The Green Fairy
The windmill of the Moulin Rouge turns seductively as it has for almost fifty years now, beckoning gentlemen in top hats and overcoats, converting wind energy into the sexual energy that is Kit’s sustenance, and that of her mother, and her grandmother before her. The overcoats, the mill, the dancers—all of them are linked in mechanical rotation grinding out the only gaiety to be had since war looms over France.
Across the street, Kit hunches cold on the sidewalk in her threadbare coat. She raises her collar against the wind, still bitter though spring waits in the wings. She squints up at the red mill, its sails spotlighted in the dusky gloom. Today marks one month since she became a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, one month since her mother died on Kit’s birthday, as if she hung on just to see Kit turn eighteen. She clutches the collar to her throat, waits for a street car to pass, and crosses the cobblestones, the scuffed red leather of her lace-up boots still molded to the shape of her mother’s feet. As she pulls open the creaking alleyway door and makes her way to the dressing room, her stomach drops in the way that is becoming familiar. She straightens her back and lifts her chin.
Kit shivers as she pours water into the basin, undresses, cleans herself with a rag—le bain de pute, it is called. A whore’s bath. She is the first girl to arrive, and glad of the silence. She takes the shiny costume from its hook, the costume her mother wore until the syphilis finally claimed her. She draws it over her head, then pulls on the black stockings, fastens them with the red garter she cannot help but admire, presses its bright bow to the pale skin of her thigh. She straightens, dips her fingers into her mother’s precious rouge pot, performs the ritual painting of her cheeks, her lips, to feign good health despite never having enough food to eat. She peers into the mirror, standing to the right of its jagged crack, and uses the new marcel curling iron to wave her hair. The iron was a gift to her mother from the inventor himself, Francois Marcel. Each luxury they own is from a gentleman patron—the iron; the makeup; and Kit’s favorite, the mahogany music box with its twirling cancan dancer that plays a new song by a Parisian chanteuse, “La Vie en Rose.” Kit smooths her hair and the silk bodice of her dress. She squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath, and enters the dance hall.
By now she knows what she’s doing as she takes a seat and props her leg on a chair: she is advertising. Her mother taught her the necessary skills, tricks requisite for staying alive. Business will be slow until the bourgeoisie arrive from dinner parties or the opera, around eleven o’clock. Kit is lucky, her mother said, luckier than her grandmother Rosa la Rouge, for whom the clientele were not so well-to-do, back before the Montmartre district became fashionable for the upper class. Kit angles her patent leather shoe just so, allowing the white-ruffled skirt to reveal her dark stocking, like chocolate cake beneath layers of frosting.
“Will it hurt?” she asked her mother, before the first time.
“Yes.” Maman was truthful. “You will bleed. But it will get better. Find a nice place to go in your mind.”
The advice suits Kit. She prefers not to think. She does not think of the longing ache in her belly, does not think of what she does to survive, does not dream of life beyond the turn of the mill. She is part of the inevitable rotation down through the generations as she knew she would be, despite the fantasy her mother painted of a better future in America. Kit always knew Maman’s stories were fairy tales, unrelated to their real life in Montmartre.
What is real: the vast dance hall floor shining empty, musicians tuning their instruments, white lights glimmering, glasses clinking at the bar. Leg poised just-so on the chair, Kit runs her fingertips from ankle to garter and back again, taking pleasure at the feel of the silk. She reclines, checks her bosom, tugs down her cream-puff sleeves to reveal more.
As she waits, Kit stares at the famous painting of her grandmother. The painting is called La Blanchisseuse. The Laundress—literally, the bleacher. It hangs above the pipe organ. Kit’s given name is Carmen, after the mysterious woman in the painting, her grandmother Carmen Gaudin, called Rosa la Rouge. She was the favorite subject—and, it was said, the favorite lover—of the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Kit was raised on the story, as if it were something to brag about: how Toulouse-Lautrec said of Rosa, “What an air of spoiled meat she has!” Kit knows exactly what he meant. She can see it in Rosa’s sultry heaviness—the dejected line of her jaw, the pout of her full lips as she stares out the window in the painting. Kit can feel it in herself as well, the shame she can never escape, as if she, her mother, her grandmother, are paper doll cutouts strung across the years in a perpetual cancan line, all glowing gold hair and rotting meat souls.
Kit snaps her garter to feel the sting. She wonders if Rosa posed just this way, at this very table smelling of spilled beer and furniture polish, amid cigarette ash and peanut shells littering the floor. Did she play coy to the highest bidder, then cringe as he dragged her up the stairs? Kit sees the cocktail slide across the table before she senses his presence, the tall gentleman who has become a regular. She tries hard not to think, not to feel, but she cannot help it. He reeks of cigar smoke, and her body recoils. She holds her breath until she’s lightheaded. But the ritual they have established, the absinthe, it helps her.
