On this sunny morning, the streets of Marseille were half deserted. The heat of the last few weeks had sent the people of the lower towns down to the port with meager hopes of catching a cool breeze. The rancid and nauseating odor that wafted through the narrow street of the city had died down a little, carried away by an unexpected sea breeze. Thus diluted, the air seemed almost breathable. In the distance, the cries of a colourful crowd blended into the high pitch screeches of the sea gulls soaring over the city. The market had opened early that morning. This gave the masses a way to quiet their grumbling stomachs while filling the pockets of some greedy merchants.
And yet, abandoning the Square with unusual energy, a sweaty, out of breath, young boy appeared. Carried away by the momentum, he crashed into the façade of a dilapidated house. It took him but a moment to recover his balance and continue on his way. The pitter-patter of his bare feet reverberated from the filthy cobblestones. It barely muffled the ringing bells of Saint Victor's Basilica that called its most loyal followers in for worship.
" the boy mumbled under his breath, his eyes haggard and his skin deathly pale. "Faster
His breaths, now chaotic from fear and exhaustion, were getting louder and louder as he pushed his way into the gut of the city. A few passersby were roughly pushed aside and some crates fell violently to the ground as he passed. None of that was important. Only one thing mattered: Getting there on time.
When he tripped on a crate and got a splinter, he only let out the slightest of moans. The crushing pain in his heart was much stronger than anything he had felt before in his short existence. Moreover, the boy hurried his short strides, seeking ways to quiet down the sense of panic that crept in when he thought of the bleak future ahead. He covered the last stretch quickly and hurtled himself into a dilapidated house. Leaving the darkness of the narrow alleyway flanked by decrepit walls, he had to slow down to readjust his eyes to the bright light of day.
The usually lively house was now frighteningly silent. Only faraway sobs came to his ears. Apprehensive, the boy felt like his heart was being squeezed. His legs shaking beneath him, he moved forward to the staircase that led to the floor above. Hesitantly he placed a foot onto the first step. The creak of the old wood startled him.
"Gabriel, get back home, quick!"
He was reminded of those alarming words and hurried up the rest of the flight of stairs and stopped at the landing from where sobs and moans came out. The door was half open and a ray of light hit his pallid face. He could see two of the occupants of the room through the gap. Madame Bourdin was the source of the long sobs that seemed to pass through the rotting wood of the double doors. She was a woman advanced in years with grizzled hair pulled hastily back in a loose bun ready to fall apart. She was standing, holding a tissue in her gnarled fingers, spouting a stream of unintelligible mutterings and clutching a little girl tightly against her rotund form. Gabriel's eye alighted on the small silhouette that struggled under the clasp resonating of despair. She was looking curiously towards her tormentor.
The boy's throat tightened.
Despite his young age, he was well aware of reality. He often found himself witnessing similar situations that he couldn't even lie to himself. He couldn't even imagine a miracle.
He knew what he would find behind that door.
Swallowing with effort, Gabriel swiped his hand over his sweating brow, tucked his shirt into his pants without thinking and opened the door fully.
He had barely taken a step into the room when he heard a piercing screech.
He just had enough time to open his arms to catch the little girl who came lunging in. Gabriel held her tightly, his gaze fixed onto the ghostly shape lying on the bed. Emaciated and pale, Aislin was frighteningly still. In this sad picture, the only touch of colour came from her long once radiantly red hair dulled from sickness, spread over the pillow. Under the light of a single candle the room was dark and depressingly sad. Thick cloths had been attached over the windows so as to filter the light that was so painful to the eyes of the woman at death's doors. The pestilential smell of death was predominant despite the flowers scattered around the room.
A frigid hand suddenly grasped Gabriel's heart. Was he too late?
Nevertheless, the woman stretched over the bed budged and, with extreme effort, managed to open her eyes. Even so, the pain in the boy's chest didn't abate. He made his way unsteadily around the bed, clutching tightly to the little girls hand who hadn't stopped watching him since he arrived. At four years old, she didn't seem to realize that their mother was going to be walking out of their lives. Their lives were going to change drastically.
When he got to the bedside, he slipped his free hand into the young woman's lifeless and pale one. He had prepared himself for this. In fact, he had been thinking about this for some weeks now. For weeks he had tried to toughen up. But, when his eyes met his mother's dull gaze, he nearly suffocated from the pain in his heart.
"Gabriel", mumbled the sufferer in a barely audible voice. "You are here at last
- Yes, Mom", he mumurred with effort.
Aislin's hand slipped from his grasp and rose to his face. She stroked his cheek with infinite gentleness. Gabriel's eyes prickled and he had to bite his lip to hold bad his tears.
The young woman smiled slightly.
"My brave Gabriel
" she said in a stifled voice. "I love you and I'm
so proud of you
" she paused for a moment to catch her breath.
Her eyes painfully closed, Aislin fought vaillantly against an exhausting and deadly fit of coughing. When she opened her eyes, Gabriel was holding her hand tightly against his cheek and was watching her with indescribable terror.
"Forgive me for leaving you so soon
The child shook his head, unable to utter a coherent response. Aislin's hand slid into his auburn curls in a gesture meant to soothe.
"Take good care of your sister.." she continued. "She is so young
and so fragile. Promise me that, Gabriel?
-I promise", he said with a voice he had a hard time recognizing as his own.
A new smile formed from the young woman's pale lips. Then Aislin turned towards the silent little girl.
"Karelle, my angel
" the girl replied, laying a hand hesitantly on her mother's emaciated arm.
She didn't understood why they all spoke with a solemn tone. She didn't understand why Madame Bourdin had been crying since the morning, why Gabriel returned early from the Market, why everything was different all of a sudden.
"Listen to your big brother
Mommy has to leave. He'll be the one taking care of you
after I go."
The girl blinked.
"When will you come back?"
Aislin's eyes filled with tears.
"I won't be coming back, my dear. I won't be able to come back
" she answered with a forced smile.
Her brother's authoritative albeit broken voice rang out and the girl frowned and fell silent. Aislin softly caressed Karelle's closed up little face.
"Gabriel will explain everything to you
but I am tired now
I must rest now
" The young woman's arm fell limply onto the bed and she murmured: "Just give me a smile
The girl seemed to hesitate but did as she was bid. Aislin could no longer hold back her tears and let them flow silently down her pale cheeks.
"That's nice," she mumbled as she closed her eyes. "That's very nice
Gabriel fists tightened, trying not to show his pain. Karelle mustn't be witness of it. Seeing their mother cry was hard enough to take. He had to be strong. That was what was expected of him.
"Gabriel?" the girl called out, a little lost.
His jaw was tense but he lowered his head and managed a smile. He took her hand into his and murmured:
"Everything will be fine. I'm here."