last room has a thick wooden door that Élodie opens with a flourish.
"This was Alex's room," she says, something I understand right away.
"Did you know him well?" I have to ask. She is thin and beautiful with long blonde hair and a slim body I can see through her tight clothes.
"Better than some," she admits, dropping my skirt bundle on the bed.
"When did you see him last?"
She purses her pink lips thoughtfully. "Oh, a month and a half ago. I was sorry he left. I liked him. I didn't believe he stole anything for a moment."
"Honest?" Is she just lying to my face or does she truly mean it? Her dark blue eyes look sincere, and she doesn't look smart enough to fool me.
"Honest. Sorry the room's not the nicest. Alex never complained, of course, and it's far enough from the other rooms that no one else ever did, either."
I understand what she is not so subtly telling me, and am sorry for insulting her intelligence, even if it was only in my head. This is where they house the unmentionables, this third-floor room with a hole in the roof and a pair of doves nesting under the eaves.
Still, it is the size of a small wagon and it's all mine. The cracked window looks down on a damp, urine soaked chute of a courtyard and the first rays of sunset paint the dull walls a bright orange. The metal bedstead is rusty, the mattress looks lumpy and the blanket scratchy. There is an old wardrobe in the corner, a dry, dusty basin, and a small brazier. Four pegs stick in the interior wall where Alex must have kept his violin. Mine is almost too small to be securely held but I set it there anyway.
"It's not much, but at least it's yours alone. My sister and I share a windowless room this size, and some of the guys are crowded in head to toe. There's a brazier and some peat if you get cold tonight, but you won't have to sleep here if you don't want."
"What do you mean?"
"You're new and pretty enough." She says this with a sweet smile, like she is trying to explain to a toddler that the stove is hot. "You could have your pick of beds tonight, or any night. Stay warm and maybe make a little silver on the side if that's your thing. Only keep your claws out of Campion, if you like violin players so much, all right?"
Her smile tells me she's kidding, but her eyes don't.
"I haven't met your Campion, but I promise to steer clear of his bed. Is he not...," my tongue stumbles for the word, "a faithful lover?"
"He's more of a dream lover." Élodie giggles and her fair skin blotches into red strawberries across her neck and chest, her cheeks become crisp frost apples.
"He doesn't know you like him?"
"Not yet." She flips her long hair back over her shoulder. "There a dress in that bundle? Let's get you presentable before the Three Hags get their hooks in you."
"Three Hags?" I unwrap my skirt and blouse. Everything else I stow under the pillow for now.
"Mme. Laurent, the costume mistress, Mme. Moreau, the money, and M. David, the owner. He's the biggest hag of them all." She pauses while I turn away to change, pulling my skirt over my trousers and sliding them off. "It's Mara, right? Modesty is a waste of time in this place. Almost every night I have to change in front of the other girls, and guys, sometimes, too. There's not a lot of time between acts, some nights. Now hurry, they'll be expecting us."
"Alex didn't tell anyone he was leaving?" My skirt flutters around my legs. I am a girl again. I wonder briefly what Guy is doing.
"Not a word. It's strange. He really seemed to like some of us." Her color flares again and I wonder if she ever shared that narrow bed with him, keeping him warm, keeping him from thinking about me. She seems comfortable with this dark hallway and the staircase. We are opposites, she and I. Élodie. Even her name trickles off the tongue like a song.