When they first crested over the horizon, they were specks. Only the most observant - or the most bored - noticed: children lying in new grass finding rabbits in the cloud cover, or the old women who feed the pigeons, clutching sacks of grain. It wasn’t yet clear what they were - uncommonly large birds, or perhaps a small flock of the new flying machines - but whatever they were they swept south-southeast with the wind. As they flew closer, more people began to look up, nudging strangers at street-crossings. “Eh, regardez! C’est quoi, ça?” Necks craned above scarves, and women with skyward eyes stumbled on cobblestones.
We watched them settle down above the IXe arrondissement, their shapes becoming more apparent, softly rounded like the breast of a young woman, peachy in the afternoon light. One bounced off of the spire of La Trinité, and as a city we winced and waited for a pop but it just lofted upwards unharmed. There were at least a dozen of them, and they jostled each other, lazily ricocheting, seemingly borne on gaiety as much as on a breeze.
They started to descend sharply before they reached the Seine, merrily bumbling between the spires of Pont Alexandre III. Those who were near her banks that day swear that they stopped in midair when they reached the river, dipping their lower bellies into the water and rocketing up in a sunbrilliant shower of droplets, scattering the geese in a flurry of squawk and white feather.
Granting the Eiffel Tower a respectful berth, they swooped over low buildings and trees. We could see them clearly by then, although this raised more questions that it answered. They were perfectly round, apricot-hued, gleaming the late afternoon sun off of their westward sides. We waited for them to keep winging over Paris, bobbing farewell over the banlieues, but they slowed abruptly, hovering over Square Saint-Lambert and then floating gently to earth.
Theories abounded, young girls in schoolyards solemnly discussing faeries, men stubbing out half-smoked Gitanes and making oblique references towards malevolent eggs, the Académie des sciences making even more vague references towards agriculture and radioactivity. But when we finally dared venture back into the plaza, they were just sitting there calm, unthreatening: spheres of peach unbroken except for a grayish line of uncertain provenance down one quadrant.
We waited for them to hatch, to disgorge insects or birds or unimaginable creatures; we waited for them to blow up, annihilating the environs with slime or fire; we waited for them to do anything, really. But they just sat, serene, globes of spring sunset resting quietly on the plaza. The most intrepid boys reported that they felt like velvet stretched thin over a tyre. We weren’t sure what to do, but before any consensus was reached, one day in late October they took flight again, bobbling back the way they came: tower, river, bridge, church, and away. No other city in France or elsewhere reported a similar occurrence, but then again, we made no official statements, either.
Soon I, perhaps the last person who remembers that summer when the strange orbs descended upon Paris, will be dead. I leave this here so that it will not be forgotten forever, not because of its scientific mystery or conspiracy, or farce, but because to this day, I am not certain that I have ever seen anything more beautiful than those cantaloupe spheres dancing bittersweet over the early-summer Seine.
Picture from this amazing collection of color photography of early 20th-century Paris.