The next year I was walking across the Ille St. Louis in Paris. Along the main boulevard, at a crowded café, the tables were lined with dark faces.
I recalled from a conversation with a colleague that an émigré population had sprouted here on this idyllic island in the middle of the Seine. Here, in an oasis in the middle of an urban river, away from the bustle of Paris, a bit of that country had reconstituted itself.
I walked by the tables. All the faces bore the blase indifference of the native French. They had learned this from school, and it had sprung forth, again, like a missing limb regenerating itself in their exile. They leaned conspiratorially together, in constant talk of politics and coups and resistance, among the serene cafes and brasseries and demure country markets dappled with fresh spring light. I had walked just beyond the last émigré table when I heard my name called.
When I turned around, I was not surprised. It was Charles in exile, in the land of his eponymous ancestor, the king of the Franks. He rushed toward me and kissed both my cheeks. Tears rolled down his face and he appeared momentarily unable to speak.
The old Charles was gone. Exile had whittled away the polished reserve of the government official, of the leader’s handpicked man and successor. There were only baleful tears and the sodden expression of a man who had once gorged himself on power, and was faced with the bitter irony of having to live with the unsatisfying surfeit of exile.
“I thought you were dead!” he finally said, and then: “and then I heard you had made it out through the north. By the passes. What a great miracle. Even people from that region would not dare to make such a journey! Seeing you here, it brings it all back.”
He motioned for me to sit at his table, and silently I joined him. I then noticed a man, a compatriot of Charles, already seated at a table of empty wine bottles and empty and stacked dirty dishes, and full ash trays.
The man exchanged a glance with Charles laced with the sullen intimacy of the jealous lover. Did he think me a new love or an old flame? I had no desire to remain long enough to satisfy his claim. So, was this truly Charles? Perhaps this was just another manifestation of the man. The tribal man, the Christian convert, the man of the government, the secret Muslim of the north, kneeling with marabouts and qadis, facing Mecca and now here, in Paris, the lover of men.
“I barely got out myself,” he continued as I sat down. He offered me a drink, but I declined. “Of course I felt responsible for you. Of course I did. I sent you upland on that fool’s errand. I needed to show you the depth of our country. Its great promise. You see, you did not understand us. I could not see how a man of your sensibilities could not see how we are! I meant to educate you. And here, I thought I killed you. There were reports of a body…” and here the chocked on the words. I quickly stopped him, exonerating him of responsibility. I had professional reasons for going north. It was my responsibility. But he was no longer listening to me.
“Its all gone now. All the marabouts, everything…” and he recounted the reports buried within the newspaper, if anyone cared to read them, of religious courts, of public executions, of sharia and gang violence.
Right in the middle of the long list of crimes, of grievances, I stood up. He was in the midst of denouncing everything, as forcefully and unswervingly as he had supported everything from the government podium. Even Islam, which was once his great standard of moral rectitude; he was, indeed, a new man.
Charles had remade himself , but I had no desire to see it’s every shade and angle, its depths and shallows. I excused myself from the table and both man instinctively rose. I walked away and toward the end of the island. Charles did not follow. I walked through the market, and through a narrow alley to the embankment and the shore of the river.
Unlike that equatorial nation, where it is day and then suddenly night, the sun sets in Paris degree by colorful degree; I stood and watched the yellow turn to red, and then, startlingly, like a shade suddenly drawn over a great window and illuminated from behind, a deep, maritime blue.
Over in the west, Venus rose above a bank of dusky clouds. All along the street, the lamps were lit.