The Plume Protector

He was adamant, nay, obsessed with pens. It was the one thing in his life that he needed–absolutely had to–have control over. Theoretically, because it was the easiest thing to have control over. But as anyone who has ever tried to keep track of a pen will tell you, it is almost impossible to lay claim to the same one for very long without losing it. A feat almost likenable to near miraculousness. And maybe, for Valentin, it all traced back to the chaos of his youth, barely punctuated by a patchy education that hardly amounted to more than five consecutive years when you got right down to it. For he was forced to help his father with the parfumerie he ran in the sixth arrondissement upon his mother’s death at the too tender age of thirty-nine, fallen prey to a bout with breast cancer that was severe enough to leave her weakened and frail in Valentin’s final memories of her, but still vital enough to snap at Valentin for his general incompetence, to accuse him of being unable to care for his father adequately in her imminent absence.

Her final words, “You are never going to make it as a successful writer, and you would do well to give up your studies now so as to apprentice your father in a worthwhile trade so that at least he can die knowing our legacy is secure.” Ah Mathilde. Never a very maternal woman–which is perhaps why she only had the one child. To fulfill her womanly duty and then return to going about the equally vexing all-gender duty of living. But she couldn’t even be bothered to continue going on with that either. And now, she wouldn’t have to, passing the torch of “caring for” Gustav to Valentin, who was aware that Gustav was not the type of person who could be told anything, let alone be “cared for”–at least not in a manner that he was conscious of. No, he had to be subtly “handled,” the way the government handled its “constituents” (read: subservients). As long as he was convinced of his own autonomy, one could subversively nurture him however they wanted. In Valentin’s case, it meant lying about failing out of school so as to be able to position his need to enter the shop as a worker from the perspective of Gustav doing him a favor, and not the other way around.

So it was that Valentin, though a very promising student, with particular skill in writing, indeed, left his lycée for good–much to the dismay of Monsieur Renaux, who had taken an especial interest in fostering Valentin’s scholastic path as he came to appreciate, more and more, the short fiction he would submit for various assignments throughout the course of Renaux’s French class.

“Are you absolutely sure this is the path you want to take?”

“No surer than I am about taking this other, perhaps better-scented one,” Valentin quipped as he tapped his favorite pen against the notebook on his lap. A notebook that would likely no longer be at risk of being filled now that his days would subsequently instead be filled with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille drudgery.

Renaux watched him with interest as he fiddled with the pen, finally leaning forward to say, “Is this about the difficulties you’ve been having with other students regarding your, let’s call it…possessiveness?”

Valentin ceased drumming the pen. “What is it you mean by…possessiveness?”

“Come now, Valentin, it’s no secret you have an abnormal protectiveness over pens. Pens. Bic brand, at times. We’re not even talking plumes, hallowed quill pens used by Shakespeare. Is that what this is really about?”

He burst out laughing. “So you think I’m leaving school, throwing away any potential at evading a plebeian middle class life because I have, what, pen OCD?”

“In essence. Yes.” Renaux leaned back in his chair, opening his top desk drawer to take out a clove cigarette from his pack of Kreteks. Lighting it with a serene aura, he inhaled deeply and continued to stare appraisingly at Valentin. “I think you’re making a mistake. Even despite your inability to play nice with others. I just want to let that be known before you go on your way.” With that, he signed the official papers denoting that Valentin was, in the eyes of France, a n’er-do-well incapable of making it through the school system.

So it was that Valentin’s issues (including numerous in-classroom altercations with fellow male and female students alike) with pens never should have cropped up again–for what use does a parfumeur have for using one? Valentin would not find out until the death of his father came in the years soon after–for it’s true what’s said about couples dying in close succession, whether they love each other all that much or not. It’s a matter of companionship, and the harsh loss of it that causes the phenomenon. Signing all those checks for the flowers and the burial arrangements and the perfect tailored-to-his-particularly-tall size casket (why hadn’t their family gone into the big and tall caskets racket? There was a truly untapped market), Valentin found himself suddenly remembering his affinity for pens, why he loved them so much–the inimitable feel, the perfect glide, the sound of a not quite scratching against paper tantamount to his ideal version of penis stabbing vagina (or rather, just lightly teasing the entrance to it, as a pen can get quite lascivious with paper without every really penetrating its porous surface lest it leave a splotchy ink stain). The pen is mightier than the penis, Valentin snickered to himself as he filled out check after check, signed form after form, and all to assure the state that his father was good and dead, his debts duly paid. This was, in fact, what iterated to Valentin just how powerful a pen could be, when wielded at least in this fashion if not the one that entailed creating narrative fiction. Which pens weren’t used anymore for anyway unless one was some sort of crackpot Unabomber type raging against the pointlessness of technology and the offshoot of writing (like a little bitch) on a computer. And this Valentin wanted–needed–to remedy. He would become the only living published author to write all of his manuscripts out on paper, like Bolaño in The Spirit of Science Fiction era. It was his mission, his god-given purpose and right (write?) in life, he decided. And now that Gustav was dead, there was no obligation to that damned perfume shop, filled with nothing but the horrid odor of musk, as far as Valentin was concerned.

