Abyss & Apex : October 2004: Harlequins

HARLEQUINS Illustration


by Steve Carper


I smoothed the wrinkles of my skirt from under my aching legs and thought once more of the many things that could go wrong. Engines falling off. Cabin doors exploding. Five hundred bodies traveled with me on Pan Am Flight 119, from JFK to CDG, Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. In my lifetime to be part of a crowd had always meant disaster. And, in this year of the terrorist’s bomb, this plane was a special target. Flight 119 made direct connections to Tel Aviv.

The plane was filled with Jews. Prosperous black-hatted-and-suited diamond merchant Chasidim going to. Scraggly-bearded Orthodox men and serene mothers and unbearably cute children returning from. Pimply-faced teenagers wearing yarmulkes held on with elaborate catches. Brooklyn-accented matrons so caricatured that Woody Allen himself wouldn’t cast one as his mother. Happy, chattering, disputing. Two self-appointed Talmudic scholars debated whether the plane’s ovens merely heated their food — thus, kosher — or actually cooked it — thus, not.

They didn’t remember the world I did. I had no need to see inside their heads in order to see that. They accepted risk as part of a normal life. I found that incomprehensible.

“Esther, you’re mumbling again,” said the boy a seat away from me.

“It’s only fair,” I replied. “You mumble even when you want me to hear.”

He looked hurt. He was not in any true sense a boy, I generously allowed from the perspective of one forty years older. An artist of some sort, off to gather with friends in Paris. Scraggly hair, dressed in black, in constant agitated movement. But there all resemblance stopped. He was neither Jewish nor a chatterer. For all the hours we had been sitting together, desultorily dropping polite conversation into wordless voids, I still didn’t know what he truly was. One more unfathomable event in an improbable journey.

“Two more planes blown up in the past two months,” I said. “You’re no good to anyone if you’re dead.” I was nearly incoherent, expecting him to understand my thoughts, me of all people. “And yet they ignore the warnings and travel anyway.”

He shrugged. “Maybe their normalcy is a kind of defiance,” he said. Douglass said. I knew his name before he told me; names are easy to read, even his. But there was a second name — an artist’s pseudonym? — and it remained irritatingly out of reach. “In any case,” he continued, “didn’t you say that you wouldn’t be here if all the definitions of normalcy hadn’t broken down?”

Ever since that moment years before, when suddenly, without rational warning, the Communists fell in a new Prague spring and a hundred million people clutched at fragile freedom, my oldest friends’ voices called to me across the miles, pleading for me, the mobile, footloose American, to travel to see them, at least to meet halfway. How easily they knew my dreams and my weaknesses. Damn everyone for seeing inside me so easily when all my life I had held that advantage. I held out as long as I could stand to. And then I went.

“And where can you go and be safe?” I asked. “Eastern Europe is a sinkhole. Wars, crime, drugs, pollution.”

“That’s what others say of America.”

“And Israel. Three religions at war with one another. I don’t have a Popemobile to drive around in.” Seeing the world through protective glass; for the first time in my life I dreamed of being the Pope.

“So you chose Paris.”

“Paris.” My dream city since the age of eight. I hadn’t stepped foot in a city that size since, unless you counted the technicality of Ellis Island. “At least Paris isn’t being threatened.”

For the first time, a look of concern darkened Douglass’ pale features. “I’m not so sure,” he said.

He handed me the International Herald Tribune he had been reading. “Terrorist Bomb Cache Found in Copenhagen,” read a headline. I couldn’t read any further. “Madrid last month, Rome two months before, Brussels last year. All capitals,” Douglass said. My hands clutched, crumpled the pages. “That’s one pattern. Here’s another. Bombs found, confiscated, defused.”

