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July's Harvest

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April 1831


 

" ‘The people of the world unconscious lie,’" Prouvaire declared, " ‘with veils drawn over their faces, and asleep. But when the morn shall erupt, and the sun arise, every animal will raise its head from its divan; to the unwoken shall the Lord restore waking!’ " He paused, rather dramatically, in this recitation, as though expecting the air to resound with applause.

Bahorel muffled a cough against his arm. It was the pollen from the damn linden trees; in early spring, the air was full of the stuff, a threat to lungs and liberty. He elbowed Joly, who made a startled noise— “Mmph— ah!”— before glaring at him resentfully, wholly failing to produce an appropriate response. Beside him, Bossuet had lost all interest in the proceedings, and was using Joly’s cane to antagonize a beetle.

The unfortunate object that had drawn them together lay on its bier. A wretched mass of brown feathers; a sad, gawky-boned thing. In life, of course, it had not been much better: an ungainly bird that produced an awful creak, and always when one most desired not to be creaked at. It had possessed a pair of protruberant eyes, yellow in color, most disturbing. Prouvaire had doted upon it, and called it the Sapa Inca. He had prattled on about its evident sapience, its pleasant demeanor, while in fact it was plain for all to see that the Sapa Inca wished Prouvaire dead. And not only Prouvaire. The Sapa Inca’s malevolence extended more generally. When the Musain’s cat had at last got ahold of it on one gruesome afternoon, this had caused no small degree of covert rejoicing.

Prouvaire had been devastated, of course. It had been very bad, a very bad scene, which even now Bahorel shuddered to think of. Tears, recriminations, a great deal of shouting, which ultimately led Prouvaire to fling the Sapa Inca’s cage into the fire. (“At least,” Courfeyrac had whispered afterwards, “at least this time it wasn’t me!”) To pacify him, they had agreed to attend the funeral. Well: Bahorel would not call it a funeral, which suggested— to his plain way of thinking— a body, a bit of dirt, and some of the old requiescant-in-pace, and he’d just as soon skip the last part when it came his time, thank you. No, what Prouvaire had devised was along the lines of a theater production. An altar constructed of who-knows-what-substance, some type of wood and greenery, and salutations to the corpse, and invocations of the gods, and on and on, in the midst of the Champ de Mars, on a day that was verging towards devilish sticky. To cap it all off, Courfeyrac had absconded, the traitor, and Combeferre had pled medical duties, and Enjolras had simply never appeared. Bahorel could picture him now, with that damned look of abstraction, as though he were thinking of higher things, and he couldn’t possibly be expected to— and ask him about something important, not— and well, really, should they encourage Prouvaire— ?

Prouvaire, needing no encouragement, cleared his throat. He flipped through several pages in his book and began again. ” ‘The harvest of December is not like that the harvest of July,’” he read. ” ‘Be they dead or be they living, are not all things equally visible to the eyes of the heart? I behold them clearly before me.’”

This went on for some time. Bahorel did not follow it. He watched the progress of Bossuet’s beetle, which, with admirable persistence, was attempting to reach the long root of a tree. Bossuet appeared to believe he was fencing with it. The beetle, Bahorel imagined, put a different interpretation on things.

Joly sighed, and shifted. “I want my cane back,” he whispered.

"Shh," Bossuet said, without looking up.

"No; Laigle, give it—"

Prouvaire paused, and gave them all a look that threatened storms. They subsided. He continued loudly: “Thou beginst as a part of the sun, mist, and stars; thou risest to be breath, thought, word, and deed…”

Bahorel hummed tunelessly under his breath. He was considering how he might riseth, preferably soon, to be part of a cool drink, or rather to make that cool drink part of his decidedly uncelestial body. He did not like warm days; they made him restless. He always felt himself obliquely cloistered by the heat, and he did not wish to be cloistered by anyone, anyone at all. 

"And now," Prouvaire announced, "we bid farewell to a body that came to us across the seas, and release its spirit to travel homewards— back to the green world of shadows and trees, the kingdom of the jaguar, the sacred jungle. Farewell, Sapa Inca." He took from his pocket what was unmistakably a striker and flint.

Joly covered his eyes. “Oh, God,” he groaned. “Is he going to…?”

He was going to. Flint met striker. They met again. Sparks showered over the bier.

Bossuet forgot the beetle. “Are we going to burn down the city?” he asked, interested. 

