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The Painted Girls


Monsieur LeBlanc leans against the doorframe, his arms folded over a belly grown round on pork crackling. A button is missing from his waistcoat, pulled too tight for the threads to bear. Maman wrings her hands—laundress’s hands, marked by chapped skin, raw knuckles. “But, Monsieur LeBlanc,” she says, “we just put my dead husband in the ground.”

“It’s been two weeks, Madame van Goethem. You said you needed two weeks.” No sooner had Papa taken his last breath upon this earth than, same as now, Monsieur LeBlanc stood in the doorway of our lodging room demanding the three months’ rent Papa had fallen behind in paying since getting sick.

Maman drops to her knees, grasps the hem of Monsieur LeBlanc’s greatcoat. “You cannot turn us out. My daughters, all three good girls, you would put them on the street?”

“Take pity,” I say, joining Maman at his feet.

“Yes, pity,” says Charlotte, my younger sister, and I wince. She plays her part too well for a child not yet eight.

Only Antoinette, the oldest of the three of us, remains silent, defiant, chin held high. But then she is never afraid.

Charlotte grasps one of Monsieur LeBlanc’s hands in both her own, kisses it, rests her cheek against its back. He sighs heavily, and it seems tiny Charlotte—adored by the pork butcher, the watchmaker, the crockery dealer—has saved us from the street.

Seeing his face shift to soft, Maman says, “Take my ring,” and slips her wedding band from her finger. She presses it to her lips before placing it in Monsieur LeBlanc’s waiting hand. Then with great drama her palms fly to the spot on her chest just over her heart. Not wanting him to see in my eyes what I know about Maman’s feelings for Papa, I turn my face away. Whenever Papa mentioned he was a tailor, apprenticed to a master as a boy, Maman always said, “The only tailoring you ever done is stitching the overalls the men at the porcelain factory wear.”

Monsieur LeBlanc closes his fingers around the ring. “Two weeks more,” he says. “You’ll pay up then.” Or a cart will haul off the sideboard handed down to Papa before he died, the table and three rickety chairs the lodger before us left behind, the mattresses stuffed with wool, each handful worth five sous to a pawnbroker. Our lodging room will be empty, only four walls, grimy and soot laden, deprived of a lick of whitewash. And there will be a new lock on the door and the concierge, old Madame Legat, fingering the key in her pocket, her gaze sorrowful on the curve of Charlotte’s pretty cheek. Of the three of us, only Antoinette is old enough to remember nights in a dingy stairwell, days on the boulevard Haussmann, palms held out, empty, the rustle of the silk skirts passing by. She told me once how it was that other time, when Papa sold his sewing machine to pay for a tiny white gown with crocheted lace, a small white coffin with a painting of two cherubs blowing horns, a priest to say the Mass.

I am the namesake of a small dead child, Marie, or Marie the First as I usually think of her. Before her second birthday, she was rigid in her cradle, eyes fixed on what she could not see, and then I came—a gift, Maman said—to take her place.

. . .

“God bless,” Charlotte calls out to Monsieur LeBlanc’s retreating back.

Maman pushes herself up like an old woman, staggering under the heft of widowhood, daughters, monies owed, an empty larder. She reaches into her apron pocket, tilts a small bottle of green liquid to her lips, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.

“We owe for the week’s milk, and there’s enough for that?” Antoinette says, chin jutting.

“Haven’t seen a sou from you in a month. Still a walker-on at the Opéra, at seventeen years old. You got no idea about work.” Antoinette pulls her lips tight, looks down her nose at Maman, who does not let up. “A measly two francs they pay you for loitering on the stage,” she says, “and only if whatever costume the wardrobe mistress pressed happens to fit. Too high and mighty for the washhouse. Nothing good will come of you. I can see that.”

“Like mother, like daughter, no?” Antoinette says, holding a pretend bottle to her lips.

Maman lifts the absinthe the smallest bit more but only twists the cork back into place. “You’ll take your sisters to the dance school at the Opéra in the morning,” Maman says to Antoinette; and light comes into Charlotte’s face. Three times a week she says how the Paris Opéra is the greatest opera house in all the world.

Sometimes Antoinette shows Charlotte and me the steps she learned at the Opéra dance school, back in the days before she was told not to come back, and we stand with our heels together, our feet turned out, bending our knees.