“And those two planes that went down…” I looked around at the 500 innocents in the plush flying boxcar. Suddenly I was back in Europe, just before the war, the real war, the only war that mattered. Already at the age of eight I had inklings of what I was, what I would become, just by being able to peer behind the bland faces of the good burghers and reading even before they spoke why their help would be denied us. Two male cousins, an uncle, and me, then as now small and flat enough to be disguised as a boy, standing on a dusty road, our worldly belongings in satchels and sacks, resting blistered feet in ill-fitting shoes while a train cut across. Just a train, a half mile’s length of closed boxcars. Long after even the dust had settled on that peaceful spring morning, I lay shrieking on the ground, clutching my head from the pain echoing out from the puzzled masses trapped inside the fetid cars.

I was coarse and shallow, my ability a poor shadow of my elders’. All to the good. The more sensitive ones died. My cousins buried my uncle at the side of the road and hauled me to safety.

“Esther.” I heard my name from inside the plane as a distant whisper. “Your face turned to pain.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him, still in my past. “I was remembering another time when no one believed in the evil around them.”

“And you think they’re reliving history?” Douglass looked at me sadly. “Perhaps this time they’ve learned to build into their daily existence a stubborn refusal to let the evil dictate the way they live.”

Was that meant for me? I couldn’t read his face. I felt blind and helpless, suddenly worthy of the solicitousness shown by the overworked flight attendants.

“I haven’t shown you my art yet, have I?” A rare small smile illuminated Douglass’ ascetic face.

“No,” I said, dreading the inevitable ritual of mouthing positive platitudes over amateur ineptitude. Art, great art, that too was a reason to pull me to Paris.

Douglass rummaged under the seat for a shiny blue carry-on bag. “I’ll be making the rounds of the museums there, the Jeu de Palme, the Rodin, Musee D’Art Moderne…” He brought out a thick three-ring notebook. “See them all, but especially you must go to the Pompidou Center.” Then he paused as the plane shuddered. I shuddered myself, but it was no more than choppy air, signaling land below. The flight was nearing its end.

I meant to say something to him, to make feeble deprecating remarks around bombs, but his attention — and concern — was elsewhere.

The plane’s jounces had jostled the fortunate sleepers from their contorted fetal comfort. In the center aisle, pent-up acrophobia spewed out of an elderly Jewish man with too many bumpy memories. Two flight attendants hovered around him fussing, soothing, without success.

“He starts screaming, they’ll all go,” Douglass said, as if challenging me.

I knew that I could not possibly stand a crowded plane full of the frightened. I was already glassy-eyed from lack of sleep, bewildered by implication. All I said, though, was, “And I have to get by him to go to the bathroom.”

Pain stabbed across my left eye as I stood, hands again reflexively smoothing wrinkles in my dun travel skirt. I edged past Douglass and through the aisle choked with rubberneckers. As I reached them, one of the attendants dashed off for coffee while the other moved to shoo the standees back to their seat belts. I slipped inside their protective ring, and inside the man’s hatted head, searching for a countershock. My hand reached out and rubbed his shoulder, bringing his eyes to a focus. He saw only my white-haired, grandmotherly face. “I’m on my way to the toilet,” I said. “If you scream I’ll piss all over you.”

By the time I returned to my row, face still damp from the dozen paper towels I’d used as a cold compress, the man sat placidly drinking his coffee. I found a penciled sketch on my seat. In it I stood revealed as a puppeteer, dangling on strings a small doll with a man’s face.

“What a wonderful caricature,” I said at last, fumbling for a response. “But I think all he needed was to see another scared face his own age. Reassurances from stewardesses seldom reassure.” I hoped Douglass accepted the humility. It was maddening not to know for certain. “You can have this back.”

“Here’s my real art,” Douglass said. He opened the three-ring binder. “Photos of my latest. Just some new faces in my neighborhood.”

A sly joke. He could never have seen those faces. More small smiles flashed across his lips like subliminal ads in movies, messages I was too old and slow to read. I flipped through the plastic-covered pages in pleased amazement. All of the faces were wide-eyed, cartoony as a Japanese woodblock, their skins and clothing daubed with colors, their features wicked caricatures of a dozen nationalities. Hats lay askew on heads, soft, flopping, sideways, and suddenly I thought of Picasso’s Harlequins, those sad-faced clowns so often portraits of his friends. Picasso’s colors were part of his flamboyance. Douglass squeezed the color out of himself to let it dance across the frame.

