The Thousand Verses
Jehan lay quietly on his bed with his hair down, so that it spread out around his head like a grey-brown halo. He was half-asleep, daydreaming, and dreamily stroking the fur of the small grey cat sharing the coverlet. For him, happiness had always been warm houses in snowstorms, flower chains in springtime, lakes in the summer, and cats in autumn. In the countryside they burnt leaves for autumn, and nothing could keep out the smell. It seeped through the windows of everyone's houses, and made the food taste of crisp autumn air. His blankets smelled of it, and the cats - that were everywhere, to the disgust and annoyance of most of the wealthy aristocrats - brought it in their whiskers. Jehan's cat was named RÍve, for it had somehow struck him as a perfect name for a grey cat with cloudy blue eyes and a lanky body.
RÍve was purring, brokenly, but Jehan had been at it for almost fifteen minutes, and it wouldn't be long before she began to bite him. It was a peculiarity cats had with Jehan. Fifteen minutes they liked to be stroked, and then they turned on him and clawed him and bit his fingers. Jehan never minded; he simply shoved them off the bed and stuck his tongue out, and then went back to his dreaming.
At the moment, he was dreaming of angels. They were what he dreamt of most. They had beautiful almond eyes and wore white robes. The only trouble was, he dreamt of them so much that he didn't care for them very much any longer. They were almost meaningless, and he found himself bored with them in church. Why couldn't God have unicorns? Or swans? Swans were absolutely gorgeous to look at, though Jehan had been promised that they were dangerous to match. God with swans about him. How nice to be a swan once one died. Far better than an angel. Angels were just silly. So common. Everyone talked about angels, and wrote about angels, and called their lovers 'angel'. Well, he would call his 'swan'.
RÍve began to chew on his hand, taking him from his reverie. He squeaked, sat straight up, and pushed her unceremoniously onto the floor.
"Don't do that!"
RÍve gave him a reproachful look, picked herself up, and wandered with great dignity into the hall. Jehan laughed and picked up his feather quill and stuck it in his hair, climbed off the bed, and rushed to the window, pressing his nose against it. Autumn was the loveliest season of them all. Once he could properly write, he would write a thousand poems for autumn. What he wrote now were just ideas, little scraplets to be kept so he could plagiarise himself later and make them better. Someday, he'd write poetry worth reading. Then he would worship autumn and write a thousand verses.
Jehan brought RÍve to Paris with him. By then she was old, and he rather suspected his parents would get rid of her while he was gone if he didn't somehow protect her. No one, however, wanted a cranky, bony grey cat, blind in one eye, who happily bit anyone who was foolish enough to touch her. So he put her in a box and let her claw his boots through the hole in the top all the way to the city.
She hated his apartment. She shredded the curtains with surprising agility for her age. He hid his flute and all his poem scraps in his pillow to protect them. He avoided bringing visitors for fear they might undergo attack.
At night, he worked on his poetry, with RÍve biting his ankles, trying his very hardest to write the first of his autumn anthology. He had trouble, as he always had. Words were difficult to master, and they jerked and trembled and didn't make sense the way he put them together. It was frustrating, and nothing seemed to inspire him. Autumn in the city wasn't like autumn in the country. There weren't enough trees, and they didn't burn leaves. His apartments smelled of dust, heavy and thick and bland. There was none of the special autumn crisp-air smell, or the overwhelming leaf smell to get in all the cracks and stick. He tired himself, but it was important. An anthology? A chance to have his poetry recognised? But it had always been far more than that. All his life, it was to present burnt offerings to Autumn, and the goddess that attended her. It was as though he must accomplish one thing before he died - even if that prospect seemed far away, he might be in an accident any day, something might happen that no one could foresee. He must finish.
He never wrote in the cafe Juillet, which he frequented. The cafe, as he imagined all cafes did, had a smell of wine. It was even worse than dust. He burnt candles down and got wax all over his desk, trying to achieve even one perfect line. But he was always afraid he might make an assumption that could be offensive to Autumn. It was difficult. It was horrible, to try to write opinions that belonged to him. He loved the way the leaves turned colour. Perhaps Autumn hated that, and hated the leaves turning brown and dying.
He fell asleep over his desk once or twice.
It was by no means an obsession, but it was something he felt obligated to do. And between the dust and the city and the lack of inspiration and RÍve leaving marks on his feet, it wasn't coming very well.
He met Enjolras by mistake. He saw him speaking in Juillet, and everyone watched him, but Jehan peeked over the top of his book at him and yawned a little. The beautiful young man with impassioned words seemed to him boring. He looked like an angel, and angels were bothersome. Jehan went back to his book, hiding his face in it. He never noticed when the angel's speech finished, and never noticed when the angel sat before him, gazing at him curiously.
"Bonjour. Je m'appelle Michel Enjolras."
Jehan startled and looked over the top of his book again. "Er... yes. Je m'appelle Jehan Prouvaire."
Enjolras looked charmed, in an odd way. "'Jehan'?"
"It sounds better." He ducked back into his book.
"You didn't listen when I spoke."
"Did you know what I spoke of?"
Jehan squirmed. "No. I spend all my time here reading or at home writing or in school."
"But surely you look about yourself?"
"Sometimes." Enjolras gave a short laugh, and he didn't seem particularly amused. "Don't you look at the people about you and see what the aristocracy is doing to them? What the King is doing to them?"
"Not really." Jehan blushed, and tried to resume his reading.
"May I give you my speech again? Perhaps you'll listen? As a favour?" Enjolras raised his eyebrows, and Jehan sighed.
