Liza Wieland has published five works of fiction: three novels, The Names of the Lost, (Southern Methodist
University Press, 1992), Bombshell (SMU, 2001) and A Watch of Nightingales (University of Michigan Press, 2009), and two collections of short fiction, Discovering America (Random House, 1994) and You Can Sleep While I Drive (SMU, 1999), as well as a volume of poems, Near Alcatraz (Cherry Grove Collections, 2005). Her work has also been awarded two Pushcart Prizes, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and the North Carolina Arts Council. A Watch of Nightogales won the 2008 Michigan Literary Fiction Award. She lives in Greenville and Arapahoe, NC with her husband and daughter.
Lisa Wieland Interview, with Reneé Nicholson
“Some Churches” is a story written in sections. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose this structure for the story?
I had been working for a long time on a novel that roamed back and forth between Georgia and Pennsylvania in the 1930’s and New York City in the 80’s and contemporary Paris. The connections were tenuous, demanding a lot of intricate stitching in between. After some time (we’re talking years) and a lot of distillation, I decided to let the parts be, let the seams show. And in doing so, I figured out what connected the parts was not really a single character, but these structures—churches or church-like spaces—and also the act of falling or leaping--which the reader is certainly asked to do between sections.
The story also has a strong sense of language, with passages of lyric, almost poetic intensity. You have authored a collection of poems, as well as books of fiction. Does poetry influence the way you approach your fiction? If so, how?
When I began writing, I thought of myself as a poet; I wrote poems; I studied with poets in college and graduate school; I thought I would publish volumes of poetry, so making lines and images is sort of hard-wired in. But my poems were always narrative—one of my teachers called them “strange little stories.” I guess it was only a matter of time, then, until the lines went all the way out to the right margin and came back around as prose sentences. As a writer of fiction now, I’m still more interested in language than in plot or even in character, despite what I preach to my students. If the language of a piece isn’t doing something interesting, I don’t stay with it. I like prose that makes music, interior rhyme, a cadence. I still read a lot of poetry even though I don’t write it much, and I often read poems before I start work in the morning, as a sort of warm-up.
You have written both novels and collections of short stories. How do you adapt your writing process between the longer form and the shorter? Are there differences?
It seems to be the case that I produce a collection of stories after finishing a novel—as if to recover from the marathon. One difference is obvious: writing a story takes less time. I tend to think of stories (at least the first draft) in 1000 word increments. I write by hand, so this is about three pages on a college-ruled yellow legal pad. Very easy to count and feel that ground has been gained each day. When I’m working on a novel, I count time: “OK, you have five hours until after school pick-up. Pour the coffee and get in there.”
Thematically, the idea of your main character saving children from harm runs through the story from section to section. Later, however, this same character finds herself dancing with a stranger in Paris on New Year’s Eve. Do you feel these two threads are working together or creating tension within the story?
Well, I think there’s the idea of rescue there too: that little dance rescues her from a kind of incapacitating fear. Also running through the sections is the idea of people not being afraid for maybe the first time in their lives, as well as the ability or inability to interpret signs and gestures. At first she misinterprets the stranger touching her, but then it turns out not to be threatening, and she doesn’t feel so afraid. So this part both works with the other sections and creates tension.
The second section of the story focuses on what is called a “leap of faith” by the mother—both literally jumping from a moving train, and figuratively looking for a sign to keep her baby. How do you think the backstory influences your main character as we move from section to section in the story?
The backstory is maybe about faith in all its senses. You might say that churches are the embodiment of faith—the building literally contains the faithful and their ways of keeping faith.
Who are your influences as an artist—other authors, or other kinds of artists? Which artists do you admire? What other things influence your work?
Poetry is an influence, as I’ve said. Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck, Alice Fulton, Mark Strand, Philip Levine, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur, to name only a few. As for other fiction writers, I always reach back to William Faulkner, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore (speaking of saving children from harm), Jayne Anne Phillips’ stories, Michael Ondaatje, the Irish writer Colm Toibin for understatement. Henry James, believe it or not. People give me all kinds of grief for loving Henry James, especially the later work, when he was dictating, and so the sentences roll on and on and on.
