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“The Face of Paris” – Rodrigo Palacios

I can see nothing but an unmitigated vast stretch of unimaginable solitude and chaos. One devastated neighborhood after another. One forlorn, dim moment of stillness leads to more destruction. Suddenly, I now hear an ululating, wailing, deafening howl, whose dizzying synchronicity pierces through me and thereafter unravels in an all-encompassing expansion wave, extending beyond the utter waste and rubble. Nothing but the sweeping vastness, the totality of an incredible, overwhelming wreck lies at my feet before my eyes, completely obfuscating my senses. I try to comprehend, to fathom what is occurring, but I am unable to do so.

I can only see in all its vastness and the metonymic movement of collapsed buildings, one on top of another, and the sullen, motionless remnants of monuments and homes strewing the ground. Nothing stands. 

The waste is total. But then, when my subconscious perhaps lies immersed for a moment, languishing in contemplation of the nightmarish landscape, I feel suddenly the shock waves of a violent explosion made by the burst of a vertiginous, ululating hum, its deafening, persistent expansion now enveloping, slithering, plowing hysterically through me and then going on to explode progressively at intervals throughout the far away expanses of the encircling doom. 

Amidst the raging, terrific noise, I can now hear also the squealing shriek of scurrying rats and the swirling racket made by hundreds of bloodied vultures fighting over the spoils of half-eaten carcasses of human bodies and partially eaten dogs strewn all over the cobblestones of Avenue de Saint-Cloud on the western edge of what had been Paris. 

In spite of the razed urban landscape of the City of Lights, which occasion my not being able to count on the help provided by the familiar landmarks that would have normally shown me the way back home to rue d’Ulm in the Vème arrondissement, I am nevertheless able to locate, after many days and countless, deceiving, comings and goings, Place de Colombie, which I was hoping would help me find my bearings.  My arrival here was preceded by a cruel, desperate, labyrinthine search. At every turn, I had to go back and forth through a maze of intricately devastated neighborhoods, ever-climbing and descending again and again, over and through endless, upturned buildings and debris. I knew that, at every turn, if I were to keep my sanity, I needed to, with every twist and turn, reach for the help of my intuition to guide me. In order to reach Place de Colombie, I had to constantly delve into a great deal of guesswork, always teetering between this way or the other, amongst the devastation, which now I saw progressively closing in on me like a massive, unrelenting vise. 

Here, at Place de Colombie, this all-too-familiar landmark, in the middle of what had been an elegant Paris XVIème square, I am opting to climb to the top of a pile of masonry so I can look over the horizon. I am hoping to see emerge in the far distance from amidst the sea of rubble, the Tour Eiffel or the Tour de Montparnasse. I’m thinking that the tallest of Parisian monuments would surely provide me immediately with the bearings I need in order to even begin to contemplate what in all likelihood seemed like a very remote possibility of my ever reaching home. But alas, I realize that the phallogocentric Eiffel and Montparnasse towers had vanished. 

Not wanting to dwell on the terrifying meaning that constituted the disappearance of those monuments, immediately I’m thinking that if I could just locate Cimetière de Passy where he was buried long ago, I could possibly reach the Seine from there, as I know only too well that the river of Paris flows on nearby on its way to the center of the city. I surmise that the graveyard would be a good beginning. From there, I will set out in an eastward direction, following the river’s course, which should ultimately get me home. 

From Cimetière de Passy, I gather, I could easily get to the intersection of Avenue Henry Martin and George Mandel, whence it would not be very difficult to find the Seine. Then it would just be a matter of following the river all the way to Île de la Cité. Rue d’Ulm lies not too far from there. 

It is impossible to ascertain how long it has taken me to arrive here at Cimetière de Passy because the time that elapsed from the moment I left Place de Colombie and now is but a blur to me.  Finally, at the cimetière, I start to look for his tombstone where on one of them, I read that all too famous epitaph “I told you I was sick (an American from Lynchburg, VA)”, but the upturned, exposed tombs are in complete ruin, the human remains and rubble strewing the landscape, thus making it almost impossible to locate my friend’s burial ground. 

