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The Saint of Florenville
Two good friends, an American priest and a Belgian nun, are kidnapped while sightseeing in picturesque Bruges. What follows is a tale of loss, faith, and survival; a celebration of love that cannot be defined by manmade rules.
Mother Marie-Therese du Chenu (Tesse) is the surviving victim of one of Belgium's most notorious crimes. Twenty years after the crime, reporter Celeste de Smet is granted an exclusive, career-making interview with the nun. Thus begins a cycle of revelations during which Celeste is made privy to never-told details of kidnap and torture suffered by Tesse and her American friend, Fr. Thomas Jensen. But Celeste must pay a price for her scoop. Sensing that the reporter is carrying a spiritual-moral burden of her own, Tesse invites Celeste to share the guilt that she herself has carried since childhood. In Tesse's final revelation, she tells the full story of her friend, the murdered priest. Having received this piece of the story, Celeste fears that professional curiosity might have involved her in an ongoing crime.
I rarely come here anymore. When I do, I get a sick feeling in my stomach. What’s wrong with you? This city is Belgium’s greatest treasure. The voiceover belongs to my husband. Or to me, cowering behind his vocal mask. On brisk spring days like this, Bruges’s medieval charm transports visitors half-a-millennium back in time. I don’t deny its mystic appeal, derived as it is from picture-postcard gothic architecture and willow-draped canals. Venice of the North, they call her, deservedly so. Housed within its gates are the works of Michelangelo—the Madonna and Child. Hans Memling, too, the greatest painter of the Flemish Primitive School. And who am I to dispute the claim that actual drops of Jesus’ blood are preserved within the Church of the Holy Blood or that they liquefy on designated holy days?
All these treasures and I still become ill, as now. I hear tortured cries of pain and desperation echoing from a basement not far off the main tourist trails. I alone have been made curator of the full truth about a heinous crime committed here. Centuries ago? Barely three decades. Those cries remind me that sick minds still prey upon unsuspecting victims, leaving the lucky ones dead, while the living hope for restoration of defiled bodies and minds. I promised never to reveal my knowledge of those events, though they weighed as a yoke upon my shoulders. To gain relief from my burden, I’ve written a novel that has turned out to be quite therapeutic, not for the reader, likely, but for myself.
* * * *
Stepping onto the platform, I wheel my maroon overnight bag like a leashed puppy through the crowded railway station. Waiting outside on cue is an author’s escort holding a fail-safe sign chin-high. Célèste GAUDIN, my married name, and Marie Thomasse, my pen name.
This being our first gig together, she’s taking no chances. Her assignment from my publisher is to cater to my every need until I depart for Brussels in the morning. Petite, mid-twenties, attractively Walloon and, I’m sure, an aspiring novelist and/or editor, she wears ‘recent university grad’ on her perfect features. Glistening chestnut hair swirling around her shoulders reminds me of a shampoo commercial. If she ever gets published, her jacket photo alone will sell a ton of copies.
“I’m Célèste.” I smile and stretch out my hand. Hers is cool and moist, but eager.
“Emilie. Emilie Boncoeur.” She retracts the handle of my case and hoists it into the trunk of an aging Toyota.
On the way to Bell Tower Books on Market Square, I establish a ground rule. “At the signing, call me either Marie or Mademoiselle Thomasse. I get confused myself when I switch back and forth.”
“Of course,” she says.
“Where will we be staying tonight?”
“They have you booked at the Egmond in Minnewater. It’s small and quiet. I love the oak beams and ancient fireplaces. And the view—beyond spectacular.”
I know the Egmond, an eighteenth century gothic manor house converted into an eight-room hotel. I’d never stayed there. With my publisher paying the tab, I don’t have to feel guilty about the room rate. “And you? Will you be staying with me?”
She tosses me an ‘Are you joking?’ look. “My mom and dad live here. I’ll spend the night. They complain of not seeing enough of me since I took the job in the capital. I’ll let them spoil their little girl for a few hours.”
