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WHEN THE EXECUTIONS BEGAN , they buried the bodies in pits at the edge of Paris. But they had not known the sheer number of corpses that would be tossed under the earth and left to rot, and quickly the pits filled. New ones had to be dug, and slowly the city became encircled by an invisible wall of death.


In the cold months it was better, for frozen bodies carried no smell, and they were either buried immediately or simply stored until the ground thawed enough for burial. But as spring and summer dawned, they could not dig as fast as the guillotine fell. This was when it began to smell.


Besides Andrea, that was what Maddalena would remember most about la Terreur: the smell, the heavy reek of death that swept through Paris like a plague. That, and the day there was singing. 


THE SUN WAS HOT on that summer day. Messidor 29, they called it, the day of wheat. The thick air carried a smell of rot through the city in putrid yellow waves, like spoiled grain, like bloated, rotten flesh beneath the bloodsoaked earth. 


She had been on her way to the market to see if there was any food; what once had been the work of servants was now her life. As she walked she recalled the death of her mother, the sacrifices of Bersi, and those painful days where she had languished, weakened and mournful, wishing that God would end her misery. Andrea had once opened her eyes to the suffering of others, his words that pivotal afternoon chilling her soul like none had before. She might have cursed him for shattering the childish idyll that had once bathed her family's home, but those happy days would just as soon have gone up in flickering flames. Andrea could be neither blamed nor hated for telling the truth. She had listened. Others had not. 


After the fire, after all had been lost, Andrea had saved her, his words giving her strength. Their letters were a lifeline; she had chosen the name, Espérance, as a vow to herself more than him. She was his hope, and she would not let herself die. 


THE WORLD GREW GREY, and she shivered despite the heavy summer heat. It was not the heat but the sudden darkness that forced into her mind the misfortunes that had haunted her. 


The old ways were gone, and for better or for worse, it seemed impossible that they would ever return. Oh, she had once hoped, even as she had been stripped of her titles, her family, and her land, even as governments fell, formed, and fell once more around her. Even as months of turmoil turned to years, even as the guillotines began to ring, there had still been hope that these were simply troubled times. One execution became many. The streets ran red with blood, washing over cobblestones worn smooth with time. 


She could remember the exact moment she had realized things would never be what they once were: it was the afternoon they sentenced Andrea to die. It had seemed that only hours before he had held her, kissed her in the candlelight, and she had dared to dream of happiness despite the world around her. And then they had taken him, taken him away from her and told her she would never see him again.  


The last time she had seen him had been the date of his trial, nearly four months prior; their eyes had met for only a second, but it was enough to remember their vow. 


She'd wandered despondently through the streets that night, past rowdy salons and cheering rallies, past drunks stumbling through the alleys and prostitutes under the bridges, looking for answers to her devastation. As distant church bells struck midnight it began to rain, a hard spring rain, beating on the cobblestones and roofs of the city. There was a purity to the cold water soaking her skin: in the streets, the rain washed away the rust-hued streaks of blood, and she felt clean. 


She found herself at the Pont Neuf in the darkness of early morning, running her hands over the sturdy, cool stone and looking over the water at the weak reflections of the city. The Seine was choppy, disturbed by the rain, and Maddalena found her own restlessness reflected in the turbulent water below. The bridge was steadfast, and paid no attention to the whims of the heavens; it knew time to be a long, slow game. 


In that long path of time she was already a ghost: her death would not mean anything. She sat with her despair until suddenly she recalled Idia Le Gray, who had been sentenced to die alongside Andrea; she was a mother. Maddalena had watched them tear her from the arms of her daughter, who was too frightened to even cry out as her mother was shackled and dragged through the doors of the Tribunal. She thought of Gérard and his horror at realizing the monster he’d helped create, and how brave he had been to stand up for Andrea without a second thought. She thought of Andrea, going to his death for the strength of his convictions, his solemn refusal to denounce his art. The thought that he should have to die without her was nearly too much for her to bear. She could still make a difference, even if just for a few small lives.


It was not yet day, and the beating rains turned to a soft mist that clung to her damp skin and lingered on her eyelashes like tiny pearls of light. The sky was lightening; dawn was coming. 


