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Cabinet of Chic Curiosities

The Escape to Saint Germain

“Parisian woman with her cat in her cannabis garden, 1910”

Several days ago I found myself knee deep in water on the first floor of my ancestral apartment along the Seine. Many days of rain in Paris had made the river swell, flooding the streets. I could hear the voices of men shouting outside offering to help those who were trapped inside. By the grace of God I had only myself and my beloved birds to be rescued. 

In the darkness of the night I struggled to find my way to my one true treasure, my grandmother’s bird cage with my finches. It was bitter cold and my body was shivering uncontrollably. I shouted. “Help, help, please! I beg you….”

My voice weakened by panic and fear. My many layers of clothing were making it difficult to traverse through the water. Slowly, methodically, in the pitch black, I managed to make it to the butler’s pantry. I ran my hand along the frigid marble countertop and felt the wires of the birdcage. At this point I knew my body was giving into the cold and dampness that was stealing my breath. I grabbed the cage with my numb, aching hands, praying I could find my way to the door. Again I called out for help knowing my life was in danger. The front door was pushed open by men holding lanterns. The moments after that have escaped me. The next thing I can remember is being lifted into a small boat with several other women. The Seine had completely flooded the streets of Paris endangering those at street level. Ours was a stunning parlor-level apartment that had been in my family for generations. 

I was fleeing for my life and only complete strangers could save me. A rather large man was pulling the boat through the road, the water slowing rushing to his waist. I could no longer hear any sounds, death was in the air, the air so cold life was fading. What was probably mere minutes seemed like an eternity. I could see dawn breaking in the distance. The sun and it’s warmth reminding of life and providing a glimmer of hope. 

Eventually we made it to a dry embankment. The sun was rising and I could clearly see the face of the man rescuing us. Deep blue piercing eyes that had seen many lifetimes. Kind eyes of the man who had saved us. His weathered hand reached for mine helping me out of the boat on to the frozen ground. I collapsed on to the cold, damp earth as he handed me the birdcage. I feared that my finches had died but then I heard the most glorious sound, the sweet chirping of my only companions in life. Eventually I made it up to the street where many Parisians were offering their help.

A young family in a horse drawn carriage kindly asked if I would like to join them on their journey to Saint Germain. I was elated as my Aunt Bernadette and her third husband Fritz have a home there. Many years ago they had abandoned their home to travel the world. Upon arrival I walked through the back gate into the overgrown and neglected courtyard. I placed my birds on the table right next to a rather odd cat sitting in a chair. This is the last known photograph taken of me by the caretaker who lived on the grounds. He introduced me to the unusual medicinal plant growing wild all over the property. I found myself content for the first time in my life.

Heather Bender is a professional wanderer and dreamer who resides in the fabulously quirky Savannah, Georgia.

Read more stories from the MNC Storyteller Challenge here.