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One Woman’s Journey Through the Paris Commune

Today marks 150 years since the final crushing of the Paris Commune. Bloody repression extinguished the world’s first workers’ revolution — but the Communards of 1871 provide a lasting model of resilience in the face of defeat.

Colored lithograph depicting the violence during the Paris Commune by Roche Leregrattier, after Condoni. (API / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Dr Wiktoria Okołowicz, Lecturer at the University of Gdańsk, on a year’s study leave in Paris, had found a small and affordable flat up under the eaves in the rue Jouye Rouve with a view from her bedroom of the Parc de Belleville. She was writing a book on the Paris Commune, dealing particularly with the women, their active shaping of it, what they wished it to do, and what it was stopped from doing, for women’s lives. So: a study of what women gave and desired and of their struggle, defeat and disappointment. The material of this subject has been greatly increased by research in recent years, and day by day with a passionate confidence Dr Okołowicz was realizing her idea of it, her hopes in it.

She had quickly discovered a network of helpful scholarship: other women and men working from a variety of points of view on subjects more or less connected with her own. She had sociable meetings in cafés and bars; one or other of the universities and colleges hosted a fortnightly seminar; she felt herself to be creatively in touch; and when she emailed home they could tell she was happy.

There are such phases of life, if you are lucky. Days, months, when everything seems to assist in the shaping of your self. A purpose clarifies, it attracts what will further its development and flowering. Glorious, such a making! And, if you are lucky, it will be a measure, an orientation, all your life long. It will have settled in you, as a capacity for faith and trust. And this achievement is far removed from selfishness or being self-satisfied. A person living as Dr Okołowicz was living during her first months in Paris will quite unconsciously, never giving it a thought, encourage others.

But then, born in a Chinese wet market and very soon crossing frontiers world-wide, came Plague and with it a gradual revelation of the dealings of people with one another and with the world. And many of these relations soon looked questionable and some, for good or ill, looked unlikely to survive. Anxiety took root. Older citizens looked furtive and mistrustful. They veered away from the smiling faces of the young. They developed a sort of sonar feel, like bats, to swerve aside before collision. Don’t come near, don’t touch, don’t breathe on me.

Waking in her flat in the rue Jouye Rouve, as the year advanced, Dr Okołowicz heard ever more birdsong. From the rooftops, from the trees in the Parc de Belleville, daily more and more and louder, confident, exultant singing. Except for ambulances, the streets had largely fallen silent. In the skies too the traffic had all but ceased. She pushed open her shutters, the whole morning light came in, and she lay a while listening.

She knew this to be one of the changed relations. Never in her life before had the earth been so open to listening. The noise of the city seemed for once to be in proper proportion to the rest of creation. It felt for some weeks that even a vast conurbation might be liveable with. Paris with her many gardens, her flowery ruelles and impasses, her countless cherishingly watered window boxes, her river, her fountains, slowed down for a while, hushed, as if she hearkened and attended now to what had been missing, lost beauties of scent and sound… Might this not be a thing you would never again want to be without?

Fearful at the outset and in continual contact with her anxious mother and father in Gdańsk, Dr Okołowicz before long began to sense some benefit in the state of siege. As an only child, she had developed resources of self-reliance. She was, she said, quite good at being on her own. And besides, she was not a friendless stranger. They knew her by now and liked her in the quartier. That network was still more or less intact. You must keep your distance, if asked by a policeman you must produce your permit. But every day in your own locality you show yourself and exchange signs of life. And the workplace, the web, world-wide, continued pretty much as before.

She had most of her sources to hand, access to more through links, documents already downloaded and safely stored. When the talks and seminars moved online, with general agreement they became weekly. Being virtually together was a good deal better than being together not at all. And they extended themselves, they crossed frontiers, they managed times and time-zones to accommodate as many colleagues as possible.

Dr Okołowicz’s subject possessed her more and more. She would learn, clarify her thinking, write. The Plague would go away or become manageable and by the time the old freedoms were restored she would have finished her book. Meanwhile, good to be en situation and face up to what it entails!

