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What Gabriella Sees

A Short Story by Marshall Riggan


Doctor Jean Breton and the man called Le Faucon stood on the Boulevard de Cliché looking up at the woman in the window. It was raining and it was difficult to see her features clearly, but it appeared she was looking up toward Montmartre, perhaps her attention drawn by the tolling of the bells of Sacre-Coeur.

“I wonder what she sees?” Dr. Breton asked.

“She sees nothing,” Le Faucon said. “She has been blind since birth.”

“Perhaps her vision is more refined than our own. It is a mystery what the blind see.”

“She has become rather famous, you know. The Blind Prostitute of Boulevard de Cliché. Here in the Quarter she is both beloved and reviled. Part whore, part saint. It is said she has a way of making the sexual union seem somehow holy.”

“And she lives there alone?”

“She does.”

“Who cares for her?”

“For the most part, she cares for herself. Neighbors watch after her. Do what they can. From her income, she hires someone to clean and bring food from the market. The Sisters of Mercy, the nuns who raised her, also come by. As her friend and souteneur, I screen her clients, make sure she is safe.”

“She never leaves?”

“Never. Besides myself, her only contacts with the outside world are those I mentioned and the men I bring to see her.”

“Does she know I’m coming?”

“She expects you.”

“Does she know I’m a doctor?”

“Yes. But not your specialty. It was good of you to see her.”

Dr. Breton shook the man’s hand. “I’ve had much success working with the congenitally blind. I find this case a particularly interesting challenge. I’m indebted to you. Perhaps the girl will be indebted to you, as well.”

Dr. Breton crossed the street in front of the Sexodrome, one of the many combination sex shops and peep shows that lined the boulevard. There was a narrow cobbled alleyway between the Sexodrome and the building where the girl lived. He stepped carefully over beer bottles and used syringes and condoms and sodden newspapers, around overflowing garbage cans, until he reached a door leading to a small foyer with a pale overhead light revealing a listing of the occupants. He pressed the button next to the name Gabriela Babineaux. After a moment, a voice asked, “Jean?” When he answered “yes” she asked him to come up to apartment 305. Her voice was pitched low and smooth. He thought if she were a singer she would be a contralto.

Even though he had been told of the woman’s beauty, he felt he had never seen a woman as naturally lovely. She reminded him of Vermeer’s Girl With The Pearl Earring. She possessed that same sense of calm. She was smaller than he had imagined, slim and graceful, her black silken hair cascading down in loose coils nearly to her waist. Her eyes were the light blue of a summer sky and he had actually forgotten she was blind until a large German Shepard came and sat by her side, watchful and alert. “This is my good friend General Charles de Gaulle,” she said, bending down to scratch the service dog behind his ears. “He is my good friend and my eyes. I call him Charley.”

Gabriela was wearing a simple cotton shift that buttoned up the front. She was barefoot and wore no makeup nor jewelry. The doctor thought she might be in her late twenties. There were a few threads of grey in her hair and tiny smile lines at the corners of her eyes; eyes that showed no evidence of blindness; eyes that seemed to regard him with genuine pleasure, as if she preferred his company to anyone else in the world.

“Welcome to my home, Jean,” she said, smiling up at him. She took his hand and led him into the room. “You are soaking wet. Here, let me help you out of your coat.”

“Oh, I brought you some wine.”

As she took the wine and hung up his coat, he looked around the apartment. It was essentially one room, a bath, and a tiny kitchen. A sleeping area, where he supposed she entertained her clients, was separated from the rest of the room by a beaded curtain. The room was dominated by a conversational grouping, an overstuffed divan and two mismatched easy chairs surrounding a small coffee table. The fabric on the furniture was frayed and had long ago lost its color. There were no paintings on the wall, but of course, there wouldn’t be. It was a sorrowful little parlor, yet here was Gabriela, a poised hostess who could not have been more gracious.

“From below I saw you looking out the window.”

“It is a beautiful rain. I often sit by the window when it rains and imagine I’m at sea. If I open the window, I can feel the spray on my face.”

Dr. Breton opened and poured the wine and then Gabriela led him to the divan. She took a chair by his side. The doctor raised his glass. “What should our toast be?” he asked. She looked toward the window. “Let us drink to the rain and to the sea.” She smiled as they touched glasses.They sipped the wine.

“What do you know of the sea, Gabriela?”

“A great deal, actually. I have been taken there by Melville, Peter Mathieson, Joseph Conrad.

“This is how I see the East,” the doctor quoted. “I have seen its secret places and looked into its soul.”

Gabriella laughed, clapped her hands, said she loved Conrad, and she recited: “But now I see it always from a small boat, a high outline of mountains, blue and afar in the morning, a jagged wall of purple at sunset. I have the feel of the oar in my hand.”

