the Notre Dame sections

For the past couple weeks I have been sharing a bit of a long story set inside Notre Dame Cathedral near the end of the Second World War. Today, the final part — Part 3 is posted here. This rather lengthy partial story is part of a bigger endeavor — a novel, called “Instructions for jumping from a Train.” I have novels that failed to launch, sitting in a sad drawer. This is one of those novels. Maybe in time, I will see a way to pull these novels into a shape that works.

Notre Dame Cathedral 
3.

“I will very likely kill one more elephant…”

      But there was something else. Catrina can sense there is more he wanted to say, but he stopped himself. 

      “What aren’t you telling me?”

      “You should leave, Catrina. Get far away from here. Stay off the bridges. Just go home. Go home and hug your kids, your husband, your mother, your brothers and sisters.”      

       She thinks about her husband’s face. His unwavering and intense eyes. Too intense sometimes, but she chalks this up to the war and the German occupation. The scar along his jaw line. Daniel. He wrote for an underground newspaper and was involved with the Résistance. She has not seen him for three months. He left in May because it was rumoured something was happening – something like an invasion, or a pre-invasion, and the Allies needed help. A note was hand delivered to her three weeks ago. Daniel was alive. He loved her. He could not say where he was. 

      They have a daughter. If Catrina closes her eyes, she can smell her daughter’s hair. She can remember the feel of her daughter’s skin as if she was sitting in the cathedral with them and Catrina was reaching out and touching her face. 

      They have been living above a café on Rue Mouffetard. Catrina has been working in the café, behind the bar. All these certainties rattle through her brain and then the question of why she was floating in the Seine arises, and she has no answer. Why would she be floating in the river in the middle of a war? 

      “So you’ve decided. This conversation has been for nothing.” 

      The soldier sighs. He shakes his head. “This conversation has been a small joy inside a great darkness.”

      Catrina looks at him and it hurts her heart. She imagines him coming in here for one last look. Maybe he only wanted a few hours of peace and quiet in this place that felt, to him, not exactly of this world. Maybe he wanted to take it in – every detail he could gather. Every glimpse of light. Every hesitation of sound. Every stone worn smooth by those who believed, or wanted to believe, or were too scared not to believe. Maybe he felt it was his duty to gather as much of this cathedral’s light into his eyes, and as much air into his lungs before he destroyed it. Not his duty as a soldier, but rather his as a human being. He was so tired. He had worked diligently with his comrades to place explosives and run wires. Now, they were gone and he was on his own. What if there was no dilemma for him? What if it was as cut and dry? A hopeless desperation rises up in her. Catrina wonders if perhaps she could get close enough to kill him. Could she kill him? Or capture him? She’s not sure. It’s an option but even though she’s seen too much death in the past four years, she’s not sure she knows how to kill someone – let alone an experienced soldier.

      “Do you have family?” the soldier says. His voice startles her.

      “Yes,” she says. “A daughter. A husband.”

      “And parents?”

      “Yes. Near Montpellier.”

      “And would you trade their lives for the continued existence of this building?”

      “Not just a building – a cathedral. An eight-hundred year old cathedral. A cathedral that was here before Columbus sailed to the new world.”

      “Would you sacrifice your daughter for this cathedral? Everything she is. Everything she will be. Would you trade her for this building?”

      “No…”

      “…but you would like me to do this.”

      “No.” She stops. “Is that it? Is that what’s at stake?” Catrina swallows hard.

      “My dear Catrina, the Allies may be pushing toward Germany but the Third Reich is not an animal without teeth. It’s backed into a corner and therefore, more dangerous, more ruthless, more brutal – if you can imagine such a thing. As I mentioned, Hitler wants Paris razed.”

      “And yet, you hesitate. You know this war is lost. Germany is practically alone against the world. The world is going to prevail.”

      “I’m tired. I’m so goddamned tired.” 

      “What could I offer that would make you not do this? Is there some way to keep your family safe?”

      “Yes. Go home and let me do my duty.”

      “What if there was a way?”

      He considers this. He nods his head. “Can you assure the safety of my family? Can you guarantee this?”

      “What if you were to be killed, here in this chapel and word leaked out that you were killed in the line of duty, or by a sniper?”

      He looks around the empty Cathedral. “You want me to die?”

