A Room to Swing a Cat In, a Short Story for Thursday Doors

A Room to Swing a Cat in - Short Story, Thursday Doors

A Room to Swing a Cat In is a short story inspired by the history behind the house of Nicolas Flamel, 51 rue de Montmorency, the 3rd arrondissement of Paris, while its majestic doors represent my weekly contribution to Thursday Doors.

A Room to Swing a Cat In, Short Story for Thursday Doors

A Room to Swing a Cat In

What the plague hadn’t claimed was gathered on the streets of Paris for the fête of Sainte-Geneviève. Parades, farces, mocking jokes, they were all washed down with copious amounts of weak wine.

You either have the guts to do it or not.

So he did it. When the crowds broke in laughter his hand was elbow-deep in his surcoat, the parcel secured. Then he ran, the laden weight of a low Parisian sky hanging over his shoulders and him, a moving dot in a monochrome city.

He darted through a passage, away from their cheers, jumping sideways at the call of the chamber pot, slowing down past les gendarms whose hand always fell heavy on his kind of folk. His mother’s kind. Dark, with luscious hair, the keepers of the laughter and of the magic. He was proud of her gift for reading people and foretelling their future. ‘One God,’ she’d taught him, ‘for everybody.’

Yet not all were equal. And God was up. They were in the sewer.

The drizzle hitting his face forced him to bury his head between his skinny shoulders and look down when he reached the church of St Merri, that fed him now. It was the rain wetting his face, not his shame. The rain that also stung his eyes. So he picked up the pace, feeling only his heart hammering in his jacket.

He broke his run near the open market to check inside his coat, sliding on the slippery stones and bumping into a merchant yelling away his ware. His nose crushed into the fishmonger’s raw hand, yet the smell of burning wood glued to his nostrils blocked the stench. The torrent of curses fell on his ribs, but for once he didn’t care, his eyes jabbing inside his coat for a sign of life.

He licked the pink, hairless nose the way he saw its mother doing it. Two perfectly round eyes opened up on him. Hope.

So the remainder of the road he ran, he ran till he reached the tall house that bent over the road, in protection. He ran up the two flights of stairs with their many doors that sheltered the homeless, like them. He ran all the way to their tiny room at the mansard.  Cozy, his mother would correct him with a laugh.

There, he stood in the only open spot and removed the kitten out of his bosom. It made a noise like a whisper and opened its round eyes on him again. The boy’s dark face lit up in a smile as big as a heart, revealing a few missing teeth. His mother will be so proud. He spun around three times like she’d taught him, making sure the cat was secure in his arms. He spun around to swing the cat for they had a room to swing a cat in. To keep it, as the gypsy believe said to do if one wanted to keep a cat.

In his father’s home, there were plenty rooms where he could swing a cat in. But an executioner’s son was not allowed to own a cat, what was allowed was to inherit his father’s job.

© Patricia Furstenberg, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

A Room to Swing a Cat In, a Short Story for Thursday Doors

A note from the author:

The House of Nicolas Flamel:

The House of Nicolas Flamel appeared on our Paris itinerary due to our daughter’s extraordinary interest in the world of Harry Potter.

About the house itself: Nicolas Flamel had the house built after his wife Pernelle passed away in 1397. The house (as well as several others owned by Flamel) did accommodate the homeless of Paris, or at least a part of them. Yet this is the only one still standing. The frieze above the ground floor dates from 1407, when the house was completed:

“Nous homes et femes laboureurs demourans ou porche de ceste maison qui fu fte en lan de grace mil quatre cens et sept, somes tenus chacun en droit soy dire tous les jours une patrenostre et 1 ave maria en priant dieu que sa grace face pardon aux povres pescheurs trespassez. amen.”

“We men and women labourers residing in the entryway of this house, which was built in the year 1407, vow to recite each day Our Father who Art in Heaven and Ave Maria, praying to God by whose grace accords pardon to those poor sinners (who) trespass. Amen.”

