In Spring I told my mother I would leave Hotel Bessette rather than become a whore like her. She’d beaten me before, but nothing like that. Afterward Sylvie cradled me in her arms in our room, and scolded me gently for being obstinate.
“This is our lot, chouchou,” she told me. “And it’s really not so bad.”
I lay against her, feeling the heat of the raising bruises as blood rushed to the surface.
“We’re warm and clothed, and we have nice things. We never go hungry. That means something these days. We even have our treats on Sundays, hmm?”
I fidgeted. We didn’t talk about it.
“I’ll show you what to do,” she continued. “You needn’t be frightened of it.”
I wouldn’t hear any more of it. I wouldn’t let her show me what she did. I told her I’d leave. I begged her to come with me, an she begged me to stay. We were safe at Hotel Bessette, she argued. She repeated the rest of it. We were warm and clothed and we had nice things. Milk and bread and eggs and candles and warm socks. Out there, alone, we’d starve.
I was furious that she wouldn’t come, that she’d take their side. We argued for the first time since she’d come. In the heat of my fury I said the worst thing I’d ever said, worse than calling my mother a whore. I told her she had nothing to lose, that if she came and we went hungry she could go back to spreading her legs.
Then I was alone. My mother and Sylvie were ice to me. The others were distant, unsure of how to deal with me. Sarah was worse than she’d ever been.
A week later, I woke up early. The house was quiet, and I left. I put on two shifts, two skirts, and my bodice. It was uncomfortably warm, but I wasn’t sure how else to carry the extra. I gathered my meager Faro winnings, almost two Francs in small coin, and a few sundries. Walking into the weak, early-morning sunshine was like parading into heaven. All I’d ever seen of the world was within a stone’s throw of the Hotel Bessette, but today the whole of Montpellier was my own.
I walked down familiar avenues until they became foreign. I found a market district I’d never seen before and sat on a curb, nibbling at a loaf of bread I’d secreted out of the maison. I watched the merchants paint the row with a rainbow of cloth, spices, and edibles. Most were locals, but some of the fashions were exotic. I recognized outdated Parisian styles and thought of my sweet Sylvie, and I wished I’d apologized after the terrible thing I said. I thought of going back and making my escape another morning. It had been so easy. But would Sylvie stop me, if she knew I’d really go? What if she would change her mind and come with me? For a moment I longed to run back to her. But I knew it was a dream. I forced my thoughts away from her.
I wrapped the loaf in a clean rag and surveyed my holdings: precious few coins, most of a loaf of bread, three apples, a handful of rags, a bit of soap, and an extra pair of stockings, wrapped together in an old shawl. I’d hesitated about the shawl. It was my mother’s, not mine, and though not any special love of hers, the theft would not be forgiven.
After I’d stashed my treasures in the shawl again, I considered my situation. The women rarely strayed far from the maison, so I could sit here, barely a mile from home, and not be found for years and years. But my scrap of bread, three apples, and nearly-two Francs would run out in no time. There were also the patrons to consider. Many of the regular local men had seen me many times, and would know me. They might tell my mother where I can be found or worse, drag me home. I had no way of knowing what part of town the men might frequent, nor which might recall my face.
I could try to reach Paris alone, but it would take weeks on foot. If I stayed in Montpellier I might be noticed, and deep in my heart, I wondered if I’d be able to resist going back when my money or luck ran out. I had to leave Montpellier as soon as I could, and get as far away as possible, so if things went badly I couldn’t be tempted.
A man of the cloth hustled across the boulevard, and I wondered if the church would offer me refuge. Nobody would call Mother faithful, but I was baptized, and the church was supposed to grant anybody asylum. They wouldn’t send me home, but for what? They’d probably send me off to a convent, and I’d be stuck somewhere else. On the other hand, there wouldn’t be any men at a convent, or at least they’d be holy men. I wondered why Sylvie hadn’t thought to become a nun.
Then I thought of David. He had left. He would understand. If I could find him, he’d help me. He wouldn’t let his baby sister…
I wouldn’t say it, even to myself.
David would rescue me.
I was suddenly filled with energy. I thought hard about what I remembered of David. He looked like me, fair skin and dark hair. He was tall and lean. He sailed with the Marine nationale when I was six. I was twelve then, so he’d been gone six years. I realized I knew very little about the Navy. How many ships were there? Were they ever all in one place? I didn’t know. My enthusiasm ebbed, but I knew in my heart that somehow, I’d find my brother.
The sun was higher, and the warm spring morning had me hot and itchy under my layers. I clambered to my feet and took up my precious parcel. After thought, I untied the shawl and stuffed the coins into my stockings. I had to pull my skirts over my knees to reach the tops of my stockings, and a drew admonishing glances from passers-by. I realized I was getting too old for such things. It was lamentable. I was much cooler with my skirts up off my legs. Nevertheless I finished tucking all but a few of my coins into my socks and tied up my bundle again.
At one of the stalls, a woman was laying out meat pies for sale. They were only a centime a piece, and she had lamb, my favorite. I bought a pie and stood at the stall to eat it so I could ask how I could find sailors in town. After a bawdy joke, she directed me toward the harbor, and I thanked her. It wasn’t far, but it was back in the direction of home. I’d have to be cautious to avoid our street. Everyone would be up by now.
Tiptoeing around the maison seemed easy in the business of the morning, but my heart stopped when I heard my name. It was only Babette, another madame of the district.
“Where’s Sylvie?” she asked. “I never see you out on your own.”
“Sylvie is… she’s sick again,” I said. “She needed her rest.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. Where are you off to?”
“I’m…” I didn’t have a story. “I’m going to meet my brother.”
“Is he in town? I haven’t seen Daniel in years!”
“David. I should go. I’ll be late.”
I was free again, but if she’d been nosier or smarter or meaner I might have been in real trouble. Every street between me and home let me relax a little more, until suddenly a breeze brought me the scent of salt and fish that promised the harbour, and my soul rejoiced.