“By all means, don’t deprive them.”
Emilie’s inflection has assumed the cadence of doting parents, lonely for their—probably—only daughter. That voice, heard many times as a child, echoes in my memory with diminished frequency and guilt. Lately though, I’ve recognized it in a tone I sometimes resurrect with my preschool son.
“My mobile’s on twenty-four-seven.” Emilie eases into a line of traffic. “If you need me, just call. By the way, I got my hands on an advance copy of your book. Loved it! Such a great story. Made me cry buckets.”
“Thank you,” I reply, “I suppose.”
“No, it was a good cry.”
“Then I feel better.”
Emilie finds a parking space off Bruges’s historic Market Square. “The shop’s down the street and around the corner. I hope this isn’t too far?” I detect a suspicion that a thirty-five-year-old mother might not be up to managing that distance.
A line has formed along the building’s façade, leading to the front door. Someone must have recognized me from the window display. “That’s Marie Thomasse!” ripples down the sidewalk. “Marie Thomasse!”
Inside, I am met by Johannes De Vries. “Such an honor.” The mannerisms of the gangly, balding gentleman who introduces himself as the proprietor stir reminders of Dickens’s Uriah Heep. “May I call you Marie?”
“Of course.” I refrain from adding that I might not respond, unless fully into my author persona. The decision to write under a nom de plume had not been mine, but my agent’s, Millie Artois. It seemed a simple one at the time. I’ve since learned the com-plexity of maintaining a second existence and regret having given life to this ‘other me.’
As if reading my mind, Johannes says, “You’ll get used to it. Many successful authors write under three or four pseudonyms.” I can’t imagine what that would be like, but for enough money, I suppose . . . .
Johannes escorts me to a corner at the back of the store where he has arranged a reading area that doubles for author events, book clubs and, he points out, “poetry slams and assorted literary gatherings.” Applause begins the moment I ascend the small platform.
On a nearby table stand five stacks of "366 Steps" in virginal hardcover. To my surprise and great pleasure, my manuscript made its way up the filtering ranks of readers barely old enough to vote, through the sieve of career-cautious associate editors, all the way to Presse De Vos editor-in-chief, Michiel De Beers. With the story set in this lovely city, my publicist insisted on a local launch. I could have chosen as the novel’s locale any of a number of quaint medieval towns. I chose Bruges, never anticipating I’d have to appear here in person. The price of my poor judgment is churning innards and ghostly voices I can expect to disturb my peace until the morning train departs.
When Johannes introduces me with glowing praise about my “debut novel,” it seems he’s talking about someone who only looks like that girl from the cathedral school in Ostende. He’s far too generous in his praise, but a quick assessment of the audience still pressing to get inside the front door indicates that the veteran book seller knows his clientele. I listen, hoping not to disappoint by revealing that Marie Thomasse is as fictional as her protagonists and someone totally other than the charismatic author her publisher and early reviewers have conjured out of little else than literary hyperbole.
“Merci, dank u, thank you.” I survey the crowd and gesture for everyone to sit down. I’m surprised and pleased that males are well represented. Early print comments about 366 Steps have come mostly from female reviewers, who made it sound as if the book holds little of interest to men. I make a mental note to give them a chance to share their reading experience.
“Marie,” Johannes says, “since most of those here have not yet had the good fortune and pleasure of reading your book, perhaps you could begin by summarizing the plot.”
I fill my lungs as best I can in the oxygen-depleted space and ramp up my confidence. “Actually, it was easier to write the whole novel than capture my story’s essence in two or three sentences. But here goes. In fifteenth century Bruges, a young woman defies her wealthy father by refusing a marriage alliance that will benefit his textile export business. To change her mind, he locks her away in the frigid Market Square tower.” I gesture in the landmark’s direction. “During her captivity she falls in love with a young soldier, one of her jailers. Together they plot her escape and their subsequent rendezvous in Paris. On the assigned day, one of them achieves freedom. The other faces a solitary, loveless future. But reality isn’t always what it appears to be.”
