Monday, October 23, 2006

"A Murder of Crows" by Keith Harvey

Since 52 B.C., the inhabitants of France
and Western Europe have forgotten who they once were.
Jean Markale




1.

“Café Corbeau.”

“This is Karl Wisent.”

“Karl, where have you been? I thought you had deserted us for ever.”

“Never, Felix.”

“I got married and. . . .”

“Married!”

“Yes, I know that I said that after the first, after Heike, I would never marry again, but I did.”

“A French girl?”

“No, another German. She is an artist.”

“She lives in Paris?”

“Another Berlin girl, actually a friend or a client of my ex-wife. So I have been traveling between Berlin and Paris but she has moved here and we found an atelier near the Place des Vosges.”

“Good.”

“Listen, a friend of mine has just published a new book, his second actually, and it is getting very good reviews. I wanted to give him a little dinner party tomorrow night. Do you think that you could accommodate us? There will be five people.”

“What time, mon copain?”

“Eight.”

“Of course. Would you like something special?”

“No, your menu is perfect.”
“What is your friend’s name?”

“Vogel, Paul Vogel.”

“Bien sûr, I saw him on Livre last night.”

“That’s him.”

“Tomorrow night at eight, five people. I look forward to seeing you Karl.”

“And you Felix.”

2.

A November wind blew dead leaves in a circle, a miniature whirlwind on the sidewalk in front of the Café Corbeau. Felix Beinix, perched upon a steel and leather stool behind his copper bar, worked on his bills. It was three thirty in the afternoon, the slowest part of the day. The kitchen shut down at two thirty and Guillermo, the day chef left at three.

Marie-France placed linen cloths on the tables, preparing the dining room for the evening dinner crowd and Mathieu Poublan, a seventy five year old retired school teacher, sat at the end of the bar reading his newspaper and smoking a Gauloise.

Mathieu had been a friend of Felix’s father and he appeared at the café everyday at ten and spent most of the day there, nursing one or two drinks.

Felix looked up from his bills and observed the park across the street. The falling leaves revealed naked limbs and hundreds of nests.

Seven months before a congress of crows, ravens and rooks had taken up residency at the Place Triangle. Since that time the city had tried several things to rid the Place of the birds but nothing had worked, including the introduction of four hawks into the neighborhood.

The crows reminded him of Branwen.

Seven months ago Felix met Branwen, who came to his café twice in one day, but never appeared again, although she said that she now lived in the neighborhood.

Since meeting her, Felix dreamed of her several times. In the dreams she always appeared as a Celtic warrior, running through an open field, accompanied by wolves and crows and brandishing a great sword.

Marc de la Croix rushed down the sidewalk, the wind tearing at his white trench coat and his long, curly blond hair. He carried a stack of blue examination books under his right arm and a battered brown briefcase in his left hand. He pushed the door open with his foot and uttered an expletive.

“Espresso immediately,” he said throwing his examination books on a table near the window.

Felix stood and started the Italian espresso machine.

“I talked with an old friend of yours today.”

“Who?” asked the Professor as he pulled off his trench coat.

“Karl Wisent.”

“Where has he been?” de la Croix asked, walking toward the bar.

“He remarried. A German.”

“Why couldn’t he find a nice French girl? He could have married my sister. She would have been perfect for him.”

Felix handed de la Croix his espresso and then turned back to his bills. Before he sat back down, he noticed a tall slim man walking through the park, who looked vaguely familiar. He scratched his head trying to recall where he had seen the man and then it struck him. The man was a female version of Branwen.

He walked to the window to observe the stranger. He had thick black hair that parted naturally in the middle and he wore a dark gray overcoat, with a black suit, a dark gray shirt and a black tie underneath.

As he walked underneath the alders, ash and oak trees of the park, he examined the nests and talked to himself. From the expression on his face, he seemed agitated and perturbed and from time to time he kicked out and the fallen leaves whirled about in the wind.

Suddenly he stopped and stared at the café. Felix stepped away from the window, unnerved by the man’s gaze.

The stranger crossed the street at a run and came directly to the café.

Felix pretended to be working when the door opened. He did not look up, as Marie-France greeted the man and he announced he would sit at the bar and have a coffee.

The copper bar was long and would seat twenty people but the man chose to take the seat in front of Felix.

Café au lait.”

D’accord,” said Felix, turning to the Italian espresso machine.

“Do you speak English?” asked the man.

Felix tried to place his accent before answering and then he had it; he was Irish.

“A little.”

“Do you live on this bloody Place?”

Pardon? Bloody?”

“Forget that man. Do you live here? Habitez-vous ici.”

À Paris?”

“No. Here on this street?”

“Yes.”

“How long have these bloody birds been roosting here?”

“Seven months.”

He looked shocked for a moment and then he asked in a soft voice, “Have you seen her?”

Felix knew he was asking about Branwen but he was not going to volunteer any information to the young man.

“Her?”

“You stupid frog, her-Branwen.”

“Branwen?” he asked, exaggerating his French accent.

“My sister, Branwen O’Roy.”

“Your sister?”

“I am Brandon O’Roy.”

