The Clockwork Soul
By M. Andrew Sprong
Copyright 1989-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Chapter 1 François’ Day
He didn’t remember when it all started, and if you pressed him on it, he’d just say it had always been that way. He would go to sleep in Madrid and wake up in Paris or some other city. When he looked into the mirror on those occasions, he would see a different person each time, but he was always exactly the same age and always a boy. You might think this peculiar, bizarre in fact, but by the time he was nine years of age, it was just something that happened to him. Was he borrowing the lives of some other boys, or was his soul on a round robin tour of the world? During his days in Paris, his French was superb as was his Spanish in Madrid, but it was strange, because he didn’t know either when he lived in Hamburg.
What a peculiar boy — amazing in fact! Every single morning he would wake up in one of twenty-four different places in a long and happy chain. All of the families, which called him their own, loved him and cared for him, and he rarely knew pain or sorrow. To be lucky and blessed not once but twenty-four times was even more miraculous than the nocturnal hopping of his soul. He didn’t know whose body was rightfully his and thus, he took complete possession of all of them. What were they doing when he wasn’t there? Were there twenty-four souls riding upon this spiritual carousel?
Today he was François Louis Guimbretière, a dark-haired boy who lived with his Papa and Mama in Saint-Ouen a canton of Paris upon one of the five corners of Rue Farcot. Four generations lived within the large stone house, which had weathered everything the Germans could throw at it. On the mornings he awoke there, he would milk Ravissant and take the bucket to his mother of the day and she would kiss him and tell him what a good boy he was. He would go to his school to learn all about France and play with his friends who never seemed to notice he was not the same François of yesterday. Somehow, though he could not remember what had occurred on those other twenty-three days to François, he managed to keep things straight, and nobody knew of his singular condition. Certainly, he might have confessed the same sin twice to Father Frédéric, who probably attributed the mistake to the good boy’s zeal. At noon, he would return home for his midday meal and a nap beneath the great elm beside their home. Oddly, a nap did not send his soul off into the next little boy, but instead he would awaken in half an hour, happy and refreshed. The afternoon he would spend down in François’ father’s workshop carving maple chairs for the rich and famous. When he didn’t have a customer, father would sell his furniture at the flea market behind their home, one which served all of Paris and was the pride of canton Saint-Ouen. Papa was very good at carving, but François still had much to learn.
“Give it time, my dear boy! Give it time, and you will be as good a carver as me!”
When evening came, Mama would read a story or sing a lovely song, while he curled up in her lap with a kitten in his own. When you have a cow in Saint-Ouen, you always have many kittens. When he fell asleep, he remained asleep. He did not awaken until the morning in another place, in another boy, alert and ready to start a brand new day. Tomorrow he would be Adriano Del Marco of San Paulo, Brazil, another happy and loved little boy.
“François, … François, can you tell me the name of our president?” said the lovely Madame Marie, who taught the nine years olds and more than a few of the ten years as well.
“Yes, Madame. It is President Charles De Gaulle elected last year over François Mitterrand.”
“Exactly François, that was very good! You may choose a flag pin from the basket.” All of the better flags were long gone, but François found one for the nation of Mexico. He loved the green, white, and red – colors of springtime!
A girl with ginger hair ran up to him after school. Abigaëlle lived one door down, a very exuberant young lady with an active imagination. François liked Abigaëlle very much, but it was also true , he liked almost everyone else as well. He waited politely for her to catch her breath, and when she had, waited some more for her speak.
“François,” asked Abigaëlle timidly, “if it pleases you, can you help me this afternoon with my arithmetic? I seem to be having some trouble with the columns. Every time I try to multiply, I get confused and add instead.”
“I will help you, Abigaëlle,” replied François, “but first you must help me help Papa. Is that fine with you?”
“Yes, François!” exclaimed the girl, giving him a peck on the check and a big hug as well. She then ran down the street at her usual gallop to ask her mother. François never ran home, there were too many things to see on his way. The candy maker was boiling a big vat of tutti-frutti, and if François helped her stir, she might give him a cup — hot and sticky – just the way he liked it! Every twenty-fourth day he would also walk by the mechanic, Raphaëlle, who had a tattoo of a sailing ship on his broad smooth chest. He sometimes let François sit in the driver seat of a customer’s automobile and pretend he was a racecar driver, or better yet, a pilot of a mighty rocket ship. He would issue great deep belly laughs to François’ antics. Raphaëlle kept a goat in the yard, which diligently guarded a small circle of grass around her tree, and dared any passerby, especially little boys, to trespass. Near to home, François walked past an empty lot where a house used to stand. There was a sad story about that place, but none of the adults would tell, and François was too polite to insist. Today he stopped to talk to the candy maker.
