Read an Excerpt
Marc Rochat pulled aside the lace curtains and watched the rain fall through lamplight and splash on the cobblestones of Escaliers du Marché. Tiny streams formed between the cobblestones and ran down to bigger streams of rain from Rue Mercerie. The two roads, narrow and angled at a steep slant, met just beyond the windows of Café du Grütli. Rochat breathed against the cold glass; he drew a rawboned face in the quick-spreading fog.
“I see you, I see you hiding in the rain. You can’t fool me. En garde.”
He wiped away the face and turned back to the warmth of the café.
It was a familiar place to Rochat. He came here most evenings for his supper. He liked the round lamps hanging from the ceiling that glowed like full moons. He liked the photographs of Lausanne from longtimes ago hanging on the walls. He liked the chalk script menu above the bar that never changed. Monsieur Dufaux, the owner of the café, washed the slate and rewrote the menu each day, but the letters were always the same and always in the same place, just like the patrons. Madame Budry with her sixth glass of Villette, Monsieur Duvernay with his Friday night filets de porc avec pommes frites, the Lausanne University professor and his wife who rarely spoke to each other but read many books, the Algerian street cleaners who stopped in each night for espresso and cigarettes. And Monsieur Junod, pushing through the curtains at the door just now, followed by his little white dog on a lead. Always at the same time, always taking the same table in the corner. And his dog always jumping on the next chair to look about the café as if demanding service. Rochat liked to imagine the little dog dressed in a very nice suit, knife and fork in his paws, and eating sausages and—
“Still coming down, is it, Marc?”
Rochat saw Monsieur Dufaux standing at his table, drying his hands on the dish towel tucked in his apron strings.
“The rain. Still coming down, is it?”
“Oui, and winter’s trying to sneak into Lausanne tonight. He thinks I can’t see him.”
“Winter.” Rochat pulled aside the curtain and pointed to the dripping dark beyond the glass. “Out there, hiding in the rain. He thinks I can’t see him, but I do.”
Monsieur Dufaux looked through the window. “Such an ugly night. And it’s cold. I feel it in my bones.”
“I can blow on the glass and draw him in the fog so you can see.”
“Winter. Do you want to see?”
“Non, mon cher, that’s all right. But tell you what: You see old man winter from the belfry tonight, you chase him away for me. Would you like a dessert, espresso?”
Monsieur Dufaux collected Rochat’s finished plate, pulled the white cloth from his apron strings, and pounded bread crumbs from the table.
“You know, every time you have your supper, I ask if you want a dessert or coffee. And every time you say the same thing.”
Rochat thought about it. “I know.”
“I know, too. That’s the point. Surprise me sometime. This is Switzerland. We need surprises now and then. Keeps us from boring one another to death.”
Rochat laughed politely, not sure what Monsieur Dufaux meant, but very sure it was a joke. Monsieur Dufaux was well-known in the café for saying funny things. And watching him walk among the tables, pounding bread crumbs to the floor and saying the same thing about Swiss people boring one another to death, Rochat knew he had guessed correctly. All the patrons laughed.
A single chime rang through the café. Rochat glanced at the old clock above the bar. Little hand between eight and nine, big hand on three.
“Mustn’t be late, Rochat. You have your duties.”
He looked at his bill and read the numbers. He opened his wallet, carefully counting out his Swiss francs. He checked everything three times, making sure his calculations were correct.
“Very good, Rochat. Numbers can be very silly things. Always moving about when you’re trying to read them.”
He tied a black scarf around his neck, slipped on his long black wool coat, and eased through the crowded café toward the door. The patrons shifted in their chairs to let him pass. Monsieur Dufaux called from behind the bar, “Fais attention, Marc, the stones will be slippery in the rain.”
Rochat felt everyone’s eyes at his back, everyone watching his clumsy limp. He pulled his floppy black wool hat from his pocket, tugged it down on his head.
“Merci. Bonne soirée, mesdames et messieurs.”
He shuffled through the curtains and out of the door and into the rain. He checked for shadows on the cobblestones. There was only his own crooked shadow stretching from his boots.