When Kit first saw the gentleman prepare the drink, she watched from a distance, peering out from behind a velvet curtain. She’d heard of absinthe, the Green Fairy of Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh, and was curious to try it, despite her mother’s warning of its hallucinogenic effects. She sidled up to the gentleman at the bar—or sashayed, or slunk; those first days, she was still deciding on a signature walk. She smiled shyly, as shy as spoiled meat can muster. He was enchanted, or pretended to be. He began to call her the Green Fairy, and the name stuck. Kit’s manager Bernard liked the name and ordered her a costume with emerald sequins, though he paid for it from her thirty per cent. Although Kit is the new girl, she is the granddaughter of Rosa la Rouge. Bernard insists she will be une étoile, a star.
“Bonjour, my fairy,” the gentleman says now. He bends to kiss her neck. His beard prickles, raising gooseflesh. Kit only smiles. Since she does not know what to say to the men, she has decided it is better to say nothing. They seldom require speech anyway. She lowers her leg from the chair, and he sits.
With ritual solemnity, the gentleman places a carafe of iced water on the table and a filigreed silver spoon atop a glass. He brandishes a pure white sugar cube and centers it on the spoon. Ever so slowly, he pours the iced water over the sugar, melting it lush and gorgeous into the green liquid below. Kit relishes the painstaking delicacy of the process—all that preparation for one exquisite little drink. Quite the opposite of rote necessity, mundane existence, the hurried rush that occurs in the bedrooms upstairs. The iced water clouds the viscous absinthe into a pearly louche, a delicious licorice smell blooming in the air. Kit breathes in the herbal fragrance she associates with sex and sadness—the green smell of life.
The night before Maman died, Kit lay next to her under the quilt in the iron bed, and tried not to be cold. She’d given her the one wool blanket, doubled over. “Do you tell Father Raoul at confession”—Kit whispered—“what you do with the men?” They’d gone together to mass that morning, Maman bundled in two sweaters, leaning on Kit’s arm.
Her mother was silent for so long Kit assumed she was asleep, but then she whispered back, “I do what I must do. Father Raoul knows that.” She pressed Kit’s hand under the quilt. “You do what you must, Carmen, and pray to God that one day it might be different.”
Now Kit floats on the aromatic green cloud. She watches as the gentleman sips the opalescent liquid, then offers her the glass. They pass it back and forth, his sweaty hand hot on her thigh. Her muscles tense; she wills them to relax. When the girls are summoned to the dance floor, she finally breathes again. Leaving the table, she squeezes the gentleman’s hand, smiles demurely, mentally counts the francs she will earn that evening. She feels the weight of his eyes on her body as she moves across the room—sashaying, she has decided.
Since Kit is new to the routines, her place is in the back. As the girls position themselves, some cast her haughty stares. She glares back at them. The older ones, her mother’s friends, offer kindly glances. The music flares raucous and chaotic unlike the lovely notes that issue from her music box. Her eyes flit to the gentleman who watches with cannibal hunger.
The dance begins.
Kit shifts on her feet, still unsure of the steps. Her heart beats faster as she tries to keep up. The best girls are in front, high-kicking, flashing white-ruffled pantaloons, letting loose shrill, ecstatic cries. The girls are not permitted to wear undergarments beneath the thin cotton, another detail Kit tries to forget. She dips and circles, ignoring the pressure of hunger and fear, a constant thumping at the base of her skull. The absinthe works its magic. The pressure recedes as if sprinkled with fairy dust. With kicks and swishes, Kit twirls beneath the lighted windmills turning above her spinning head. It’s not so bad, she tells herself, this life, the dance.
The music changes, signaling the world-famous cancan. The men get to their feet, whooping and whistling. The girls grasp arms in apparent solidarity. Kit has the novice place in the center because the outer positions are harder on the turns. Kick-knee-kick-knee toes pointed smile. Music lights shouts fuse dreamy in Kit’s cloudy consciousness. She can hear her mother’s voice: “Make sure always to smile, ma belle, it is your best weapon.”
When le quadrille naturaliste is called, Kit channels her grandmother Rosa la Rouge who was, along with Jane Avril and La Goulue, a famous dancer in her day. The three women are pictured in a grainy photograph tacked to the wood lath showing through the plaster wall beside Kit’s bed, next to a calendar. The photograph was taken outside the Moulin Rouge, just beneath the windmill. Hefty La Goulue looks proud. Avril is elegant, leaning on a black parasol. And Rosa, not in costume but wearing her laundress rags, just looks tired.
Kit’s gentleman joins her on the floor for le quadrille naturaliste, a more sensual, erotic version of the cancan. He removes his top hat and bows ironically. She has stopped wondering whether he has a wife at home, and children—little girls?—who know nothing of his visits here. By the end of the dance, Kit feels only warmth. She is far away from the Moulin Rouge when the gentleman takes the hand of the Green Fairy and leads her up the stairs.