Song lyrics too: I know the words to every song Darrell Scott has written (and my daughter knows them too; we sing them really loudly on the way to school), Steve Earle, Serena Ryder, Aimee Mann, a group of women (from the DC area) called The Four Bitchin’ Babes, Bruce of course, and Bob Dylan, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jackson Browne. The first poetry anthology I ever owned was a slim paperback, Richard Goldstein’s The Poetry of Rock. Inside the crazy psychedelic cover are (I still have it) song lyrics—Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Arlo Guthrie, Leonard Cohen, etc.
I’m just beginning a novel about a painter, so I have an odd collection of paintings in my head right now: the Native American artist Fritz Scholder, Raoul Dufy, Jean Miro, Mary Cassat, Pierre Bonnard.
And then there’s daily life. A big influence. My previous novels and stories have taken shape out of the Atlanta (where I grew up) child murders, now almost thirty years ago, the Unibomber, the so-called “pregnancy pact” among high school girls in Gloucester, MA, a story I heard from somebody who worked for the Resolution Trust Corporation in the 80’s. Bits and pieces of stories are happening all around me, all the time. They tend to arrive in my head as lines of poetry and then blossom, like those sponges that come in a capsule, and when they melt in the bathtub, you’ve got an elephant, a lion, a raptor floating there, waiting.
I. Our Lady of the Grotto
I saw the baby’s legs, in light green footed pajamas, dangling outside the window on 114th Street. Her mother’s voice drifted down to me from the second floor, a whisper with an edge, from cigarettes, bad air, hard living. I heard her, but I couldn’t see her. My breath came out in little clouds that rose, opened, and came back to my face as tears.
“You take her,” the mother called to me. “Right now. I can’t stand it no more.”
“All right, Nancy,” I said. “I will. I will. Come down and let me in.”
“Take her now. I ain’t letting nobody in. Here.”
I heard Nancy sigh, and then she let the baby go. I stood below, inside a still moment of falling, the horror of it like an echo, a baby in mid-air, a terrible, beautiful flight, divine, awful. Then suddenly, she was in my arms, ten pounds of flesh and bone, this child without wings. I was on the sidewalk with her--the force of her fall had driven me to my knees, my long coat open and bunching at my waist, folds of wool pressing on the baby’s left side, pressing her to my belly. I held her there and held myself. A child from heaven, a baby born out of a voice. People on the sidewalk stood a little ways off, respectful of what they didn’t understand. A black man with snowy white hair broke from the knot of them and asked if he should call somebody. I told him no, that I would take her to a doctor, I would look after her. I felt powerfully that if anyone tried to take this child from me, I would kill him. I would die first. There was a great heat up along my spine and like an arrow to the top of my head. The world swam in my eyes. This man helped me to my feet and went on his way. I carried the baby down 114th Street, past my apartment, around the corner and into Our Lady of the Grotto. The baby was long and light, like a loaf of bread.
Deep inside the church, behind the altar, is a replica of the grotto at Lourdes, the stone cave where the Virgin appeared. Water drips from some hidden vessel into another, and ordinarily, one has an urge to fix the leak, find the tap and close it. I dragged a cushion off the celebrant’s chair and wedged it into a far corner of the grotto. Then I sat down and held the baby, who slept now, warm in my arms. I thought I would like the world to end, before someone found us, before the baby woke up. The sound of falling water took on a shape: straight, vertical, true, while outside, the world shook sideways, wobbled on its axis.
II. Not About a Church, Not Exactly
But about a leap of faith, as my mother would tell it.
She would say this: I lived in a dream, only four weeks. A job in a bank, in Pittsburgh. Extraordinary amounts of cash money, much more than I had ever seen. Small thefts, three in one week. I am good at this, I find, this slyness. My secret life. On a Friday afternoon, I dressed in three changes of clothes and boarded a train eastbound for Philadelphia. From there, I could go to South America, Europe, or anywhere.
I cannot explain what happened next. The sun set. When full dark came, and then supper, I waited until the car I rode in was nearly empty, until the conductor had just passed announcing the dining car was open. Then I left my seat, moving away from the dining car, and let myself through to the place where the cars joined, one to the next. Coupled. I did not think that word at the time, but what of that? I am thinking it now--I can be there now, because I am so utterly nowhere, because there is no such thing as the past, no such thing as was. So I stood on that coupling, watching the night stream past. I stand on it now. The stillness of it, how quickly all that black stillness moved and still moves. Then I leapt, far out into the night.
