Fiction from NER 41.1 (2020)
The city is, in many ways, like other cities. Like other cities, it was built alongside a river and has a series of low rambling buildings, at the center of which is the domed chapel of a cruciform church. In the chapel, Chapelle Saint-Louis, the great doctor will one day lie in state. We will be invited to pass through, to look upon his dead face; those of us who can’t walk will be brought on stretchers. From a stretcher, it will be harder to look upon his dead face, but they will tell us that to see his face is not the point, though we will have had enough of the point by then because we have had enough of the point already. Still, who wouldn’t look? We will look the way he looked, seeking out the disease. Did you leave this world gently, our mother’s and father’s wish until it wasn’t because they could not find gentleness in the world and so why would leaving be any different? Anyway, who leaves this world gently? We will look the way we all look when studying a face that has studied us. Who are you who am I where are we going what is this feeling inside of me why why why what does it all mean, etc.
His last words? I am feeling a little better.
How about now?
As in other cities, there are alleys with pollarded plane trees, which, if you know the way, will take you the back route to the market, the bakery, the laundry, the vegetable gardens, the school where we learn grammar, history, geography, and sums, the gymnasium where we learn to bend and not to break, the library where those of us who are able to read borrow books about other cities, the post office where those of us who are able to write consider posting the letters we might someday write; until then, we write in our head or trace them in the dark on each other’s backs. We take a back-alley route to the cemetery where sometimes we go to visit ourselves. In other words, as in other cities, there are places to live and places to die.
In the city, we are dimly aware of the other cities, the villages, the farms, where we were born or found, or we found ourselves, places we left behind as this city wrapped itself around us like time. Until it became the only city. The places from the before fade, grow fainter, farther away, until it is too far to travel even in our minds. For example, the city that contains our city? The one outside the wrought-iron gates, which open onto, where else, Boulevard d’Hôpital? We can’t be sure we didn’t make it up altogether.
The city is, in other ways, unlike other cities. In the courtyard, sometimes there are masked balls where famous scientists and artists and doctors dress as robed monks, musketeers, knights in armor. On those nights, the great pavilion is strung with fairy lamps, colored lanterns, flowers, and streamers, and we dance as though we are Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge and then, look, there is Jane Avril. No, really. There she is, a citizen of the city, too, for a brief while. The luxurious pain of a body in the throes of its symptoms has been likened to a dance and when she, a dancer, was a body in pain, it was something to behold.
Unlike other cities, there is a photography annex with platforms that fill an entire studio, platforms along whose length we walk because the way we walk is worth capturing and inscribing on plates of glass. There are headrests for close range, large-scale photographs of our head or parts of our face—our eyes, our mouth, our nose, our ears. Longer exposure requires immobility, and so, iron gallows to suspend those of us who can’t walk or hold ourselves upright, those of us who will eventually be carried on stretchers, those of us who will be told it is not the point to see the great doctor’s dead face when he lies in state, at which point we will wonder, as we sometimes do when we are poked or pinched by some suspension apparatus, why does everything have to be so pointed?
The city, like other cities, has a history. The city, for example, began as an arsenal. As with other cities, its history is contained in its name: Salpêtrière. In Latin, sal petrae. Salt of stone. Saltpeter. Sparkling white crystals that grow on stone walls and hardened soil and other damp, dark places—trash pits, dovecoats, hen houses, barnyards, cellars, and crypts. Sparkling white crystals, which, when mixed with other things, it is eventually discovered, are an essential ingredient for gunpowder.
In the before, we were the daughters of all sorts of people who themselves were the sons and daughters of all sorts of people, and so on. Sometimes an I breaks free and one of us was the granddaughter of a peterman, whose job it was to scrape off, dig out, unearth the white salt crystals wherever he found them, ripping up privies and the floors of houses. When demand was high, Grandfather collected piss, which, when filtered, yields the same sparkling white crystals as clings to stone. Why not? Our bodies as damp as dark as any other damp dark place; damper, darker. Grandfather’s curiosity about the history of his trade grew from having to defend himself to those whose privies and homes he ripped up. He wanted, as most of us do, to convince himself there was meaning in his days beyond destruction and filtered piss crystals.
