Sunlight on a fallen spire: impressions of a cathedral ablaze
Paris, Easter 2019
Our bags are packed for Paris, the taxi already at the door, when a friend texts that Notre-Dame is on fire. My hands shaking, I unpack the laptop I had switched off and put away. Hearing my wail, my husband rushes back into the house to see me staring at the screen with tears running down my face. We watch the spire lit up like a filigreed luminaria, burning brightly against a crepuscular sky.
* * *
Aloft over the Atlantic at midnight, sleepless and sad. Had the fire been extinguished? Or would the cathedral that had weathered tempests and revolution, wars and occupation, succumb to a careless spark? Not terrorism, thank god, it did not seem to be terrorism, or the whole world might go up in flames.
* * *
My novel was written in the soaring presence of Notre-Dame; many scenes take place in and around it. But what flashes into my mind is something quite different. Early in the decade—when the novel was no more than a bar of music drifting down from a lighted window, a conversation overheard in the street, a shadowy presence just beyond a pool of lamplight—Daniel and I were strolling one June evening across the islands in the Seine, only to find ourselves suddenly surrounded by a host of merrymakers in the great parvis of Notre-Dame. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, laughing apparitions clad in white. Chairs and tables materialize, tablecloths flutter in the breeze, champagne corks pop, and we are onlookers at a mystic feast. A mirage? No, it is the fabled white party, the dîner en blanc, whose date and location are so secret that, as one of the organizers tells me, “we don’t whisper it even to our lovers.” And then the stealthy figures fade away, and the only trace of that celebration is the spectral residue of dreams.
* * *
When we tell the taxi driver we are going to the Île Saint-Louis, he throws up his hands in frustration. “Ah, non, non, non,” he says, “impossible!” Apparently the roads all around the island are blocked because of the fire. He yells at us as if it is our fault. Doucement, monsieur, doucement, I tell him, drop us as close as you can. He continues to grumble under his breath, and when we reach Pont Sully—which indeed is blocked going to the island—he says he will drop us there. But as we get ready to alight, he sprints across the road and tells the policemen that his passengers are personnes agées who cannot make it across the bridge with their baggage, can he park the taxi on the street for a minute to give us a hand. I am so surprised, I forget to bristle at being called aged. The policeman waves us through the barricade so that the taxi can take us right to the wrought iron gate of the apartment where we stay. The taxi driver shakes our hands, and apologizes. He’s not méchant, he says, that’s just how he speaks, but didn’t we get lucky with the policeman? I nod. Fraternité, I say. He laughs and drives off.
* * *
The French find it risible that someone whose expertise lies in incendiary remarks and igniting firestorms should give advice on putting out fires with flying water tankers. Sapeurs-pompiers have always been heroes to the French, and now more than ever; those who fight fires for a living know that water used irresponsibly can do as much damage as fire.
* * *
Up in the apartment, our friend MarieJo has placed several sprigs of boxwood in a vase. She had been to Notre-Dame for the mass, she said, on Palm Sunday. Dimanches des Rameaux to the French, who grow boxwood in their northern gardens where palms will not thrive. They save the blessed twigs till Ash Wednesday the following year, when they will be burned and the ash used to mark their foreheads. “The music,” says MarieJo, “it was so splendid this year.” And the four of us, she and Didier, Daniel and I, stand there in shared silence. For a brief moment, what Benjamin Franklin once said still seems true: every man has two countries, his own and France. Then our friends leave and we are alone in the apartment, and in the distance all we hear is the distinctive double-note of French police sirens: whoop-wheep, whoop-wheep, whoop-wheep.
* * *
The spire has fallen; the myriad-timbered roof has burned. Only the sky shelters the cathedral now, as breezes congregate in the chapels, and the sun shines like a searchlight into those cool, dim corners.
* * *
The Île de la Cité is closed to all save riverains. We are not residents, I tell a policeman, and I know the cathedral is cordoned off, but is it possible to visit the Memorial de la Déportation close by? He shakes his head. Not at this time, he says; but it’s a beau musée. We have been there before, I tell him, it’s a sort of pilgrimage. He nods, thinking we must be Jewish, here for Passover.
* * *
On Good Friday, the sun shines with all its might. The parks are abloom with flowers; the flowers are abuzz with bees. The scent of lilacs drifts through the air; an iron fence is festooned with swags of wisteria. And everywhere one sees the delicate lacy branches of redbuds, known in French as flowering Judas.
