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The lonely hearts hotel, p.4
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.4

           Heather O'Neill
 

  “I’m a terrible person,” Rose whispered at the ceiling.

  “I’m quite wicked too,” Pierrot whispered back.

  7

  IN WHICH THE SNOW IS CUED FROM BELOW

  Christmastime was magical in Montreal. The snowflakes were enormous that time of year. They were so white that sometimes it hurt the children’s eyes just to look at them. There was such whiteness everywhere. There was such a cleanness to it.

  At Christmastime there was much work to be done at the orphanage. They were always putting on plays at the town hall for the public. In 1926, for instance, they put on a play about Daniel and the lions. The children all had manes made of skullcaps and yellow yarn fitted on their heads. They had to be very careful not to let the yarn fall into their soup before the show. Rose was in that performance, and the audience had laughed loudly at her distinctive roar and the way she shook her head.

  The following year, the one in which Pierrot and Rose both turned thirteen years old, the orphanage’s creative committee, consisting of nuns around a dinner table, decided to put on a production about winter. The night before the performance, all the children dressed up like snow angels. They had wings made out of white feathers that had straps to wear on their shoulders and little wire halos that were attached to the back of their outfits in order to float over their heads. They held their white gowns up over their knees so that the hems didn’t get completely covered in mud and dirty snow as they hurried into the horse-drawn cart. The clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves sounded like a roomful of children with hiccups.

  The children walked out onto the stage. They put their hands together in prayer. They looked downward at the floor, with their lips tucked in. They were afraid to look at the crowd because it might cause them to laugh. They all tried to hurry out in a straight line. One of the children turned her head and looked at the audience. She froze for a couple of seconds and all the children coming up behind crashed into her.

  There was a song about the winter. The children all sang whoooo whoooo whoooo to mimic the sound of the wind. They put their arms up in the air with their fingers spread and waved them back and forth as though they were tree branches. Some very small children came out on the stage and began to beat the surfaces of metal drums to create the sound of a storm. And then the racket stopped and all the children looked up. Then, to the audience’s delight, paper snowflakes began to fall from the sky above the children’s heads.

  The children sang “Silent Night” as they fell.

  Rose was walking off the stage when Pierrot was heading out onto it. He caught her hard by the wrist. “Stand here. I want to play this tune for you.”

  The snowflakes had not yet stopped descending when Pierrot appeared from behind the curtains. He strolled toward a large brown piano that had been rolled out into the center of the stage. Pierrot had never met the piano before. He settled in on the bench and hunched his head over the keyboard and wagged and wiggled his hands over the keys before even touching them, as though to warm up. When he pressed the keys, his fingers jumped back in surprise. The keys were so much lighter than those of the piano at the orphanage. They were so much more willing to be his accomplice. This was a piano that liked to be played, unlike the other, stubborn one. He ran his fingers over the keys, enchanting both himself and the audience. His playing sounded like laughter in a school yard. The tune sounded nonsensical at first, but then the audience picked up the tiny, delicate, sweet melody that he was improvising right before their eyes. It sounded like the world’s most magical jewelry box had just been opened.

  It was the bar of music that he had played the first time Rose began dancing. Pierrot had been working on it every day since. Remembering how she couldn’t resist it, he had wanted to seduce Rose again. Rose closed her eyes, listening and enjoying the tune, ignoring the rest of the world. She began to dance from one foot to the other, swaying to the music backstage. There was suddenly the sound of laughter right behind her. She thought that she was safe behind the black curtains, thick as the night in a moonless forest. But when Rose opened her eyes, she was standing onstage, facing the back curtain. She very slowly turned around; the audience was looking right at her.

  Everyone in the audience became completely quiet the minute they saw Rose’s pale, shocked face. They couldn’t take their eyes off her. She looked so surprised that she was alive. They couldn’t figure out why exactly they found her so beautiful. What was it that was making them stare? Was it the giant eyes, which seemed to be preternaturally black? Was it the dark hair? Was it the rosebud mouth? Her rosy cheeks?

  Pierrot kept playing. He played hesitantly, as if the tune were also trepidatious and surprised to find the audience there. Rose smiled at the audience. She flapped her arms in the air as though she were trying to ascend to the heavens, to escape the situation she was in. But she hopped upward and landed on her butt.

  They all laughed at her adorable expression and antics as she continued to find ways to fly off the stage. Rose felt the admiration from the audience. It was like standing in front of a fire that was emanating heat. And every time she made any movement, it was as if she had tossed a log into the fire.

  At that moment, Sister Eloïse ran out from the back. She had to stop what was happening on the stage. But she didn’t watch where she was going. She tripped over the rope attached to one of the buckets filled with fake snow that had mysteriously not tipped over. Of course, now it seemed to have no trouble reversing. A heap of paper snow spilled out over the stage. Rose scrunched her head into her shoulders and put her hands out on either side as though she were caught in a snowstorm.

