Charenton Bridge

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Paris Commune-night of 23 and 24 May

The Charenton Bridge: May 1871[1]

The cart took the road from Choisy. The spring had come early and little cherry trees lined the whole way, glittering red like they were splattered with drops of blood. The country was in flower, the earth smelled good and the sun crowned the thatched roofs in gold. It was good to be alive.

It had been two months since we left Paris. They said that our “brothers and friends” were going to pillage and massacre everything. My family was scared, so they rented a little cart and crammed it full of all kinds of things. And they wedged me, poor little thing, between two mattresses, holding a parrot’s cage in my right hand and a hatbox in my left, with two shoulder bags and a bunch of umbrellas between my knees.

“As long as the bandits let us through!” my mother said.

Before we got to the roadblock she threw her tartan over my head to make it harder for them to see me. I did not look like a little girl anymore even with my short skirts. She and my uncle hinted at this before bundling me up and they mumbled a lot, but I only caught snatches.

“Capable of anything… In June, remember?… And at Clamecy, right, the prefect’s wife!”

I did not know what had happened at Clamecy, but I knew what was happening in the cart. I was suffocating. I was sweating blood and water.

“Don’t move, poor child! We’re there!”

My parents got down and I heard them talking… it was amazing how nice they were! I sneezed and the shawl shifted.

“So, you’re hiding an animal back there!” someone yelled.

They pulled off the tartan and Cocotte started squawking up a storm. The entire post watched me, laughing so hard I got tears in my eyes seeing how funny Mama looked.

“The kid’s in a good mood,” my liberator said. He was a member of the National Guard[2] who had a big moustache and a red nose but seemed to be the salt of the earth and merry as a starling.

“Move on! There won’t be any trouble, get going! The Guard isn’t mean!” The horse started trotting again and I heard a deep, cheerful voice cry out to me, “Hey, kid, make sure you don’t drop anything!”

We were through and yet my parents were furious. They had called Mama “the mother” as if she were a fishmonger or was hawking slop and they treated my uncle like a “doddering old fool”.

Then they cried out, “Dear Lord, the Prussians! We’re saved!”

#

That is what I was thinking about while we rolled on towards Charenton. The bridge had become the meeting point for high society in the area. It was the place to be: for two days they came to watch Paris burn.

While waiting for the end, to stave off the boredom of the trip, they talked about what was happening over there… Cavalry officers soaked in oil and burned alive like in the times of Nero. Policemen’s wives thrown in the front lines of the battalions to be a screen for the enemy’s bullets. The wounded Communards got drunk on eau-de-vie so they could be sent back to the massacre. In their filthy rage they finished off the wounded from Versailles by sprinkling their open wounds with tobacco and pepper to make their pain sharper and their martyrdom longer.

“Why don’t you say something? Are you so cold-hearted?”

Ah, no, I was not cold-hearted. My eyes were burning and my heart pumping! But if I bottled up the trembling little heart in my young girl’s breast, would you be so surprised or get angry with me—you bourgeoisie who raised me to be like you, to honor the family and the race?

I knew nothing. I understood nothing. But I could not believe what you were telling me! I remembered that the murderers you were talking about were the very ones who let us escape without touching a hair on our heads, without taking a penny from our pockets, without drinking one bottle of our wine—those drunkards!

I also remembered all the poor people whom they housed in the gilded apartments around us. I remembered how sad and gentle they seemed and how proud, too, never asking for a thing; and how uncomfortable they looked in that hostile luxury; and how much they wanted to get back to their crowded slums where they were free, at least, and not humiliated.

But I could not say this and I huddled back up in the cart, closed my eyes and tried to close my ears.

#

The bridge. We arrived.

The whole sky was red, the horizon in flames! We could see nothing, nothing but a sea of fire and a thick fog of gray smoke floating heavily above it.

“Oh, the scoundrels!   In front of the enemy!”

That was the general cry. Indeed, the enemy was there. The bridge was the border between the two armies: French on one side and Germans on the other. The armistice had put both sides in their place. They just sat there looking stonily at each other, especially when they laid down their arms and had nothing to fear but fistfights and brawls.

But for the moment there was no question of brawls. Everyone was friendly and fraternizing. Fried potatoes were selling over here and a barrel organ was set up over there. Some Bavarians had taken our young soldiers around the waist and were teaching them how to waltz. Our men were clumsy and stumbled at every step. Soon two of them took a fall with the German sprawled on top of the French.

“These guys are animals, always on top!” a swaggering soldier yelled.

Big laughs.

On the other hand—not to be lacking good manners—a seasoned officer offered his “fries” to a group of blonde, chubby Germans who dipped their fat fingers in the cone and licked them succulently before drying them on their caps.

A Tilbury carriage arrived. A fat landlord of Saint Maurice, the king of the country, got out with his two majors whom he put in charge of accommodations—and whom he accommodated magnificently. The taller one, they said, would marry his daughter after the peace—a real catch: 500,000 F dowry. While waiting the officer offered his arm to his future father in-law who had gout and heavy legs. And there they were in the middle of the bridge. The German watched in silence and his face clouded over. “Poor Paris,” he murmured. But the other, the Frenchman, the bourgeois, waved his fist toward the city in flames. “In front of the enemy! Ah, the rats!”

 

Next:  The Eternal Masculine (I)

[1] Séverine, Pages Rouges, 1893.

[2] Defended Paris against the Prussians and during the Commune included anyone able to bear arms.

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