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Where the Light Falls

By:Allison Pataki

Paris, Winter 1792

He hears them before he sees them, a swell of thousands, young and old, male and female, clamoring from the other side of the prison walls. They sound impatient, shrill with the heady prospect of fresh blood to wet the newly sharpened guillotine blade.

His skin grows cold where the rusty shears touch his neck, creaking and groaning as they clip his locks. He watches as the limp wisps of gray float to the ground, harbingers of what is to come for the head that had grown them. He would be sick, but nothing remains in his stomach to be emptied.

“Can’t have the hair getting tangled on the blade.” The old jail keeper’s sour breath reeks of wine as he makes quick work of the prisoners’ hair, snipping the line of ponytails in brisk, well-rehearsed succession. Most of the hair, even that from the young heads, is laced with gray. Funny, he thinks, how terror ages a man much more quickly than any passage of time.

“This way, old man, move along.” The guard jerks his pockmarked chin toward the far end of the hallway, and Alexandre de Valière, now shorn tighter than a springtime lamb, shuffles his chained feet one final time down the dark corridor. The inmates whose names weren’t called peek through the small slits in their doors, watching the march. Grateful, for the moment, to be on the other side of their doors. Their tiny square cells feel safe, even cozy, compared to the brown courtyard toward which Valière now walks.

And now, he waits. Standing alongside the others in the courtyard, he cups his hands and tries to blow some warmth into his cold, aching fingertips.

“Must be thousands of them out there.” A nervous-looking man at least thirty years his junior looks at him with wide, unblinking eyes. Valière nods in reply.

“You think this lot are loud, wait ’til you hear them gathered on the other side of the river,” one of the other prisoners grunts, spitting on the frosted ground. He was already bald and therefore hadn’t required the same shearing as the rest.

The crowd had come out early this morning, as they had for several weeks now, assembling just beyond the walls of the prison that had once been the residence of the ancient kings. They’ll line the entire route: across the small island that sits in the middle of the Seine, over the bridge in front of city hall, lining Rue Saint-Honoré before opening into the great square of Place Louis XV, recently renamed La Place de la Révolution, where a deafening roar would erupt from the masses assembled in view of the scaffold.

A guard emerges from the prison. “All right, it’s time. Up you go,” he says, pointing his musket at the tumbril that awaits. “Let’s not keep Madame waiting.”

Valière recalls Dante’s passage, mumbling the words to himself, “His sworn duty is to ferry the souls of the damned across the infernal river.”

“No back talk, you!” A nearer guard raises the butt of his musket as if to smite the old man across the face, and Valière notices with a flash of bitter humor that he had winced, instinctively, in the face of the threat. As if a beating could do any harm at this point.

Valière waits his turn to climb into the tumbril, helping an old woman before him. When the last of them are aboard, a guard lifts the gate and the driver cracks his whip over the horses. The wheels groan as they slowly begin to turn, stiff like aching bones on this cold morning, lurching the cart forward. Valière steadies himself on the railing, offering a faint smile to the old woman, who had reached for his shoulder to regain her balance. She smiles wanly back at him, her trembling hands betraying her own terror. As the prison gates grind open, the guards posted along the entrance look on, bored, as the human cargo rolls past; the tumbrils passed this way yesterday, and more will pass tomorrow.

Just then the feeble disc of the sun slices through the thick cloud cover and the city is illuminated in stark winter daylight. The old man is momentarily blinded. He squints, his eyes adjusting as he beholds the great crowd that has come out to witness his final passage through the city. There are even more than he would have guessed.

The old woman beside him is praying to the Virgin, clutching an ivory rosary that she has somehow slipped past the prison guards. She holds Valière’s eyes for just an instant, and he gives her a small, barely perceptible nod.

A whirring noise glides past his ears, followed by a dull thud. He looks over his shoulder at the prisoner immediately behind him and notices the man’s gray shirt, splattered with the brown juice of a rotten tomato. A head of lettuce follows, bouncing off Valière’s shoulder before it knocks into the old woman, sending her string of beads loose from her hands and over the tumbril railing to the filthy street. She cries out, “My rosary!” The crowd lets out a chorus of jeers and sniggers. One of the more eager onlookers, braving the wrath of the guards, rushes forward to scoop the ivory beads from the grimy street. The old woman mumbles quietly to herself, “My rosary. It was my mother’s rosary.”