I’m thinking that, up until now, in spite of the horrific, incomprehensible, destruction, the thirst, and the unmitigated hunger, I have been able to keep my sanity. Assaulted by the sight of all these human remains scattered about, I feel like I am about to succumb, especially now that I see the scarce flesh clinging to the bones of the more recently buried cadavers, which are still being nibbled away at by hundreds of squealing rats and swarming worms. In the meantime, the ever-unrelenting hum is now becoming all the more deafening. Its terrific, quivering, fluctuating waves are totally pervasive and all-encompassing. Desperately putting my hands over my ears in order to protect my hearing does not make any difference at all. The noise now is completely overwhelming my senses. 

Sitting here on this upturned tombstone I am covering my ears with trembling hands, coming to the realization, that wending my way through this devastation before myself is going to be a very long, difficult journey, requiring of me unnatural strength as well as psychological and physical endurance. In fact, it is beginning to dawn on me that the forthcoming odyssey in itself is going to be an insurmountable task, perhaps beyond my finite, human capabilities. I am prepared for what lies ahead. At some point in the future, most likely, I will have to resign myself to the thought that I am going to die just like everybody else around me. Indeed, why would I be the exception? 

I’m wondering. I will surely die before I ever come close to the Vème arrondissement because the streets that I am familiar with have either disappeared completely or are often barricaded, causing me to constantly get lost, again and again, compelling me to take long roundabouts lasting for days on end. It will invariably take me many desperate days, if not weeks, just to cover what otherwise, back in the days, would have been the distance of a short Métro ride. 

One late afternoon, when the last wan sunrays were beginning to disseminate in what had been the most beautiful city in the world, I suddenly end up in front of the Palais de la Bourse, the Paris stock exchange, which also lies in ruins. The broken capitals of the Doric columns of what used to be the sumptuous Palais Brongniart lay strewn all over the adjacent streets as if a tremendous explosion had blown up the building to pieces. The spoils of the site bring memories of that day, long ago, when I saw the beautiful man in an elegant gray suit smelling of ‘Pierre 1er de Serbie’ cologne flitting right past me on his way to the exchange floor, in all likelihood, to lay waste on the world. I had no doubt and it was only too clear that what had occurred to Paris was the result of acts carried out by people like him. 

I gather that my presence in this part of town means that, from that point onward, I will have to proceed South in order to find the Seine, and thereafter, head East, in the direction of Notre Dame on Île de la Cité. After plowing through what should have been the IXème arrondissement, I try, time and again, to locate in the distance the Gothic towers of the Cathedral of Paris, but apparently, those have also been razed along with all the other monuments that I should be able to spot as I head South. Never do I see on my way to Îsle de la Cité, as I should at some point, Garnier, Place Vendôme and its magnificent column topped by Napoleon, the Palais Royal, rue de Rivoli, Place des Vosges, and the Hôtel de Ville. I see that all these have disappeared, not to be seen anywhere. 

In all that time, I have not lost hope to encounter someone with whom I can speak, hoping to find out what had occurred, but I have seen no one, not a single soul. In spite of that terrifying fact, I still harbor some expectation of meeting somebody with whom I can at least have some sort of conversation, only if it is to exchange a few words that would arrest the debilitating effects of the monotonous hum that up to this point still continues unrelentingly. 

As the wrenching, debilitating, ululating hum that had tormented me for so long suddenly eased somewhat. I, by happenstance, have arrived at Place des Victoires, where, finally, at last, I see, as if in a dream or a recollection of what I had read in The Book, what seems to be the disseminated figure of a vagrant squatting near the equestrian monument of Louis XIV, about a hundred feet from where I stand. I see her getting up with some difficulty and then walking over toward a small fire. From here, near one of the square’s angles, I am able to see her back, so I start to approach her carefully so as to not startle her. 

Although the clochard seems absorbed by the sight of some kind of small animal she is skewering on the small fire burning at the foot of the monument, which incredibly so is still standing, the woman now suddenly appears to become aware of my presence. She suddenly raises her head in a jerky motion, apparently trying to figure out where the steps she hears are coming from, no doubt surprised by the possible presence of another human being. When she turns around, as the light of the fire lights her face allowing me to clearly see her countenance, I realize that, with the exception of some kind of open, oozing wound or indentation where the mouth should be, the woman otherwise has no face. 