The Commune lasted seventy-two days. Adolphe Thiers would have liked by massacre to entirely extirpate it as a social possibility; but he was a realist and knew that in practice, however bloody, he would have to settle for less, a further generation or so of power in the hands of his class. Then more trouble, no doubt, and another restoration of order.

In the chronology of her book Dr Okołowicz stood on the threshold of the end; but she had reserved till now, as a sort of pause in hope, an account of the discussions of the Women’s Union, the social laboratory of the Commune, during April and May and the demands they wished to see pass into law. She would hold this interlude aloft, to be contemplated, on the brink of its drowning in blood.

She began with the fact that the dominant attitude of mind in working-class women then was resignation. They believed their situation to be hopeless. In that fatalism they abetted their own oppression. And to give some idea of what women were up against not just in themselves and from the usual enemies (the Church, the schools, the legislators) Dr Okołowicz added a few thoughts from Proudhon, a supposed comrade:

Though men and women may count the same in the eyes of God, they are not equal, cannot be, neither in the family nor in public affairs.

Woman is a pretty animal, but an animal. She is as greedy for kisses as a goat is for salt.

It is absolutely necessary that a husband impose respect upon his wife. Strength, foresight and industry are his and in none of these can a woman equal him.

A woman cannot have, and look after, children if her mind, her imagination and her heart are preoccupied with political, social and literary matters.

And after him, in simple juxtaposition, she placed some statements of the basic principle of equality between the sexes.

Louise Michel: “Recognizing the equality of the two sexes would be a glorious breach in the wall of human stupidity.” And: “The struggle in defence of the Commune is the struggle for the rights of women.”

The Hungarian Léo Frankel, the Commune’s delegate for work and trade: “All the objections produced against equality of men and women are of the same sort as those which are produced against the emancipation of the Negro race…. First people are blindfolded and then they are told they have been blind since birth.” (He was wounded defending the barricade in the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine and saved there from capture and certain execution by the founder of the Women’s Union, Elizabeth Dmitrieff.)

The Union of Women discussed and announced its priorities:

The right to work, and for equal pay.

(Eugène Varlin, four years before the Commune, had stated as incontrovertible: “No one has the right to refuse women the only means of being truly free.” That means was work. Equality entailed the right to work. To women as to men should go the honourable appellation: worker.)

The right to take a full part in the Commune’s combats, including membership of the National Guard.

(This right was inherent in the full title of their organization: The Union of Women for the Defence of Paris and the Care of the Wounded. And how they fought! A hundred and twenty of them held the barricade in the Place Blanche. And they served as field-nurses, cantinières, dressed as ordinary working-women. Citoyenne Lachaise is remembered: attached to the 66th battalion, at Meud on 3 April, she was all day in the fighting, alone, tending the wounded, without a doctor.)

The right to pensions for the widows of soldiers killed fighting for the Commune whether legally married to them or not and similarly for their children legitimate or not.

Free and complete education for children of both sexes.

Immediate and total suppression of all faith and religious teaching for boys and girls in state schools.

(The Union wanted rid of the ‘vile and malign teachings’ of the black brotherhood of the priests, who, when order was restored, as consecrators of massacre, led the monied classes in thanksgiving.)

The opening of schools for the professional education of girls.

The opening of public kindergarten and crèches.

Equal suffrage.

Dr Okołowicz initially added that it was 1945 before French women first voted; then deleted that comment. She would leave it to readers themselves to hold up the Union of Women’s demands against present realities in France and Poland and other more or less developed democracies. Altogether she wished her historical account of the Paris Commune to make for a continual juxta-positioning of then and now, of the women’s revolt then and now, in my country and in yours. How far have we got? How far still to go?

Writing in a locked-down city, the pandemic going from strength to strength, no vaccine in sight and the scientists already warning that the virus was clever and would mutate, Dr Okołowicz felt sure of herself. She had amassed the evidence, she would present it to her audience with all the force and clarity at her disposal, and rest her case. How will you live now, knowing this?

