from Vieuchange: A Novel II

Thursday, November 10, pont de la Tournelle, Paris

I recall catching glimpses of him, fragments, between the people passing on the sidewalk toward Quai de la Tournelle or, beyond l’Île St-Louis, Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, going about their business, heading home or going for an aperitif after work. It was almost 18h, a mild, pleasing spring evening, the best sort of day and place to be alive — and I watched Rimbaud from the opposite side of the bridge. He was facing l’Île de la Cité, hands, palms down, resting lightly on the warm stone balustrade, gazing out at the water or at Notre Dame or perhaps not consciously looking at anything, adrift in thoughts and images of his own. Spring in Paris has never been a time for dying, yet clearly he was dying, was as good as dead, and he would never again know the pleasures and joys that were going on… After studying him as closely as I could through the traffic and pedestrians, I dashed across the lanes and wove between those moving to-and-fro, and came to rest at the railing a few meters to his right. Where his right leg should have been was an inverted, desiccated palm, its dead and rattling fronds curling up from the sidewalk toward the blue, cloudless sky. The trunk rose, pitted and rotting, into the ragged, all-but-worn trousers, the material snagging here and there on the rings of old growth. He was thin, cadaverous, ghostly, and as he appeared not to notice me, I gazed openly at his famous face, now wasted and gaunt. He still had a shock of tangled, wavy hair, and if he had once been tall, he was now stooped and shrunken and looked like a sick child, save his immense hands, rose-colored and splayed out like duck-feet. He stood crooked, all his weight on his overlarge, club-like left foot. Though still a young man in years, his once boyish, arrogant face was now sallow and deeply lined, and I could tell he was in considerable pain. Now and then, he would waver in his stance, as if swaying in a gentle breeze, and his eyes would flutter, then close tightly as the pain, no doubt, radiated from the grievous, killing wound upwards and across his body. When the pain was at its worst, he would emit a series of low, foamy gasps, waiting for the anguish to pass. He was dying, as good as dead; any passerby who looked his way could see that.

Pont de la Tournelle, Paris, 1862
(Oil on canvas, 40.2 x 55.1 cm)
BY Stanislas Lépine
National Gallery of Art

Yet such a day! Not a day for dying. Not a spot, not a city — in spring, no less — for dying. Around us were families and couples, children running and crying out, breaking away from their parents, seeking freedom, and sur les plages de la Seine one could see any number of young lovers holding hands or embracing, trying to force themselves, their skins together so there was no distance, no life between them, just themselves as one, their skins as one, their lives as one, their breath as one — this was love! Spring in Paris has never been a time for dying, yet clearly he was dying, was as good as dead, and he would never again know the pleasures and joys that were going on all around him.

Perhaps his thoughts ran along such lines, but he surprised me. He spoke without looking at me, and though there were people resting up against the railing on either side of us, I knew he was speaking to me. His voice was no more than a whisper:

— Do you see what’s out there?

He nodded in the direction of the boats on the Seine and Notre Dame just beyond, but I knew he was not talking about the river or the cathedral or even about the city.

I nodded back, my own voice little more than a hoarse murmur:

— Yes.

He glanced at me to see if I was telling the truth. I nodded again, looking him in the eye:

— I have seen it these many years.

He looked back along the course of the river:

— My god.

To our left was the Quartier Latin, my part of the city. The Sorbonne a few blocks away, and in-between, the bookstores, cafés, bars, and cheap restaurants that I used to frequent with Jean and our friends — where we would talk about everything: lovers, wine, books, adventures, dreams, and sorrows; the men and women we loved or wished to love, or simply wished to know or be known by; to be known by them. Or just to exist — and whatever might flow from thence!

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