Gare de Lyon

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Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a wicked fairy whose curse had been broken.

She was most put out by this. It had been a good curse, one of her best, and the young girl who had broken it had been quite an ordinary sort of creature – a merchant’s daughter and something of a bookworm, with a liking for clockwork and roses. Not at all the sort of person one might expect to fall in love with a man who had the form and manner of a Beast; less still the sort of woman the wicked fairy would have imagined winning a Beast’s heart. And yet she had, and the Beast had been transformed and his castle restored, all before the wicked fairy could blink three times.

It was an annoyingly saccharine ending to an otherwise excellent curse.

But there was no use dwelling on it. The wicked fairy was wise enough to know when it was time to let go of a story, and that time had come. All this doting was making her ill. Also, the erstwhile Beast was showing signs of wanting to find out who had placed the curse on him in the first place, and that would not do.

And so, one fine morning, the wicked fairy resigned her job as housekeeper at the castle (she had found that curses were more effective and far more enjoyable if she stayed close by to monitor them), and walked out the front gate into a new world.

 ***

The world was very new, the wicked fairy soon realised. Much had changed since she had first cursed the beast. Roads had been built where none had been before, and the canal system had been extended and modernised. Most surprising of all, an entire network of railways had sprung up, connecting towns and cities across France. Such things had been unimaginable when the wicked fairy had first entered the Beast’s castle, but in only a hundred and fifty years they had become very nearly routine, and there was even talk of a new underground railway system in Paris itself.

The wicked fairy did not approve of this at all. Fairies are not fond of iron, and technology is, in any case, inimical to magic.

She decided to go to Paris to see what she could do.

 ***

The wicked fairy had lived in a house in Faubourg Saint-Antoine once, not far from the foundling hospital. She had bequeathed it to a fictitious great-great-grand-daughter of the same name before she had left – if one intends to supervise a curse for a century or so, one must plan ahead – and the key was still in her apron pocket. She would live there for a while, and discover the lay of the land.

But Paris, when she reached it, was nearly unrecognisable.

For one thing, it started far sooner than she had expected. Villages and farms that had once been outside the city walls were now mere suburbs, and somewhere along the way, someone had torn down most of Paris’s medieval buildings and streets and replaced them with wide boulevards and spacious new apartments. Every single one of her favourite skulking locations was gone.

And it was full – there were people everywhere, talking about some grand exhibition, and arguing about the aesthetic merits of an iron tower that had been built for the occasion. More people sat in cafés, arguing about politics. The wicked fairy took a table within convenient eavesdropping range, and listened with a frown. Most seemed to be arguing about a man called Dreyfus, but others were discussing the recent election. France had apparently abandoned the idea of royalty since the wicked fairy had last been in the world, and there had been a bewildering number of wars and revolutions for such a short period of time.

The wicked fairy was beginning to think that she had been less than wise to spend half the eighteenth century and all of the nineteenth holed up in a castle, far from the world. She should, at least, have arranged for some sort of access to newspapers or broadsheets.

Making a note to disguise herself as a student and get her hands on some recent histories, the wicked fairy left the café, and continued on her route.

Faubourg Saint-Antoine was busy, and as she approached the street where she used to live, she could hear hammering, and men shouting and a mechanical sort of clacking – the sounds of building, she realised. She turned the corner, and stopped short.

The Foundling Hospital was gone. Her home was gone. Where they had once stood was a large building built of pale stone, with plaster moldings, large arched windows, and a steep slate roof. The builders were working on a tower at the western end.

A few people had stopped to watch the construction works.

“C’est magnifique,” one man murmured to the woman on his arm.

She shrugged. “Oui, mais ce n’est que la gare,” she replied, and they walked on.

The wicked fairy seethed. A railway station, and on her land.

It was insupportable.

Grimly, she strode forward. She could feel the iron tracks now, close enough to prickle at her skin, but she ignored the discomfort. A man stepped in front of her and clasped her arm.

“Madame, you may not walk here. There are construction works.”

The wicked fairy shook him off. “By whose leave are you building this station?”

The man’s brows went up, but he answered politely enough. “By order of the government, I suppose. It is to be completed in time for the Exposition Universelle.”

“And what of the people who lived here before?

“Madame, nobody has lived in this place for years. We are merely replacing the station that was already here with something more fitting to the occasion. Now, I must ask you to move further away. It is dangerous to stand here.”

The wicked fairy’s lips were tight. “And yet you stand here.”

The man’s smile became a little patronising. “I am a builder, Madame. It is my job to work on this new railway station, and to keep others away while the builders are using their cranes. Now, please, stand back from here. You would not wish for something to fall on you.”