Asking that question, she rose from her desk and went into the bedroom to look down over the park. Much of the last days’ fighting had been in Belleville. In the rue Ramponneau itself the last barricade fell. Through the half-open window she heard birdsong from among the trees in the park empty of humans. The shrubs and the clumps of flowers in the neat borders seemed to be wondering what degree of disorder, what blooming for the sweet sake of it, they might get away with.

Then turning to go back to work, Dr Okołowicz caught sight of her face in the dressing-table mirror and it halted her. A small face, the pure oval shape of it framed with close black hair. Around her throat she wore a thin red scarf. If asked, Have you not become rather self-regarding? she would have thought seriously about the question and answered, No, I don’t think I have. But meanwhile the first look of the face in the mirror, thoughtful, calm, had vanished and now what she saw was an anxious puzzlement.

Rising from her desk after her rhetorical question — How will you live now, knowing this? — going through to the bedroom window and viewing the self-delighting trees and flowers in the locked park, she suddenly felt that she had asked in a public and grandiose sort of voice a question she had no right to put to anyone but herself. Oh well, she thought, it doesn’t matter. I’ll delete it and nobody will know. And she took up her bags to go shopping for lunch and supper.

On the street, however, where everything was familiar and friendly and people were making the best of a bad state of affairs, Dr Okołowicz, first in a wondering but then in a more and more troubled fashion, began to feel, so to speak, shadowed by all that she had learned of the events of a century and a half ago, she felt with a stirring of dread that in every savage detail they had settled and rooted in her and lifelong they would infest her, she would never be free of them. And before she returned and let herself in again and climbed the stairs to her safe little flat, the shadow had become a presence, something palpable, and the easy rhetorical question, addressed to the putative readers of her account, was hers and nobody else’s to answer first. Indeed, it shifted into something clearer and more fundamental: Will a life of your own survive now, knowing this?

Dr Okołowicz had signed up to give the next talk, but one which left her ten days. Next morning early, still uneasy, she resumed her work. She must write about the end and the aftermath. All the material for it was marshalled in accessible notes and references and even more so in her head and around her heart, in her waking and sleeping life. Every morning she woke travailed by it. In deep sleep it worked in her; surfacing, she felt herself borne along in the rapids of it; sitting down at her desk, she felt the shadow, the onus, of it. She must pace herself, not too much in one session, walk fast and as far as possible in the daily hour allowed. She was still prepared to believe that by writing and speaking to others about it, she would cease to be at its mercy.

Three days later, having observed her own rules of moderation and got on pretty well, Dr Okołowicz logged in to hear a paper whose author and topic she had been too preoccupied to take note of. So it shocked her to discover that the speaker, a young man, was a compatriot of hers who introduced himself, neither apologetically nor polemically but “just by way of a premise,” as a devout Roman Catholic.

In his talk, he said, he would bring new and compelling evidence that only by expunging the Commune could Thiers establish the Third Republic. The bloodshed — in the view of several modern scholars (including the present speaker) greatly exaggerated by the subject’s partisans — was necessary and justified. The building of the Sacré Coeur was not an act of expiation but a celebration of the glorious triumph of the Church.

Dr Okołowicz felt her chest tighten. Her breathing quickened. She felt she must quit the meeting at once or become very ill. She stood up, drank a glass of water in the kitchen, walked through into the bedroom and stared at her face. Partisan, she said. So be it. Seating herself before the screen she faced the plausible young man in Warsaw and gave him her cold attention. She heard him out. He had an elderly, patient manner. He seemed assured that his audience would agree with him, if not at once then after mature reflection. As soon as he was done, not waiting for the questions, certainly not wishing to ask any or enter into any discussion, Dr Okołowicz logged off.