Enjolras gave Jehan the same speech he'd given to all the men before. Somehow, though, it was much better when he gave it only to Jehan. His voice loved all the words as he said them, and they gained a wonderful charm, and Jehan found himself quite enamoured of their master. Now, when it was only for him, he found he understood it and agreed with it and everything that was said made sense. He found himself outraged with the bourgeoisie and quite forgot he was one. Then he remembered, and was angry with himself. At last, Enjolras ended it, and the last word was beautiful and shimmering and Jehan adored it.
"God..." he breathed.
Enjolras gave him a small smile. "Will you join us?"
"Certainly. Utterly. Of course."
Enjolras stood. "Excellent. The cafe Musain, tomorrow, seven o'clock. Please be on time. We'll be in the back room." He left.
Jehan watched the spot where he'd been for a long moment. Enjolras hadn't really ever been an angel. He was a swan, really. Jehan accidentally left his book behind in the cafe when he went home.
He sat at his desk as usual, and tried to write, just as usual, and tonight, words came, pouring, dripping from his quill and quite soaking him. But they weren't about Autumn. They were all of Enjolras, of the swan.
He wrote for so long he fell asleep over his parchment.
He awoke in the morning, with a great suspicion it was late and he'd forgotten something terribly important. He looked sleepily at his clock, and noticed the time was seven-fifteen. He pushed himself off the desk, aching a little, as was to be expected, from where he'd been pressed into the side. He lifted a piece of the paper he'd slept on, and read a few lines.
He spread his wings to touch the clouds
White wingtips brushing silver sky
He spake, and trembled then the world
If it be his wish, to die
He sang his words unto the world
The world he promised soft to save
He sang his words unto mankind
Mankind became the white swan's slave
He spread his wings to touch the sky
If he wish't so, then we die
His eyes widened and he made a strangled squeak, remembering the meeting he was to have attended. He caught up the poems to give to Enjolras, pulled on his coat, and stumbled from his room, nearly breaking his neck as he went down the stairs.
He became lost three times and had to ask directions, and arrived at Musain with his hair tousled and his clothes rumpled. He dashed in, and flung open the door to the back room, panting.
Enjolras looked up disapprovingly.
A young man with kind eyes greeted him with a smile. "Je suis Combeferre. Come, sit with me."
Jehan closed the door carefully, and walked across the room to him, feeling everyone watching his movement. He sat gratefully beside Combeferre and tried to hide in his coat.
Enjolras continued on as though he'd never been interrupted.
Afterwards he stood by Enjolras' table as the others left, talking and laughing amongst themselves. His eyes shone, and he watched Enjolras adoringly.
"Yes?" Enjolras glanced over at him, gathering papers neatly.
Jehan blushed and put the poems on the edge of his table, nudging them closer. Enjolras picked one up and began to read, frowning.
"What is this?"
"I don't have time for this, Prouvaire. And I expect you to be on time tomorrow." He gave the poems back.
Jehan felt like crying. "'Course. M'sorry." He stuffed them back into his coat pockets, feeling small and guilty.
Enjolras paused a moment, and suddenly turned. He kissed Jehan gently, and then went back to his papers. "On time."
Jehan wandered home in a state of such bliss that he crashed into four people and lost six poems. RÍve pounced upon him as he opened his door, and began clawing his face; it was all he could do to spare the attention to detach her and wrap her in a curtain. Her angry, ruffled head stared out at him, giving wrathful cries. He wrote more poetry, the best he knew how, but promised Enjolras in his head not to give it to him. He dreamt of swans attending God.
He arrived on time after that.
A month later, RÍve died. Jehan didn't come to the meeting. He couldn't bear to, and he stayed at home curled in his blankets, sobbing. He kept thinking, over and over, how glad he was he'd let her claw his left foot bloody the night before. He'd been feeling generous that night, and instead of lecturing her or putting her in a box or bringing out the curtain again, he'd allowed her to express her hatred of the world through the state of his foot. He was glad. She must have died happy, then, he told himself, sniffling and wiping his eyes on his pillowcase. He needn't hide his poems and keep his flute out of sight any longer.
He began to realise that the revolution was important, and all the ideals Enjolras spoke of were important, and all of it was important, but his world was important, too. He began to realise that the small things he loved were just as meaningful to him as the whole revolution was to Enjolras.
He went to his desk and began to write. He wrote about Autumn. He wrote without worrying he might offend her. He wrote what he thought, what he loved, and what it meant. He wrote about the leaves turning colours, and about how they smelled when they burned. He wrote about the special smell that was everywhere in the air during autumn. He wrote about soft cats with twitching ears, and about frost patterns on windows. He wrote about dead grass and how it was always too warm to wear a coat and too cold not to. He wrote about Autumn. He put all the poems in a wooden box on his desk.
He heard a knock at his door and looked over at his clock. It read nine-thirty. It was dark outside his windows, and he felt rather confused that anyone should call. He rose and opened the door, and was utterly surprised to see Enjolras there.
"Bonsoir, Michel." Jehan smiled warmly and returned to his desk.
"You didn't come to Musain today."
"No. No, I didn't."
"My cat died." He added a last two lines to the forty-sixth poem, folded it reverently, and put it in the box with the rest.
Enjolras was silent. When he finally spoke, his voice was incredulous. "You stayed here because your cat died?"
"Good God, Prouvaire, your cat died? And if it had died on the day of the Revolution? Would you have stayed home then?"
"Of course not." Jehan stood, and stepped a little closer, resting his head on Enjolras' shoulder. "I realised that I love other things besides your revolution. I love you better than your speeches and your concepts. I realised I must love other things because everything is important."
Enjolras stared down at him.
Jehan lifted his head, and kissed Enjolras, just as gently as Enjolras had kissed him once. He hoped Autumn would understand. Forty-six poems weren't a thousand, but there were too many other things in the world to write on.
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