Saint-Michel

4

The archangel Michael does not look much like his statues.  Not the one in the Fontaine Saint Michel, certainly, though Michael has always liked the different colours of marble, despite what people say.  Not the gilded one on the spire of Mont Saint Michel, either, with the dragon that is far too small and too pretty to be a real threat.  Not even the one in the Église Saint-Pierre, even though it has a much better dragon.  The one at the Basilica de Guadalupe isn’t bad, though Michael is a little concerned about the nipples showing through his breastplate, but the one at the Cathédrale des Sts-Michel-et-Gudule is just terrible – you’d never win a battle against a dragon if you wore a cloak like that, which is presumably why the dragon on which the figure is standing looks like a not-particularly-unfriendly crocodile and is about the size of a cat.

Michael’s favourite statue is the one in the Cimitière Picpus, which has a nice, workmanlike look to it, as though the effigy deals with such pests as Satan as a matter of course, and then goes off to weed the garden with equal effectiveness in the afternoon.  But even the Picpus statue isn’t quite right.  It is, at least, a bit more broadly built than the other Saints-Michel, and the wavy hair is good, but no angel ever wears wings on the street, and it’s a rare day in Paris when sandals are a practical option.  Especially for gardening. Michael is rather fond of gardening.

An archangel can look however he pleases, of course, but mostly it pleases Michael to fit in.  He likes to be just another working man wandering the streets of Paris, rubbing shoulders with Charlotte Corday one day and Christine de Pizan the next, and maybe having a good argument with Jean-Paul Sartre or Titus Labienus over bad Lutetian wine or good Parisian chocolat chaud.  If you saw him, you might take him for a retired soldier, or perhaps a farmer or a builder – a quiet man of around forty, with an air of authority, tall and fair and stockily built, like a descendant of the Parisii, with the shoulders of a labourer, and a ruddy, friendly face, unremarkable except for a pair of flame-blue eyes.

There are a lot of stories about Michael, but most of them are not true, or not true as the tellers think they are.  It isn’t that he isn’t in stories, he just isn’t in the ones that people think they know.

He is in a lot of the others, though.

Michael is not the patron saint of Paris.  He leaves that to Geneviève, who is very good at what she does.  Michael likes Geneviève – Michael likes everybody, really – but he doesn’t want her job.  Kiev and Brussels keep him busy enough, he says, though Geneviève has suggested more than once that if he paid even half the attention to Bruxelles Centraal that he pays to the Paris Métro, far fewer travellers would find themselves on long-distance trains going in entirely the wrong direction through Belgium every day.  This is probably true, but Michael really likes Paris, and he has been fascinated by the Métro since they started building it, so he stays there when he can.  Also, he finds the whole business with Bruxelles Centraal pretty funny, though angels are not supposed to have a sense of humour.

For Michael, Paris is a city of many layers.  Walking through the streets of the city, he sees all its eras as one.  Under Michael’s gaze, Parisii hunters and fishermen and Lutetian citizens mingle with Louis XIV’s subjects, while the bourgeois of Louis-Philippe’s restored monarchy cross paths, all unknowing, with fierce Senone warriors, returned in triumph and wealth from the sacking of Rome.  Michael’s Paris is at once a collection of uninhabited islands, a thriving medieval city, a Roman town and a modern metropolis, and he slips from one layer to the next as easily as breathing.

Sometimes, Michael pauses for a while, living and working in one era for a year or for a decade.  He has been a gardener more than once; a gravedigger often (the dead have been his charge since before the first tribes settled on the Île de la Cité); even a priest for a few years, though he wasn’t very good at it.  Priests need to live in the same world as their parishioners, and Michael does not, and so his metaphors are always slightly off, his theology frequently from the wrong century.  He has been a builder of walls and of churches and of bridges; a collector of tariffs from ships transporting tin up the Seine from Cornwall; a hunter of wild boar; a fisherman; a potter; a blacksmith.

Each of these jobs has been satisfying in its own way, but they are not his true calling.  Michael was created to be a soldier.

Above all, he was created to fight the dragon.

Michael has never known what the dragon wants.  It hardly matters.  Wherever the dragon goes, destruction follows, and this is something that Michael cannot permit.  Sometimes, it seems that the dragon is in every time, every place that Michael sees – and perhaps he is.  The dragon perceives time much in the way Michael does, and is less scrupulous about who he disarranges in his passage.

Sometimes, the dragon is defeated, and retires to lick his wounds.  In those times, which pass like years or like minutes, Michael roams Paris at peace, drinking with friendly centurions and blacksmiths and pilgrims, joking in Latin or Gaulish or French with students and holy sisters and shopkeepers, eating at his favourite pâtisseries or feasting with the Parisii or at the King’s court.

Sometimes, the dragon is victorious, and then Michael walks through a Paris marked by war and disease, tyranny and revolution, by inundations and terrorist attacks, and, again and again, the sieges and invasions that haunt the city’s history.