She would work; work late; answer back quickly and with the needed edge. The elderly young man had clarified her purpose. She set the small kitchen table, lit her candle, prepared her supper, as she always did, with due love and care. And seated at the open window, scents from her herbs on the sill, birdsong from the rooftops, dusk, a pale-green sky, slowly she ate her simple meal and sipped the red wine with her usual feeling of ceremony.

She had grown to love her solitude and her rituals. They helped. Daily she kept up with the world-wide toll of infections and deaths. She heard men and women experts in such sickness admit the limits of their knowledge. Often she phoned Gdańsk to give and receive reassurance. And that evening more than ever she was glad of her own undertaking: what she had taken on, what she must do. She sat longer than usual, listening to nightfall; and suddenly very tired, with no feeling of guilt, she cleared away the supper things and went to bed. Slept better than she had during all the weeks of the Sickness so far, and woke wondering at this passage through the night without dreams or travail. I can do it, she said to herself. I shall be able to write what needs to be written.

Day after day she wrote pell-mell. Mornings, she scribbled it fast in a script only she could read; late afternoon and early evening very slowly (chapter and verse for every assertion and illustration, should she be asked) she made it legible and intelligible in Times New Roman on the screen.

Her occasion came. She began by thanking last week’s speaker, her compatriot, for clarifying her responsibility. She would be the antithesis to his thesis and would not be suggesting any synthesis, compromise, middle way. It was her view or his. Marx got it right, she said: “Thiers, that deformed dwarf, has spellbound the French bourgeoisie for more than half a century because he is the most perfect expression possible of the depravity of their class.” Only once, she continued, did he speak truthfully, and that was when he announced that he would be merciless. Otherwise he lied and lied.

His soldiers followed suit, promptly executing communards who had been told they should surrender and would not be harmed. One officer, when the boy he was about to shoot begged three minutes reprieve, to take his silver watch to his mother (so that she would have something she might sell for food), and promised to return, was touched and let him go, not expecting to see him again. But three minutes later the boy returned, placed himself quickly against the wall, and was shot.

These anecdotes, she said. You might make “teaching plays” from them, view the matter this way and that, distinguish better and worse behaviour. Bismarck and Thiers are an ugly but instructive couple, she said. They had a common interest: the suppression of the labouring class that was beginning to make demands. Thiers would lead in his country. Bismarck would aid and abet. He released thousands of French prisoners-of-war to fight for Thiers. His own troops, after the cease-fire still encircling Paris, held the ring; which in practice, once the struggle was well begun, meant penning the Commune in at the mercy of their merciless compatriots. The class war was more urgent than war between nations. Wars between nations could be postponed.

She spoke of the modernity of the Commune and its repression. Thiers advanced his troops along the railways; iron-clad locomotives brought both sides’ guns to bear. The Freemasons, declaring for the Commune, scattered manifestoes from a hot-air balloon. Newspaper correspondents, and they were many, could send in their reports to London or New York by telegraph. Thiers himself made great use of this resource: to send false news into the French provinces, to defame the Commune, deny its few victories.

At a time when the first attempts were being made, in Geneva, to agree some few conventions for the conduct of war, this between the classes was fought by Thiers with all the licence of St Bartholomew’s Day. Yet he was forever publicly denouncing the Communards for acts “contrary to the laws of war.” His soldiers fired at the ambulances; and at the cantinières, killing many, as they tended the wounded.

His firing-squads, having an exhausting amount of killing to do, might use machine-guns, newly invented and inefficient (being only several rifle-barrels fastened together), for a change. Some executioners became so weary they could scarcely lift their weapons and would support the muzzles actually against the chests of the condemned. When it was over, Thiers announced: “The cause of justice, order, humanity and civilization has triumphed.”

She paused. Addressing a screen and some few of an audience in rows in little boxes, though she had done it several times before, suddenly seemed to her strange beyond belief. Continuing, she felt her voice to be almost a thing apart from her uneasy self. I want us to look more closely now at the reality of this triumph, she said.