How can you memorize what you cannot read?”

“Braille. Just about everything is in Braille now. The Sisters of Mercy bring books for me. I have run out of sea stories, so I read the same ones over and over again. With repetition, the words stay.”

Gabriela was sitting across from him, her legs folded beneath her, one hand scratching Charles de Gaulle behind an ear. She was looking directly into his eyes and he wondered what she saw. “When you read those descriptive passages in Conrad, what do you see? Do you see the blue mountains in the morning, the wall of purple at sunset?”

“Not as you do, of course, But I hear the waves, I smell the salt air, I feel the trade winds in my hair. Maybe I have no visual memory, but with my imagination I can create an entire world of sight. So, you see, I have been to sea, sailing aboard my imaginary schooner.”

“My father and I had a sailboat once. An old wood yawl. After he died, in the year before I went to medical school, I sailed away, alone. Not as far as the Southern Seas, but far enough and long enough to know something of what Conrad had seen.”

“But you came ashore.”

“I had to go to school.”

“To become a doctor?”

“To become a doctor. If I had you as a shipmate in those days I would be sailing still.”

For a long while neither spoke. They sipped the wine. Then Gabriela reached for his hand. She lifted it to her lips and kissed his fingers. Dr. Breton felt a brief moment of longing as he looked into her lovely face and felt the touch of her lips.

“I see you now, Jean,” she said softly. “I see you are a good man. I also sense that you are not here to make love with me. I would have liked that. It would have been nice. But it is alright. We can just talk, drink your lovely wine and listen to the music of the rain.”

The doctor took his hand from her lips and held it in both of his. “Gabriela,” he then asked, “would you never like to see as others see?”

After a moment of silence, she said, “I don’t know, Jean. There were times when I would have given the world to see. Even though I didn’t know what seeing meant. But time went by. I accepted things as they were. I found a way to survive without begging on the street. I learned to read Braille and I discovered a beautiful world vibrant with life. Books took me to the far corners of the earth, provided a rich inner life. I see with my other senses and it makes me feel a certain intimacy with the universe. The world is not something outside of me, but something within. It is a unique form of perception, I think, a gift, a special state of being. My life is a scenario that I can rewrite as I please. I have my beloved companion General Charles de Gaulle. And the people of the Quarter watch out for me. Between Charley and my neighbors, they keep me safe.

“What about the men?” he asked.

Gabriella smiled. “Ambassadors. Explorers. Seekers of passion and beauty. It is good to be adored. And to give pleasure is to receive pleasure, don’t you think?”

Dr. Jean Breton did not know what to think.Was she incredibly innocent or hopelessly licentious? Was she wise or delusional? The top several buttons of her shift were open revealing the upper swell of her breasts. Her skin was like ivory. He was shocked at the indecency of his thoughts, and he tried to force them from his mind. He was here as a doctor. Yet, how enchanting she was.

“What are your thoughts, Jean. You have gone away.”

He cleared his throat and his mind, said, “I was wondering when your eyes were last examined.”

“When I was a child. I was an orphan living with The Sisters of Mercy. They took me to doctors. They agreed that I have congenital blindless, told me I would never regain my sight.”

“When were you last examined?”

“I don’t know. Maybe ten years ago.”

“Gabriela! Amazing progress has been made in the last ten years, even the last year. We have new technologies, better doctors.”

“And you are one of those better doctors?”

“Actually, I am the best.”

Dr. Breton examined Gabriela at his private clinic adjacent to the Hospital Saint Louis on Avenue Claude Vellefaux. With an array of the most advanced imaging techniques, he peered within the surface of her eyes. It took nearly two hours. During the process, neither spoke. He thought she appeared smaller, less self-assured, more vulnerable, away from the safety of her refuge above the Boulevard de Cliché. It had been difficult to persuade her to submit to the examination. In the end, he had convinced her, but it troubled him that she might have agreed out of a desire to please, rather than the possibility she might regain her sight. “Why should I want something that I already have?” she had asked. He had explained that she would be an explorer, like Captain Cook or Frances Drake or Magellan who set out on unknown seas to discover new worlds. What remained unspoken, was his own desire to conquer her blindness, to be the one to lead her to this new world. For this lovely woman to remain unnecessarily blind would be a tragic waste. But, now, he wondered as he peered into the depths of her eyes, if he was doing this for Gabriela or for himself. Was he undertaking an act of compassion or of the ego. He had already begun to imagine the fascinating piece he might write for the Journal of Opthalmology. On the other hand, he had to admit that she was becoming dear to him. He felt for her something deeper than professional interest.

Now they were in his office, sitting across from each other, Gabriela holding tight to General Charles de Gaulle’s leash with one hand and scratching behind his ears with the other. “So what did you see when you looked into my eyes?” she asked, smiling at her own play on words.

