The Sorrows of Young Anton, Part Eight

As they strolled between the tanning pits Marie-Clemence lectured Jérôme. “You have heard,” she said, “perhaps, of the English method of tanning, which the English do when they are not fawning over that gassy retard Dr. Johnson or engaging in dynastic murder. It employs destructive essences found in the bark of oak trees to produce honest, durable leather, good for shoe soles.” They had reached a region in which sad looking oak trees dipped their roots into watery depressions on the floor while sweating helots leered and brandished whips. The helots wore obscene black eye-masks, as if their dendritic cruelty was too shameful to practice in one’s normal identity.

“We have cut out the middle man. No more bark. The whole being, the entire oak, dedicates itself to this process” Marie-Clemence explained. She reached over and tweaked the nipple of one of the helots and he squealed and made a sort of shaky genuflection and then drew back his arm and cracked his quirt against the tree and everyone guffawed. As they walked away the same helot urinated on the tree that he had just whipped, chuckling.

She led him then through a garden of depravities. His stomach, which he imagined was inured to the unbelievably grotesque behaviors of the shoe demimondaines, turned. They paraded past tiny vats for glove leather, from which the eyes of smirking flounder peered. As he walked away a fish jerked itself through repeated painful motion partially out of the water, gasped, and told him “That’s right, walk away, walk away you dipshit.” No one acknowledged it, and it turned itself through additional jerks and re-entered the vat, from which it peered after them, muttering and blowing oily bubbles.

Deeper within the miasmal reek lay stupendous troughs in which sheets of leather too large to come from any mundane animal waved in obscure currents. They walked past helots snoring in hammocks, past stacks of beautiful Oriental rugs ruined by tanning acids, or at the edge of ruination, past a greasy stone step pyramid leaping up into the smoky dark beneath the ceiling, past hooded celebrants of some non-Christian faith, starting guilty like quail, and on and on into the reeking fog and smoke. He was not surprised when they marched him past a pile of old bleached brush surmounted by a pine platform and shoved him in a small room, which they locked. Outside the door he heard the helots asking instruction of Marie-Clemence and he knew that they intended violence.

Inside the room hectic light rubbed itself past the lintel and pooled like water or like a cat on the floor. The helots had thrust him into a chair and behind his back he felt a corresponding desk over whose surface his hands roved. He pocketed the paper he found; other objects he grasped gingerly and held between his feet in the low light and identified as:

An inkwell (dry)

A small cheap box of brass tacks

A piece of dried meat

A long iron key (this he knew by touch before he saw it)

An ornamental bird made of broken pieces of mirror stuck to plaster

A book titled Laws of the Confraternity of Exultation

A great number of leather swatches, labeled with the following names in gold embossed script: earth, umber, dun, mud, clay, tobacco, bright tobacco, mid-brown, brun, thé, thé foncé, otter, faun, fawn, dusky willow, nitre, summer pathways (this bore the subtitle “Lifestyles Series”), Versailles potting soil, extreme brown. The swatches were bound upon a brass ring and he smelled them involuntarily before replacing them on the desk and they breathed out the rich, lovely scent of thick leather.

Outside voices and running feet had come and gone and gradually the light had grown brighter and more fiery and he received the sensation that a great number of the helots had congregated there and that they awaited something. A drum struck with the deep voice that one feels echoing in one’s lungs; a pipe responded.

The music grew rapidly to an almost unbearable intensity and human voices joined the instruments shouting hoarse and not unduly musical, and he could hear the percussion of feet in rhythmic order on the floor. Beneath the door shadows opened and closed and he knew that outside they danced in a frenzy.

When they locked him in the office the helots had not troubled to search him. He held a gun in his right hand and his stiletto in his left. The drums beat and shouting voices answered. He could smell, even above the grim reek of the vats, the tarry smoke of incense, myrrh and a piney scent like new-milled lumber. Marie-Clemence’s voice rang out with a name that Jérôme could neither hear clearly nor recognize. The crowd roared the name back and the drums beat up and up and faster till his chest thrummed with their music and then all fell silent.