“On y va, Rochat.”
He shuffled to the bottom of Escaliers du Marché. The steep hill of cobbled-together and mismatched stones looked slippery in the rain, just as Monsieur Dufaux had warned. Rochat shuffled to the wooden staircase workermen had built in middles of ages. Rochat didn’t know who they were, but he was very glad they had built it. The wooden handrail was sturdy and the red-tiled roof would keep him from getting soaked to the bones. He grabbed the handrail and climbed.
“Un, deux, trois . . .”
The thud of his crooked right foot marking his pace.
“. . . seize, dix-sept, dix-huit . . .”
The old stone buildings along the hill looking hammered into place by the same cobblers who built the road. Skinny flats with painted shutters, empty flower boxes at the windows, small shops on the ground floor. An antiques dealer, a hairdresser, Vaucher the boulanger, a gunsmith, an Indian restaurant with funny statues at the doors, and the Place de la Palud bureau of the Swiss police, who, like all good citizens, closed up shop at night and went home.
“. . . vingt et un, vingt-deux, vingt-trois . . .”
He quickened his pace till the stone buildings began to bend in the corners of his eyes and he could imagine beforetimes . . .
“. . . quarante-sept, quarante-huit, quarante-neuf . . .”
. . . and another cobblestone road . . .
“. . . cinquante, cinquante et un, cinquante-deux . . .”
. . . and another stone house, with a garden at the back. The place he lived with his mother through the first ten years of his life. The place he learned to walk on his uneven legs. The only place in the world Rochat had known till a strangerman came knocking at his door. He was tall and had a bald head and there were reading glasses with no arms balanced on the tip of his nose. Rochat’s mother said the stranger had been sent by his father. Rochat had never met his father, only knew him from a photograph. Standing with his mother on a summer’s day on the Plains of Abraham above the St. Lawrence River. His mother wore a blue dress; she looked pretty. The photograph taken in the days before she changed. She grew tired and weak, she took lots of medicines. Then her hair fell out and she stayed in bed most of the day.
“. . . soixante-quatre, soixante-cinq, soixante-six . . .”
The man at the door shook Rochat’s hand. “Good afternoon, Master Rochat. I am Monsieur Gübeli. It is an honor to make your acquaintance.”
He came into the house and sat at the kitchen table. He opened his briefcase and removed some papers for his mother to sign. He helped her hold the pen steady. Then the man showed Rochat a small red book with a white cross on the cover.
“Your father has secured this Swiss passport for you, Master Rochat, so you may go to live in Lausanne.”
Rochat trembled. His mother took his hand.
“Don’t be afraid, Marc. I have to go away soon. Your father is a very nice man, he’ll take care of you. You’ll go to a very nice school with children like yourself.”
“. . . septante, septante et un, septante-deux . . .”
The kitchen opened into a sitting room, and near the window there was a floor-stand globe of the world.
“Tell me, do you enjoy studying the earth, Master Rochat?”
“Oui, Maman shows me places and tells me about them.”
“Has your mother shown you Switzerland? Where your father lives, where you’ll go to school?”
“Yes, it’s far away.”
The look on Monsieur Gübeli’s face made Rochat laugh; his mother laughed, too. The stranger removed the glasses from his nose and laid them on the table. He walked to the sitting room and returned with the globe. He stood it next to the table and gave it a spin to the west.
“All this traveling has left me somewhat lost. I can’t quite find where I am in the world.”
“Because you made the world go backward, monsieur.”
The stranger looked at Rochat and smiled. “Very good, Master Rochat. Perhaps you could show me the correct way to see where I am?”
Rochat looked at his mother. She brushed his black hair from his forehead.
“Go ahead, Marc. You can do it. Remember how I showed you to see things.”
Rochat stopped the wrong-way world. He turned it slowly to the east and found a tiny dot along the St. Lawrence River.
“You’re here, monsieur, in Quebec City.”
The stranger refitted his glasses for a better look, almost touching his long nose to the globe.