Felix was now curious so he exposed his hand. “I met a French woman named Branwen, not an Irish woman.”

“She speaks frog just like you. Hell, she speaks twelve languages perfectly. She’s a bloody mimic, a chameleon. She blends in wherever she is.”

Felix suspected that he was now talking to himself again.

“When did you see this French Branwen last?”

“Seven months ago.”

“When the bloody birds arrived?”
“Yes.”

“She is so predictable. She’s here. I can smell her.”

He drank his coffee quickly and then without another word, he left.

3.

Felix woke early on Friday. The wind had died down during the night and it was clear and cold. The birds seemed excited or agitated, as they flew about under the trees and then into the air, circling the park, like great black clouds.

Later, when he opened the café he noticed a woman walking out of the park. She wore a long black overcoat, black high heels, black stockings, and a black tailored wool suit. Her long black hair hung loose and tossed behind her in the wind.

Like her brother the day before, Branwen crossed the street and entered the café.
She sat at the bar and ordered a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino.

Felix didn’t know what to say. Should he tell her that a crazy Irishman that looked like her twin had been there the day before asking for her or was her sudden appearance after seven months an indication that she knew that Brandon O’Roy was in town.

“How are you?”

“Do you remember me?”

“Of course. How could I forget you?”

She laughed and pulled her hair back with her right hand. It shone like a raven’s wing.

“I hear that my twin brother has been looking for me.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“The crows told me. They know everything that happens on this Place.”

He looked at her to see if she would smile or laugh but she maintained a straight face.

“He was here yesterday.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That I had not seen you for seven months.”

“Has it been that long?” she said softly.

“Yes,” he whispered.

She looked into his eyes and he felt he would drown in the blackness of her eyes.

“If he shows up again, tell him to meet me here tonight at ten.” She patted his hand and then turned to her coffee and pastry.

“I have a horrible sweet tooth,” she said with her mouth full.

4.
At five o’clock it began to rain. It was a cold hard rain and people on the street ran for cover. Soon the bar at the café filled up with patrons ordering hot drinks and cognac. As more and more people entered seeking refuge from the sudden rain the café filled with blue cigarette smoke.

Felix and Marie-France scurried about the café and bar, serving drinks and making espressos and cappuccinos. At six the rain stopped and the clouds cleared but the temperature had dropped and the clouds now threatened snow.

At six thirty Brandon walked into the café. His overcoat was buttoned up and he had pulled the collar up for added protection. His cheeks were flushed and red from the cold and upon entering the café he pushed his way to the bar and asked Felix, “So?”

“What?” The people were so loud that Felix was having a hard time hearing.

“Did you see her?” Brandon shouted above the din.

“She will be here tonight.”

Brandon smiled sardonically and turned and pushed through the crowd and out the door. Everyone moaned at the cold that rushed in through the door as he left.

5.
At eight the café was almost empty. Several people had cancelled because of the cold. Felix wore a black V-neck sweater over his usual white cotton shirt and he sat at the bar reading the newspaper. It had been a strange day, he thought.

Two couples entered the restaurant without a reservation and Felix assured them that it was all right tonight. They were locals, people that lived on the Place.

As he was seating the couple he heard the door open and he felt a shock of cold air. A tall thin man, with short white hair and tanned complexion entered. He was wearing an expensive black cashmere overcoat and leather gloves. Felix’s first thought was he was one of the lawyers from the office next door. But then he recognized him; he had seen him the night before being interviewed on Livre by Jacqueline Brevier.

As Laurence helped the man with his coat, Felix noted she held a black wooden cane. Beneath the coat the man wore a black tailored suit, a white shirt and a silk black tie.

Laurence handed him his cane and he moved toward the bar with a slight limp.

Felix hurried to the bar and asked the man if he wanted a drink. The man looked at him directly and Felix noted his large green eyes, prominent nose and high cheekbones. Finally, he said, “champagne.”

Felix opened a split and poured the champagne into a flute and then said, “Santé.”

As the man placed his cane on the bar, Felix observed that it had been carved by hand and that the handle was the head of a wolf.

“You are Monsieur Vogel?”

“Yes.”

“I saw you on television last night.”

“What did you think?”

“I was fascinated by the subject; Georg Löwe was an interesting man.”

“Still is. He is one hundred and five.”

“How is his health?”

“Much better than you would suspect.”

“You wrote a book on Sartre, as well?”

The man smiled and said, “I sold about fifty copies.”

“I intend to buy your books on Sunday. That is the only day that I have off.”

“Let me know if you do and I will come by and sign them for you.”

The door opened and they both shivered as two young women entered. One was tall and dark with short-cropped hair. The other was younger with blonde hair and blue eyes. They were wearing colorful down coats. The dark woman wore a red one and the blonde a blue one.

Vogel turned and said, “Simone, how nice of you to come.”

She walked toward Vogel quickly and stopped him from getting up. “How’s the leg?”

“The same. It will always be this way.”

The other woman asked, “What happened?”

“I was shot a few years ago in Berlin. It’s a long story.”

Simone said, “Monique, Monsieur Vogel is a spy.”

“Non!”

