the beasts of Paris

stef penney

Chapter One

Great quartz lamps: that’s what he always thought. He’d tried to come up with other ways to describe them, but always came back to lamps. More than gold: there was the outer ring of golden brown, which became paler, reticulated with cream and yellow, then dissolving into green and blue, though always more green than blue, and that depending on the light. Even a hint of mauve, at times, before plunging into darkness. To stare into them gave Victor the sensation of falling. Sometimes he saw a landscape of unmapped rivers, or polished marble, or sun-struck water. Or himself, reflected. Lamps, but never illumination. Marguerite would stare back at him, or through him, or past him; impossible to say which. He had known her for years, and he didn’t know her at all.

   Victor Calmette’s days did not contain much time for dreaming, but after his rounds were finished, he stopped by the fauverie and watched, trying with his mind to reach through the bars, cross the gulf between man and beast. His training had hardly equipped him for the needs of animals like these. Despite superficial similarities, zebras were not horses, antelopes were not cattle, and tigers were, most emphatically, not house cats.

   The great cat pavilion in the menagerie had some fine specimens, like Tancred, the venerable lion and the panther, Nero, a minor celebrity in his own right who had briefly belonged to an actress from the Comédie-Française, but Victor’s favourite haunt was outside the last cage in the row. Marguerite was the Caspian tigress. She had never known her vague, unimaginable homeland; she had been born in the zoological garden at Berlin, and they, having a surfeit of tigers, sold her to the Jardin des Plantes. Victor and the tigress had arrived at the same time – he a newly-qualified assistant to the chief veterinarian; she a cub a few months old, malnourished and listless. Given special responsibility for the new arrival, Victor fed her by hand, first on goat’s milk, then rabbits, offal and horsemeat. At first there was little hope she would survive, and indignant letters passed between the menagerie’s director, Monsieur Lapeyre, and his opposite number in Berlin. But in a few weeks she grew stronger, and as she grew stronger, she grew wilder, until it was no longer safe to sit with her in the cage. Ten years on, she was a magnificent, full-grown beast. More than once, Victor had suggested

that Monsieur Lapeyre write to another zoo, asking for the loan of a male Caspian, but nothing had come of it. They had no cages to spare for such a dangerous animal, said Lapeyre. Victor, who was still, after ten years, the assistant veterinarian and content to be so, was not best placed to argue.

He liked to think that Marguerite recognised him as different from the other humans who passed in front of her eyes, that she returned his gaze and some inchoate, tender memory stirred in her feline brain. He sometimes fancied that he discerned a softness in her expression, and that she would be happy, had he reached through the bars and stroked the broad slope of her muzzle, or caressed the rough velvet behind her ears. Some of the cats were relatively docile: Tancred, for all his fearsome appearance, was lazily tolerant, Olga, the lynx, could be as playful and affectionate as a kitten, but Marguerite was always aloof and unpredictable. Last year, a keeper had gone into her cage to remove some rubbish. He hadn’t startled her; hadn’t done anything foolish, but in less than the blink of an eye she lashed out, and the man had been lucky not to lose an arm.

   Victor did not reach through the bars; he might be sentimental, but he wasn’t stupid. Nevertheless, he loved Marguerite with a devotion that sometimes puzzled him.

Now the tigress blinked lazily. Of course it was folly to imagine there was any feeling there for him. She seemed to focus on him, and a soft, deep growl emanated from her throat. He felt it thrum in his ribs and pelvis; his bones a tuning fork she casually struck. Then, just as casually, she turned her head away, bored (not bored? how would he know?), lifted a massive, cinnamon paw and began to wash.

Mondays were always busy for the veterinarians, as Sunday was the day of free entry to the public, and the hoi-polloi of Paris had a tendency to throw things into the cages. The keepers tried to prevent visitors from poking umbrellas through the bars (with or without needles attached) or chucking rotten eggs into enclosures, but there weren’t enough of them to prevent mishaps, and, sometimes, tragedies. Robitaille, the head keeper of the cat pavilion, was a good man who truly cared for his charges, but some of

the keepers were little better than the trash who threw stones at the quagga, or fed the bears meat laced with poison. Just last week, someone had ripped the wings off a Reeve’s pheasant – God knows how they had got hold of it, or why. No one had been caught.

   Today, thanks to the rain, there were few visitors, and Victor’s eye was drawn to a lone figure. A young woman gazed down into the bear pit. She held herself very upright. Her dark hair was barely hidden under a little straw hat; her attire was careful but shabby. But it was the rigidity of her posture that held his attention. She gripped the railings with both hands, and he had a feeling that she had not moved for some time. He was aware of a sense of foreboding. Not that she would throw poison to the animals, he felt . . . What then?

