Just for the fun of it, here’s a little story. I’m noodling around with the illustrations for it, and so far seem to be pretty much settled on using the streets of Carcassonne for the basis. But all that’s for another day–enjoy the story; I’m going to be talking about where it came from tomorrow.
Cie Latour was a poor man. He lived in the town of Nuage, where he sold croissants and café au lait each morning and evening in the town square and at the train station. He charged a quarter a cup for the café, and ten cents each for the croissants. Sometimes when his customer was a poor person or a small child Cie would trade croissants and cafe for an apple, or a model airplane, or a pretty rock. Many people in Nuage were poor. He traded more croissants and café than he sold. His cafe and croissants were very good, but Cie Latour was still very poor.
“You should charge more,” said his mother. “And stop trading. You will be too poor to take care of me when I am old.”
“I charge enough, said Cie. “We eat, and we are warm and dry, and surely the sun will shine again, someday.”
“Not in Nuage,” sighed his mother. “You are a foolish man.”
Sometimes Cie thought she was right.
Five years ago the clouds had rolled into Nuage, and they had never left. They twisted and rolled like dark gray worms, and they slithered and seeped between houses and autos. Mold and moss grew everywhere. At the last soccer game four and a half years ago the team’s best player had kicked a glob of mud into the goalposts thinking it was the ball. The goalie had been unable to block because he had sunk into the mud up to his armpits. There was no soccer anymore in Nuage, but the two teams still met occasionally to argue over who had won the last game.
Then ergot struck the wheat, and blight took the lavender. The poor farmers of Nuage became even poorer, and Cie traded more and more. One dark day the baker said, “I am sorry, Cie. I have no croissants for you. There is no more flour. I must leave Nuage and go to Avignon. Perhaps I can find work there.”
“Bon voyage,” said Cie. “I can still sell café au lait.” He kissed the baker on both cheeks, gave him a cup of café for luck, and pushed his cart to the train station.
As Cie rattled through the foggy alleys of Nuage he found himself thinking for the first time that perhaps the sun would never come back, or if it did, it might be too late. His heart was as heavy as his cart.
“This is disaster,” wept his mother that night when he told her about the baker.
“This will pass,” said Cie bravely.
But in the morning there were no passengers on the train, and no one in Nuage could afford to buy café au lait. Cie sold nothing all day. In the evening he had to throw away the milk and pour out the coffee. Then he started home through the foggy, wet alleys of Nuage.
“Attencion!” hissed a voice from a shadowy doorway.
“Who is that?” asked Cie.
“A friend who wants to give you money,” hissed the voice.
“But all of my friends are poor,” said Cie.
“I am a new friend,” said the voice impatiently.
“Very well,” said Cie. “How may I help you?”
“It is I who wish to help you,” said the voice. “I have a gift for you that will make us both rich—richer even than the Bishop of Avignon.”
“Why give it to me?” asked Cie. “Why not use it yourself?”
“I cannot. It requires a good man, a man such as the parfait—or, come to think of it, a man such yourself, known by all to be generous, kind, and honest.”
Cie did not think to wonder what kind of man could not use something that required generosity, kindness, and honesty. The shadowy figure flowed out of the dark doorway. He placed a flat box onto the café cart.
“Merci,” said Cie gratefully. “Would you like some café au lait? It’s on the house—or on the cart, rather.” Cie laughed. The stranger didn’t, so Cie stopped.
“I will tell you what I require later,” said the voice. “Au revoir.” And he was gone. Cie opened the flat box. In it was a drawing pad and a half-used pencil. “Hm,” thought Cie. “Perhaps I will find a use for this one day.” He tucked the package down into the little rack where he had stored his money in better days. And then he went home.
“This has gone far enough,” his mother shouted at him that night. “You will sell our apartement and move me to the city.”
“Can we not wait a little longer?” asked Cie sadly. “Nuage is our home.”
“No more,” snapped his mother. “We must sell up and move. Here, make a list.” And she took the drawing pad off the cart and threw it on the table in front of Cie. The pencil bounced off the pad and onto the floor.
Cie bent and slowly picked it up. He took out his pocket knife and carefully began sharpening the pencil. Snick, snick, snick, when the blade. Long curls of wood spiraled to the floor. The pencil began to glow. Cie’s fingers felt warm where they held it. He sharpened some more. Twitch, twitch, twitch, went his fingers. With a quick little flip he spun the drawing pad around and started to draw with his warm, twitching fingers. The pencil flew over the paper, and there were the streets of Nuage, and then there was Cie himself, and his coffee cart, in the town square. His cart was loaded with croissants and cafe. Small dogs and children frisked around him. His mother sat on the small balcony outside her bedroom. The sun shone warm and golden on her shoulders. She was smiling. The only clouds in the sky were cottony white.
“Make the list, Cie,” came his mother’s voice. She sounded far away.
But Cie’s fingers were still warm and twitching. They did not want to make a list. They wanted to make another picture. They danced across the page, and there was the train, puff-puff-whistling into Nuage’s station, filled to bursting with business people and holiday-makers. And there was Cie’s cart, full of croissants and coffee, and all around it were happy, smiling people.
“The list, Cie,” shouted his mother.
But Cie’s fingers were too happy to make lists. He drew the baker in his shop. Stacks of golden baguettes, crusty loaves, and buttery croissants filled the shelves and the counters. A line of smiling people went out the door and around the block. Cie drew the farmers, and their fields of wheat and lavender were thick and golden and healthy. He drew the schoolyard full of happy playing children. He drew the schoolmistress, the postmaster, the greengrocer, the parfait, the dressmaker, the carters, the parish priest, and the banker sitting in the small outdoor cafe in the sunshine. He drew the Nuage he loved and remembered, the way it had been before the clouds rolled in. He drew his memories. He drew his hopes. He drew his dreams.
