The fly on the wall

As I watched the old cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris go up in flames in 2019, I remembered hearing of another fire from long ago in 1863. Hold that thought.

My family, the Calliphoridae, has been located in Paris for centuries. We are the Flies on the Wall, using our complex eyes to see into what are sometimes called Universal Truths. We have perfectly beautiful geometric lacy wings and glittering bodies that shimmer with shifting shades of Prussian blue, viridian, amber and vermilion. These days the riot police in Paris, in their burnished black armour, with their banks of shiny shields, somewhat resemble swarms of Calliphoridae.

My own main Walls are in the small but graceful church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, in the rue de Châteaudun – métro on rue Bourdaloue. One of my favourite lookouts is the dome, where I like to settle high up on one of the small golden stars in a sky of lapis lazuli, beside the image of the Virgin. Daylight floods down through the great glass cap in the top of the dome, spilling into the church, illuminating every speck of floating dust.

We have been about the world since time immemorial. Surveying the pyramids of Egypt, busy around Stonehenge, working the forests of the Amazon, zooming about the deserts of Australia, working in the extreme reaches of the Arctic, following Marco Polo, Columbus, Napoleon – you name it, we were there on duty, breaking down organic matter, transmitting bacterial infections to animals and humans. Vectors of pathogens, that’s us.

We Calliphoridae were here in the Lorette for the baptisms of Georges Bizet and Claude Monet. One of my aunts swears she witnessed a man in a brown overcoat stab a priest to death in the confessional. Nobody else has ever mentioned this event, and the problem with this particular aunt is that she is inclined to invent fantasies. We pass the tales of violence, love, sorrow, crime, punishment, fire, water and so forth down through the family.

At last I come to the business of that other fire. I thank you for your patience.

The fire was in a theatre and the victim’s funeral was held in my own Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. I give you now the life and times of the deceased. She was a ballerina and several of my long-distance ancestors witnessed her performances at the Opera. The Fly on the Wall during the obsequies at the Lorette was one of these ancestors, and the tale is terribly, terribly sad.

Whenever I tell such a story, I channel the relevant ancestor, and it is as if I personally witnessed the event.


Livry, Emma Marie – 1842 to 1863

Emma was a young ballerina at the Paris Opera. She was ethereal, intangible, diaphanous – as beautiful as a falling snowflake. She would bound and leap as if fashioned from the air itself, skimming over surfaces like a feather on the breeze. She danced in Le Papillon, where she was the heroine who was transformed into a butterfly. When the fluttering bright butterfly flew too close to a naked flame it became a waltzing girl again, and she was able to marry the prince. This was a truly terrible irony, since when Emma was rehearsing La muette de Portici, her costume caught fire on a gas light and she died as the result of her burns.

“Oh goodness heavens, no,” she had said when the dresser attempted to insist that she have her costume dipped for safety in a fire-proof substance. “I will never use that stinky stuff. See how stiff it makes the skirts. I need air, I need air all around me to leap and fling and fly!” She felt the softness of the skirts, their flowing fabric, brushing against the smooth, pale skin of her legs.

As she entered the stage in the second act, she shook her skirts once too often near the gas lights and whoosh! Three times the little flaming torch on magic feet darted across the stage, until she was captured by the firemen who rushed to save her. She clutched the burning fabric to herself in an attempt to hide her nakedness. It took months of agony and infection for her to die. Her slender whalebone stays were welded to her skin and she died from the poisoning of her blood.

The clouds of incense at the requiem in Notre-Dame-de-Lorette billowed up, up into the dome, twisting and drifting in the pale sunlight. The coffin was draped in deepest velvet black, heaped with nosegays of muguet for this little lily of the valley in her mortal rest.

While the plots of ballets can be rather absurd – and believe me, I have been to the Opera myself often enough and have observed them at close quarters – the scene at Emma’s funeral was pure tragedy, echoing as deep and as high as tragedy can ever reach.

Members of my family accompanied the faltering black clip-clop of the mournful carriage from the Lorette to the Cimetière de Montmartre, and some of them never returned. We mourn for them, but we comfort ourselves with the image of them there at the graveside. On occasion I visit the spot to contemplate the flat and brutal slab of stone that lies atop the remains of the ballerina. A large plain cross of stone lies flat on the surface of the slab. The lichen and the weather have softened the simple statement of Emma’s name and her dates. I find further comfort in the aromas of the graveyard.


Google will tell you that in the 2019 fire in Notre-Dame there were zero deaths. Yet as I watched the smoke and flames, I recalled the flame that ushered in the death of Emma Livry. There are things in heaven and on Earth that Siri and Google can’t tell you. If you really want to know, maybe consider consulting the Fly on the Wall.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "The fly on the wall".

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