Through My Most Grievous Fault
They say a monster lives in the bell tower on Notre Dame. They say he is hideous to look upon, that his skin is melted like the wax of altar candles, like fire, hellfire, had caressed him. They say a monster huddles in the shadows there, like the gargoyles hunched over cathedral to scare the demons away. They say he was scalded on the night when the molten led poured from their gaping mouths, splashing on the stones below, bubbling like a searing spring, bubbling welts upon his face and blindness in his eyes…
Claude Frollo remembered the time he first saw her up close, the gypsy Esmeralda. It was not when she danced in the street, as many thought, that something stirred in him. He had been cold to her seductive movements, to the whirling of her colorful skirts, to the rattling sound of her tambourine, the whistling of the men in the crowd. It had been the Feast of Fools, after all; such scandalous entertainment was to be expected. The peasants were vulgar in their choice of diversions, and Frollo had grown dismally accustomed to such lewd displays.
No, that had not been the moment that caused her to become imprinted upon his mind, like the words of a book on the newly invented printing press that Frollo believed to be so dangerous. It had been seeing her inside the cathedral, his cathedral, kneeling before the statue of the Virgin Mary, in her low-cut peasant dress and free-flowing hair, like a common harlot. Yet her eyes were alight with a purity that took him aback, some spotless reality radiating through them, as if she possessed the heart of a saint. And it chilled him to the bone.
"Take all that I have," she whispered, "but help my people, who look to you still. They are in great need, great danger…"
"What are you doing in Notre Dame?" Frollo demanded, staring down at her and hoping that her eyes would reveal some spark of fear.
But there was none there when she met his gaze and replied simply, "I'm praying."
"No prayer can help you here," he ground out icily. "You lead men to sin with your body, dancing shamelessly in the street, awakening the weakness of their sinful natures. You come from an evil race. You desecrate the stones on which you kneel."
"You know nothing of me and my people," she responded. "You cannot read our hearts."
Oh, yes, he could, and he did. He had learned the scrolls of the clerks, sang the chants of the priests, struck himself in penitence many a night for what he was…a gypsy's son. The blood in him was poison, he was told, wild like fire, hellfire, burning inside him, out of all control. But he had determined to control it. He had mastered it, dominated it, squelched its strength, like ants under a brick. He would be righteous. He would be pure. He would never be rejected again, like his mother's proud family had rejected her and her ill-begotten offspring. He would become God's own, and remain safe in His sanctuary.
"All gypsies should be destroyed by fire and sword," he continued, his voice heightening. "They infest this city with their heathen ways, their robbing, cheating, and plunder…like you infest this church…"
"Don't talk like that," she begged, turning back to the statue of the Virgin. "The Mother of God is listening."
Oh, he knew that too. He had prayed to her often enough over the years, the one who is Notre Dame, that he might imitate her, consecrated in word and thought to chastity. He wanted to be like her, untouchable and statuesque in her niche, and he would imagine the serene smile playing upon her lips was meant for him, the smile his mother had never given him. Yes, this would be his aspiration…but in the meantime, he let her know even his darkest thoughts. In a world of aloneness, the Blessed Mother would be his confidante, his only one. Perhaps he was jealous that anyone else in the world should confide in her as he did…
"You're a witch," he blurted. "You have no recourse to the Virgin! You are sullied, in the flesh and in the soul. You conjure demons with your sorcery, your crystals and charms…"
"If our magic were so strong, do you think my people would choose to be outcasts? Perhaps I should not be here, but was not your Lady an outcast once, her and her poor child…?"
"Enough," he spat. "You defile this place with your evil thoughts." He turned his back on her, preparing to leave her presence.
"I've never prayed before today, but I could stay here all day and never have an evil thought," she told him, and the sincerity of her voice, caused him to turn back around. She was looking up towards the great rose window. "I would never even speak, just be here. Look at the window, red and blue…all colors shining as the setting sun breaks through, like a bow in the sky after the rain, and the light dancing around the columns…"
Frollo found himself looking up as well, and realized for the first time that it might indeed be beautiful. This, too, disturbed him, the idea that he was looking through her eyes, seeing such familiar surroundings as something that made his heart beat faster, something that showed him some sparkling gleam of God He had never known before with such intensity. Even as a boy, when he first came there, his thoughts had been more upon safety than beauty. But now the moment gnawed at him, like a longing for that which he could not meditate upon for long, not without it tearing down some wall of security he had built between himself and all others, even between himself and the God he served.
"They're like the high pines in the forest," she continued airily. "It's so quiet and peaceful here, almost more quiet than the woods, where the squirrels chatter and the birds sing when I come. You know, I can feed the deer there right from my hand. They're not at all shy when you're kind to them."