The best times are the times when the dragon attacks Michael himself, and so Michael can have the pleasure of fighting the enemy directly.  Less pleasant are the times when he uses others for his attack, forcing Michael to hold back in his fighting, so as not to doom souls that should not yet be doomed.

Worst of all are the times when the dragon’s weapons are deadly to everyone but Michael himself, and Michael must stand miserable witness to the dragon’s cruelties, lacking the tools to fight them.

1918 – Paris, France

Michael is standing in a crowded train on the way back from the Front when the dragon strikes. Michael cannot – will not – belong to any earthly military force, but every army needs stretcher bearers and medics and ambulance drivers.  The dragon is swift, and by the time Michael has made his way through the crowds to where he can disappear unnoticed, it is too late – the Spanish flu has been seeded across Europe, and people are dropping like flies.  The pandemic that follows will kill more than 200,000 people in France alone, and millions more worldwide.

Michael stays in Paris for the duration, working first as a nurse, then as a gravedigger.  There is not a lot else he can do, aside from the occasional, subtle, healing.  The world is, in general, aware of the principles of contagion, and its science is not ready to create a cure for this particular disease.

The dragon wins this round, but Michael knows that this will not be the only battle in this particular war.

He watches for the next attack.

1347 – Marseilles, France

The Black Plague reaches France in 1347, when the country is again at war, this time against the English.  The King, while well-intentioned, is not equipped to deal with it – and really, who could be?   The contagion spreads too quickly, and there is no cure, no understanding of how it is spread, and those who are spared are viewed with suspicion and often suffer as a result.

Michael hates it when the dragon chooses pestilence as his weapon.  There is so little that he can do to fight it, especially in such a time as this, where the principles of contagion are so poorly understood, and cures nonexistent.  Michael is bound by strict laws – he can interfere only to nudge people in directions that they might have taken unassisted, and he must absolutely not interfere with their free will.

The dragon has no such restrictions.

It is better, at least for Michael, when the dragon chooses war, or famine, or persecution.  These are not clean fights, but at least Michael has weapons that he can wield in his charges’ defense.  He can influence leaders and their followers, ensure messages are received or lost, assist in escapes, even keep particular individuals from harm.

But pestilence – oh, pestilence is hard to fight.  And with pestilence comes despair, which is almost crueller than the sickness itself, since it infects both the afflicted and the survivors.

Michael knows that this battle is lost, but he fights it to the end regardless, protecting those who may be protected, comforting those who may be comforted, and seeing to the dead, both their mortal remains, and their souls, as is his duty.

And in the end, the world survives, as he always knew it must.  Those who survive even begin to thrive in the new economy created by this grotesque loss of life.

The battle is lost, but the war continues.

1870 – Paris, France

France is under siege by the Prussian army when the dragon strikes again.  War and disease go hand in hand, it seems – perhaps because it is easier for the dragon to seed an epidemic in a population that is already stretched to its limit, or perhaps because the dragon knows that Michael’s attention will be divided.

It is smallpox this time, and it spreads through the army like wildfire, and then proceeds into a population weakened by hunger and despair.

Michael is devastated – more than he should be, perhaps, but it has been a long war for him already, and even an archangel can grow tired.  More than devastated, he is infuriated at the injustice of this blow.  Smallpox is an old disease, and the dragon has beaten him with it before, but between variolation and the new vaccinations, this battle ought to have been easily won.  But a vaccination is only as effective as the people who take it, and it seems that it has fallen out of favour, both with the public and with army officials.

Frustrated, desperate for respite, both for himself and for his people, Michael looks around him, seeking someone or something who can change this defeat to victory.

In Lille, a chemist called Louis Pasteur has created an elegant experiment to prove that fermentation is caused by microorganisms, not spontaneous generation.  As Michael watches, Pasteur’s future unrolls before him.  Michael sees in this moment the birth of germ theory, the foundation of the Institute that bears Pasteur’s name, the advances in bacteriology, the cures created by Pasteur and his colleagues and those who will come after him.  He sees Pasteur’s public experiment in 1880, demonstrating the effectiveness of his anthrax vaccine, and how it galvanises public interest in vaccines.

He sees the man who can defeat the dragon, if only his work had started a little earlier.

And perhaps it can.  Michael slips back in time, to see what he can do.

1859 – Lille, France

By a horrible chance, Louis is away from home when his eldest daughter dies of typhoid.  At the funeral, he embraces his wife tightly, the baby between them, and she leans into him and does not pull away.

It does not help.

Marie may have forgiven him for his absence, but Louis cannot forgive himself.

A fortnight after Jeanne’s death, Louis is asked to give a public lecture in the town hall at Lille.  His recent work showing that yeast, not natural decay, is responsible for the fermentation of beer, has been attracting some interest in the community, and he is asked to explain it further for the lay people whose industry he serves.  Louis agrees to give the talk, and to take questions at the end.

