Transit umbra, lux permanet
Beforetimes — May, 2003. It’s a warm night in Lausanne, Switzerland. Nearly two months after I put my camera on the ground in Baghdad and quit television news. I was a walking mess of PTSD — haunted by ghosts and terrible memories. I had come to Lausanne to hide for awhile. Luckily I was good at masking my demons. The locals saw me as an entertaining American with an adventurous past. I had travelled the world, walked through war and pestilence. I was a published author whose autobiography War Junkie (from 2002) was available in local bookshops.
But off the grid my mood swings were soul battering. I sat alone in room 509 of the Lausanne Palace many nights, unable to sleep. Dark thoughts edged me closer and closer to despair. More than once I considered ending it — all of it. I even had a drunken conversation with the hotel’s General Manager in LP’s bar one evening. I wanted to know what happened if someone died in the hotel — how it was dealt with. I asked the question in such a way that the GM thought it was nothing more than journalistic curiosity. “Very discreetly,” he said. I marked that down as a plus. Seriously.
Then came the beforetimes night in May when I found my way to Lausanne Cathedral. A friend (a local architect who drew his designs by freehand, and had covered his studio floor with two inches of white sand imported from a Caribbean beach. really.) had taken me to dinner in Lutry. While driving back to the Palace Hotel (where I would sit alone in room 509 and drink until numbness came. again.) we passed under Lausanne Cathedral. It was just after ten o’clock. I remember hearing a bell ring the hour.
My architect friend said, “Look up there. Look at the belfry.”
Along the lower balcony of the belfry, a hundred meters above the ground, someone was moving through the shadows. I only saw him because he was swinging a light of some kind. A security guard with a torch, I thought. Big deal.
“No, Jon, it is something you will not see anywhere in the world but Lausanne. It is le guet, the watchman of the cathedral. He stays in a little room in the belfry all night, and when Marie Madeleine rings, he walks around the tower with a lantern to call the hour.”
“You’re kidding me.”
He wasn’t. And a little later my friend and I were standing on the esplanade beneath the belfry tower. My friend called up — “Renato! C’est moi!” The watchman leaned out over the railings. He was half hidden in the shadows still, but I saw he was wearing a floppy black hat. It was quiet on the esplanade. I heard the watchman’s voice, “Ah, oui, oui. J’arrive, J’arrive.” Then he disappeared.
I thought he was coming down to let us in through the skinny red door at the base of the tower. But he reappeared at the railings and began to lower a very long string. At the end of the string was the key to Lausanne Cathedral.
My friend untied the key, and le guet rewound the string. We let ourselves into a dark passageway that smelled of dust and ancient stone. I closed the skinny red door behind us, and I remember the deep throated sound the door made. How it echoed away into some unseen and cavernous dark — boomboom, boomboom, boomboom — like distant 105mm shells.
“After you,” my friend said, pointing to the winding stone steps at the end of the passageway.
I climbed round and round, like climbing a corkscrew. I lost count of my steps at sixty something. Then it was back and forth on narrow walkways perched above dark caverns, then climbing again. Ambient light seeped through bowmen’s slits carved in the stone walls. My hand was touching the central stone pillar of the tower. And in the dim light I saw where the stone had been rubbed smooth. Touched by other hands while climbing this tower.
“How old is this cathedral?” I said.
My friend needed to stop to catch his breath. Me too.
“It was begun in 1170 and consecrated in 1275 as le cathédrale de Notre Dame de Lausanne. It was never finished. It’s missing one tower.”
“Why wasn’t it finished?”
“God ran out of money. It happens, even to the best of architects. On y va.”
Round and round we went, higher and higher still.
I said, “You know, it didn’t look this high from the outside.”
“It never does.”
With a few more turns I stepped out onto the lower balcony of the belfry, where the world fell away and I was suddenly flying amid ten thousand stars. High above Lausanne and Lake Geneva — high above Evian, France on the far shore. Higher than the crescent moon caught on the jagged peaks of the snow covered Alps.
Then out from the shadows stepped a small-looking man in a black floppy hat. A black lantern dangled from his right hand. It burned with a delicate flame— “Hello, it’s only me,” the man said.
His name was Renato Häusler. I could tell you much more about him, but you’d be better meeting him yourself. And you can, right here —
Renato invited me to his odd-shaped room between the two great bells of the lower belfry — Clémence and Marie Madeleine. Marie, the grand dame of the tower at seven tons, rings the hour as she has every hour for eight hundred years. Clémence, at six tons, was known as the execution bell — she rang when witches and heretics were burned at the stake on the cathedral esplanade. Though fortunately, Renato explained, such a thing had not happened in a long time. Then he introduced me to the five smaller bells in the upper balcony, telling me their stories and secrets. Then he told me about the massive oak timbers of the criss-cross carpentry cradling the bells. Six stories high, rising like a gigantic tinker toy. He told me how the timbers were cut from the primeval forests of Lausanne. And how when all the bells rang together the carpentry would sway from side to side. He said you could press your ears to the timbers and hear their ancient voices sing with the bells. He told me about all the men who had come before him to spend their nights in the belfry to watch over the souls of Lausanne as they slept. Then came the kicker. He told me that once-upon-a-time all the cathedrals of Europe had a watchmen in the belfry. Someone to call the hour, and watch for fires or invaders. But they all disappeared in the onslaught of the age of the machines. There was only le guet de Lausanne now. He was the last of his kind on the face of the earth.
