July 04, 2010

Maurice in the Marketplace

Prompt: In the hill country before the war…there was a fearful…boy…who was an accomplished thief…and dreamed about coming to the USA. Maurice ran swiftly down the dirt road, his bare feet raising puffs of dust with every stride. If he kept to this pace, he could descend the hills into the village in only about an hour, or maybe it was half of one. He never knew the time, for he had never owned a watch, but he knew it didn’t take him too much time to reach the village on his quest. In one hand he carefully carried the morning’s eggs in a beautiful basket his mother had woven from grape vines and dried. The basket was lined with soft moss, to cushion the dozen or more eggs he’d gathered that day from their small flock of hens. In the other hand, another of his mother’s baskets held some small wheels of cheese. His mother made a soft and crumbly white cheese which she pressed, wrapped, and dipped in a beautiful golden wax. This basketful had been made last fall, for his mother aged her cheeses for nine full months before selling them, in order to sharpen the taste. She was as well known among the local villages for her cheeses as his father was for his wines, for they had a small vineyard growing in a protected hollow behind the small stone building with the thatched roof they called home. Maurice had long mastered the technique of running at top speed down the hills and swinging the baskets just right so that nothing spilled or broke. When he reached the village, his pace slowed, for the cobbles on the streets hurt his feet. He went first to the baker, who bought the eggs from him each day to use in his cakes and pastries. “Bonjour, Monsieur,” he said to the baker.” “And a good day to you also, young Maurice,” the baker replied, as he always did. “Et comment va votre mère?” “My mother does very well, thank you. She’s sent you these eggs today.” Maurice put the basket of eggs on the counter. The baker took the eggs out of the basket one at a time, counting them and inspecting them for cracks. While he was preoccupied with the eggs, Maurice slipped a pair of croissants from the baker’s tray and slid them into the basket with the cheeses, pulling his mother’s embroidered cloth back over the cheeses so the croissants couldn’t be seen either. The baker counted out the money for the eggs, tied it in a corner of the lace-trimmed cloth that had covered them, and then carefully folded the cloth and laid it almost reverently in the bottom of the basket, before handing the basket back to Maurice. “Je vous verrai demain, le jeune Maurice” “Oh, yes, sir, I’ll be here tomorrow,” Maurice replied, and he skipped out of the store. He went to the marketplace and browsed among the vegetable sellers. He untied the corner of the cloth and used the money to purchase some of the vegetables his mother had asked him to get, laying them carefully in the egg basket and covering them with the cloth. Other vegetables disappeared into the cheese basket without the vendors noticing what he was doing. When the vegetable basket was nearly full, Maurice left the market and went to the dairy where his mother sold her cheeses. He stopped in an alley and transferred his croissants and extra vegetables into the vegetable basket, so nothing except the cheeses remained in the other. The procurer at the dairy was polite to him, as he always was, inquiring about the health of his mother while he inspected and weighed each cheese, stamped the wax with the seal of the dairy and the name of his parent’s farm, and added a final coat of clear wax to preserve the stamping. He paid Maurice the money for the cheeses. Maurice solemnly tied the money into the corner of the cloth while the dairy man watched, for this was a part of their daily ritual. “D'où viendront ces fromages être envoyé, monsieur?” he asked. “Eh? This bunch is going to be transported on a great ship, all the way to the United States of America.” “I would like to go on such a ship too, Sir,” Maurice voiced aloud his great desire once again. “Peut-être quand vous êtes âgé, vous irez.” “I don’t want to wait until I’m older. I would like to go now, only I haven’t got the money for my passage.” “I would pay you to run some errands for me,” the dairyman replied. Maurice left his baskets in the corner of the dairyman’s office, and spent much of the afternoon making deliveries for the dairy. Finally the dairyman released him and paid him, and he tied the money into a scrap of cloth and tucked it into the sturdy cloth purse he wore at his belt. He picked up his baskets again, and left the dairy. Pausing again in the privacy of the alley, Maurice put the cloth with the cheese money over his mother’s vegetables, tucking the corner with the money down into the basket. He put his own ill-gotten vegetables and croissants into the empty basket and covered them with the second cloth. Back in the marketplace, he sold his stolen vegetables to the vendors, each time raising the price by speaking of his work in raising the vegetables all on his own so he could sell them for the money for his passage to America. The vendors thought highly of a boy who would work hard to attain his desires, and paid him as generously as they could afford, not knowing they were buying back their own vegetables which he had stolen earlier in the day. The croissants he ate. That night there were lights in the sky such as Maurice had never seen, and huge noises. He ran outside to see what was happening, and watched as his home exploded with a deafening crash that shook the ground so much it threw Maurice face-first into the dirt. The war had come to France. Alone in the world, and owning nothing more than the clothes on his back and one of his mother’s baskets, Maurice took the money he’d saved for his passage to America and set off down the dusty road toward Calais. His life, once so secure, was now filled with fear. He was not old enough to be taken for a soldier, but he could be sent to an orphanage, which he had heard was the same as being an indentured servant. His only hope was to escape France and make his way to the United States before anyone in any official position took note of his orphaned state. Basket in hand, Maurice ran down the dirt road through the hills for the last time, seeking not the local village, but his fortune in the wide world.