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Black Washed Wall

The Orphan of Père-Lachaise

Scene 3: Pere Lachaise Cemetary

   As we drive the steep cobble-stone streets in the winding hills of Montmartre neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement in northern Paris, I'm practically bouncing in my seat, bursting with stories to share with Maman. I can't wait to spill the paint about my exhibition, my speech, and all the cool stuff that happened. "Step on it, Papa! Faster!" I exclaim, my excitement barely contained.

   Papa chuckles, his grip steady on the wheel. "Chill your spirit, pote. We'll get there. Remember, your mom's not a fan of too much excitement."

  "Probably 'cause she's hungover. But I'm gonna cheer her up real good!" I declare, eager to share my good vibes.

   I dash out of the car and bound into the manor and race down the hallway until I'm at her door, right across from Papa's room. I take a deep breath, ready to spread some cheer, and twist the doorknob. But then something weird catches my eye. A fancy brass cup thing with a lid, like a secret potion jar, sitting next to a pile of white powder on her dresser. My gaze flicks over to Maman, who's asleep, but she's all sprawled out, her legs twisted every which way. And then I see it – blood, oozing from her nose.

   My heart thuds against my ribs like a hammer against a drum. I retreat and run to Papa, "Something's wrong with Maman! She's bleedin', we gotta hurry!" We dash toward her room, but as we reach the door, I freeze. I can't bear to see her like this again, it's too much. The next moments are blurry, like I'm lost in a thick smoke and fog, just drifting through time without thought or feeling. I’m numb.

  Papa comes back, shutting the door quietly behind him. He puts his hand on my shoulder and guides me to my room. We both sit on my bed, below the red Picasso painting from his circus days hanging above us. I want to cry, I should cry, but I don’t. My eyes remain dry. Papa doesn't cry either. We're just stuck here, in this dark pit of our minds, lost in the emptiness of an emotional black hole. Papa and I look at each other’s eyes. They are the same - two empty wells.

  Papa sells the manor as is, with all the furniture and art included, but it's not enough to clear all the debts. “Bon débarras,” I say. I don't ever wanna see the "Château de Misère,” again. Money becomes scarce, but I don't really feel sad or worried. I feel like I’m waking from a nightmare - a little shaken, but relieved it’s over.

   The seasons roll along; spring to summer, autumn to winter, passing like shadows on a canvas. Papa is continuing to send me to the conservatory, but he took a second job to pay for it. I begged him not to. I’ll go to a public school, but Papa won’t hear of it.

   “Mon Petite Lapin, you might have lost your Maman, but you won't lose yourself or your art! You're one-of-a-kind, and you won’t fit in at a public school. You won't develop to be the artist you're meant to be. There will be no more talking about it or I’ll simply hypnotize you and make you accept it and you’d never know.”

   "Je t’aime, mon Grand Lapin!" I reply, grinning.

    He gives me his special wink, “I love you too, Lapin."

  In the weeks that followed, life settled into a comforting routine. Days at the conservatory remain a whirlwind of artistic exploration and camaraderie. Evenings, on the other hand, are an adventure into the realm of Père Lachaise cemetery, where I roam the shadowy lanes and keep Papa company during his night watch. So, one night I ask him, "Papa, why do they need a watchman in a cemetery? I mean, everyone is dead, and I don’t like you watchin' out for ghosts! I’m not liking that at all!"

  Papa laughs, his eyes twinkle, "Ah, well, my young detective, it's not about the ghosts. It's about those sneaky vandals who creep in and make a mess of things. They paint graffiti on the crypts, you know."

  The worst part about this job is that Papa doesn't like leaving me in our apartment at night alone - not one bit! I get it. We still live in Montmartre arrondissement, but we’re in an old apartment, not too far from Van Gogh's old digs. We’re real close to the Moulin Rouge cabaret and if you know anything about Paris, you'll know that's not exactly the kind of place for a kid like me to grow up.