“You misunderstand me,” she said.

“Perhaps I do, but you must still move away from here.”

He took her arm again, more firmly, and propelled her backward. She did not resist. It was better to be further away from the iron, she thought.

“What is your name, young man?” she asked.

The man laughed. “Léon le Maçon, Master Builder, at your service, Madame, though I’ve not been called young this decade.”

The wicked fairy smiled. She could not make a true Beast, not with so much iron around her, but she was not without power, even here. She caught Léon le Maçon’s gaze and held it.

“Léon by name, Lion you now shall be
Bound to this form and place eternally
Until a true love’s kiss shall set you free.”

The air shimmered in front of her, and when it cleared, the tawny-haired builder was gone, replaced by a medium-sized lion with a reproachful look on its face.

“Much better,” she said, and walked away.

 ***

Paris in 1900 was a modern, civilised city. Its inhabitants were well-educated, enlightened, scientific.   So modern was Paris that it was hosting an Exposition Universelle to welcome and celebrate the coming century and showcase the new technologies of the modern era.

It was simply not possible that such a city could have a lion living in one of its railway stations. Nobody could believe such a thing. Such a story must be superstition – a fairy tale, or a story to frighten children.

There was, therefore, no lion living at the Gare de Lyon. There was a cat, certainly, who lived with the stationmaster – a large and rather beautiful animal that had simply appeared at his door one day while the new station was under construction – but cats and railways have gone together since the first railway line was constructed, and there is nothing unusual about this. It is true that this particular cat was very large and tawny; it is true that he ate more than was reasonable for a cat of his size; it is true, too, that the smaller children stared big-eyed at him and sometimes hid behind their mothers – but what of that? Lions do not live in railway stations, ergo, this was no lion.

 ***

In the meantime, the disappearance of Léon le Maçon had been noticed. His fellow builders even went as far as to speak to the gendarmes about the woman who had been seen speaking to him shortly before his disappearance, but she could not be found. The wicked fairy had not wished to stay too close to the railway station, with its many iron rails, and in any case, her appearance never stayed the same for long.

The investigation was abandoned.

Léon the lion observed all of this rather sadly. He could, he had quickly realised, understand the conversations that took place around him – indeed, this appeared to be the case regardless of what language was being spoken – but he could not speak for himself. He watched as his friends finished their building work, mourned his loss, and moved on to other building sites. He prowled along the station platforms as new lines took passengers to new destinations, in France and beyond. And in the evening, he sat by the stationmaster’s fire, listening to his one-sided conversations about politics, the railways, the woman he loved but could not bring himself to speak to, and the state of his joints.

Occasionally, Léon amused himself by answering the man’s monologues as if they truly were conversing. “Yes,” he would say, “the Dreyfus affair certainly is dragging on. But why are you so certain that he is guilty? I hate to say this, my friend, since you are so kind to me, but you really should stop reading La Libre Parole. I do not believe its journalists are unbiased in this matter.” Or at another time, “But of a certainty she likes you, the lovely Suzanne! Why, she is even kind to me, and you know how she detests cats! Do not hesitate, my friend! Seize the day – and seize the woman!”

It was less entertaining than you might think.

(He did not permit the stationmaster to pat him. He was not a tame lion.)

From time to time, he would receive a visit from the wicked fairy. He recognised her by the smell of her magic, since she changed her appearance with every visit. She spoke to him too – embittered monologues about the home she had lost, about the future which had caught her unprepared, about the difficulties of doing magic in a world of iron and technology.

He could not find it in himself to sympathise.

 ***

Station cats do not live forever, and nor do stationmasters. The first time Léon disappeared into the tunnels, he was surprised at the stationmaster’s response when he returned. It seemed that he thought Léon an entirely new cat. After that, Léon made a point of disappearing every decade or so. He was not sure what the stationmasters thought they saw when they looked at him, but it was easier on everyone’s feelings if they thought that the station cat had a normal feline lifespan.

The first stationmaster retired shortly before the war, and his successor was not fond of cats. Léon was forced to hunt for food, which was distressing to his sensibilities, both aesthetic and ethical. He was opposed to killing, and rats are not the tastiest of animals. But starvation was unpleasant, the more so since he apparently could not die of it, and so he learned to do what he must. After the war started, he befriended the soldiers who embarked on the trains headed for the front, and became something of a mascot to them – a well-fed mascot, much to his satisfaction. Occasionally, he even rode on the trains – the spell permitted this, so long has he always returned to the Gare de Lyon by nightfall. He noticed that each soldier saw him differently – as a cat, always, but his build and colour seemed to vary, perhaps reflecting the cats of their childhoods.

