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Excerpt from ‘The Queen of the Night’ by Alexander Chee

"The Queen of the Night" by Alexander Chee

"The Queen of the Night" by Alexander Chee Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Where did she go?

Here she is in the Bois, then, in the red dress she stole to go to Lucerne.

She is rubbing her foot. She looks to be a grisette with a stone in her shoe, rubbing her foot. Or she is in her Tuileries uniform, the cheap-looking dark dress, the wooden shoes. She is working at the Tuileries, taking the air. Or the dress is something she bought from a junk dealer, a dead woman’s dress most likely, it is all she has right now. But soon, so many more.

Soon a gentleman will draw up in a carriage. This is often why she rubs her feet here by the road. It feels good: she is tired from walking. But the bare foot is also her little flag.

The foot is soft and pale, and clean. It has to be clean.

Sometimes, as she rubs it, she is cleaning it. The gentlemen who love her feet, they often do not touch the rest of her, and this is a mercy. One day she will wander the Bois, stripping the bark from the trees to eat. But for now, she is here.

In The Aeneid, we find a forest grove in the underworld devoted to those who died from love. Aeneas enters and walks past Dido, and in this way learns she killed herself when he left her to continue the quest that had led him there; the smoke he saw when he looked back was her pyre.

I couldn’t remember if she knew he would travel there to see his father again, if she knew this was the one way she could be there, to see him once more. But I think she did.

The underworld is not a place for the living, and those who try to enter are, until they leave, in terrible peril. They are asked to have a very pure heart. The only living girl to ever leave was made to return half the year for eternity, married off to the King of Hell, as she had eaten something there before she left.

I would joke that the entrance was in Paris, in the Bois, until I was nearly sure of it, and then I never made the joke again. But let us say it is there, for the sake of argument, or the story, or what have you. Say it is there and now come in.

Excerpted from “The Queen of the Night” by Alexander Chee. Copyright © 2016 by Alexander Chee. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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