“I wouldn’t use that term Simone. I used to work for the United States government. A young German shot me in Berlin on a night like this.”

Before Monique could ask another question, Karl Wisent and Elise Schlesinger entered. Karl was a large man with dark auburn hair and Felix always thought his name, Wisent, which meant bison, was appropriate for the dour Berliner.

Vogel stood up and leaned on his cane, waiting for Wisent to shake his hand. They greeted each other in German. Elise held back and Felix thought she was shy. She was of medium height with long black hair and green eyes. There was something wolf-like about her and Felix thought of Vogel’s cane.

“Let me show you to your table.”

During the next forty-five minutes the café slowly filled up, mostly with people from the neighborhood who didn’t want to travel far in the cold.

Felix was so busy by nine thirty that he had forgotten about Brandon and Branwen.

He was standing at the bar opening a bottle of Medoc when Branwen entered.

He had reserved a table for two for her in the warmest corner of the restaurant. He left the bottle on the bar and took her coat and handed it to Laurence when she passed on her way to the kitchen, where Robert Levy, the night chef, and his two assistants were working.

As he turned to show her to her table she placed her hands on his shoulder and gave him a kiss on each cheek. Once again he smelled her chocolate perfume and musk and he felt a spasm of desire. Must be the pheromones, he thought.

She ordered the duck and a bottle of the Pomerol and for the next hour, when he had the chance, he stopped at her table to fill her glass or ask if she needed anything.

He noticed Vogel watching her and for a brief moment he felt a twinge of jealousy. The truth, he thought, is that we are both too old for her.

A little after ten Brandon arrived with a whoosh. Before Laurence could get to him he had already taken off his overcoat, slung it across an empty chair at the bar and was striding toward Branwen’s table. He was like a force of nature, thought Felix, intimidated by the man’s vitality and energy.

Felix followed him to the table and poured him a glass of the wine and asked if he wanted to see the menu.

“Steak,” he said, dismissing Felix.

At first the two talked quietly but soon they began to shout. Everyone else in the room stopped talking.

“It’s mine,” she said. “I am here and here I will stay. Go and find yourself another place.”

“But I found this one. I searched and searched and it is mine.”

“No,” she said. “It is impossible. We are here. It is as simple as that. Full stop.”

His face turned a bright red, before he stood and slapped her. Wisent was half way out of his chair, as was several others, but Felix rushed across the room with his hands doubled up into fists. But before he could reach Brandon, the boy had turned and was moving through the tables on his way out.

As he passed Wisent’s table, Vogel stuck his cane between the young man’s long legs and he fell to the floor. The fall stunned everyone, especially Brandon, who immediately began to push himself up. Vogel, however, now stood with the tip of his cane pressed hard onto Brandon’s spine.
“If you move an inch I will sever your spine.”

Vogel then called to Laurence to bring both his, Branwen’s and the young man’s coats.

Wisent asked, “What are you doing?”

Vogel waved his hand and said, “Finish your dinner. I will be right back.”

As soon as Laurence returned with the coats, Vogel backed away from Brandon and let him stand. The young man turned and glared at the older man, while Branwen passed them both, took her coat and hurried to the door.

Felix watched as they crossed the street and disappeared into the shadows of the trees. Fat flakes of snow fell slowly onto the sidewalk.

6.

Snow accumulated under the trees, as Vogel led the way to the center of the park to a wrought iron bench and sat down, where he ordered, “Sit next to me you two.”

Branwen looked at him and then sat to his right but Brandon refused to move.

“I said sit, Brandon.”

Brandon sheepishly looked at him and then sat.

“This is a good place. I can tell it. The memory lines move through here and the sacred memories still live. I understand why Brandon chose it.”

Vogel looked over his shoulder toward the café and added, “It is obvious that Felix’s ancestors knew its worth. That is why they built their homes here. It is really his, this place. But he has forgotten everything. To him it is only a place in his dreams and you woman are only a symbol of desire.”

“We are coming back and I need a place to settle, a place to nest.”

“So like a woman,” Vogel said with a laugh. “And you, if you had not been flying around like a crazy teenager you might have had this place. Have you ever thought that all your wandering is wasteful?”

“Without the wandering I would never have found this place.”

“Isn’t it too close to Notre Dame?”

“No, it is fine,” said Branwen.

Brandon nodded his approval.

“You should share this space. Branwen can develop and nurture it and you can stop here and rest from your travels.”

“Many of our kind have already arrived. Did you notice how many had the old blood in the restaurant?”

“I didn’t notice anything.”

“Of course not. You were too busy being a bully.”

“Stop it. Share it and let our brother in on the secret. I am cold and I am going in.”

As he walked away, Branwen called out, “Take care wolf.”

He stopped and turned and whispered, “You take care crow.”

7.
Vogel walked slowly back to the restaurant and stopped before the door. He turned and watched the snow settle onto the trees of the park and he noted the crow nests in the branches of the trees but he could not see the buildings because he was remembering another time. The memory lines sang and vibrated and he heard the whine and screech of the pipes.
Karl opened the door and asked, “ça va?

“Of course, King Bison, of course.”

The End

1 comment:

lf said...

does the story end here?