The wicked fairy’s visits became more frequent after the war. Léon did not think that this was her preference. She no longer spoke to him when she visited.

The railway network continued to expand.

 ***

The wicked fairy did not like the Gare de Lyon. The iron rails made her skin sting and her head ache, until she could hardly hold on to her chosen appearance. And yet, she was drawn there, day after day. When she had bespelled Léon, her power had been sufficient to seal the curse, but the effect of being surrounded by iron day after day had weakened her magic. The curse needed her to be nearby – indeed, it compelled it – and with every year that passed, she was forced to spend more time in its proximity.

In 1950, Le Mistral began to run from the Gare de Lyon to Nice via Dijon, Lyon, Avignon and Marseille.

In 1952, the network was electrified.

In 1953, the wicked fairy took a job as a cleaner at the station. Every bone in her body ached when she entered the station each day, but it was the only way to keep the curse from draining her entirely.

The wicked fairy began to consider how to break the curse.

 ***

The wicked fairy was torturing Léon with children. Well, not children, perhaps, but they might as well be. Léon had been forty when he was transformed into a lion; he’d lived more than fifty years since then. Eighteen-year-old girls might as well be children as far as he was concerned. They cooed over him and tried to pick him up (he always slipped away before they could get a grip on him – the desire to see a cat where there was a lion was a powerful thing, but not powerful enough to overcome the laws of physics), and kissed his head and tried to rub his ears and make a fuss of him.

He climbed the clock tower to get away from them.

The wicked fairy followed him. She moved slowly, he saw, as though her joints hurt her. Well and good – she deserved to suffer after cursing him like this.

She stopped halfway up the steps. “Will you come down from there?”

Léon would not.

She sighed. “I’m trying to help you, you stupid creature.”

Léon doubted it.

“Very well. ‘Come to me, and do not stray, until I’ve said what I must say.’”

Léon found his paws moving without his consent, padding down the staircase to sit at the wicked fairy’s feet. It was a sad reflection on the nature of magic that such doggerel could compel him against his will, and he tried to communicate this with ears and tail.

His efforts were wasted. The wicked fairy had sunk down to sit on the step beside him, her head in her hands. He turned his back on her, pointedly.

“You look exactly like a disgruntled housecat when you do that,” she muttered. He ignored her.

“Listen. I need to break this curse before it kills me. I’m doing my best with those girls, but you aren’t giving me any help. I realise that you can’t speak, but could you at least pretend to like them?”

Léon said nothing.

The wicked fairy waved a hand at him weakly. “’Think to me, your words I’ll hear, as though you whispered in my ear.’ Foxglove and hemlock, that hurts.”

Serves you right, Léon thought.

“Probably, but it’s in your interests too, so you might as well cooperate.”

Léon thought about that. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t mind being a lion. And you clearly do mind being stuck here.

“I do. And so should you. The curse is draining me, and I can’t stop it, and I have no idea what happens to you if we don’t break it before it drains me completely.”

Perhaps it is worth it to get my revenge.

“You want me to believe that you’ve been stewing and waiting to avenge yourself for fifty years?”

Why not? It’s what you would do.

“True. But you aren’t me. You don’t even like killing rats, for goodness’ sake! Look – I’m doing my best here. I’m sending you women who really, really love cats, and they all adore you. But you have to let one of them kiss you to break the spell.”

Léon turned his head to look at her. She seemed to mean it.

I thought the spell required true love.

“They really, really, love cats.”

Léon thought about that, and shuddered.

But I don’t love them.

“Try.”

 ***

Léon did try. But not very hard. He had been telling the truth – after all these years, he didn’t mind being a lion. He’d been a lion now for longer than he had been a human.

And besides, he was pretty sure the wicked fairy’s plan wasn’t going to work anyway. The spell had specified a true love’s kiss. Even if he loved one of the girls who threw themselves at him, how could they truly love him if they could not even see through their own beliefs and wishes to recognise that he was a lion? To say nothing of his true form…

After the third unsuccessful kiss, he cornered the wicked fairy in one of the ticket offices after hours. Her hair was beginning to thin, and there were lines of pain on her face.

“What now?” she said, wearily.

Léon gave her a sarcastic look. She sighed. “Think to me of what you will, though you are mute, I’ll hear you still.’” She closed her eyes.

You are a terrible poet.

The wicked fairy opened her eyes to glare at him. “If you came here just to insult my poetry, I swear by all I hold dear that I will end you.”

Léon doubted that, but it didn’t seem to be the time to argue.