"We are not," Bahorel said firmly and warningly. "Jehan—"

A spark had caught on a stray bit of tinder. A pale flame spread and licked at the bier. Prouvaire had a look of satisfaction. As the fire took hold, this expression deepened. Bahorel rather thought that Bonaparte might have looked thus, gazing out over Moscow as the great fires grew, watching building after building crumble before them. Thank God Prouvaire has no use for an army, he thought. His mind briefly and recklessly pursued, then recoiled in horror from the idea of Prouvaire with an army. 

"I’m leaving," Joly said. "I don’t want to burn down Paris."

"You’ve made a poor choice of friends," Bahorel told him.

"I have notes to copy; I have to attend a dissection tomorrow. I’m not ready for things to burn down yet!"

"I am," Bossuet said. "I owe Grantaire six francs. Come to think of it, where is Grantaire?"

"Plotting," Joly said. "How best to extract his six francs. If you do not give me my cane, I will advise him."

"You’ve no advice to give; you know nothing of my secrets." Nevertheless he gave Joly the cane, after poking him in the leg with it.

Meanwhile the fire blazed on. The air smelled like burnt bird, which is to say, not wholly unpleasant, but something in the way of making Bahorel hungry. Prouvaire was gazing down at the fire. He looked less a destroyer of worlds now, and more a sad young man whose clothes were faintly ridiculous. (He was wearing a sort of half-cape made of dark green velvet— an excellent color for him, Bahorel had to admit, but in the style of an opera costume, or something for a carnival masque.)

Bossuet said, “I should charge Grantaire for not being here. Ha! That is it. Six francs is the price for escaping his duty.”

"That seems rather costly," Joly said dubiously. "I am inclined to think he will not accept it."

"He will think it cheap when I describe all that has taken place."

The smoke grew thin and acrid. Prouvaire produced a large bottle and, unstoppering it, doused the flames efficiently. Those that escaped he stamped out with his foot. There were just the remnants of the bier left, blackened and charred, a few bones and feathers visible in the center of them. 

"Well," Bossuet said, "farewell, Sapa Inca. A very brave and true friend, defeated by the undoubtedly royalist Charte."

Charte was the Musain’s cat.

"Yes," Joly joined in, "farewell. And a much less permanent farewell to you, Jehan; we’ll see you this evening, I suppose?" He had his arm tucked into Bossuet’s already, slightly bouncy in his eagerness to go.

"Yes," Prouvaire said. "I’ll see you this evening."

And they were off: Bossuet filching Joly’s cane from him again, Joly seizing it back, their twin laughters ringing out.

Prouvaire stared dully down at the ashes. He looked so unhappy, so very unhappy, and granted, some unhappiness was always in him, and perhaps it was like a seam of ore that, in a certain light, shone very brightly out of him. Was “brightly” the right word? Bahorel was no great literary person. 

He laid his arm over Prouvaire’s shoulders. On impulse, he asked, “Jehan, do you believe in this?” With his free hand he gestured: taking in the pyre, the scene; the whole world, possibly.

Prouvaire shrugged under his touch, like a flinch. “Why does it matter? Why do I have to believe in anything?”

"I don’t know. Only, it is a lot of trouble."

"For you. For all of you, you mean."

"No, not for me; the world cannot make me trouble. I do not allow it. And as for the others, you must be tolerant."

"Why must I be tolerant." Prouvaire pushed at him resentfully— not pushing him off, or even away, but merely stating his discomfort; stating it with shoulders and elbows and knees. "They are not tolerant."

"They try. They care for you very much."

"Oh, well, they do not show it." 

"Perhaps they do not know how to show it. They haven’t the same priorities."

Prouvaire did not respond to this. He kicked dirt over the pyre. He placed the empty bottle beside it and started walking. Bahorel considered protesting; still, after so many years, some part of him hailed from the kind of country where you kept your land clean, or no one did. But after all, it was the city, and therefore more careless; people were always leaving things. He jogged after Prouvaire.

"Jehan," he said.

"Go away; I am thinking about orchids and bears."

He smiled at that. “First of all, you are lying; you are a filthy liar. Second of all, are the bears cultivating the orchids, or are the orchids being stamped underfoot by the bears?”

Prouvaire scowled at him. “Don’t pacify me. I want to be alone.”

