By Erin Byrne
Grand Prize Gold Winner in the Fourteenth Annual Solas Awards
Little by little, his spirit expanded in harmony with the cathedral.
—Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
She’s had many lives and here was the burnt offering of another.
Notre Dame’s lace spire sizzled and crumbled as it fell, and the gigantic hole it created became a cauldron. Flames, golden to orange to red, assaulted the lavender-tinged Paris sky, and smoke billowed in gray and white explosions. Silhouetted against glowing cinders, her bell towers stood dignified but unprotected.
Four hundred firefighters wrestled with the blaze as the stone edifice trapped heat and smoke, which rendered much of the higher flames in the “forest” of 850-year-old ceiling beams unreachable. The beams had been catching fire like kindling for a half hour before anyone was aware that a false alarm had indeed been real, and it was out of control by the time the firefighters arrived. Scorched by fierce heat, some ran in to rescue precious relics, the crown of thorns, a piece of the cross, while others faced the inferno.
My friends and I stood on the edge of Île Saint Louis and watched, mouths agape, tears stinging our eyes, joining in a collective, horror-filled gasp as the cathedral battled for her very existence. The hollow, meandering roar of the conflagration was punctuated by the thunder of falling wood and stone, and the screeching of twisting iron and crackling flames.
Hugo’s “vast symphony of stone” had Stravinskied.
~ ~ ~
Louis XIV, that long-haired hippie of a monarch (was not Versailles a manicured version of Burning Man?) is said to have posed in his ermine robe, hands on hips, and declared, “L’état, c’est moi.” The state, that’s me. I myself had noted in an essay a few years earlier, in an obsession with Notre Dame’s mysterious yet innocent psyche, that in some way, she and I were one.
As she burned, my gut echoed the sentiment. During the past few years, I’d broken my shoulder and had two concussions; my father had died; I’d gone through a divorce after a 32-year marriage; moved from Washington to California and started over; and ushered my two twenty-something sons into the world of adulthood with all the attenuating letting go. I had suffered a stroke, had a heart recorder inserted surgically, and sustained two more concussions, the most recent of which I was in the midst of recovering from the night of the fire. The glow was extra-rosy, and the cries of onlookers deafening as the crowd edged ever closer to my dizzy, claustrophobic brain.
In spite of this, I was in Paris to do research for my novel and a few literary events, and to see friends. In hindsight, I sought escape.
The next day, Emmanuel Macron addressed the people of Paris: “Notre Dame is our history, it’s our literature, it’s our imagery. It’s the place we live our greatest moments from wars to pandemics to liberations.”
Notre Dame, situated in the precise center of the starting point of the roads of Paris and of France (kilometer zero), has lived several tumultuous lives. Her first stone was laid in 1163, and it is easy to envisage the faithful lighting candles around that one stone. Our Lady was completed after roughly two hundred years of hard labor. She was graced with her bell towers and received her best feature, North and South Rose Windows, glittering eyes from which her spirit shone forth.
When she was about three centuries old, Catholics slaughtered Protestant Huguenots en masse over a three day killing spree, which was celebrated at her altar as a great victory. Soon afterwards Huguenots attacked her façade, starting the fad of hacking the heads off of her statues that would continue for centuries.
When she was four, our hippie friend, realizing that Gothic was out, Baroque was in, ripped out her eyes. Later, Hugo would rant, Who has installed cold white glass in the place of those stained glass windows that caused the astonished eyes of our ancestors to pause between the rose window of the main entrance and the pointed arches of the apse?
When she was five, fanatics came after her again, this time Revolutionaries, hacking off more statues’ heads, melting down all but one of her precious bells to make cannons, attacking her spire (flèche, which also means ‘arrow’), and renaming her The Temple of Reason.
Soon after this, a great rudeness was performed at her altar. The Emperor Napoleon seized the moment, forever memorialized by Jacques Louis David, grabbed power from the Pope and crowned first himself and then his empress Josephine. The French abhor bad manners; Our Lady may have been embarrassed.
Through all of this, people lit candles under bright or colorless glass, in turmoil and in peacetime, in sorrow or in joy.
Then Victor Hugo took up his pen, and with the flourish of a virtuoso, created a character whom, in the slickest conceit ever penned by a writer, was so intertwined with the cathedral that …
He was its soul. To such a point was he, that those who knew that Quasimodo once existed, now find that the cathedral seems deserted, inanimate, dead. You feel that there is something missing. This immense body is empty; it is a skeleton. The spirit has departed; you see the place it left, and that is all. It is like a skull: the sockets of the eyes are still there, but the gaze has disappeared.
At the time, Notre Dame was a spectral wreck, perfectly matching Hugo’s image. The people demanded a fitting abode for Quasimodo and the city renovated, adding new window-glazes, new statues and murals, even a new spire. It was a total makeover, but the hunchback had to wait twenty-five years for his new home.