He felt a sensation of indrawn breath and then he heard a tap-tap-tapping and then beating on the wooden platform a dance of breathtaking intricacy, several rhythms intertwined. At first he thought couples revolved and leaped upon the boards but after a while he became convinced that a single dancer danced this splendid dance, and that this dancer had more than two legs, and what legs he had ended in some appendage other than a foot, something hard and pointed.

Jérôme had pressed himself to the door partially to surprise the helots when they came for him and partly to hear more clearly the unnatural dance; so he was two quick strides from the desk when he heard it shift. A hooded lantern emerged from a hole in the wall, hung on the end of a hand that in turn retreated into a frayed cuff. The lantern cast its light particularly on an inferior mother-of-pearl button that had snapped in half and been left in place in pieces on its thread.

The jacket’s owner emerged partially from the hole, supporting himself stiff and awkward on his other hand, He wore a tricorn hat frosted with sawdust and also regular dust, and he gestured with the lantern at Jérôme, who dove eagerly to the exit. He found that it led through a thin wall into a disused storeroom whose sad contents waited beneath linen tarps.

Jérôme’s rescuers, who were the above-mentioned leather nerds Emile, Michel, and Jean-Claude, introduced themselves, presented Jérôme with a copy of their zine (Pensées Cuiresque), and then conducted him out through the storeroom at a brisk walk. Emile pulled aside a stained bedsheet and revealed an exit, a low hatch designed to accommodate barrels. They could still hear the drums and pipes.

They emerged on a cobblestone side street on which Jérôme had once seen a shoe agent named Maxime curb-stomp a torpid, troll-like mercenary. Maxime served a Dutch shoe fetishist who was rumored to be a Rothschild heiress; she had appeared in person one evening at the nameless bar frequented by the courreurs de chaussures. She wore a drooping, obviously false moustache, a wide hat pinned up on one side with a turkey feather, and a coachman’s cloak. She ordered small beer and sat in a booth reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Eventually Maxime appeared and hustled her out the back door, flushed and mortified. Employers were not to visit the bar. He drowned himself, or at least drowned, a few days later. His neck was missing when he was dredged out of the Seine. Some, though not Jérôme, suspected foul play.

In the alley behind the tannery the trio of nerds stood around the hooded lantern exhaling great clouds of breath into the air. They told Jérôme that they kept an eye on Marie-Clemence and routinely conducted “missions” within the building. “Her sympathies are counter-revolutionary,” said Emile, “she entertains mystic ideas that oppose human progress and the brotherhood of man. Her product is, unfortunately for us, sublime. The problem is not easily resolved.”

Drums thumped faintly in the tannery and they began to walk towards the river. Jean-Claude, who waddled with his hips rigid and thrust forward, had snatched the leather samples on their brass ring and he and Michel read the labels in the light of the lantern.

The nerds would not accept a reward though they kept the leather swatches and they acknowledged, with their impassive, closed-up faces nodding, that Jérôme would recommend them to Anton, should the German require technical advice on leather.

“The Germans think of us as debauched pigs, you know, scarcely able to restrain our carnal urges. They claim that our nation lacks virgins over the age of thirteen; this is widely reported in their demotic literature. Such a people imagines itself to be free even as it wraps tighter around its neck the chains of tyranny,” Emile told him as they parted, somewhat enigmatically.

The trio receded into the fog and the hooded lantern became for a moment an enormous ruddy sphere as if the whole street were aflame, and then it dwindled almost instantly to an icon of itself and then to nothing. Jérôme blew at his hands; the night was cold.

He retired to one of the district’s two cafés, a maison graduée that offered with its fragrant coffee a series of references and broadsheets hung on precisely calibrated rods, from dictionaries on great beefy dowels to slender wands of almost translucent ash, which bore wrapped around them single sentences or on some occasions solitary longer words. He had delighted Camille once with a tiny nubbin of balsa wood that supported only two letters, L and I, both in lower case. The portion of the paper between the base of the I and its dot had been carefully excised with a sharp knife.