    So, I tag along with Papa. Yup, I'm his trusty sidekick on his graveyard adventures before I crash on the floor of his outpost while he patrols the 110 acres of graves all night long. We've got our routine down, but I’ll never forget our first night walking the grave yard. The darkness hugged Père Lachaise like a secret. The air was crisp and held the scent of old stories. The moon cast playful shadows, revealing just enough to keep the mystery alive. Each step felt like I was tiptoeing through time, and the silence whispered the tales of the departed. It was a dance between the living and the echoes of the past, and I was right in the middle, feeling the heartbeat of history.

    One day, Papa's acting all mysterious and excited. He says he's got a surprise and is acting like a kid at Christmas. We hit his stage show first, then dash back to our apartment. I take a quick shower and swap my clothes, thinking, "What could possibly be so exciting?" Then, we catch the metro train to Père Lachaise.

  We march past his outpost, and I'm totally curious, thinking, "What's up, Papa?" He leads me down this little lane, and there it is – a massive mausoleum, towering over us like some ancient castle. I read the carving, "Madame Genevieve Lefevre 1820-1868." Papa wrestles with the heavy door, and I'm like, "What in Paris is going on?"

    "Look inside, Yves! Look, I got a mattress inside for you. You don't have to sleep on the floor anymore."

  I practically jump out of my underwear, shaking my head like a bobble-head. I wave my finger back and forth to Papa, "No way, No! No! No! I'm not crashin' with some ghost lady. Nuh-uh, no thanks. The outpost floor's just fine."

   "But listen, mon Petit Lapin, she's long gone. Madame Lefevre left the building years ago."

   "She sounds smart. I’m long gone too!" I spin around, and walk straight toward the outpost.

   Papa's trailing after me, "Hold up, Yves! Wait! I was talking to the daytime guard, you know, the one who just retired. He informed me that Madame Lefevre was in a rented plot and no one paid the bill, so she was moved to an outer plot, but no one updated the record, nor tore down her mausoleum. Evidently that happens a lot here from what he told me. So, for nearly six years, he's been bunking in that mausoleum for free. I thought, 'Hey, why not get you a mattress, and you can sleep here while I'm on duty?'"

   I double over in hysterics. I laugh so hard I can hardly breathe. "Papa, I'm now crashin' with the spirits huh? That's just plain weird, but okay, I'll give it a shot - just for you Grand Lapin. But I’m telling you if Madame Lefevre comes back looking for her body or something, I'm outta here for good!"

   Papa's still grinning, "Yves, you’re now neighbors with Frédéric Chopin. He’s only a block away, but be careful. His body is buried here, but his heart in buried in Poland. He might come back looking for his heart!” He tickles me and laughs.

   I can't help but chuckle. "Oh Papa, being neighbors with Chopin might just be the first thing Maman would've actually been proud of me for! I gotta admit, it's kinda cool." I smirk and Papa smirks right back at me as he jostles my hair. “I need to get my hair cut, don’t I?”

   “Not at all. You look like an artist, a French artist.” I smile, feeling happy, but Papa isn’t done yet with his surprises.

   Papa pulls my sleeve, leading me another direction. "C'mon, Lapin, there's more to see." We walk along the shadowy paths, the lamplights casting eerie glows along the cobblestones.

   Papa opens another crypt door. “You can put your clothes in this one…and then there’s this one.” He turns to a crypt directly across the path. “Go on! Open it.” The door scrapes the ground below as I pry the bulky door open. Inside, from corner to corner and top to bottom, are rows of paint of all colors and types, hundreds of canvases are stacked high, brushes of all shapes and sizes, sketch books, solvents, palettes, palette knives, paint rags, easels - a lifetime supply of everything I could ever need – you name it, it's all there.

   I'm blinking back tears, my chin quivering. "Papa, how? We can't afford all this stuff."