"I know," he let slip out, not even intending to say it. It made him feel sad inside. He rarely let himself feel sad these days. There was just no point in it.
"You like animals too?" she queried, sounding genuinely interested. It took him aback.
He swallowed, looked down. "Yes," he mumbled. "They…trust me."
"You say that? You?" She stood up and looked at him full in the face. "Then you cannot bear the evil eye, as first I thought…" She took his hand, studying his palm. "Strange, strange man…"
"But you do," he spat, pulling his hand away. "You are evil…"
He remembered what the gypsies had done to his brother, so unlike him as he grew into a rakish youth, a wastrel quick with rolling the dice and rolling in the arms of women. He was banished from the cathedral, despite Frollo's pleading, and vanished into the darkness of the Paris streets. When he heard from his prodigal brother next, many years had elapsed. While the elder had studied for the deaconate, confirming his chosen path as a celibate, the younger had become proficient in more carnal arts, frequenting the lair of the gypsies and their heathen ways. It ended for him the way it might have been predicted, an ill-fated fight over a game of dice his fortune-telling lover had predicted. And there was a child from him…a child from him and his precious gypsy…
"How is it that I can see the good in you, and yet you cannot see it in me?" she queried.
"It's a trick," he blurted. "Everything you're saying is a trick…"
"How could your own goodness trick you?"
Frollo felt convicted by this. He knew he was good, of course…or at least, he never bothered to think of himself as anything but pure in the sight of God. He had sworn away his life to the service of the Church, sworn his perpetual chastity as a deacon. He had always been single-minded in his pursuit, always assured of his own salvation. All except one time, that was. It had to do with that other gypsy, his brother's lover, running through the icy streets with their babe in her arms. He had chased her on horseback, overtaken her and yanked the child from her arms, all on the steps of Notre Dame where she had run for sanctuary. She had fallen…it wasn't his fault, she had run, he pursued, and slipped as an act of providence…now no one would know of his brother's misdeeds…
No one was left but this…thing, this offspring of his brother, who Frollo then saw was hideously misshapen. Surely a punishment fallen on this child born of sin. There was a well nearby, and as the snow swirled in the winter wind, a dark thought made its way into his mind. Yes, he even rode his horse alongside it, suspended the child over it, to bury the past and all its twisted secrets, and the memory of his beloved brother now dead to him…yes, the tears ran down his face as he did so, even as the blood trickled down the dead gypsy's forehead, slain on the stairs. Surely he would be performing some secret mercy to put the creature out of its misery…surely he would act as the scourge of God…
But then he had heard a voice…he knew not where it came from, but it whispered his name, and he turned towards the cathedral. He saw the statues of the saints and apostles gazing down from the façade, piercing his soul to its depths. But most striking of all was the look upon the very eyes of Notre Dame, the Virgin Mary, as beautiful as the morning rising, as terrible as an army set in battle array. And in his heart, and perhaps for the first time in years, Frollo feared for his immortal soul. And then and there, he repented his intention. And then and there, he swore to the Virgin he would make restitution by raising this offspring of his brother, make sure he was fed and clothed and catechized.
And he had kept true to that oath. The boy had been raised in the bell tower, a hunchback who never ventured into the outside world. He was better that way, Frollo decided. If he had nearly drowned the baby as a man of the Church, he could not imagine what the godless masses outside might do if they saw his crooked features and deformed face. They'd no doubt tear him about, and then how would the deacon have kept faith with his vow? Besides…for better or worse, this half-formed creature, this Quasimodo, was of his blood and was all that was left of his brother who, in spite of everyone, Frollo could not help but pine over. There were even moments when he thought he might come to care for the boy, even just a little bit, when he was teaching him his lessons, and later on helped him read lips when the bells robbed his hearing.
But there was always some underlying loathing that Frollo could not conceal. He might be strong, and indeed Frollo often equated his strength with his worthiness before God, but this creeping sense of disgust made him wonder if, indeed, his "goodness" was tricking him after all. Either way, he didn't feel the need for this gypsy in front of it to point it out.
"It is none of your affair," he growled.
"Tell me about your animals," she prompted him softly, "the ones that trust you."
Frollo twitched at her insistence, but for some strange reason he could not shrug it off, could not break from the look in her eyes gazing into his soul.
"Cats from the street," he replied blearily. "No one wants them. I feed them and take care of them, and they stay because…no one else bothers with them. I keep them safe, and they…keep them company."
"But people outside this place, they run off stray cats, say they are of the devil," she noted, then added pointedly, "Like you say of us gypsies."
"Animals are innocent," he retorted. "It is mankind that is evil…evil and cruel…."