It might be into a river, I told myself, and then I will freeze. Or it might be onto a road, down into a forest from high up, and then I will hit hard, or my clothes and skin will be torn off on the long way down. It might be through the roof of someone’s unlit house, and then I will be trespassing. What it most surely will be is the end of you. I must say that I was not unhappy about that, the end of you, child, before you had hardly begun.
But the earth below was none of these things, not river, not road, not forest, not house. But grass. Hay. Winter-yellow, if I could have seen it, and covered over with a blanket of new snow, stiff enough to break my fall and roll me over once so that I came to rest on my back, buoyed up, as if in a bed. I lay there still until the train passed out of hearing, and then after. For a while I didn’t feel any cold. I tried to think what I should do. Then it seemed enough time had passed, and so I got up and walked away from the tracks, keeping them exactly behind me, the line of them running perpendicular to my spine. It was steep going, uphill, but I stayed warm at least. Then I came to a lake.
I am telling this as if it were a dream. What I remember most vividly is that I was not afraid. For the first time in my life. I was not afraid because in that hour, my life had taken shape. A woman feels fear when she cannot make a shape for herself, when she does not know who she belongs to, cannot understand that she belongs to herself. But finally I had a shape, and so I got up and walked away.
After some time, I came to a rise and when I crested it, saw what I believed was a lake, frozen and glimmering in the winter night, like a vision of an answered prayer. I could see small houses, wood cabins, places people came to escape the summer’s heat, but boarded up now. That was the prayer I didn’t even know I was praying, I thought, please God, let there be a place. And here it was, this little village sprung up out of nowhere, just for me. The snow was deep, but I made my way through it, from cabin to cabin, pushing on the doors and windows until one of them gave a little. I pushed harder, opened the window and climbed inside.
I moved from room to room with a kind of drunken happiness, the way a new owner moves through her house, assessing, proud. There were two bedrooms, a kitchen, a sitting room and a screened porch. The people who lived there in the summer had left camp blankets and thin tattered bedspreads, and so I gathered all of these onto one of the beds, took off my boots and the two outer layers of clothes, and lay down underneath. I was warm enough. The house was more silent than any place I could remember. There was wind in the trees, an owl, I thought, asking who, who, who had come into its neighborhood. I lay on my back and then I felt you move inside me. So you had survived.
That was a certain kind of favor, my mother would say, a blessing. She thought she would never again feel blessed in any way, not ever. She wondered how she could possibly deserve to be alive and warm and free, and she decided there must be laws for deserving that humans weren’t meant to understand.
III. St. Sulpice
If I say I simply found myself there, in Paris, in the 4th arrondisement, would anyone believe me? 17, rue St. Antoine. The Convent of the Visitation Nuns, the order I would soon leave. It was Christmas day, and I set out to find St. Sulpice, see its famous unmatched towers and Delacroix’s Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. A friend suggested I should make a tour of the famous churches and take note of the mistakes, the illusions, the laws of physics that didn’t apply, or did, but strangely. All is not orderly in the church, he had said, raising his eyebrows.
I thought when I saw it, Jacob is not fighting the angel. He is trying to kiss her. Kiss him, probably, for the angel had a man’s arms and legs. The struggle is delicious now. It made me intensely happy. The forest surrounding the two figures seemed so romantic, so cool and soothing. Who would ever want to leave this place? The longer they carry on this argument, this dance, the longer they get to stay.
After a while, I wandered out and east on rue St. Sulpice to rue de Tournon and north as it becomes rue de Seine, through Place de L’instituit. I say all this as if I am one of those small machines, GPS. So, no one gets lost anymore. This seems like a terrible precedent. Anyway, I crossed the river over the Pont des Arts, skirting the Louvre on its east end, to rue de Rivoli until it becomes rue St. Antoine.
I saw that the convent’s front gate was open, and a line of women and children and a few men was being admitted. A sign outside said Fete de Noel, 25 decembre. A Christmas party. Some impulse siezed me. I had no place to go until later, a dinner where there would be friends of friends, people I hardly knew. I stood at the end of the line, but very soon, it was not the end. A woman with two small boys waited in front of me, all three of them very quiet. The older of the two boys carried a parcel, wrapped in shiny red paper. When the woman turned to look at me, I smiled and then noticed she was looking at my coat. My good American coat. One of the boys began to whimper, and she lifted him in her arms. Almost immediately, he fell asleep, his head lolling over her shoulder. He was a very beautiful child, pale, blonde, like an angel. The other child turned to look up at his mother, then raised his arms and whispered maman, maman. His mother said something in French, turning slightly to show the sleeping brother. Behind us was the sound of a small, fast car moving up the street. I remember how the noise of it was like a crater cut into the day, and how the young boy in front of me turned toward the sound and then began to run into the street.