“Wonderful,” I said, and again.

“Time to make art come alive,” Douglass said. “Paris is the place for that.”

Innocuous phrases that any budding artist might utter. I read double meanings into them anyhow. As I laid the album in my lap, a glimpse of dawning sun caught my eye seconds before the plane slipped into the waiting layer of clouds. Shocks and shudders ran through the fuselage. Across the aisle panic welled once more within the man I had so fleetingly calmed.

Douglass’ album rose unbidden to my hands. I flipped through page after page, not daring to look him in the eye, wondering who this boy could be to draw such beautiful portraits of my long unseen friends.


The world is divided into natural hosts and natural guests, and my friends and I are all natural guests. We shunned each other’s hotel rooms to meet at a neutral site, Al Goldenberg’s restaurant on the Avenue de Wagram, arriving white-knuckled in a flurry of taxis. From the clamor of a Parisian street, we passed into a quieter, slower world, familiar, comforting, a haven. Deli in front, restaurant in the rear, its counterparts exist in every major city, menus only slightly varying, cultural outsiders and traditional insiders at one and the same time.

Our little group, only a dozen, filled a line of two-person tables pressed so close together the waiters had to drag them into the aisle so we could reach the seats by the wall. I was first in, taking a corner seat across from Zoya. Naomi and Ephraim sat at the next table; the others were reachable only by shouting. Ancient black-and-white pictures filled the walls with faces as dark and pallid and age-spotted as ours; a change of clothes and we could ascend and be captured and live here happily forever.

“Can you read the menu?” I asked plaintively.

Ephraim smiled, the half of his face that worked pulling up into twisted sardonicism. “People here become used to tourists. They divine even without our little tricks to aid understanding.”

“French waiters are a special breed,” Naomi said. She was our beauty, our cosmopolite. We listened to her pronouncements and followed them slavishly. This was her first trip to Paris. She knew no French.

In fact, among us we had little French, more English, much German, Yiddish, Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian, Russian, mixing gutturals from two or three at a time. Polyglot we were. None of us lived in the nation in which we were born: some had accomplished that without ever moving.

The waiter came and said something incomprehensible. His name was Jean-Claude. I ordered a something, mangling the name. Naomi, Ephraim, Zoya, each followed in liquid French, fluently squeezing vowels through their nose, accents firmly tucked into the right syllable. The European touch. Or a lifetime of chameleon instincts, learning the appropriate gesture, the right word so as to blend in. And make yourself a smaller target.

“Esther, you’ve come so far for us,” Zoya said, squeezing my hand. “But I suppose in America you must travel all the time.” In contrast to Naomi, Zoya drooped and bagged, stuffed lumpily into an old lady’s dress.

“A little,” I said. “It can be very expensive, and I try to stay away from the cities.”

“You make it sound like Europe,” Ephraim said. Damaged nerves from an ancient beating had paralyzed his face. It was like watching an impassive stranger sit in judgment of his every word.

“I argued for our going to America,” Naomi said. She kept twisting around to observe what the French women were wearing. “We couldn’t, though. Too much money.”

“Too many restrictions, too many rules and complications and edicts and decrees,” Ephraim said.

Naomi smiled. “So we had to settle for Paris.”

Poor Zoya didn’t see the smile. “Settle for Paris? My whole life I waited and scrimped and saved to see Paris. So much of everything here. Have you seen the boulangeries, the butcher shops?” she asked. “So much meat, hanging out in the open. And no lines, no crowds beating down the doors.”

“The fabled wealthy West. Ask Esther to describe a supermarket to you,” Ephraim said, just as a crash shook the restaurant, stopping time. Dishes breaking, a tray falling, nothing more – so our conscious brains told us a split-second later. By then, however, a dozen minds had leaped out, instinctively, automatically, blanketing the other diners with calm and courage and support.