Overcome by panic, I desperately start to run toward what perhaps was a southward direction, until my legs give out from under me, causing my body to fall exhausted onto the wet ground, as it now had begun to drizzle. I don’t know how far nor did I realize how long I had run. All I know is that when I woke up I was very tired and thirsty and that my head hurt terribly. I then infer that I must have slept for many hours. 

After what I thought must have been an extremely long and disorienting dream, I really do not know how I have been able to arrive at the intersection of Quai de la Mégisserie and Boulevard de Palais on the edge of the Seine. I conclude then that if Pont de la Tournelle on the other side of Île de la Cité was still standing, it would be an easy matter before I could proceed to go straight home up through the spoils of Boulevard Saint Michel. Rue d’Ulm, without further ado and except for new difficulties, should not be too far away now. 

The fact that the Seine has become a swamp, infested by tens of thousands of rats, tadpoles, and toads, does not prevent me from going down the granite steps of a nearby riverbank to have a drink of water from one of the dark, infested puddles that have formed down below. The Seine in fact has turned into a total quagmire, a giant suppurating wound cutting at this point the ruins of the city in half. Nearby, I observe that the mud has almost swallowed whole a péniche

To my surprise, both bridges on either side of the island are intact, thus allowing me to cross over the impassible, muddied riverbed. I am thereby once more, perhaps for the last time, crossing the Seine. Very quickly now, I proceed to walk up boulevard Saint Michelle in the direction of the Jardin du Luxembourg, where I expect to turn left on rue Soufflot. When I get to what my friends affectionately called “Luco”, I find that the beautiful gardens boarded by rue de Vaugirard, on its Northside, have turned into a thick jungle. The Fountain of Médicis has sunk into a deep hole, and the magnificent XVIII-century palace that housed the Sénat de la République is but a pile of rubble. On the other side of Place Edmond Rostand, I see from the terrace of Café Le Rostand that the Pantheon, up at the end of rue Soufflot, has toppled completely. I am relieved to realize that suddenly the humming has stopped all of the sudden and total silence, for the first time in a long time, reigns all around me. 

Not long afterward, I proceed to cross Place de l’Estrapade, passing first in front of the square’s bakery, which is no more. I finally arrive at the intersection of rue des Fossés St. Jacques and rue d’Ulm, where I immediately hurry to turn right. Home finally is only a few feet away. My endlessly deferred wish is about to come true… 

As I get to the door of my building, after a long, hesitating pause, I look around and see the somber, now silent hallway lying in ruins, completely strewn with rubbish and debris, reeking of urine and excrement. Although my door is blocked, I am nevertheless able to force it open. 

Once inside, to my pleasant surprise, I find, lying face down, stretched out on my bed as if crying, a woman with long brown hair, cascading on what I deem to be very delicate, pale, shoulders, which I do not dare touch. 

For some strange reason, the first thing I want to talk about with the stranger is the experience I had with the clocharde on Place des Victoires, as that vision is still vividly in my mind. As soon as I finish relating to her the horror I had witnessed when I saw the faceless vagrant, the woman on the bed got up slowly, turned around to face me, and said: 

“Was she like us?” 

About the Author:

Rodrigo Palacios studied comparative literature at Stanford University as a Ford Foundation Fellow. He also studied literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. He has been writing creatively since my youth. Most of his work has been published in newspapers and literary journals, such as “Revista Chicano-Riqueña” (University of Houston Central Campus), “Vórtice” (Stanford University), “El Cuento” (Mexico City),” Pacific Coast Philology” (Philological Association of the Pacific Coast), “Grito del Sol” (Tonatiuh International, Berkeley, Calif.), and “Praxis” (Universidad del Valle, Colombia). “The Face of Paris” is a story about darkness, tragedy, and longing for what used to be, which is relevant today around the world.

This piece was a part of Issue One: Lost & Found. Read more like this piece here.

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