She’d looked up to the sky with hollow eyes and knew she had made her choice: she could not live without Andrea. She would not. Now, he was her whole world. 


AS A CLOUD COVERED the sun, she approached the market, the shifting shadows draped over the streets like ghosts of the past, the Paris she had once known now hidden beneath fear. There was so little food available these days, despite what the revolutionaries promised. Rumors of a grain shortage had reached Paris, and within those rumors were whispers that the grain had been seized and dumped, that the wagons had been burned, the merchants killed. By whom? By nobody, and by anyone. Sans-culottes did it, whispered some. No, the Jacobins. The Hébertistes. The Girondins. It had been done to take back power from the wealthy. To redistribute wealth. No, no, the former nobility had done it themselves, trying to ruin what they could. Everyone seemed to know who and how and why. In Paris, the poor still starved in the streets. 


Liberté, égalité, fraternité , the banners called, tattered hangings and posters fluttering in the streets through which she walked. The once-bright colors were smeared with the blood of the wounded, and hungry children cried for dead parents. There was only freedom in loss, equality in grief, fraternity in mourning; there was nothing here but sorrow. Oh, yes, France was indeed in danger, but only from itself, of demons it had grown and called its own. 


Perhaps this was the last time she would come to this market, walk upon these stones, see these walls; perhaps. There was an execution that afternoon, and the streets were nearly empty. It was not how she wished to remember the city, wounded in a fatal fight against itself, bleeding from the inside out. Still, the people cheered as the revolution ate its children, killing without descrimination like a ravenous beast with no master. Family meant little, friendship almost nothing, love scorned entirely. There was only power and fear for so many under the spell of la Terreur .   


She was afraid.


He had written about fear, had he not? In one of his older works, before the revolution had shown them its true meaning. His words were prescient nonetheless; Do not be afraid, stranger, for our earthly bodies are only transient... 


Do not be afraid, but she was. She would be afraid until the very moment she was in his arms again, even if only for one final embrace. Then, and only then, would she be unafraid once more. 


THE BURNING SKY returned with painful brilliance, the midday sun throwing the world before her into sharp contrast. To pass through a single day was to encounter a million small reckonings of one's own mortality: the smells, the sights, and the sounds of la Terreur were a constant reminder of how tenuous her own grasp on life was. To remember her mother and so many others she would never know again was nearly overwhelming.  


Andrea, in his letters, had condemned the guillotine and all that it stood for: power, fear, a control of life or death that no government or man should ever hold. They could not so easily take art from the minds nor courage from the hearts of the living, but with one slip of paper and the tug of a hand, all thoughts of opposition could be banished, all poetry silenced, all life turned to dust. This was why they chose the guillotine; this was why Andrea was to die. 


All this she knew. All this she could, at least on some level, comprehend: Andrea was fated to die, and she had chosen to die with him. 


She had thought, both idly and seriously, about her own death. What was the value of a life? What was the value of a death, among so many others?  He had taught her to ask these questions, to see the world as a poet does, full of light and dark, song and sorrow, choice and fate. 


For as long as she'd loved Andrea, she had believed that one chose to give life meaning. She was in love, and so life meant everything to her. 


Yet the love that had given her life sudden, profound meaning was a sharp and clever dagger. It fated her to die, but gave her death a weight her life would never hold. Life had no meaning now, not on this bloodsoaked, tortured land, not when it was so debased. 


But death could. 




Maddalena had not heard singing in many months; it was only after a moment that she paused in the street and recognized the strangeness of the moment. Under the passing dialogues of strangers in red caps and colorful waistcoats, a wisp of music reached her ears, and she turned towards the sound, as out-of-place in the ruined city as she felt. 


It was coming from the Place du Trône Renversé, the preferred place for the Tribunal‘s cruel hand of justice to make its will known. She shivered as she passed under a stone archway leading into the wide plaza; death hung around the space in clouds, in the smell of blood and despair, in the creak and thud of the guillotine. On the wall around the square, someone had scrawled Citoyens, la Patrie est en danger! in blood-red paint, a warning of the present and an omen of the future. She would be back here once more, she knew. This is where it would happen. Somehow, as she approached the square, it seemed to become real. This is where she and Andrea would die. 


