We had only one day in Paris,
pilgrim-starved and threadbare, broke
we’d walked to the tomb of a saint,
from the mountains to the coast
and this was our reward: crêpes
at midnight, eaten on the street, not time
to see it all, though we tried, and one
of the ways was this: to skip the line
at the cathedral and instead feed the pigeons outside.
A man in sunglasses showed us how
to hold a pinch of bread just so
they’d alight on our shoulders and hands.
Fat, friendly birds who cooed,
whose wingtips brushed my chin—
not once have I regretted it. Now
the church has burned and fallen in.
We seldom know when we lose
nor how much; my chance is gone. Now
I’ll always wonder if there were angels in the rafters
and if those angels burned.
Why are they singing,
asks my neighbor’s little boy.
For children, songs are born of joy—
how then to explain Parisians
on the banks of the Seine, joined
in hymn as their steeple burned?
Too young, he hasn’t felt the urge
to let loose a scream or moan
transformed as song, to light incense
in his throat. I think of slaves
singing in the fields, slinging scythes
dragging bags of cotton beneath the eye
of God. I think of chain-gangs
breaking stone. I think of myself
at twenty, far from home and living
in a cramped apartment with a man
who sometimes choked me
and spat on me for fun. I sang love songs
in the shower then, and slid the window
wide, to let them out into the alley
where someone passing by might hear
and save me. Sometimes, I tell
my neighbor’s son, all you can do
is sing, or ring a bell;
the music is a counter-spell.