The smell of toast and warm milk woke me. I stayed under covers, listening to Aunt Millicent knocking around the kitchen. Out the window all was gray. It had taken me half the night to sleep—I’d lain listening to all the sounds that somehow disappear during the day—lone car engines echoing off stone buildings and motorcycles burping along and the buzz of the carriage door lock as people came in late and muffled voices laughing, arguing, and trucks making midnight deliveries and even the faint, lonely sound of someone playing jazz piano. The piano drifted in and out, muted by the sound of rain falling. I had the feeling that it was the soundtrack to my loneliness and that whoever was playing was playing for me.
Aunt Mill knocked and stuck her head in the door. “I’m off. Tartines and café au lait on the kitchen table. Nuke the coffee if it’s cold. There’s cheese, apples, all sorts of truc for lunch in the fridge, or you can just go round and see Madame Rose if you want. Math problems for the day are on the table too, with instructions and a little surprise. See you around four. Have a great day.”
She disappeared. I heard the clacking of locks on the apartment door and then her steps fading down the stairs. I sat up. The floor was icy so I pulled on socks and padded around the place, looking everything over again. The door to Aunt Mill’s study was closed. I tried the knob—locked. We never locked the inside doors at home. I don’t think our doors even have locks.
The milk and coffee were still warm so I dipped the grilled bread in, like I saw Aunt Mill do, and looked over the pages she left. There were nine problems. She wrote, “Let’s do an order of operations review.” The problems looked like, “7 x (10 – 1) = X” or “10 – 72 ÷ 9 = Y” and so forth. She wrote, “ when you finish the problems, subtract answer X from answer Y” and “add answer Z to answer A” and so forth. Then she wrote, “at the end of all this you will have three numbers and those three numbers will open the safe. Inside the safe you will find good and useful things.”
For a moment I thought she meant the big safe in her office, but then I noticed this toy safe sitting on the table, right in front of me. It was a gray metal cube with a black plastic dial like on a combo lock. It had a slot on top for coins and looked like it came from a flea market. The kid who first owned it was probably a bank president by now. I picked it up and shook it and for sure there was stuff inside, coins, papers, maybe a small book or something.
Wickedly ingenious, that’s what Aunt Mill is. I looked at the problems. My eyes glazed. I even knew the problems weren’t that hard, that Aunt Mill was taking it easy on me first time out, but still I sighed. Math.
She had me. For a moment I thought about finding a hammer and smashing open the wimpy metal, just to show her. I won’t even tell you how long it took me to do the problems. Sickeningly long. After fiddling around forever, I got the three numbers I needed and, I have to admit, it was thrilling when the safe popped open.
Inside were all the things Aunt Mill promised—a key to the apartment, five Euros in change, four Metro tickets, a cell phone, a Paris par Arrondissement map book and a hand drawn map with directions to various places: the Picasso Museum, the Place des Vosges, the Centre George Pompidou.
I grabbed an umbrella, slammed the door and ran down the stairs, thrilled to be on the loose. I didn’t really care where I ended up—I just wanted to be out. As soon as I hit the cobbled courtyard, the cold hit. The sun was out, sky clear, air cutting. I ran back up, chucked the umbrella, grabbed mittens, hat, wool coat. I was midway across the courtyard, heading for the carriage doors, when Sief darted out waving, big smile on his face, “Where you go?”
“I will come with.”
“Um. You don’t have to.”
“I don’t mind.”
We pushed through the carriage doors. I looked up then down Aunt Mill’s rue. It was tiny, like a dash on the map, one end leading toward the Café Saint Gervais, the other, who knows. I was one step from being lost already and that suited me fine. I walked off, not waiting for Sief.
When he caught up he said, “Do you know who you remind me of just right now?”
“You never hear of Grace Kelly?”
“But she is American.”
“But she is a princess also.”
“We don’t have princesses in America, except in fairytales.”
“She was Princess of Monaco.”
I shrugged again.
“You never hear of To Catch a Thief?”
I shook my head as we waited at a corner for a truck to pass.
“Best movie ever.”