Despite all will, Maddalena found herself drawn to the spectacle, out of the shadowed streets and into the square, blinking in the sunlight. Before her eyes could perceive anything else, she saw the towering skeleton of the guillotine. It was stark and sudden against the brightness; it permitted no grey, no neutrality. Only right or wrong, hate or love, life or death, fanfare and pageantry, a blood colored banner fluttering boldly against a blue sky. 


The execution had not begun yet , and she vowed that she would leave before it did . She would not be a part of the mockery, this deplorable exhibition of death. She had seen others, after, wandering the streets, their eyes feral with a mixture of triumph and vengeance. She would not let that flame blacken her soul as it had theirs. 


Who will be next? the crowd exclaimed. They were hungry, so hungry, these masses who had been forgotten, used, abused. In another life she might have understood. Gérard had understood them, and had known their pain as his own. Even Andrea, in an idealistic sense, had understood the darkest urges of the people, for as a poet he knew mankind deeply, and had sensed what might happen if so many people were suffocated and silenced for far too long. 


And her? She had watched the world burn around her and wondered how she had not noticed long before the injustices her very life had been built upon. And yet she would never understand the bloodlust that surrounded her like smoke from a wildfire. Did they not comprehend that the enemy was among them still, and not their poets, their artists, their clergy and thinkers? Did they not know that greed and power simply learned to remove their powdered wigs and paint on themselves the tricolor of revolution?


Who will be next? the crowd cried, and a flurry of motion across the square answered their question. Her eyes fell on the group of women in the cart, huddled against each other as if to ward off the hatred of the crowd. Through the noise she could hear a faint song; the women were singing. These were the songs that had reached her ears, pulling her out of the shadows and into the crux of the revolution once more.


“For hostility to the Revolution,” a guard announced over the shouts of the mob, “for having strong sympathies to the monarchy, and for making criticisms of the Revolution, the fifteen members of des Carmelites de Compiègne have been sentenced to die!” 


An entire order of nuns: voices rose in ecstatic cheer. 


Soldiers in their blue coats paraded with pomp and decorum, trying half-heartedly to restrain the vicious crowd from the group huddled at the base of the guillotine. Her stomach dropped, and she turned away and squeezed her eyes shut, afraid that she would be sick. 


Fifteen women in all. Fifteen lives to be lost-- fifteen lives to be given. Fifteen new martyrs for the cause. The crowd yelled and the drums beat, and Maddalena could only stare in horror and awe at the sisters. The youngest was barely a woman, nearly a child; the innocence in her eyes had not been tarnished by all that she had seen. She folded her hands in prayer, and looked at peace. Her sisters joined her, their eyes downcast, their spirits united.


As a child Maddalena had been frightened by the nuns; she had been a difficult child, she'd been told, headstrong and spoiled by her indulgent mother. The sisters, with their black habits and solemn faces and rigid discipline, had seemed so strange and fearsome to her as a young girl when she would pass them in town or after Mass. Yet these women scarcely resembled the strict nuns she had grown up around. In common clothes-- for religious habits had been banned for being unnational and subversive in the highest order-- they seemed more like a simple group of women. In any other context she would not have looked twice, nor recognized them as nuns at all, were it not for their steely eyes, gazes fortified by a faith and courage that nothing could touch, not even death. 


On the platform, a man pulled a rope, lifting the mighty, glistening blade into position. It was time.


A woman in the center rose. She turned to her sisters, touching their folded hands, blessing their foreheads. Placing a gentle kiss on the youngest woman's head, she turned towards her fate.


She began to sing. It was a hymn that Maddalena had once known, a veneration for Mary. Salve Regina. The others joined, fifteen voices becoming one. 


You can take our titles, our homes, and even our lives, but you can never take our faith, they seemed to say. This you can never take away from us. You cannot break our spirits. 


AS THE GUILLOTINE FELL it rang through the heavy air, and it was silent except for the quiet murmur of spectators. There was a finality to the sound like little else she could describe, that heavy thud of metal against wood, slicing through sinew and bone with clean and uncaring efficiency. Like the beat of a drum, like the beat of her own heart in her ears, and no matter how desperately she tried, she could not drown it out. Each echo was a life lost-- no, a life taken, never to be returned. 