The sky is graying as the girls stand in line the next morning. “No, he is not rough,” Kit answers the older woman, her mother’s friend, and rubs the ache at the top of her neck, right at her hairline. She yawns, covers her mouth, rolls her head and shoulders. She is almost used to the indignity of queuing for the weekly venereal disease exam, grateful for the medical attention, though it did not save her mother.
“C’est bon,” says the woman, slouched in her stockings, lifting her slip with one hand. “I had one regular who turned pure evil, but the pay was generous, I did not complain.” She yawns widely, showing browned teeth. Her lipstick is smeared on her chin.
The girls wait in drab slips, brassiere straps drooping as the line languishes, slow as a mouse passing through the body of a snake. Kit worries she will miss the morning mass. “Did you see mon quadrille?” she asks. “Better, oui?”
The woman touches Kit’s cheek with maternal gentleness. “You are pure.” Perfect.
The gesture stirs an ache in Kit’s chest, and she wraps her arms across her body. “I like dancing. Out there it feels like the center of the Milky Way, like magic.” Actually she finds it confusing—her enjoyment of the dance, the absinthe glow, even her gentleman’s hungry eyes. She enjoys drawing on the expensive stockings, the garter’s tingling pressure, her power to mesmerize. She must admit a part of her could not wait to become a dancer after a childhood spent cross-legged on the bartop, shelling peanuts, watching rehearsals, overhearing boudoir secrets. The pleasure, however, is clouded like absinthe’s pearly louche.
The woman gives her a shrewd look and starts to speak, but they are interrupted by a messenger who enters carrying a large white box tied with brown twine. “Ah, the Green Fairy,” says the woman. The messenger places the box in Kit’s arms as if handling a newborn baby, and goes over the care instructions for her new costume. Jealousy fills the room like smoke.
Kit bites her lip and tries not to smile as she exits the dance hall clutching the box to her chest. She turns left on Boulevard de Clichy and hurries along past la boulangerie and le charcuterie merchants sweeping the morning sidewalk. Matrons in headscarves pull laundry from upper windows while, down below, girls return from weary nights. Kit pushes her aching feet, trudging through narrow alleyways, up winding staircases. She climbs the hills of la butte Montmartre, and finally reaches the steep ascent to Sacre Coeur where she dragged on her mother’s hand as a child, whining about the never-ending stairs. More recently she supported Maman as they struggled to the top. Kit needs each stone stair, needs the pain in her feet, in her side, that accompanies each step.
She enters the cathedral’s soothing hush, grateful for its dimness. Cheeks aflame, she scurries to the front pew, ignoring looks of judgment from other parishioners. She pretends not to care because she must get as close as possible, near enough to receive the shining gold forgiveness falling from the high blue dome. She slides into the pew, pulls her scarf over her hair, then pauses, knowing she will be too distracted to pray if she does not at least peek. She lifts the lid of the costume box, pushes aside the delicate tissue paper, sucks in her breath. Sequins. She has heard of them, but never seen one. They transform the costume into an ethereal garment, shining like metal. Kit touches a tiny curved disc with her fingertip, feels its rough edge, jerks back her hand. It looked so sleek.
The organ sounds the opening chords. She snaps the box shut, scrambles for her missile, makes the sign of the cross over her body. Crossing herself always elicits a deep unworthiness. How dare she. What Kit does in church feels more brazen than what she does at the Moulin Rouge.
The priest: “The Lord be with you.”
The people: “And also with you.”
Who does she think she is—a dancer? a performer? The truth is, Kit is nothing but a harlot, a whore, a common prostitute. Dress it up as you like in silk and sequins, but the fact remains: She sells her body for a few francs, barely enough to live on. The chasm opens again, and she tumbles forward onto the kneeler, praying like fainting, like falling into an exposure more naked than taking off her clothes. Eyes squeezed shut, she greedily inhales the burning incense, wanting it to scorch her lungs like coal to the prophet’s lips.
All: I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
“Why do you cry in church?” Kit asked her mother one time.
“Because I feel God,” Maman whispered with a sad smile.
Kit’s knees press the bare wood of the kneeler. Unbidden, a picture enters her mind of kneeling on the wood floor before her gentleman. Her stomach clenches. She allows the image to form along with the others, naming the truth of each act before God. Up and out she draws them like splinters of glass picked from her skin until it is tender and raw, clean and white.
The priest: “Abide in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.”
Kit is quieted as she stands to sing. Be still my soul: the Lord is on thy side. If only the words of the hymn were true.
An hour later she returns to the cold empty flat, where she places the costume box on the bureau with care. She takes the stubby pencil dangling from its frayed string next to the photograph and makes an X across the square on Maman’s calendar, counting the days she manages to stay alive, or marking the time to pretend someone cares. Each X, she decides, is her silent insistence: she will not give up.