Here's this week's Terribleminds challenge: tell a story from your life, something that actually happened. So, obviously, no speculative fiction elements allowed, which made this a bit of a challenge for me. Hope you like it, anyway.
Into the Catacombs
The descent into the catacombs is a winding staircase like you might see in an underground car park, but it goes much deeper. The walls are painted white to combat claustrophobia, but some of the tourists look uneasy. A woman keeps popping mint candies in her mouth, and a young man wipes his brow for the fourth time. As we venture deeper underground, the sounds of modern Paris fall away and I begin to feel the weight of the earth above us. I imagine Orpheus, clutching his lyre, descending into Hades. Is this how he felt?
Finally we reach our destination. The stone corridors are old, and my converse slip on the wet, uneven floor. When I look up, I see a trail of soot from long-extinguished torches. People have been coming down here from the 1800s. I wonder how the women managed in their long skirts and heeled lace-up boots. It must have been exciting, seeing this place in torchlight with a dashing young man by your side. Many a kiss must have been stolen here, accompanied by a nervous giggle. I touch the damp wall, like those young people must have done. My smile falls when I realize they are all long dead.
We reach a stone portal, the entrance to the ossuary. There is an inscription above it: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort.
With more then a little trepidation, I enter the empire of the dead. The passage opens, and I forget to breathe. Bones everywhere, artistically piled in layers of skulls and femurs from floor to ceiling. It’s beautiful and gruesome. The air tastes of dust. Dust from the crumbling bones. Memento mori. I reach out to touch a bony forehead, but lose my courage and let my hand fall. Empty sockets regard me. Year after year, they watch streams of tourists pass them by. Aloof and dispassionate, the skulls wait, like people-watchers in a café.
I heard that the guards check your bag when you leave, because some people try to smuggle out a skull or two. I feel a mad urge to take one, smuggle it out, my own Eurydice. Are the dead content here, I wonder? The ceiling trembles. My heart springs into a gallop, until I realize it’s only a subway train passing nearby. But what if something goes wrong and the ceiling collapses? Then I’ll join the dead in their eternal slumber. I can hear the other tourists around the bend of the corridor. Someone coughs, a shoe scrapes against the stone. I hurry toward the sounds of the living.
The labyrinth of bones goes on and on. Thankfully an obliging minotaur has closed off the wrong turns and dead ends, leading us to safety. How many people have become lost here? What about those first tourists, what did they do if their torches sputtered out? Do they wander here, still? Thieves found haven among the dead once, too. Did they feel the relief of coming home? Did they find sleep among the bones?
We reach another staircase. Up we trudge, out of breath but not stopping. Don’t look back, someone whispers in my ear. I see sunlight. We step outside. The air smells of spring and living things.
Remember to live.