Mairie d’Issy

      12

Neither of the LeBruns have ever been particularly artistically inclined.  Madame’s mémère did fine embroidery, and had tried to teach her granddaughter, but Madame had never had the patience to learn. Nor did she have a gift for painting, though she quite liked pottery, the one time she tried it.  Her brothers were no better.  As for Monsieur, his artistic gifts had always been focused on his shoemaking, and while the shoes he made were, indeed, shoes such as a King might gladly wear, nobody would ever consider them to be art.

So they really don’t know where Madame’s great-niece got her talent from, though they are very proud of her.  Isabelle has been making beautiful things of paper and pencil and ink since she was first old enough to hold a crayon.  The LeBruns have two of her paintings, nicely framed, hanging in their house.  The seascape with the ships in the harbour hangs in the living room, over the fireplace, and the pen and ink portrait of Isabelle’s little sister, Myrla, hangs in Madame’s study.  It is not a perfect likeness, but everyone agrees that the look in her eyes is Myrla to the life.

And now Isabelle had entered an art competition at the end of her première year at the lycée in Brittany, and had been one of twenty students from all over France chosen to be a finalist.  As a special reward, the finalists were brought to Paris for a tour of the art galleries, and for the award of the prize. The other children had gone back on the bus on Wednesday, but the LeBruns invited Isabelle to stay on with them for a few days for a visit.  They do not get many visits from their family.  Monsieur’s sister does not like to leave Brittany, and Madame’s brothers are great travellers who visit Spain or Italy or even Morocco on their holidays.  So this had been a special occasion.

As the guest of honour, Isabelle had been allowed to choose their activities, and so they had spent the last three days doing anything *but* art galleries – Isabelle had seen enough of those to last her all year, she said.  Though she had enjoyed the modern art at the Centre Pompidou, and of course Rodin’s gardens are always worth a visit.  So the LeBruns had hired bicycles and toured the gardens of Versailles; they had visited bookshops in the Latin Quarter, and pâtisseries in the Marais; and they had even gone underground to the Catacombs, which Isabelle’s mother would certainly not have approved of had she known about about it.  Which she probably would, if Isabelle showed her the sketches she had made afterward.

And on Isabelle’s last day, they visited the Aquaboulevard.

Madame does not swim in February, no matter how well-heated the venue, but Monsieur had said that the warm water would be good for his arthritis, and had swum laps in the wave pool, which was not really designed for this activity.  Afterward, they had lunch at one of the restaurants, and then went for a little walk, to help the digestion.  Isabelle’s train was due to leave at 3:08pm, but her bags were already at the station, so they had a little time in which to explore Issy-les-Moulineux.

Walking with Isabelle was not like walking on their own.  Madame had thought it might be nice to visit the Parc André Citroën and look at the hot air balloons.  She had even hoped that they might have time to walk to the the Square des Poètes in the Bois de Boulogne.  But Isabelle was not interested in parks or poets.

“We have parks at home, Tatie!  I want to look at people!  Or couldn’t we go back to the Rue Mouffetard?  There was this cool shop there…  I’d like to get something really elegant and Parisian that I can wear to school on Monday.  And we could get gelati afterward, from that place that does the rose ice-cream cones.”

The LeBruns exchanged glances.  “Your mother tells me that your wardrobe is full to bursting already,” Madame LeBrun said.  “And I happen to know that you bought two tunics and a new pair of jeans yesterday, not to mention the earrings and necklace you bought at the Musée d’Orsay.  Surely that’s enough elegance for one visit?”

Her niece shrugged a little.  “But still…”

Madame LeBrun smiled and shook her head.  “We are not going shopping this afternoon.  There is not enough time, and you would have to re-pack your bags in any case.  We will take a nice walk around Issy-le-Moulineaux, and then we will get you to Montparnasse in plenty of time for a hot chocolate before you catch the train.”

Isabelle sighed and acquiesced.

It was very pleasant to be walking with one’s husband and great-niece, Madame reflected, even if the great niece in question was in a mildly surly mood.  Her mood was understandable; it had been a long week, full of of excitement and treats, but tomorrow, she would be back at school and needing to start focusing on her Bac.  This could not help but be depressing to the spirits.

Still, within a few minutes, Isabelle was smiling again as they walked, and chatting about her friends at school, and the other students she had met on the art tour.  Isabelle’s piece had been awarded fourth place, but she didn’t seem too distressed by this.  The trip to Paris had been the best part of the prize anyway.