Papa grins, his cheek bones raised, his eyes warm and loving. "I sold your Maman’s jewelry collection. She would have wanted her little artist to have everything he ever needs."

   I shake my head, feeling that lump in my throat. I wave my index finger at Papa again, "No, no, no, Papa! You spent that money on me. This gift's from you, not her." I lean in and kiss his cheeks, then wrap my arms around him and squeeze. "Oh Papa, I'm living in a cemetery paradise. Who would've ever thought?"

  I’ve lived in this mausoleum for a few years now. I’m starting my life’s fifteenth autumn. Thankfully, there’s still no sign of Madame Lefevre looking for her body or Chopin looking for his heart. Papa's got this routine down pat. Once he wraps up his night shift, he's right there to rouse me from my slumber. He serves me breakfast, then walks me to the Père Lachaise metro to put me on my train and off I go, ready to conquer another school day at the Pompidou Centre. As for Papa, he heads back to our apartment for some well-deserved rest until it's time to greet me at the metro station after school.

  Life sparkles like the stars on Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting right here in the City of Light. School's a blast, with friends to hang out with and teachers who actually get me. My paintbrush dances across canvas, sketchbooks come alive with my ideas, and Papa and I have our evenings, sharing stories and chuckles. When night falls, I find solace in the quiet embrace of my serene tomb quarters, surrounded by the quietest neighbors in Europe. Each night the symphony of the resting souls around me, lull me to sleep. It’s quite the shift from the chaos of our apartment, let me tell you. Every day in my life now is like walking in a sun-kissed meadow where laughter flutters upon the breeze, and every blade of grass whispers secrets of contentment. When I paint the sky, I only use colors of sparkling, celestial serenity.

  But then one morning…it’s hard to talk about. I wake up to sunlight filtering through a window high above in my crypt. Huh, that's different. Where's Papa nudging me to wake up. I call out, my voice echoing through the stone chambers, but there's no response. Is the cemetery playing a trick on me, hiding from me?

  My heart skips a beat, my stomach knotting up. I bolt out of bed, shouting Papa's name like I'm some kind of crazed town crier. "Papa! Papa! Where are you?"

  All is quiet, except a dog barking in the distance. Panic creeps up my spine, tightening its grip. I burst through the door…where is he? "This isn't right. This isn't right," I mumble. This doesn't make any sense.

  I feel the tension in the cemetery, like it's holding its breath, waiting. But for what? I'm alone, swallowed up by silence. All I can hear is the rush of my own breath as I run toward the Papa’s station. My thoughts dart in every direction. I've got to find him. I don’t like this. I don’t like this.


  "Okay, Yves, stay cool," I mutter, taking a deep breath to steady my heart.

I    My feet pound against the ground faster and faster as I run. My throat feels like sandpaper, constricting with every gasping breath. Numbness spreads through my blood like a creeping shadow taking form. As I reach the entrance, my eyes widen at the sight before me – the door, slightly ajar. My heart speeds up in double-time.

    I burst through the door, and…Papa! He’s slumped in his chair. I clutch at my throat, desperate to fill my lungs with air. I gasp and choke, my chest heaving as I struggle for each precious breath.
I collapse to my knees beside him. My trembling hands reach out, as my tentative fingers brush against Papa’s unresponsive skin. I grasp his lifeless hand, my touch pleading for a response. Tears well up, blurring my vision until everything is a hazy, distorted mess. Agony burns through as if searing lava has replaced my blood. A primal scream erupts from my throat reverberating through the hollow corridors.

    I gaze at Papa's expressionless face. I collapse onto his chest. feeling a desolate void of all color being removed from the world. How? Why? Why now? My voice breaks into a desperate plea, "Mon père, answer me! Mon père I need you! I need you! I need you! I need you! I need you! I need you! I need you! I need you! I NEED YOU!"

    Struggling, I lift Papa's lifeless form and drag him outside and lay him on a bed of brittle leaves. The sun bathes him in golden light. I snuggle beside him, resting my head on his shoulder, a ritual performed throughout my life. I wait for him to stir and embrace me with his love once more.