“What I saw was damaged optic nerves. It probably happened during childbirth. Each eye has half of the optic nerve, a cable of fibers that meet at what’s called the optic chiasm. The two halves combine and then carry electrical signals from the retinas to the visual centers of the brain. It is where the optic nerves meet that is the problem. Without a complete and healthy optic nerve, sight is impossible.”

Gabriela sighed, held tight around General Charles de Gaulle’s neck. “So all this was for nothing.”

“Not so, Gabriela. I can repair the optic nerves.”

“So I will be able to see as others see?”

“I believe so.”

He wasn’t sure what her response would be, but for a long time she was silent. Then, “I’m sorry, Jean. I know I should be overjoyed. But I am afraid. I do not have the courage of Magellan. I am comfortable in the beautiful world I have made with my books and my secret pleasures and my dreams.”

“Tell me this, Gabriela, when the Sisters of Mercy took you in and taught you to read Braille, you set out on a voyage just as perilous as that of Magellan. And you discovered a new reality. What I offer now is a second voyage of discovery.”

“I don’t know, Jean. What will it be like?”

“The surgery itself will take less than an hour. You would be asleep while I repair the nerves. That’s all there is to it.”

“And when I wake up I will be able to see?”

“Not right away. It will take time for the brain to recognize the electrical signals from the retina. At first, there might be merely an awareness of light, swirling colors, blurry, incoherent images. But, soon, the images will coalesce and the world will lay before you like a feast.”

“Tell me again how it will be.”

“ Not only will you hear the bells of Sacre-Coeur tolling, you will see the basilica’s white towers and arches rising above the city. You will see lovers walking along the Seine, Christmas lights strung along the Champs-Elysees and carolers beneath plain trees heavy with snow. You will see the Spring greening of the chestnut trees in the Jardin des Tuileries, and you will see the world through the eyes of Cezanne, Degas, Monet and the other masters displayed in the Louvre. You will be able to climb up among the gargoyles atop Notre Dame and dance with the ghost of Quasimodo, the whole city at your feet. Best of all, you will be able to look in the mirror and see the greatest treasure of all.”

“Oh, Jean. Will I see your face? And will you dance with me?”

“You will see all the world there is to see. And we will dance the night away at Le Baron, at La Machina du Moulin Rouge, and on the deck of my yawl as we sail toward the seas Conrad knew. We will have the feel of the oar in our hands.”

Gabriela pressed against him, her arms around his neck. Then she whispered, “I am afraid, dear Jean. But I trust you with my life.”

After the surgery, the doctor had planned for her to convalesce in a private room at the Hospital Saint Louis. But Gabriela insisted he take her back home to her apartment in the Quarter. When he suggested he stay until the bandages were removed, she said she wanted to experience whatever was to come alone.

He came to her apartment each evening to refresh her bandages. Usually, she would be sitting in her window, the bandages starkly white beneath her flowing night-black hair. Then he would navigate through the rubbish and debris in the alley and along the stairway leading to her apartment, eager, once again, to be touched by the extraordinary happiness he always felt in her presence. She would welcome him enthusiastically, take his hand, kiss him lightly on the cheek and lead him to the divan where they would sip wine and she would read him passages from Matheisen’s Far Tortuga or Melville’s Typee and he would preview the wonders of the world she would soon be able to see. But when he removed the bandages to change them, she would refuse to open her eyes. “Not yet,” Jean,” she would say. “Let me do this in my own time.”

One evening he came along the Boulevard de Cliché, looked up, and her window was open, yet empty. The tattered curtain billowed in a foul wind from the street. When he pushed the buzzer by her name in the foyer, there was no answer. Puzzled, he rang again. Then, stepping over a sleeping drunk, he moved upward through the trash and litter on the stairs and knocked at her door. There was silence from within. He could hear the snarling of taxis and scooters in the street and laughter from the Sexodrome next door. He knocked again, harder, and again there was no response. He called her name. Called again.

Two men emerged from the darkness down the hall. One was a large man, naked to the waist, covered with tattoos. The other was Le Faucon.

“Where is she?”

Le Faucon gestured with a thumb at her door. “She is there. Inside.” The doctor turned, as if to resume his assault on the door. The tattooed man grabbed his arms and spun him around. “Our Gabriela said to make sure you do not come back.”

Desperate now, the doctor turned to Le Faucon. “You must let me see her! I am her doctor!”

“And I am her friend, Dr. Breton.” Then Le Faucon and the tattooed man lifted the doctor by his belt and colar and frog-walked him down the stairs and into the alley.

Every evening for a month, Dr. Breton came to the Quarter and looked up at her empty window. Several times he climbed the stairs to her apartment, but was always turned away at her door. He never saw Gabriela again.