True, she said, besiegers in the past have not cared much for the civilians locked in behind the walls. Since Troy, getting in has brought with it slaughter, rape and looting and Thiers’ men did all three abundantly. From the heights around Paris first Bismarck’s forces then, as they advanced towards the centre, Thiers’ bombarded whatever they pleased with their artillery. Whole quartiers on a small and local scale looked much like Mosul. The village of Neuilly was reduced to rubble.

When it was over, many who came up from the cellars after three weeks hungering in the dark were raving mad. Long cannonades caused the atmosphere to thicken, darken and pour with rain. Much street fighting was done in a noxious fog among black trees with broken limbs. And Paris has a city beneath the streets. Retreating communards fled through the Montrouge quarries. The tunnels in there were packed with corpses. A couple of thousand fighters were never accounted for. Weeks later, stray madmen appeared in daylight and seemed, witnesses say, to be looking for something. Further north Thiers’ soldiers hunted with dogs and bayonets down the skull-lined alleys of the Catacombs, for any survivors.

I speak of the city’s subterranean life and death, she said, but must not forget her heights and cleaner air, her sunny places from where the gunners, stripped to the waist, launched their explosives into the narrow streets and the lower cemeteries. Quite a ploughing up of the already dead was done in those final days, and the still living, the about-to-die, mangled and broken, hour by hour were added to their number.

But chiefly those heights, Chaillot, Mont-Valérien, Passy, in those days of May will be remembered as platforms at the disposal of Thiers’ bourgeoisie, the class this war was for, to watch the infliction of death and maiming on fellow humans down below. Yes, they drove up there with picnics, spyglasses and the necessary servants and viewed with glee or shivers of delightful horror the entertainment, he, their compere and epitome, day by day laid on. It was theatre — better than theatre! The dying were really dying and the dead were really dead.

In the wealthier arrondissements, in the south and west, which Thiers’ invaders cleared first, the lights came on again and in cafés, restaurants, clubs and brothels the capital resumed its amusements. Long before the cobbles dug up for the barricades had been replaced and the corpses had been removed, the liberated wealthier citizens were out en masse and enjoying themselves. If they paid attention, they could hear the bombardments continuing in the north, and must nearby, whether they attended or not, hear surrendering or captured fighters for the Commune being shot.

Beginning to prepare this talk, she said, I was at first astonished that even those people could be amid such irreconcilables and not disintegrate. But then, collecting countless instances of bourgeois delight in the vilification, torment and mass killing of their class enemy, I saw that their hatred was implacable and their desire for vengeance beyond all measure. Vae victis! Woe to the defeated! Now the victors will do as they please with them.

Dead communards left at the barricades with their képis covering their faces had these masks of pity and respect lifted on the points of parasols by well-dressed perfumed ladies who wanted to take a look. Dead communardes were exposed. Having de-natured themselves they had got what they deserved. Le Figaro countered any pity for them by asserting that most before becoming insurgents had been whores. Their betters lined the narrow streets to mock and beat with canes and spit at prisoners not yet shot being conducted to the designated wall.

Later when the summary executions ceased and the many further killings were being decided by the bourgeois courts, those people flocked to the trials with opera glasses and lorgnettes as to the theatre. They were a noisy audience. They applauded good performances. And when the time came they screamed their verdicts: The wall! To the wall! And the judges nodded. Occasionally, it is true, there were complaints that the judgements were too summary. Spectators wanted the proper to and fro, the for and against, a bit of suspense, a passage of courtroom drama. And indeed the prosecution had so many lives at their disposal they could allow a surprise or two now and then. Defence and prosecution counsels dined together, needless to say.

The bourgeois mind, she said, was well expressed and is preserved for ever in the diaries of one J. Audéoud. 21 May he watched eight communards being shot: “What hovels, what sewers, what jails could have spewed forth these ferocious brutes? How the honest man’s heart delights to see them lying there, riddled with bullets, befouled and rotting! The stink of their corpses is an odour of peace, and if the all-too-sensitive nostrils revolt, the soul rejoices…. All of us wish to see them die in torment.”