    His Vetiver cologne lingers, Papa’s favorite classic French fragrance with rich, oriental scent brings comfort to me. Though I don’t see his lips move, I hear him whisper to me, "Je t'aime, mon Petit Lapin!" My fingers trace his face gently, my touch is like a caress across a fragile canvas. Tears spill, forming a pool on the collar of his shirt, a mosaic of my sorrow.

    Hours drift by, our silent companionship stretching into eternity. Yet, in the midst of this mourning, a nudge on my shoulder pulls me from my reverie. "Papa?" I murmur, “Is it time to rise?”

   Neither figure that stands before me is Papa. A stout man and a frail woman, the caretakers of Père Lachaise, loom over us. I rub my heart to cool it’s burning. They check Papa’s pulse. It must be fine because they give me a gentle smile. They lift me up; the lady holds my hand and leads me to the offices.

    They exchange glances, and the woman steps forward, her voice a soothing balm. "You must be Yves, the talented 15 year-old artist your Papa so highly praises. I am Madame Lili Gasquet, and this is my husband Marcus. Can you tell me what happened, dear?"

    My voice cracks as I try to speak, tears streaming freely down my cheeks. "I came to find him, but... I don't know. I don't know…I don’t know." My anguish chokes my words.

    Madame Lili reaches out, wiping away my tears with a tender touch. She draws me into an embrace, a gesture of refuge amidst my emotional storm. Her voice is gentle, a lighthouse guiding me through darkness. She asks about Maman, and I tell her she’s dead. It’s only me and Papa.

    "Oh, mon cherie," she murmurs, "Tell me, is there anyone we can contact - a sibling, aunt, grandparent?"

    I shake my head.

    As Madame Lili turns to confer with her husband, I'm left alone with the weight of my reality settling upon my mind. The quiet of the office surrounds me, a stark contrast to the tempest raging within.

    Their hushed voices weave in and out of my ear. They return and Monsieur Marcus lowers himself to a knee before me, his touch gentle as he covers my hand with his, "Yves," he speaks softly, "we will take care of your Papa. He was part of our Père Lachaise family, and family looks out for each other. We'll ensure his body is cared for – a proper farewell. We can bury him here, in the back cemetery lot at no cost, or, if you prefer, we can cremate him."

    My head shakes violently with a fervent insistence. "No! No! No! S'il vous plaît, do not burn him! No! No! He will wake up. I know it. I know mon père. He would never leave me. He will come back to me. Do not bury him, Monsieur!"

    "D'accord, enfant," Marcus replies, his tone softening, a promise of understanding. "We won't do that."

    Madame Lili remains by my side, the hours tick by like a mournful dirge. Evening arrives and they take me to their home and lay food before me - a feast for the eyes but a mere blur to my senses. After I take a few bites, the lady's kiss is a fleeting warmth before I'm given a warm bath, then led to bed.

    In the quiet of my room, a soft light spills from a nearby lamp. The Gasquets join me. In my grief, I can’t look at them. I only stare at their silhouettes cast in shadows on the wall behind them. We remain in silence for a long spell before Monsieur Marcus reaches into his pocket, retrieving an item that glimmers in the dim light. "This was in your father's pocket. We'll gather the rest of his belongings later."

    Papa's keys and his pocket watch are placed before me. I hold the weight of a lifeline to a world of yesterdays. The gold chain slips through my fingers and I begin to mimic the rhythmic sway Papa always uses to comfort me. The Gasquets' eyes remain locked on the watch, their gaze unbroken upon the rocking watch.

    With a sudden surge of instinct, my fingers snap before them, a sharp command cutting through the air. "Sleep!" I decree. In an instant, Marcus and Lili Gasquet slump forward, their consciousness succumbing to my command. The realization hits me – Papa's legacy of hypnotic prowess has been passed on, and in this moment of darkness, I wield its power.   

