Christmas that year was one of empty tables and empty stomachs. The armies camped around the city sang carols in a brief reprieve from the thundering cannons, but the joy was short-lived. As Winter wrapped itself like an icy shroud around Paris, the people trapped inside began cannibalizing the once proud city of lights.
It was still dark when Antoine awoke. The air was frigid, and he wrapped his arms around his chest and curled closer to his younger brother Gabriel who was still sound asleep. Antoine could see Gabriel's sunken cheeks had turned crimson from the cold's touch.
The floorboards softly creaked, and their mother, Marie, came into the room holding a candle wrapped in a thick wool blanket. Her frozen breath drifted in the flickering light.
"Antoine," she said softly, "It's time to wake up."
"I know," Antoine groaned.
"Remember to ask about any leftovers," Marie said.
"I will, momma," Antoine replied.
There was no heating oil, and the air inside the house felt colder than outside. Antoine took a deep breath and threw the blanket off his body. His frozen joints felt like they were grinding against his bones, and the air felt like a shell of ice.
Antoine's empty stomach growled, and his head spun as soon as he got to his feet. His stomach cramped, and a wave of nausea washed over him. However, Antoine couldn't let something like the effects of slow starvation keep him from work. Their father went missing fighting the Prussians. It was up to fifteen-year-old Antoine to do everything he could to keep his family from starving. He found work as a waiter in an upscale restaurant. Serving Parisians whose resources kept their families out of hunger's cruel grasp.
Even when most of the city was forced to shut off their gas lamps, their section could still find the oil to keep the lanterns glowing at night. They didn't stay warm with wool blanks and burning furniture; instead, they shrouded themselves in the fur of arctic animals. For people like Antoine and his family, the siege forced them into near starvation. For the diamond-studded elite, it was a temporary change in diet. If rats and dogs were now going to be considered gourmet, then that's what they would eat, and everyone else would have to be content with onion skins in water.
Gabriel's light cough worked up into a hacking fit. His cheeks flashed red as he tried to clear his throat.
"Easy, easy," Antoine said, gently patting the boy on his back.
"Antoine, do you think they'll let you bring him any food today?"
Antoine hesitated to answer. "I'm sure they will," he assured the hungry child.
"Antoine, if we eat tonight, do you think it would be ok for me to see the elephants tomorrow?"
"We'll see," said Antoine. "You just try and rest."
"I want to see Castor eat with his trunk!"
Antoine smiled. "Don't worry, we'll see Castor. Maybe you can join the herd. I hear you get all the peanuts you can eat!"
Antoine put on his coat and stepped out outside. The sky was a washout grey, and a layer of glimmering snow covered the streets. With every step, Antoine could feel the slush pouring over the top of his shoes, drenching his socks and numbing his feet.
The streets were filled with human scavengers looking for any food or fuel. Some houses had been torn down by hand, and the wood burned in great bonfires on the streets. The remnants of the pyres now smoldered in the colorless dawn light, and the people shuffled off to find the church and soup kitchens hoping to get their bite for the day.
When Antoine arrived at work, the dining room was filled with gentlemen in frock coats and ladies with glimmering pearls around their necks. They seemed indifferent to the artillery fire booming in the distance. Preferring instead to focus on the petty complaints they had about their five-star meals. The hot food on the patrons' plates made Antoine salivate like a dog. The hunger gripped his stomach, and his head began to spin.
Chef Francis, a rotund man with beady eyes, emerged from the kitchen. "Antoine, get back here. I need your help!"
Antoine shook it off and raced to the kitchen, where several men dragged giant crates in through a back entrance.
"What's this, Antoine? Asked. Francis flashed a yellow-toothed grin as he pried the crate open with a crowbar. The wood split, and the top fell off. The staff gasped. Inside the crate was the massive frozen head of Castor, the elephant. His trunk had been cut away. The stump was crusted with crystalized blood and a holeshot in his head. His fan-sized ears were frozen stiff. His onyx eyes stared sightlessly up at Antoine.
"The fancy people are going to like this!" Francis roared. "I hope it's not too tough."