And the daily press was the public voice of that hatred. It is the usual way: hating, deny the people you hate are human. Speak of them as “the most frightful monsters ever seen in the history of humanity” (Moniteur universel). The rest follows: “Hunt them!” (Le Bien public). “Make an end of this international democratic vermin” (Le Figaro). And a British publication, the Naval and Military Gazette, 27 May 1871: “We are of the opinion that hanging is too good a death for such villains to die, and if medical science could be advanced by operating upon the living bodies of the malefactors who have crucified their country, we at least should find no fault with the experiment.”

At this point whether by some interference in transmission or whether, unconsciously, she had changed the settings herself, all faces vanished from the screen except her own. She was staring at, and for all she knew addressing, only herself. Then something gave way in her, a barrier of resilience perhaps, and she saw that what she had exposed herself to she could not bear. Quit now, at once, that would have been sensible. Switch off, leave the room, go to bed. But a voice, good angel or bad, said, Do what you said you’d do. Tell what you have learned. Unclearly she felt the injunction applied whether she still had an audience or must finish the commission anyway just for the mirrored face.

Faces, she said, here are my present thoughts on faces in the context of the Paris Commune’s Semaine sanglante. Many condemned walked proudly to the wall and turned to face their compatriots about to kill them. Many unbuttoned their tunics and their shirts, baring the breast. Aim there, they said. Try not to hit my face. For the face, she said, is where the living soul of man, woman and child is shown. Your face speaks for you whether you move your lips and tongue and utter words or not. Disfiguring a face is an offence against the holy of holies.

So the communards upright against the wall and about to be silenced asked as the last request of one human being to another that their faces be left unharmed to show what they had been and thus to speak for them a brief while longer. Eugène Varlin, that decent man, born into a peasant family, becoming by his own hard work a master bookbinder in the capital city, organizer of resistance among the labouring poor, passionate advocate of the rights of women, by the time he reached the wall he had no face, civilians and the military, his fellow human beings, having hacked it to a pulp along the way. One eye was hanging out. At the wall he could not stand, they had to shoot him kneeling.

They battered his dead body with their rifle butts. Male and female citizens came to spit on it. Many at the wall had been made unrecognizable when they fell. Or an officer would  kneel and blow a head to bits with his pistol. Was it always a coup de grâce? Or was he censoring the telling look of a dead man’s face? One captain is reported to have stirred a man’s spilled brains with the toe of his boot. This is what they thought with, he observed.

In Père-Lachaise, the communards’ last cover was the tombs. Street fighting of a sort, being driven back from house to house, hand-to-hand inside sepulchral vaults roomier than their lodgings in Belleville. Their corpses made a new stratum upon the long-buried dead. So many dead, she murmured, they were two metres high on the floors of cellars, dumps of them in public gardens and in the ruins of the cobbled impasses. Much blood. Half a dozen women fighters, corralled at the foot of their fallen barricade, at dusk, thirsting, begging their captors for water, were directed to crawl to a nearby puddle.

The first, kneeling, lifting her cupped hands to her lips, spat the liquid out. It was their comrades’ blood they were given to drink. Strange sacrament. Blood ran from under closed doors across the streets, the officers’ horses slipped and skidded in it, by gutters and sewers it found its way into the river. La Liberté, 31 May, reported: “On the Seine may be seen a long trail of blood following the course of the water and passing under the second arch from the side of the Tuileries. This trail never stopped.”

Carters with muffled faces transported the dead (and among them the not-quite-dead) to holding places. If they hadn’t been robbed before they were robbed there. Looting the outlawed dead was allowed. Their boots were prized. How white the bare feet of corpses looked, so forlorn. The poor, still poor, in the filthy trade of shifting corpses, took what they could, to sell and live off for a while. But often the better class, present at the killings, were given first pick, took what they liked and not for the market value but as souvenirs. An editor of Le Figaro, for example, having watched the execution of Émile Duval (he stood against the wall beneath the caption “Duval, gardener”) took away his bloodstained collar. Mementoes, trophies, relics, to put under glass in a sunlit lounge and show to visitors and educate the children with?

