Denise Marois-Wolf and Barbara Martin

Dig Deeper

Barbara Martin Dig Deeper Inspiration Piece

Afternoon at the Place de la Concorde

By Denise Marois-Wolf

By the time the tour group reaches the Place de la Concorde, Laura feels as tired as if she’d climbed the Eiffel Tower and polished all the frames in the Louvre. She settles onto a bench while the tour guide, Gustave, talks about the obelisk, a gift from the Egyptian government, scaled in 2000 by an urban climber using nothing but his hands and some basic tools. She thinks, that sounds easy compared to trotting around Paris with a group of strangers all day while Gustave offers his inaccurate, white-washed version of French history.

She glances up at the Paris sky, a starched Sunday afternoon blue. All around her, children are running and laughing, startling pigeons from their fountain perches, scattering them in whirls of feathers and droppings.

“And the obelisk is one of a pair that stood outside of Luxor, but because of their weight, only one was brought back to France.” Gustave’s voice rises above the clatter of strollers and children. “Francois Mitterrand gave the other back to the Egyptians.” He tips his hat in salute to the former President’s generosity in returning to a people that which was always theirs. A dog trots by and lifts it leg on the obelisk, and Laura blows the dog a kiss.

It’s warm for this early spring, yet people rush through the square bundled in winter coats, scarves wrapped tight to their throats. She thinks, perhaps they are too frail to face the world without their cocoons, perhaps they fear that even a gentle breeze will reduce them to dust.

The breeze caresses the back of her neck, and she is suddenly lonely. She looks at the ring on her left hand, holds it up to the light and thinks, I should take it off and toss it into the fountain, but dismisses it as too final.

Gustave is explaining about the hieroglyphics on the obelisk. She wishes she could read them, to unravel their mysteries. She would like to climb the obelisk. She would like to remove herself in time and space, and perhaps, looking down, gain a clear perspective. She wonders, there on the bench, her handbag resting in her lap, whether there’s a road she missed, a sign she ignored, and where she should go from here. She watches the water cascade in a rainbow arc from the nearby fountain. She has an impulse to jump in. She thinks she would emerged cleansed. But the fountain’s ornate design makes her feel unworthy.

Her knuckles have turned white from clutching the bag. She eases her grip and brushes it with her fingers. It’s leather, a designer knock-off. The handles are plastic and starting to show wear. Her husband, Michael, gave it to her for their tenth anniversary. She doesn’t know why she brought it along, except it’s small and will hold all the important, portable things she needs at this moment in her life.

“Laura.” A fellow tourist named Rachel interrupts her thoughts. She flicks the brim of Laura’s hat in a way she finds intrusive. “Come on, we need to keep up.” Rachel’s voice has a nasal quality that makes her want to block her ears.

“You go,” she says, pulling the brim lower over her brow.

As Rachel walks off, Laura thinks, back at home in Boston, Michael is probably staring out the window, enjoying his vantage on the top floor of their building, looking down at the cars that move like insects along Storrow Drive. When she left, he stood at the window with his back to her, and refused to say goodbye. “You never loved me,” he said as she opened the door. “You never did.”  She closed the door behind her, wondering if she’d ever open it again.

She pictures him in his office at the university, flirting with some dewy-eyed co-ed whose youth fills him with renewed hope, someone blinded by his beauty, so extraordinary that everything about him seems elevated.

She asks herself, is it true, did I ever really love him?

All around, she hears the children, the excited voices of the tourists, the whoosh of cars circling the Place, the splash of the fountains. They are a symphony drifting in and out of her senses. She closes her eyes and sees herself again returning home early, turning the key, hears again the muffled laughter coming from the apartment, and feels the dread pounding at her temples. She sees herself in the elevator mirror as she fled, sees a woman with startled eyes and a knife for a mouth.

If I never loved you, would it hurt so much?

Her watch clicks off the time, a sound translucent under the veil of the moving day. How long has she been sitting here? Is it minutes, an hour, more? Time has lost its value. She wipes her palms against her cheek and finds it damp.

The rumbling in the streets grows louder. She senses a shift in its quality, and a feeling that she’s been wrapped in cotton and gone missing in its depths. When she opens her eyes, the obelisk and fountains are gone, and instead there is a platform, its bulk taking up half the square. It holds a wooden structure made of rough wood, standing like legs holding up a slanted blade suspended in air. It blots out the day, its shadow fingers creep along the cobblestones. The air is chilled. Snow dusts the ground. The cold fills her and the shadow of this thing of death takes her breath away.

A fruit cart is on its side at the edge of the square, the bruised fruit spills onto the cobblestones, a heart broken apart, a feast for flies. She clutches her bag to her chest and lets out a cry.

People are coming into the square, people in strange clothing, some with red caps, some carrying sticks, some waving pistols or knives. They go by without seeing her, like she is vapor, as they wave their arms and talk in loud holiday voices. But there’s hardness in them, a set to their shoulders. They walk with stiff, determined strides. Laura pulls her feet up on the bench and curls up like a frightened child.

The rumble grows louder, and three horse-drawn carts roll into the square, filled with standing people, pressed up against each other, looking about as though they don’t recognize where they are. Some are crying. Others are stoic. Their faces seem to say, this is inevitable. Some look as though they would collapse if there was room. In front of the first cart is a child, no more than six or seven. She looks through the slats, straight at Laura. She has pale skin and wide blue eyes filled with questions. Her hair is bound up under a white cap. Her hands clutch the front of the cart. A man of startling beauty grips the child’s hand. Laura struggles to get up from the bench, but she is immobile. They take him first, wrenching his grip from the child’s. He mounts the steps and, he turns to Laura with sad eyes and nods. She believes his beautify will save him. She watches with dread pounding at her temples. His image wavers, and as they lay him down, he turns to vapor. The air- suspended blade drops with a whoosh, and the crowd cheers.

Laura calls out. She tries to pry herself from the bench as they bring the child up the steps, but her legs will not move. Her ghost hands grasp air. She squeezes her eyes shut and presses her hands to her face. She does not remember that she has ever wept like this, so hard she thinks she will break apart. A hand presses against her shoulder, and she freezes. If they are executing the guiltless, what is she? She is next.

“Madame.” It’s Gustave’s voice. She opens her eyes. His face is close to hers, his brows drawn together and his mouth turned down. “Madame,” are you all right? We thought we’d lost you in the crowd.” He takes a handkerchief from his pocket and hands it to her.

She is trembling and taking air in gasps. She doesn’t know how to answer. She accepts the handkerchief and wipes the tears with a brusque motion. After a moment she nods. She thinks of the little girl and the man clutching her hand, the beauty that in the end was worth nothing.

The sun has started going down. There is a chill in the air that makes her shiver. Gustave drapes his jacket over her shoulders. “Madame,” he says, “I will escort you back to your hotel.”

She nods. “Yes.” She feels grateful for the gesture. She does not need to ask him about the truth. It is behind her, there, in the Place de la Concorde.

Note: All of the art, writing, and music on this site belongs to the person who created it. Copying or republishing anything you see here without express and written permission from the author or artist is strictly prohibited.