I can hear them coming up our street. It is a strange, ominous rumble. Thuds and blows. The floor aquiver under my feet. There are shouts too. Men’s voices, loud and excited. The whinny of horses, the stamp of hooves. It sounds like a battle, like in that hot and dreadful July when our daughter was born, or that bloody time when the barricades went up all over the city. It smells like a battle. Stifling clouds of dust. Acrid smoke. Dirt and rubble. I know the Hôtel Belfort has been destroyed, Gilbert told me. I cannot bear to think about it. I will not. I am relieved Madame Paccard is not here to see it.
I am sitting in the kitchen as I write this to you. It is empty, the furniture was packed up last week and sent to Tours, with Violette. They left the table behind, it was too bulky, as well as the heavy enamel cooker. They were in a hurry and I loathed watching that being done. I hated every minute of it. The house stripped of all its belongings in one short moment. Your house. The one you thought would be safe. Oh, my love. Do not be afraid. I will never leave.
The sun peeks into the kitchen in the mornings, I’ve always appreciated that about this room. So dismal now, without Mariette bustling about, her face reddened by the heat of the stove, and Germaine grumbling, smoothing back wisps of hair into her tight chignon. If I try, I can almost pick up the enticing wafts of Mariette’s ragout weaving its slow path through the house. Our once-cheerful kitchen is sad and bare without the gleaming pots and pans, kept scrupulously clean by Germaine, without the herbs and spices in their little glass bottles, the fresh vegetables from the market, the warm bread on its cutting board.
I remember the morning the letter came, last year. It was a Friday. I was in the sitting room, reading Le Petit Journal by the window, and drinking my tea. I enjoy that quiet hour before the day begins. It wasn’t our usual postman. This one, I had never seen. A tall, bony fellow, his hair flaxen under the flat green cap. His blue cotton blouse with its red collar appeared far too large for him. From where I was sitting, I saw him jauntily touch his cap and hand the mail over to Germaine. Then he was gone, and I could hear his soft whistle as he marched up the street.
It was early still, I’d had my breakfast a while ago. I went back to my newspaper after a sip of tea. It seemed the Exposition Universelle was all they could talk about these past months. Seven thousand foreigners pouring through the boulevards every day. A whirl of prestigious guests: Alexander II from Russia, Bismarck, the Vice King of Egypt. Such a triumph for our Emperor.
I heard Germaine’s step on the stairs. The rustle of her dress. I do not get much mail. Usually a letter from my daughter, from time to time, when she feels dutiful. Or maybe from my son-in-law, for the same reason. Sometimes a card from my brother Émile. Or from the Baronne de Vresse, in Biarritz, by the sea, where she spends her summer. And the occasional bills and taxes.
That morning I noticed a long white envelope. Closed with a thick crimson seal. I turned it around. Préfecture de Paris. Hôtel de Ville.
And my name, printed large, in black lettering. I opened it. The words leaped out. At first I could not understand them. Yet my reading glasses were perched on the end of my nose. My hands were shaking so hard I had to place the sheet of paper on my lap and inhale a deep breath. After a while I took the letter into my hand again and forced myself to read it.
“What is it, Madame Rose?” whimpered Germaine. She must have seen my face.
I slipped the letter back into its envelope. I stood up and smoothed my dress down with the palms of my hands. A pretty frock, dark blue, with just enough ruffle for an old lady like me. You would have approved. I remember that dress, and the shoes I was wearing that day, mere slippers, sweet and feminine, and I remember Germaine’s cry when I told her what the letter said.
It was not until later, much later, alone in our room, that I collapsed on the bed. Although I knew this would happen one day, sooner or later, it still came as a shock. That night, when the household was asleep, I fetched a candle and I found that map of the city you used to like to look at. I rolled it out flat on the dining room table, taking care not to spill any wax. Yes, I could see it, the inexorable northern advance of the rue de Rennes sprouting straight from the Montparnasse railway station to us, and the boulevard Saint-Germain, a hungry monster, creeping westward from the river. With two trembling fingers I traced their paths until my flesh met. Right over our street. Yes, my love, our street.
It is freezing in the kitchen, I need to go down to get another shawl. Gloves as well, but only for my left hand, as my right hand must go on writing this for you. You thought the church and its proximity would save us, my love. You and Père Levasque.
“They will never touch the church, nor the houses around it,” you scoffed fifteen years ago, when the Prefect was appointed. And even after we heard what was going to happen to my brother Émile’s house, when the boulevard de Sébastopol was created, you still were not afraid: “We are close to the church, it will protect us.”
I often go to sit in the church to think of you. You have been gone for ten years now. A century to me. The church is quiet, peaceful. I gaze at the ancient pillars, the cracked paintings. I pray. Père Levasque comes to see me and we talk in the hushed gloom.
“It will take more than a Prefect or an Emperor to harm our neighborhood, Madame Rose! The church is safe, and so are we, its fortunate neighbors,” he whispers emphatically.
“Childebert, the Merovingian King, the founder of our church, watches over his creation like a mother would a child.”
Père Levasque is fond of reminding me of how many times the church has been looted, plundered and burnt down to the ground by the Normans in the ninth century. I believe it is thrice. How wrong you were, my love.
The church will be safe. But not our house. The house you loved.