I didn’t think. I ran and reached out my arms. And then I was holding this boy, surrounded by cars. I saw afterwards that he would not have been hurt, but I had chased after him anyway, caught him, launching us both into the air and then to the ground. I must have looked like a giddy, doting relative, desperate for an embrace from this child. One of the cars stopped, a little ways beyond us, and the driver was opening his door. The parcel, which had flown out of the boy’s hands when I caught him, lay three feet away, crushed under the wheels. The boy was not crying, only staring at me so that I wondered if something had happened to my face. The woman, the mother, was looking down at me, and I said, in French, without thinking, I am American, I am a Visitation nun. I pointed to the open door of the convent, and then a man took my arm and helped me to my feet. There was an acute silence, into which I stood and retrieved the crushed parcel. Voila, I said to the boy, to the driver, voila, as if that was the only word I knew, which, at that moment, it was. The mother still did not speak until I motioned that I would take the sleeping boy. She looked at my coat again, took a breath, and shifted the boy off her shoulder and onto mine. Then she bent to pick up her other child. We stepped up onto the sidewalk and back in line, standing so that our shoulders touched. Thank you, she said, You are very kind, Sister, and then she did not look at me. The boy she held was crying, and she whispered into his ear, words, a low song.
The line moved, not slowly, not quickly. Something that took time was happening inside in the courtyard, where voices echoed. The child breathed into my neck. He was very light. Not much more than two years old, I would guess. His cloth coat smelled like cigarettes. I call myself Camille, I said to the woman. She glanced at me, then at her child, puffed out a breath. I wondered for a second if she knew not to believe me. Thank you, she said again, this time in French, and that was all.
“What does he call himself?” I said in French. I knew it was not the right way to ask the child’s name, but I thought she would get my meaning.
“Jody,” she said, then “his father is American.”
“Petit Jody,” I said. The child stirred in my arms.
The woman said oui, le mignon and something like a quick smile flickered over her mouth.
“Il fait beau,” I said, realizing too late that this was a phrase about weather.
“This one is called Patrice,” she said, indicating the other boy, the one she held.
She laughed then, I think at my poor French as much as anything. Joyeux Noel, she said, slowly, as if teaching me the words, and I wished her the same.
By then we were close enough to the front entrance of the convent. Two women stood greeting the children--I heard them asking and repeating names, and I wondered what I should say, what, exactly, was called for. I was surprised by how much I wanted admission into this world, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know why. If I started talking, in any language, I would explain too much, which would mean, of course, stumbling upon the truth, tomber is the verb the French use, which doesn’t really mean “stumble.” It means “fall.”
And finally, at the door, it did not matter. The woman—only one now, wearing a simple dark blue dress that might have been a habit, but also might not have been—wished us a happy Christmas and asked the names of our children. So I was a mother with a child in the season of mothers and children. Despite my good American coat, I was a woman who wanted to give my son a nice party and perhaps could not afford to.
The front room was high-ceilinged and deep, with a huge fireplace--big enough to walk into upright--at one end. A great screen, like three confessional doors joined together, stood before the burning fire. No child went anywhere near it, not even to see the nativity scene. The furniture in the room, couches, armchairs, tables with lamps, all of it had been pushed back against the walls, and the children sat on a huge Oriental rug, though a few stood pressed to women who appeared to be their mothers, or leaned against them on the sofas. The walls were decorated with greenery and red and white velvet tapestries. A quiet pandemonium was being created by Pere Noel in his great green, ermine-trimmed robe, laughing and talking to the children, or conferring with Pere Fouettard, who followed behind and reminded him of each child’s behavior during the past year. Pere Noel seemed to have a kind of shimmering about him, a reckless joy, and I was reminded of the Ghost of Christmas Present, from Dickens. I could understand enough to hear that he often overturned Pere Fouettard’s verdict, handing out small packages, proclaiming that this child had been very good, this child is an angel.