"But you are not," she responded. "You are hateful in your words, but not in your eyes, not all the way through and through…you are one who might yet love…"
"I have heard of enough of your prattle," he cut her off. "Now, get out of here, I don't want to see you here again." He turned his back on here, but something he didn't expect churned in his stomach, and he found himself murmuring oddly, "If you need a meal…you may ask after one from the kitchens. But then you must go away and stay away."
Just then he felt her slip something soft into his hand. When he looked down, he saw it was a scarf, midnight blue, sprinkled with silver stars. "Give this to the Mother of God, will you? It matches her dress…" And with that, he heard her scurrying away towards the doors of the cathedral.
Although he strode away without a second glance, her eyes had already made a mark in his mind which he could not dismiss so easily. He did not know what to make of the feeling she had evoked in him. It was both pleasant and sickening at the same time. It left him occasionally gazing at his hand, the one she had taken in her own, and remembering the feeling of human touch that reached into some recess of himself he typically kept buried. It unnerved him and unmasked him and made him feel very small, very vulnerable, very confused. When was the last time anyone had bothered to tell him he was good? Not righteous, but good…just a human sort of good, that can be seen through apparent flaws, as opposed to heights of aspired sanctity that try to cover up faults in hopes of being flawless.
He found her scarf hard to put down, even at the feet of the Virgin as he had been bidden. At first he convinced himself that was because it was a profane offering to Notre Dame, but later he found himself making excuses in his prayers, something about allowing himself even the slightest sense of…something…was it comfort? Something to cling to when he felt even the largeness of the cathedral begin to close around him? It disgusted him, this memory of a gypsy providing him solace, but somehow he hoped the Virgin would understand, and continued to wear it hidden on his arm under his sleeve. Was it a betrayal of his deacon's vow of celibacy? No, certainly not…not something so very small…
The next time Frollo saw the gypsy was two days hence, on the last day of the Festival of Fools. And it was on this day he discovered that the hunchback has escaped the bell tower, contrary to his orders. The world was cruel, and Quasimodo was hideous, and deaf. The Parisians would attack him as soon as they set eyes on him, a monster in their midst. Frollo knew this, and warned his ward time and again never to leave the tower. But now he had disobeyed, and the crowd had indeed attacked him, tied him up on a rotating platform, beat him, and mocked him as he begged for water under the midday sun.
But he had disobeyed. And all that was mean and low and unrelenting in Frollo made itself manifest, and he did nothing to stop the torture, nothing to free the hunchback, nor answer his cries for mercy. No mercy. The hunchback would have to learn about the world the hard way. He had rejected his master's protection, and now would have to suffer the consequences. No mercy…sin does not go unpunished, least of all sin against rightful authority…and that was Frollo's greatest pride, greatest security…being a part of that great, untouchable rightful authority…
Little did he know it would be his own undoing. For out of the crowd came Esmeralda, like a raven flown up through the throng and onto the platform, that compassion he had glimpsed still radiant in her eyes, but not turned towards Quasimodo, an outcast meeting an outcast at the moment of greatest need. Yes, this beauty face-to-face with this beast, and she was busy bringing a drink of water to his twisted, parched lips, and then pulling a knife from her skirts and cutting him free of the ropes. And then her eyes turned on Frollo, and they were blazing, yes, blazing with a curse for his own cruelty, the cruelty he had claimed haunted all mankind.
When he lay in his bed that night, Frollo was sweating rivers, his blood pulsing hot, his breath panting. He could not sleep, for the dreams of her would assault him. Surely it was the curse, the silent curse spoken in her look. She knew him now, regretted her words in the cathedral, and was bent on pulling him down from his pedestal, from his pride. She had weakened all his defenses, and now he could think of nothing but her, nothing but…having her. He saw her dancing, like on the first day, and for the first time he found himself just like any vulgar spectator in the crowd, lusting for her as her skirts spun and tambourine beat a rhythm that mirrored his racing heart. It terrified and enticed him.
He took the scarf from under his pillow, the place he hid his forbidden relic when he slept, and went to the burning hearth in the main hall. Still, the dancing flames seemed to conjure up the gypsy's movements, her eyes smoldering and the sun caught in her raven hair. It was as if denying water to the hunchback had set his very soul alight with hellfire. He made him shudder, made him twist the scarf backwards and forwards in his hands, wanting to cast it into the flames, but unwilling to let it go. It must be possessed, he thought…it must have been given out of a desire to destroy him…she had never thought him good at all, it was just a trap, just as he always thought…what good could ever come from a gypsy?
