An eerie labyrinth of twisting tunnels, sweating limestone walls and moldering bones awaited me.”
The sign read STOP. Here is the Empire of Death. That gave me pause, but I kept going. Another sign warned people in three languages: This visit is likely to upset sensitive people and children. My days of childhood were well behind me. But was I especially sensitive? I would soon find out. After a two- hour wait with other curious tourists I descended into the catacombs, deep beneath the city of Paris.
The Paris I knew was vibrant, sparkling like champagne bubbles. I could often catch the scent of warm baguettes with melting brie that mingled with the heady perfumed scents of Dior and Chanel.
A sudden coolness enveloped me and wrapping my street market pashmina firmly around my neck, I finally reached the last of the spiraling steps. An eerie labyrinth of twisting tunnels, sweating limestone walls and moldering bones awaited me. Here was a city of death, with the remains of six million Parisians stacked just one hundred and thirty steps beneath the city known for it’s light.
My nose crinkled at the smell of mildew, dust and decay. I was intrigued.
I began my journey into this history of hell where millions of bones were stacked like cords of wood along the narrow tunnels. Dim lighting showcased tibias, fibulas and femurs piled neatly together into symmetrical patterns. A heart carved in a piece of bone added poignancy, and I gave a small smile for the kind person who had crafted this image.
A polished yellowed skull gleamed in the dimness. A hole, the size of a child’s fist, showed black in the left temple. A revolutionary, I thought: one of the thousands who had fought against the clergy and nobility, a pathfinder for a new, freer France. I imagined a horseman with a black queue loosened from the neck fastening, streaming to his shoulders. His knees dig deeper into the stallion’s sweating flanks as he whips the horse forward.
“Vite, hurry,” he urges his men. “We must warn the villagers that danger is coming. The King’s men carry weapons and torches.”
He hears screams from the distance and pushes on. The fighting is brief but intense, and the farmers have no chance, their old pitchforks and rusty rifles useless. The bodies continue to fall, forming piles in the dirt. The horseman is one of the last men fighting. He believes in a new France, plentiful food for all and the golden francs of the rich shared with the poor. He sees a movement to the left and raises his rifle, but he isn’t fast enough. The blow to his temple is quick. Bright red blood flows over his tunic and pools in the dust where he falls.
The farmers will pay no more taxes and this revolutionary will fight no more. Their dismembered bodies join the silent piles steadily growing in the limestone tunnels, and the skull of the horseman lays nestled in the ribcage of an aristocrat.
He hears screams from the distance and pushes on.”
“Think in the morning that you might not survive until the evening and in the evening that you may not survive until the morning.”
Coming out of my reverie, I continued my way through the macabre display, the passages winding deeper, weaving a spell. Some of the small group of people around me seemed excited. A flash popped, glaring and disrespectful. I was ashamed to see that even surrounded by death, not everyone heeded the rules.
More bones. Now some formed stacks, not yet arranged. Pitted and shrunken faces, and enlarged nasal openings made me think of the dreaded leprosy. A jaw, opened wide looking as if this man had died screaming of terror.
A small finger poked out from the middle of a pile, vying for attention. I sensed the innocence and energy of a little girl. I could see her now, her long blonde hair bouncing along to her happiness, and a neat, white bow keeping the curls from tumbling over her pale brow.
“Papa,’’ she says as she skips along the street, “hurry and keep up. I can smell the pain au chocolat baking now. Monsieur Dupard promised he would save a special one just for me. He will put in extra chocolate pieces.”
Papa smiles at his youngest daughter, Lisette. He admires the blue smock that her Maman lovingly made, the added white frill at the bottom playing tap dance with Lisette’s slender calves.
“Watch out for the puddles, Lisette,” he calls “Maman will be unhappy if your boots get wet.”
Just this morning Maman said, “They’re too big I know, but she will grow into them.” The ankle high boots gleam from the polishing, and Lisette dances to her own inner music.
“Oh, what a perfect day,” says the little girl. She raises her arm and pointed to the tantalizing display in the boulangerie. The fabric hanging from the panes shows large yellow sunflowers, enhancing the arrangement of flaky croissants and sugar sprinkled pastry.
Suddenly, shouts come from all directions. Confusion ensues. Horses gallop by, prodded on by their impassioned riders, raising clouds of dirt and screams of horror. Papa, still a few feet behind, squints through the dust and calls out to his daughter. But it’s too late. Lisette’s lifeless body lays trampled and broken, her tiny leather boots covered in dust. One little finger still points to the window of the bakery.
And it still points now as I wander the catacombs, or so I imagined.
My inspection continued through the last few yards of twisting dank tunnels – even more corpses, sometimes stacked to the ceiling. The words of Horace, carved in the wall, tested my years of Latin: “Think in the morning that you might not survive until the evening and in the evening that you may not survive until the morning.”
I thought of Lisette. I thought of myself.
We reached the point where some of the tunnels had collapsed. Black streaks from old torches marked the sweating walls. Lifting my boots to avoid a sinkhole, I noticed the powdery limestone scaling up the leather – or was it bone dust?
The climb back to reality was quiet, the only sound being the soft thud of heels on the metal steps. My thoughts were deep as I left behind the quiet piles of dried remains and entered the bright light. This Empire of Death had left me in awe and dismay. Am I too sensitive? No, but perhaps sensitive enough to remember that someday, I too would be nothing but bones.