“Knees over your toes,” Antoinette would say. “That’s it. A plié.”

“What else?” Usually Charlotte asked, but sometimes it was me. The evenings were long and dull, and in the wintertime a few pliés in a bit of candlelight took away the shivering before curling up on our mattress for the night.

Antoinette taught us battements tendus, ronds de jambe, grands battements, on and on. She would stoop to adjust the ankle of Charlotte’s outstretched foot. “Such feet,” she would say. “Feet of a dancer, pet.”

Almost always it was Charlotte she bothered to correct. Maman liked to say how it was time I earned my keep, how even the girls in the Opéra dance school were handed seventy francs each month, but already Papa had slapped his hand down on the table. “Enough,” he said. “Marie is to stay put, in Sister Evangeline’s classroom, where she belongs.” Later, alone, he whispered into my ear that I was clever, my mind meant for studying, that Sister Evangeline had bothered to wait for him outside the porcelain factory and tell him it was so. Still I joined in, and even if Antoinette said my back was supple and my hips were loose, even if I sometimes found myself dancing my own made-up dance when the music of the fiddler down below came up through the planks of the floor, we both knew Papa’s word would hold. Her eyes were on tiny Charlotte, extending a leg behind her in an arabesque and then lifting it high above the floor, all the while Antoinette making adjustments and calling out, “Arms soft. Knee straight. Neck long. That’s it. You got a neck like Taglioni, pet.”

On Antoinette’s name day when she was eight, Papa brought out from inside the sleeve of his coat a figurine of Marie Taglioni, hovering barefoot, wings spread, only the toes of one foot upon the earth. Nearly fifty years ago she claimed a place for herself in the heart of every Parisian by dancing La Sylphide, and still her legend lived on. Antoinette kissed the tiny face of the figurine a dozen times and put it high up on the mantelshelf to be adored. Anyone looking there would have seen it, a tiny sylph, beside Maman’s old clock. But then Antoinette failed the examination that would have promoted her from the second set of the quadrille to the first and was dismissed from the Paris Opéra Ballet for arguing with Monsieur Pluque, the director of dance. “That mouth of yours,” Maman said. “I only said to him I could make more fouettés en tournant than Martine, that my footwork was superior to that of Carole.” I could picture Antoinette standing there, arms crossed, insolence on her face. “I’m ugly and skinny, that’s what he says back to me.”

The figurine was gone from the mantelshelf the next day, maybe to the pawnbroker, maybe smashed upon the cobblestones.

With the news that Maman is sending us to the dance school, Charlotte threads her fingers together, knuckles whitening as she works to hide her joy. I keep my face still, my dismay to myself. The petits rats—the scrawny, hopeful girls, vying for the quickest feet, the lightest leap, the prettiest arms—are babies, like Charlotte, some as young as six. It puts my nerves jumping, the idea of me—a thirteen-year-old—lost among them at the barre, rats who earn their name by scurrying along the Opéra corridors, hungry and dirty and sniffing out crumbs of charity.

Antoinette lays a stilling hand on Charlotte’s arm, catches my eye, makes a tiny nod telling me to wait, that she is not done with Maman. “Old Pluque won’t take Marie.”

“That’s for him to decide,” Maman says. “She’s too old.”

“She’ll catch up. Tell him she’s clever.” Her voice is harsh, edged in scorn. She knows the pride I felt that Sister Evangeline bothered to wait for Papa outside the gates of the factory.

“I won’t take her.”

Maman draws herself up to her greatest height, a full three inches shorter than Antoinette. She leans in, her face close. “You’ll do as you’re told.”

