Terence Clarke

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On the Fire at Notre-Dame

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My next novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will come out next year. It takes place in Paris in the 1950s, and tells of an American girl Clara Foy, who has come to that city with her parents for a vacation. Various things transpire, however, that cause Clara and her mother Lauren to remain in Paris while Clara’s father Martin returns to the United States. This is a coming-of-age novel in which Clara turns from an intelligent childish naif into a young woman capable of life-saving decision. The family are Catholics and, having just arrived in Paris, Clara wishes to go to Confession. She wonders if, here in Paris, God has to be addressed in French.  Lauren decides to take her to Notre-Dame Cathedral, to see if that’s so.

Please note that in the 1950s, Paris buildings had not yet been cleaned, an effort that took place in the 1970s. So the exterior of the cathedral appeared then to be covered in black soot.

Clara insisted on going to Confession. There was no need for it, she being reasonably certain that she had sinned little since they had arrived in France. She smiled as she decided she had been too excited to sin. But she wanted to do Confession anyway, just to see what it was like in a place like Paris, and Lauren agreed to take her.

As they approached Notre-Dame in the late afternoon, a flight of sparrows swooped in speedy disarray toward the plaza before the cathedral, and then climbed at an angle over the Seine. They turned up the cathedral’s facade, climbed even higher, and disappeared above the roof. Though it was late, the sunlight was barely diminished at all. Lauren and Clara sat down on a stone bench, and the birds appeared again, clattering toward the river and the trees that lined the quay on the left bank. Notre-Dame itself rose like an ornate sailing frigate against the sky. Its centuries of soot made the exterior appear to have just come through a conflagration.

“Inside, it’s different,” Lauren remarked as they shielded their eyes against the bright light. “The cathedral goes up as high as you can see, and when the light is right, the rose window is like a star.”

“The rose window?”

“You’ll see. It’s a round stained-glass window. Huge. There are more than one, but the northern one is really special. It’s like the eye of God.” Lauren glanced at Clara, who had clutched her missal close to her chest as she listened. “Heaven and earth.”

Clara’s eyes widened.

“Circled by the stars.”

She told Clara how you could get lost in the window when you followed its patterns, like the holy lines of God in illuminated manuscripts that led everywhere forever. The rose window twirled about in the air, in blues, dark poppy-like reds, and metallic yellows.

“Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?”

“And we can see it?”

“It’s filled with glow, Clara. Of every color.” Lauren looked down at her own missal. “The softest kind of light you can imagine.”

A moment later, Lauren crossed herself as she entered the cathedral. The inside of the holy water font was slimy, and her nose wrinkled as she noticed a ring of faded green running around the font, just at water level. Clara hurried past her.  She paused at the slippery marble as well, pulled her hand from the water and shook it, and then surveyed her fingers. She wiped them on the side of her skirt.

Sunlight illumined the windows, so that the scenes of saints, courtly knights, and miracles were animated with gold. Light crossed the cathedral at an angle, in shafts of fine dust. The votive candles along the side-aisles gave off a drab vibrancy, as though it were a task to recall the dead souls for whom they burned. Still, there was considerable warmth as the light dispersed into the reaches of the cathedral. Above—way, way above—lighted chandeliers extended the glow into the vaulted ceilings, where Lauren imagined the angels reposed in the grayest corners farthest away.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame grasped her heart. Her breath was taken by almost everything in it…by the sculpted tableaux of saints contemplating heaven, of dead knights laid out on coffins, and of skeletal Death itself surreptitious in its search for others to take away. All these things were obscured by the simple enormity of the air contained by the cathedral. Lauren felt she was in some kind of gloriously organized sky, simultaneously dark, bright, and surprising with candles, paintings, and altars everywhere she looked.

 


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