By Robyn Allers
This Story Won First Prize in Our Contest
A tour group blocks the entrance so, what the hell, you take my hand and we pardon our way through the stragglers to a doorway beneath The Annunciation. Stone kings peer down as if hanging from coat hooks, toeless feet pockmarked by oxidation and pigeon shit. “Imagine,” says the guide, sweeping a hand heavenward, “the poor medieval pilgrim, feet bloody, spirit forlorn, glimpsing from a distance the luminous splendor of Chartres.” You squeeze my hand. We name the guide Bertrand. “Lit from within, he would see the glorious night color, kings beckoning from the portals. Ohhhhh,” he says, “what a revelation it must have been.” Bertrand steeples his fingers under his chin. Applause. Every camera targets the tour guide and his Biblical entourage.
You head for the entrance. I hang back, drawn to a couple on the sidelines, murmuring in Portuguese and brimming with desire. The brunette in a sundress poses beneath a queen whose long braid drapes a breast. The woman sweeps her hair over one shoulder and cocks a hip. Her partner, deltoids like doorknobs, adjusts her tripod and lopes to join the selfie, studied and beautiful. When did every vacation become a fashion shoot? Yet, I can’t take my eyes off of them. As they walk away, the photographer burrows her face in the glossy pillow of her lover’s hair.
Inside, all is shadow. I don’t see you until your arm presses mine. “Until our eyes adapt,” you say, playing Bertrand, “the windows cannot speak.”
“Ohhhh, what promises they will reveal!” Your accent’s better, but I nail the delivery.
We’re on our first vacation since The Event. Who knew how long your heart had stopped, how long my palms worked your chest, pump-pumping in the shallow that meets my lips when we embrace? The dispatcher counted with me. At fifty, your face turned stone-gray.
But here you are! Your beating heart, your breath, your memory. No one would ever know I died, you joke.
The vaults loom like a ribcage. In the windows, gemstone figures emerge: angels, martyrs, saints, prophets. The Covenant on the north side, Apocalypse on the south, they reflect a kaleidoscope of color on stone.
“Marvelous!” It’s Bertrand’s voice, but the wonder is your own.
People said to me: Thank God You Were There. And: Every Day Is a Gift. And: There’s a Reason for Everything.
I said: we were lucky.
Your shutter clicks at the Noah Window. I squint at a colorful tent in the panel’s center. “The ark looks like a big top,” I say.
“Is that a lion or a monkey?”
I follow your finger to the animals, in shapes a child might draw. “Yes.” More recognizable, amethyst horses board from the left; emerald geese ride topaz elephants from the right. Craning my neck, I make out the human heads of the drowned, bobbing on candy-colored waves. A large bird pecks at an unfortunate head.
You adjust focus for the close-up. “Think there’s a theme?”
In the upper panel, a rainbow, God’s promise: no more floods. “We see how that worked out,” I say, but you have moved on.
During the war, villagers removed the windows and stored them in quarries. The Americans almost shelled the cathedral, believing that German snipers occupied the towers. An American colonel sneaked behind enemy lines, climbed the tower, found no Germans, and thus saved Chartres. He was killed later that day. His name? Welborn. You can’t make it up.
You philosophized: Dying’s not so bad.
Easy for you to say. You went to sleep after Colbert and woke up two days later with broken ribs and weeks wiped from memory.
Some people quit their jobs and join a monastery or give TED talks. You were back at work in two weeks (Such Dedication, they said), mixing margaritas in six, still planning our trip to Nepal. How about Vermont? I said. And here we are, a compromise.
When I see you again, you have stashed your camera, now admiring the graceful sweep of the arches. For an agnostic, you’re a sucker for Gothic cathedrals. “Genius,” you say of the ribbed vaults and flying buttresses, clustered columns, a skeleton of stone to support a ceiling so unreachable it might as well be heaven.
No wonder religion dominates history.
Inside your chest, a technological miracle I could hold in my palm reports every heartbeat to a computer in Germany. Doctors refer to it as The Device. It will shock your heart if it goes haywire. Imagine being kicked by a horse, the doctor says.
Me, I see calamity everywhere: the deer in the cornfield as we drive a dark road, the mudslide that will sweep you off the trail, random collisions of the ordinary exploding in disaster.
At the nexus of transept and nave, I stand at the center of the labyrinth—260 meters of serpentine stone. For centuries, the pious traced the pattern on their knees. Near me, an elderly woman sits in a wooden chair, a rosary lacing her fingers. I scan, locate you, face in the guidebook, probably planning lunch. Bertrand huddles with a couple at the famous Blue Virgin window. He sighs. “Ah, yes, the ‘inimitable’ Chartres Blue. Romantic myth, I’m afraid. Strictly chemistry, the color produced from cobalt oxide. Like all the others.”
The couple frowns.
“All the same,” Bertrand says, unfurling his fingers as if revealing a secreted coin. “It’s rather remarkable, n’est pas?”
A chair scrapes the stone. I turn to see the French woman stumble, her fall echoing up the vaults. How quickly we reach her! She grasps your outstretched arm. “Ai-je cassé?”
“Non”, I say, no breaks. Like I know. We help her stand, exhaling in unison when she appears unscathed.
“C’est un miracle!” She crosses herself.
“You’re lucky,” you tell her, but you’re looking at me.
The shifting light now drenches us all in a rhapsody of color, and I find myself a heartbeat away from believing in grace.