"Beata Maria," he intoned, "you know I am a righteous man…I'm not like my father or my brother…I'm not like the fools outside…weak, amoral, licentious…I know my vows…I have vowed myself to Jesu Christi and to you…" He closed his eyes. "Then tell me why…why do I keep seeing that harlot of a gypsy…dancing…?"
What had caused him to falter now? How had his moorings suddenly been ripped loose, his grounding start to shake? Oh, why were his cries not heard?
"It's like fire…like hellfire…I don't understand…this burning in my skin…oh, why will you not help me?"
No…he would get only as much help from the Virgin as he had been willing to give to the Hunchback in the square. And his vows of celibacy became as weighty as irons. He wondered…had he thought well enough before taking them? It didn't have to be this way. He had imposed it upon himself without giving it a second thought, for he was so certain he was above the need for such earthly cravings. Or more telling yet, above the need even for the touch of a hand in intimacy, or even simple companionship…he thought himself above it, and so sank lower than it, and the scarf of midnight blue seemed to laugh at it as it slipped through his fingers like sea water. And that's how he felt…as if he was drowning in an ocean he could not hold back…yes, drowning in an ocean of sin…
Yes, sin…damning sin…and the wicked would not go unpunished. To his horror, he realized that he was just as wicked as the rest of them outside the sanctuary, deep down…as wicked as the blood running through his veins…and the thought made that blood run cold.
"It's not my fault!" he shouted in anguish, letting the scarf fall to the floor. "I'm not to blame!" He pressed his hands over his face, like Adam hiding himself in the garden. "It was the gypsy girl, she bewitched me! She set this flame with her curse! I never wanted this! I never sought it out! How can you blame me, Holy Mother, if God allows the devil so many powers over Man? Would you cast me away too?"
He found that there were tears burning in his eyes now, the first time he had let himself cry since the death of his brother. He had not allowed himself to face his own fear of damnation, not since he nearly drowned a baby some twenty years before. He realized that his deepest fear was not that of pain, but rather of silence, the utterly hopeless kind, knowing no one would listen to him, not even the Virgin, that even the Mother of Mercy would grow deaf to him…
"It was her you should damn, not me! I am under her spell! She's a menace to us all! She is the one who must be punished! She is the one who must be made to answer for her heathenry!"
He staggered backward, and a dark thought crept into his mind. Soon it sank deeper, like poison into his heart. Yes, she was the one to blame for this. Her witchcraft, her wiles, all a trick, a trap, to sear his flesh and bone, and turn his soul to ash. Surely she would try it on others, far weaker than him, who would fall into the pit because of her. She had to be stopped…
"I will put an end to this," he ground out. "I will be God's scourge upon this evil! I will save Paris from this demonic race come to plague us. I will drive them out, never to return!"
With that, Frollo seized the scarf from the floor and flung it into the fire in front of him. "Destroy Esmeralda! Let her taste the fires of hell…" He felt his throat constrict, and his lips tremble, and the sinful words, thick with desire, rolled off his tongue, "or else let her be mine…mine alone…"
He shut his eyes tight against the stinging sensation. No, no, no, he would not feel…he would pull this evil plant out of his heart, root and stem, he would not allow himself to weaken…
"God have mercy on her," he rasped as the scarf blacked in the hearth. Then he turned his face to the wall and choked, "God have mercy…on me…"
They say a monster lives in the bell tower on Notre Dame. They say he is repulsive to look upon, that his skin is melted like the wax of altar candles, like fire, hellfire, had made love to him. They say the creature weeps in the shadows there, like the birds crying from their nests in the cathedral to wash the memories away. They say he was scalded on the night when the molten led poured out their songs, spreading on the stones below, gushing like an underground spring. They say he is blind, and his tears are blind, remembering the gypsy girl, burnt at the pyre, and the hunchback who swung forth on a rope and snatched her from the flames, crying "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" She was doomed to die in that sacred space, and also destined to be avenged by Quasimodo, pouring forth the simmering cauldron in his rage upon those standing below. He would die of a broken heart and be buried with what was left of her, burned flesh and twisted bones.
And the one who would take his place in that bell tower was a righteous man laid low, who could do nothing for himself but beg pity for the ocean of sing that had swallowed him up. And high in his prison, where a sacristan attended to him when he cried out in pain or in the horror of a waking nightmare, there was a statue of the Madonna he could not see. But he felt her face with his fingers, and he talked to her, as he always had, and he had to believe that she heard him still. For now he understand, she was a mother not only of the pure, but of the defiled, just as her Son had come not to call the righteous, but sinners. And so Claude Frollo prayed for mercy. And so Sancta Maria listened, as mothers will do.
"I confess to Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael, the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints and to you, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly, in thought, word and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary, ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me…"