Excerpt: Kellie Wells, "L'Enfant Du Paradis"


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"L'Enfant Du Paradis," by Kellie Wells

I fled the womb prematurely—tossed from the pot, truth be told, when I’d just reached a simmer, coming out half-cooked. She who had grown impatient and expelled me took the trouble, however, to swaddle me in the severed toe of a stocking, and she dropped me into a teacup like a lump of sugar and delivered me to the rear entrance of the theatre with this note: Fell from the moon. Please feed.

The manager of The Funambules, who trafficked theatrically in the willing gullibility of others, was briefly bedazzled by the idea of a demitasse of wriggling moonlight in his midst, and he turned me over in his hand, gurgled at me soothingly, My little bumblebee, l’enfant de lune, and then his eyes turned to glittering ingots, kaching!, when he saw in my miniaturization, my tomthumbery, great stage potential, and he flim-flammed, by way of a promise of steady employment, a part-time contortionist newly arrived to town, persuaded her to care for me and silence my shrill bleat, which she did, cleverly, with an eyedropper full of the nectar of flowers that suckle the hummingbirds. As I hungrily cheeped, Nathalie sang to me, Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot, prête-moi ta plume pour écrire un mot. Sometimes for Pierrot she substituted the name the manager had given me: Limoges, fragile little Limoges. But Nathalie feared I would succumb to my underdoneness, or, were I somehow to survive, would remain only a thimbleful and be crushed under the madding feet, so she found a charitable soul willing to help and this Samaritan delivered me, fortuitously, across the ocean and into the hands of Dr. Teleborian, an ambitious pediatrician who longed to be the salvation of sickly infants.

As I was not a tiny, wingèd, vibratory creature, I could not be sustained by the sugar of rutilant flora for long. Dr. Teleborian could see that what I most needed in order to finish ripening into a sustainable boy was sterile warmth, and so he designed a glass oven that would provide shelter to prematurely evicted tenants like me and encourage our tiny hearts to blossom, help us gain the necessary amplitude for living. (Later, upon hearing the story of Hansel and Gretel, I would urge the siblings to leap willingly into the witch’s oven, where I believed they would be baked into adults and made ready to return to the world, which they would find hostile and disagreeable of course, but so it is. Until then, they would be safe from its rough vagaries in the warm, dark oven of childhood.)

The prognosis for a featherweight such as myself was not at all favorable before Dr. Teleborian designed the baby hatchery, and hospitals were skeptical about the true efficacy of such a contraption, so the doctor, soon to be the savior of half-baked foundlings everywhere, wisely decided to leave it up to the public, which always decides in favor of a spectacle after all, and he put us on display at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, next to the cyclorama that promised all on board a Trip to the Moon as it flapped its wings vertiginously. 

Gawkers flocked and marveled at the tiny human beetles on their backs, kicking their twig-legs in the air, in defiance of their puny beetlehood, and sentimental spectators cooed at the hourly feedings. I believe some secretly rooted for our demise so as to feel they’d gotten their nickel’s worth, but there were also those mothers or future mothers who wept upon our terrariums and howled with such sincere vigor that this became my inaugural memory—rain pinging against the roof—which explains why I have always felt a fond stirring in my chest during a thunderstorm. 

Dr. Teleborian later confided to me in a letter that Leon Czolgosz, lonely, rumpled, aimless anarchist, possessing the brooding and solitary mien of one orphaned at birth, had visited the baby hatchery regularly, taking a particular shine to me. He’d tapped on my window with a look of liberation in his eyes and broken into a sob only moments before pulling a revolver from his coat and assassinating President McKinley at the Temple of Music. I recall a vague feeling of incipient sorrow, and I do not doubt that it was on this afternoon that my empath’s attraction to desolation sprang into being.