I screamed.

We lead solitary lives, not by choice. Probing one another, even accidentally, is a category of abuse not discussed on the TV talk shows. I had never been near a dozen others like me, so had never thought of the possibility of them all intruding in my mind at once.

Solicitous hands found me, and the pressure of that millisecond burst went away. When I blinked back the tears I saw eleven grave, stricken faces, saddened by my pain.

But not by their own. They appeared scarcely affected by the blast. In shock, I felt my restraints slip away and my mind reaching out to probe theirs, first gingerly, then recklessly, causing only fleeting twinges of pain, finding stores of care, solicitousness, concern instead. My poor sensitivities, my feeble powers, were so far beyond theirs we could have belonged to different species. I understood then how it could be that they had managed to live to their ripe old ages in a Europe so raped and despoiled that a continent away I had felt the flames of lives extinguish. And at last I also understood that my family, my true family, had like countless others died in the war. And that these people, closest to me of everyone I knew in the world, could never be more than distant relations.


“Too much haze today,” Zoya said. “All the landmarks have vanished.”

“There’s Sacre Coeur,” I said, pointing, “and the Eiffel Tower is always visible.”

Zoya and I stood on the fourth level of the Pompidou Center, already high enough to see over the rooftops of Paris, so out of scale was the clanking, bright-blue, inside-out palace of metal and glass. I appreciated the irony: the reviled modern masterworks of art of one generation housed in the reviled modern architecture of the next. Irony or no, I was pleased that I was on the inside looking out. My eyes rested on the elderly, seamless, sensible buildings of stone and wrought iron on the Rue St. Martin beyond. They and I were of a piece.

“Sacre Coeur’s on Montmartre,” Zoya said. “Steep, narrow, twisting streets, a village of its own. All my life I waited to come here and walk those streets, and now I’ll have to see them through the filthy windows of a tourist bus.”

Zoya, the youngest of us, suffered from no more than aging, but her body had rebelled in a dozen different ways. Her ragged breathing, the cloudiness of her fading vision, the constant sapping ache from the bursitis in her knees and shoulders were portents of my own life soon enough to come. It’s a curse to those with empathy to suffer from one’s own pain. I led her gently inside.

The National Gallery of Modern Art is divided into a chronological maze of small rooms, each one a gallery devoted to an artist or movement or time. Too many of them were filled by second-rate unknowns, their presence explicable only because they were Parisian. Paris’ provincialism rivals New York’s. No doubt that’s why so many outsiders flock to these cities.

We wandered, entranced and absorbed. Zoya reawakened in me a continental appreciation of the connectedness of art. “Hemingway stated that he learned how to write simple true sentences from studying Cezanne,” Zoya said, just before her legs gave out. The guard in the Post-Impressionists’ room suddenly became busy with a party of tourists who had snuck their cameras past the gate. I appropriated the guard’s chair and left Zoya to bask in the room’s many-petaled glory. “See it all,” she said. “See it all.”

I prowled, searching for favorites, making discoveries, skipping from period to period. Miro, Magritte, a sculptor new to me named Pevsner, and Picasso.

His Harlequin (Portrait of the Painter Jacinto Salvado) confronted me, incomplete yet whole, whose black and white outline of a body receded while his gloriously ruddy yet gloomy face called to me, its color bursting out of the frame to seize my attention. Of the mass of mediocre paintings by artists better represented elsewhere, this one stood out, captured me as I walked by, held me until a voice broke the spell.

“Those sad, lonely figures in the outsider’s uniform,” it said, and I turned to see Douglass, clad in a different set of black garments, more composed and less fidgety than he had been on the plane.

“What was that?”

“One of his biographers said that of his Harlequins. They tortured him all his life. They gushed out of him, big and small, young and old, cubist and representational, polished and crude. I like this one, though. He has potential.”

