Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"Cafe Corbeau" by Keith Harvey

Café Corbeau

The pigeon-the hawk-the nez bourbon--table for two-the roost

Felix Beinix awoke to the sound of the green garbage trucks entering the square, known as Place Triangle, an ancient neighborhood located between the Sorbonne on the south and the Seine on the north.

The green trucks were usually the first sound he heard each morning. The second was the city employees hosing down the street, cleaning the detritus from the night before, forcing it into the drains and the sewers and ultimately into the river. The third was Madame Fouchard winding the awnings open over the windows and door of her boulangerie or Monsieur Bleyer opening the automatic metal shutters over the door to his patisserie. The fourth was the sound of the storeowners scrubbing down the sidewalks, washing away pigeon droppings.

It was spring and Beinix’s apartment windows were open and he could hear all these familiar sounds, sounds he had listened to for the last twenty years. Today, however, there was a new sound, one he had not yet gotten use to. It was the sound of a congress of crows, which had decided to make the trees of the park, which occupied the center of the Place Triangle, their roost.

He owned a bar and cafe and the building that housed them on the Place Triangle. The building consisted of five stories with two apartments on each of the four stories above the ground, where the bar and café were situated.

Felix’s father left him the bar and café. When his father died, Felix had been in Southeast Asia, flying a helicopter for the French Navy. No one could remember who was the first Beinix to own the building. It had been passed from father to son for centuries.

The building was constructed of granite and some stonemason had placed a gargoyle on each corner of the building. At one time the building had been called the Corbeau and that name was still carved in the stone above the door, leading into the apartment building.

Felix’s father had named the café/bar-Café Corbeau.

The family believed that when the Beinix family was Celt, they called themselves Corbeau. The Romans, however, made them change their name and they chose Beinix.
He lay quietly, identifying each sound, before he kicked off the covers of the bed and swung his legs to the floor.

He looked at his legs and noted how thin they were and he remembered the muscles he used to have when he was young. He stood up and walked to the bathroom and paused in front of a mirror and examined his nude body. His stomach was flat but his arms and legs seemed thin and frail, although he was not aware of any loss of strength. He was still able to hoist the cases of wine and liquor out of the delivery vans and sweep the bar and mop the floor and polish the copper fittings and clean the mirrors.

There was something birdlike about his body and he often imagined that he was a starling, although he couldn’t sing or fly. It was just a fantasy he had. He tended to see all people as a type of animal.

In addition to his belief that all people were somehow connected to an animal, he agreed with Hemingway that a bar should be a clean well-lit place, where people could sit and read or write over their cognac. He purposely created such a place for such people and, as a result of his plan or fantasy that was usually the type of patrons that visited his place on the Place Triangle.

He shaved his thick black beard carefully with a straight razor and then showered. Later, he walked about his large apartment that was directly above his bar, straightening it up from last night. He was an insomniac and after closing the bar he usually read or watched television and wandered around the apartment. In the morning, he picked up newspapers, glasses, and books, made the bed, watered the plants, fed his two finches, cleaned their cage and then dressed.

He wore the same thing every day- a white cotton shirt that he ironed himself, black woolen slacks, and Italian loafers with a tassel. He combed his thick hair straight back and he examined himself one more time in front of the mirror. He checked the time. It was eight forty five, the time he opened the back door for his two morning employees-Marie-France Rosier and Guillermo de la Peña.

He walked down the narrow wooden steps that led from the hall of the first floor to the back door of the ground floor. The stairs were dark and he descended them slowly. Since he turned fifty he had become concerned about falls. For some reason he felt fragile, although his looks had not really changed in ten years.

The stairs ended in a foyer where there were three doors. One door led to the building’s lobby. Another opened onto the back alley and the third served as the back entrance to the Corbeau. He unlocked the door to the alley and Guillermo immediately pushed against it. Felix jumped back to avoid being hit and the Spaniard entered with a big grin on his face. Felix wondered why he was always happy.

“Hola, Felix, “ said Guillermo pushing past him.

Guillermo was twenty-seven years old, tall and thin, with a week old growth of black stubble on his thin face, and long blue-black hair that hung to his shoulders. He wore a white T-shirt and a pair of American jeans and red tennis shoes. He carried a backpack slung over his right shoulder and when he smiled Felix was always startled by the whiteness of his teeth.

“Ça va? mon copain?” asked Felix.

“Si, Si.”

Guillermo hung his backpack on a peg on the wall of the back hall and then followed Felix to the front, turning on lights as he walked.

Once inside the café, Guillermo turned toward the kitchen, which was behind a long and elegant copper bar, as Felix unlocked the pad locks on the steel shutters that covered the windows and the door of Café Corbeau.