“And this river on the globe would be the same river I see from your sitting room window?”
“D’accord. How do I find Switzerland?”
Rochat turned the globe eastward again till he found a small country curving around a slender lake in the center of Europe.
“Switzerland is this place, the red one.”
The man set the index finger of his left hand on the dot by the St. Lawrence River in Canada and the index finger of his right hand on the lake in Switzerland. He studied the distance carefully.
“Now, Master Rochat, I’m going to show you a little secret. Are you ready?”
Rochat watched the man trace the finger of his left hand along one of the thin lines drawn around the globe. From Quebec City, crossing the maritime provinces of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and then over the Atlantic Ocean. Then through France, to find the finger of his right hand waiting in Switzerland.
“You see? Quebec City and Lausanne both lie on the forty-sixth latitude of planet earth. So all we need to do is travel along this little line from here to there. Why, it’s no distance at all. Look, I can touch the two places with one hand. Here, you try.”
Rochat looked at his mother.
“Go on, Marc, you can do it.”
Rochat’s hand was very small and only stretched to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But he saw the thin line on the globe and it didn’t seem too much farther beyond the tip of his little finger to the place he would go a few days later, after watching his mother’s coffin lowered into the winter ground of Cimetière Saint-Charles.
And that day, the strangerman was there to hold Rochat’s small hand. And he helped Rochat pack his clothes, the photograph of his mother and father on the Plains of Abraham, some coloring books, and a box of crayons. Special care was taken with the photograph of his mother and father to make sure it’d be safe as they traveled to Lausanne and nowtimes, climbing this wooden staircase on a cobblestone hill in the icy rain.
“. . . huitante, huitante et un, huitante-deux . . .”
There was a pedestrian passage under Rue Viret. Rochat never went that way. The neon lights flickered and made bad shadows on the graffiti-splattered walls. He took the wooden stairs that climbed above the old marketplace, where people used to sell grain and pigs and chickens and geese longtimes ago. It was a small park now with nine chestnut trees and four benches. But Rochat liked to imagine it in the old days, thinking it must have been very noisy and smelly and fun.
“. . . nonante, nonante, nonante et un, nonante-deux . . .”
He came to Rue Viret as the headlights of the number 16 bus rounded a bend and made flashes of reds and blues and greens in the rain. The bus splashed through a puddle, rolled by Rochat, rounded another bend, and disappeared.
“Right on time, Rochat. Must be punctual in all things.”
Rochat hurried across the road and up the last of the wooden stairs.
“. . . cent vingt-sept, cent vingt-huit, cent vingt-neuf . . .”
He pulled hard on the handrail, jumped over the last step, and landed on the stones of the esplanade. The great floodlit façade of Lausanne Cathedral filled his eyes.
“Bonsoir. Still standing, are you? Good for you. Listen, you old pile of stones, we must be ready. Old man winter is trying to sneak into Lausanne tonight, and Monsieur Dufaux wants us to chase him away. Do you hear?”
He shuffled toward the cathedral, the limestone arch above the great wooden doors dripping with rain and sparkling in the floodlights. The cathedral seemed to grow bigger in his eyes.
“What do you mean, you don’t need me to tell you winter is hiding in the rain? What do you mean, you already know? How could you already know? Oh, I see, because you know everything already. And why should I believe you?” He pressed his ear to cathedral stone and listened. He rolled his eyes. “Because cathedrals don’t lie? Says who?”
He felt the cold gaze of the saints and prophets carved in stone on either side of the great wooden doors, all staring down at him with grumpy faces. Monsieur Moses the most grumpy-faced of all. Ready to smash the stone tablets in his hands on the ground. Rochat waved him away.
“Oh, please, it’s the same silliness with you every night. ‘Thou shalt not this, thou shalt not that.’ That’s all you have to say. And where would you be without your silly stone tablets? Looking very silly with nothing to complain about, that’s what I think.”
Rochat leaned back and saw the gargoyles peeking from the upper façade. He watched rain drip from their mouths and fall to the empty stone jamb between the doors.