They were all angels. They were all sick. I understood that finally, seeing the mass of them. A few were in wheelchairs and on crutches, a boy attached to an oxygen machine, some boys and girls bald and silvery from chemotherapy. Many of them, though, had AIDS. I could see it in the lesions and the listlessness. No wonder Jody’s mother had been so willing to let me hold him. Probably no one ever wanted to. I wondered if Patrice was sick as well, thought of their American father. Of course I didn’t know the story, not any of it. Who did know, really? Who cared? They were children full of wishes, even Jody, who slept on and on.
One of the Sisters made a show, a beautiful pantomime, of tapping Pere Noel on the shoulder, and Pere Fouettard exclaimed, She has certainly been very good this year! The children laughed and the Sister whispered something to Pere Noel. He thanked her and announced that there was a meal for them in the dining room. Then we all waited for a slow procession to move out of the room. The dining room faced south, and so there was a haze of pale sunlight in the doorway between the two rooms, a glowing cloud these children went walking into. It did not seem they would ever come back. It broke my heart. I believed I saw one of the Sisters take note of the same vision—I could tell by the way her arms dropped to her sides as she watched. I caught her eye and smiled. She walked over at once, patted Jody’s back. Ils pratiquent, I thought she said.
They are practicing.
Then they were upon us, Father Christmas and his curmudgeonly helper who was so difficult to please. They spoke to Patrice, asked, I suppose, what he wanted for Christmas, if he had been a good boy. Very naughty, said Pere Fouettard, but Patrice’s mother spoke, laughed, corrected, saying, no, he was a good boy. It was his father who was a bit devilish.
Then she looked at me, at Pere Fouettard. “She is American,” she told him. “She is a Sister.” Then she told him in French about the car, the crushed gift in the street.
“Oh! Oh no! Patrice, you were very lucky!” Pere Fouettard said all this, in perfect English, a flat California accent. He held his son hard against his body. “Thank you Sister,” he said to me. “Thank you so much.”
“He’s light as a feather,” I said. “He’s a good sleeper.”
“Like his father,” he said. Then he winked at his wife. Their shared relief seemed suddenly to fill the room. Pere Noel was moving on to the next mother and child, the next pieta. “Merry Christmas, Sister,” Patrice’s father said again. “Peace be with you.” He touched his wife’s cheek. “Peace.” And in the twinkling of an eye, he was gruff again, consulting his list, wiggling his eyebrows like Groucho Marx, utterly, happily wrong about all the children. But once or twice, he glanced back at us, at Patrice, and his head seemed to tremble, to shake as if he were trying to get an image out of his mind
His wife turned and smiled, shrugged her shoulders a little. She asked if Jody was too heavy, if I wanted to get something to eat. I said no and yes, and so we walked into the flood of light, carrying the children. Inside, trestle tables were piled with sandwiches, cookies, cakes, chocolates. There were smaller tables at which one might sit and eat. The sisters moved among the tables, pulling wagons full of wrapped gifts, distributing them. They seemed to know what was inside each package and who should receive it.
“You can have whatever you wish,” the boys’ mother said to me, gesturing toward the food. “There is so much. The children will not want it.”
We sat at a small table at the back of the room, ate sandwiches and cake, while Patrice and Jody wandered back and forth between the tables, observing gifts, commenting on their suitability. His mother translated for me: “They say that is a good car, it goes fast. But the doll is silly. They say that one is not a good present for a boy.”
In between, she asked me about my visit, how long I would be in Paris, did I know anyone in the city. I wanted to ask her name, but I was afraid of seeming forward. It was ridiculous, of course: I had fallen in the street with one of her children and then carried the other. But there was a way she stared at me as I spoke, a kind of distance and concern. I wondered briefly if I had something on my face, a mark, a wound, and I patted my cheeks every so often, then looked at my hands for traces of dirt or blood.
“Your family?” she asked, finally, and I realized that was it, what she was worrying about. Where was my family, on Christmas Day?
“They’re back home,” I said. “In America. In the south.”
“They must be missing you today.”
It happened so fast. I tried to stop the tears, but I couldn’t. They ran down my cheeks and dropped onto the table between my spread fingers.
“That’s good,” she said. “You cry for this whole room. You take the sorrow and get rid of it, and then it will be all right. That’s what Christmas is.”
