Friday, March 2, 2012
Fiesta of Smoke: Introducing Hill
Today’s post is an excerpt from my novel in progress, Fiesta of Smoke. This snippet introduces the third of three protagonists, Hill, one of Calypso’s two love interests. The manuscript for Fiesta of Smoke now numbers more than 830 pages and I’m excited by my vision for the closing chapters. So, back to writing. I hope you enjoy today’s excerpt!
For those who might have missed them, a synopsis of Fiesta of Smoke can be found on the January 5, 2012 post, the Prologue, on January 8, an introduction to the protagonists Calypso, on February 3 and Javier, on February 20.
Culturally, so much depends on the placement of the body in space. For the French, there are three reasons why one might sit alone at a café table: one is waiting for a friend; or is an intellectual, solitary and brooding; or one is a tourist. Of them, the first is most acceptable, the second, merely suspect, and the last, contemptible.
Perhaps his patina of world-weariness leads the woman who serves Hill his café au lait, carottes raspés and hard, butterless bread to believe he is the suspect of the three. In a neat dark skirt and white apron, she whisks to his table on the basic black pumps that are de rigeur for the Parisian working woman and deposits his food without the familiar buoyancy offered natives but also minus the blank reserve that walls out the taint of the étranger.
He is a creature apart, her actions tell him. Having been so on every continent for the last twenty-five years, he accepts her appraisal without surprise or resistance. He is, in fact, vaguely pleased to find his grimy psychological camouflage intact.
This café on the Île Saint-Louis is a favorite of his, although the prices are high and the food poor, fit only for the clientele of footsore tourists who manage to limp over that plainest and most utilitarian of Parisian bridges, Pont Saint-Louis, in search of both a place to sit and of caffeine. The problem lay less in their feet, he always suspected, than in the daunting effect of the first tour of Notre Dame.
From this vantage point on Quai d’Orleans, the cathedral rises majestically across the intervening channel of the Seine, completely dominating the tail of the Île de la Cité, startling and grand as a newly-erupted volcano. He watches the intermittent stream on the bridge: stolid German matrons in square wool suits and flat, thick-soled walking shoes; scruffy kids of indeterminant nationality in battered tennies and baggy pants, lugging backpacks; a flotilla of Japanese, all grinning, like a cloning experiment rejoicing in its escape from the laboratory.
At some point, almost all hesitate near mid-bridge, glance tentatively back at the cathedral, perhaps snap a quick picture, and then hurry on, with a shake of the head or a hunching of the shoulders like a repressed shudder. They sit, then, over their coffees with the stunned look of survivors of cataclysm. Perhaps the fifth whirlwind day since Brussels has undone them. More likely, Hill suspects, it’s the ecstasy of the 13th-century conception that has brought their cold chrome-and-glass hearts to bay. Notre Dame smells of mold and smoke, but she steps like a stone foot on contemporary notions of aesthetics.
Fluctuat nec mergitur is the city’s proud motto: She is tossed but does not sink. The cathedral is the giant poop deck of the boat-shaped Île de la Cité. Other cathedrals rise to greater heights, have vaster expanses of colored glass, better acoustics, embody more purely the Gothic conception. But for Hill, this-- this edifice, this spot of land--not Rome, is the beating heart of the Church. If one could not smell the odor of sanctity here, one would never do so. It saturates the ground so that, even walking in the Bois or shopping on Rue de Rivoli, the cathedral, hidden from sight, still vibrates in the mind.
Paris always puts Hill in this mood. Bangkok, Tokyo, Montreal, D.C., Santiago, Baghdad--they have their charms, of course, but he can remain detached, do his job free from his own psychological tints. But Paris! He approaches her like a lover. Twenty-five years as a foreign correspondent drop away and he is a besotted adolescent, or a mendicant monk, finally come home to the City of Light.
He deliberately does not recall, at this juncture in his musing, the gold watchcase in his inner pocket, although he pats it through the tweed of his suit, as he does habitually several times a day. It contains: a tiny basaltic chip of the Elura Shiva, from Mt. Kailasa; a small gold nugget given to him in Denver when he was ten by his paternal grandfather; and a gelatin capsule which once held crystalline ascorbic acid, but now contains a minute rag of cloth, stained brown. This last, a ripped-out portion of an Egyptian cotton handkerchief, has absorbed into its closely-beaten warp and weft, like a dead bird still kept in a cage, a speck of Sadat’s blood, spattered on Hill’s hand that fateful day in Cairo.
So Hill, 20th-century man, for a lifetime fingering the fevered pulse of events that anticipate the 21st, is yet susceptible to the old gods and the blood of martyrs. And Paris is the reliquary where he keeps all his atavistic tendencies.
He orders another café au lait and sinks his upper lip into its bitter foam. Across the river, the cathedral’s bones are picked out florescently in the brilliant November light. The great arching buttresses seem not to pass the immense weight of the walls into the earth, but to exist simply to exhort them upwards. White flecks of pigeons sail through the stone lacework of the arcs and spires like liberated souls or embodied prayer.
It is this back view, with all her props and braces, that Hill loves in Notre Dame. The facade always seems too austere, too foursquare, with its truncated spires. No, Notre Dame reveales her true grandeur to those who flank her from the Quai aux Fleurs and come with amazement on those arcing arrows of stone.
He likes to think that these frazzled tourists around him have been struck by those arrows; that, born into a time when art is preciously self-conscious, they still can be smitten by Our Lady’s mathematical formulations expressing profound intuitions about the nature of God. True inspiration not only utilizes but demands precise formulas. Our Lady of Paris, a most voluptuous creation, combines elegance and spiritual grace: the more abstract the truth one wishes to teach, the more it is necessary to beguile the senses with it . . .
Hill, you old lech. Slobbering into your coffee over the Virgin, again. Time for a good war somewhere, before your brain rots out completely.
He fishes in his pocket for some 10-franc pieces and begins to push back his chair, when his eye lights again on Pont Saint-Louis. There is a woman there, mid-span, facing the cathedral. She is wearing a full-skirted dress of yellow, and the afternoon sun slanting through it gives hints of a long and lithe body. But more remarkable, she has one leg stretched out on the railing and is rhythmically lowering and raising her torso to her extended knee, in long, balletic stretches.
Now here is a backside to give the Virgin a run for her money!
Hill had missed F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald zipping around on top of taxis and bathing in public fountains but he’d always been in sympathy with their effervescence, so more than the newsman in him is immediately attracted to this woman on the bridge. Either she is a certifiable loony or an enchantingly free spirit. He leaves a 5-franc tip to propitiate the gods and threads out through the metal chairs.