      “I want you to live. And I want this building to live. And I want your family to live.”

      “You want a great many things, Catrina.”

      She looks at him. “Who will know that you failed to follow this one order? You yourself said Paris was about to be liberated. My point is, if they believe you are dead, you would not have to worry about your family.”

      “And how would you make them believe this?”

      “My husband. He writes for a newspaper. It’s underground, but perhaps it is enough. And once Paris is liberated, it won’t be underground anymore.”

      Catrina can see the soldier turn inward. He looks at his boots. 

      She can smell stale incense – a faint acrid reluctance in her nostrils. 

      “And when I try to go home? What then?”

      “Then, it won’t matter. You’ll hug your wife and kids, and carry on living. You’ll do what men and women always do when wars end.”

      “You mean weep every day for the rest of my life. Feel shame, remorse and the utter stupidity of war every morning when I wake? Feel the desperate futility of life?”

      “Not exactly what I was thinking, but fine…”

      “What were you thinking? That this horror can be shunted aside? And then life goes on as usual?”

      “Yes. Something like that. I mean, we will grieve. We will all grieve. The world will grieve. And then at some point, life will call to us. Children will laugh. We will have full bellies. There will be wine. We’ll remember love. Beauty will rise to the surface. And slowly, we will step beyond this…”

      “We will be lost and we will try to forget,” he says.

      This takes Catrina’s breath. The truth of it catches in her throat. Every molecule of her maternal being wants to comfort this stranger. She wants to hug him until his pain his softened. She wants to hold him, keep him safe, and stand guard over him – even for just an hour, half an hour, ten minutes. 

      The soldier stands up. Catrina watches as he moves toward her. He sits on the bench in front of her and turns toward her. His uniform is in rough shape. The knees are ripped on both legs, and one of his chest pocket flaps has been ripped off. His boots are muddy and dull. She can see he is a working soldier – a soldier who is more concerned with getting the job done than with appearances. This frightens her. 

      It feels like she’s about to lose him. He’s drifting away from his hesitation. 

      “Can I come over there?” she says.

      He looks up. Considers her question for perhaps a minute, and then nods slowly.

      Catrina gets up from her bench and joins him on the floor. She sits next to him; she leans back against the stone wall – makes she her leg brushes his.

      “What if you and I escaped? What if you and I put everything before this moment behind us? I mean everything. We get up right now. You take off your uniform. We’ll find you some clothes. You take my hand and we walk out of here and don’t look back.” She reaches out and touches his hand. She leaves her hand on his. The soldier closes his eyes, as if it has been a long, long time, since he has experienced tenderness. It’s as if he’s breathing her touch – letting the warmth of her hand move through his body. They sit like this at the base of a pillar, her hand on his, and they do not speak. Catrina wonders if he’s actually considering her suggestion. Or if he’s only thinking about getting up and walking out of the cathedral and pressing a button. She thinks the button, or the switch, or the plunger, must be red. She doesn’t know but she imagines it red. 

      “Of course, you’re not serious.”

      “I think we could be happy together. I think I could make you happy.”

      “You would make this suggestion to save this ridiculous building?”

      “No, I would make it because I want to save you.” 

      The soldier looks at her as if he is trying to read between the lines. “You think I will not sleep well if I blow it up?”

      “I think you will be haunted by it – ruined beyond belief. Ruined at a cellular level. This war is lost. You know this to be true. Don’t do this thing.”

  The soldier looks at her as if he is trying to read between the lines. “You think I will not sleep well if I blow it up?”

      “I think you will be haunted by it – ruined beyond belief. Ruined at a cellular level. This war is lost. You know this to be true. Don’t do this thing.” 