Yet Nicolas Flamel never lived here, in what is today the oldest house in Paris.

Update 🙂 I used a 14th century map of Paris to locate the House of Nicolas Flamel and trace the boy’s route:

A 14h century map of Paris showing the Seine River (bottom) and the road to the House of Nicolas Flamel (top).
1 - "gathered on the streets of Paris for the fête of Sainte-Geneviève"
La Greve = today Hotel de Ville
2 - "he darted through a passage"
3 - "jumping sideways at the call of the chamber pot"
4 - "the church of Saint Merri that fed him now..."
5 - a two minutes walk to the House of Nicolas Flamel, heading NE.
A 14h century map of Paris showing the Seine River (bottom) and the road to the House of Nicolas Flamel (top). Map source.
1 – “gathered on the streets of Paris for the fête of Sainte-Geneviève”
La Greve = today Hotel de Ville
2 – “he darted through a passage”
3 – “jumping sideways at the call of the chamber pot”
4 – “the church of Saint Merri that fed him now…”
5 – a two minutes walk to the House of Nicolas Flamel, heading NE.

The day of Saints-Geneviève:

During the Middle Ages, the Parisians had quite a full calendar, abundant in holidays and events that were enthusiastically celebrated, perhaps because of the precarious lives of the ordinary populace. Thus, The day of Saints-Geneviève, the patron saint of the city who allegedly saved that city from the Huns was and still is celebrated on the 3rd of January.

The origin of the saying “there was not room to swing a cat in it”:

There is a superstition in Transylvania, perhaps brought about by the gypsies whose specialty was to bear the seeds of magic and spread them about here and there, as the winds do to those of plants… In this province of Romania it is said that if a cat runs away, when recovered it must be swung around three times to attach it to the dwelling.

The same is done to a stolen cat by the thief himself, if he plans to keep it. This is a rather strange way to induce an attachment to any animal, but perhaps from the point of view of the professional cat-stealer the size of his room is a matter of greater importance.