He remembered a story he learned in school.
Once there was a gold statue of Mother Mary standing on the jamb. And lots of people climbed the steps of Escaliers du Marché on their knees to pray before her, and there were miracles: The blind could see, the lame could walk. Till some grumpy men from Berne came and tore Mary from the jamb and melted her into coins. The teacher said they were called Reformationmen. Rochat rapped Monsieur Moses on his stone toes.
“Friends of yours, I’m very sure.” He watched a small pool of rain gather at the lip of the jamb, tiny drops falling to the ground. “But perhaps there’s one more miracle left for Rochat.”
He ducked under the jamb and let a few drops of rain fall in his mouth. He looked at his foot. Still stuck to the end of a crooked leg, still twisted to the side.
“No miracles left for Rochat, then.”
Tin-throated bells rang up from Place de la Palud: tinktink, tinktink, tinktink. The bells lived down the hill in the Hôtel de Ville near Café du Grütli. And every night they liked to remind Rochat to hurry along.
“Yes, yes, I know, fifteen minutes. Don’t worry, Rochat won’t be late. Rochat is never late.”
He pulled at the iron handles of the doors. Locked as always, but it was his duty to check. He shuffled to the doors of the old bishop’s house and the cathedral museum. Locked as well.
“Tinny bells and grumpy statues and checking all the doors. So many duties, Rochat. No time for miracles, not for Rochat.”
He shuffled along the façade and around the belfry tower to a red door almost hidden by a high wooden fence running the length of the cathedral. He pulled a ring of skeleton keys from his overcoat and slid the largest key into the lock. He turned the key, pressed his shoulder to the door, and pushed. Old wood screeched and scraped over dusty stone. He stepped in, closed the door with a loud bang. Rochat listened to the sound echo down a hundred dark passageways.
“Bonsoir, it’s only me.”
. . . it’s only me, only me, only me . . .
He didn’t bother with the light; he knew his way in the dark. An alcove of three doors: skinny red door to the outside, big door to the nave, bigger wooden door to the belfry tower. He sorted through the keys; finding the small one with jagged edges to open the tower door, he crossed through and locked up behind him. He shuffled down a corridor to a stone arch opening to a spiral staircase. Stone steps wound up to a narrow wooden bridge that crossed above the women’s choir loft. He tiptoed, but his lightest step creaked in the dark. He passed through another stone arch and made his way up another set of winding steps to another narrow wooden bridge crossing higher above the women’s choir loft, but in the opposite direction from below.
“Back and forth and forth and back. A very strange way to climb a tower. Then again, it’s the only way to climb this tower, so there.”
. . . so there, so there, so there . . .
He stopped, waited for his voice to fade.
“I really must stop talking to myself.”
. . . to myself, to myself, to myself . . .
Floodlights on the esplanade seeped through a window of leaded glass, the light dissolving into teasing shadows on the stone walls.
“And good evening to you, mesdemoiselles. Keeping the bad shadows away, I trust?”
He heard the flimsy door at the end of the walkway swing on its hinges. Rochat was very sure the teasing shadows had something to do with the mystery of the always swinging door. He shuffled along the walkway and crossed through the doorway. He gave it a solid push till it snapped shut.
“And please remember to close the door after yourselves, mesdemoiselles! I’m very busy with my duties and don’t have time for your games.”
Rochat pressed his ear to the door and listened. He heard the teasing shadows giggling. What silly things teasing shadows can be, he thought.
He was in a dark chamber at the bottom of a stone staircase that curled up like a corkscrew. A slender window, big enough for an archer’s bow, was cut through the chamber wall. Rochat looked out and saw the rain still coming down, saw the lights of Lausanne shimmering in the fog rising from Lac Léman.
“Rain or fog, you can’t hide from Marc Rochat. I see you.”
He hurried up the tower, round and round between close-in walls. He touched the newel pillar running up the center of the tower, his fingers tracing over the smooth finger marks made by all the men who’d climbed these same steps, touching the same place on the stone every night for eight hundred years. Round and round, higher and higher. He felt cold air coming down the tower. He heard wind sounds in the open sky. He smelled the lake and pine trees and ice and snow from far away.
