Soon we shall plunge into the cold darkness;
Farewell, vivid brightness of our short-lived summers!
― Charles Baudelaire, “Autumn Song”
It is 1859. Where has his strength gone? His arms are like brooms held at arms’ length to disturb a hornets’ nest, only his are joined at his shoulders. Numb, barely under his control. It is l’automne now, the time of dying, when the hornets die off or disappear to hide with their Queen. Baudelaire’s deadened broomstick arms serve no purpose now except to take the louched glass of absinthe once the sugar lump has been dissolved by dripping ice water.
No other purpose except to invite la fée verte to fill him up and let him see.
A poet’s mission is to see, and when he can see no longer, he no longer serves a purpose … except to take the louched glass of absinthe and try again.
“Just the one,” Baudelaire and Verlaine and the rest of them liked to say at the café, laughing at their own brazen dishonesty. There was no sense in denying that most of them would be there well into the afternoon, then the evening, sipping their absinthes. That was why they did it: there was no sense in it. There was sense in taking laudanum, its medicinal value unquestioned, and that is why Baudelaire hid it from his friends. They could tell, in all likelihood, but soon the absinthe took hold and if they had ever thought to say something to him about it, their resolve was soon lost in a luxurious green haze.
He loved the autumn, the wind turning bitter, the leaves throwing themselves from their nurturing mothers to die on the ground, the sense that a long period of solemnity and death was soon to follow. In the boarding house’s toilettes, Baudelaire could see in his reflection the sunken cheeks, the shaking of the hand holding the razor, the eyes in which there was no sense of anything but hunger and death. He was l’homme d’automne, the Man of the Fall, a perfect surnom if ever there were one. Positively Miltonian.
Those eyes did actually show something other than hunger and death, but only when he drank his first glass of la fée verte, picturing her smooth and cruel face in front and long, narrow wings behind. Then his eyes showed fear.
And it was glorious, an emotion that took away the hunger for laudanum and the signs of imminent mortality that otherwise took up residence in his eyes. He felt the fear because when he embraced his green fairy with his first glass, the green monster was sure to arrive soon.
La fée verte, then le monstre vert. As sure as summer is followed by autumn. And what follows autumn? Winter, la mort.
Baudelaire thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. His first sips of absinthe brought him into a more relaxed state than even the laudanum, because he could see his intoxicated self from the outside when he drank absinthe, as one saw his own body from above after death. When he took his laudanum, there was only bliss, no understanding, no way to see.
Without the louche understanding granted by his beloved fairy, he would not have noticed the shapes, the shadows in the café and outside on the uneven pavé of the sidewalk and boulevard. “Do you see them?” he asked Manet, who had been fussing with the brim on his hat as he always did during his first absinthe. (A second finished glass would leave the painter staring at the hat, unmoving; and a third would find the hat on the floor, forgotten.)
Manet looked up from the hat. “I see all the time,” he said. “It is my business to allow others—”
“No, no, I mean the shapes. The shades.” Baudelaire motioned vaguely to a corner of the café which was dark most of the day anyway, but now held a green shadow, indistinct but most assuredly there.
Manet glanced into the corner, said nothing, and returned to his glass and his hat.
“You do not see?” Baudelaire’s voice was a harsh whisper. “You are drinking absinthe, oui?”
“I should like to, if you would leave me the hell alone.”
The shades overlapped now, darker where they met. They shifted and crawled up and down the walls, but no more about them, no detail, was given to the poet. “Morrrrre,” he could hear them moan, wheezing out the command Baudelaire knew he would always obey. He downed the rest of his glass and motioned to the barman for another. He would not see more of the green monster until he had done more business with the green fairy. Until she made him good and drunk.
You have to be always drunk.
That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way.
So as not to feel the horrible burden of time
that breaks your back and bends you to the earth,
you have to be continually drunk.
Four glasses finished now. Baudelaire had not noticed Manet get up from his stool, but the seat was empty and the painter was nowhere to be seen. His hat remained on the floor, however, and that made Baudelaire smile. The absinthe was a waking dream. But dreams, he knew, were all too common and never brought to fruition.
More absinthe brought forth the nightmare creature, the thing that came into focus where the miasmic shades overlapped. Not just absinthe, Baudelaire suspected, although he was beyond careful thought at his fifth glass. “Just the five,” he mumbled, and allowed himself a tiny cackle.
The nightmare creature of absinthe la cinquième was visible only to the poet, apparently. Manet drank as much or more as he, but had never seemed to notice the creature, hunched over, its spine raised like a row of graves, its piscine head with its huge black eyes, the needle-like teeth escaping its closed mouth, its hands more like pincers. It was right there. It was right in the corner.
It is right there.
