Philippe had a cold.
“No,” he said irritably. “I do not. I don’t get colds. Who do you think I am?”
“Philippe Lyonnais,” Magalie said dramatically and ironically, in honor of all the times early on in their acquaintance when he’d said his name to her like he couldn’t believe she wasn’t genuflecting before it. Both in actual size and in reputation, he towered over her. She wasn’t about to make matters worse by actually bending to him.
His face scrunched. His nose twisted.
She folded her arms over the silky cashmere blend sweater he had given her as the cold rains set in for the winter and raised her eyebrow at him.
He made a heroic effort.
He twisted abruptly away and sneezed violently. Once. Twice. Three times.
“À tes souhaits,” Magalie said sweetly. To your wishes.
“What is that goddamn perfume you’re wearing today?” he said, waving his hand in front of his face as he turned back around. Bleary blue eyes glared at her. “I think I’m allergic.”
“I think that’s called eau de moi,” Magalie said. “I’m not wearing anything but a shower.”
“Maybe it’s that sweater,” Philippe said. His always deep voice had gone so rough today it was like gravel, and all his words sounded as if they’d been stuffed through a clogged dryer exhaust.
“Will you just lie down already? You’re being ridiculous.”
“Magalie. I’ve got work to do.”
“Oh, because we want to eat macarons you’ve sneezed all over. Grégory will do your job.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Will struggle mightily to fill your vast shoes and fail but valiantly.”
“Why do you always say things like that in such a sarcastic tone?”
“I like picking on a sick man. Look—a cozy comforter.” She pushed him back on her bed and pulled the plush sea green throw she liked to curl up in over him.
Her big lion braced there grumpily, as if the pillows behind him were going to wrap around him and defeat his strength, if he wasn’t careful. But he’d let her push him down on the bed. That was itself proof how lousy he must really feel.
“Here.” She plopped her tablet on his knees. “You can watch cartoons.”
“You know, I’m starting to think you take too much after your Aunt Geneviève.”
Magalie snorted. “Yeah, right, like she’d be coddling you.”
Philippe sank a little into the pillows, disgruntled. Apparently if the pillows and Tante Geneviève were at cross purposes, the pillows grew a little more acceptable.
Magalie looked down at him. His eyes were red and he had to keep blotting them surreptitiously, his nose was raw from the tissues he kept using when he thought she wasn’t looking, and when she pushed Philippe, he usually grinned down at her and held fast just to show how unpushable he was. Even when he was hoping that push meant he was going to get stretched out on a bed and have hot sex, he liked to do that. This man just loved being the biggest and the strongest.
He must be miserable.
She rested her hand on his tawny head, massaging her fingers gently against his stuffed-up skull. Her eyebrows knit. She slid her hand farther forward onto his forehead. “Philippe. You’ve got a fever.”
“No, I do not.” He frowned. “I already took some Doliprane.”
A French brand equivalent of Tylenol. To bring down fevers, for example. “Oh, you did, did you?” Magalie folded her arms again. “Even though you’re not sick?”
“Even I can get a headache, Magalie!”
“Ouais, and even you can get sick and spread the flu to all your clients, too. If you would be even hotter without the aspirin in you, you are definitely too sick. Here.” She typed into her computer and called up Calimero, the classic cartoon of the little duck who went around with an eggshell on his head being pitiful. “That should cheer you up.”
The lion crumbled. By noon that day, he was so sick and miserable he didn’t even try to watch a movie anymore, he just huddled under her throw, and the second throw, and the third that she piled on him when she came back to check on him, and groaned blearily and told her to go away.
“Why?” Magalie said. “Because it’s terrible for me to see you can have a weakness?”
He turned his back on her in the bed and pulled the throw over his head.
So she would take that as a yes. She shook her head and went back downstairs.
Five floors below, in the blue-tiled kitchen of La Maison des Sorcières, they brewed him a potion.
“One breast of a chicken,” Tante Geneviève said.
“There’s no need to harm any animals in the making of this concoction,” Tante Aja said.
Geneviève, gray-haired, caftan billowing around her to give her six-foot frame even more dominance over her space, gave Aja a look. “That man is definitely a carnivore.”
Aja sighed and stroked one finger down her graying black braid. She also favored loose clothes, in her case the salwar kameez that she had never stopped favoring, even though she had first come to Paris more than three decades ago. The deep gold tones of the one she was currently wearing, with threads of embroidery in red, filled the little kitchen with warmth.
“Although frankly I’m surprised at him, acting in this weak-willed fashion,” Geneviève said. “He likes to prowl up and down this street as if he owns it, and then he lets a few germs push him around?” She made a pffing noise of what was supposed to be dismissal but came out more like pure satisfaction. “What’s the point of being a carnivore if you can’t keep your place at the top of the food chain?”
Geneviève herself hadn’t gotten sick in as long as Magalie could remember. So in her head-to-head battle for the title of Inexorable Force with Philippe, she was now winning. And could graciously take care of him in his defeat.
“Garlic,” Aja said, halving a full bulb and tossing it in the pot. “And an onion.”
“Rosemary and thyme,” Geneviève said.
“Parsley?” Magalie said.
“Later,” Aja said. “No sage, though.”