***

He got a fair enough price for the shop, he surmised. He also didn’t care even if he didn’t get as much as it was worth. Just to be rid of that damned place was almost payment enough. And the very day he was free of it–had the money wired into his account and the deed to the place transferred and everything–he saw it: the most wondrous, alluring and evocative plume he ever could’ve imagined. Except no, he could never have even imagined it, even in his wildest dreams.

That nib, that color. That coordinating ink blotter. He had to have it. At any cost. He would pay the price–use all the proceeds from the sale of the parfumerie to buy it if that’s what it took. Upon entering the store, some sort of wannabe novelty/necromancy concept joint with a pretentious proprietor to match, he felt increasingly entranced by that pen. As though that quill, so soft and fluffy, like the most full-bodied duster for cleaning–and with just a hint of bleu, turquoise really, in its feather–was saying, “My plumage brings all the aspiring male writers to the store, but really just you. This is all just for you, Valentin.” And in that moment he could swear he saw it shake its feather, as though to absolutely insist, “You must take me home with you or I’ll soon be in the hand of another, letting his fingers fondle and caress me.”

“Excuse me, how much for that pen?” Valentin demanded, almost instantly regretting the understatement of the use of the word “pen,” for it was so much more than that.

“Oh, that vintage piece I’m told was used by Victor Hugo? Three thousand euros.”

Valentin wanted to be jarred, but was not. In all honesty, he would have paid more than that to have it, to feel it in his fingertips. Still, he tried his best to contain the glee he felt at the “affordable” price point offered, taking his time about putting on the performance of acting as though he might think about it, casually running his hand against the desk the plume was perched upon without daring to touch it to prevent invoking the unexpected wrath of the shopkeeper.

“I could give you twenty-five hundred for it,” Valentin countered, wanting to make the shopkeeper lose his sense of control. Alas, it was only Valentin who was about to lose it.

“I’m sorry, but it’s already a bargain as it is. This pen was in the hands of Hugo. I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate to you his genius.”

Valentin wanted to reiterate that Les Misérables was a crock of shit that was only ultimately designed to make the prose of American Psycho appear richer by tying it into the narrative thread. Instead he said, “That might be something of a hyperbole.”

The shopkeeper did not take kindly to his insult toward the man that was clearly his favorite author–as though he actually felt obliged to worship Hugo in his circumstance of birth as a French person. Valentin was quickly losing patience. He knew the pen didn’t belong to Hugo. Its only value was its aesthetic. Its pristine aura–like just holding it could imbue a writer with inspiration. If he didn’t get it right this instant, he wouldn’t be able to stop what might happen next. At the same time, on principle, he couldn’t cower to this knave’s price point just because, for whatever reason, he was up Victor Hugo’s rotting asshole. No, he insisted. He would not yield–and, in a moment of rage spurred by his custodial feelings for the pen, he plucked it from its post and stabbed the shopkeeper in the eye in an abrupt and unpredictable show of violence that proved when you want something badly enough, you really will make it happen by whatever means necessary.

The reports of the strange robbery were all over the news, and only one person knew who the culprit was–who would go to such lengths for, in the end, a fucking pen. When Monsieur Renaux showed up to Valentin’s, he was covered, tellingly, in ink–as though he had been taking some sort of perverse bath in it.

“Jesus, you’re still alive?” served as Valentin’s greeting.

“And so is your pen fetish, I couldn’t help but notice on the national news,” was Renaux’s reply.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Valentin evaded, not offering to invite Renaux in as he pushed past him to evaluate the severity of the madness by seeing how disheveled the apartment was. But it was immaculate. Which perhaps made it even more disturbing to see Valentin himself looking so bedraggled, and somehow as though he had been having sex with a pen–shoving it up his urethra or some such depraved Albert Fish shit–and letting it splooge all over his body. And as he whipped around to inform Valentin that he wanted to get him some mental health care, do whatever it took to relieve him of his strange, newly revived fetish (though all fetishes are constantly in full swing, even if dormancy gives them the appearance of not being as such), he could feel the sharp pain of the nib in the uppermost part of his vertebra, his voice cracking as he uttered, “Valentin.”

He fell to the floor, looking up at his former student and current murderer to plead for what might be left of his life. “Don’t do this. I won’t tell a soul about your problem. I just need you to promise to do one thing in return,” he insisted, all at once filled with a brilliant bargaining chip he should have wagered before.

Intrigued, Valentin asked, “Oh? What’s that?”

“That you finish writing a book by the end of this year using that pen, all right? That you make something good–something truly useful for humanity–come out of…whatever this disease is that you have.”

Valentin tittered. He liked the idea of his old French teacher coming to his house after all these years to affirm what he knew already: that he was a visionary author, that the world would be a better place with his works of literature in it. And the truth was, he had written a book–six, in fact. One of which he had already created using his new favorite plume. But he would release none of them. Show them to no publisher, no agent. For he knew that no one was worthy of even attempting to read what his lovely pens had aided him in creating.

Feeling sentimental, he spared Renaux’s life by holding him captive for the rest of his already scant number of days. This would be his sole literary audience. After all, Renaux had always been his biggest fan and supporter anyway–why not reward him with these glittering works of genius? It was thusly that Valentin, plume protector, kept his secrets (both dark and light) from all of France, as they died out with Renaux’s last gasp while reading Valentin’s final sentence from his latest work, penned, once more, with the stolen “Victor Hugo” pen.

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