       Her memory comes like a boogieman around a dark corner – it is jolt of electricity. It jars her. She turns away from the soldier. She remembers taking a taxi from her hotel in Montmartre to Notre Dame. She remembers clearly there was no sign of a war. It was a year ago but it was also many, many years beyond this war, beyond any war. Paris was a lively city bursting with tourists. She thinks she was by herself. No. No. There was a man with her. He was wearing a scarf. He was wearing a scarf like this soldier’s scarf. He was not her husband. He was someone else. He was talking on his phone in the taxi as Catrina attempted to talk with the driver. She was saying something in French and getting it terribly wrong. She was struggling with her French and the driver was laughing. Not at her. He was laughing with her. It was not mean-spirited. The man she was with was making a business call on his cell phone. He was using a cell phone. He was attempting to wrap up some business. Something about real estate – a property in Colorado. They stepped out of the taxi in front of Notre Dame, walked across Petit Pont and sat down at the café on the corner. This was, of course, breaking her rule of never taking coffee within sight of a national monument – a museum, an art gallery, a famous statue, the Eifel Tower, and most certainly Notre Dame Cathedral. Two blocks away, an espresso would be half the price but it was a beautiful morning and she needed coffee. The air smelled clean and warm. The sun was a balm. It would likely be too hot in the afternoon but it was a gift in the early morning. They were going to buy books at Shakespeare and Company and then visit Notre Dame. They were going to find an English-speaking tour and tag along – hang out at the edge – listen and learn.

      Catrina’s mouth falls open. Fear rises up in her. Nobody talks on a phone in a taxicab in 1944. It just doesn’t happen. She knows this. Part of her can’t comprehend a phone this small and portable. Another part of her thinks it’s normal. She knows her memory of this taxi ride is crystal clear. It’s a real memory. Her life with Daniel and Alexandrie and her home on Rue Mouffetard come into conflict with this memory that comes from a place that is after this day. Of course, the man with the phone was a mystery. This troubles her. Why can’t she remember his name? The soldier with his finger on the trigger near the end of the Second World War also conflicts with her memory of something that happens decades later. 

      And the smell of fresh-baked bread at 5 a.m. She knows this smell so well just thinking about it makes her mouth water. How can this smell be a fabrication? 

      Her breathing quickens. She’s hyperventilating. She can’t get a full breath. She wonders how she can be sure she’s not crazy, because she feels not in her right mind. It’s all hazy at the meeting point of her two worlds. She has no map to help her make a connection. Catrina wonders if both scenarios can be true. She tries to get her brain to remember a first-year university philosophy course in logic. If her memory of visiting Notre Dame in the future is true, then it’s also true that nothing happens to the cathedral in the past. This makes sense to her. But then, where is she? And why is she in Notre Dame at this moment? Her impulse is to scream. But she doesn’t. She touches the cool floor with her hand. She pushes her back into the stone wall she’s leaned against. She takes a deep breath. The air is cool and old. This is real. This all feels real. It’s her only option for reality. 

      “Are you okay?” the soldier says. 

      “I have no idea,” she says. “I have a memory of something I couldn’t possibly have remembered.”

      “I’m sorry?”

      “You don’t blow up this cathedral. It doesn’t happen.” She says this as if in a dream – her voice soft and flat.

      “Pardon me?”

      “Sorry, but you don’t do it. I know you kind of had your heart set on following orders but I was here last year and it was as beautiful as it ever was.” 

      “I was here last year as well, along with about forty thousand German troops,” he says. “I didn’t see you. Maybe you should have put your hand up so I noticed you? Or waved?” He grins at her, plays along with her. 

      “No. You don’t understand. I was here after today, after the war, after this century.” 

      He looks at her as if she’s lost her mind. His forehead is crinkled with concern. “You’ve lost me, Catrina. You were here, after today? You’re speaking gibberish.”

      “I know. I know it sounds crazy but it’s…well, for you it must be…but for me…I am certain you will not blow up this cathedral.” 

      “And yet, here I am, finger on the trigger, so to speak. And really, you yourself admit this is only a building. True, it is a beautiful building. But still, it’s just a building.”

      “Yes. A man-made tribute to a – what did you call it? – a badly imagined god.” 

      The soldier smiles. Slowly. As if he is pleased that she was paying attention. “Yes, that’s right, a badly imagined god.”

      Catrina wants desperately to keep the soldier talking. 

      The soldier stands up. “Shit! I almost forgot.” He almost runs to where he was sitting when Catrina came in. It is to the right and against a wall. When he comes back he is holding a bottle of wine in each hand. He holds one up, grinning. “It’s French,” he says. 

      He gives her the bottle and rifles through his pack for a corkscrew. “I know I have one,” he says. “I used it a few days ago.” A book, a canteen, a pocketknife, two grenades, a comb, a small pair of scissors, an egg, and the nub of a baguette come out of his pack onto the floor and Catrina is immediately curious about what her soldier reads. She has begun to think of this unnamed German soldier as ‘her soldier.’