It’s not going to work.

“Why not?”

They don’t love me. They don’t even love lions. They love cats, and I am not a cat.

“Lions are cats.”

Hardly. Also, they are far too young. If I were transformed back into myself – even myself on the day you cursed me – they would think me appallingly old.

The wicked fairy did not argue this point, he noticed.

Besides, your curse can only be broken with a true lover’s kiss. None of this is true love.

The wicked fairy’s shoulders slumped. “You have a point.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

“I don’t suppose you could love me?” she asked, quietly.

Léon growled before he could stop himself, and the wicked fairy scrambled hastily away from him. He stalked towards her, shock transforming to anger. It was surprisingly enjoyable having someone he could actually intimidate with his lion form.

You cursed me. No. I do not love you.

She stepped back again. “I know, and I’m sorry. I truly am. I was wrong, and I was cruel, and I regret it.”

Léon prowled forward again, backing her up until she was against the wall of the ticket booth. His nose pressed against her torso, and he could smell her fear.

You regret it only because it is hurting you.

The wicked fairy nodded. “Yes.”

And it would not matter if I loved you, because you do not love me.

She nodded again. “True.”

Léon felt a tiny, unexpected stab of disappointment. He did not actually want the wicked fairy to love him. But it would have been nice to have a hope of breaking the curse.

He turned, and prowled away.

 ***

It became a routine at the end of her cleaning shifts. The wicked fairy would find Léon wherever he was patrolling, and they would speak.

Sometimes, she would bring him food.

Always, she would ask him, “Léon, could you love me?”

Always, he would answer, “No. I cannot.”

More years passed.

 ***

The wicked fairy could no longer work as a cleaner. Her bones hurt too much, and the magic stung her skin like nettles.

Yet she could not leave the station.

She sat on a corner of the platform, where lovers greeted and parted, and sold roses. Her hands were so stiff that they could hardly grasp the flowers.

Léon did not like the wicked fairy. Nor was he yet prepared to forgive her for what she had done to him. He certainly could not love her.

But he had begun to pity her.

 ***

The weather grew colder, and the wicked fairy grew frailer, as the iron and her own spell began to consume her.

Every night, she would curl up in a corner to sleep, like one of the homeless women who begged for coins outside the station.

As autumn drew in to winter, Léon left his comfortable place on the rug by the stationmaster’s fire, and stretched out beside the wicked fairy as she slept, keeping her warm with his body heat. She smelled of roses and of old regrets.

She did not ask him if he could love her.

She did not bid him speak to her.

But in the morning, so quietly he could nearly imagine he had not heard it, she thanked him.

 ***

On the shortest day of the year, the wicked fairy spoke her spell over him one final time. “Think to me on any day, I’ll hear you though you’re far away.’”

Are we speaking again, then?

The wicked fairy smiled at him. It looked like it hurt. “For a little while only. I don’t have much time left, I think.”

Léon thought she was right. She was hardly more than skin and bone these days, and there was something in her breathing, even when she slept, that sounded painful.

I’m sorry.

“Thank you. You have been kind to me, these last months. I wish I knew what would become of you when I die and the curse fails.”

Perhaps I will be myself again.

The wicked fairy laughed a little. “That might be the cruelest curse of all, you know. I was out of the world for a hundred and fifty years with my last spell, and when I returned, everything had changed. You’ve only been here seventy years or so, but the world spins faster with every year that passes. There may be no place in it for you.”

Perhaps I shall be a stationmaster. I know that job well enough.

“Perhaps.” She was silent for a long time before she spoke again.

“I shouldn’t have cursed you. It wasn’t your fault that my home was gone, and I had no place in the world.”

You should not have cursed me. But I forgive you.

They sat in silence for a long while.

“If I had not cursed you, you might have married, and had a family. You might have had children and grandchildren, and the sort of love that breaks spells.”

Léon did not love the wicked fairy. He was not even sure whether he liked her. But she was dying, and he was the only one here who might comfort her.

Had you not cursed me, I might have married and had a family. And then my son would have come of age during the Great War, and my daughter’s son come of age during the war that followed. I might have outlived son and grandson, which is the greatest curse of all.

Had you not cursed me, I would be long dead by now.  I would have witnessed wars, but not the peace that followed them. I would have witnessed the devastation of the Spanish flu, but not the miracle of antibiotics.  I would have witnessed the dropping of the first atomic bomb, but not men flying to the moon.

There are many things I would never had known, had you not cursed me.