When it was time to go, the woman told me her name, which was Mirette, and that Pere Fouettard’s real name was Andrew Place. She said it the American way, with the long A. She asked if they could call me, take me to dinner in gratitude for helping her. I told her it was such a small thing, but she said non, non, non. She wrote her number on a card from the Hotel Georges V, and it took me some time to understand she was part of the concierge staff. I found this intensely comforting. She would know how to get anywhere, find anything or anybody.
I walked back to St. Sulpice and stood again in front of Delacroix’s Jacob. I saw it clearly then: they are dancing, Jacob and his angel. Their lovely garments thrown down are like the spill of women’s coats in a back bedroom. A winter party, and one couple has danced their way into this place to be alone, apart.
IV. Like A Church
The weather was portentous, uncertain and the night very cold, but I knew somewhere in Paris, somewhere near the Eiffel Tower, on New Year’s Eve, I would surely be able to buy brandy if I wanted to. The wind rose and rose during the evening, until it was nearly screaming, and the streets were empty. As I walked from my apartment, I was frightened. Cut trees and their decorations came zooming at me, shreds of tinsel wrapped around my legs. Above me, on a balcony, I heard children’s voices, and the pop, pop of firecrackers. The air was hazy from these small explosions, a blanket of smoke and vapor drifting lower. On rue Garibaldi, the Metro comes out of the ground, and I walked in its shadow. Although this was a wider street, it was darker, slightly uphill, the sidewalk more narrow. The few people coming toward me said pardon, whispered the word, and passed close, the leather on our jackets swishing companionably. This proximity, I had been told, meant that I was passing for French. Suspected tourists, a friend had said, were given a wide berth. Wear a leather jacket and boots, she told me before I left America, wear black. She had laughed then. That part you’re used to, I guess, she said.
The spans of the elevated Metro, made a roof, a transom, like a church. Underneath, small barrel fires and lanterns burned, and I overheard the click and shuffle of voices and bodies--vagrants, homeless--eating, settling in for the night. Someone had a radio, I could hear it, going on low, crackling talk and then music. The lights looked cheerful, decorative almost, like the paper bag lights called luminaria—such a lovely word. I knew I was possibly a fool for thinking this, making this scene romantic. A man’s voice called out to me, Bon Annee, then a figure broke from the shadows and began to keep pace with me. He was young, I thought. In his twenties. I did not want to see his face.
“Don’t,” I said to him. “Please.” I tried my French. “S’il vous plait.” Tears were filling my throat. “Please leave me alone.”
I started to run, and then stumbled. He caught me by the arm before I could fall to the ground. “Please don’t,” I said, wailed, really. I did not want to be hurt in a strange city on the last day of the old century, did not want my life to come to this moment of stupidity.
“Madame,” he said, and then something I did not understand.
I stopped moving, because I could not see. I thought I would be sick.
“Je ne parle pas francais, “I told him.
“American,” he said. “You are alone?”
“No,” I said. I took a five franc piece out of my pocket and held it out to him.
“La belle dame, la plus belle dame,” he said, the coin in his hand. He said something else I could not translate, but there was a note in his voice, a pitch. Not concern, not at all. Proof. Instruction. He was going to make me understand something. He took my left hand in his, and with the other he pulled my body close. I recall the material of my jacket crunched in his embrace--I remember the sound because I thought it was the last I might hear. The man smelled like burning wood and fish, or maybe more like the river the fish came from. Like the Seine, I thought. He said, “You are OK.” Not a question. After a moment though, I did not feel afraid. People behind him watched. It was New Year’s Eve, and suddenly it seemed no harm could come to me.
We danced then. This is what happened, though I still cannot quite believe it. The others behind him hooted, called out in French. He lifted me high into the air, I saw rue Garibaldi move slowly around us, and I felt amazed. This was the way to see Paris, see it all, to look literally around, dancing in the arms of a stranger who smelled like the Seine.
After two slow circles, he stopped, set me on my feet, let go my hand and my waist, stepped back.
“Merci, Madame,” he said, then again, holding up the five franc piece that had been pressed between our palms. He was a shadow again, in the shadows.
“De rien,” I said. It is nothing.
But this is not true.