   “Papa, you’re here! Look, what you did for me. You hypnotized them. Look! Look!” I have to think. I have to think quickly.

    “Sit up. You may sit up.” I command. The couple obeys. “Go deeper, deeper, deeper in sleep. Do you hear my words?”

    They nod. All sorts of thoughts race through my mind. What to do? What to say? “Monsieur Marcus, where is my Papa? What have you done with him? Tell me your plans.”

    “Your father is in the embalming room. I cleaned and disinfected his body. I made incisions in his skin to access the blood vessels for arterial embalming. I injected the fluids into his circulatory system to preserve and disinfect his body. After aspirating bodily fluids and gases using a trocar, I treated and preserved his internal organs.”

    I don’t know what all that means. “You cleaned him? That’s very good. Merci beaucoup Monsieur. Was there anything else?”

    “I set his facial features and closed his eye after applying cosmetics. I redressed his body.”
   “You closed his eyes to help him sleep! Again monsieur we thank you. We cannot thank you enough!” I kiss his cheeks in gratitude.

    “Madame Lili, you now feel the warmth and gratitude from my heart for your care and kindness. You will never forget my love for you and your kind acts. I need your kindness to continue and I know you will assist me with your benevolent heart. You will bring food for me and Papa, each day you arrive at Père Lachaise. You and I will build our bond and I will receive your motherly offerings and you will receive a child’s gratitude. Encore, merci!” I kiss her cheeks. “You both will wake in one hour, but will not remember my being here this evening. You will believe you have already completed your duties with Papa. Do you each understand?”

They nod.

    Changing clothes quickly, I place Papa's belongings in my pocket. The door closes behind me, and I step out into the night, each footfall carrying me closer to the metro to catch the last train home…to Père Lachaise. The weight of the watch in my pocket is a reminder of the legacy I now carry, a testament to the extraordinary path that lay before me.

    I reach the cemetery and wander the winding labyrinthine brick paths of Père Lachaise amid the shadows of the wind, swaying tree limbs dancing before me like elusive specters. The midnight air is cool with the scent of fresh rain. I feel the sense of mystery and quietude on my skin as I walk the cobblestone paths.

    I unlock and enter the embalming laboratory with Papa’s keys. The scent of chemicals and preservation fluid fill my nostrils. Cautiously, I make my way through the halls until my eyes fall upon Papa’s peaceful face lying on a metal bed. A mixture of sadness and determination mingle within me.

    My quivering fingers reach out to cradle Papa’s form, I coax him onto a stroller bed and push him through the halls and out into the moonlit paths of the cemetery toward the grandest mausoleum in Paris, belonging to, but soon to be former tenant, Baron Don Marquin-Moreau.

    I take Papa’s master key and unlock the crypt. I pry open the musty door and take a deep breath, before I open the Barons’ ornate coffin. I disassemble his skeleton and place the pile of bones and skull in a box. Then I clean out the ragged, aged interior of the coffin bed, and pad the inside with cushions I took from chairs in the laboratory to create a comfortable resting place for Papa. I roll Papa from the stroller table into his bed, I leave the casket open for when he wakes. “I hope you won’t be too frightened when you arise,” I tell him. “It’s your turn to sleep in a crypt Grand Lapin!”

    I take the Baron’s bones and properly bury him in an unmarked plot in the back lot of graves.

    Papa remains, his presence a constant companion in the quiet moments which lies somewhere between life and death. The grand day of his return, a reunion waiting to unveil, is all I can think about. What a grand day that will be!

     Weeks of suns and moons have risen and fallen. I have etched a grand lapin on Papa’s mausoleum door. Every waking moment I sit outside the majestic crypt as both guardian and dreamer, watching over Papa. I gaze at every one of the thousands of tourists drawn to his majestic mausoleum that now holds the world's greatest hypnotist! I watch them stand and honor him. I nod and thank them all.

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