On the Executioners Who Inherited Their Jobs

Truth be told, for centuries in France execution was a family matter and the job of an executioner was passed on from father to son.

~~~

Thursday Doors

Thursday Doors is a blog feature everyone can take part in, hosted by Dan Antion over at No Facilities – discover more doors from around the world.

Travel Through Doors, Best of 2020

thursday doors, travel to Romania

Travel Through Doors and discover the best doors as seen in my 2020 Thursday Doors blog posts. Thursday Doors is a blog feature everyone can take part in, initiated by Norm who later presented the baton to Dan.

Dan has a Badge Idea contest for Thursday Doors running until 11:59 pm Thursday, December 31st (North American Eastern Time). Check his website for rules and maybe give it a try! The last image in this blog post is my entry.

Ans so it began, my journey around Europe (okay, mostly Romania) for Thursday Doors. We first traveled to Brasov, with The Church Door, a (very) short story:

Beth Israel Synagogue in Brasov and the story of a door...
Beth Israel Synagogue in Brasov

The Village Museum of Bucharest was next, with its carved wooden doors. We looked at a few and also at what their carved symbols mean:

Village Museum Bucharest, wood carvings, symbols and meaning
Village Museum Bucharest: a wood structure brought here all the way from the north of Romania, from Breaza, from a hamlet situated at a height of 1 200m together with an entire household that belonged to a family of huțulii (huțanii, hutsuls), an ethnic group living in the very NW of Romania with Dacians origins…

My all time favorite must be this 500 years old door from Corvin Castle who even made it through the great fire of 13 April 1854:

Corvin Castle, Romania, 500 years old door original
Corvin Castle, Romania, a 500 years old door

We looked at Corvin Castle’s Coat of Arms too and at two rather grand doors embellished with jambs, tympanum and pinnacles, and at a short history of door knockingfind it all here. And we returned in a second visit here.

And on we went to travel through doors with a guessing game! Bucharest or Paris?

guessing game, Bucharest or Paris?
guessing game, Bucharest or Paris?

Small shrines can often be found in Romania, build so that weary travelers can have a moment of peace, for thought, for prayer, for palliation. This is a shrine from Brasov, before reaching the Black Church as you would stroll down a winding road from Șcheii Brașovului:

The second image above reads: ‘This cross was raised in 1761 by Gh. (Gheorghe) Anania and restored in 1992.’

Our next travel stop was at a monastery built for peace, Snagov Monastery, where we looked at medieval plots and at revenge:

Paraclisul Manastirii Snagov and its full story
Paraclisul Manastirii Snagov and its full story

Snagov Monastery has seen a long an troubled past. Monks settled on Snagov Island, this snake shaped lake, during the times of Mircea the Elder, Mircea cel Batran, Vlad Dracula’s paternal grandfather and ruler of Wallachia during the 14th century.

Next we visited Brancoveanu Monastery at Sambata de Sus, a Romanian Orthodox monastery in Brașov County, in the Transylvania region of Romania, renowed for its white-washed walls. At the end of the 17th century Constantin Brâncoveanu, Prince of Wallachia, built a stone church (1688-1714) in place of an older wooden one:

Brancoveanu Monastery in Transylvania, built by a Wallachian Prince
Brancoveanu Monastery in Transylvania, built by a Wallachian Prince

If you wonder how a Wallachian Voievode built a monastery in a different principality, know that the hamlet and the land on which the monastery was built belonged to Preda Brâncoveanu, his grandfather. Who even built a small wooden church on it in 1654.

For a chilling stop we traveled next to Fagaras Castle to see its Iron Maiden, this symbol of medieval violence:

Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle, symbol of medieval violence
Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle, symbol of medieval violence

Bran Castle means many things to different people. To me, it is a door to heaven.
Legend says that the Doors to Heaven are here, in Bucegi Mountains, near Bran Pass and Ialomița Cave. That is you climb that peak on a clear winter night, you will be welcomed by a meadow underneath a dome of stars. And the doors to Heaven will be revealed to you. You will know it by their starry pillars, and by the energy that will seep into your bones:

carnations on a balcony, Bran Castle history, Thursday Doors
A romantic corner at Bran Castle- a secondary entrance from the Inner Bailey, a stone column and red carnations.

It was only fit to travel to a snowy place around the day of Saint Nicholas, December 6th, and we did so through a short story about Saint Nick and the meaning of the first snow in Sighisoara:

Sighisoara, the church on the hill and the meaning of the first snow and Saint Nicholas
Sighisoara, the church on the hill and the meaning of the first snow on Saint Nicholas

We said good bye and so long to 2020 with A Winter Story for Thursday Doors:

Sighisoara, face in door, Thursday doors
Sighisoara, a face in z door, for Thursday doors

Lastly, my suggestion for a Thursday Doors badge:

Thursday Doors - Around the World
Thursday Doors – Around the World

The Spiral Staircase, from Symbol to Mystery

spiral staircase symbol mystery

Carved out of stone or wood, to defeat or hide a secret passage, the spiral staircase still stands the test of time like a question mark between symbol and mystery.

In the perfect twilight of the room the girl was waiting, her hand on the banister of a spiral staircase, her mind a tornado of thoughts. Should she go up, towards the unknown? Was the spiral she was confronted with a symbol of a destiny written in her DNA, unavoidable, or a chance encounter mystery?

Usually narrow, often tucked away in the corner of a room, carved in stone or build out of luscious wood, a spiral staircase is like a mysterious creature watching you from the shadows. Alluring. Daring. Playful. Dare you take the challenge?

The Spiral Staircase from Symbol to Mystery, Bran castle, staircase
Above and below, staircases of Bran Castle, Romania

A spiral staircase is a confined space that obscures from sight what lays ahead, be it above or underneath you, and offering only two options: up or down. Or an open cavity that tricks you by deceitfully offering physical support while playing with your inner sense of equilibrium, spinning you out of balance as you descent into the unknown.

Either way, be it the glimpse of a promise, of something fascinating once reaching its top, or the 50 / 50 gamble that a sinister outcome might be lurking at its bottom, proves irresistible. And you take the first step.

The spiral staircase, stairs with a purpose. Which one?

Built to reach bird-level heights while conserving space, to solve a comfort or a safety issue, the movement one follows along a spiral stairway is influenced by the location of the stair, the amount of natural light, the material (medieval stone, classic wood, or modern steel), the stair’s geometry, and the presence of handrails (if any).

The spiral staircase appeared as a key element intent to fluidity the circulation in any multi-story building, and perhaps its first intent was for private use.

Would you run up a spiral staircase? Would you tiptoe up? Would you use a candle to light your way or trust the moonlight sliding through the top?

Just don’t run up a staircase with a sword in your right hand as you will find it difficult to maneuver upwards, especially on clock-wise winding stairs. Perhaps this is why spiral staircases were used as a defense mechanism in medieval castles. Just imagine how the attackers of a tower could not storm up in a group, but had to go up one by one along a narrow path. Less defenders stood a far better chance to protect and survive.

Below: the stone spiral staircase of the Catacombs of Paris, France (exit):

The spiral, a symbol

I can’t resist a spiral staircase. The sight of it, so similar to the DNA’s double helix, reminds me of the human (sub)conscious desire to achieve higher. Its spiral, like a maze of self-discovery through movement and sight, is both a riddle and a promise. It could be a secret passage way between two levels, or the chance to evolve, to self-discover, to take a risk.

Be it an iconic structure or an architectural inner whisper, take this trip with me along spiral staircases and let’s travel the world.

A Timeline of Spiral Staircases

First ever spiral staircases were mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as existing some 3000 years ago. These two spiral staircases were part of Solomon’s Temple and used to access a sacrificial altar.

Searching for actual archaeological remains, the earliest example of a spiral staircase is in the Greek Temple A in Selinunte, Sicily, (built c. 490–460 BC). A really skillfully engineered spirals of the ancient Greco-Roman empire.

The Spiral Staircase from Symbol to Mystery, the Greek Temple A in Selinunte, Sicily - the earliest example of a spiral staircase
the Greek Temple A in Selinunte, Sicily – the earliest example of a spiral staircase

Still standing in Rome today is marble-built Trajan’s Column (built 113 AD) and this seems to be the oldest ‘preserved’ spiral staircase in the world.

Did you know that the outside of the column is covered with reliefs depicting the victories of Trajan’s army in the Dacian wars? Dacians were the forefathers of the Romanian people.

There are over 2000 marble carvings that spiral upward depicting the Roman – Dacian Wars (there were two of them) along Trajan’s Column, but its one overlooked characteristic is definitely the winding staircase hidden inside. Windows strategically placed allow enough light for the visitors walking up the stairs, but it is well worth it as at the top there is a viewing platform overlooking the Markets of Trajan, Trajan’s Forum, Capitol Hill, and the Campus Martius. Marcus Aurelius Column (176–192 A.D.) also has a spiral staircase inside. But Romans did not commonly use spiral staircases in buildings until after the third century.

Below: stone spiral staircase at Fagaras Castle, Romania:

Other impressive spiral staircases are located at the Baths of Caracalla (212–16 A.D.), the Baths of Diocletian (298–305 A.D.) and the Mausoleum of Constantia (c. 350 A.D.) among many others.

In Spain, the oldest spiral staircase is located at the archaeological area of the Roman villa of Las Gabias (6 century A.D.), south Granada.

More great spiral staircases are found at the Abbey Church at Cluny and Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris (France); the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Köln and the Cathedral of St. Peter in Worms (Germany); and the Cathedral in Durham and in Canterbury (England).

Perhaps it is the years of history trapped in a staircase, the symbol it stood for, as well as the excitement to climb it and the anticipation of the mystery, of the view at the top what make any spiral staircase well worth a climb. Like this spiral staircase below, located in the Clock Tower of medieval fortress of Sighisoara, Romania:

Spiral staircase design had to wait for the development of the craft guilds that took place during the Middle Ages – so that extra technical skills required in their extended construction develop. Now they were mostly used to prevent the invaders from gaining access in castles. It is of importance to know here that the Gothic stone-masonry masters ensured the stability of a stone structure by determining the right dimensions for all its different parts.

Spiral Staircase Symbol Mystery, marble spiral staircase, Romanian Atheneum, Bucharest
Marble spiral staircase at the Romanian Atheneum in Bucharest

The Helical Stair – a Timeline

With regard to the helical stair, the oldest examples can be found in the well-preserved towers at Aghios Petros on Andros Island and Pyrgos Chimarrou on Naxos Island, both dating to the Hellenistic period (4 – 3 century BC). Then it went dormant.

The helical staircase was not fully developed until later, during the 16th century, when it gradually developed in proportion and decorations, mainly composed of moldings on the wall handrail. Over time, its enclosing walls dissolved, improving the use of natural light.

Below, the stunning wooden carved helical staircase inside Peles Castle, Romania:

Around the 15th – 16th century the helical or openeyed staircase appears in Spain as an element of late Gothic architecture. This was also known as the mallorca staircase and the first, built between 1435 and 1446, is located in the turrets of La Lonja of Palma. Other helical stairs can be found in the Vélez Chapel in Murcia Cathedral, Colegio de Arzobispo Fonseca in Salamanca, and the Concepción Chapel in Segovia Cathedral.

During Renaissance times the helical staircase becomes a significant sculptural and elemental part of design. Like the one designed by Donato Bramante for Pope Julius II at the Belvedere Palace (and known as the Bramante staircase): a double helical staircase which was intended to separate the movement of people and animals.

Spiral Staircase Symbol Mystery. the Bramante staircase, Vatican
the Bramante staircase

Helical staircases now become spacious and elegant and even a centerpieces of a building, like the one located at the exit of the Vatican Museum in Rome designed by Giuseppe Momo (1932), or the free-standing helical staircase under the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris below (built 1989) or the glass one towering at the new Exhibition Hall at the Deutches Historisches Museum in Berlin (2003), both designed by Ieoh Ming Pei.

The Spiral Staircase from Symbol to Mystery, the free-standing helical staircase under the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris
The free-standing helical staircase under the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris (with an elevator inside its well)

Helical staircases inside Louvre Museum, Paris:

Andrea Palladio, 16th century Italian Renaissance architect, wrote in his book of The Four Books of Architecture, referring to spiral staircases :

“They succeed very well that are void in the middle, because they can have the light from above, and those that are at the top of the stairs, see all those that come up or begin to ascend, and are likewise seen by them.”

So, what is the difference between a Spiral and a Helical Staircase?

The common design of many ancient spiral staircase structures includes a center newel, crafted out of stone, with the stone stair slabs constructed around it.

The helical staircase follows the same basic rule, the rotation of a single-slab-step around a central axis BUT the newel is replaced by a small well. Nevertheless, the newel is kept but it is not located in the geometric center of the staircase but around it.

Spiral Staircase Symbol Mystery, Spiral staircases in Carturesti Bookshop, Bucharest
Spiral staircases in Carturesti Bookshop, Bucharest – above and below

In case you wondered or perhaps you saw one, there are outside spiral staircases too, like this stunning one below that we happened to stumble upon while visiting the Da VinciThe Genius exhibition back in 2014, near the Maronite Catholic Church in Johannesburg, South Africa:

I hope you enjoyed our excursion along the spiral staircase, from symbol to mystery.

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Through the Searching Eyes of Mona Lisa

through the eyes of Mona Lisa

Through the searching eyes of Mona Lisa is an attempt at seeing, watching from the perspective of the observed, in this case a portrait in the Louvre.

She was used to the crowd by now. The way it trickled in the morning, growing exponentially in the blink of an eye like the leaves of a vineyard in spring. For although they acted as individuals, they reacted as a whole in the large room that housed her. She had watched them so many days, the visitors, she had lost count. Of the passing time, of their number.

A leaf may flutter in the wind, but all leaves twist under its tease, and turn as one to follow the sun. And like the vineyards of Cesena, and of Florence, the crowd would change appearance, its impetuosity diminish, and wither by night time, but would still move as one around the room. Bound by visiting rules.

But the vineyard grows in strengths by tendrils holding tight even in the death of winter. They, the crowd, would hold only onto their cameras. Even in death, she asked herself.

Through the Searching Eyes of Mona Lisa

Yet with each day’s crowd she was, still, expecting him to return and go on with his job. She was waiting for him. Looking for his unmatched appearance. His wavy locks, that she’d later seen specked with silver, more often spotted with paint. His overflowing beard, the way he’d tuck it, but only with his left hand and, especially of late when he’d pause for thought. For she’d watched him too, like he’d watched her. She’d studied him, like he’d studied her.

His spirited, dark eyes that always locked and held, never allowing her to drop her gaze. Eyes that saw beyond the ordinary, the outer shell of things where ordinary people chose to cease seeing. Like them… Eyes that remembered before the mind did. She had studied his eyes, learning line after line, as they sprouted around. The way they twitched when he chose and mixed colors. The way they rose with the corner of his mouth. How their sparked, flanking his long, straight nose, the sign of the perfectionist he was.

She was searching for their unmatching magnetism within each daily swarm. For their kindness.

She was searching for his bright tunic and hose that only a man with his grace of movement and force of spirit would attempt to wear. For his easel and his artist satchel, the one that held his miraculous silk brushes.

She was searching for his exuberance, his generosity, for the way he would move through a crowd as an individual, as that one leaf of the vineyard that would follow the sun out of her own accord, for the sun itself came out looking for her.

In all the world there wasn’t another like him. For her. For he was her creator. He was Leonardo da Vinci.

And she was waiting for him to finish his work.

Happy to join Becky’s Square – Perspective blog feature 🙂 with a retrospective of our 2018 trip to Paris.

The Sinking House, Paris Photography

the sinking house of Paris, Montmartre

The Sinking House of Paris is, for me, one of three striking Parisian images that have entered, through reading and photography, my imagination.

The other two, in case you wonder, are the Louvre, its Pyramid included, and the House of Nicolas Flamel.

We approached Montmartre with our eyes saturated with images of the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur, of its ivory, gentle domes, of its unsullied, milky stone, miraculously whitened by time, not grayed.

We approached Montmartre expecting, and finding, a Parisian village within a metropolis city. Narrow, cobblestone streets steeping up. Tiny terraces with lilliputian coffee shops, surely painted by an artist, sprinkled left and right. Long stairways spilling into alleys, creating intimate squares.

Everything here is art.

But up must we hike. Past shielding trees, past chic homes, past quaint light-poles. Upward we put step after step. Has Picasso painted here? Are we literally stepping on Renoir’s footsteps? Degas? Utrillo? Always climbing.

She is waiting for us. The church. The view of Paris. And something else.

The sinking house of Paris.

the sinking houseof Paris, Montmartre

Are the hills of Montmartre and the constant up-climb meant to prepare us, emotionally, for the spiritual beauty awaiting at the top?

It was Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, a 19th century Irish novelist, who wrote in one of her books: ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

But so it is true that beauty can be found everywhere, as long as we are prepared for it. To look for it. To see it.

The Sinking House of Paris can be spotted on your right hand side as you climb the final steps towards le Sacré-Cœur. You cannot miss its white and brick facade and rows of chimneys on the roof.

Happy to join Becky’s Square – Perspective blog feature 🙂

Squarres Photography
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