“A parmesan rind.” Geneviève hacked one off a block of parmesan with one hard two-handed push of a butcher knife. “Or two.” She pulled an old rind out of the cheese drawer in the refrigerator.
“Parmesan?” Aja said. “Instead of ginger? I give up. I’m going to make him some tea.”
The tea was the first potion to make its way up the five flights of stairs, a little scent of lemon blended in with whatever else Aja had used, and a little honey.
Shivering under the covers in the darkened room, Philippe didn’t even try to sit up and look strong and invincible anymore. He just reached a big hand out from under the covers and closed it around the warmth of the cup, dragging himself up just enough to sip it gratefully but setting it down after only a few sips.
Magalie sat down on the edge of the bed and rested her hand on his head. “How you feeling?”
“Can you just shoot me?” He started coughing just from the effort to speak.
She stroked his forehead gently, back over his hair. She took the cup and held it to his lips again. He sipped obediently, calming his throat a little. “I would,” she said. “But it’s so damn hard to buy a gun in this country.”
He smiled a little, blearily. “I always suspected the three of you would prefer poison anyway. Maybe this will put me out of my misery?” He took another sip of the tea, hopefully.
“I think that’s its intention, mon chéri.” Magalie kissed his forehead.
He turned his head a little away from the contact. “Don’t you get sick.”
“Me?” She smiled down at him. “I’m not a petite nature.”
Fragile. Easily brought down by the elements or germs. He tried to give her a glower, but he just didn’t have the energy. His head flopped back on the pillows.
By the time the soup was ready, Philippe had dozed again and was ready to sit up for a while, cupping his big hands around the hot bowl and letting the hot noodles slide down his throat, even tilting the bowl to his lips to drink the last of the broth. “Thank you,” he said, sliding back down in the pillows again. And then, pitifully, “I feel miserable.”
“I know.” Magalie stroked his head. “I’ll bring you some more in a little while. You’re probably going to be miserable for a couple of days, mon chéri.”
Philippe groaned and turned his head enough to rest it against her hand. “This soup is perfect,” he said. “What did you put in it?”
“Oh, you know. The usual.”
“Wishes for me to be on my knees?” he said. “Because I think that’s already true here.”
She smiled, and waved a vague hand through the air. “No. Soothing.” She rested her hand on his chest, where his lungs must feel so raw from all his coughing. “Comfort. Warmth.”
His own smile was weary, an exhausted gratitude, a love for her that extended even through misery. He took her upper forearm—a chef’s gesture, to avoid spreading germs by avoiding hand to hand contact—and kissed her elbow. “Merci.”
“And maybe on Tante Geneviève’s part a tiny bit of triumph.”
“I knew it,” he said and tucked his head into her elbow, eyes closing. Magalie smiled. Against the inside of her elbow, his forehead was no longer burning hot, the fever already breaking.
The simmering scents of chicken, rosemary, thyme and honey-threaded tea stretched warm fingers out through the miserable rain of late November. It wrapped around people passing wearily under umbrellas down the street and drew them in to slump at their tables.
Geneviève, coming back from an errand, shook her big umbrella behind her through the door to knock its rain off, and strode back into the kitchen, shaking her head.
“Sometimes I just don’t understand people,” she said. “All it takes is a little backbone.” She glanced back into the little back room.
At the slim, blonde young woman who often played her violin on the nearby bridge and who sat now hunched over a bowl of soup and a cup of tea, sipping gratefully and occasionally pressing a tissue to her nose.
At the dark-haired man around thirty, big-shouldered and grumpy, gazing down at his soup morosely, as if to firmly establish that the fact that he had to get his comfort food from strangers should not in any way be interpreted as him being lonely or needing anyone. The top witch hat on the stack that sat lopsided on the shelf above him leaned so far out it looked as if it was about to leap off the stack and drop on his head.
At the older man who seemed in perfect health, but whose hands curved around the bowl of soup as if it was a precious memory and who gazed down at it with such a wistful expression.
At the angular young woman with her asymmetrical hair who was shaking the Parisian chocolate world up with her jagged, high-octane, demanding approach to chocolate, a rising star chocolatier whom Magalie and the aunts politely pretended not to recognize while she slumped over her soup trying not to sniffle. No point kicking a chocolatier when she was down.
At the lone female…student? Or was that just the glasses that made her look studious?…who nursed the soup slowly, as if she was drinking home.
At the man with military-straight shoulders and that neutral expression the war-forged adapted so automatically who stood on the street outside, gazing through their display window of dark chocolate witches like a man on guard duty. As if he would like to move, like to step forward toward something else he wanted, but it might be against his world order.
Magalie’s hands flexed. “You know how you see the people who come in here and you just want to…stir things up?”
“Yes.” Tante Geneviève took the ladle and stirred their potion, rich and golden, full of noodles, and scented warm. She scooped up a ladle, eyeing their little gathering and particularly that man hesitating on the brink on the sidewalk with a gleam in her eye. “I do.”
The flu epidemic was bad in Paris that year. But on the witches’ island in the middle of the Seine, they say that the flu epidemic barely touched the inhabitants at all.
A few other things might have happened to them, though.
© Laura Florand, 2016