      “What are you reading?” 

      “It’s a book I was reading to my daughter,” he says. “It’s nothing.”

      Once he gets the wine opened, he takes a swig and passes the bottle to Catrina. She drinks and places the bottle on the floor between them. 

      Catrina no longer feels panicked about the cathedral. Her fears about it have disappeared. The only thing she is uncertain about, is her role in stopping it from being blown up. This makes her anxious. She wonders if anything she’s said or done since she entered the cathedral has made a difference. She’s worried about the soldier. She cares about him. He is filled to the brim with world pain, with weltschmerz. He embodies it. It’s a profound world-weariness, and it encompasses the whole of what it is to be alive. She can now see why he was picked for this task. She would have picked a soldier with weltschmerz too. A soldier with this sort of sorrow could be trusted to not care too much about a building. And still, this soldier hesitates.

      “You should go, Catrina.” 

      “And what will you do?” 

      He smiles. “I don’t know.”

      “Do we have time to finish this wine?” She picks up the bottle and takes a long drink. She passes it to the soldier who also drinks, and then passes it back to her. 

      He clears his throat. Starts to say something, then stops. Then tries again. “I wanted to say…I wanted to tell you that under different circumstances, I think you and I could have been good friends. I am certain of this.”

      “I don’t even know your name,” she says. 

      “Is my name important? Would that knowledge change anything?”

      When they are at the end of the wine, he gives her the unopened bottle.

      “This is for when your husband comes home,” he says. “Come. I will walk you out.” He helps her up and she immediately doubts herself. What if she is wrong? What if her memory of the future was only a daydream? A desperate wish?

      They have perhaps walked a dozen steps when Catrina stops because she can hear music. It’s a choir. They’re singing in Latin. It must be Latin. Something about propofol. At least it sounded like propofol. They repeat this word several times. Credo in propofol. Dòminus propofol. Glòria in excèlsis. Deo et in terra pax homìnibus bonae voluntàtis.           

      “Listen,” she says. 

      “You hear something?”

      “A choir. Choir music. It’s faint but it’s there. It’s lovely.”

      “Really?” he says. He takes a step away from her. He looks up and down the cavernous cathedral.

      “You can’t hear that?” she says.

      He looks around – to the right and to the left and even directly above at the soaring arches. “I’m sorry. I hear nothing.” 

      The sound of the choir disappears. It does not fade. Rather, it stops softly, a short exhalation. 

      “It’s stopped.” She wonders if it was an echo from another time, a remnant of holiness. Maybe it was the cathedral’s way of pleading with her to try harder to dissuade the soldier from his orders. 

      “You seem calm,” she says. 

      “I am calm.”

      “Why are you calm?”

      “I am no longer filled with hesitation.”

      She does not like the hidden connotations of this statement. She hopes he is being vague because he thinks it’s playful – he’s teasing her and there’s no way he’s going to push that red button. At the same time, she can’t bring herself to ask him a direct question. Because if he says yes, he’s going to destroy Notre Dame Cathedral, it proves she’s insane, and she’s truly lost. If she walks across petit pont, stands on the other side of the river and watches as Notre Dame Cathedral explodes and crumbles, it proves there’s something seriously wrong with her brain. Because she knows Notre Dame is still there. She knows this with every fibre of her being.

      He knows Germany has lost this war. Destroying this cathedral serves no purpose. There is no third Reich anymore. There never was. His family will be safe because the Germans will be too goddamned busy running away from the Allies on the west and the Soviets on the east. They will assume this soldier was killed while attempting to perform his duty.

      As they reach the front portals, her heart is pounding hard. He swings open the door and even though it is a dull grey afternoon, the light shocks them. They are both blinking, holding hands up to block the light. 

      “Catrina,” he says. “I enjoyed our conversation. It is one of the few I’ve had in the past months, perhaps years – that I wish could continue. I feel like we’ve only begun and now….” He looks out across the open plaza without squinting. “That sounded stupid, I know…”

      “…No. Not stupid. True. It sounded true. It’s how I feel too.” 