Its black eyes were not fixed on Baudelaire, as they never were when he saw the creature that must, surely, have been standing there the whole time, invisible to most everyone, including the poet when he was not yet deeply in his cups. Now that he was full of the green fairy, he could see the green monster.
The monster espied the whole café, moving its head rather than its featureless black eyes. It paused at each absinthe-drinking patron, letting their forms inhabit its mind, before moving on to the next.
It did not stop at Baudelaire. It never stopped to look at him, even though he had been there drinking his anise for hours. His glass, he saw, was even now emptied.
“Do you want to sssssee?” the monster hissed. No one else heard it, and indeed Baudelaire could tell that the thing’s mouth never moved to enunciate any words. It was a thing only Baudelaire could see, something only he could hear. That is called l’hallucination, his own mind called over the monster’s mind, which asked again, “Do you want to sssssee?” The last word was stretched out, lasting forever.
Yes, I do, la chimère, he said to the chimera without speaking a word.
“Then drinnnnnnnk,” it said, and the barman filled his glass and set the water dripping over a fresh sugar cube, all without Baudelaire making any request.
The sugar dissolved, the liquid turning milky green-white.
Baudelaire drank, and he saw. He had seen this many times before, in fact, but never remembered until he was five glasses in and saw what the creature was doing and it was too late to close his eyes. He wasn’t sure that would have made any difference, anyway.
For he who has not folded in his arms
A skeleton, nor fed on graveyard charms,
Reeks not of furbelow, or paint, or scent,
When Horror comes the way that Beauty went.
The creature, the monster, the fairy’s friend, would have stood at least seven feet tall if it hadn’t been so bowed, so bent in a way that made it look forever stalking, forever creeping even though it was invisible to everyone but Baudelaire. As it was, it was almost six feet high at its highest hump of shoulder before its head dipped down to about the five-foot level. It was the perfect height for the monster’s head, as it leaned in and kissed each absinthe drinker on the lips.
How the creature could do this with its mouth of overlapping needles, how it could kiss—if, indeed, this were a kiss and not a bite—these men and women, drunk though they were, the poet had no idea. But it’s what the thing did, stealing kisses from every drinker in the place except Baudelaire. Why not me? he asked the creature, which didn’t stop its work to answer him. It never did, he remembered, never stopped to regard him until it had finished its gathering.
Every person it kissed soon after let out a cough or a hard sigh, and that was all. They didn’t look or act any different, the less-drunk people talking and gesturing and the more-drunk ones simply staring at something, or maybe nothing. In other words, no matter that some horrid creature had just sucked out part of them, everything carried on as it had done before.
The monster was different now, however. Like a green leaf dying, as it drank it slowly lost its healthful color to become a sickly brown. The mottling of its skin darkened, making it resemble a rotting fish left behind in murky water at the bottom of an old rowboat. By the time it was done kissing every patron of the café, the monster was the color of wet mud.
When it was done, the creature slid toward Baudelaire, and once again he remembered what had happened every time, hundreds of times, thousands even, since the poet had first encountered the green fairy in a different café, one for which he couldn’t even recall its name.
He remembered now that this was the moment where the monster slid toward him at his table and said, “Did you sssssee?”
As always, he nodded.
The horrid spider eyes and deep-sea fish mouth moved in. It was all Baudelaire could do not to scream. Even if he did scream, of course, no one at the bar or tables would spare him a glance. A scream was not an uncommon occurrence here. This was where you went to experience death without dying. You went to the green fairy, who awoke the green monster to do its merry work.
“Then witnesssss …”
The creature pushed its face against Baudelaire’s thin lips, somehow making it feel like a kiss as it dumped all of its collected despair and loathing and fear directly into the poet’s soul. Its skin returned to an absinthe green as it filled Baudelaire to bursting with brown autumn sorrow. The kiss lasted forever, but somehow it finally ended.
The monster did not smile—that would be horrible beyond anything Baudelaire could bear—but its crouched stalking seemed lighter as it returned to its corner, where soon it faded into the green-black shadows. Just before it disappeared entirely, it whispered:
Sitting at his usual café on his usual stool, Baudelaire swirled the last bit of liquid in his sixth glass, sucking it down and bending down to reach for Manet’s hat. Where the time went when he danced with la fée verte, he could never remember. But he had a new poem in his head as he put on his friend’s topper and walked out into the blustery air. He felt inspired with the bile and drunkenness of a day badly spent.
When he returned to his room bare of all but a table, chair, and mat, Baudelaire began writing with the fervor of a witness. He wrote as he always did, about decay and loss and the slow, slow destiny of fading away, one kiss at a time, to feed a darkling monster while sitting insensate upon a barstool, lulled like autumn’s hornets into cold and death.
All of winter will return to me:
derision, hate, shuddering, horror, drudgery and vice,
And exiled, like the sun, to a polar prison,
My soul will harden into a block of red ice.