Rioters in Paris, France during the last days of the Paris Commune of 1871. Illustration from the century edition of Cassell’s History of England, (ca. 1900) (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

When the shooting had nearly ceased, she whispered, and really it should have been possible to get back to normal and enjoy life again, a pervasive and increasing stench became annoying and disquieting. The restored authorities were instructed to do something about it, quickly. But it was hard labour. The city demanded to be disburdened of thousands of cadavers, many losing all solidity. Masked men walked with sacks meanwhile and broadcast chlorine, like sickened blossom, on them.

Thorough search of doorways, stairways, cellars, and ruins, the feeding places of countless rats. The weather, hot, favoured the exponentially breeding flies. Swallows fell from the invisible blue sky. The summer sun warmed the earth and the dead in the earth. The shallow earlier and hurried interments were heaving their contents into the daylight. It was an audible phenomenon, a sort of groaning. An arm, a leg, a head of hair appeared. Some had been covered over still alive, their desperate faces showed it.

Crows perched on fragile walls, waiting. Dogs, disowned, ran hither and thither in starving packs. The stench grew closer and closer to that of pestilence. Three hundred defeated men and women of Buttes Chaumont, a neighbourhood of last resistance, had been flung into its lakes and rose now bloated and making noises. They were salvaged and mounded in a vast pyre, doused in petrol and set fire to. This hecatomb burned for days, its stinking smoke lay over their former dwellings. Much of Paris inhaled the stink of massacre. For the ladies, pretty masks became available.

Prisoners still awaiting trial outside the city were confined underground, a barred aperture above them letting in less than the bare minimum of light and air. There they were compressed into one dense tangle. The living and the dead together coagulated. Same, and worse, in hulks at the ports. Same in the pens and cages for those to be transported. It was housing more crowded than anything in the city’s slums.

Comes a point, I suppose, she said, when the judges, the priests, the generals, and even the common soldiers ordered to thrust with the bayonet or fire at the least disorder, comes a point when these more or less sentient agents cease thinking of their captives as fellow human beings. The filth, the stench, the sheer mass and inchoate pile of them, all imaginable distortions of limbs and facial features, speechless, muttering, screaming in tongues no person who was free and clean could understand. Worse than animals, screaming. Worse than clods of muck when they gave up making sounds and lay or stood or squatted as allowed in a mute apathy. The faces, the faces… No one in charge wanted those faces lodging in his brain, visible for ever in the mind’s eye dreaming, there for ever as spectators when your pretty children run to you for kisses in the morning. But I do them a kindness if I suppose they were ever haunted by those faces.

She had intended to finish her talk with a few brave, glorious and hopeful things but her voice deserted her. She gazed mutely at her own face in the mirroring screen and had in her head — saw them — the numberless faces of men and women and their children, disfigured, made unrecognizable, pleading for recognition.

She closed her laptop and went to bed. Slept at once, on some deep level fearing that if she contemplated her experience it would undo her. In the small hours she was woken by sirens and saw the blue lights travelling across the ceiling of her room. Just past her tenement, they turned right into the rue Ramponneau and were gone. In the restored quiet she heard voices, shouts, footsteps, a crowd running, but her self-defence, her exhaustion, fended off even that and she slept.

She woke knowing what, for the immediate now, she must do. Made coffee, broke off a fistful of yesterday’s bread and opened her laptop. Her emails were numerous, several names she recognized as members of the study group. Did that mean they, invisible, had heard her? No matter. Quickly one after another she deleted them. There was a message from her mother which she saved without reading to answer cautiously later. Next she withdrew herself from all social media.

Still she was trusting an instinct to act from one step to the next. She showered, dressed in clothes she had not worn for some time, put aside the thin red scarf that had been the mark of her allegiance for so many weeks, and went down to the streets for fresh bread and provisions enough to get her in solitude through the day. Shocked to see that many buying and selling were masked, she bought a supply and there and then covered her face.