Excerpt: Empty Paris

Saturday, June 15, 1940, Paris

When the French signed an armistice with the Germans, Paris became an “open city.” The Germans wouldn’t bomb or shoot if Parisians didn’t resist. Trucks with loudspeakers drove throughout Paris warning residents to stay inside on Friday and Saturday, June 14 and 15. Max doesn’t know this. 

As I got closer to Paris, the quieter it got, the more deserted. As the sun began to edge up over the horizon, the villages still slept. No milk deliveries, no bakery was open. No carts heading to Paris for the Saturday markets. I thought I had wandered onto a movie set about the end of the world. When I passed through a village, I could hear the clop, clop of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones. All the shutters were closed.

Had everybody left? Had the Germans ordered them to stay indoors? I didn’t even hear the dawn twittering of birds.

I headed toward the Bois de Vincennes just outside the southeastern entrances to Paris. In the largest park in the area, at least my horse could nibble the grass, and there were trees that I could hide in and even structures to hide behind.

The slides were empty in a playground I passed, no screams of laughter broke the silence. The swings moved idly in the breeze over the rut worn beneath by children’s feet pumping the swings higher and higher.  Further on, the Velodrome was empty of bicyclists and the seats were bare. I turned the horse to Lac Daumesnil. There stood the small, circular Greek Temple, its columns holding up the nipple dome, but only the ducks were there. They paddled away as I approached, their usual raucous quacks turned to muted grumbles as they beaked stray teenage ducks into line. I dismounted and led my horse to the shade of the trees where she could drink from the lake.

At last the silence was broken by the trumpeting of an elephant. Bizarre. Of course. The zoo came down to the lake on the other side. I mounted my horse and trotted toward the noise. I passed the animal cages at a walk —first the various monkeys chattered and chortled, and the baboons screeched at me. The tigers paced, tails switching. The lions roared.   All the animals came out to watch me. It felt strange to be the show and not the viewer. The air was rich with their smells and acrid with their hunger.

As I neared the elephants, I saw a man with a couple of buckets crouching behind a bench near the big cats’ cages. The smell of manure became especially strong as I clip-clopped closer and he got a good look at me. Then he came out. He must have been in his fifties, a veteran of the Great War, dressed in some kind of municipal uniform. He had a hank of hair that he’d combed over his bald crown, but it had fallen down like a lock of hair on a sultry movie star. He tossed his head and puffed to no avail, but he wouldn’t take the time to put down his buckets so he could pat the strand back in place.

He continued his rounds, throwing gobs of meat into the cages.

I dismounted and trailed beside him as he went to feed the monkeys. “Where’s everyone?”

“A lot of people got out while they could.” He threw an assortment of nuts, vegetables and seeds to the waiting throngs.

“Have the Germans come?”

“So they say. Came in through Belleville and headed toward the Opera. Haven’t seen any myself, but they’ve sent around trucks with loudspeakers telling people to give up their guns and stay inside for two days.” He put his empty buckets down and looked at me. “No one told the animals Paris has been occupied.”

Despite the fear of the unknown, this man had come to work. If a Nazi told him to stop, he probably would.

A little monkey came to the bars and held out his hand. The zookeeper upended the pail and a wilted celery stalk plopped out. He picked it up and handed it to the begging creature.

“Any horses at the hippodrome or the riding stables?” I asked.

He stared at my horse.

“I’m trying to sell the horse,” I explained.

“No idea.” He motioned with his head. “They’re over that way. But I’d imagine people took them—one way or another—to get out of the city. Not my problem. I’ve got enough caged animals to feed to keep me busy.” He turned back the way he came and trotted off with his empty pails. Not furtive, not afraid, just busy.