Despite his grief, he finds himself once more beginning to feel the excitement of discovery as he speaks of his work.  A part of him loathes himself for this; another part of him is shamefully relieved – he may be a failure as a father, but at least he is still a scientist.

Louis walks home alone – Marie stayed with the children this evening – and he is perhaps a block from the town hall when he hears footsteps behind him.  Louis glances back, and finds his gaze caught by eyes that are like blue flames.  He looks away, uncomfortably, but the man strides forward, and begins to walk beside him.

“Can I help you sir?” he asks.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the man smile.  “I enjoyed your talk very much, sir.  My name is Michael Engelman, from Vienna, and I’m interested in these microorganisms of yours.  Do you think that they can be found anywhere, then?”

If curious laypeople can be found anywhere, then why not microorganisms?  Louis nods, then hesitates.  “Yes, and no.  I imagine that they are everywhere, but in numerous different kinds, and causing different processes to occur.  Presumably, different classes of microorganisms prefer different habitats, just as larger animals do.  Though a warm, humid environment appears to be preferable.”

Mr Engelman grimaces.  “And so when we drink beer, we are ingesting… what, living beings?  Or their by-products?  Or is it both?”

Louis surprises himself by laughing.  “You need not look so disgusted – they cannot possibly harm you.  Well, no more than beer might otherwise harm you, I suppose.”

“But you said that microorganisms prefer a warm, humid environment.  Surely the human body is just such an environment?  I can’t say I relish the idea of drinking something whose lifecycle involves chemically changing its environment when I am the environment in question.”

Louis is beginning to wonder if he will ever be able to drink beer again.  He keeps his voice dry.  “I think you can put your mind at rest.  The yeast that causes beer to ferment requires very specific foods, which it will not find in your gut.”

They walk in silence for a few minutes, while Engelman digests this.  Pasteur wonders what strange byproducts will come from this mental fermentation.  The other man speaks at last.  “What of other microorganisms, then?  Do you think the human body might be a hospitable environment for those?”

Louis purses his lips.  “You raise an interesting possibility.  I don’t see why not.  After all, the human body can already harbour other, larger organisms, such as lice or fleas or worms.  It is certainly theoretically possible that it might harbour smaller ones.”

Engelman seems to hesitate before speaking.  “I don’t suppose that you have heard of a man called Ignaz Semmelweis?  His opinions are… unpopular, but he thinks that doctors might be somehow infecting patients when they move between autopsy chambers and the wards.”

Something shifts in Louis’ mind, and his breath catches.  “Are you positing microorganisms on cadavers?  Microorganisms that might then cause disease in living bodies?”  With doctors – or indeed anyone who makes physical contact with a patient as a vector for disease… his mind begins to churn with new ideas, and he begins to stride more quickly toward his home, forgetting Engelman entirely.

Alone on a street in Lille, watching the scientist stride away from him, Michael sees the future change.  Pasteur leaves his job at Lille, and moves to Paris, to work on his new germ theory.  He is determined to discover the pathogens that cause human diseases – especially typhoid.  He promotes vaccinations against smallpox, and petitions Napoleon to give the vaccine his support.  Napoleon agrees, and publicly vaccinates himself and his family, before declaring that the French army must also be vaccinated.

No vaccination can turn back the Prussians, of course, but the epidemic that follows the war is massively reduced in scope.

Pasteur does not live to see any of this this.  In 1866, his daughter Cécile contracts typhoid, and dies.  Pasteur begins to show symptoms three days after her death, and follows her to the grave a week later.  Widowed, Marie Laurent Pasteur tries to continue Pasteur’s work, but with no income and no formal training, it becomes impossible.  She returns to Strasbourg with her children.

There is no research institute, no early cure for rabies or for anthrax or for diptheria.  Antibiotics will be developed eventually, but they will not be mass-produced until after the second world war.

Michael opens his mouth to speak, to say something, anything to change Pasteur’s path, but it is too late.  A connection, once made, cannot be unmade, and Pasteur is already out of sight, running towards his home, his mind clearly itching to plan the next experiment.

It is the beginning of the dragon’s victory.

1946 – Oran, Algeria

On the morning of April 16, Dr Bernard Rieux leaves his study, and stumbles over a dead rat in the middle of the landing.  At first, he pays the animal no moment, and continues downstairs, but when he reaches the street, the thought comes to him that the rat was not in its place, and he retraces his steps to warn the concierge…

It is only a single rat, on a single landing in a small town in Algeria, but it is enough for a beginning.