“Does he?” I searched the Harlequin’s finished face for a clue. “To me, he’s more of a tragic figure. Comedy has potential; tragedy speaks of endings.”

That now-familiar smile flickered over Douglass’ masklike face. “Jung says they’re tragic figures too. Implicated in a murder, according to him.”

The words struck me. Implicated. That’s the way I felt most of my life, implicated in murders and deaths and tragedies I traveled thousands of miles to avoid, but which found me, searched me out, left me behind as a silent witness unable to confess my guilt at allowing them to happen.

“We were villagers, my people were, as I grew up,” I said. “Murders and killings were almost unknown for generations back. We had lesser crimes, greed and lust and envy…”

“Classic crimes. Biblical crimes.”

The very word. “And we did without police. Each village had a wise man to whom one appealed formally and a wise woman who soothed behind the scenes, so knowledgeable, so understanding that they almost seemed to look into people’s heads.”

“Maybe they did,” Douglass said.

“No,” I told him, with a certainty I was sure he couldn’t appreciate. “No, and I’m not sure they would have gained much if they could.”

The tourist group, sans cameras, invaded the room then, Picasso on their lips. Douglass studied them, calculatingly, until I saw him dismiss them as uninteresting fodder for his art.

“Zoya’s getting restless, missing you,” he said.

“How do you know her name?” I demanded.

“We talked of Cezanne. Of his world and times. His influence on Picasso and those who came after him.” Animation lightened his features, colored his cheeks. “A small group, maybe a dozen major figures, fundamentally changed the way we look at the world. Once eyes are opened, the images they see can never be erased, even by an act of will.” Douglass led me slowly back toward the gallery entrance, Paris a silent blur beyond a wall of windows. He raised a hand to the city. “Paris was central to that revolution, to that generation. Generations appear in response to times. Your wise elders maintained peace and continuity. The Cubists and Fauvists and Dadaists sought revolution and upheaval. Both were necessary.”

“The terrorists I keep reading about also want to break with the past,” I said. “Is that an essential part of our time?”

Douglass spoke with startling conviction. “They’d be wrong to bring their violence here. After Paris you never see again with the same set of eyes.”

“And who is that a quote from?” I muttered.

He didn’t answer. Instead Zoya called to me from her perch, the annoyed guard hovering with folded arms. I hurried toward her, guilt-ridden in a dozen separate ways. Time to get back to the hotel, she said, long past time. I didn’t even turn to look for Douglass, but I could feel his influence all along our terribly slow, halting walk out of the gallery: pictures and sculptures seemingly tagged with an invisible glow, a personal anthology of art to carry in my head forever, the best of Paris.


Finally, against all my wills and prejudices, the light seduced me. Paris is an uplifting of stone, scrubbed clean of a hundred years of soot, left to shine in the sun. In American cities sun is mirrored reflections of piercing glare, but Paris is human scale and free of glass-walled boxes. Spring sunshine diffused around buildings just the right height, poured across golden vistas, buoyed me across the acres of dusty gravel placed so that the tourists won’t walk lines into the precious grass in the Champ de Mars or the Tuileries, a peculiarly European sun. This is what I had left so many years before, never, I thought, to return.

Every stroller in Paris gathered in the Luxembourg Gardens, the young mothers fashionably slim in miniskirts, fathers striking in sweaters or sport coats with the occasional scarf. Older children were there as well, playing in the biggest sandboxes I had ever seen. Parisian parks are not spectacular, but here flowerbeds threw dabs of color at the strangely monochrome vistas. Green buds, pale and lucent, infiltrated manicured treetops.

“It’s mid-afternoon,” I said. “Where can all these parents be coming from?”

“Esther, you must be living on vacation savings time.” Ephraim drew my sleeve back over my watch. “Look at the day. Today’s Saturday. The masses are off work, enjoying spring in the park.”

“I lost track.” Never in sixty years had this happened in America.