The quays and the bridges are crowded for the chemin de croix, and through loudspeakers set up along the route, the mellifluous voice of the priest intones each station of the cross. We stand at the margins of the faithful—which we are not—as they drop to their knees, finger their rosaries, sing Ave Maria. But as we look at the half-burned cathedral still stubbornly standing, it is hard not to believe in miracles.
* * *
Elsewhere, life goes on . . .
A pair of white swans rocks gently on the green water, dipping their beaks greedily as someone casts bread their way.
A sidewalk painter tells us this fire is bad for business, the tour guides do eight to ten tours a day of the cathedral, but now there is no work for them.
The day is hot and as always there are long lines outside Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis. The ice cream drips to the sidewalk, sticky beneath our feet.
Small children gleefully chase pigeons, which fly up with an irritated flap of wings and land elsewhere in puff of dust.
The police sirens go on and on.
After sunset, les jeunes converge on the riverbanks and we hear them drumming late into the night.
At cafés and street-corners, people argue animatedly: “The big companies have promised to donate millions for the restoration.” “Yes, but they’ll want tax deductions, so we’ll end up paying, as usual.”
We read about the three-dimensional models which will make it easier to faithfully reconstruct the cathedral; a debate has already begun whether it should be faithfully reconstructed, or updated for the twenty-first century, as a mixed use development, perhaps.
The gilets jaunes hold a protest march against the government on Saturday; they are warned to stay away from Notre-Dame. Small fires spring up during the demonstration, this time set on purpose. The police use tear gas and water cannons to disperse the Yellow Vests.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame sells briskly at Shakespeare and Company; a sign at the bookshop says all profits from the sale of Victor Hugo’s novel will go toward restoring the cathedral.
And people continue to take pictures of themselves, the flying buttresses only a backdrop to the central drama of their own lives.
I think of the ending of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”:
. . . and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
How quickly our quotidian lives reassert themselves in the face of the cataclysmic, the unimaginable.
* * *
A week that started with horror ends in hope. Though much is lost, much remains.
The rose windows with their stained glass. Saved!
The great belfry. Statues of the saints. Saved!
The crowing rooster atop the spire—symbol of the indomitable French spirit—is discovered in the debris. Saved!
The organ that set MarieJo weeping. Sauvé!
Religious relics from the cathedral’s treasury. Saved!
Didier has left a jar of honey for us, collected from his own hives at Chantilly. He was stung twenty times, he said, and had to be rushed to the hospital. He will be happy to know that the bees that lived on the cathedral’s roof are saved.
Thankfulness swells and reverberates like the notes of an organ, a chorus of hallelujahs.
* * *
Easter Sunday and Notre-Dame is silent and deserted, the faithful have moved away to St. Eustache for the service. Meanwhile, shocking news from the sub-continent: an Easter Sunday attack on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, a country we love. We were just in Colombo last year and all seemed peaceful. Now hundreds are dead. How did these flames of hatred ignite again?
* * *
The confectionery shops in every quartier of Paris look particularly festive, with their elaborate chocolate creations—rabbits and chickens and eggs. Even a fish with glistening scales. At the sight of the fish, I am carried back to my childhood in Calcutta. Auntie Lorna has come to visit carrying a big cardboard box from Flury’s. “Happy Easter, Putul,” she says, for she is one of the faithful. How blessed I am in my aunties, bound to me for the rest of my life not by blood but by affection. What a gift it was to grow up among people of different faiths, speaking in different tongues. And now that I am the age my aunties were then, with only a handful of people still alive to address me by that childhood pet name–little doll–I think of how the decades have melted away, like chocolate under the Indian sun, and I mourn the losses of people and places so dear. Yet I carry that sweetness in my memory, and when memory, too, falls victim to the depredations of time, that feeling will find resurrection in the vaulted cathedral of the heart.
* * *
Daniel and I look down at the river’s green waters; they are calm today, the air is still, the wailing sirens are silent. The brilliant sunshine glints off gilded balconies and statues. How hot it is!
“I’m burning up,” says a passerby, and then laughs nervously as she realizes what she just said.
* * *
. . . and the exquisite disdainful swans that must have seen
Something amazing, an inferno blazing up to the sky,
Nibble their bread and glide serenely on.