"Liar," Bahorel said, and was surprised by the force of the revelation: he felt it in himself, and he saw Prouvaire’s face reflect the truth of it. "Oh," he said. And, more gently, "Oh, Jehan."

"Stop it. Go away. I liked having a bird." He hunched over himself a bit, hugging his arms across his chest. "You don’t know what it was like, when I got home from the Louvre, in— last year, it was so— quiet. The fourth day wasn’t very glorious, was it? And I thought— well, anything might have happened. There’s no way to know, just because you’re alive. And what if— what if…?” 

"Jehan—" 

He was moving now, in fast, jerky motions. “And you just wait, and then it’s the fifth day, and the sixth, and you go one place and you hear a rumor, and another place, and I just wanted something I could make live. Something I could make live, because I don’t want to be—”

Bahorel caught his shoulders. They were so narrow; Prouvaire had always been thin, and Bahorel was struck by the desire to just shake him, shake the grief out of him. “Stop,” he said.

Prouvaire stopped talking. 

"How could I not know what it’s like?" Bahorel asked him. "Christ, you know how many god-damned battles there are? Year upon year. It never ends. Eighteen, what, twenty, twenty-two? The same damn motions, the same tallies: who got shot, who’s possibly rotting in jail, who’ll turn up in a week, fished out of the Seine. It isn’t important."

"You’re wrong."

"No; listen to me." He paused, scrubbed his face; tried to think how to express it. "You’re so young, but you’re not young like the others. I know you understand this. That death isn’t out there, somewhere; it’s not so distant. We think death will come like the end of a story, but death doesn’t come like that. It comes in the middle, and you think, But where’s the rest? Where’s the rest of it? It comes a hundred pages before you expected. You cannot live your life thinking you are halfway through it, or that others— that you will always see them again. And you cannot always be thinking about the idea.”

Prouvaire bit his lip. So young, Bahorel had said, and he looked it— young and fretful, with freckles on his nose, and yet a preternatural seriousness. “Do you not think about it? Or not anymore?”

"I think…" Bahorel reflected. "I think in motion. I have always thought more with my body than my mind. Some would say, with my fists."

"With your feet," Prouvaire said. He kicked at one of Bahorel’s boots, a little shyly.

With a sensation of surprise, Bahorel said, “Yes.”

"I have always thought so. You have no stillness to you."

"And so I do not need to think about it; I am always moving, moving through it."

"I am always moving," Prouvaire said. "In my way, I’m moving. It is just a kind of— oh, well, performance, is what people say about me, and then I hit them. Or I do not hit them, but I stare very rudely, in a discomfiting manner."

"Yes," Bahorel said. "Performance." He felt badly now, that he had dismissed the funeral. It had seemed like such a nuisance, a silly damned thing to spend your time on, but now he thought, Prouvaire is a play without an audience. He did not understand Prouvaire, but then, for himself, he made a point of never understanding anything. What was the point of pretending that you saw someone’s heart, when quite obviously no one did? Unless you were Joly or Combeferre, with their ghoulish habits, and even then, there was a layer of secrets that they could not open up with their scalpels, their wretched bone-saws; no one could open it. Better to say the plain thing, I do not understand you, since it was very irrelevant. I do not understand you, he thought, but I like you. 

It was true. He felt for Prouvaire a great deal of tenderness. He had too, he thought, when he was with Prouvaire— and perhaps had always had this— the sensation of looking around a corner, at a road which led farther than he was prepared to venture just now, very far, to a place he had never been. 

"Jehan," he said, "let me take you for a drink. We may make libations in the name of your dead friend."

Prouvaire looked at him with an expression of suspicion. But he must have seen some decency in Bahorel’s face, for he said, after a moment, “All right. Yes.”

"We shall make libations for all of our dead friends. For those that are sleeping, with the veils over their faces, and those that are not asleep yet. For— what is it your Oriental man says, about how they are all the same at any rate, in the eyes of, et cetera?"

"Equally visible," Prouvaire said. "In the eyes of the heart." 

Cautiously, very cautiously, he slipped his hand into Bahorel’s hand. He was not smiling— not that smile that Bahorel had sometimes seen him give, that wide shy smile in which light and shadow seemed to blend, like the bright ore that gleams from its seam in the rock, though it is made of darkness. But after all, Bahorel thought, there is time. There is as much time as is left.