“Where else would you be if given the chance?” Naomi asked.

“Nowhere,” I told her, thinking, Everywhere. Even Bucharest, Kaliningrad, Pilsen, Kiev, the places you are here to escape.

We were walking Paris sights, those of us who could still walk after days of tourist wandering. Zoya and a few others were left behind, gossiping over crepes and coffee in a café near our hotel, while the rest of us, determined to see Paris in our one chance, walked and walked, there being no other proper way to see Paris at all.

“What next?” I asked of Ephraim, whose head held whole the Michelin guidebook and maps, there to join forever Shakespeare, Kafka and the Talmud.

“West to Montparnasse for shopping, north to St. Germain for churches, east to the Boul’ Mich for literature. Your choice.”

“Montparnasse,” Naomi said firmly, grinning when we laughed.

“Then we should all sit and rest first,” Ephraim said. “It’s the longest walk.”

Few of the quaint double-sided benches were free. We scattered, looking for empty seats. I was in luck. As I approached a bench one of a pair of young men rose and left. American instincts in force, I sat down and tucked into myself, pretending not to notice my seatmate.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Esther,” Douglass said.

My face must have shown my shock. The world was filled with disposable strangers, but I would have said it was impossible for me to sit next to a friend without knowing it. Yet there he sat, still in black jeans but now sporting a black sweatshirt with a colorful, stylized picture of the Eiffel Tower, just like any tourist.

“Do you always know where I’m going to be?”

“Yes, Esther, I do.”

I stared. I had no such relationship with the living, only with the dead.

“It was just a coincidence we sat together on the plane,” he said. “Having spent a month with your friends posing in my head, I thought otherwise at first, waited for you to introduce the inevitable. But you truly didn’t know, weren’t traveling toward, the way I was.”

“Toward what?”

He shrugged a tiny, characteristic, un-Parisian shrug. “My friends were drawn here too, a larger group than yours, but not much so. It’s taken us a week to find what drew us.” His voice was quiet, fiercely intense. “Unearthing those bombs in Copenhagen was our work, but we were too late here. We can track down people, not machines; the bombs are set, scattered, diffuse, unfindable except by chance. They go off tomorrow.”

Fear is a frozen hole lurking just below the breastbone. I felt the tendrils of its chill chase away all other sensations. Except one. Pain revisited the tender spot above my left eye. “I have to leave. Tonight. Now.”

“Stay in your hotel. It’s not their style. You’ll be in no danger.”

“Danger.” The fear grew worse. In Douglass’ seeming omniscience lay hope that the worst could be averted. But he didn’t understand, didn’t understand at all.

“We die too easily,” I said, not thinking of how mawkish the bare words sounded. “Hardly any of the men survive, because men go into armies and die, combatants or not, when their friends and comrades are cut down in bullets and bombs and flame. The women stay home, but each death cuts them, villages full of women who wear sorrow across their faces, slowly seeping in until their heads are full of nothing else, so they die. For those like us Europe smells of all the blood shed on every square yard, the marks of peoples who could never see past their own village, or nation, or religion, or language. We were just as narrow. Kill someone from my village, you kill me. Kill those of my religion, you kill me.”

“You lived.”

“I fled. America the free. America the isolated, so far from the terrors in the world that I could actually help them wage war. Those were busy years, ten thousand things for a young woman to do: collect aluminum pots and scrap metal and paper, roll bandages and knit socks and donate blood and never think of the boys who would die from the planes and tanks and bullets we made possible. And never, never think of the millions dying in the camps we all knew existed even then, too far away to do more than catch the edges of their pain.”

“And then you would have died, and never helped.”

“I should have died, you mean. Others did, even the ones in America. That’s what eats at us. Yes, we can help, we know where the pain lies, we slip inside heads and see just how to comfort, but if we’re too good at it we die. We’re lesser, those of us who survived, my European friends much more so or they would be long, long dead and not just hiding away from the cruelties of the world.”

