In the Presence

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Paris, France – March 2010

And so the simple granite monument remained, indistinguishable from the others in that forgotten corner of untended graves. As the years passed, a patchwork blanket of moss wove itself around the cold stone, and time’s unforgiving hand smudged the epitaph into obscurity.

*   *   *

I duck into a flower shop and buy a single rosebud. Pink is the closest that I can find to purple, our favorite color. Hers and mine. My husband and I enter by a back gate, near the Gambetta metro stop. Luckily, I was able to find a division number for her grave on a website. Otherwise it would be impossible to locate her. If cemeteries are cities of the dead, then Père Lachaise is a metropolis. We locate Division 85 right away. It’s across from the massive crematorium.

“It’s an old grave, covered in moss, and the writing has probably totally disappeared,” I say to my husband as I walk down the first row and scan left to right. We turn down the second row. My heart sinks as I notice the quantity of such graves. How will I know which one is hers?

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Photo by Pierre-Louis Pierson

I’m in a hall of empty mirrors, searching for my reflection. I fix my gaze in every possible direction. I’m here, but I can’t find me. Panic spreads its tendrils through me. I pound my fists on the indifferent glass; my scream-scoured voice calls out my name. Where am I?

Not the slightest glimmer or shadow mars the reflective abyss. I exist, but where am I? The void stretches into infinity, within which I am forever lost.

*   *   *

She – the Countess de Castiglione – is the subject of a novel that I’ve been working on for years. She was said to be many things. Most beautiful woman in Europe of her era. Spy for Italy. Mistress of Napoleon III. And later: Madwoman of Place Vendôme. Everyone agreed that she was a mystery. She took refuge in the photographic studio of Pierre-Louis Pierson. Pierson took the photos, but she directed them down to the smallest detail. She’s now considered a pioneer of photographic art. However, she didn’t do it to be an artist. Most of the photos weren’t discovered until after her death. Her own image was a drug, the only thing that soothed her. The lens was a portal into a realm of dreams, where she was everything she wanted to be. Her story is a cautionary tale about the self-destructive nature of narcissism.

I’ve done the research and have amassed a pile of notes. About one hundred badly written pages are sitting in a drawer. The title is chosen and will not change: The Divine. I’d like to finish it one day, but right now it seems beyond my capabilities.

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Where are you, Nicchia? Give me a sign. I look over my shoulder at my husband and sigh. When I look straight ahead, I see a little old lady wearing blue pants and a tan windbreaker jacket. She slowly stalks down the row, looking left and right, scanning the graves with a territorial glare. We stand to the side to let her pass.

She stares into my face. “Who are you looking for?”

“The Countess de Castiglione.”

“Ah, yes. The Countess. She’s just there, where there’s nothing.” She waves her hand towards the end of the row.

I squint my eyes, looking for a mossy stone. I see only well-tended tombs. “Excuse me, where?”

“There! Where there’s nothing.” A heavy tinge of disgust, of hurt on this last word. She bustles past us and stands in front of the grave. A white plaque indicates the organization that’s responsible for the grave’s restoration.

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She turned around and headed back towards Place Vendôme. A gaunt man walked hastily towards her. She gasped and ducked into an alleyway. They were everywhere. The dogs whined and crowded around her skirts. She shushed them. A few moments after the man passed, she took a tentative step into the street. He was gone.

Why didn’t they leave her alone? She was no harm to anyone now. A young couple shot her a frightened glance and quickened their steps. She had been talking to herself.

The woman grasped the man’s arm. “She scares me.”

The man turned to stare at the Countess, and then turned away with a shudder.

*   *   *

The old woman’s hands clench into fists. She marches to the head of the grave. “Look what they have done! Assholes!” She picks up a white vase and a bouquet of plastic flowers that are lying beside the grave. She launches into a colorful rant about them as she tidies up the tombstone. Swear words are so much prettier in French. My husband and I exchange a look and a silent laugh. Once satisfied, the rant becomes a mutter and she scuttles down the row.

“That was odd,” my husband says. He walks around the grave and snaps some photos.

I pause in front of the grave. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the old woman watching me. A nod of approval. I lay the rose on the slab. I want to do right by you. I will do my best. You are not forgotten.

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Photo by Pierre-Louis Pierson

I look down the row again, but the old woman has vanished.

The air takes on a lavender hue. A shift in the atmosphere, the warmth of a presence. A friend. I stand still and silent until it passes. Thank you.

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I walk over to my husband and take the camera. I snap a few shots. “Okay. Do you want to see Jim Morrison’s grave?”