      He clears his throat. “So now we move on. Good bye, Catrina.” He reaches out his hand. Catrina ignores his hand and moves in to hug him. She wants to feel his intention. She wants a physical connection. She wants to know he is resigned to ignoring his orders. She wants to be able to know this by holding him. Please don’t blow up this cathedral, she’s thinking. Please. Please. Please. He holds her tight – as tightly as she is clinging to him. When they release each other and step back, Catrina hears it. And the soldier is falling. Or the soldier is falling and then she hears it. Or there is a red circle on the left side of his forehead and he is falling toward the ground. There’s hardly any blood. He looks surprised. He exhales and crumples. She’s never seen a body crumple before. She hears the sound of a gun being fired and she hears herself screaming.

  She leaves the soldier in the entranceway under the miserable saints, the judgements and the gargoyles. He was dead before he hit the ground. The back of his head was gone. He was falling away from her before she heard the sound of the gun. He was dropping away from her, a surprised look on his face – and relief. He seemed to be relieved. She can’t comprehend the hole in his forehead. So little blood on his face. She thinks she is crying. She’s not sure. It feels as if she is crying but she does not care. Shots are sparking all around her. A bullet hits the foot of one of the saints and stone chips scatter. She wants to stop and tell whomever it is that is shooting at her that this soldier wasn’t going to blow up the cathedral. That she isn’t German. That she isn’t going to blow anything up either. “I’m not German,” she whispers. “I’m not German.” Another bullet sparks the cathedral close to her head and Catrina runs. She runs as fast as she can toward the river. She zigzags. She serpentines. She runs unpredictably. Someone is shooting at her. If she can make it to the river, she’ll be all right. She can hear the sounds of gunfire. Nothing registers but the ground, and being erratic, and making it to the river. She does not think about why someone is shooting at her. She only thinks about getting to the river. There’s safety in the water. If she can make it to the bridge she will be fine. 

      On the bridge there is an enormous elephant. It stands in the middle of Petit Pont looking at her with its sad, understanding eyes. It is rocking from side to side, its truck swaying and playing catch-up with its body. The elephant seems to look at her with a deep wisdom. Everything is exactly how it’s supposed to be, it says with its eyes. Let go, the elephant says. A gigantic elephant, standing on a bridge in Paris, in the middle of a war, should have caused her to stop. And without someone trying to kill her, she would have stopped and stared in wonder, maybe even smiled inside a blissful awe. But Catrina does not even start to hesitate. She jumps over the edge of the bridge without taking a second look. She jumps from the Petit Pont into the Siene. In a flash, she wonders what her soldier would have done. She wonders if she’d read him right. She’s flying. She’s in the air, falling toward the water. Why can’t the sniper, who shot her soldier so precisely in the head, hit her? Was it because she was running? But she’s safe now. She doesn’t have to worry about the bullets anymore. 

      To her left there is a massive explosion. It thrusts the air past Catrina and then suddenly sucks it back. This blast is followed by a series of smaller explosions trembling at the front entrances and continuing in a circle around the cathedral. It’s a continuous succession of booms. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang-bang! Bang-bang-bang! Bang! On and on. The sound is violent, deafening. She can’t hear herself screaming. She can see chunks of stone in the air – in a trajectory toward her – toward the river – outward and up. Notre Dame’s flying buttresses collapse. The saints above the front portals are thrown outward into the plaza. The tower closest to the river crumples and begins to fold itself into the rising smoke. There is so much smoke. The sound is terrible. As if the cathedral is wailing in pain. More explosions. More dust and so much smoke. 

      Catrina smashes into the water. It feels hard and cold. The soldier was not alone. Of course, he was not alone. Why would she think he was alone? It was not only up to her soldier and his curious hesitation. There was always someone else to push the button. There was a backup. Notre Dame is gone. Destroyed. But Notre Dame can’t be gone. It’s still there. Even after what she saw. It has to be there. Under the water it is jet black. She can’t tell up from down, left from right. She’s holding her breath. She’s sinking and it feels all right. She’s safe now. She’s safe but her soldier is dead. She could not protect him. She could not protect Notre Dame Cathedral. The cathedral was innocent and there was nothing she could have done to protect it. The elephant was innocent too. She hopes the elephant is safe, wandering the streets of the Left Bank. There was nothing to do but run. She escaped and she hopes the elephant ran away too. Everything is going to be all right. She’s sinking in the water. Water is her friend and she’s holding her breath.

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