The song grew softer, but did not lose its strength. Here, faced with death, the women had become transformed into something extraordinary, their simple hymn a call to the heavens. The guillotine sang, but the voices of the condemned were louder, following each other one by one into the blessed darkness. Each note, each step, each thud of the guillotine, became an act of rebellion, rejecting the debasement of life that had grown around them like a disease. One woman flinched at the sound, faltered; yet Maddalena watched in awe she embraced her sister and proceeded forward with grace and dignity.  


Soon that would be Andrea. 


Soon, if only she could be brave, soon it would be her. 


She was not ready to die-- she wanted desperately to live, to live longer with him. But destiny had decided it was not to be, and so she would have to be courageous. Gérard had helped her to make a plan. It was a reckless, selfless, romantic mess of a scheme, but he knew better than to question her. He was a loyal friend, and would remain so until the end of her days; she held him in the highest esteem. Now all there was left was to wait, to count down the days until she would see Andrea again, until she would die by his side.


Andrea did not know; Andrea did not know. He had written her letters, smuggled through the high walls of the Prison Saint-Lazare by a jailer who was willing to look the other way for a handful of coins. My beautiful Maddalena-- for in you, the word beauty finds its true meaning-- my mind is filled with thoughts of you, he wrote in the last. My longing eyes, ever yours, dream of the day they will look upon you once more. I am here alone, yet in dreams you appear to me still, and your loveliness keeps me company. Shall I tell you what I see? 


In my mind you are at a desk. There is perhaps a window before you, overlooking the city. In the lateness of night, the devastation is not so apparent; the sky is dark blue satin that folds over the city in gentle, star-speckled waves, hiding the ugliness of the bloodied streets from your eyes at last and leaving only a peaceful calm. As you read this letter, the candlelight gives a soft glow that caresses you, casting a warm and golden light on your honeyed hair. Perhaps you smile at my words; can you feel my own? Yes, I smile as I write this letter, for I think of you. Your happiness is my most treasured wish, my darling Maddalena, and I can only hope that these words are enough-- they are all I have left. Soon, I will say goodbye to the stars and the sea, to the moon and the sun above us-- oh, how beautiful they are! How beautiful you are--


I have had enough of dreams. I want to see you again, one final time…


One final time. There was a pressure in her chest as she watched the women march forward, as if she was not watching strangers, but instead herself. In each woman she saw herself reflected back in the tilt of a head, in the poise of the shoulders, in the curve of a final smile. But she suddenly felt ashamed of herself for thinking this; she had lost so little. The fires of revolution had been cruelly kind to her. She’d watched all those around her suffer while she remained relatively unscathed, and she was angry, not that the world had not taken enough from her, but that fate conspired to take so much from others. 


She thought of all she would leave behind, tea-stained mugs and somber dresses, half-burned candles and faded bedsheets, and hidden under a floorboard a love story in forbidden letters, full of hope and fear and desperation and joy and promises to be kept. Never had so much meant so little; what she would leave behind was decided not by her past, but by her choices now. She could choose to make her death matter, and it would. 


Just as these women had died for their faith, she too would die for what she believed in. Andrea believed in art, in freedom, and in expression of one’s self despite the costs, and she believed in Andrea, and all that he meant to her: hope, love, the future that they would never have, and the final peace they would find in each other’s arms. 


IN THAT MOMENT, the eldest of the group moved to exit the cart and ascend the steps. She stumbled and fell with a soft groan onto the paving stones of the square. The crowd surged forward, moving as a single animal that lusted for blood and carrying Maddalena along in their vicious current.


They fell upon the old woman, and all Maddalena could hear was shouting. Someone screamed desperately No, no, leave her alone! and the cries rang in her ears. Only when the guards finally pushed the crowd back and she could taste blood in her mouth did she realize it had been herself. Strange; she was not familiar with anything but meekness. The sight of the woman cowering on the ground, defenseless, unable or unwilling to even raise an arm in protection, had roused something deep within her soul, a spark to a sort of light that she had only newly discovered. 