  She spun as she shook the paper snowflakes out of her hair. Then she wrapped her arms around herself, the way people do when they are freezing at a bus stop. She started to hop from foot to foot as though she were trying to keep warm. Then she began dancing a dance of a snow angel. She acted as if the ground were cold to her toes and the wind kept making her swirl around. She stood on the tip of one toe and raised her other leg high above her head. She quickly brought it down before the dress slipped down completely. She was wearing white darned stockings underneath and black lace-up boots.

  And Pierrot played along. They were so synchronized that it was hard for anyone in the audience to discern whether Pierrot was playing along to her dancing or whether she was dancing to his music. It seemed to everyone watching that they had rehearsed this number carefully for years.

  Pierrot began to play so wildly that there was nothing for Rose to do but make a little flip in the air with her hands behind her back. She flung her body forward as if in a front dive. For a moment it did seem that she was about to obtain flight. And then she tucked up into a roll, wings and all, and ended up right at Pierrot’s feet.

  Pierrot played the last notes of his song. She put her hand out. He took it. He helped her to stand and they walked to the center of the stage and took a bow.

  A very wealthy woman was seated next to the Mother Superior. She was the cousin of the former prime minister. She had a hat made out of distressed velvet. It looked almost like she had just come off the battlefield and had a bandage wrapped around her head. It went so far down over her face that you could only judge her expression by her thin lips, which were usually constricted into a tight frown. She had a mink stole that seemed not to want to behave, as it kept slipping off her neck and getting into fights with another audience member’s Pekingese. She leaned in to the Mother Superior.

  “Ces deux-là sont extraordinaires. I must have those children perform in my parlor,” she said. “I’ll make a sizable donation.”

  And her words changed the orphans’ lives.

  On the way home, Rose put a snowball against her cheek where Sister Eloïse had punched her the minute she got offstage. She was sitting in the back of the cart with the other girls. The Mother Superior was seated up front, Sister Eloïse at her side.

  “I think the
minute we get back Rose should be put in the cupboard for a week,” Sister Eloïse suggested.

  “She’s been punished enough.”

  Sister Eloïse was stunned. The Mother Superior turned and looked at her harshly. “I don’t want you hitting her in the face again. She’ll be black-and-blue for two weeks now.”

  “I think it’s time to send Rose out to work. Before she really gets us into trouble.”

  “Not just yet, Sister Eloïse. Not just yet.”

  • • •

  THE MORNING AFTER THE PLAY, Pierrot swiped a pair of wings from the costume closet. He wore them as he tiptoed along the corridor. He had no intention of ever taking them off. It had been a triumphant night for him, as he had gotten Rose to dance for him.

  Sister Eloïse let him wear the wings. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him to take them off because they suited him so. It came to seem natural to everyone in the orphanage to see him in those wings. The whiteness of the wings was so bright, it seemed that Pierrot himself was radiating light. He wanted Rose to notice his wings, though. She was afraid of even looking at Pierrot because her jaw was still blue.

  When he passed her in the hallway, Rose put her mop against the wall and couldn’t restrain herself from running her fingers over the feathers. “What kind of bird do you think these feathers come from?” she asked.

  “I don’t know. A swan?”

  “You had better stop wearing those wings, then. A swan might fall in love with you. And as you probably know, swans mate for life.”

  “You are a funny one, Rose.”

  Sister Eloïse caught him chasing Rose around. Rose expected to be attacked, but the beating did not come. Instead Eloïse took away Pierrot’s wings out of spite. She put them back in the box where they would be kept until next Christmas and then could be used to worship the one who was truly God’s favorite: Jesus.

  But they were called on to perform again sooner than that. The Ladies Charity Society was so impressed by Pierrot and Rose’s spectacle at the town hall that it recommended the act to other charity organizations. The two children were asked to perform all over the city.

  Sister Eloïse was furious when the Mother Superior told her. Her face became pale, as though she had just received the news that she had a terrible illness.

  “Mark my words,” Sister Eloïse told the Mother Superior, “this will be disastrous. You have to humble these children. They are going to have to get used to working in factories and being maids when they get older. If they get used to all this fancy living, they’ll be done for. They won’t want to accept their lot in life and they’ll turn to crime.”

  The Mother Superior shrugged. “We need the funds, Sister Eloïse.”

  “But you always told me we should keep those two apart.”

  “Sometimes these things are impossible to stop.”

  Eloïse stormed out of the room. She kicked a black cat that got in her way. Rose and Pierrot were going to fall in love. She knew it sure as day. Everybody knew it. But nobody cared now. Money was an abstract idea, like God, and so it trumped all earthly considerations. She shook Pierrot awake violently that night. After she made him come in her mouth, she felt more secure, but not much.

  When Pierrot and Rose began traveling around town together, they were surprised to discover that they were able to do similar tricks. He pulled a paper flower out of her head. She pulled a striped ball out of his. They looked at each other in amazement. They were both able to do handstands. All the rocks fell out of his pocket. Her dress fell up over her head. They laughed at each other upside down.

  They would visit rich people’s parlors. They needed only a couple of things to perform, and almost all the rich people were in possession of these: a piano and a nearby carpet. They would sometimes move a small coffee table off the carpet to give Rose her proper theatrical venue.