When a hum of hesitant approval rustles through the crowd, I resolve to spend the train ride back to Brussels composing a new pitch. At Johannes’s request I read a passage I have marked—one that I think represents my best writing without revealing any plot secrets. The Q & A session brings predictable queries.
“How long did it take to write the book?”
“How many rejections did you get?” This one from a discouraged but ever-hopeful writer.
“How did you get your agent?” The hidden question being, ‘If I send you my manuscript, would you recommend me to your agent?’
Most audiences will need an explanation of the title’s origin, but here everyone knows there are three-hundred and sixty-six steps from the base of the tower to the top. The last question of the night trips me up, causing me to stumble and stammer. It comes from a young Lisbeth Salander wannabe seated in the last row. She raises a tentative hand, shoulder-high. Her fingernails glisten with black polish. I point to her. “Please stand up so everyone can see you.” She doesn’t. Her spiked hair and fierce angular face send a chill though me. One visible piercing—a vertical silver nail through the right eyebrow—hints at others out of sight. The grimy backpack slung over one shoulder has the look of a dumpster-dive prize. Bless her, she already has a copy of 366 in hand. “What is your question?”
“I’ve read your book and all the reviews I could find online.”
“The one bit of information I’m still curious about I can’t find anywhere.”
“Which is?” I have an uncomfortable intuition that I’ve entered a trap of my own making.
“Where did the inspiration for your book come from?”
In the few interviews I’ve granted so far, I made it a precondition that I would not answer this one question, at least not with the kind of detail the reporter was hoping for. Something about this girl, the piercing but not hostile directness of her gaze, forbids me to brush her off. I feel compelled to veer from my overly rigid rule and say something true, even if it is not the whole truth. I take a breath to compose myself, rehearse my words. “First, thank you for your question.” I’ve just bought another minute. “As a journalist, a few years ago, I was assigned to report on a most unusual story.” Inhale, Célèste, Marie, whoever you are. “It was about a crime that took place . . . here in Bruges some time ago. While my novel is fiction and set in the distant past, seminal elements of that case influenced my writing. Commingling fact and my weird imagination—” I hold up a copy of 366. “I conjured the story that I hope you will all read and enjoy and tell your friends about. Thank you all so much for coming.” Applause. Modest at first, then growing in appreciation. I bow from the shoulders, smiling and mouthing ‘thank you, thank you so much.’
Johannes De Vries announces a string of logistics related to purchasing copies and queuing up to get them signed. An hour later, Emilie is walking me back to her car.
“You were awesome, Marie.”
I’m too drained to advise her that Célèste is back, having left Marie Thomasse behind on the cover of her unsold books.
* * * *
I slip into a comfy nightshirt and peer through the open window of my upper-level room. I can make out shadowy silhouettes in the gardens of Minnewater, “Water of Love,” across from the hotel. Trees and lakes. But not a single swan for which the area is famous has waited up to bid me good night. Nestled in bed, I press the green icon on my phone and speed-dial. One ring, two, I wait for my husband’s calm, assuring voice.
“How did it go, cher?”
He sounds as tired as I feel. “Not bad, I suppose.”
“I bet you were fantastic.”
That’s why I married him. “I haven’t gotten used to being Marie Thomasse.”
“It’ll come. Just don’t forget which one of you is real.”
“How is Thomas?” The other third of my reality.
“Went right to sleep after two readings of his favorite storybook.” A pause. He’s rummaging for words that won’t sting. “He misses you. How’s your room?”
I look around. “Empty.”
“And your Bruges-a-phobic stomach?” The question exposes my guilty flaw. “Talking to you helps.”
“I’m glad. Sleep well, cher.”
I turn out the light and close my eyes. An hour later I’m still awake, reprising the gothic questioner who inquired about the inspiration for my novel. Other than my husband, no one knows what really took place in that basement. The actors one and all now come forward, determined to recreate the events in their entirety on the stage of my reluctant memory.