Another nun stepped forward and offered her arm to the fallen woman, and the pair walked together to the guillotine; the elder sister went first, ascending the steps deliberately and without fear, and a moment later her sister followed, the hymn on her lips never faltering.


Maddalena watched the remaining women in horrified silence, as if she had finally awoken to the true atrocity before her. Her eyes followed their forms as they, one by one, descended from the cart and stepped into the square like some sort of final freedom, each note of song echoing in her ears. One woman turned in a slow circle, taking in the scene before her with blazing eyes, her chin high and determined; another ascended to the platform with her hands raised to the heavens, not in victory or surrender, but instead in ecstatic prayer. Hands danced smoothly through the four points of a cross; rough skirts grazed the worn cobblestones until being picked up by steady hands at the steps leading to the guillotine high above the square, above all the people and fighting and fear. With each beat of the guillotine the song grew fainter. 


And suddenly there were three-- two-- one. 


Only the youngest was left now. Her lone voice pierced the crowd, and for once there were no jeers, no cries. Only silence, and singing. 


At the foot of the stairs, she paused. She took a breath and turned, seeming to realize for the first time that she was alone, the only one left. She hesitated, turning away, eyes searching the crowd; Maddalena saw, for the first time, a sort of fear in her gaze. Not of death itself, but to die alone, parted from her sisters-- she was so young-- 


Another young woman broke through the ranks of soldiers, stirring the crowd. Murmurs like ripples spread behind her as she rushed into the clearing and approached the young nun. They embraced joyously, intertwining their hands, pressing their foreheads together. Maddalena could not see both of their faces, but she was sure that the girl was smiling, smiling with joy and relief as she turned and headed up the stairs towards her fate. She said a final word of prayer-- 


The guillotine seemed to echo, and then it was silent. All eyes turned to the newcomer, this woman who had stepped forward and inspired another to do the same. 


The woman turned in a slow circle, and raised her eyes to the blue skies above. 


DESPITE HER FEAR , she began to sing. It was a new hymn, a song that Maddalena did not know or recognize, but the words carried a striking weight to them nonetheless. 


She folded her hands in prayer. Just as she turned to ascend to the guillotine, her eyes met Maddalena's, and Maddalena knew she was unafraid. In her gaze Maddalena could see a vision of heaven reflected back at her. 


Perhaps these were the greatest acts of rebellion, in the end. To have courage in life, and to live together in death. Perhaps loving was an inherent act of revolution against the cruelty of the world. 


She thought of the Carmélites, and the peace in their eyes as they went to God; she thought of the joyous reunion she had witnessed at the feet of death. She thought of her own love for Andrea, how one bright star over the tumultuous seas of change had been enough for her to find herself. Even in this half-dead life they all lived, still there was joy, hope, love. 


The guillotine fell, and it was silent. She tried to breathe, but the air was heavy and still. She found herself gasping as tears rolled down her cheeks. 


With that the executions were over, at least for the day. The soldiers were at ease, the crowd subdued. The bodies were carted away and the blood mopped into the ever-receiving earth. Soon this would all be forgotten. 


The square emptied, and Maddalena was left alone, staring up at her fate. 


SHE BELIEVED one day soon they would call his name, Andrea Chénier! , and she would rise beside him. They would walk together, as traitors, as lovers, as equals, bound together in life and death. They would enter the cart-- Andrea offering her his hand, a gentleman to the final moment. Perhaps people would jeer, would stare with feral, hateful eyes as they passed. Perhaps they would have the dignity of dying without a crowd, forgotten to all but their executioners and each other. 


In the square, Andrea would press a final, aching kiss to her mouth, a promise to see each other once more, when they had shed their mortality like a shell and together become greater, brighter, freer. She knew his face, his eyes, the touch of his hand. She would remember them even in the nothingness that awaited her. She would watch as he turned away, his back silhouetted as he approached the platform above them. A brief exchange-- a final breath-- sound, and then silence. 


To live and die by his side was her only wish; it was to join him finally and forever, and to never be parted again. And so she, too, would ascend those bloodstained wooden steps and follow him into the dark.