Once the shutters were up, Felix opened the front door and then rolled out the green awning and set up five tables in the front of the restaurant.

Students on their way to school passed by and called out greetings to Felix, while he watched the patrons line up in front of the patisserie next door.

In the small park in the center of the Place, several men sat on wooden benches patiently waiting for Felix to wave them in. These men appeared every morning and would sit and drink cognac as they read their papers and talked politics. Most of them were in their sixties but some were seventy or eighty. They were friends of his father and his grandfather. They were pensioners and widowers and veterans and Felix’s bar and café was their refuge from the loneliness of their lives.

This morning Felix noted that the trees of the park were full of crows. Over the past few weeks, crows, black birds and ravens had decided to make the trees in the Place Triangle into their rookery. Felix felt a strange attraction to them but sometimes their incessant sounds, machine like in their quality and consistency, were annoying. The only bright spot was that, unlike the pigeons, the crows were usually gone by the time he opened the bar and they did not return until the evening.

Some of the people on the Place had complained to the city and several inspectors had appeared and noted the unusual congress of the crows. The city responded by hanging several painted wooden owls from high limbs in the trees but these owls for all their verisimilitude did not seem to have an effect on the birds.

Over the last few weeks Felix suspected that the crows were waiting for something. After all, they had never been there before and he could see no rhyme or reason for their appearance now. Other than several alders, oaks, and ashes in the petite park there was nothing there that would attract a crow.

At eight fifty five, Marie-France appeared on the back of her boyfriend’s BMW. Once upon the curb, she pulled off her black helmet and attached it to the seat of the bike, kissed François on each cheek and then turned to Felix, who she kissed three times.

He looked at his watch and said, “just barely.”

“You know I am never late. It was such a nice morning that we stayed in bed a little longer.” She winked at him.

She had thick curly blonde hair, brown eyes and brown skin. She was short and a little plump. She was his day waitress and she could cover the whole bar and café without breaking a sweat during its busiest times. She wore the same outfit as Felix, a white cotton shirt, black woolen slacks and flat black shoes.

As he followed her into the bar, he smelled fresh coffee brewing and saw that Guillermo had pulled his chef’s hat on and was wearing a white smock with his name initialed on his left breast.
Pierre Londais entered, carrying an armful of baguettes from the boulangerie across the Place. Pierre’s arrival always signaled the workday had started.

At nine thirty, Felix was setting the tables outside when he felt a blow to his shoulder, causing him to fall over a chair and hit his head against the pavement. For a moment he lost consciousness.

When he came to, after only a moment, he discovered Marie-France holding his head in her lap.

“He’s awake,” she said, and several people standing around him expressed their happiness that he was still alive.

“What happened?”

“You were hit on the head by a pigeon.”


“A pigeon fell from the sky and hit you.”

To prove her point Mathieu, one of younger pensioners, held a dead pigeon up to his face.

“My God.”

“Can you stand?” asked Marie-France.

“I believe so.”

He stood up carefully and reached behind his head and felt a large knot. He noted that a few drops of blood were on his fingers.

“ Should we get you to a doctor?” asked Mathieu.

“No, I’ll be all right.” He hated doctors and hospitals. “I would rather die than go to a doctor.

Several people helped him inside to the bar, where Guillermo poured him a small glass of cognac.

The pensioners must have thought that his glass of cognac signaled that the bar was open because they followed him in and took up their usual places around the café.

“You might as well start serving them,” he said to Marie-France. “I’ll be all right.”

She examined him closely, trying to decide whether she should believe him or not.

Mathieu put the dead bird next to him on the bar.

At ten o’clock the Corbeau began to fill up with students and teachers from the Sorbonne. One regular, Marc de la Croix, a history professor, who appeared every day, sat at his usual table near the window and ordered a croissant, a cappuccino, and a cognac.

Professor de La Croix was a stocky man in his early forties. He had ruddy cheeks and thick blond hair that cascaded off his round head. He usually wore a brown suit, with a yellow shirt and a paisley bowtie.

When de la Croix entered today he said good morning to Felix as he always did but he paused for a moment and examined the pigeon. He did not ask why the dead bird rested on the bar nor did he comment on the fact that Felix’s shirt was stained with blood. He simply took his usual seat and ordered.

After a while, Felix went up stairs, washed his face, doctored the bump on his head, took an aspirin and changed his shirt. When he returned, the bar was full and he took his place at the door, where he greeted guests, made out their checks and took their money.

He noticed that someone had removed the pigeon.