The bubonic plague is not, according to all current medical journals, so very contagious, and yet in a world still recovering from famine and war, it suffices.  The epidemic spreads across every continent but Antarctica with a rapidity that seems unnatural, and the spirit that held nations together through bombings and privations of all kinds during the war crumbles in the face of so invisible and insidious an enemy.  The war, which had seemed over, begins anew as rumours of biological warfare spread, and town becomes suspicious of town, neighbour of neighbour.  Governments recall their armies and set them to building walls to keep out infection; they forbid the doctors and scientists to collaborate with anyone who might be an enemy; and in their fervour to keep themselves safe, doom themselves the more quickly.

The dragon roars in triumph.

1832 – Paris, France

Europe has never seen cholera before, and the pandemic sweeps through Europe with horrifying swiftness, claiming 20,000 lives in Paris alone.  As an orderly at the Hôtel Dieu, Michael does what he can to prevent infection among the staff, but it’s really a holding action.  The end is in sight, he knows, but this particular epidemic will not be stopped.  There is an inkling that cholera and hygiene are linked, but the true cause of the disease won’t be found for another two decades.

Michael stays in Paris until the end of the epidemic – a captain always stays with his troops to the bitter end – and then through the revolution that follows.  The revolution comes from miserable people, not the dragon, but Michael can hear the dragon’s laughter in the shouts of the angry mob.

He is weary from the fight, and its constant stream of losses, but he cannot retire.

When all is over and done, Michael slips forward a decade or two to whisper in the ear of the new young Emperor what a fine thing it would be to be the man who brought clean water to Paris.  Napoleon III is a man of large ideas – he intends to rebuild Paris entirely as a modern city, with broad, well-paved streets, large gardens, and modern streetlights.  He happily adds aqueducts and sewers to his plans, and the sewers of Paris become one of the wonders of the industrial age.

Cholera does not return to Paris.

It is a small respite, but a welcome one.  Michael allows himself to rest, slipping back in time, away from the heat of the battle.

1154 – Paris, France

The swampy land just north of the Seine has been held by the dragon since time immemorial.  Those who pass this way develop fevers that return again and again, weakening those afflicted until they died of exhaustion, but their numbers have been few.  Nobody has yet tried to settle this land, which is unsuitable for farming, and so there has been no great epidemic, and no great battle.

But Paris has grown, and even unfavourable land must be settled somehow.

The King’s gift to the Abbot of St Opportune seems like an act of pious generosity, but Père Guillaume knows the precise worth of this gift.  The land on which the abbey is to be built is swampland, frequently flooded by the Seine, and cursed with bad air.  Before the brothers have been there a week, three of them have sickened with the fevers this place is known for, and a fourth has broken his vows and fled entirely.

Guillaume calls a meeting of the brothers to discuss what must be done.

“Brothers, this land that we live on is unhealthy; yet I do not believe it is God’s will that we should die here, either of pestilence or of hunger.  I am your elected leader, yet I do not have a good solution.  So tell me, each of you, what you think we must do, and when we have discussed your ideas, I will decide on our way forward.”

The brothers look at him, and at each other, and the Prior stands to speak.  “Father, I believe that God does not wish for us to stay here.  I believe that we should leave this place and found a new Abbey on lands that are not so cursed as these.”

There is a murmur of agreement from the brothers.  Father Guillaume raises his hand.  “Thank you, Prior Robert.  Your suggestion is reasonable and wise; but we must not forget that the King gave us this land and asked us to civilise it.  He will not be pleased with us, I think, if we leave it.  I do not dismiss your idea, but I think we should consider it a last resort.”

One of the novices stands.  He is a slight boy, with olive skin that suggests family in the South of France.  Father Guillaume acknowledges him with a smile.

“Father, if the air is bad, might we not shut it out?  We could nail boards across the windows, to keep us safe from the miasmas when we are inside.”

Guillaume nods thoughtfully.  “An interesting idea, my son.  But we cannot stay inside at all times.  We have work outside the Abbey grounds, and must also grow and trade our food.”

The boy sits again, and the room grows silent.

One of the lay brothers – a gardener, Guillaume – clears his throat, as though uncertain whether he might be permitted to speak.  Guillaume smiles at him, encouragingly.  “Do you have a suggestion, Brother Michael?”

The young man shrugs, diffidently.  “More of a question, if you will forgive me, Father.  Do you know why it is that the air is so unhealthy here?”

Prior Robert casts him a scathing look.  “Everyone knows that the miasmas are caused by the marshy land, brother.”

Guillaume frowns at the Prior, but the young gardener appears to have nothing more to say.

Another brother stands.  “Perhaps we should try doing something about the swamp then.  After all, we can’t stop breathing the air.”

Michael bows his head, letting the conversation wash over him as the future unfolds before him.  The monks drain the marsh, turning it into farmland.  With no comfortable breeding place, the mosquitoes abandon the marsh, taking their malarial pathogens with them.

Malaria does not return to Paris.  It is a small, easy victory, but a pleasing one nonetheless.