I spend my mornings sitting at a little desk reciting from the catechism the Act of Contrition or reading from a little book the story of Joan of Arc or writing out from memory the Ten Commandments or copying from the blackboard the column of figures I was told to add. Sometimes I look up and catch the corners of Sister Evangeline ’s lips lifting to a smile, and I feel the warm glow of a flaring lamp. Even so, ever since Papa got sick, I have wondered about the usefulness of all the hours, the greediness in staying put in the classroom instead of earning a wage. Sister Evangeline says she is nowhere close to finished with my religious education, that she does not like me reaching for the hinge of my desk, the key inside my pocket, the bits of iron I know to bring good luck, when I am called upon to recite. She says I do not know a single hymn. How could I, when I have no skirt decent enough to get myself let into Mass at église de la Sainte-Trinité? She spent long hours preparing me for my first Communion, but between wearing a gown borrowed from an altar boy instead of one of the lacy ones all the other girls wore and figuring out the wafer we were told was Christ ’s true flesh was nothing more than plain bread, I cannot claim to have felt the Real Presence of Him at my side. Even so I do know by heart the Creed and Our Father and Hail Mary and Glory Be. And as for the rest of what I am meant to learn in school, already I can work out what a cabbage and two onions cost faster than the fruiterer. I know to count the change I get, how to figure out if it is right. I can write whatever I want and read anything I care to in the newspapers. If I asked Sister Evangeline the point of more schooling, if I asked whether all the arithmetic in the world could save a girl like me, I know the answer I would get. There is no changing that I am a girl without a father, with a mother always fingering the bottle in the pocket of her skirt, a girl with a face no shopkeeper would want greeting his customers at the till, a girl living on the highest floor of a rue de Douai lodging house with a spiral staircase too narrow to climb without my skirt brushing the walls and a courtyard too cramped to get a crumb of sunshine, a girl set loose on the lower slopes on Montmartre, a stew of bourgeois and poor, laborers and craftsmen, artists and models, a district famous for cabarets and dance halls and coquettes humble enough to lift their skirts for a crust of bread, a cup of broth for the babies wailing at home. Sister Evangeline ’s answer? “Well,” she would say, lines forming on her smooth brow, an untruth creeping to her lips, “one just never knows.”

A black look comes over Maman, same as yesterday when she yelled and Antoinette spit, landing a gob on Maman’s shoe, and she hit Antoinette and then hit her again when she only laughed. Maman is puffy faced and stout, with hands brawny as a man’s, and Antoinette, narrow hipped and bony, with fingers spindly as twigs. Still she widens the gap between her feet, readying herself for blows.

Is it impossible that I should take to dancing, that one day I will appear upon the Opéra stage? Maybe the dance mistress will be happy with a girl old enough to wipe her own nose, plait her own hair. If she is cruel, if the little girls jeer that I cannot make a straight line of demi-tours, Sister Evangeline always says I work as hard as a mule, also that I have a head for picking up what is new. There is the seventy francs to think of, too. I could go to a textile factory and make half the amount, or the washhouse and maybe come close to matching it, but working twelve hours a day, six days a week and only if the overseer saw his way to pretending I was already fourteen.

Tomorrow could be the day Monsieur Pluque’s wife feeds him his favorite breakfast and ties his cravat with a little more care, the day he climbs the stairs at the Opéra with an extra dose of warmth. Belly full of brioche, might he put my name on the dance school register, hauling me up from the gutter, giving me a sliver of a chance?

“I’ll go,” I say, fingernails digging into my palms.

The cords of Antoinette’s neck grow slack. Maman drops onto the hard seat of a chair.


23 MAY 1878


Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso has found a high incidence of certain anatomical features in his study of criminal man. Facial characteristics commonly occurring among the criminals studied include a forward thrust of the lower face; broad cheekbones; a low forehead; and dark, abundant hair. With each of these characteristics appearing in prehistoric man or apes, Lombroso postulates that the most heinous of today’s criminals are throwbacks to an earlier, more savage version of man. He points out that the reappearance of disease or characteristics down the ancestral line is well documented among scientists. Studies by esteemed French anthropologists support his conclusions.

Dr. Arthur Bordier measured the skulls of thirty-six murderers on loan from the museum at Caen and found that the skulls closely resembled those of primitive man in two key measurements. The foreheads of the murderers were small. It was the result he expected, given the association of the frontal lobes of the brain with intelligence. The rears of the skulls—housing the lobes associated with action—were oversize. Bordier concludes that a brain more inclined to action than thought is something a modern criminal has in common with a primitive savage. The findings are supported by the work of Dr. Louis Delasiauve, who measured the heads of two hundred inmates at La Roquette prison and found similar cranial evidence of evil moral tendencies in nearly half the criminals studied.

It seems French anthropologists and Lombroso are in agreement. The typical criminal is savagely ugly: monstrumin fronte, monstrumin animo.

The Painted Girls
by by Cathy Marie Buchanan

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Trade
  • ISBN-10: 1594632294
  • ISBN-13: 9781594632297