   He changed direction and veered nearer. Down in the pit, the bears were lying in a heap. Their odour was like a wall one had to walk through. The big male lifted its head and peered at them, scenting humans. Victor stopped a few metres from the visitor. Her hat glistened with rain.

   ‘They won’t do much at the moment. They won’t move until they’re fed, around four.’

   He wasn’t surprised that she did not turn her head, but neither did she walk away. He willed her to look in his direction.

   ‘People think that bears are friendly animals. They aren’t. They can be ferocious, believe it or not.’

   The bear rolled his head back onto the ground and sighed as if ferociousness would be too much of an effort.

   ‘That’s Clovis. He’s a bad-tempered old devil. I’m fond of him though – he’s been here longer than I have.’

   Victor was unused to speaking with strangers; was not a forthcoming man at all, really, especially with women, but something about this girl and the singleness of her attention spurred him to keep talking.

   ‘I’m the assistant veterinarian of the menagerie, Victor Calmette. I've been here ten years. Clovis has been here for nineteen. He was born here. The female, the one next to him – she came from Finland. Her name is Aino.’

   ‘How long do they live?’

Her voice was barely more than a whisper; her accent Parisian.

   ‘Oh, bears can live about forty years.’

   She gazed at the animals. The floor of the pit was made of stone flags, the walls were brick. A tree trunk cemented into the centre of the pit, spikes hammered through it at intervals, served as a climbing post.

   ‘A long time to live in a pit.’

   ‘They have everything they need. They have company, plenty of food. There are no predators. Animals live longer in zoos than they would in the wild.’

   He meant this to sound reassuring, but, somehow, it wasn’t. He cast around for something to offer her.

   ‘Have you seen the tigress, Marguerite? I looked after her when she first came, as a cub. When I first started. She had come from another zoo and was starving. She wasn’t expected to live.’

   The girl looked towards him and allowed him a brief glimpse of her face. Victor was put in mind of a Russian icon: a slim, sombre face with melancholy, reproving eyes.

   ‘You saved her?’

   ‘It was my job. Anyone could have done the same.’

   The hands on the rail loosened their grip. He wondered if she lived nearby.

   Victor was about to speak again, but she moved away from the railings, nodded in his direction, and in the same action, turned and walked away. He hung onto the railing and rocked back on his heels, surprised by the depth of his disappointment.

Anne Petitjean marched away from the bears, her heart clattering against her ribs. Being addressed by strangers had this effect. This one had been polite, neither aggressive nor insinuating, yet she was almost blind with panic, and that always made her behave wrongly. She never knew what to say, or how to extricate herself without causing offence. Sometimes the panic was so overwhelming she took refuge in silence, although it was a poor refuge, as it made people angry. She didn't want to be silent. She formed words in her head, sentences that seemed normal, and sometimes good, but nothing would come out. Sometimes she felt a hard thing like an apple rise up and block her throat – not that there was a thing, she knew that perfectly well, but that was what it felt like. At other times, if she did manage to speak, the things she said sounded odd, or rude.

   Anne made herself slow down; she would not be panicked – not here, of all places. The menagerie was her place. She came whenever she could. Here, she revelled in a solitude that was otherwise denied her. Even when the park was busy, people generally left her alone. Even the sort of man who persisted in bothering young women could be repelled if she turned her eyes on him in a certain way. It cost her, that look; she had to reserve it for the worst offenders. But having that power – it was a power – pleased her.

   Her friends begged her to teach them the secret.

   ‘No, it’s like this! Look, I’m doing it now?’ said Marie-Jo, making her eyes bulge.

   ‘You look like you’re constipated,’ said Lisa, her sweetheart, snorting with laughter. ‘Anne, do it again! How do you do that?’

   Anne didn’t know what to tell them. It felt as though she simply allowed the fear that lived inside her, to look outward. The nightmares showed in her eyes.

   The animals in the zoo didn’t ask questions. They didn't expect her to talk. She felt calm around them. Anne would have loved a pet – a dog or cat, a rabbit, anything really – had that been possible, but as it was not, she made do with this: in her free hours, she would come to the menagerie and stare through bars.

Impossible to shake off the feeling that the man’s words had given her. He had shaken her up, first by talking to her at all, and then by mentioning Marguerite as though she belonged to him. The tigress had a special place in Anne’s affections, and now even that small, private territory had been trespassed upon. She had been compelled to look at him, when he said he had raised her, because she had to see what sort of man could have done something so wonderful. What she saw was unremarkable: not very tall, a pelt of dark hair, round brown eyes, and a big moustache that gave him the air of peeping at her from behind a hedge. The eyes seemed kind, but who knew what went on behind a face? He was just anybody, like a thousand other men, but he had stroked the tigress’s rich, golden fur. Did he still do so? Did she like him? Was that possible? Marguerite was so superb, an exiled queen. Complicit, surely, in her imprisonment, for she could have killed a man like that with one swat of her paw.

