The Cathedral

The Cathedral babbles softly in the winter, in the dead of night. It is too cold for anyone to walk on the quays. At this time all the statues of the great cathedral speak together. It is not only the saints who converse with the rows of the blessed, or Mary with the angels that surround her, or the gargoyles with the damned. It has been too long to hold to such social restrictions. Though the church appears hieratic it communes with itself democratically. Any statue may address any other—even a salamander speak outright to an Apostle. The stone voices are very many: they query from niches, fling from the buttresses, and drop in comment from the towers and eaves. Buzzing softly as a city, the statues speak intently in their deliberation, ever of the same matter.

A good Christian might be surprised, but they do not discuss theology and they never name God or the soul.

For this other matter is still so engrossing that over the centuries not a statue among them has passed a single nostalgic remark on the amendments in religious practice, or at any moment bemoaned the end of pomp and crowds and miracles.

They do not find time to discuss the Parisian dead, either the famous or unknown, all of whom it has watched, strolling, passing, fleeing to itself in final or desperate moments.

They do not discuss Victor Hugo.

The saints and the Virgin and the angels and the monsters whisper of the same incomprehensible forsaking again and again: how the francs-maçons left one day—the master architects with their fine sons—and did not ever return, leaving the cathedral unfinished.

The empty places on the exterior were filled by latecomers of restoration, and it came to pass that these figures speculated on the mystery with all the enthusiasm of the older statues, whose memory of the day was quite vivid. But the outside incompletion had never been the deep worry of the statues; it was an absence they felt within.

When the master architects and their sons disappeared, the grand design that had been planned for the floor of the interior had not yet been laid. It had been drawn out but not yet set in the paving as planned, with small multicolored stones. Had anyone seen the pattern within before the new, less skillful masons came and covered it with ordinary blank paving? The same rumors still fly back and forth among the statues, but only one suspicion seems to be established beyond doubt. To a bird, or a balloonist, or any eye looking down from the clouds, the cathedral appears quite clearly as a cross. The sole unanimously held opinion regarding the grand, lost design has to do with its intended locus. The statues believe that the original drawing might yet survive, buried beneath the floor in the square at the heart of the cross, where the nave and the transept meet.

But they still hold close debate as to its nature.

The design, insisted one archangel, had been a map of an endless path.

The design, announced Saint Genevieve (who knew Paris best), had been conceived as a huge beatific rose.

The design, snarled a gargoyle from the tip of the spire, was meant to confound, like the Gordian knot, which no one could untie—and it has succeeded, he laughed bitterly.

The design is nameless, uttered John the Baptist, from his head cradled sideways in his arms; it is a strange and austere picture of the world, showing neither earth nor sky, and containing neither beasts nor flora nor cities, but having a perfect circle of white marble as its center, a disc large enough for a man to stand in.

“And how wide would that be?” asked one of the damned.

“About the span of a newborn babe,” the head of John the Baptist replied.

This story, written in 1975, originally appeared in The Sea-Rabbit; Or, The Artist of Life (published by Sun & Moon Press in 1987). You can read an interview with Walker here.

Photo credit: Courtney Mooney

Wendy Walker is the author of The Secret Service, two volumes of tales, Blue Fire: a poetic nonfiction, My Man and Other Critical Fictions, and The Camperdown Elm, a meditation with drawings. She is the editor of Proteotypes and co-founder of The Writhing Society, a salon for the practice of writing with constraints. Her drawings can be found in the flatfiles of The Kentler International Drawing Space. Her new book, Sexual Stealing, with an introduction by Daniel Levin Becker, is forthcoming from Temporary Culture later this year.

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