Our tour of the Rouen Tower dwindled down to me and the guide.
Ascending, I snorted loud, wet lungfuls and sniffed the walls. A little girl giggled, and an old woman scowled. At the first rest point, a young man asked–as best as I could parse–if I needed assistance? I attempted to explain how I wanted to breathe the place in, inhale the dancing particles of mystery and grace, but I’d never learned French. My brain’s sizzled synapses, depleted RAM, only able to cling to a few simple phrases. I can ask, “How much?” and communicate, “Don’t call an ambulance.”
The tour guide refused to translate, to help me and the young man cohere.
When we came to Joan’s cell, the others had all turned back, irritated by my snorting, hacking, and hocking. The guide called he’d refund their tickets. That much I understood.
Somewhere within those miserable walls, some fraction of her must still float, enter me through my nostrils, cling to cilia, and suck into the vacuum of my lungs to marry my blood’s oxygen.
The guide silently allowed me to poke my head inside her cell, a doorless stone aisle the spread of my outstretched arms, extending to a window. I asked if this was the same window Joan jumped from, if they’d restored it? He stared at his sneakers and said,“Alright, enough.” We left the cell where she’d shivered her last days out.
I felt dizzy, a warning I’d soon be sick.
As we descended, the guide muttering into his walkie-talkie, my left arm began jerking and twitching. Too many years and too many bodies had carried her away from this place. She couldn’t find me.
At the bottom, a bemused young security guard stood scratching his beard. I fell into a fit on the wooden beams and awoke in the Hospital Central de Rouvray, was promptly excused to pay my bill–my medical bracelet and records communicating what was necessary–and allowed to taxi back to the hotel.
In my room, a cream-colored card waited on my pillow. It read simply: “ashes,” with a phone number penciled on the back.
Everyone knows the priests dumped Joan’s ashes from Port Mathilde like shit from a pot, but the card amused me and I called. A man with a flat, American accent answered and said to meet him in the hotel bar. He’d wear a gold tie.
I rushed downstairs. Alone at a high table sat the young man from the tour who had offered assistance. He wore a cheap suit with an orange-yellow tie, close to gold. He was soft-chinned, wore a mustache, and had a friendly smile. I stood by the table, declined to sit, and asked what he meant?
Like a parlor trick, he flashed a vial in his right palm, closed the fingers, and revealed smooth, empty skin.
“Those,” he whispered, “were them.” No trace of his nasal, stammering French from the tour. Our awkward interaction on the Rouen tower stairs had been a ruse.
Now, in the left hand, he held the vial between forefinger and thumb, jostled it, and fluttered the dark grit like a dead snow globe, smearing the sides gray.
The birthday magic grated on me. “How’d you get in my room?”
“Your maid. I saw you last week at the museum in Orleans. And the tour yesterday, obviously.”
My head hurt, and I was tired from yesterday’s seizure. By now, I’d shadow-boxed Joan’s steps across France, from the farmlands of Doremy to Rouen, whose cobblestones bounced hell on my ankles.
Nothing, no Joan. No blessing. I seized once in Orleans and again here in Rouen. My cash was thin, and I’d fly home to Oak Ridge defeated. Defeated and unemployed, I suspected. Before this, I gave vacation notice for a long weekend touring CERN, left the country, and stopped checking my email.
“Lunatics and children obsess over Joan of Arc,” Dr. Streiffer, the head of the facility, once told me in a rare chummy conversation at work.
“It’s Joan d’Arc,” I’d said.
You can’t understand electricity until it fails you, until the storms erupt in your mind, and you travel to where the atomic speaks. A true “God Particle,” anything secret within our air, any mystery, would be scorched along the path the Voice touched. Nothing divine can decay.
The young man gave his disarming smile, shrugged, and made to stand.
I touched his shoulder. “Ok. How much?”
“Nine euros,” he said. Foolishness, probably, but foolishness I could afford.
I took the vial to the Pont Bouledieu, near the plaque in Joan’s honor. Here, it stinks of mud and fish on warm days. Looking over the Seine, I uncorked the vial, swallowed the teaspoon of smoky, bitter God-knows-what, clasped a hand to my mouth, and coughed until tears wet my neck.
Teeth black with grit, I smiled at a crowd of passing teenagers trying to ignore me. “Nobody said this was going to be easy.”
A girl in a tank top and buzzed hair turned back. “Tu devrais la rejoindre dans la rivière.”
I understood her perfectly. I swear it. She’d said, “ You should join her in the river.”
I ran to the bridge and gazed down at the gray water. The cars banged their horns. Any moment, my arm would tingle and jump. I flung myself off the bridge.
Maybe I’d awaken everywhere, finally returned to earth and atmosphere. Maybe heaven. Or hell. Anywhere but the hospital.
Instead, I found myself on a muddy shore, brown grass, cans, and plastic bags sloping toward the road. I wept and wallowed in the muck. I’d found the place, I was certain, where her remains settled once the heretics cast her away. A magnetism sucked me earthward; I painted myself with filth; wept until dark.
Eleven months now, and I haven’t been sick once, the longest since all this began. The sickness came on my thirteenth birthday, the age Joan ingested our fragment of heaven.
Travis Flatt (he/him) is a teacher and actor living with his wife and son in Tennessee. He is a Best Small Fictions nominee. His stories appear in JMWW, Maudlin House, HAD, Flash Frog, and other places. He enjoys theater, fluffy dogs, and theatrically fluffy dogs. One can tweet him at @WriterLeeFlatt.