  Pierrot would sit on the piano bench and begin to play his odd, miraculous tunes. He would sway his head in ecstasy as if he were a genius performing Rachmaninoff for a thousand spectators in Prague and not a tinkling ditty he had composed himself.

  And Rose would do a strange pantomime. She had one in which she pretended she was being blown about by the wind. At one point she would be blown over backward and do a little backflip and then stand up again. When Pierrot finally finished his windy tune, she would wobble slightly as though she were dizzy and discombobulated. And then she would take the world’s loveliest bow.

  She did quite risky acts at times too. Like once, she brought out her bear character. She sat eating an imaginary pot of honey. She told the bear that she didn’t want to share, as the bear would just be a glutton and pig out. Finally she said okay, and the bear devoured every drop of honey as she watched, shaking her head and tsking, telling him that he would certainly have a bellyache now.

  When she was done, the woman of the house had tears in her eyes. The woman said she had no idea why. Rose’s performance was the saddest thing the woman had ever seen.

  • • •

  UNLIKE SOME CHILDREN when falling in love, Pierrot and Rose never fought. Their temperaments were suited to each other’s. When they were onstage, there was something of this sympathy that people were able to sense. It was like watching a tiny little married couple when they performed. They were able to intuit each other’s movements.

  Indeed, wherever they were, they were always able to act in an oddly harmonious way. It was almost as if they were a monster with four child hands. The Mother Superior watched them setting the tables while conversing with each other. They did it quickly and at no point did either of them reach for the same utensil or the same dish. And they set the tables without once bumping into each other, a feat that had not been accomplished in many years.

  • • •

  THE PATRONS would ask Pierrot and Rose questions. They would try anything to get them to talk. Because wasn’t it amazing that even though they were orphans, they sometimes had things to say, and clever things at that.

  Sometimes the patrons would even ask them really sad things. It wasn’t, of course, particularly kind to ask them such sad questions—and they wouldn’t ever ask an ordinary child about something that would no doubt upset them. But Rose and Pierrot were orphans. There was something magical about hearing them talk about their tragic circumstances in such high-pitched voices. They were metaphors for sadness. It was like someone playing a requiem on a xylophone. It wasn’t something you heard every day. They especially liked to ask about the children’s origins.

  “My mother was very sick,” Pierrot said. “She coughed all the time. I would put my hand on her back, hoping that it made her feel better, but I’m afraid that it didn’t make her feel better at all. Une nuit, elle toussait à mort.”

  “My parents both worked in a hotel, and it caught on fire,” Rose explained. “They panicked and shoved me down the garbage chute. I ended up outside in the trash. They would have got into the garbage chute too, but they were too big.”

  “My papa went to war and he died,” Pierrot sadly admitted. “A grenade landed near him and it blew him into a million bits. And my mother was so upset that she jumped out the window.”

  They made their beginnings up. They had no intention of wearing their hearts on their sleeves. They kept their hearts neatly tucked away in their chests.

  “My father was hanged for murdering my mother.”

  Everyone in the room gasped. Rose looked over at Pierrot to indicate that he had gone too far.

  “I wanted to kill them both off in one sentence,” Pierrot said when they were outside.

  • • •

  BECAUSE THEY TRAVELED TOGETHER, they developed intimacy. This was something other orphans didn’t have. Intimacy makes you feel unique. Intimacy makes you feel as though you have been singled out, that someone in the world believes you have special qualities that nobody else has.

 
“I bet there are all these people just like us on other planets,” Rose said whimsically one evening. “I bet people are alive up on the moon.”

  They both looked up at the moon. It was like a child’s face that needed to be wiped clean with a rag.

  “What do you think it’s like up there?” Pierrot asked.

  “It’s probably just like this planet except everything is lit up. Like if you have a glass of milk, it lights up. And when you drink it, you look down at your belly and you can see it shining through.”

  “And the apples look like they’re made out of silver, but you can bite into them.”

  “And the white cats glow so much, you can use them as lamps for your room.”

  “And everybody has white hair just like old people—even the babies.”

  They found out just how funny they were by hanging out with each other. They began to develop a new language. They had a different dictionary and every word had a slightly different meaning for them than it had for anyone else. No one else could understand what they were saying to each other. Every word they spoke was a metaphor.

  • • •

  SINCE THEY WERE BOTH very good with sleights of hand and magic tricks, it was easy for them to steal. One day Rose slipped a load of sugar cubes into her sleeves and then shook them out into her pocket. When she got back to the orphanage, she held out her palm, which now gripped a stack of sugar cubes, shaped like an igloo. The children opened their mouths like baby birds and she dropped a sugar cube into each one. This way the other children were not jealous of her and Pierrot’s escapades. They began performing as a duo for the children as well.

  They performed their more experimental numbers for the other orphans, different from the ones they put on in the living rooms of the elite. They were both able to pretend to weep. They wept so hard that it began to appear ludicrous. The children all began to laugh. Rose held up a rag to her face to absorb her tears. Then she held it out in front of her and wrung it, to hear water splash all over the floor.

 
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