Saint-Michel: A Moment in Six Forms

Andrew Valencia

I

Vincent had been in Paris for three weeks.  He stood outside the Saint-Michel Metro station looking up at the statue at the top of the fountain of Saint Michael.  He liked the way the statue looked.  As he stood reading the stone plaques beneath it, an old man passing by stopped beside him.

“It’s a fantastic statue, isn’t it?” the old man said.

“Yes, it is,” Vincent replied.  His mind was distracted.  There was a lot to think over.

“What do the plaques commemorate?” the old man asked him.

“French dead of World War II.”

“Ah,” the old man replied.  He nodded slightly and then walked away.

Vincent looked at the fountain a little longer, and then walked away himself.  Somewhere in the city there was joy to be found.


II

The statue of Saint Michael glared down at Vincent, its face—cold, dark bronze with an aura, or halo perhaps, of animation—looking serene and calm even in the face of immeasurable victory.  The Archangel stood triumphant with his bare foot planted on the back of the Great Renegade while below the water sat tepid and still, unfed by either of the lion-headed dragons at the sides of the fountain.

Taking a moment to examine the fountain brought a sense of alertness to Vincent, who had been walking inattentively and decidedly not-like-a-tourist since he left his host family’s apartment that morning.  He liked the way the statue at the top looked.  They didn’t have anything like it in California, despite the attempts of many to try to replicate the old world.  The aspects he admired the most were those that had been sculpted by time—the pigeon shit crowning the head of Lucifer, the faded tiles where the water would be flowing, the dark algae tracing their borders.  There’s nothing like time for creating nostalgia and then converting it into mournful beauty.  Only distance can rival it.

A stranger brushed past Vincent’s arm as he hurried towards the metro station to the side of the fountain.  It was the early afternoon.  The streets were busy and Vincent was in the way of things.  From each of the converging streets poured an influx of locals as well as foreigners, recognizable by the way they stopped to take pictures of everything and devoured kebobs while walking on the street.  Vincent was one of them too now—a foreigner, a stranger in this land.

As he stood reading the plaques, an old man who had been walking by stopped a few feet next to him.  He was dressed in a heavily padded coat that seemed excessive even for the Paris winter.  The hood was pulled up and through it Vincent could see a long nose poking out between two thick glass frames.  The face it belonged to was very pale and red from the cold.

“It’s a fantastic statue, isn’t it?” the old man said.  Vincent recognized his accent as American instantly.  How the old man had recognized him was uncertain.  Usually it’s only the rest of the world who can see us for what we are.

“Yes, it is,” Vincent replied.

The old man smiled and rubbed his hands together vigorously.  The French never smile at strangers; Americans smile compulsively at everyone.  How often do faces really convey the truth?

“What do the plaques commemorate?” the old man asked.

“French dead of World War II.”  Vincent had blurted the answer out rather casually.  He could afford to be casual about the war with a fellow American, even one who was old enough to have memories of what it had been like to live through it.  The war belonged to Vincent as much as anyone.  Memories fade easily, but images are immortal.  And he had the same images of the war as any American.  Pearl Harbor.  Iwo Jima.  Tom Hanks storming Omaha Beach.  Cast them in white marble and erect them in every city—monuments to our last true moment with our foot on the back of the Devil.  Somewhere in America, a cousin he barely knew was nursing his wounds in a crowded VA hospital, courtesy of an Iraqi roadside bomb.

“Ah,” the old man said, and nodded contentedly.  He seemed to wait for Vincent to say something else, and then, finding he had nothing more to offer, turned and walked towards the metro.

Vincent watched the figure of the old man descend down the steps into the tunnel below.  He was not a vigorous old man and there was a limp to his walk.  It was dangerous for him to be out in the cold, for him to be taking those steps.  If he did fall or get sick, Vincent considered, it would be better for it to happen in France than back in the US.  His own grandfather was not so lucky.  Neither was his cousin.  The whole world was piled with the dead and the infirm.  And Vincent here in Paris.  Here, trying to find some kind of joy in all this.

He stood for some time more gazing up at the statue of the Archangel before turning and walking away.  A dry freezing wind rushed over his face.


III

Vincent stood before the Archangel Michael at the intersection of two busy Paris streets.  He liked the way the statue at the top looked.  But the Archangel’s stoic face seemed to conceal a far less angelic message.  Vincent could hear the angel calling on him—“Submit!  Submit, mortal, to the will of God!”

It was a sin for him to be here in Paris, under the guise of someone who could afford to travel widely abroad as a student of the world, when back home in the real world it was still the Winter of Despair.  His cousin wounded from war.  His grandfather in the hospital.  His mother working herself ragged to keep the family afloat.  All the money he had now he owed to the university.

“The Lord God is the same God of financial aid,” the Archangel said.  “The same God of diabetes and of roadside bombs.  He giveth and He taketh away.”

A stranger brushed past Vincent’s arm and he barely noticed.  What does the Bible say about joy?  It is a gift for those who have faith.  A lot of good that did Vincent, a nonbeliever.  And yet he still felt humbled and terrified by depictions of angels and demons.  The power of the deity never leaves the images of its acolytes, even when the deity itself is gone.

“You cannot escape judgment,” said the Archangel.  “You ran from it in America, but you shall find it in France just as well.”

An old man stopped on the street beside him.  He was very pale and he had his hood pulled over his head with the chords fastened tightly—the Angel of Death?  No, not for him.  Just for the rest of the world.  The old man remarked about how fantastic the statue was.

“Yes, it is,” Vincent replied.  Fantastic is a good word.  It conveys impressiveness and fictitiousness at the same time.  Vincent could tell the Archangel was not pleased with the old man’s choice of words.

“What do the plaques commemorate?” the old man asked.

“The ground you walk on is saturated with the blood of martyrs,” the Archangel reminded Vincent.  “When they were your age they gave their lives for something bigger than themselves.  But you can’t deal with anything bigger than yourself.  You couldn’t face sorrow at home, and now you can find no real joy abroad.”

Vincent turned to look at the old man.  “French dead of World War II,” he answered.

“Ah.”  The old man nodded.  His red cheeks were chapped from the cold and flakes of dead skin hung from his face.  And he was a very old man.  Vincent wished that he would be okay in the cold.

“The Lord taketh when and where He sees fit,” the stubborn Archangel reminded him.

The old man walked off towards the metro station.  Just then the wind began to pick up.  Vincent could feel a cruel angel’s wings at work.  He lingered a little longer, then fastened his scarf and headed down the street alone.  When will the prodigal son return?


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