The dragon, sulking, leaves a little piece of nastiness in the soil.  Its name is Nosema bombycis, and it is lethal to silkworms.

He plants a mulberry tree in the soil, just to make his point.

Later, the mulberry tree will be cut down.  Its leaves will be harvested by a man who has cousins in the south of France, and he will send them the leaves to feed their silkworms.

The first generation of silkworms will not be affected, but their larvae will be speckled brown and unable to spin silk.  The Nosema bombycis will return to the soil and infect another generation of silkworms, and the silkworm industry in Alès will begin to fail.

Michael does not approve of destruction, but he begins to smile.  Louis Pasteur’s chemistry professor at the École Normale Supérieure was born in Alès.  The dragon has made his first mistake.

1865 – Alès

Louis is much more interested in infectious diseases in humans, but his friend and sometime teacher, Jean-Baptiste Dumas, has begged him to go to Alès and rescue the silkworm industry.  Louis owes a lot to Dumas, and it is difficult to argue with him, especially when he reminds Louis that this, too, is lifesaving work – the silk industry is absolutely essential to the region, and if it continues to fail, the people of Alès will surely starve.

He is persuaded to leave Paris and work on the silkworms.

Perhaps it is for the best.  Louis’ youngest daughter is ill with a wasting sickness.  The country air and the warm climate will surely do her good, and in a year or two, when she is stronger, they can return to Paris and to Louis’ great work.

Michael breathes a sigh of relief.  Perhaps this will be enough.  He closes his eyes and lets the future unfold before him.

1946 – Oran, Algeria

…That evening, when Dr. Rieux was standing in the entrance, feeling for the latchkey in his pocket before he started up the stairs to his flat, he saw a big rat coming towards him from the dark end of the passage. It moved uncertainly, and its fur was sopping wet.  The animal stopped and seemed to be trying to get its balance, moved forward again towards the doctor, halted again, then spun round on itself with a little squeal and fell on its side.  Its mouth was slightly open and blood was spurting from it.  After gazing at it for a moment the doctor went upstairs…

It is not enough.

1866

Once more, a daughter of the Pasteurs is sick.  Once more, it is the typhoid fever.

Michael can see the future, and so he knows exactly the harm that he is about to do.  And yet, it is less harm than would occur otherwise.  He cannot prevent the girl’s death – it occurs, it seems, no matter where the child is living at this time.  But he can, perhaps, prevent Pasteur’s.

He knocks on Pasteur’s door on a sunny morning in May.  The door is answered by a boy of about fourteen – Pasteur’s son, Jean-Baptiste.  He does not invite Michael in.

The boy gravely hears his message, then goes to fetch his father, who returns quickly, and steps outside, bringing the boy with him.

Pasteur smiles warmly at Michael, but keeps his distance.

“Mr Engelman, is it not?  Yes, I remember you well.  I apologise for leaving you standing on the doorstep, but my daughter has been ill, and I would not like to risk you.”

Michael steps back a little.  “I am sorry to hear that.  Is it serious?”

“It was, certainly.  She has had typhoid, but she is recovering.  The fever broke this morning, and she is much, much better.”

“Why, that is excellent news!”  Michael smiles at Pasteur and then at the boy.  “And have you been at home the whole time your sister was sick?  That must have been frightening for you.”

Pasteur puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “Jean-Baptiste has been a very good helper.  He could not go to school, of course, but he has been keeping little Marie-Louise entertained, so that his mother and I could focus on nursing Cécile. I have promised him a treat, when this ordeal is over.”

“It sounds like it very nearly is.”

“Yes, thank goodness.  Perhaps we will go somewhere tomorrow, hmm?”

Jean-Baptiste shrugs.  “Can we ride the train from Marseilles?”

Pasteur laughs.  “Jean-Baptiste loves steam engines,” he confided to Michael.  “I think he plans to study engineering.  There are worse careers.”

“There certainly are.  I wonder, have you ever taken him to the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris?  I think he would like it.”

Pasteur shakes his head.  “What is that?”

“It’s an industrial design museum – all steam engines, and technology in general. And a little chemistry, I think.  It’s not too far from the Gare de Lyon, and if you wanted to make a real excursion of it, you could take him to see the new Gare du Nord while you are there.”

The boy’s eyes widen in delight, and he looks hopefully at his father.  “Papa, could we?”

Pasteur hesitates.  “Perhaps.  You have certainly earned a proper outing, and it does sound interesting.  But I don’t like to leave your mother alone, with Cécile still so weak.  We shall see what she says, and if Cécile is better tomorrow.”

But the decision has been made, and in that moment, the future changes.  Michael watches it unfold before him, moment by moment.  Cécile is better the next day, and, anticipating her complete recovery, Louis takes his son to Paris for the promised treat.