He circled once more, and jumped over the last step and landed on the south balcony of the belfry as if jumping into the sky. His open arms were like perfect wings, and for a moment he was flying. High above Lausanne, high above Lac Léman and the Alps on the far shore, higher than the whole world. He settled back on his heels and opened his eyes.
“Bonsoir, Lausanne. Rochat is here to watch over you.”
He shuffled along the narrow balcony to the northwest turret. High stone pillars and arches opening to the night sky to one side, fat supporting pillars and arches opening to the center of the belfry. Inside was the massive crisscross carpentry, six stories high and fitted together like some giant’s puzzle. Rochat reached into the timbers, touched the iron spikes and wooden pegs holding the timbers together.
“En garde, mes amis. I know you’re very old, but we must stand very straight tonight. It’s our duty.”
He shuffled along the north balcony, checking that all was well in the old city. He ducked through the northeast turret to the east balcony. The lantern tower at the far end of the cathedral was steady in the wind, and the weathercock atop the tower told Rochat he was right. Winds from Mont Blanc; winter was on the attack.
He felt a matronly gaze at his back. He turned slowly to the carpentry and the seven-ton bell hanging alone in a timbered cage. Rochat pulled off his hat and bowed graciously.
“Bonsoir, Madame Marie-Madeleine, ça va?”
The bell didn’t respond.
“Oh, I see. Madame is fussy tonight.”
Rochat jumped into the carpentry, checking the heavy iron hammer outside the edge of the bell’s bronze skirt. He pulled at the steel cables connecting to the winch motor, making sure everything was primed and ready.
“Or perhaps madame is sleeping, hmm?”
He tapped his knuckles against her and leaned close. He heard a deep tone swirl through cold bronze.
“What’s that? Madame never sleeps, madame is only resting? Yes, of course. How could I be so rude as to think otherwise?”
He refitted his hat and shuffled back to the south balcony, stopping at the skinny wooden door set between two stone pillars. He pulled a chain at the side of the door, and a small lamp flickered awake. Pigeons fled from the upper carpentry, wings fluttering like runaway feet.
“Sorry to disturb you, you blasted pooping things, but it’s my duty.” He opened the door, stepped into the loge, a small room of wooden walls built between the crisscross timbers, one and a half meters wide by six meters long. And he would have to stand on his own shoulders twice before touching the lowest point of the slanted wooden ceiling. A small table jutted from the west wall, and the two steps at the north end of the room rose to a narrow bed. Rochat lit seven candles and set them about the loge. He opened a cabinet, carefully removing an old brass lantern. A stunted, half-melted candle sat inside. He calculated how long it might last.
“A little while longer, I think.” He took a fresh candle from a drawer and slipped it in the pocket of his coat. “En garde, after all.”
He opened a small square window in the west wall, just above the table. He poked out his head to see another solitary bell hanging in the timbers.
“Bonsoir, Madame Clémence! Any heretics burned at the stake today? No? Too bad. Yes, yes, I know, not like the good old days. How sad for you.”
He snapped shut the window and, with barely enough room to do so, he turned around and opened a small window in the east wall. Marie-Madeleine was just outside. Rochat thought he might give her a tap with a broomstick to check if she was truly awake. But just then, all the carpentry groaned like a very old lady yawning and stretching in a very old bed.
“Oui, madame is awake.”
He heard the winch strain at steel cables, the steel hammer cocking back, and . . .
GONG! GONG! GONG!
Vibrations pulsed through the timbers and shook the room. He struck a match, lit the lantern.
GONG! GONG! GONG!
He shuffled out of the door, hurried through the turret to the east balcony. He stood at the iron railing just in front of Marie-Madeleine.
GONG! GONG! GONG!
He stood very still, waiting for Marie-Madeleine’s voice to almost fade. Then he raised the lantern into the dark.
“C’est le guet! Il a sonné l’heure! Il a sonné l’heure!”