I’ve told this story many times. Because it’s the answer to the first question I’m always asked about the Angelus Trilogy — “What was your inspiration?” But there is something I’ve never revealed to anyone; for no other reason then I didn’t realize it until today. So here goes: finding myself in Lausanne Cathedral that beforetimes night was more than an inspiration — it was the night I chose not to die.
I didn’t know that’s what I was doing just then. Because just then my mind was racing trying to keep ahead of my imagination. I mean — a guy who lives in the bell tower of an eight hundred year old Gothic cathedral? Who holds a lantern into the dark to call the hour? In this bloody day and age? And he was the last one in the world? It was dizzying. By the time Renato called the midnight hour, my brain had practically melted.
We ended up on the roof of the belfry, silently enjoying the view. Renato could see the wheels spinning in my head. (What was left of them.)
“What are you thinking about?” he said.
And there was a flash of light in my eyes, truly—and I saw a way to bring a measure of comfort to my battered soul.
“There’s a great story here,” I said. “But I have no idea what it is.”
Renato smiled as if knowing my visit to the Cathedral was not an accident. He has a sense that the cathedral is a living thing. The bells, the timbers, the stone statues, the thousands of skeletons under the floor of the nave — all laying in open graves with arms across chests. Renato’s not religious in the classic sense, but he is spiritual. And he believes with all his heart that Lausanne Cathedral is a place of sanctuary for the human spirit. I remember he reached out and touched my hand — “Then it is your duty to write it,” he said.
Fast forward to Nowtimes — August, 2016. It’s the month the Angelus Trilogy — my mystical noir tale about the last of the good angels hiding out in Lausanne Cathedral, and the watchman who believes it is his duty to protect them— is to be released as a complete set. And today I found myself in Lausanne Cathedral one more time. This time I was crying my eyes out.
As a publishing event it’s not that monumental. After all The Watchers (2011), Angel City(2013), and The Way of Sorrows (2015)had already been released around the world in both hardback and paperback. There was no splashy promotion or an exciting book tour this time. No — it’s simply that the trilogy will begin appearing on bookstore shelves across North America. So why the tears?
Rewind two weeks ago. I received a twenty-four copies of the new edition from Blue Rider Press, my publishers in New York. But after a quick look at the covers and the layout, I closed the cardboard boxes and I stacked the boxes in a corner.
Now, I’ve been down this road enough times to know a PTSD trigger when I see one. Over the years I’ve became better at managing them. But sometimes you only see a trigger in the rear view mirror, long after you passed it by. By then you’re already slipping into that dark hole that opened up under your feet when you wouldn’t allow yourself to feel emotions. To the point that you won’t even allow yourself to wonder why the hell those emotions were rising in the first place. That’s how it begins. Then it gets worse.
My wife Afnan could see it, my dog Toby could see it. Even my cats Zeus and Zorro (who generally could give a damn about anything as long as they’re fed and someone cleans their litter box on a daily basis) could see it. Two nights ago Afnan and I were sitting at our kitchen table having supper. The conversation went thus:
(P.S. Afnan is much better at emotions than me.)
“What’s going on, Jon?” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I don’t know what to talk about.”
“How about what you’re feeling?”
“I don’t what I’m feeling, or why I’m feeling it.”
She let lay there, knowing she had cast a line in case I needed one.
Then this morning, waking at dawn and lying in bed, it hit me. My remarkable journey begun in 2003— a journey that stretched from Lausanne Cathedral and around the world, then to the other side of the universe and back. A journey packed with mysticism, history, ancient religious texts, quantum mechanics —had finally come to an end. I realized it was a moment I had dreaded from the beginning. Actually, it terrified me. I knew it would be a moment loaded with emotion. Like I said, I’m not good with emotion.
I rolled over on my side, thinking I’d go back to sleep and not think about it some more. But Toby was sitting at my bedside, staring at me with a look that said, “C’mon. You got things to do, and you know it.”
So I got up, got dressed and had my coffee. I fed the cats and walked Toby around the vineyards, trying to figure out what my dog meant when he told me I had things to do. That’s how I claw my way back sometimes. I go for long walks with Toby and talk to myself through him, all the while pretending it’s him talking to me. It’s therapy of a sort. As long as I have treats in my pocket, Toby is happy to play the part of my shrink till the cows come home. Then coming over a hill I saw Lausanne in the distance — and I heard Marie Madeleine ring for seven o’clock.