V. But Of Course
You could leap from the Pont Neuf, I thought, but almost no one does, no suicides jump from any of the bridges or quais in Paris. It wasn’t far enough a drop--you’d just get smacked by the water, monumentally wet. Parisians would laugh at the silliness, the impurity of the gesture. Nearly twenty years ago, on my last retreat, one of the priests had said to me, think why you cannot take the pure leap. But I couldn’t think, couldn’t answer him. I could only think of it as falling. I could only think of it in a painting: Breugel’s The Fall of Icarus. The water, far down, falling--what did it mean in the world, which took so little notice? The city of Paris has this motto: It floats but does not sink.
So we crossed over the river, my almost-grown daughter and I, and then there it was, the place I’d seen all my life, so much larger than one expected, Notre Dame, lit from inside, by light, but also by music, strains of Adeste Fidelis. Here, I thought, gazing at the pure leap of the flying buttress, here if you did not leap, you could enter the house of God.
Outside, tourists with candles waited in line. “Even at this hour,” I said, pointing to them.
“Especially at this hour, Mother,” Sophie answered.
We drifted into the crowd, and for some minutes we were gone from ourselves. We were part of an idea, part of a house, of the famous birth, longing for peace, celebration. Briefly we were separated, and I knew I could have wandered into the mingling of tourists and faithful, but I stayed where I was. I wanted Sophie to find me again, to have to look, to be afraid for me, to miss me. She was off to college in a few months, and I missed her already. A café on the corner was still open, still filled with revelers. I wanted to go there later, sit down inside, have a drink. Or maybe sit outside under the heat lamps and look up at the gargoyles, and thumb my nose at them, like a child, say you don’t scare me anymore.
In a few minutes Sophie was beside me again, laughing.
“There you are,” she said. “Thunderstruck.”
“Mother?” Sophie said. She put her hand near my shoulder but didn’t quite touch me, as if she were afraid. “Do you want to go in?”
“No. Not right now. That’s all right.”
“Yes, you do,” she said. “Notre Dame at the end of the century. Even I want to go in.”
“The place might fall down around us if I went in.”
“Of course it won’t,” she said.
We joined the end of the line. A young boy selling candles approached us. He said something very quickly, and Sophie laughed. She said OK in English and paid for two candles.
“He says we have to put them out before we go in. But it’s pretty for now.”
When the line was nearly to the doors of the nave, Sophie pressed forward to listen, then returned to me. “If you can say ‘I’ve come for the concert’ in French, you can get in,” she said.
“You’ll have to say it for me, Sophie. I can’t say it.”
She looked at me for a moment, right into my head, it seemed. “Can you go in, Mother?” Then she asked the question as my mother would have. “Will you allow yourself to go in?”
I nodded, unable to speak. She took my arm in hers, the material of our coats whispering darkly. Then she spoke the magic words to the man at the gate. Inside was a murmurous silence. The pews were filled, and people stood clustered in the side chapels. A boys’ choir sang somewhere. I could not see them, but I thought I recognized the song-- I had learned it in school--un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella, un flambeau, j’arrive au berceau. That’s what French waiters say, j’arrive. I’m coming. I’ll be right there.
Beside us, pressed close to the wall, a man held a child on his shoulders. Little by little, as the boys’ silvery notes rose into the air, I watched this child fall asleep, his head leaning forward over his father’s, and then back finally to rest against the stone cloak of--who was it? I could not see the name at the foot of the statue--a female saint. The child’s lips moved a little in his sleep, visions of sugarplums, is what I thought, what I hoped. The father seemed aware of his son’s shift and stillness. He smiled, touched the woman next to him with his elbow, rolled his eyes upward when she looked at his face. She saw her child sleeping and smiled too. Our eyes met, and she gave a little shrug, closed her eyes, exhaled.
How easy it is, I thought, to get her meaning. I was astounded. For many years, many years ago, I’d lived in a house of women religious, a place where the signs and gestures nearly always eluded me. What did it mean, I was always asking, this sign, that look, this little voice, that hurried promise? And here, now, in a foreign land, the expression on a woman’s face, the smallest shift in her body, all of it was so clear. They need to be held aloft, she was telling me, children need to be kept from falling. And they sleep anywhere. Wouldn’t you like that? she was asking. Wouldn’t we all like it, to be held in the air, to be so at peace? She put her arm around her husband’s waist. This will end, I thought, we will go in peace. The people who were standing began to mill about, shift, compose themselves back into the world, make a crowd. I took Sophie’s hand and she squeezed mine. I would need to hold on to get out.