Bombs, bullets and shrapnel punctured her skin during the first World War. She is built of sturdy stuff, stone, but by this time she may have felt disaster-prone. Again, her eyes were removed during the occupation of Paris. She endured four long years of blind silence, with her bells mute. By the Liberation, Our Lady’s demise was imminent. Hitler ordered his agent in Paris to detonate her, and it is by the luck of von Choltitz’s defiance, or (as the French prefer) the timing of the Liberation, that she was saved.
On that day in August 1944, Charles de Gaulle marched down the Champs-Éysées and took a car to Notre Dame. Parisians had fought the Germans from the barricades—piles of tables and chairs and desks and stools, with any weapon they could get their hands on—and chaos still reigned. German snipers remained high in the Gothic arches.
BBC Correspondent Bob Reid’s radio broadcast described the scene:
And now, here comes General de Gaulle.
The general’s now turned to face the square and this huge crowd of Parisians [machine gun fire]. He’s being presented to people [more machine gun fire]. He’s being received [shouts and shot] …. marching [more fire, even when the general is marching into the cathedral].
De Gaulle walked straight ahead, shoulders high, his 6 1/2 foot tall frame never flinching, with bullets zinging from all sides, and people scampering for shelter, into a blizzard of fire from the rafters. He remained for a fifteen minute celebration.
Her bells rang again that day. Our Lady of Paris, who had waited a long time for this, envisioned a new future, and sang.
She had acquired much wisdom, but she had aged. Her toilette couldn’t keep up with the layers of grime and dirt that time had marked upon her, so in 1963, she had a bath. Cleaned from top to toe, she shone pristine again, just in time to witness the riots of 1968. She continued to be a site for protests, and after the terrorists attacks of 2013 and 2015, was often branded with a red or orange terrorist alert, with machine-gunned guards roaming her grounds in a state of constant vigilance.
Through her years, she offered sanctuary, repose, and contemplation, as millions filed into her glorious interior to meander, listen to music soar to the heavens, and light candles. The faithful in Notre Dame, when they have paused to ignite a votive, have been in the company of universal humanity. Pagan Romans lit wicks near images of their emperors, and in Jewish culture, a perpetual light has always been kept burning in temples and synagogues. Some Muslims light lanterns during Ramadan and on the graves of their loved ones. Hindus ignite diyas, and Tibetan Buddhists yak-butter-lamps.
But those who ignite candles in Notre Dame are not the ones providing the light. Our Lady has been imbued, whether by legend or literature, with human qualities, and it is she who illuminates.
~ ~ ~
The week after the fire, I had been invited to read as guest writer at a popular Spoken Word series, and chose my original essay about the cathedral. I had analyzed her inside and out extensively, going deep and using my intellect with zest, for my brain was my center, and I’d written the best essay it could conjure. But my chest burned all day, dizziness and chills wracked my body. By the time I took the stage in an underground cavern packed with poets, artists, and musicians, my throat raged and my voice faltered. “Her scars and sweetnesses were mine,” I read, wondering if my connection to this cathedral was a blessing or a curse.
This trip was intended to be a hiatus from my own life. I had had three books come out in one year, and in the midst of book launches, my father had a heart attack and stroke and died. As I grew up, he had taken me sailing, taught me to worship jazz, and been intertwined in my boys’ lives. He had given me a strong foundation and infused my existence with humor and love, and his death hurt in a place that seemed unreachable.
After the stroke, I had failed to accept the fact that my life expectancy had lowered, and that at times my brain was toast. Daily tasks like pressing garlic or doing dishes caused my head to explode in migraines, I forgot appointments, struggled to find words, and mixed up numbers. Depression and anxiety are part of concussion damage, and emotionally I went from zero to one hundred in a flash, and was so tired that I had to nap frequently. It takes time, the doctors said, to recover.
I’d assumed, falsely, that I was emotionally prepared for the divorce, so had been shocked when grief tore through me. I had not calculated this. I pined for our old house in Washington as I put precious items from it on the mantle, on walls and shelves in my California home. Scenes unspooled like film reels of vacations and holidays with our sons. The grief of this split ignited others (as griefs always do), and I mourned again my sister, who had died in 2006 at the age of forty-two, and the more recent death of my dad.
When the divorce was final, I did not see a way forward. I had not ‘dated’ since I was in my twenties but had no desire to be a nun. I raged at the ravages of age on my appearance, but ventured out. I received as with a branding iron the experiences American society seems to expect of single women, and chocked up soul-sapping, time-wasting endeavors with Louis XIV types that fizzled out.
John O’Donohue, Celtic poet, wrote about this in-between time:
You are in the time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.
The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.
The old is not old enough to have died away;
The new is still too young to be born.