At noon, a new woman walked through the door. She reminded Felix of the crows in the trees in the Place. She was tall, almost as tall as Felix, with black eyes and long black hair that she had braided. She possessed a nez bourbon, a racial characteristic of the old French aristocracy that Felix found irresistible. She wore a white silk blouse, a black leather mini skirt, and flat shoes. She carried a weathered leather briefcase and she smelled like chocolate and musk.

“Table for two?” she asked.

“Outside or in?”

“Outside, please. In the shade.”

“There was only one table available but it was in the sun. Felix went to the back and brought out a large green umbrella, which he set up in such a way that the table was now in the shade.

He helped her with her seat and as he did he breathed in her perfume and he felt for a moment dizzy.

“May I get you something?”

“A glass of Sauvignon Blanc.”

He hurried inside, poured the glass himself, and took it to her. As he passed Marie-France she gave him a strange look and he simply shrugged.

Mathieu, on his way out, asked, “Did you notice that the pigeon’s breast was ripped out?”


“He must have been attacked by one of those hawks that the city has brought in to cut down on the pigeon population.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The city has brought in hundreds of hawks to keep the pigeon population down. It was in Figaro. Of course, there have been several demonstrations at l'Assemblée Nationale on behalf of the pigeons.

As soon as Mathieu left, Felix asked Guillermo, “Where’s the pigeon?”

He looked up from the omelet he was preparing and pointed to the back.

Felix went down the hall to the back door and then into the alley where the large trash containers were. He opened theirs and examined the dead pigeon that lay on top of a pile of potato peels.

Mathieu was right, he thought, the breast of the pigeon had been ripped from its body.

He walked back through the café and out onto the sidewalk, then crossed the street and entered the small park through a black wrought iron fence. Standing under the trees he examined his building. At the top, perched on top of one of the gargoyles was a hawk, the killer of the pigeon.

As he crossed the street he realized that the crows were gone. They must have left while he was unconscious.

As he passed the woman’s table, he asked, “Would you like another glass of wine?”

She looked up from her book and he was struck once again by the blackness of her eyes.


“Should I remove this place setting?”

“No, my friend is coming. He is always late.”

De la Croix beckoned him to his table.

“Who is she?”

“I don’t know. I have never seen her before.”

“She’s a beautiful woman. Look at that nose. She must have Bourbon blood. It is magnificent. You know what Freud would say about that nose?”

“No. But she is attractive. She possesses the old French looks and grace.”

“For men like us, Beinix, that look is irresistible.”

“Men like us?”

“Men with the old Gallic blood.”

As they admired the woman, a tall man, with dark skin and black hair approached her table. He was tall and powerfully built, with hooded eyes and a nose like a hawk’s beak.

He wore leather pants and boots, a red silk shirt, dark glasses, a silver bracelet on each wrist and silver earrings in each ear. When he reached her table he bent down and kissed the woman on each cheek and then pulled out his chair and moved it closer to her.

Felix excused himself and raced Marie-France to their table to ask the man if he wanted something to drink.

The man ordered a cognac and an espresso.

Felix let Marie-France serve them. While he stood behind the bar and watched them, he guessed that they were not lovers because the woman tensed up, when the man kissed her.

The couple ate and then talked for another hour. Sometimes their voices rose and Felix watched them carefully from a distance. He had not been caught in such a snare for a long time. He was trapped by the woman’s looks and smell.

At two thirty the two stood, kissed briefly, and then left. The man walked toward the Sorbonne, while the woman turned and walked into the park. Felix assumed that she would pass through the park and emerge on the other side of the Place and take the short street that led to the Seine.

They closed the kitchen at three and Guillermo left. Marie-France would stay until five, when the evening shift would arrive. Felix cleaned all the tables and then he and Marie-France placed cloth tablecloths on the tables and set them for dinner.

The bar area stayed open all day.

At four thirty Felix returned to his room, undressed and lay down for a two-hour nap. He left the windows open and listened to pigeons cooing on the ledge outside his window.

While he slept he dreamed that the woman in the café came to him and offered him a square bar of peat, which he held in his hands like some sacred object. As she was handing it to him, he smelled her perfume and she leaned toward him and he kissed her on each cheek and he felt excited and safe.

At six thirty his alarm went off and he showered and shaved and then walked downstairs.

Robert Levy, the night chef, stood in the kitchen, talking with Tasco, his assistant, a short, dark Sicilian, and Laurence, the waitress, was standing at the bar listening to Professor de la Croix.

Felix heard him say, “the Keltoi or the hidden people once ruled this land but they were conquered by the Romans and driven out by other tribes. They worshipped their gods in sacred groves and sometimes identified themselves by a tree."