“Do you need some help, Madame?” asked François politely. The woman was older than his mother was, and beyond the age where women might have children. She was tall and thin with powerful muscles from stirring a large round pot filled to the brim with every child’s delight. The smell of hot candy often drew large crowds of children later in the summer, but in the spring, François had the candy maker to himself. She was mopping her sweaty brow with the sleeve of her dress, while dousing the flames as she kicked over a bucket of water.
“I’m sorry, François! I’ve just finished stirring and it will be another hour before I must draw the taffy. If you come by tomorrow, I might have a little to spare before I take it to the shop.”
“Thank you, Madame,” said François, with a low bow and doff of his hat. Not all little boys were polite, but you should know François was kind and courteous to a fault. Though some other boy in François’ body would get the promised candy, today’s François would not insist or beg. Begging was for the dog, the less fortunate, or Monsieur Mitterrand on the radio.
Proceeding down the street on his habitual rounds, he came across a raven beside the road. She was guarding her egg, which had fallen from a low branch and to his amazement was unbroken. He looked at a her, she at him, and there transpired between the two of them a message of mercy and compassion, whereby she hopped backwards, three little hops, and he stepped forward to pick up the egg and place it gently back in its nest. With a joyous caw, she hopped into her home even before he could remove his hand and offered him a shiny metal key, which he took and put into his pocket. He didn’t wish to upset her generosity. Later he would return her treasure, unless he found the lock to which the key fit. A raven is always a good friend to have, in times of plenty or need.
“Hello, Monsieur Raphaëlle and Madam Chèvre how are you today?” called François, over the load Turkish music coming from the transistor radio hanging from a nail on the open door. The goat did not answer, but just looked at him with her strange, alien eyes as she chewed on a mouthful of ivy.
“Is that you garçon, François? I cannot spare the time today, because I must drive and get parts. Come by tomorrow and I will give you a special treat,” shouted the burly man as he left the shadows of his shop. His arms were covered in grease and sweat, and he looked exhausted in the noonday sun. A truck stood up high on jacks behind him with all six tires lying about on the ground.
“Thank you, Monsieur,” said François, bowing again. He turned on his heel and headed past the lots for the great flee market where venders, estates managers, and wealthy homeowners traded furniture and antiques. Old men, young ladies, and pickpockets filled the market, all competing for the money of rich young men. Forbidden to enter the market by his mother, François walked on the other side of the road, until he arrived at his home and it’s squeaky iron gate.
The sun cast no shadow, high and proud above the ivy covered house. The roses were in full bloom nestled amongst bougainvillea vines, yellow flowers contrasting with soft violet inflorescence. Both types grew beneath every window to deter any casual burglar who might wander over from the Les Puces de Saint-Ouen. That bougainvillea and her long thorns could rend the thickest coat, and make a grown man weep bitterly. Such a place became a perfect hideaway for the mice from the many hungry cats, as well as for the asp from Papa’s hoe.
“Mama, I am home!” called François, as he entered the home.
“Please speak quietly, François,” said her mother from the stairs. “Grand-mère is not feeling so well today. Armelle has made soup with onions and bread there in the kitchen. Please be a good boy and go serve yourself while I tend to my mother. Make sure to save some for your sisters and your niece as well, okay?”
François tossed his hat and his school jacket into the cupboard and made his way to the kitchen. Now you must understand it wasn’t a small kitchen of the sort found in so many modern houses. It was large with two stoves and a pine table in the center for cutting and preparing large dishes. The family had Armelle to cook, whom they treated more like one of their own than a girl from Morocco. She had a wild eye, which often encouraged spitting, and curses from superstitious old ladies. Add to that a lock of pure white hair on one so young, and even the culturally more astute students would walk on the other side of the street in fear she was a witch. In truth, she was by far more devoted to her faith than anyone François knew, and accepted the ridicule and shame as a burden of noble humility.
“Good afternoon, François! Are you ready to have your supper?” asked the gentle woman at a large cast-iron stove. She wore long sleeves in the smothering heat of the kitchen, which temped fate as they smoldered near the flames. One milky eye looked away from François while the perfect brown one looked at him with kindness. Despite this marring defect, she wasn’t bad to look at, but she would likely never marry or know true romance.
“Yes please, Madame”
With a large ladle, she scooped up a generous helping of onion soup into a bowl, placed a slice from this morning’s baguette, and poured melted cheese upon the whole thing.