“So she was a movie star and a princess?” I pivoted suddenly and crossed at a right angle.
When Sief caught up again he said, “how can you not know of most famous, beautiful actress in the whole entire world?”
By this time I’d made two rights and a left on alley-like streets, or maybe it was two lefts and a right. This guy was distracting me. I wanted to pull out my Paris Par, but I didn’t dare do it in front of him. I paused to look up at the blue street sign.
“Where you trying to go?”
“Where are you not going?”
“I am serious. I will walk you where ever your want is to go.” He smiled an ear-to-ear smile. Funny ears. He had cute freckles on his nose, but there was no way I was ever going to admit that, to him or myself. I guess he was half African and half Arab or something. I could see why Aunt Millicent called him a Mohican, but Puritan?
I sighed and said, “where did you learn English?”
“Cleveland. I live there three years. Best city in America.”
“What other cities were you in?”
I nodded. The sun was bright, making the buildings yellow, slicing sharp shadows, warm in the light, cold in the dark. We were standing on the dark side of the rue. “Can you take me to the Pompidou Museum?”
“Le Centre Pompi?”
I nodded. He nodded back and led the way. We zagged and zigged. Unlike Aunt Millicent, Sief said nothing about anything we passed, boutiques, cafes, tiny alleys, churches tucked back from the street, mini parks behind high fences, ornate carriage doors. I tried to remember the street names but there were far too many and Sief was zagging fast: rue Charlot, rue des Quatre Fils, rue de Brague, rue Geoffrey something-or-other. I would never see Aunt Mill’s again.
At one point he stopped so fast in front of a tiny store that I knocked into him. He nodded and said, “you will like this.” I looked. Chipped gold letters on the window spelled out, Gausson Bottier, fondé 1831. Displayed inside were a dozen pair of riding boots, very fancy, very expensive-looking, and behind them framed pictures of jumping horses with English saddles, along with a rack of riding crops and a row of silver equestrian trophies. The boxes stacked on shelves behind the display, and the machines inside, looked liked they’d been around since 1831.
“Big chedda for those boots,” he said.
“You ride horses in America?”
“Me? I mean, I have, like at camp.”
“How many horses you own?”
“Me none either. But someday I’m gonna own a dozens. Then I will come here to get my boots. See that sign? Boot maker to the king, it says. I’m gonna say, make me the same boots the king wears in the old days.”
A bald man inside the shop looked up from the bench where he was working and gave us a dismissive smirk. He couldn’t possibly hear what Sief was saying but it seemed like he knew. Sief smirked back. “You wait and see, Homer Simpson. I walk in someday with big bag of chedda and buy two for me and two for Grace Kelly here. Which do you like best, Grace Kelly? Pick out your favorite.”
“How far are we from the museum?”
“You think I’m kidding you?”
I shook my head. His lip curled with disappoint. He walked off, flicking a hand for me to follow. A few more zigs and we broke out of the cramped, medieval streets to the Centre Pompi, which looked like a flying oil refinery that crash-landed and squished all the buildings around it. There were crowds of people watching a fire-eater guy, so we watched awhile too. Further on, toward the entrance, two girls in overcoats were playing violins, cheeks pink, eyeglasses of the one girl all fogged up.
“You want to go in the museum?” I asked.
“No. You go. I will wait outside.”
“But it’s cold, your ears are turning red.”
“I’m okay. You go in.”
“You want to get a chocolate chaud at the café?”
“No. You get cho-chaud. I will wait here.”
“No, come on, I’ll buy you one. Aunt Mill gave me money.”
He shook his head. He was only wearing a ratty sweater with a muffler around his neck. His left sneaker had a hole in the toe and his sock had a hole in the same spot, so his toe nail peeked out.
“I don’t think I want to go into the museum,” I said. “It looks too big and too crowded and besides, it looks like it might fall down any minute. Plus, the sun is out and how often does that happen?” I don’t know why I said that. I wanted to escape the guy and here was my chance. I guess I was afraid he really would stand around and freeze to death waiting. He had that faithful-dog look. But that was crazy. Of course he would get cold and give me up for lost and walk home or something. And what did I care what happened to him anyway?