“They had their own calendars and this time of the year would be associated with the alder and the hawk.”

“Why animals and trees?”

“They were close to nature and associated their own qualities with those of the animals and trees around them.”

With his dream still fresh in his mind, Felix asked the Professor, “Do you know what peat is?”

“Of course, it is the early formation of coal. It consists of dead vegetation, insects, sometimes-decaying bodies, waste, and water. It is sometimes used as fuel by people in rural areas.”

“Why do you ask?”

“I had a dream, where a woman handed me a block of peat.”

The professor started to laugh. “I think that I would reassess that relationship.”

“Me, too,” said Laurence.

Felix glared at her and she jumped off the stool and walked to the back. Laurence was short and dark and lithe, the opposite of Marie-France. She moved around the café in a hurry and sometimes Felix imagined that she was a sparrow hopping on a ledge or chasing a worm in the garden.

Felix walked out onto the sidewalk and looked up and down the street. The shops were closed and the sun was setting. The crows were returning to their roost and he watched as they flew in over the roofs of the building on the Place Triangle to join the congress.

Laurence came out to join him and said, “We’re full tonight.”

“Good. When is the first reservation?”

“Seven thirty.”

At eight thirty the café was full and both Laurence and Felix were scurrying about servicing the diners. He was standing on the sidewalk pouring the wine for a table of four sitting under one of his green umbrellas when he heard the sound of a scooter close to him and he turned to see the woman from lunch pulling up to the curb astride a red Italian scooter. She wore a black leather mini skirt, black leather flats, a gray silk blouse, and a red helmet.
Without turning off the engine of the scooter, she called out, “do you have a table for me?”
Felix finished pouring the wine and walked to the curb.

“No, we are full but you could eat at the bar.”

“Perfect,” she said and parked her scooter on the sidewalk near the door of the café.

Later, Felix placed a menu in front of her. There was only six items.

“I would like a glass of red.”

“I have a nice Lalande de Pomerol.”

“That and the rabbit.”

He placed her order with Robert and then poured her a glass of the red.

“My name is Felix.”

‘Yes, I know. I am Branwen.”

“Odd name. An old name.”

“As old as they get, Felix.”

She looked at him with a twinkle in her eye before she took a sip of the wine.

“Nice, quite nice.”

“And your friend, does he have an old name?”

“Yes. His name is Horace and his name and blood are very old.”

“A noble, huh.”

She laughed. “Not French. He is an Egyptian.”

Branwen stayed until eleven thirty and Felix walked her to her scooter afterwards.

“I hope you come back?”

“I am moving back into the neighborhood.”


“I used to live here a long time ago. You know that this Place is one of the few sacred spots left in Paris that someone hasn’t built a Cathedral or a mosque on top of. Ages ago it was a sacred grove and we came here to worship but we forgot but now we have remembered and we are coming back. They are trying to stop us of course but they won’t be able to this time. They are not as strong as the Romans; their blood is mixed and their resolve . . ..” She waved her arm absently as if to dismiss the unnamed people.

“What are you talking about?”

“Listen to your blood, brother starling, and you will figure it out.”

She kissed him on each cheek, then pulled on her red helmet and mounted her scooter.
Felix closed the café at one and trudged up the stairs. He did not turn on the lights of the apartment because he did not want to attract mosquitoes and moths to the lights. He undressed completely and sat in a leather chair overlooking the park and the old trees. He heard the crows in the trees and he saw two bats flying around one of the streetlights. Somewhere near by he heard doves cooing. He could not remember this much wildlife in the Place. Maybe this was what she was talking about; maybe she was talking about the return of the birds.

He fell asleep in the chair and he dreamed about her. She was in a great field, walking toward a grove of trees on a nearby hill. She was completely naked but her body was painted blue and green and she wore a crown of silver filigree and on the crown near her temples there were two tiny silver leaves. As she walked her haired flowed behind her and he heard her say. “We are coming back to the sacred places.” And then he saw in the dream hundreds of crows flying out of the north toward the hill and beneath the crows wolves ran and she led them all.
The next morning he woke early, dressed, and crossed the street to the park, where he noticed that the crows had made hundreds of nests in the trees. The crows were waking and preparing to leave their roost and go about their business for the day. They seemed not to notice him as he walked under the trees.

When he walked out of the park on his way back to the café, he saw a hawk land on the head of one of the gargoyles and take up its place. A flock of pigeons burst into the air upon the arrival of the hawk, circle the Place, and then flew off in the direction of Notre Dame, while Felix thought about his dream and the woman.

The End

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