He could not possibly have known that Cécile would relapse just hours after they leave, but that does not stop him from blaming himself for being away from home – yet again – at the time of a daughter’s death.

He blames Mr Engelman too, and Michael cannot fault him for that.

Grieving and determined that no other parent should suffer such a loss, Louis Pasteur finishes his work on the silkworms as quickly as possible, and turns his attention to researching the causes of infectious diseases.  He refines his work on germ theory, performs public experiments to demonstrate the effectiveness of vaccines, and works on a cure for rabies.

In October 1885, Louis Pasteur cures his first rabies patient, Jean-Baptiste Jupille, of Villers-Farlay.  He stays on to work as a research assistant in Pasteur’s laboratory.

By the time Louis Pasteur dies in 1895, the medical research institute that bears his name is established in the heart of Paris.

The dragon is in retreat, and the nineteenth century is in good hands.

Michael allows himself to relax.

Back in 1866, Pasteur is smiling at Michael.  “That was a kind thought, Mr Engelman, but surely you did not come here just to plan a child’s excursion?”

Michael forces a laugh.  “To be honest, I was in the area, and I simply thought to look in and see that you were well.  You do such important work, and I wanted to take the opportunity to express my appreciation for it.”

It is true, in its way.  Pasteur’s health was Michael’s concern, and his work is important.

But the victory leaves a bitter taste in his mouth nonetheless.

1946 – Oran, Algeria

… On the fourth day the rats begin to come out and die in batches.  From basements, cellars and sewers they emerge in long wavering files into the light of day, sway helplessly, then do a sort of pirouette and fall dead at the feet of the horrified onlookers.  At night, in passages and alleys, their shrill little death-cries can be clearly heard…

Dr Castel and his colleague Dr Rieux administers antibiotics, and Dr Castel works on an anti-plague serum.  The death toll in Oran is high, but between them, the doctors in the town are able to prevent the epidemic from spreading further.

Michael frowns.  It is a victory, of sorts, but the plague should never have reached Oran in the first place.

He goes back.

1885 – Paris

The knock at the door interrupts Louis mid-thought, and he is already frowning when he goes to answer it.  The sight of his visitor makes his frown even more severe.  He knows it is not reasonable to blame Mr Engelman for his daughter’s death, but he resents the man regardless.

Mr Engelman’s flame-blue eyes are sad, as if he knows this.  It doesn’t help.

“What do you want?” Louis asks.  It is not a polite greeting, but it is the best he can do, now.

“Dr Pasteur.”  The man hesitates, as if about to make some sort of apology, then stops.  Louis is glad.  It is too late for apologies.  It has always been too late.

Engleman looks away briefly, then gazes straight at Louis with those strange, flame-blue eyes.  “There is a boy,” he says.  “Nine years old.  He was bitten by a rabid dog, and is not expected to survive.  Will you help him?”

Resentment wars with curiosity.  Louis has cured rabies in dogs – eleven of them, to be precise – but he has not yet cured it in a human.  And yet…

“I am not a medical doctor,” Louis tells the man in the doorway.

“He has seen a medical doctor,” says Engelman.  “His wounds have been cleaned with phenic acid, and cauterised.  He is still sick.  A medical doctor cannot cure this.”

This is undoubtedly true.  Nobody survives rabies.  But Louis has a family to think of.  “I could be prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license,” Louis points out.

“You will not be prosecuted.  His doctor told his mother to bring the boy to Paris.  To you,” Engelman says.

“On your advice, I suppose.”

The other man does not deny it.

“His mother knows that he has no other chance.  She has brought him to you to cure, if you can.”

And what of the boy’s father, wonders Louis.  Is he at home, separated from his son in what might be his final sickness?

“The boy is very sick,” says Engelman, his voice gentle.  “If you refuse to treat him, he will not survive the journey home.  He will not see his father again.”

Louis never truly recovered from the stroke that afflicted him in 1868, and Engelman is a tall man in the prime of life, with the stocky, strong build of a farmer or a labourer.  Louis should not be able to send him staggering with a single punch.  But a twenty-year grudge carries a lot of force.

Engelman rubs his jaw, and says nothing.  The two men look at each other in silence for a long moment.

Louis sighs.  “I can cure rabies in dogs.  The vaccine has not been tested in humans.”

“Then now is your chance.”

“I will need to find a supervising physician.  Emile will not do this.”

“Then find one.”

“Oh, go to hell.”

Engelman smiles as if this amuses him, but says nothing.

Louis sighs again.  This conversation only ever had one possible outcome, and they both knew it.  “I’ll treat the child,” he says.

He closes the door in Engelman’s face, and goes to get his coat.

Michael smiles.  Hell seems reasonably unlikely as a destination, though he will chase the dragon there if he must.  The future unfolds before him, again.

