Home > Everything That Burns

Everything That Burns
Author: Gita Trelease

1

 

Giselle had only two bouquets of yellow roses left.

It was late afternoon, and August’s withering heat hung over the flower seller and her blooms. Like the other girls who’d stood there since early morning, selling bouquets in the shadow of the church of Sainte-Chapelle, Giselle had lined her wicker tray with evergreen branches. Not only did they show off the roses to advantage, they also kept the blooms fresh.

But on a steaming day like today, even cedar boughs were not enough.

While the other girls’ flowers had drooped, the edges of their petals etched brown with decay, Giselle’s had stayed perfect. As if newly picked.

Glancing at her posies, passersby couldn’t help but think of a dewy garden in the early morning, its cool air alive with green perfume and the liquid trills of birds. A place where trouble and striving didn’t exist. In that imaginary garden, there were no bakers strung up from lampposts for the crime of running out of bread, or children crushed beneath the wheels of an aristocrat’s carriage. There were no grain shortages or rumors of aristocratic plots against the people. No vagrants or arsonists, no beggars or bloodthirsty magicians.

Amid the revolutionary chaos of Paris, this was no small illusion.

To conjure a garden from a tray of cut roses was to set people to dreaming, and if that dream cost several sous, what of it? It was worth it to hand over the coins, and to take the bouquet—its thorns snipped neatly away—and press it to your nose, inhaling all that was good and sweet while the hot reek of the river Seine, ferrying all manner of rotten things in its water, faded far away.

Giselle knew this, and priced her blooms accordingly.

“You.” A man approached, a nobleman, Giselle guessed, by his fine suit and silver-capped cane. Lace spilled from his cuffs, unapologetically expensive, and above his spotless white cravat, his mouth was large, too eager.

“Oui, m’sieur?”

“I’ll take the prettiest one.” As he waited for her to give him a bouquet, he cocked his head and watched her.

Giselle smiled only vaguely in his direction and chose the finer of the remaining bunches. With some customers, it was best not to meet their gaze, for they took it as encouragement. She suspected he was one of those, and the sooner he was gone, the better. Curtseying, she handed over the flowers. The livre he gave her—without asking for change—she slipped into the hem of her apron. Safe. She waited for him to leave. Irritatingly, he did not.

“How fresh your flowers are!” He stared not at the bouquet, but at her. “What trick do you use to keep them that way?”

“I stand in the shadows, m’sieur,” she replied. “Where it’s cool.”

Of course that wasn’t the whole truth.

Her friend Margot got ice from a warehouse at the city’s edge. Her lover was the night guard, and he let her in. In the gray morning, before she left, he’d brush away a heap of sawdust, chip off a shining sliver, and give it to her along with a kiss. Margot kept a chunk of that ice tucked under the oranges and strawberries she sold near the Louvre palace. And because Giselle shared with Margot the boughs she cut from trees at an old cemetery, Margot always asked her lover to cut a second shard of ice for Giselle.

The ice was a wonder. Trapped inside were thousands of tiny bubbles, like pearls. She wished she could keep the ice in the open and watch it change over the course of the day. Becoming something else. But flower sellers were poor, and a flower seller with the money to buy ice would be no flower seller at all, but a thief. So she kept it hidden under the green boughs on her tray. It wasn’t magic, but it felt like it. A secret.

The nobleman had drawn close now.

Too close.

Behind him stood a girl her own age. Well dressed, freckled, auburn hair coiled under a straw hat, its swooping brim wider than any Giselle had seen. Tucked under her arm was a bundle of papers, tied with string. She seemed nervous, and Giselle gave her an encouraging smile. If the girl came forward to buy the last bouquet, the nobleman might move on and leave her be.

But the only smile she got was from the man, and it was a wicked one. “You are so lovely, mademoiselle—une très belle fleur.”

“I’m not a flower.” She shifted her wicker tray so it rested on her hip, keeping a distance between them. But he was tall enough to reach over it, and behind her was the high stone wall of Sainte-Chapelle.

Once more, Giselle glanced toward the girl in the hat standing behind him. It was too much to hope she might intervene. Wasn’t she but a girl, just as Giselle was? Giselle knew there was beauty in her smile, the cocoa-brown gloss of her hair, her flowers’ sweetness. But after that? She was only a poor girl trying to stay alive. If their places were reversed, she knew in her heart she would never do for a stranger what she was hoping the girl in the cartwheel hat would do for her.

“I’m naught but a flower seller, m’sieur.”

“Come, come!” he cajoled. “Are you certain?” And then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he grasped her hand. In his palm, pressed hard against hers, was a louis d’or. She recognized its size, the shape it made against her flesh. A gold louis was more than she could earn in weeks. Enough to take her friends to a café in the Palais-Royal, where they’d dine like queens. It’d be late, the sky deepest midnight, but inside the candles would burn bright as stars. They’d order champagne and roasted chicken. There would be a rich sauce, slices of bread to mop it up. And after, stewed apples swimming in cream. She imagined what it’d be like to sit at a table with white linens and clean plates while someone waited on them, where they could laugh and talk and dream. For once, not to be striving to keep fear and hunger at arm’s length. For once, to belong.

That was what a gold louis was.

But she wouldn’t take it. She was afraid of what he wanted in return.

Tugging hard, she freed her hand and held the glinting coin out to him. Across her palm curved a red line where the louis had bitten into her flesh. “M’sieur, you’ve already paid for the flowers. This is too much.”

Frowning, he asked, “Too much for what?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” she said, obstinate. What made him think he had any rights over her? “Take it, m’sieur.”

He came nearer, mouth twisted, face purpling. As he pushed against her tray, her last bouquet tumbled into the dirt. Gone. She didn’t dare pick it up. Instead, she took a step backward, then another. “Please!”

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