   Anne turned down the path to the cat pavilion, hoping, in the increasingly heavy rain, she would have it to herself. But she was not in luck: a smartly dressed couple were loitering by Nero’s cage, sheltering under a large umbrella. The man was saying, ‘. . . surely be too difficult; it’s so dark – what about the contrast? ’

   In one glace, everything about them was printed on her mind; she noted the young man’s longish hair, his attempt at growing whiskers, his dark eyes. The woman was a little older, with the sharp features of a falcon. She was saying, ‘We have to have him; he’s famous.’ The man spoke in a foreign accent. The woman was bourgeoise, her voice silvery and confident, and she wore a dress of violet cloth caught up in elaborate flounces. Even to Anne’s untutored eye: an expensive dress, a fashionable woman. But stupid. Didn’t she know the animals were not for sale? Equally with their appearance and their words, her mind recorded the flat smack of raindrops on the umbrella fabric, the warning half-breath, half-growl of the black cat; his rank smell of fear.

   Anne walked past, trying to erase the imprint, and sent her farewells to Nero, expressing the wish that he soon be left in peace. Nero was a sensitive soul; the actress’s scars were hardly his fault. The panther was the midnight prince of the zoo, a pale-eyed shadow. Sometimes he seemed more absence of light than flesh; melted into invisibility in his shelter; she wondered why he did not just slip out of the cage and vanish.

   Further along, Tancred paced, a malign light in his eyes. Sometimes restless, more often lethargic, the lion was rumoured to have killed a man in his native Africa, but maybe they made that up to make him more interesting. Zoo visitors loved murderers. The hippopotamus was known as Kako the Terrible because he had attacked two of his keepers. This was no rumour: one man had died, the other had been crippled for life. But a hippopotamus is a silly, fat, lumbering thing. He is not a golden monarch; his eyes do not glow like topaz held to a flame. Tancred gazed at Anne through his bars, head lowered. Irma the lioness lay beside him like a lumpy, dun rug. The patch of mange on her flank was worse than last week. She, though his mate, and dear to Anne, was not the queen of the zoo. There could only be one queen, and that was Marguerite.

   Anne glanced back at the couple, still arguing, when the violet woman turned and caught her eye. Anne stiffened, her breath stopped, sweat dampened her armpits and her heart hammered. She dreaded meeting someone’s eye; it was as though something painful and dangerous shot between them and scorched her very being. She tore her eyes away too late – scalded. She trembled. She knew the man was looking at her too. Why couldn’t they leave her alone?

   The tigress was curled into a massive cushion on the concrete, where her coat glowed like fire in a hearth, one paw reaching through the bars in a casual reminder of her power. Marguerite was huge, more than three metres from nose to tail. Even in repose, she was defiant. As Anne stared, she lifted her head and gazed at her. The lambent eyes were calm, and Anne could allow her eyes to be held, because this gaze didn’t hurt her.

Anne knew the names of the bears before the man told her. She knew the names of all the animals, at least, of those important enough to have been granted names. The zoo giants had names: the elephants were Castor and Pollux; the rhinoceros, Murielle. They were like headline actors at the theatre. The other animals were members of the chorus. It wasn’t just a matter of size. Mostly, if you ate other animals, you were given a name. The antelopes and bison, grass-eaters that lived in peaceable herds, didn’t have names. But the zebras, and the quagga, the solitary freak that looked like an experiment and made her feel sad, did. The lemmings didn’t have names, nor did the various small,

brown, desert creatures. As for the birds, through the whole rainbow of gaudy parrots and turacos, down to the smallest finch, they were nameless.

   Anne sometimes thought that where she lived, the women were like small, herbivorous creatures. Men were predators; important and memorable. Women were prey, like lemmings, or like the birds that so many visitors walked past without even stopping – sometimes noisy, occasionally decorative, but not individually of interest. Unless you paid the closest attention, you couldn’t even tell them apart.

   Most women – certainly most of the women in the hospital where she lived and worked – were like sparrows: ubiquitous, inconsequential; their voices a nondescript blur. She – Anne Petitjean – was unusual, because she had a name that had acquired a certain notoriety. Granted, the name she was known by was not the name she had been given at birth, nor was it one she had chosen for herself. Still, to be known by anything at all – surely that was something?