He took my hand and calmed me with a touch. “That’s half the world,” he said. “Look at the other half.” And he opened my eyes and let me see the world as I have always wanted to see it but was too self-blinded to look. Build yourself a prison of straw and you come to wish for the wind to blow it away. Paris, Douglass, freedom, travel, all combined into a hurricane that swept away the walls I had constructed as refuge and asylum. The world sprawled on a peaceful spring day in Paris. Every new green bud, every toddler’s arm stretched upward to a parent’s hand, every student entwined around a love, every person, place and thing reached toward life, and survival.

“Stay tomorrow, Esther,” Douglass said. “Gather your friends and let them touch the grief that is to come. Move through the city spreading the calm that you carry with you. We’ll be doing the same and more, in our own way.”

For a long while after he left, I sat on the bench with my eyes closed, listening to the liquid babble of French voices, smelling the scents on the afternoon breeze, and thinking only of others, not allowing myself to intrude at all.


On Sunday they bombed the churches: the camera-flashing tourists in Notre Dame, poor ethnic families in neighborhood sanctuaries, even self-important expatriates in the American Cathedral on the Avenue George V. They destroyed the ancient walls of St. Étienne du Mont and the nondescript nave of St. Francois de Sales, leveled St. Lambert and St. Leon and Ste. Anne, and so many more, a thousand bombs for a thousand saints. Sunday or no, the synagogues clustered in the 9th Arrondissement fell to rubble. Prayers halted at Paris’ one mosque in the Institut Musulman. The dead wailed, and all their beliefs could not save them.

We stayed in my hotel, the others comforting me while I clutched my head and moaned, all mourning for a city, tears streaming from eyes that had seen too much ever to not cry again. As the blaring of two-toned sirens drowned even the throbbing pain in our heads we crept from our rooms and emerged into shuttered streets looking for those on whom to lay our balm. We implanted a seed of quiet in each and set them adrift to propagate others. Not until very late did we trudge back to the hotel, footsore, heartsick, prayerfully victorious.

Zoya died in her sleep that night, unnoticed among the thousands. We mourned anew. Headlines screamed that the terrorists had surrendered. The newspapers couldn’t explain why. I thought I understood.

Monday morning in Paris. River breezes blew aside the smoke hanging in noxious oily clouds over the city while the sun lent Mediterranean splendor to the encompassing blue skies.

We stayed another week, mingling with the grief-stricken, offering our dollops of hope and cheer, improving our French. By then it was obvious that the city would recover, and so would we. Zoya we buried with the other victims. We were her only family, and we did what we thought fit.

On our last day in Paris I unlocked my hotel door to find a package waiting for me: a tightly rolled cylinder. Already packed for transit, it was not easy to open, but I decided not to wait. It was from Douglass, of course, a painting whose subject I could pinpoint exactly as to place and time. Sunday, last Sunday, because flames from ruined Notre Dame threw rippling ruddy light onto the scene. And Sunday, because the Parisian bird market on the Ile de la Cite in the cathedral’s shadow takes the flower market’s place only on that day. In blues and yellows and sparkling iridescent hues the birds were breaking free of their cages, spiraling high into the flaming sky, to the amazement of the oh-so-French faces below. But the birds had faces too, and once again I recognized them, each and every one, thousands, young and old.

As I re-rolled the cylinder, I caught sight of the signature, large enough for the first time for me to decipher, Douglass’ other name, the one I read on him but couldn’t guess. D. Light. A stupid, childish, wonderful, inevitable name. The porter came and collected my bags; taxis awaited us for the ride to the airport. I wondered if I could trade my ticket to America in for a European flight. I wanted to travel on, and on.


Steve Carper’s first professional sale was an article on 1969’s St. Louis Worldcon. Since then he’s published a wide variety of fantasy, sf, and less classifiable work. An sf reviewer and critic for over a quarter of a century, he now surveys the publishing world for his Writer’s Bloc column in the SFWA Bulletin. 


Copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted.


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