The wind was picking up and becoming colder, so they walked briskly, until Isabelle suddenly stopped in her tracks.

“What was that?” she asked.

Madame LeBrun shook her head.  Her hearing was not what it had once been.  Monsieur LeBrun shrugged.  “I don’t think…”

The sound came again, faint with distance.  Isabelle half laughed.  “Is that a rooster?”  She dropped Madame’s arm and ran toward the sound.

The LeBruns exchanged glances, and followed her, rather more slowly.  “If it is, it shouldn’t be,” commented Monsieur LeBrun.  “Roosters are not generally permitted in urban municipalities.”

Madame nodded.  “They don’t even permit chickens in most places, I think.  Not enough space, and too many rats.  But perhaps Issy is less strict…”

They were interrupted by what was absolutely and definitely the crow of a rooster.

Their niece was racing around the corner ahead of them.  “Issy!  Stay in sight!” Madame called after her.  The girl looked back, and stopped, waiting with obvious impatience for them to catch up.

“It’s just around the corner,” she called back.  “I think I can see where it lives.  Spooky house, though.”

Monsieur looked at his watch.  “We don’t have a lot of time,” he remarked.  “We’ll have to be quick if you don’t want to miss your train.”

“I know,” she said, bouncing with impatience.  “It’s just… a rooster, among all these apartments.  It’s kind of funny.  I want to see it.”

“Very well.  But you must not race ahead like that – you don’t know this area, and we are responsible for you.”

“I’m fifteen, Tatie, not five.”

Madame chose to ignore the eye-roll.  “Even so.”

The rooster seemed to be crowing from a garden at the very end of the street, not far from the river. The fence was quite high and Isabelle strained to see over it.

“I can’t see it,” she said, with some disappointment.

“It’s probably in the back garden,” Monsieur LeBrun suggested.

The rooster had stopped crowing, and had begun making odd clucking noises.  Isabelle laughed. “Now I really want to see it!  I’ve never heard a rooster make a noise like that before.  It sounds almost as though it’s trying to hatch an egg!”

Madame glanced sharply at her husband, who nodded.  “It does indeed,” he said.  “But I fear we will have to leave it to its impossible task.  You have a train to catch.”

It was not until Isabelle had been safely loaded onto her train, with all her bags and baggage – including the pretty silk scarf she had bought from a stall at Montparnasse station – that the LeBruns returned to the question of the rooster.

“The difficulty, of course, is that we can’t really see what’s going on,” Monsieur LeBrun pointed out with a sigh.

“True,” Madame agreed.  “Though they should not be keeping a rooster there regardless.”

“Indeed.”  Her husband pursed his lips.  “It’s best to mind our own business when we can, naturally. Still, if that rooster is trying to hatch something…”

Madame nodded, grimly.  “Exactly.  It may be entirely innocent; it may simply be a sick bird – heavens, it may not even be a rooster, for that matter!  But if it was, and if it does manage to hatch something…  Well.  We do not need another situation like the one at Versailles.  Especially so close to all those woods and gardens.  Why, if it escaped, it could hide almost indefinitely.”

“And there is no convenient Hall of Mirrors to lure it into.  Not in Issy-le-Moulineaux.  Someone would need to take quite a risk to be rid of it.”

“We shall simply need to find a way to see what is in that back garden,” Madame said.  “And soon, I think.  Goodness knows how long that rooster has been brooding.”

In the end, they chose a straightforward approach.  Madame LeBrun rang the doorbell authoritatively, and smiled in a friendly way at the woman who answered it.

The woman was tall, with very dark hair in a short bob, and a green dress that was reminiscent of the flapper era.  She looked Madame over, and then shook her head dismissively.  “Good evening, Madame.  I’m afraid I cannot support any charities right now.”

Madame stepped forward before the door could shut.  She smiled, understandingly.  “Certainly not, Madame.  I won’t take up much of your time, but I couldn’t resist stopping by after I heard your rooster earlier.  I have been thinking about keeping chickens myself, you see, and I wanted to ask you how you have been finding it?  I am Madame LeBrun, by the way.”

The woman’s brows rose, but she gestured for Madame to come in.  “I shall show you, if you wish.  I have quite a good little garden out the back, as you will see.  I like to be self-sufficient, where I can.”

She ushered Madame through the house.  It was clean, and rather bare, but Madame was not given the opportunity to observe more.  She opened the door to the back garden, and ushered Madame LeBrun ahead of her.  Madame stopped in the doorway and stared.

The garden was well-tended and larger than seemed possible, given the size of the blocks to either side.  There was a bitter almond tree against one fence, and a crab apple against the other.  There was a large garden bed covered with a portable glasshouse and populated with out-of-season vegetables, mostly from the nightshade family.  There were three separate herb beds, mostly containing medicinals.  The chicken coop was at the back, towards the fence, and next to a small pond, from which Madame could hear the sound of toads calling.

Her heart sank.  Toads plus roosters could mean only one thing.

She turned to the other woman.  “Madame, did you realise that your rooster is broody?”

The woman smiled.  “But of course, Madame.  And it was quite a lot of work convincing him to hatch that egg for me, believe me.  The toads were quite cooperative, of course.  Toads always are.  But roosters are another matter.”

Madame LeBrun blinked.  “You are telling me that you deliberately set the rooster to hatch a toad’s egg?”

“Naturally.  How else would I create a basilisk?”  She smiled again.  “And now, my dear Madame LeBrun, I fear that you will need to leave.  You have seen all that there is to see, and there is really nothing you can do about it.  You are retired, after all.  You would not wish to overexert yourself.”

Madame gasped at the sudden crushing sensation in her chest.  The woman took her arm in a hard grip and turned her around, escorting her back through the house.

“Really, Madame, I think you had better see a doctor,” she said, as they reached the front door. “Chest pain at your age can be quite a dangerous sign.  Now, out you go!”  She pushed Madame LeBrun out the front door, and shut it firmly behind her.

Madame LeBrun staggered out the gate to where her husband was waiting for her.  Her breathing wasn’t working properly, and she felt dizzy and faint.

“My dear, are you alright?”

Madame leaned against him, and let herself begin to slide down to the ground.  “Angina,” she gasped.  “Spray.  In my bag.”  She sat down heavily on the path, trying to catch her breath.  The pain was worsening, as though something heavy was standing on her chest.  Monsieur handed her the spray and helped her to inhale it.  She lay back on the path, still gasping, and he passed her an aspirin, then sat down himself so that she could rest her head in his lap.  He stroked her hair back from her face.

“Thank you.”  The pain was beginning to subside, but she chewed the aspirin dutifully.  “I suppose I shall have to tell the doctor when I next visit,” she added.

Monsieur already had his phone out.  “You are going to hospital right away,” he told her, firmly.

Madame struggled to sit up, but her husband’s hand was firm on her shoulder.  “My dear Monsieur, that is absolutely not necessary.”

Monsieur ignored her.  He spoke into the phone briefly, then hung up.  “They are sending an ambulance.  You must be sensible, Madeleine.  Whatever you found in that garden, it won’t be helped by you having a heart attack.”

“The garden!  Oh, Georges, I must tell you – the woman in that house is breeding a basilisk, and she is doing it deliberately!  She was entirely brazen about it.  And when she saw that I was going to try to stop her she did something to my heart.”

She lay back again.  It was ridiculous how weak she felt.  “Not that that will show up on the scans,” she muttered.

Monsieur smiled a little.  “I imagine the scans will show that you are a stubborn old woman who overdoes things and tries to pretend that she is perfectly well even in the midst of a heart attack.”

“Nonsense.  The scans could not possibly see that.”  She sighed and closed her eyes.  “We really must do something about that woman, though.  She cannot be allowed to breed a basilisk here.”

But Monsieur’s reply was lost in the arrival of the paramedics, who put an oxygen mask on Madame’s face, ending the conversation entirely.

The doctors at the Hôpital Corentin Celton administered a number of tests, and kept Madame in overnight for observation.  This was not restful.  The lights were too bright, and the machines beeped incessantly.  Worse still, the man in the bed next to her was suffering from some sort of dementia and kept shouting for help in a language that Madame did not speak.  It was most distressing.  Madame was relieved when the nurses came to sedate him, and she was finally able to drift into sleep, but her dreams were troubled by schools of basilisks hatching from a pond, and of her great-niece’s smile freezing into a horrified rictus as the creature’s gaze turned her to stone…

By the time Monsieur arrived to collect her, Madame was exhausted.  She slept in the taxi and allowed Monsieur to put her straight to bed once they got home.

She wandered out of the bedroom shortly after one o’clock, feeling decidedly better, and found her husband sitting at the kitchen table, frowning at the computer.

“What have you found?” she asked.

Monsieur LeBrun’s face lit with relief, and he pulled up a chair and helped Madame to sit.

“Not a lot, I’m afraid,” he said.  “I’ve looked all over the Mairie d’Issy website, and I can’t find anything about keeping chickens, or birds of any kind.”

Madame frowned.  “That’s not good.”

He nodded.  “I rang them earlier, and they confirmed that they had no policy.  I gather that for domestic animals other than cats, dogs, rabbits and hamsters, they really go case by case.”

Madame tapped her fingers on the table, thinking.  “If there are no laws on the books, it’s going to be difficult.  There really are only two ways to fight magic like that, and we are really too old for outright confrontation.”

“As you demonstrated yesterday.”  Monsieur covered her restless hand with his.  “You must not scare me like that again. I  am counting on at least twenty more years with you.”

Madame smiled at him.  “Greedy man.  You’ve had fifty-three already.”

“Nevertheless.”

Husband and wife considered the website in silence.

“There is always the noise pollution angle,” Monsieur said.  “And of course there is public health – as you said yesterday, where there are chickens, there will be rats, and nobody wants rats in their neighbourhood.”

“A good thought.”  Madame considered this.  “Yes.  I think the rats are a good idea, especially so close to a hospital that specialises in treatment of the elderly.  And didn’t some of the councils make rules about poultry and game birds after the bird flu scare a few years ago?”

“Saint Ouen did, certainly.  I’m not sure about Issy…”  Monsieur typed in a few more searches, then sat back, sighing.  “No good.  I think our best bet is to write a general sort of letter expressing our concerns that someone is keeping poultry without a license, and that this may be a public health issue.  If they send an inspector out, he is sure to find something.”

Madame nodded.  “If nothing else, the dimensions of the back garden were all wrong.  That’s an offense against the laws of physics, and probably property law, too.  We just need to find someone who will write up an official citation for it.”

“Someone who doesn’t believe in magic,” added Monsieur.  “We don’t want to put anyone else at risk.”

Madame laughed.  “But of course.  Still, a Health Inspector should be quite safe there.  You know as well as I do that magic abhors petty regulations.  As long as he is measuring things and looking for tiny infringements, the sorceress’s spells will bounce right off him.”

“Very true.”  Monsieur stood, drawing his wife to his feet.  “Back to bed with you, Madame.  The doctor said that you should rest.  I will write the letter this time.”

 

Melissa groaned when she saw the return address on the envelope.  “You have to be kidding me,” she said.

Apparently, a woman could move house, change jobs and still be subjected to letters from the LeBruns.

She tore this one open, scanned it quickly, then drew in a sharp breath.

Eric, who had managed to get seconded to Issy-Les-Moulineaux about three weeks after she had moved there, leaned over her shoulder.  “What’s wrong?”

Melissa put the letter down.  “Apparently, Madame LeBrun had a heart attack.”

Eric’s eyes widened.  “Merde.  Is she OK?”

“I understand that the local hospital provided excellent care.  Still, it’s the husband writing…”

“She must be pretty under the weather, then.”

“Indeed.”  Melissa stood.  “Monsieur LeBrun is particularly upset because Madame was visiting a woman who was keeping chickens, when she was bitten by a rat.  He believes that this was what caused the heart attack.”

Eric’s face screwed up.  “Is that even possible?”

Melissa shrugged.  “Stress and shock can bring on heart attacks, no doubt.  And I suppose being bitten by a rat would be pretty shocking.  In any case, we will need to do send an inspector around to take a look.  We can’t have rats running around, biting little old ladies and scaring them into heart attacks, no matter how annoying they may be.”

“I think you like her, secretly.”

Melissa made a face.  “She’s a nuisance.”

“But she’s your nuisance.”

Melissa feared that he was right.

 

It was several weeks before the LeBruns were able to visit Issy-Les-Moulineaux again.  They had received a letter from the Conseil Municipal a few days earlier, expressing concern at Madame’s illness and assuring them that the house in question had been inspected, and that the owner had been fined for keeping animals without a permit.  The house had also been fumigated and pest exterminators had been hired to deal with any vermin.

No rats had been found, but the toads in the pool turned out to be an endangered species, and they and the eggs had been confiscated.

“We didn’t consider that angle,” observed Monsieur LeBrun.

“Endangered species are not really within the Conseil Municipal’s purview.  It must be a personal interest.”  Madame took the letter from him and smiled.  “Ah, it’s Melissa Boulanger.  Yes, that would explain it.  I did not know she had moved to Issy.”

“A good thing too, by the sound of it.  You can’t breed a basilisk without toads.”

Madame nodded.  “I think we should take a walk there, just to be certain.”

Monsieur LeBrun frowned at his wife.  “My dear, you know I do not like to disagree with you, but I don’t want you anywhere near that sorceress again.  You could have died in that house.”

Madame placed her hand on his.  “I know, my love.  And I do not take it lightly.  But if that woman managed to hatch the basilisk before the council got there, the whole neighbourhood will be at risk.”

Monsieur was still frowning.  “You will not go into the house,” he stated.  “The sorceress knows you already.  If one of us must go in, it shall be me.  There is less risk that way.”

This was almost enough to set off Madame’s angina again.

“We shall both observe the house, from a safe distance,” she said.  “And then we shall decide what to do next.”

But in the end, it was hardly necessary.  The house was deserted, and there was a ‘For Sale’ sign out the front.

There was also some fine statuary.

The LeBruns looked at each other.  “The sorceress appears to be gone, at least,” commented Madame.

Monsieur knelt down to inspect a collection of stone pigeons.  “But she has left her pet behind, I think.  These are very new.”

Madame sighed and fished around in her handbag.  “Here,” she said, handing her husband a pair of mirrored sunglasses, and putting a pair on herself.  “They look ridiculous, I know, but they may buy us a little time.”  She drew out a small make-up mirror, and regarded her reflection for a moment before lowering it.  She did not put the mirror away.

“And here I thought we had retired from fieldwork,” sighed Monsieur, drawing out a matching mirror from his coat pocket.

“There is a path that leads around to the back, I think,” said Madame LeBrun, reaching out to her husband as he stood.

“Be careful, now.  Fifty-three years is really not sufficient.”

And arm in arm, each steadying the other on the uneven ground, the LeBruns went to hunt the basilisk.

 

station

Basilisks and Council Legislation

Mairie d’Issy is the very last station on Line 12.  It is situated outside and to the southeast of the Boulevard Périphérique, not far from the Bois de Boulogne, and opened in 1934.  It takes its name from the Town Hall of the Commune of Issy-le-Moulineaux.

The Town Hall (mairie in French) is the seat of the Mayor and of the municipal council for that particular region.  This is the most local level of Government, and municipal councils are responsible for a lot of the day-to-day running of the region, from maternal and child health to dangerous animals. For the Town Hall stations of the Paris Métro, I am writing stories in which these local laws and services turn out to be more important than they may appear at first glance.  This is the second story featuring Madame and Monsieur LeBrun, who battle the forces of supernatural evil by writing stern letters to the Municipal Council.  Their first story can be found here.

Like the LeBruns, I have not been able to ascertain whether one is allowed to keep chickens in Paris or its surrounding arondissements.  The Municipal Council pages were sadly unrevealing on this topic.  But I did find that there was at least one poultry-raising business in Issy-le-Moulineaux, so it is not totally beyond the bounds of possibility.  Roosters, on the other hand, are never allowed, due to noise issues, not to mention the indisputable fact that if they are permitted to hatch a toad’s egg, the result will be a basilisk.  And nobody wants that.

Basilisks are traditionally killed by weasels through a mechanism which is unclear to me.  However, I couldn’t really see Madame LeBrun carrying a weasel in her handbag.  Fortunately, there is a French folktale about a basilisk in a well, in which a servant girl saves her master by using a mirror to reflect the basilisk’s petrifying gaze back onto the basilisk (to my delight, her master then rewards her, not by marrying her, but by giving her a large sum of money for a dowry, and she then goes off and marries a man of her choice).  Mirrors seemed to me a better weapon of choice for the LeBruns, and I also sort of liked the idea of them channelling the Reservoir Dogs with mirrored sunglasses…

The images I’ve used in this story are a detail from a print by Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677) called The Basilisk and the Weasel.  I also used a silhouette of an egg, which is a simple clipart template from publicdomainpictures.net, which I edited to create cracks and give the appearance of the basilisk hatching.

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fleur12left Mairie d’Issy
fleur12right Corentin Celton

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