Curiosity means we know, too, the story of the alchemist in ancient China looking for a cure to mortality. What wouldn’t any one of us do to keep death as distant as the city outside the wrought-iron gates? If we can imagine it, we’ll do it, and we are renowned for our imaginations. None of us is foolish or inexhaustible or unimaginative enough to want to ward death off forever. Only an emperor would ask for the cure. His gilded life, why wouldn’t he? Fix it, this emperor said to the alchemist who, having dealt with emperors before, got immediately to work, no questions asked. He ground sulfur into a fine powder, added honey, waited as long as he dared to be inspired. Finally, one night, as he walked through the graveyard, his own version of staving off mortality, there, on the gravestones, the white crystal sparkling. When he heated the mixture with the sulfur and the honey, sure enough: flames and a cloud of smoke. Even if it failed to cure the emperor’s mortality, the pyrotechnics would impress him; anyway, if it failed to cure his mortality, he would be dead. The fire drug, the alchemist called it, and it became famous. Impervious to the roughest handling, it slowed the decomposition of the hulls of the ships that carried it from China to India to the Middle East and eventually to Europe where it began its career as gunpowder, that crucial ingredient in the engine of empire. Bengal saltpeter, one of the reasons Napoleon was keen to wrest India from the English.
Enough, we say to Grandfather, tired of his lectures.
His last words? Pass the salt. Of course those weren’t his last words. There are some things whose value increases for having never been recorded, by virtue of being kept private. Privacy makes history around here. Privacy, like history, is something worth imagining. What, we imagine, would our grandfather think of this city of incurables built of saltpeter?
In the before, we were all kinds of girls. A daughter, for example, who missed 150 days of school because of bad reading habits, which, according to the Report on the Service of the Insane of the Department of the Seine in the Year 1877, is one of the twenty-one moral causes of death alongside nostalgia, misery, love, and joy. In the before, we read Natural Magic by Giambattista della Porta, Italian scholar and polymath, friend of the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, and Galileo, jailed by the Inquisition for what the Church considered to be his heretical pursuits, none of which included the invention of gunpowder. In della Porta’s magic book of secrets, he describes a mighty cold produced by a mixture of saltpeter and snow. Our grandfather the saltpeter man knew that the ancient Greeks and Romans had thought to use it not only for heat but for cold; he knew too that, because of the fall of the Roman Empire, the knowledge of saltpeter’s cooling properties was lost until several Arabic manuscripts were translated into European languages and the knowledge reappeared, as knowledge often does, as if it was being discovered for the first time. We girls with bad reading habits read of saltpeter’s magic as if we were discovering it, the way reading makes you feel as though the gunpowder words have been waiting all this time for you, only you, to light them on fire. We read of saltpeter’s use as an ingredient in love or money spells. In order to shield yourself where you walk, sprinkle some in your shoe; in order to ward off jinxes and protect from attack, take a protective saltpeter bath or, better yet, prepare a floor wash out of saltpeter and urine. Do this in complete silence. Mop from the doorway outward in order to ward off evil. We girls with bad reading habits read of saltpeter’s magic as a curative for the mild headache, the upset stomach, kidney damage, an antidote to the male libido. We who live in the city of saltpeter have our theories about the unlikelihood of this last curative.
We are in the city and the city is in us. We are the traces of saltpeter left over from the city’s days as an arsenal, lurking in straw beds in the basement cells, in the cracks of the courtyard stones. We are the stray particles in the air when the arsenal became a public hospital for destitute women and prostitutes, then a women’s prison, then the largest asylum in Europe, then the largest brothel. We are the dust the revolutionary mob stirred up when it stormed the wrought-iron gates, streaming in from Boulevard d’Hôpital to free the prostitutes. When Pinel, the great humanitarian reformer, unchained the women shackled in the courtyard for public display, we rose up from the straw beds set on fire and clung to the building’s stone. A painting celebrating his triumph hangs in the foyer of the main hospital in the city. He stands solemnly, having just broken the chains of the bare-breasted woman standing next to him. Her arm extended, she examines it, this object suddenly unbound but not yet an arm. Is it hers? The painting knows it is often too late to triumph over terror. If you look in the direction she is looking, there we are, sparkling on the stones of the building. We are there still. Someday our grandfather will come looking for us. He will scrape us off the walls; dig us out of the floorboards; sift us out of the piss in the privies. He will gather us to him.
Our last words? We are still considering. We’ll let you know.
Sometimes the pollarded plane trees cast unexpected morning shadows. We, the posthumous daughters and granddaughters and so on and whatnot, shortcutting our way to the market or the library or the cemetery, only have to look at one another. Do you see it there? The city inside the city, the shadow city? Would you like to go with me? Our eyes ask the questions only for the pleasure of asking and being asked. We are there already. It is where we live.