My brain worsened. Even so much as a sip of wine caused vertigo, events siphoned my energy at an alarming rate, and I had to concentrate with extra care to maneuver around Paris, a city I knew like the back of my hand, as if I’d lost my compass arrow. I began to wonder if I should have taken this trip. Writing took twice as long; I could work on scenes but had trouble integrating them into the whole book. Something was missing.
In addition, the gilet jaunes (Yellow Vests) angrily prowled the streets on Saturdays en masse, with the ruined Notre Dame a new target for protests, and I was sick with bronchitis. I recalled another stanza from O’Donohue:
What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The Sun King also, according to the memoirs of the Duchess of Orleans, so hated to suffer waiting that after one courtier appeared at the last minute, he was said to have drawled as he flicked his hair, lounging in leisure at Versailles, “J’ai failli attendre.” I almost had to wait. He considered it his Divine Right never to deign to do so but Parisians have learned— through revolutions, wars, reigns, and riots, in queues and métro stations, in bistros and museums—that most of us have to wait a little.
Attendre also means to expect, a difference in meaning that fills a wait with visions and possibilities. A long line ahead of the entrance to a Dalí exhibit at the Pompidou gives one a chance to consider the mustachioed genius wielding his paintbrush or pencil (or just about anything he got his hands on) with panache. A cluster of diners in the foyer of a bistro allows one to be overtaken by celestial scents and anticipation to stir the blood.
People flocked to the Île to ponder Notre Dame’s cinders and ash, her gaping hole in the center of her flying buttresses, her singed but intact rose windows, like eyes with smudged mascara. Other languages were heard, but French voices were silent. The people of Paris just stood and looked at Notre Dame—an elegant Parisienne in white, a swarthy father holding the hands of twin boys, two old men dressed with old-fashioned tidiness— for they have learned that the past is prologue.
I had seen this kind of homage before, when the bells of Notre Dame were replaced in 2013. That winter, the new bells had been displayed in the nave of the cathedral. Bleachers were set out in Place Jean Paul II so that people could sit on freezing-cold metal seats, view the bell towers and meditate on the sound of the old bells and the new. Tourists fidgeted, but Parisians sat still as statues. Three old ladies in black wool coats and colorful scarves and hats, their lipstick fresh, sat just so; a family of five, looking bedraggled in worn coats, nodded; a young couple snuggled side by side with intertwined legs and heads together. All sat considering the bell towers, knowing that soon the new bells would be in there and imagining the sound of them. Would they be sharper or gentler, hollow or full? The people honored the old and envisioned the new, for to Parisians they are one and the same. To wait is to expect.
After the fire, although fever and chills persisted, I dragged myself out to observe the people of Paris and scrutinize the cathedral from all sides. I’d noticed the week before that my favorite verdigris statues of the apostles who usually stood at the base of the spire were covered with scaffolding. I’d wondered at the time whether they were still there; I couldn’t tell. Henri Cartier-Bresson had photographed them in 1948 and in his photo, I’d always thought they appeared to move as if transformed to humans. It turned out they’d been removed for the renovation so had been spared incineration.
One day, as I wove my way to Café Saint Régis on the tip of Île Saint Louis, music soared, piped in on loudspeakers. Violins climbed and dipped, flutes danced. I pushed through an extra-thick throng gathered on the edge of the Île, and when I reached the intersection with Notre Dame on my left, I saw that gendarmes were removing the orange cones by the bridge, which had been closed to all but essential foot traffic. Was the bridge open?
I settled in a tiny booth facing the cathedral. The music became a voice, chanting, and the people chanted back. It was Good Friday; Easter was in two days. In the middle of Pont Saint Louis stood a priest in a blindingly white robe who conducted a full mass in a voice so deep and resonating that it stirred something inside of me. People filed onto the bridge for communion, while in the background Notre Dame, humble and helpless yet majestic, looked on. She has learned that the way forward is through. Through revolution and renovation, through chaotic firing from all sides, through coronations and turmoil and grief. She would rise again.
~ ~ ~
Five months later, back in California, I find current news and photos. The cause of the blaze has been narrowed to either a cigarette tossed by a construction worker or the electrical system of the bells. “Clumsy human response and false assumptions” contributed to the extent of the damage, but ingenious strategy helped save her. The bell towers had been a mere fifteen minutes from crumbling from the heat, but the firemen had arced water over the blaze to dampen them. Hundreds of tons of lead in the spire and roof were released and children at schools nearby have been at risk. The scaffolding on the exterior of the spire welded together, encasing the cathedral and heightening the danger of collapse.
All summer, her roof was opened to the elements, and is now covered, but no one can move anything, because all has not yet settled. Her interior is a jumble of accumulated debris. Wood charred like pick-ups-sticks and chunks of stone lie everywhere—on the floor in pinpoint rays of sunlight, on shredded cane chairs, among piles of ashes. Everything could cave in at any moment, so she is still precarious and nothing can be done. Notre Dame remains a ‘triage site’.