The rabies vaccine is administered to Joseph Meister, and he survives.  He takes a job at Pasteur’s Institute, helping in the laboratories, acting as a janitor, and finally becoming the Institute’s chief caretaker.  He forms a friendship with Paul-Louis Simond, and a chance conversation about a rodent problem in the Institute sparks a line of research into disease transmission via parasites.

In 1892, Alexandre Yersin identifies the bacterium responsible for the bubonic plague.

In 1894, Simond discovers that the bubonic plague is spread by fleas from rats.

In the same year, Louis Pasteur has a second stroke.  It is more severe than his first, and he dies in September, 1895.

He is given a state funeral.

Michael attends.  Pasteur deserves no less from him.

He leaves shortly afterward.  History is back on track, but he has one last job to do.

1946 – Somewhere over the North Sea

The dragon is fleeing, but a dragon’s wings are no match for those of an archangel.  Michael brings his enemy to bay over the ocean, and at last they fight, sword and dagger against claw and tooth.  There is delight in this battle – the delight of doing, at last, the thing that one was born to do.

The battle lasts a day and a night, or perhaps it lasts a year, but at last, Michael is triumphant.  The dying dragon plummets into the sea, and is consumed by the Leviathan.

Michael sheathes his sword.

Michael knows that the dragon will return.  There has always been a dragon, and there always will be.

But for now, there is peace.

1946 – Oran

The plague does not come to Oran.

The exterminator visited just a few weeks ago.  He is an odd man, with colourful, patched clothing and a penchant for flute music, but he is thorough in his work, and Michael saw to it that he was paid in a timely manner.

The immediate risk has passed, but Michael still keeps watch.

For today, the plague is defeated.  There will be outbreaks, yes, but the disease is no longer incurable – no longer unpreventable.  And without the dragon driving it, it will never attack with such force again.

Still, Michael knows that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good, any more than the dragon does.  It can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; or bide its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves;

And he knows that perhaps the day will come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it will rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

He will be ready.

1946 – Paris

In a Paris apartment, a man wakes up from a particularly vivid dream about an outbreak of bubonic plague in Oran.  Taking up his pen, he jots down the opening lines of a novel which will be both metaphor for the French Resistance, and an illustration of the human reaction towards a crisis that is entirely outside its control.

“Les curieux événements qui font le sujet de cette chronique se sont produits en 194., à Oran.  De l’avis général, ils n’y étaient pas à leur place, sortant un peu de l’ordinaire.  À première vue, Oran est, en effet, une ville ordinaire et rien de plus qu’une préfecture française de la côte algérienne…”

With thanks to Anthony for the silkworm parasites and Alison for the Camus.

station

Archangels, Time Travel, and Germ Theory

Saint-Michel is a station on Line 4 of the Paris Métro, and it connects via a tunnel with the Saint-Michel–Nôtre-Dame station which serves the RER B and C lines.  The station is in the fifth arondissement (the Latin Quarter), and is right on the bank of the Seine, just near the bridge that crosses over to the Île de la Cité.  It was opened in 1910, and was named for the Boulevard Saint-Michel, under which it lies.

The Boulevard Saint-Michel is named for the old Porte Saint-Michel (destroyed in the 17th century) and the Saint-Michel market, both of which clearly derive their names from Saint Michel or Saint Michael himself.  Saint Michael is an archangel, who is mentioned several times in the Bible, most notably in the Book of Revelation, in which he fights Satan, and defeats him.  In medieval times, Satan is envisaged as a dragon, and representations of Michael defeating the dragon are common.  He also became generally seen as a protector and the leader of the army of angels.  He is associated with healing, and with the dead, and is a patron of both the military and of paramedics, as well as having the charge of numerous cities including Brussels, Kiev, Arkhangelsk and Argao.  But not Paris.  I don’t think there is any tradition about him travelling in time.  That just seems to be the thing he does, at least in my world.

There is a lot of history, real and alternate, in this story, which I will try to sort out here.  First, most of the epidemics are real; the Spanish Flu after World War I is well-known, as is the Black Plague of 1347 (though, interestingly, current research suggests that this was not the bubonic plague at all).  There was a smallpox outbreak at the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, which was devastating for the French, but less so for the vaccinated Prussians.  The cholera epidemic in 1832 was an impetus for the building of the Paris sewers, though this really didn’t gain momentum until 1855.  I suspect, but have not yet found evidence, that John Snow’s paper on the Broad Street Pump, which was published in 1855 was a driving force here.  I made up the malaria epidemic in the Marais, but it’s certainly a plausible one.  Malaria was known from ancient times, and was certainly associated with marshy areas.  I did not make up the silkworm parasite plague, which, as Pasteur discovered, is caused when silkworms ingest food that has been infected by the fungus ???.  I doubt anyone really fed silkworms in Alès mulberry leaves from the Marais, but you never know.