Despite this eclipsing national tragedy, we created such a sensation at the Expo that Dr. Teleborian set up at Coney Island a permanent sideshow of Les Enfants du Paradis, as we came to be known, alone in our glass mangers, shepherded into the world by grim-lipped nurses in stiff hats. Children screamed in the background, lofted into the air by a rickety roller coaster, and I grew anxiously, millimeter by millimeter, the smell of spun sugar reminding me of that first and saving supper. At night, I gazed out the window at the welling moon as it dribbled light upon the water.

Being a sickly spectacle is, whatever the outcome, necessarily a short-lived career, and so, my first performance a completed success—I lived and plumped, though I remained a runt loaf, was the toast of medical journals and also a shining symbol to the mothers of ailing infants of natal odds overcome—I soon found myself unemployed and back on the other side of the pond, inhaling once again the greasepaint of my beginning, wrapped in torn tulle and cradled in the worn cap of a gendarme, lying contentedly in the prop closet at the theatre. I was made the charge of that part-time contortionist who had saved me, dear Nathalie. She was elated to see I was less comfortably cradled in the palm of her hand, and she was pleased to have steady work at last and a captive, if diminutive, audience. She stretched the eager taffy of her body, twisted it into cheerful shapes, and made me howl with infant delight. She fed me crusts sopped in warm milk from the tap-dancing goats, the pickled eggs of skylarks, and a gruel she concocted from the vendors’ confections, and she let me chew on the chiffon sash of her costume. Such a diet was sure to make of me an antic and jovial fellow who could balance himself on the fine rope of a silk thread, she thought, perhaps make of me even an aerialist or a star-eyed mime who conjures hilarity and sorrow from thin air. I only wish Maman had fed me such gay cuisine, Limoges, said Nathalie with a distant dreaminess as she lay on her stomach and rounded her body into a C, piloted each spoonful into my mouth with her foot. 

All the Funambules took an interest in me. I was their kith, chipped from the moon (which they believed to be their country of origin), and I walked first on my hands and then on a briskly rolling ball and finally, grudgingly, on two feet across a dull, unmoving landscape.

When I grew to the height of a bucket, I began to juggle: first buttons, then boysenberries, then tree toads, who, although cooperative, were so dizzy afterwards they lay on their backs, paddled the air, then quickly fell to snoring. My industry pleased the stage manager, who waggled his unpruned shrub of a moustache at Nathalie and appeased her considerable sweet tooth with a lusciously pink three-tiered torte, the very color of the silk pantaloons the danseuse who pirouetted on the backs of galloping pigs wore, pink as a hungry tongue. 

As I gained sovereignty over my modestly lengthening limbs, each performer attempted to recruit me for his specialty: there was the man with the feathered legs whose stovepipe hat no gale force could knock from his bald head—Abraham Chicken he was christened; the twins, Amelie and Garance, conjoined at the wrist, who inhaled so deeply and widely that they flattened the flesh of their abdomens into a sail, leapt in the air with the grace of sugar gliders, and lilted like a slip of paper to the ground; the catgirl, Yvette, who sprang onto window ledges and ignored everyone she met; Madame Mondieu, the woman who read tragedies from the newspaper aloud, turning its pages with her toes, as she balanced a corpulent man atop the palm of each hand; the tumblers who somersaulted like blown tumbleweeds up walls but toppled to the ground whenever they tried to traverse a level surface; and Nathalie, of course, who looped herself into words, one after the other, contorting into a story, her body’s memoir: There… once… was… a… girl… with… arms… so… long… they… required… their… own… beds… their… own… places… at… the… table… 

At the end of each performance, she twisted my feet, angled my legs, dotted the i with my head, and held me up to the audience: Le Fin; and there was something about the sight of my stunted boy’s limbs cursively knotted for the spectators’ entertainment that caused them to cheer and burst into tears and toss lilies at our feet. That first night, Nathalie found a birdcage full of the finest bonbons at her dressing table, and every night after a new and enchanting confection.

Read the rest of this story in Unstuck #3.