Upon my return home, it became obvious that my brain symptoms had worsened. I was tested by two neurologists, who diagnosed post-concussion syndrome. I asked why I seemed so prone to concussions (among other things), and learned that when you have one concussion, you are exponentially more likely to have another, an even higher chance of having a third, and a forth happens more easily. The testing revealed a chasm in memory, in word retrieval, in vision. The fender-bender bump had sparked the cumulative effects of the stroke and all four concussions.
My summer has been spent resting my brain. Writing has been jagged and is an act of faith, but improving. I have had long, luxurious visits my sons, with more down-time than usual. My friends have overlooked my scatterbrained spaciness and last minute cancellations. They have made meals and daydreamed with me about meeting an intelligent, silver-haired surfer or a swarthy, sweet-natured poet (sans branding irons). Attending my first big family event as an ex-wife, I was warmly embraced by the new incarnation of my old family.
During this suspended summer-into-fall, I often wake up all alone with an iron band of fear sinking into my chest: My brain is not yet strong enough to be my center and has left a terrifying void there. But I have come to see that Hugo’s belief in Quasimodo swinging from those flammable rafters, Charles de Gaulle’s heroic stride, and the resilience that Our Lady herself displayed in all her brokenness are qualities not of the brain but of the heart.
Recently, my family scattered some of my dad’s ashes into the bay of Puget Sound, Washington. It has been almost three years and we agreed it was the perfect time to do it; we were glad we waited. As his ashes floated and swirled, then sank into the murkiness, chips and clumps mingling with the water, we spoke of his humor, the music he played on the piano and drums, and his fiercely loyal love—all that is left of him.
I look around my home in California at what remains of my previous life: The Greek vase and the Swedish plate on my mantle, the crystal candle holders on the table, photos of the four of us as a family in the old way and the new, my dad’s bongo drums, my sister’s silver bracelet. I have had to wait like Quasimodo, but I have a new home where I live my greatest moments, my wars, my pandemics, my liberations.
What remains in the interior of Notre Dame, the center of Paris? Inside the strong stuff of which she is constructed, among the detritus and dust, stands the altar with its gold cross, and next to that, the marble pietà where the cathedral’s namesake holds her departed with love. She is in the time of the interim, when everything seems withheld. She’s been there before and will be again, but the center of the center remains and the rest is reimagined.
Each night I light a few candles and let them burn awhile while I contemplate them in the way I learned from the people of Paris. Three candles in a row: Past, present, and future. Sometimes the past fizzles out (gratefully), or it’s time for a new present (a fresh start), or the future grows dim (but still illuminated).
A few nights ago, the past and the future went out at exactly the same moment, so tonight fresh candles burn brightly, with the lower flame of the present in the center, creating a silhouette of Notre Dame as she now stands, with her tall spire gone, and her low center flanked by her bell towers. I remember that cauldron of violent flames licking the sky.
Parisien magazine, in their commemorative issue, wrote, La catastophe nous renvoie à nous humilité et notre impuissance. The catastrophe refers to our humility and our helplessness. It is during those times when I am aware of both that what endures becomes clear.
What will Notre Dame’s next life be like? Images of ideas from a worldwide contest to design a new spire include a glass solar roof with an urban farm; a greenhouse sanctuary for birds; a new home for Notre Dame’s 180,000 bees; a blue-tiled roof made from recycled ocean plastic; and a swimming pool with the verdigris apostles as lifeguards.
Until Our Ravaged Lady rises from the ashes, we will just have to do as she always has, to feel our universal humanity and stand with dignity in our humility and helplessness, light a few candles … and wait a little.
Author’s note: Now, nearly a year after the fire, I am once again in Paris. Christmas came and went with no mass, no restoration, and very little movement. Her eyes were once again painstakingly removed, and robots have cleared bits of rubble, but her iron cage must first be removed piece by piece, and there is still a high chance that her roof could cave in. She stands patiently in the winter-to-spring air while workmen compare plans and people stop to stare. She will endure.
Erin Byrne is author of Wings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France, editor of Vignettes & Postcards from Paris and Vignettes & Postcards from Morocco, and writer of The Storykeeper film. Erin’s work has won Grand Prize Solas Awards for Travel Story of the Year, the Foreword Indies Book of the Year, an Accolade Award for film, and the Pinnacle Achievement Award. She has taught writing at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris, at Book Passage, and on Deep Travel trips, and is host of LitWings event series in the Bay Area and Paris, which features writers, photographers, and filmmakers.
Erin is Collaborating Curator of Travel Writing and Photography for The Creative Process Exhibition, which was launched at the Sorbonne and travels to the world’s leading universities. Her screenplay, Siesta, is in pre-production in Spain, and she is working on a novel set in occupied Paris, Illuminations. www.e-byrne.com.