The 1947 epidemic is not real, but is borrowed wholesale from Albert Camus’ novel La Peste (The Plague), which centres on an epidemic of the bubonic plague that breaks out in Oran.  In his version, it never spreads beyond Oran.  In mine, it does in the first timeline, but not in the second.  In reality, there was no plague epidemic in Oran in 1946, though I understand that there was a small one in 1944.  I have shamelessly quoted Camus in all the 1946 sections.  Some of the translations are mine; most are from the Stuart Gilbert translation of 1948, with slight edits to fit the story.

As for Louis Pasteur, the final version of his story is mostly true.  He really did lose two children to typhoid, and he was coincidentally away from home on both occasions, poor man (and poor Marie!).  Cécile really did appear to recover, and then died a few days later, while Louis was away from home, taking his son out on an excursion as a reward for his good behaviour during her illness.  I don’t think he took him all the way to Paris, but since I didn’t know where he did take him, and I wanted him well out of range of contagion, I sent him there.  He lost another daughter, Camille, to cancer at the age of two.  I described this as a wasting sickness, because without modern diagnostics, it probably looked like that, at least at first.

Joseph Meister was the first person to be cured of rabies by Pasteur’s vaccine, and Emile Roux, who had worked with Pasteur on the vaccine, refused to administer it because he felt it was not sufficiently tested.  Joseph did come back to the Institute and work as its caretaker, but not until the 20th century.  Jean-Baptiste Jupille was the second person cured, and he was in fact the caretaker at the time when Yersin made his discoveries about the plague.  I played fast and loose with this bit.  Simond was a member of the Institute, and he did discover that the plague was transmitted by fleas, but he was not in Paris, or even in France, at the time he made the discovery.

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Viennese physician who noticed that childbirth fever was significantly increased in women whose doctors had just come from the dissection room, and significantly decreased if they washed and sterilised their hands in between.  This theory deeply offended the obstetricians involved, and the poor man was declared mad and admitted to an asylum, where he died only 14 days later, after being beaten by the guards.  He could not explain the mechanism behind his findings, but Pasteur could have, I think, and this would have sped up the pace of medical research somewhat in the 19th century.

I will leave it to the reader to figure out who the rat exterminator is and why it is so very important to see that he is paid promptly.

Finally, the title comes from the fact that the word ‘virus’ is derived from a Latin word for a venomous substance.  This seemed in keeping with the dragon-sending-plague theme of this story.  Admittedly, the main plague involved is of bacterial origin, but ‘Dragon’s Little Sticks’ lacks a certain poetry.

I think that accounts for all the history, literature and mythology that I have begged, borrowed and stolen for this story.  If it makes your head ache, I apologise, and can only say that mine probably aches worse.  I don’t think I have the right sort of brain for writing time travel tales.

If you like your stories with germ theory, but without time-travelling angels, you might want to check out my story for Pasteur station, Collaborations, which features a little bit more alternate history, this time from the point of view of Pasteur’s wife.

Finally, here, have the music I have had in my brain while writing this – it’s called Factum est Silentium, by Richard Dering, and it’s about Michael fighting the dragon.  I think you can hear the dragon sort of swooping in, and the fight, too.

Oh, so very many illustrations in this piece.  What was I thinking?  The periodic rats are a detail from a postcard from Hamelin, found on Wikimedia Commons.  The images of the flu and smallpox viruses and the cholera bacteria are from  Can Stock Photo, and are by patrimonio, Decade3D and krishnacreation, respectively. The malaria picture is from Wikimedia Commons.  The various paintings and statues, in order, are: 1) Statue of Saint Michel defeating the Dragon, Picpus, Paris; 2) Archangel Michael by Andrej Roublëv, 1408; 3) The Big Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, by William Blake, circa 1805; 4) Vibria, by Iradigalesc; 5) Saint Michael Vanquishing the Devil, Gonzalo Perez, before 1451; 6) Le Grand Saint Michel, by Raffaello Sanzio ~ 1518; 7) Dragon fighting Michael over the Mont Saint Michel is from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Limbourg brothers, ~ 1416; 8) Bronze statue of Archangel Michael – Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome.  All of these images are obtained from Wikimedia Commons

next

Odéon
fleur4left Saint-Michel
fleur4right Cité

2 thoughts on “Saint-Michel

  1. lsn

    You have travelled through Brussel Centraal/Bruxelles Centrale before then? 😉 Generally unless it’s a splitting train it’s mostly straightforward, heh.

    Lovely time travel and disease… where the hell is cholera originally from then?

    Reply
    1. Catherine Post author

      I was meeting my penfriend in Bruges. She was coming from Mainz, I was coming from Paris, and we both ended up on trains to different places that were definitely not Bruges…

      (Fortunately, I had a very nice conductor who saw that my ticket was completely wrong, and told me which station to get off at and which train to catch instead…)

      Reply

Leave a Reply to Catherine Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *