Vivaldi’s French Hen – (day 3)

by

Susan May James

Alone, penniless and desperate to stay warm Fleche wanders the winding streets of the Left Bank.  Every few moments she tucks her chin into her thick scarf, her breath warming her nose and cheeks.  Heedless of time, she eventually finds herself in the Latin Quarter; its lanes brimming with restaurants and tourists.  The atmosphere is vibrant but instead of it lifting her spirits Fleche’s mood plummets.  All the hope and excitement, peaking after months of planning, has been doused over the course of a single day.  Years of dreaming have come to nothing and now she feels like a fool.

Stopping outside a restaurant, she pretends to read the menu and glances through the window at the diners.  Her stomach rumbles as a waitress carries a steaming fondue pot and a basket of bread to a table of five.  Out of the corner of her eye she sees the door open and for a brief moment the smell of food wafts out on the sound of laughter.  She stares, mesmerised, as each of the group takes a turn spearing chunks of bread.  Her mouth waters as they dip the bread into the pot of melted cheese, twirling it and letting it cool as they talk and laugh.

With a sigh, Fleche wiggles her toes in her shoes, willing the numbness to abate.

“Mademoiselle?”  The restaurant host, his job to stand outside and drum up business, looks at her as he extends an arm towards the door.  Fleche lifts her face from her scarf and shakes her head.

“Non, merci.”  Her breath erupts in a cloud of warmth that disappears into the crisp night air.  As she walks away the cobblestones are cold and slick under her feet and she shivers as tears well up in her eyes.  Since that morning, when her mother had turned her away, she’d been walking the streets of Paris in a cold haze; her legs now ache and Fleche is in dire need of a rest.  As she passes more restaurants she keeps her head down to avoid eye contact with their hosts as they try to coax her in.  They gesture towards dessert trolleys and displays of fresh seafood but without money she is forced to ignore them and the festive chalkboards that dot the pavement.

Eventually Fleche crosses the River Seine and approaches the towering cathedral.  Its gothic architecture and imposing flying buttresses are a marvel that would have otherwise inspired her.  In fact she had hoped to spend a day exploring a number of sites but that doesn’t seem possible now.  Nonetheless, she stands for a moment to admire the renowned cathedral of Notre Dame; darkness has fallen and its bright brickwork glows a golden hue under its spotlights.  A chill runs up her spine and so, in an attempt to stay warm, she repeats her steps back and forth over the bridge between the Left Bank and the Île de la Cité.

As she walks she remembers the scene from that morning.  It had been the first time she’d seen her mother in fifteen years and while Fleche had expected her to be surprised, she had not been prepared for the outright rejection she had received.  Although, in retrospect, the unanswered calls and the returned letter had hinted at what she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge, the possibility that her mother did not want to see her.  Finally, desperate to make contact, Fleche had gone to her mother’s home and knocked on her door but, far from being welcomed, a woman she barely recognised told her to leave.

Fleche then had to place a collect call to her father and admit that not only had her quest been a failure but she’d also run out of money.

She feels ashamed and foolish for her naivety.  Her father, with a pained expression, had warned her not to get her hopes up but she had refused to listen.  Instead she’d brushed off his words, saved her money, caught a flight from Lambert St. Louis International and had spent the journey over the Atlantic dreaming of the reunion with her mother.

Now, shivering in the cold, Fleche wonders what she will do all night; it had taken a number of attempts to get through to her father and due to the time difference the money wire would not be available until the next morning.  Therefore, for one night at least, she is forced out onto the Parisian streets.

When she returns to the cathedral she notices that the doors are open and as she bends her head back to view the bell towers she wonders if there is a pending service.  If so, it could offer her a brief respite from the cold.  She is just about to go inside when she hears a noise and turns to see an old woman sitting on a nearby bench.

“Psst!” the woman hisses at her, beckoning her with a gloved hand.  “Come sit with me!”

Startled, Fleche casts a glance over her shoulder before taking a few hesitant steps towards her.

“What’s your name?” the old woman asks, smiling.  Fleche tells her and waits for the usual response. When it doesn’t come she feels awkward so she launches into her oft told story anyways.

“When I was seven I was in the school Christmas pageant and had to dress up as a French hen.  Apparently I ran around clucking for weeks so my mother started calling me Fleche.  It’s a breed of French hen,” she shrugs.  “The nickname sort of stuck.”

She doesn’t add that her mother left five months later and she’d kept the nickname because it was one of the few things she remembered her mother ever giving her.

“You must be cold,” the old woman says as she stands up and slides a sheet of cardboard along the bench.  “Sit on this, it will help.”  The woman coughs into a gloved hand, her fingers are bare where the fabric is worn and Fleche feels a tug of sympathy for her.  She sits down next to her and wishes that she had something to offer the homeless woman.

“Don’t worry, your company is enough,” she says as if Fleche has spoken her thoughts.  They sit in silence for a moment until the woman leans forward and whispers.

“I too am considered a French hen!”  She laughs as she says it.  “I am known as Vivaldi’s French Hen.  They call me Houdan!  Do you know why?”

Fleche shakes her head, giving her a polite smile.

“Like La Fleche, the Houdan is a breed of hen but they have five toes instead of the usual four and look!”  All of a sudden she pulls the glove from her left hand and it takes a moment for Fleche to register what she reveals.  Resting just above her left pinkie there is a soft, fleshy stub; a cross between a miniature finger and a toe.

“When Vivaldi saw this, he called me Houdan.  I was just a young orphan, living in the streets.”  The woman sighs and Fleche doesn’t know how to respond so she just nods. “The Red Priest kept many of his visits to Paris a secret,” Houdan continues.  “Passing through Montmartre he saw me from the window of his carriage and took pity on me; a cold and hungry waif.  I was sick and lying in the street; my mother had died giving birth and my father had just been killed in a gypsum mine.  I had lost all hope; there was no future for me.  But then Vivaldi’s assistant lifted me into the carriage and through an act of great charity I was nursed back to health as we travelled to Venice.”

The old woman pauses, expecting a response, and it is obvious to Fleche that she is delusional.

“I see,” Fleche says at length, not wanting to upset her.  “You went to Venice with Vivaldi?  The composer?”  She doesn’t comment on the fact that if her story were true then it would make her close to three hundred years old.

“Of course the composer, who else?” Houdan exclaims, indignant.  “He heard me sing, I have a beautiful voice, and he took me to join his girls at the Ospedale della Pietà.  It was very unusual, you know.  I was the one rare French hen amongst his flock of Venetian orphans.  I stayed for many years and gave many performances.  But then when he decided to leave for Vienna, I returned to Paris.”  Houdan sighs, her face clouding with a look of remorse.

Fleche is struck speechless as she gazes up at the cathedral and Houdan whispers in a conspiratorial tone.

“You wouldn’t believe which opera he wrote for me!”  She laughs as she sits back, a grin spreading across her wrinkled face.  “But I digress; my point is that you must keep faith.  My dear Fleche, don’t ever lose faith and hope because just when you think all is lost, amazing things happen.”

“Like being swept away to Venice on the charity of Vivaldi?” Fleche looks sceptical.

“Exactly!  But you’ll need a thick skin, Fleche.” Houdan reaches out and presses something into her hand.  “Now take this, the service will soon be starting.”  She nods towards Notre Dame.  “Light this candle and have faith.  Don’t worry; your mother will come around.”  The old woman’s eyes are glowing and her cheeks are pink.  As Fleche clasps the small votive candle, her palm feels warm.

“Now, go!” Houdan tells her, giving her a nudge.  “Go find a third French hen, a Crevecoeur perhaps!”

Taking her leave, Fleche stands up and as she walks away she hears Houdan laughing, her loud cackles rippling through the night.  At that moment Fleche remembers that she had not told the old woman her reason for coming to Paris; she had only mentioned that her mother had called her Fleche.

With a start, she realises that Houdan had read her mind.  Whirling around, she finds the bench empty.  Houdan is nowhere to be seen; an apparition, vanished into the night.

“Houdan?” she calls out.  There is no response and she sees that even the piece of cardboard they were sitting on is gone.  A chill passes over her as she looks down, the candle is still cradled in her hand and at that moment the bells begin to toll, calling worshipers to mass.  In a daze, Fleche continues walking towards the cathedral where she is swept up by the crowd that streams through the entrance; people brush by to take their seats while she moves towards a shrine of votive candles.  Have faith, the words echo as she lights the candle and stands for a moment with her head bowed, reflecting on the old woman’s strange story.  Tears spring to her eyes.

“Fleche?” she looks up at the sound of a soft voice and sees her mother standing in front of her.  They stare at each other for a moment.

“I’m-” her mother stammers, blushing.  “I’m sorry for earlier today.  You caught me off-guard.”

Fleche continues to stare, sullen.

“When you weren’t at the hostel I called your father.  He said you’d always talked about seeing the cathedral so I was hoping I’d find you here.”

Fleche mumbles something about its architecture and history.

“Should we stay for the service and then go get something to eat?  You can stay with me if you want.”  Her mother looks nervous and Fleche notices her bloodshot eyes and the fine lines around her mouth.  She looks older than she should for her age and Fleche wonders about her life.  She nods and they take their seats.

After the service, thinking of the fondue she’d seen earlier, Fleche suggests they walk to the Latin Quarter for dinner.  Her mother agrees and as they leave the cathedral Fleche can’t help but stare at the bench.  There is still no sign of Houdan although for a moment Fleche is sure that she can hear the old woman’s laughter through the wind.

Once seated in the restaurant, their order taken, Fleche is ill at ease.  She’d been waiting for this moment for so long but now that it has arrived she doesn’t know what to say.  You left me, she wants to scream.

“So, how long have you lived in Paris?” she asks instead.

“Since I left the States,” her mother is blunt.  “You want to know why I left.  I’ve always known this day would come and I’d have to explain.  But I can’t.”  She shakes her head.  “Not really.  It was so long ago and I wasn’t ready for a family.  I grew up dreaming of becoming a dancer.  I was born in France you know, near Marseille.  We moved to Missouri when I was twelve, my father had a job offer from a cousin already living there.  I never fit in.”

The waitress brings their drinks and her mother pauses, leaning back in her chair.  Fleche doesn’t say anything; she looks down and swirls wine around in her glass while waiting for her mother to continue.

“I quit school when I met your father.  We got married and had you.  I wasn’t happy and felt you would be better off without me.  I was too young to accept such a responsibility.  I thought he’d remarry but I guess he never did?”

Fleche clears her throat.  “No, he didn’t remarry.”

There’s an awkward silence as they wait for their food.  Eventually the pot of melted cheese and basket of bread arrives but the atmosphere is not as jovial as the scene Fleche had witnessed earlier in the evening.

“And the dancing?  How did that go?”

Her mother shrugs as she dips a piece of bread into the fondue.  “Not so well at first.  I was starting late so I had to compromise a bit.  But it’s been alright.”  She takes the bread out of the melted cheese and sets it on her plate to cool while she rummages through her hand bag.

“Here,” she says holding out a brochure.  “Why don’t you come to my show?  It’s a bit bawdy but it’s all in good fun.”  She seems perkier now that they’ve changed the subject.

Fleche opens the brochure and stifles a gasp as she reads the name splashed in bright red letters across the page.

Crevecoeur.

“That’s me,” her mother says looking pleased.  “Crevecoeur, heart break, it’s my stage name.  It’s quite something isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s quite something,” Fleche whispers, food sticking in her throat.  She remembers Houdan’s words.  Go find a third French hen, a Crevecoeur perhaps!  A tickle creeps up her neck and goose bumps break out along her arms.  Her mother doesn’t notice her reaction but continues talking, her voice animated.

“Oddly enough, it’s also a breed of French hen,” she laughs.  “Actually, that reminds me of something I wanted to ask you, Leanne.”  With a flick of her hand she tosses her hair over her shoulder and reaches for her wine.  Pausing for effect she leans forward and rolls her eyes at her daughter.

“Why on earth do you call yourself Fleche?”  She emphasises each word as Fleche’s eyes grow wide.  The question hits her like a slap in the face and as she blinks back tears Houdan’s ghostly warning flashes through her mind.  You’ll need a thick skin, Fleche.

She stares at the mother she’s never known, her heart breaking; Crevecoeur, indeed.

***

The author should like to point out that while certain general elements of this story are true, insofar as Vivaldi was a real person who was a composer and a priest, lived in Venice and was in charge of the Ospedale della Pietà (where he had an all female choir and orchestra) in the early 18th century, other elements such as whether or not he made secret trips to Paris or ever offered help and refuge to females other than those already abandoned in Venice, are a figment of the author’s imagination. Furthermore, the character of Houdan is not based on any known person or character, living or dead, waif or otherwise.

(Oh, and the ghost part is made up too!)

***

www.scribble-scatter.blogspot.com

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14 Responses to “Vivaldi’s French Hen – (day 3)”

  1. Tony Noland

    There’s a distance between them that will never be bridged, not if they both live to be a hundred. Finely drawn people here – well done.

  2. Patti Larsen

    Wonderful story… I like that there is no neat and tidy ending for Fleche–that expectation leads to disappointment. Great writing!

  3. Jim Bronyaur

    🙂 Thank you SOOO much for joining in on the 12 Days fun.

  4. Tweets that mention Vivaldi’s French Hen – (day 3) « 12 Days 2010! -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shadow, Shadow and Lori Titus, Jim Bronyaur. Jim Bronyaur said: Vivaldi's French Hen by @yamnasus on #12days2010 – http://ht.ly/3q9Ia […]

  5. Shari Jennings

    Wonderfully written!Sadly,the distance will remain between them, how often, no matter the age, the child is wiser than the parent. Heartbreaking for sure!

  6. Chuck Allen

    Great story! It leaves the reader thinking about it well after reaching the end.

  7. Icy Sedgwick

    Oh these are such beautiful descriptions…Houdan is lovely!! I wish she’d taken Fleche with her.

  8. JW Bettencourt

    Very pretty story. Thumbs up also for the creative way to bring in your day’s theme.

  9. Cecilia Dominic

    This was gorgeous! I love Paris, but I would have been able to picture it even if I’d never been there with your vivid descriptions. Great take on the French hens!

    CD

  10. Cindy Mantai

    Such an interesting and original idea for the 3 French Hens. I’m so sad for Fleche…

  11. Eric J. Krause

    Excellent story! You brought a cold Parisian night to life, and the strained relationship between mother and daughter seemed quite real. I’m guessing there will be no further Christmas times for them to spend together–she’s discovered Mom isn’t who she thought she might be.

  12. David G Shrock

    Touching story and wonderful take on the day. The descriptions support the mood well. Great work.

  13. adampb

    A delicately constructed story with three finely drawn characters with a heartbreaking ending.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  14. Brian Philip

    Very touching! Ghosts, reunion and hope. A perfect story for the Christmas season!

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