“Let it cool a moment.”
“Where is everyone, Madame?” asked François. He was curious how nobody waited in the kitchen and why he was being served soup instead of something more fitting for the day’s largest meal.
“You do not know, François?” answered the young woman, who was quite pretty from the side where you couldn’t see the roving white eye. “I’ve told you for the last three days the same thing. Your father is helping your uncle in the country and will most likely be back tomorrow. Grand-père is back in court over that communist who commandeered his automobile. Claire, your uncle, is still courting that wealthy lady who is much too mature for him. And Célestine – well — she is unable to come to the table this day of the month. Are you satisfied, my little amnesiac? If I did not know better, you ask me this because you want to hear my voice, but it is not as lovely as your mother’s. God bless her for her devotion to Grand-mère. It won’t be long now, my sweet François. So prepare your heart for this thing, yes?”
Rather than becoming satisfied with her answers, curiosity plagued him even more, but he knew from experience, too many questions asked would be forgotten unless he wrote them in his journal. Skipping like a stone across the months of François’ life was not much different from the great trapeze acrobat high up on the wire. To look too close at the audience below would invite mistakes, insanity, and a tragic plummet to destruction.
As he ate his soup in silence, he listened to Armelle hum to herself as she toiled away preparing another meal. She must be making something to welcome Papa home. When he was nearly finished eating, he heard the gate squeak and the sound of laughter as his little niece, Mélissandre, bounded up to the door. She ran, a four-year-old bundle of exuberance, into Armelle’s waiting arms, while François’ oldest sister, Magdalèna, entered behind with a bucket filled to the brim with mushrooms.
“I am going to need a leash for that one, my friend. She’s always trying to get away. I hope your morning was good? There are so many pigs in the woods these days, maybe Papa and Claire could hunt one for you, yes?”
“They could get arrested, Magdalèna, and then how would care for your charming little girl?”
“True, so true . It is a pity the pigs get to eat the truffles while we are left with this.” She plopped the overflowing basket onto the table and sat herself down with a sigh. “Please look at each carefully, Armelle, since Mélissandre insisted on helping. We don’t want the dreaded Anamita to haunt our house, do we?”
“I will, as always. Are you finished eating, François? Please, could you leave the kitchen and go outside to play?” asked Armelle. He imagined her wild eye was twitching to the beat of unheard Moroccan drums. It always did so when she was nervous or upset.
When he left the sweltering heat of the kitchen, François exited the house by the back way, and went to his customary place beside the elm. Lying down upon the sweet clover, he looked up into the branches and watched the birds coming to and fro. The swallows did not come back this year, which made François both happy and a little sad. Happy, because they were messy and sleeping on the lawn could become hazardous. Sad, because he loved to watch them fly so swift, like the rocket ships he imagined going to the moon. Today, there were no swallows, just the sparrows and finches who stayed all year round.
As he nodded off, he thought how he was like those swallows, but he hoped he would always be able to return to François. Before he knew it, he was awake again — the ginger-haired Abigaëlle was shaking his shoulder.
“Wake up! Wake up, François!” she pleaded. He felt the warmth of her milky skin upon his, but snapped out of his reverie when he looked into her frightened eyes. He smelled smoke upon her skin, and her beautiful golden hair was singed in places. Her chemise had little holes burned into it, and tears drew sad little lines through the ashes on her face. He could hear a fire truck approaching from the station, and could see billowing black smoke rising from the tiny house next door. Struggling to get to his feet, he peered through the iron gate at the terror of flame consuming his friend’s home. The fire truck was just arriving when the roof collapsed, which took the wooden walls with it into the basement, to create a huge ball of malevolent fire rolling high into the sky – a mocking image of despair.
“Mama! Papa!” cried Abigaëlle, and François had to hold his half-naked friend to keep her from plunging into the flames to her death. She struggled like a wild animal, clawing and biting at him, but he did not let her go. By the time the men put out the fire, there was nothing left but a smoking pit in the ground and deeper still in Abigaëlle’s heart. Mama and the others of the household consoled and distracted her, as the police carried her parents’ charred remains to the morgue. Only Abigaëlle survived, awakened by her brave little terrier, Cavalier, who had gone back into the flames to fetch his dear mistress. The men found him beneath the bougainvillea, sorely burnt and terrified, but still very much alive.
They all wept together, and thus on that sad day, which began so good and bright, Abigaëlle became a Guimbretière, a foster sister under the same roof.