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The street was filled with a cloud of people elbowing each other to get a better view as a silent performer bared his soul before them. Maurice, unlike any other mime in New York City, could bring a crowd to tears as he told stories with his body. I had been going to see his performance once a week since I was six. The way his eyes illustrated every emotion left me speechless each time I watched his miraculous presentation. There was so much that I longed to ask him, but I knew that if I did, he would stare in silence, uninterested in breaking his vow to indulge my curiosity.
“If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them for you. See me after the performance.”
I had been so enthralled in Maurice's magical performance I didn't even notice that his assistant, Henri, had walked onto the makeshift stage with a microphone, wearing a brightly-colored sweater that looked as if a rainbow had thrown up on it. He gave an enlightening introduction about the mime's life before every performance. He would ask for questions after each performance, but I was always too shy.
“I'm going to ask this time,” I whispered to myself as I walked to the end of the line of people who wanted to talk to him. The puzzle that plagued my brain was how this mime, whom everyone admired, could spend his days and years in silence. Did he simply have nothing to say?
“And what can I do for you, miss?” Henri asked, a smile playing at his lips.
“Err … well …” I froze. I could feel my face burning as I managed to forget my question entirely.
“Well, there are several people in line behind you. If you have something to ask, I need you to ask quickly so that we can give others a chance.” He grinned widely at me. He couldn't have been more than 15.
“Yes,” I began. “I was wondering how Maurice managed to uphold his vow of silence for all of these years. Surely, he would need to say something at some point.” As I finished the question, I could see Henri's face light up.
“That is my favorite question to answer. I get asked that at least once per show.” He chuckled a little. “Let's just say, I'm really good at Charades.”
I laughed. “So, why do you and Maurice always come to this street? I mean, as popular as this act is, wouldn't you be able to go anywhere with it?” I asked. The smile left his face and was replaced by a thoughtful look.
“Well …” He paused, seeming uncertain. He didn't make eye contact with me as he murmured under his breath: “I will tell you, but not here. Would you be available in about 20 minutes, when all of these people are gone?”
I nodded. I wondered why it made him so tense. Something in me wanted to say that it was no problem. He didn't have to tell me, I would understand. But I very much wanted to know.
“I'll wait over here until then.” I walked to a nearby bench and sat. The conversation replayed over and over in my mind. I watched as Maurice signed autographs and Henri continued answering questions.
About 20 minutes later, after the crowd had gone, Henri came over to the bench. Without saying a thing, he gestured to me. Puzzled, I followed. We walked to a little diner two buildings away. We went inside, sat and ordered.
“All right, we can talk now,” Henri said as the waitress left the table. “First of all, what is your name?”
“I'm sorry, my name is Claire. I moved here from France when I was four.” I looked down at the glass of water on the table.
“Hello, Claire, I've seen you in the audience quite often. I think you already know that my name is Henri. It's nice to meet you.” He smiled at me. The waitress came with our food and we began to eat. I had a salad with chicken and mandarin oranges and he had a cheeseburger with fries.
Henri and I talked about everything except what we were here to talk about. He seemed to be avoiding the topic. Suddenly, there was a crash in the kitchen and a can of beans rolled along the floor. The waitress ran after it, trying to catch it.
“All right, you've stalled long enough. Back to my question.” I took the break in conversation as an opportunity to change the topic. “Why do you and Maurice keep coming to this particular street?”
“If you really want to know, I'll tell you.” He let out a sigh and put his burger down. “Twelve years ago, we lived in France. Maurice had two children, a boy – me – and a girl. She was a beautiful child whose smile could light up even the dullest of days, and she always found a reason to smile. When she was just four years old she was taken from him by one of his best friends. He tried to stop the man, but they slipped through his fingers. After that, he vowed to spend his life in silence until he got his little girl back.”
“That's when he became a mime?”
“Yes. For the first two years we traveled the world looking for them, and then Maurice heard she had been taken to New York City. So we came here, but we haven't found her yet.” He looked at me with tears in his eyes.
“I have to go.” I got up from the table and hurried out of the restaurant. I ran back to where Maurice had been, hoping he was still there. To my surprise, he was sitting on the very bench I had sat on earlier. He was staring at a bird in front of him that was being fed by a couple of small children. I went and sat beside him. I focused on the bird, too.
“I need to tell you something.” I didn't look up to see if he was listening. I just kept talking. “When I was a little girl, in France, I used to live with my father and brother. There was a man who would visit all the time, and he would play with me endlessly. One day, I followed him to his car, and before I knew what was happening he took me. He took me to New York, where I lived with him for years. I managed to escape and I'm staying with a friend now.” I looked up at him. He just stared at me, the white make-up running as the tears streaked down his face. I could feel myself start to cry too as I waited for a reaction.
“Claire,” he said as he smiled at me. “You look like your mother.”