A/N: Sorry for the slowness of updates; life has really thrown me some curveballs these last several months. I will eventually finish all these fictions I started during the summer, it just may take a while.
I cannot begin to explain the feeling that takes place when you see two similar sets of eyes locking onto each other when they've never met before. When I was a younger man, I had seen it a few times. Families and loved ones who had been separated often met at the church to reunite with one another. I suppose the years of rules and regulations have made me insensitive to such a small miracle in itself.
Paquette was frail—I knew she had once been beautiful. She was like a lovely rose that had withered from lack of light and care. Some of that long-lost beauty graced her features when she smiled and I saw the woman under the years of torturous living. In her younger days, she and Esmeralda could have passed for twins.
That one word broke the silence, whispered from Esmeralda's full, rosy lips. The two women embraced so tightly that it was debatable whether we could ever pry them apart—but why would we want to? This was one of the few events in my recent years that I actually felt as though I'd done something right. In the lives of priests, there are often spells that we suffer from when we question whether we're really helping people the way we should.
Pierre looked at me and I swear to God the man actually smiled. It was a real smile—there was no sneer, no "stay away from my wife" warning. Margot was headed for the kitchen—no doubt to cook something. The old woman seemed to always be doing something back there. Deciding to leave Paquette and Esmeralda to get acquainted, I followed her in there.
"That was by far better than any gift I gave a woman," Jehan remarked, "the best I could do was flowers and second-hand sonnets!"
"I didn't do it for the reasons you may think," I said sternly, "I did it because it was the right thing to do. I did it because they have both suffered at my hands even in ways that I was not aware of."
Margot was preparing to knead out some bread dough, but her old bones didn't appear quite up to it. Quite accustomed to kitchen chores by now, I rolled up my sleeves and volunteered to take over. Much to everyone's surprise, I was becoming quite the cook.
"You love her," Margot said quietly.
I said nothing. I thought it was quite obvious by now; I had never been very good at hiding it. Seeing the look on my face, she smiled warmly.
"No…this time, you really do," she told me, "you're thinking of her more than yourself. You're giving her what she wants rather than demanding of her. I don't know what your intentions are when your exile is over, but you've just befriended her for life."
I might never hold her. I might never kiss her or hear her sigh at my touch. I might never wake up next to her in the morning. I might never father her children. But I was content to breathe her air for a second when she hugged me. I was content with her smile and the lack of uneasiness in her eyes. I was content with her not fearing me or being disgusted by me. If I could have a few moments of her time now and then, a small place in her heart, then I could be satisfied with it.
As we continued to prepare the evening meal, a terrifying thought occurred to me. Yes, I had missed Notre Dame. I had missed certain aspects of my old life, some of the privileges of having the status that I had. I had missed having a quiet place to pray when I thought I needed to escape. As I remembered the dimly lit stone corridors and the solemn paintings of Jesus and Mary, I also remembered how cold and damp they were. I remembered the immense guilt over having normal reactions to things (such as getting angry when someone didn't do their share of the work). I remembered feeling guilty for so much as looking at a woman and thinking she was beautiful whether my reaction was physical or purely aesthetic. I remember the claustrophobia of feeling as though the whole world was watching and waiting for me to make a mistake.
I wasn't sure that I wanted to go back.
I would be an outcast. I would have nowhere to go and no purpose until I could find a job. Perhaps someone here in town needed someone who could read and write…I would have to labor each day and know that I had forsaken my church.
I wondered if choosing a different life was the same as betraying God.
I wiped the flour off of my hands and put the loaves of bread into the oven. I walked past Jehan and Margot and whispered "I'll be back". I slipped out of the warm kitchen as quietly as I could.
The cool night air soothed my heating face and took some of the feverishness from my mind. Looking up at the sliver of moon, I couldn't help but smile. It reminded me of something Quasimodo had said.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw him.
"I didn't realize you were out here," I told him.
"I came outside to see the moon," Quasimodo said in his slow, deep voice. He smiled in that odd way that he did and pointed.
"Look, Master, God is smiling at us!"
I couldn't help but laugh. He had told me that once when he was very young, shortly after I had taught him to speak. I felt guilty for chastising him about it now…
"So He is," I agreed.
The moon was a thin white crescent and the part that was visible was the bottom part. It looked very much like a smile, hence Quasimodo's remark. I rested my chin on my hand. Sometimes I felt bad for all the times I'd scolded him and punished him—I haven't been very much of a father.
Then, as he usually did, he spoke the one thing that had been haunting me:
"Master, will we ever go back to Notre Dame?"
He said that as the bells tolled for the evening service. I knew he was wondering if they had already replaced him.
"Maybe," I said truthfully, "but…not to stay."
He nodded. I wasn't sure what reaction I expected to get, but it wasn't that one.
"You weren't happy there. I never saw you smile until you came here. Your cheeks are pink and you aren't so thin…it has been good for you."
It was unsettling. He had been watching me that closely…he was not the fool that everyone thought he was.
"How did you know I was unhappy?"
I couldn't help but ask that question. I had a strong feeling I wouldn't like the answer I got, but I had to say it.
"You always looked sad or angry. I was worried about you. When I saw dead people at the funerals, you looked just like them only you are still alive."
It was a strange answer, but I understood.
"Yes…I suppose I was feeling rather dead at the time."
We sat together in silence for a few more moments.
"Master…do you think they will let me ring the bells one last time? So I can say goodbye to all of them?"
"I'm sure they will," I told him. He smiled and went inside to play with his kitten.
I stayed out there and bowed my head.
Father, I've come to this crossroad…I don't know what to do. Whatever happens, my intention isn't to turn my back on you. I will go back if you want me to, but I will also embrace a new life however hard it is if you want. Please tell me what it is that I'm supposed to do…my punishment will be over soon. I'm afraid…I've never had to make such a difficult decision before…
When I opened my eyes, Margot was standing there.
"Time to eat," she told me. The sounds of laughter and merriment spilled out of the kitchen along with the good smells. I followed them in.