He shrugs. “Why not?”

As we walk towards the other end of the cemetery, the clouds fuse together and the wind picks up. I pull my scarf snugly around my throat. When fat, cold raindrops begin to fall, we take shelter in a tiny mausoleum until it all dies down.

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**The italicized passages are excerpts from The Divine. Four years later and the manuscript is still in a sorry state. I’d like to think that it will be finished one day, but I need to finish the memoir first.

The photos of the Countess were taken from a Buzzfeed article. The article is worth a look if you’re interested in seeing more of her haunting photos.

I took the other photos, except for those that I’m in, which were taken by my husband. The blurred photo freaks me out if I blow it up and look closely. The other photos turned out crystal clear, including those I didn’t post. **

37 thoughts on “In the Presence

  1. Your fine words more than justify the endeavour let alone the subject – keep at it, it is fascinating. I now understand the origin of one your WordPress icons. I look forward to being able to read your full story.

  2. I love the passages you included from The Divine. I hope you get to finish it some day.
    Cemetaries intrigue me. I could stumble through one for hours, imagining the people whom the graves belong to.

  3. I really enjoy your pieces — you’re a masterful weaver of texts and photography into experience and recollection. I likewise am fascinated by cemeteries and necropolises…. I feel so connected to this world when surrounded by those that created it, reminding me of our fragile connection to it. A melancholy place that feels secure. Nicely woven indeed….

  4. Last week I was admiring photos of La Castiglione in Retronaut. Then on Sunday I visited Dieweg cemetery in Brussels, a wonderful place fitting so perfectly with your description, it could very well have been an extension of Père Lachaise! And now your post bringing everything together! Don’t you just love these little big coincidences of the magic that’s life? 😀

  5. I have often wondered about the fluidity and connections through through time. Why are we drawn to certain historical events, people? We are active participants in a narrative that spans time periods. Perhaps that is why we seek out storytellers. We see our personal narratives through those that came before.

    You, my dear friend, are a remarkable storyteller…and I love the stories you tell!!!!

    • Thank you. 🙂 She’s the only historical person that I’ve been drawn to. I saw an exhibit of her photos in the Musee D’Orsay many years ago and was mesmerized. I promptly hunted down books about her – all of them were in French, very old and difficult to get. I can see some parallels in our personalities, but also huge differences.

  6. I must admit that i didn’t know anything about this interesting character. Her portraits are just beautiful,she had a meditative gaze.Père Lachaise is just a perfect place for daydreaming, and being carry away back in times… Happy week-end…
    p.s.: i was thinking while writing that the arrival of the old woman is kinda surreal.

    • Hi Cris- The Countess was originally from La Spezia and her spy “work” was for the reunification of Italy.
      The old woman in the cemetery was very bizarre indeed. I still wonder about that. Happy weekend to you, too. –Julie

  7. I can’t imagine you ever writing “badly written pages”! Beautiful pictures and story of your visit.

    I too can’t understand why folks who don’t speak English well tend to curse in English, instead of their native tongue.

    That’s so cool that you and your husband share the same favorite color.

    • Hi SF, Thanks for the lovely compliments. Actually, the old woman cursed in French. We were speaking French the whole time, but I wrote the dialogue in English, because my readers are English-speaking. 🙂

  8. I love how you intertwined some of the passage from the novel with the memoir, now I want to read your novel, sounds very interesting just like the Countess life.

    • Hi Doris, her life was really fascinating and mysterious. There were a lot of rumors about her and it’s hard to know what’s true or not. But I’ve decided to play with the rumors a little.

  9. Those are stunning words and I hope that you will one day finish The Divine.
    Ek…that’s pretty freaky about the blurry photo!!

  10. It will never be perfect, and what’s perfect to you might not be to someone else. But that shouldn’t stop you from getting it to publishing stage. You have many of us enthralled with what you already have.

    • Thanks, Jo. I know that no book can ever be perfect, but the first draft is usually so bad that I realize how much works lies ahead to make it presentable. But I will carry on. 😀

  11. Pingback: The Countess. | Understanding Your Dog

  12. Père-Lachaise… A strange place. Like my brother once said (he has a ghastly sense of humour): “Before, the Père-Lachaise was just a stroll, a public monument. Now it’s a family property.” His son, my nephew, and our sister are buried there.
    But it’s all right. It gives us an excuse to visit. Thanks for your post. 🙂
    Brian

    • Hi Brian – How interesting that you can visit family at Père-Lachaise. I didn’t realize that people are still being buried there. Thanks for reading. –Julie

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