The wicked fairy laughed again. “You are a philosopher, my friend. I will not ask you again if you can love me. How can I, since I don’t love you? But there is friendship between us, I think. Let me kiss you farewell, and hope that if love cannot restore you, friendship can yet preserve you.”

She could not easily reach up to him, and so Léon bowed his head to the wicked fairy, and she kissed his forehead.

And as she did so, nothing changed.

Not for Léon.

As for the wicked fairy, she began to cough.

She coughed, and coughed again, uncontrollably, and the cough became a roar, and her hair grew longer and more tawny, and her limbs grew thick and strong and furred, and her eyes rounder, and her teeth sharper, and her nose flatter, and before Léon could blink three times, the wicked fairy was gone, and a lioness reclined in her place.

Well, that was unexpected, she said.

Are you alright? asked Léon.

The lioness stretched, and rolled onto her side.  Better than I’ve been in years. There is iron all around me, and I don’t hurt.

I am glad.

There seemed to be nothing more to stay.

High above them, the clock struck six, and Léon slitted his eyes in a smile. Perhaps there was one more thing, after all.

Come with me. It’s time for breakfast.

 ***

The stationmaster at the Gare de Lyon smiled as two large cats crossed the platform towards him. One of them was very familiar, though he had been missing from his place by the stationmaster’s fire for the past few weeks.

The other was unknown.

He bent down, smiling. “Hello Léon! Come for your breakfast, have you? And who’s this then? A friend of yours? A girlfriend, perhaps? Well, I don’t suppose being eaten out of house and home by two cats is any worse than being eaten out of house and home by one. Come on then, Léon. Come, Léonie. Let’s see if you like chicken mince…”

 ***

Paris is a modern city.  It is proud of its history, but it looks forward to the future, not back at the past. Its population is diverse, cultured, rational.  The Pasteur Institute can be found in Paris, and the Curie Institute; the Institute of Astrophysics and the Laboratoire d’Informatique; and many, many another institution of science and learning. Paris is a city that values science, and scientific thought.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that a city such as this would have a pair of lions living in one of its railway stations.

Or roaming the Métro system.

Or riding the TGV.

Almost as ridiculous as to imagine that a lion might come to love the wicked fairy who cursed him, and that she might come to love him in return.

 ***

The stationmaster at the Gare de Lyon keeps two cats as pets.  They are beautiful animals, large and tawny, and highly intelligent.

They will not let you pat them.

 ***

It would be ridiculous to suggest that a railway station, even so grand a railway station as the Gare de Lyon, might be home to a pair of lions.

But sometimes, when you are standing on the platform, the rumble of the approaching train sounds very much like the roar of a lion.

 

station

Lions, Stations, Beauties and Beasts

The Gare de Lyon is one of the six large railway termini in Paris.  In addition to serving national and international rail services, it is connected to lines A and D of the RER, and is also a station on two Métro lines, lines 1 and 14.  The Gare de Lyon can be found in the 12th arondissement, just north of the Seine.  The current station was built in 1900, for the Exposition Universelle (World Exhibition), but in fact the Gare de Lyon existed before this time, just in a less architecturally pleasing form.  The original Gare de Lyon station was opened in 1847, and gained its name from the trainline that ran from this station to the city of Lyon.

The town of Lyon was originally known as Lugudunon, after the Celtic light god, Lug, who has little, if anything, to do with lions. Due to changes in language and pronunciation, the town eventually gained its current name in the early Middle Ages. Lyon means lion in medieval French, and the town adopted a lion rampant as their seal and added it to their coat of arms in the 13th century, so as far as I’m concerned, this gives me free reign to associate the town with as many lions as I choose.  The modern French word for lion is in fact léon, which is probably why the wicked fairy was able to transform Léon so easily, despite her weakened magic.

The story of Beauty and the Beast is, I think, familiar to most people. The first published version of this story was written in 1740 by Gabrielle Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and since then, just about everyone has had a turn with the story. Evidently, the wicked fairy was previously the antagonist in such a tale, and this is clearly her favourite sort of spell!

The picture of the woman with the lion is by Arthur Rackham, and was painted in 1909 to illustrate the fairy tale The Lady and the Lion.  The lion reclining is by Théodore Géricault circa 1820, and the lioness is by Herbert Dicksee circa 1914.

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3 thoughts on “Gare de Lyon

    1. Catherine Post author

      Hooray, someone got my terrible, terrible joke! I must admit, I wasn’t entirely convinced that the joke added a lot to the story, but once I thought of it, I could not *possibly* resist the opportunity…

      Reply
      1. Catherine Post author

        Come to think of it, that really should have been ‘mais ce n’est que la gare’. I’m going to fix that…

        Reply

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