I was thinking all this when he said, “You want to see the Big Lady?”
He flicked his hand and set off again, down rue Saint-Martin, onto rue de la Verrierie, into a tiny, dark passage which I never would have gone down except it was streaming with people walking to work, or walking their dogs, or text messaging as they walked, so even though it looked like the kind of alley you got murdered in, there were just too many witnesses around. I think we came out on rue Saint-Bon (I tried to trace our path on a map later) and zagged a few more times, passing so many things I had never seen before, cars and chairs and shoes in shop windows—not like I hadn’t seen these things, but they were all different in little ways, all new. It was too much to take in, with Sief steaming ahead like he was late for his wedding, so it felt like I was on a rollercoaster with stuff whizzing past.
We got blasted by icy wind going across the river at Pont d’Arcole. Then we came out onto the big plaza in front of Notre Dame. Hundreds of people milled about snapping photos and the wind wrapped around from the other side of the island, tossing the occasional flurry, but still it was hard not to be impressed.
“You want to look inside?” I asked.
“I am not a Christian.”
“I don’t think they test your blood or anything.”
“You go. I wait.”
“Oh, come on. How about coming up in the tower? We were here when I was little and we climbed up. It was a wonderful view.”
A snowflake landed on my nose. This was ridiculous. I was cold in my hat and coat but he looked like he might shatter. I was about to suggest hot chocolate again when he said, “It is beautiful, this Big Lady, Notre Dame, no isn’t? She makes me happy to look at her. I think she makes everyone happy to look at her. I think she makes you warm inside the heart if you are a Christian, and even if you are not a Christian.”
I nodded, “and yet the statues and arches and everything are sort of scary and the little gargoyles are really scary, like nightmare scary.”
“It is like the earth put upside down, Grace Kelly.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is like, maybe, inside out world. Upside down world. That is why she is that way.”
I must have looked mighty baffled, because he laughed.
“Sief, I need to get warm. Let’s get a chocolate chaud. Please. I can buy you one or, if you want, you can just sit inside with me while I get warm.”
He thought about this for a while, tempted I guess, but also weighing it out on some weird internal scale. He said, “you want to see one more thing? One very cool-cool thing? The best?” I shrugged. He took off. I realized walking was what kept him warm.
We crossed Pont d’Arcole again, got blasted by the wind again, weaved through the crowds at the Hotel de Ville, passed Tour Saint Jacque, then crossed rue de Rivoli to rue des Halles. Midway down, Sief stopped. This time I avoided colliding with him. He pointed. I looked into a shop window.
Rats. Dead. Two rows of them. Hanging in traps. They looked dusty and tattered like the stuffed things you see in granddad’s basement rec room. A sign in the window of the shop said, “ver 1925,” which I took to mean they died around then. They were big too, big enough to give a cat nightmares. One of these guys could have held Tabby down while another pulled out her whiskers one by one.
I nodded. They were—but really ick too. Plus, I felt like I’d seen this shop, with its boxes of poisons and traps and sprays, in a movie somewhere.
“You see how this is the same and the opposite of the Big Lady, Notre Dame?”
I shook my head.
“But it is so simple, Grace Kelly. These rats own down below. The under Paris. Which is bigger than the upper Paris. Much bigger. And there are more of them. The rats. Many more of them than us. And these, well, they were foolish to leave their land and come to ours, so they become like the gargoyles. We make them on view, on exposé—you know?—as a warning to their brothers and sisters below that this is our world and not theirs. But still, I think these rats are the bravest. Foolish, yes, but the bravest too, Grace Kelly, because it take the courage to come to our world, just as it take the courage to visit their world. You see?”
I nodded. I did kind of see, crazy as that seems.
“Before we just buried our dead in their land and they said, okay, we will care for your dead, that’s okay. But then we build the égout, the sewage pipes, and the Metro too. We dig down more and more into their world so that it is impossible for them to escape us. We invade. We take what is theirs. You see? So we are in conflict always now. And that is what the gargoyles on the Big Lady are talking of, of the conflict between the two worlds. You see, Grace Kelly?”