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Cabinet of Chic Curiosities

Under the Spell of Forbidden Narguillés

“Parisian woman with her cat in her cannabis garden, 1910”

She made an unusual request, not rare, but it wasn’t in the ways of the “bourgeoisie” to be portrayed as such. She lived in the neighbourhood but, we were never formally introduced. I often saw this lady stroll in front of our shop’s window at least once a day. She was foreign and her name was Madame Piotr Brozovic, although nobody expected to see Piotr, the deceased. She wore half-mourning since her arrival. So, if she was a real widow, her husband had died in some slavic territory. Her french was good but her accent was quite rough to the ears.

The door opened while I was working in my cramped little studio. Madame Brozovic banged the door behind her, and began talking, ignoring my customers:

– Good afternoon, I need a picture taken of myself at my garden. Will you take it?

– I prefer here Madame, it has the perfect lighting, the background. But if you wish, it can be done.

-Perfect! Tomorrow afternoon then.

She left a small printed card with her name, her address, and the desired hour in cursive: Two, “Heure juste”.

The next day I dragged my equipment to her doorstep five minutes early. I remembered the “Heure juste”, and so I patiently waited at the old wooden door. The house had seen better days, it was a drab middle class two story building. The painting was chipping, grass was shooting between stones, the windows were quite dirty, opaque I’d say, with iron bars on the outside. Mold crawled upwards everywhere.

She opened the door herself, with the majestic Siberian half-breed cat behind her skirt:

– Good afternoon, please don’t make noise.

She led me through a very modest home that was average in all aspects, except for the fact that it had narguillé bottles everywhere in all sizes, colours and kinds. The bottles were all used, some were half full with leftovers of herbs and water, I supposed.

I was struck by the sudden light coming from the kitchen door that was wide open. It was a cloudy day, but the house was eerily dark inside. The garden was poorly groomed. Nothing caught my attention like this vase, a beautiful bush of Cannabis sativa, in front of which she proudly put her chair and , a cache-pot to serve in the guise of a pedestal, for her half-breed, Russian-Tabby cat, Max.

I settled my camera and the plaques, while she grabbed a paper magazine and sat on the chair, calling and patting softly on the pedestal:

– Come Maximillian! Here my love! Come!

The cat obeyed but, wouldn’t take his eyes from the birdcage where chirps and wing flaps enticed his instincts. I was prepared, I had a flexible rod with some colourful ribbons to wave above my camera.

Just as I was about to flash and capture the picture, a squeaky old voice yelled from the upper story:

-Milla! Ludmilla! What are you doing? Les madames are coming for our tea in an hour! Did you prepare the rooms and the narguillés? Is the water boilling yet? Did you get refreshments from the bakery?

Milla Brozović didn’t flinch. Waving her free hand she signalled me to go on. I sparked the flash, and caught Maximillian mesmerised by my ribbon contraption. Her face was tense but impassive. The picture went just as she had staged it: Max, her reading on her lap, her impeccable hair, and the best background in that house. That’s how she wanted to be immortalised.

Her looks were fading, she knew it. She needed a good picture, if not to attract a distant groom, at least to remember what a pretty Balzacian she was. Milla grabbed me by my coat, and almost shoved me on the sidewalk. She apologized:

– Desolé monsieur! I have to prepare the tea and fill the narguillés for the ladies that come here every afternoon. I will get the picture and pay you in two days.

As she hastly closed the door on my face, I heard distant horseshoe’s sound coming my way. Probably a carriage, a parisian Madame that loved tea and talk, under the spell of forbidden narguillés.

Fabiana Sarti is a Brazilian physician that loves to write and, whose greatest dream is to be read by someone other than herself. She also draws and doodles all the time making comic strips inspired by friends, family and pets.

Read more stories from the MNC Storyteller Challenge here.