I looked at Toby. “You sure about this?”
“Arf,” he said.
We walked back to the cottage. I let Toby off his lead, gave him a treat. I had another cup of coffee, then another one. Then I went upstairs to my writing room and opened the cardboard boxes and pulled out one set of the books I had hidden away. I grabbed the car keys and headed for the front door. Afnan was standing there dressed with her bag on her shoulder, ready to go. Toby was back on his lead and standing by too. They were blocking my exit. I was confused.
(P.S.S. I’ve given up trying to understand how it is Afnan knows what I’m going to do before I tell her.)
“We’re coming with you,” she said.
“Toby can’t go inside the cathedral.”
“We’ll wait outside.”
“On the esplanade, near the fountain where Marc Rochat met Harper for the first time.”
It was an odd thing for her to say, and that’s when I noticed she had a copy of The Watchers stuffed in her bag.
“You broke into my cardboard boxes and stoled a book.”
“I wanted to read it. And it’s stole, not stoled.”
“You already read it. Twice.”
“I want to read it again. By the way. The scene at the fountain where Harper meets Marc Rochat? It’s great.”
“Thanks. But I want to go alone,” I said.
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.”
‘No, you don’t.”
We drove down to Lausanne and wound our way the Old City. Toby sat on Afnan’s lap with his head out the window. He likes to sniff at the world, and say hello to people in passing cars and buses. On the back seat were the three books I had liberated from their cardboard boxes. Parking in the shadow of Lausanne Cathedral I suddenly realized I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I was going to do it anyway.
Afnan and found a bench on the esplanade near the fountain, and I headed for the entrance of the cathedral.
“Hey,” she called.
I looked at her. She had TW on her lap. Toby was next to her, wagging his tail. They were both watching me — “We’re so proud of you.”
The cathedral had a few tourists walking about. They took pictures of statues and stained glass windows and the pipe organ that juts out over the nave like a spaceship — and the tombs of the Dead Bishops whose names no one could remember, and Otto the Brave Knight who lay at the side of the main altar. That’s what people do when they do the grand tour of a Gothic cathedral. They take pictures of old stuff. Imagine what they must have thought watching someone (me) walk about the place taking pictures of three books. On the crossing square beneath the lantern tower; in the north aisle where light poured through a stained-glass window and painted the stones with color; on the very wood bench where Jay Harper sat with Katherine Taylor in The Watchers. Instead of taking pictures of old stuff, I was taking pictures of the places where a mystical noir tale about angels and demons unfolded in my imagination, only just now understanding the wondrous impact of writing the tale. With each picture I allowed a bit of emotion rise to the surface.
Then, I knew what it was I had come to do. I had come to say goodbye. Not only to the world I’d created, but to the characters who populated that world. Jay Harper, Katherine Taylor, Krinkle, Astruc and Goose, Max, Inspector Gobet, Boo the Talking Cat— the lot.
See, characters are born in a writer’s imagination, but as they develop they take up residence in a writer’s soul. You see their faces, hear their voices. They become as important a part of your own life as the next breath— and there is always one character who is the reflection of the writer’s truest self.
For me that character was Marc Rochat — the brain injured, crooked little man who thought Lausanne Cathedral was a hiding place for lost angels. I made him le guet de Lausanne in the opening chapter of book one, and he became the living heartbeat of the entire trilogy. There were times when writing was hard, really hard. I’d sit at the computer and stare at a blank screen for hours. Sometimes it was so painful I thought I was on the edge of cracking up — sometimes I was afraid I wasn’t strong enough to finish it. But it was always Marc Rochat’s voice I heard in my soul — Transit umbra, lux permanet…shadows pass, light remains. Do not abandon us.
And it was while I was taking the picture of the books on the crossing square beneath the lantern tower, with the great Rose window in the background, that I said goodbye to Rochat. It was then I began to cry.
It wasn’t sadness. It was knowing that Marc Rochat was me all along. His dreams, his fears and emotions, his sense of isolation in the world, his physical awkwardness— his battered body was my battered soul. And just then I knew the truth…in not abandoning him, I saved my own life.
So at the end of the journey I found the comfort I dared to imagine that long ago beforetimes night in 2003. What will happen next? What new journey is waiting for me? I have no idea. But it’s okay. There will be hard nights still, there will be flashbacks and terrible memories to be endured— but I will not fear the shadows, I will not surrender to the darkness. Like Rochat told Katherine Taylor when the bad shadows were coming to slaughter him and drag her away from the belfry, “Being brave is only standing up when you’re afraid.”
And leaving through the north transept doors, I was very sure angels are real things — and that my soul, and all the battered souls of the world can find sanctuary in Lausanne Cathedral, now and forever. Amen.
Jon Steele is an American writer living in Europe