He limped along the West side of the Seine, nibbling on what was left of his favorite rye loaf, his gaze followed the path of the tourist boats vying for the best views along the water. There were so many of them now that it made what used to be a quiet and beautiful walk into an obstacle course of people, boats, smells and sounds. He looked on in disgust. Not for the first time he thought: A great city is not for moving but for absorbing. It no longer mattered; that struggle had been lost decades ago.
Aramis felt weary. His legs no longer carried his frail form as easily as in the past and his grey eyes felt beaten up and teary by the sun’s rays as it began its slow descent into the West. He never wore sunglasses; he never would. The active mind thought little of ozone or skin cancer. To him, Paris was the city of his youth – virile, recovering from war, erotic, cultural, and all of it bathed in the beautiful French sunshine of a more meaningful era.
The moving waters below him still carried the dull tones of the past winter but had begun their transformation to the bluish-green that would carry the metropolis through the glory days of summer. Still, even on these chilly days, the Seine was the mirror in which the city found its own reflection. Since the beginning, poets, painters, philosophers, architects, novelists and lovers – above all, the lovers – discovered that its waters worked their way directly through human hearts and souls, its effects more profound than the 10 of 20 districts of the great city than it ran through every day.
The Seine had always represented the past and present of Paris, starting back in those ancient years when the Romans attacked the tribes of the Parisi tribes nestled in the river’s island. Back then the settlement had been called by its Latin name – Sequana, but evolved to Paris following the Roman takeover.
Aramis knew he didn’t have many years left, but all of them he wanted to be this city that he loved for than anything else. Except for perhaps when he gave his heart away to the twenty-seven-year-old Mary. She had laughed delightfully when he insisted on calling her Marie. Her father had been a diplomat with the British government and had been stationed in the French capital following the war with his wife and two daughters, of whom Mary was the elder.
He was surprised how easily he gave his heart to her. The process was more like a transformation than anything else, a kind of taking wing and soaring. Mary had finished her college training, enjoying herself in that delicious interlude between education and marriage.
Aramis felt the exquisite sadness of love gained and lost, all within a period of a few months. His young heart was never destined to sustain the tragedy of losing that wonderful British ingénue to her parent’s designs for a more affluent life.
He stopped for a moment, tossing the crust of the bread to the birds on the ground before him, increasingly lost in his thoughts of long ago. How long he stood there he didn’t know.
It was then that Aramis caught the first whiffs of smoke. Someone was burning something nearby. But the scent was different that the fires of coal or wood normal to Paris. There was more to it. He thought he detected paint, tar and an oakwood aroma that was new to him.
His tired gaze was drawn to the orange glow just above the tree line. Birds were frantically soaring above, shrieking unusual noises and flitting here and there with no pattern.
Then he heard the first siren.
His creased hand cradling the metal railing that skirted the river bank, Aramis moved toward the growing orb of light that had become auburn in hue. He moved between two lots of trees towards the great cathedral when he saw the unimaginable. He lifted his hands into the air, crying, O Dieu, non (O God, no), over and over. People around him were too busy moving to the site to take much notice.
There, in the encroaching darkness of an April evening, the great vaulted edifice of Notre Dame cathedral looked like some great depiction of a painting by Dante. The two towers stood erect, as they had for hundreds of years, but the roof over the main part of the sanctuary was shrouded in dark clouds of smoke, occasionally swept away by the updraft created by the heat, only to descend upon the scene again a few seconds later. The glorious delicate spire protruded above it all but seemed somehow affected by the heat and smoke below it.
“S’il vous pla?t ne le laissez pas être,” he cried out to heaven, entreating God to put an end to it. But it was now an inferno, consuming all before it, including a glorious history.
Aramis sat on a bench, lost in unbelief and a growing state of shock. Parisians and tourists by the thousands were arriving at the scene, only to be kept back by police and firefighters. All around were the moans and gasps of an entranced and pained humanity. The heat from the blaze occasionally descended to street level now, driving onlookers back even further. It was clear this was something major, perhaps final, and the tears such a thought produced flowed a steadily as the Seine itself.
And then the remembrance flooded over the reflections of the old man seemingly lost in agony. Aramis suddenly recalled the promise he had made and kept for all these decades – a pledge whose essence lay in the midst of the consumed edifice before him.
He rose then, carefully eyeing the security perimeter established by the police, who themselves appeared terrified by the sight of the heavens ablaze. There, he said quietly to himself. The phalanx of guards circled the part of the structure closest to the main avenue, but he was shrewd enough to spot the unattended St. Anne Portal, the Cathedral’s right-side doorway, shrouded in smoke but isolated. He knew it well.
He circled around the guards, one among thousands of gawking observers, then darted into the doorway eclipsed by encroaching darkness. He looked up at the rounded arch marking what was the top of the door above the head of the Virgin Mary. It had been the main gateway to the great Romanesque cathedral that had been torn down to make way of the great cathedral everyone knew today. It went largely unused now, though occasionally seminary students availed themselves of it to escape the dreary catechism lectures and protocols.
Aramis approached the door, smiling at the male figures at the door’s top, all wearing pointed hats. Few knew it, but the depictions were all of Jewish men and the hats were patterned after those that they wore in medieval France.
He went to press down on the old iron handle until he noticed faints wisps of smoke drifted from the opening. It was open! Someone had likely fled the structure for fear of their life, perhaps leaving it ajar for the sake of others trying to escape the horror. Aramis pulled it open, took one more look at the sky above him and said, Oui, le Seigneur me veut, Il me donnera donc la force (Yes, the Lord wants me, and he will give me strength).
He old eyes took one last look around and then the figure vanished into the structure, determined to do the one thing he now knew he had been destined for.