“Cie, listen to me. Make the list,” his mother ordered.
Cie’s fingers didn’t feel dancy and tingly anymore. They felt as weary as the rest of him. Certainly they were too weary to be making lists. He put the pencil and pad neatly away in his cart.
“Tomorrow, Maman,” he said politely. “I will make the list tomorrow.”
His mother sniffed and flounced off to bed. Cie thought of his pictures, and thought of the Nuage outside his front door. He went to bed, sick at heart.
Cie woke with the sun in his eyes. He squinted, turned over, and pulled the pillow over his head. He snored two and a half more times, and then his eyes flew open, and the pillow flew across the room. The sun! Cie leaped out of bed and stuck his head out the window. The streets of Nuage stretched bright and clean beneath him. The sun shone in the town square. Children and dogs frisked around the silvery puddles. “Come down, Cie, we are hungry!” they called up to him.
“Hurry, son,” said his mother. “I see francs in their hands.” She sat on her balcony, wrapped in her black shawl. The sun was warm and golden on her shoulders. She smiled at him.
Cie smiled back, pulled his head back inside, pulled on his pants, and rushed his cart, rattling and banging, down the steep, rickety stairs and up the street to the baker’s. The line of people stretched out the door and around the block. Inside, Cie saw the baker’s shelves loaded with golden baguettes and crusty rolls and buttery croissants. He filled his cart and trotted to the square. The children and dogs frisked around him, and he sold them all croissants and milk. Then he hurried to the train station. The train came puffing in loaded with business people and holiday-makers, and all of them bought croissants and café au lait. Not one person asked him to trade.
When the sun went down that evening Cie pushed his cart home. It was so heavy with gold he could hardly get it up the stairs to his apartment. The next morning he stopped at the bank on his way to the bakery and left all his money in the vault. “We will need to build a bigger vault,” said the bank manager happily. “Our town is saved.”
As he waited in line at the bakery the next morning Cie thought and thought. “Certainly not,” he thought first. Then he thought, “Maybe.” And finally he thought, “Let’s see.” He took out his drawing pad and pencil. He took out his pocket knife. Snick, snick, snick when the knife. Twitch, twitch, twitch, went Cie’s fingers. He drew the silliest thing he could think of—a donkey in a straw hat with cherries bobbing around its brim, singing and playing the drums. And then he slipped the pad into its rack and looked around. And there it was, in the square.
“Sacre bleu,” breathed Cie.
That day people came from everywhere to see the singing, dancing, drumming donkey. Cie sold even more croissants and café au lait. He sold so much he had to stop early so he could take his money to the bank. He bought his mother a bouquet of daisies and a new straw hat with cherries on the brim, like the one the donkey was wearing. It made Cie smile to think of his mother and the donkey having the same hat. He had just decided that it would probably be unwise to tell his mother about the donkey’s hat when a voice hissed out of the shadows. “Attencion.”
Cie stopped. “Oui?” he asked. “May I help you?”
The cloaked stranger flowed out of the shadows and hovered by the cart. “Draw me a picture,” whispered the stranger.
“Gladly,” said Cie. “What sort of picture would you like?”
“A picture of the bank,” said the stranger, “with its doors open, and gold flowing out of its vault, and no one around, and no one on the street, and no one but me and all my gold on the train.”
Cie thought. “I do not wish to draw such a picture,” he said at last. “Great harm could come to Nuage from a picture like that.”
“You promised,” said the stranger. “You have used my magic drawing pad and pencil to make Nuage rich. Now it is Nuage’s turn to make me rich. If you do not agree, the magic goes back where it came from.” On the horizon Cie could see piles and piles of clouds.
Cie thought again. “But didn’t you say that only a good and generous man could use this magic pad?”
The stranger pulled out a glittering knife. “But a good and generous man might be persuaded,” he hissed. “And even a very bad man may use a knife such as this.”
Cie thought of his mother. He thought of Nuage. He thought of the bank. He thought of the glittering knife. And then Cie had an idea. He grew quite excited, because having ideas wasn’t something Cie did often.
“Bien. I will draw your picture,” he said. He got out his pocket knife. The stranger’s knife glittered. Snick, snick, snick went the pocket knife. Twitch, twitch, twitch, went Cie’s fingers. He drew the outlines of the bank. He drew the doors standing open. He drew the vault, with gold spilling out, just as the stranger had asked. And then he stopped.
“Merci,” whispered the stranger. He slipped away into the shadows. Cie watched. His fingers tingled and danced, but he did not let them draw. The stranger slipped down the street, and still Cie did not draw. The stranger slipped into the vault, and then, at last, it was time. Cie’s dancing fingers flew over the paper, and there, in the vault in the picture, stood the shadowy stranger.
And then Cie stopped again. His fingers wanted to draw and draw, but his idea, his bright and shining idea, wasn’t about drawing at all. Cie put down his pencil, and picked up his eraser…
The next morning Nuage woke to a mystery. The bank doors stood open. The vault stood open. Gold spilled out. There was a messy gray smear in the middle of the floor. No one could decide what it was. The constable scratched his head. The banker counted the money. The cleaning lady complained as she scrubbed up the messy smear. The parfait spoke disapprovingly of dark magic.
The four of them bought café and croissants from Cie and sat down at a table in the sun, discussing the mystery. Cie just smiled gently and gave a free croissant to a passing child. Everyone in town discussed the mystery all day. They talked about it the next day, and the next. And then they forgot.
But Cie did not forget. He carried the magic pad and pencil with him always, but he never saw saw the stranger again. And sometimes, just sometimes, when the need was great, he would take out his pocket knife, and sharpen his pencil, and his fingers would begin to tingle and twitch and his pencil to glow, and then he would draw a picture, and wonderful things would happen…