Sunday, June 27, 2010


Under the streets of Paris are buried 'THE INNOCENTS,' and a few other thousand who have lived in the city of light, and died here too.

I thought there would be a tour guide or something. At least a guard. But as I descend the twisted staircase 2 meters underground I am alone. Finally there is a gate, and after the gate, a sign. "You are now entering the empire of death." It's a little creepy, but this is what I expected, right?

Standing in front of the words are a mother, father, and daughter. When they speak I realize they're Swedish. The daughter shudders audibly and holds her shoulders. It is cold down here. I try to stay close to them, but not so close as to be a weirdo, as we move through the long corridors of dirt. I have to walk fast to keep up and my feet hurt from days of walking. I know we are moving toward the bones.

The Swedish father stops to read another inscription on the wall and I walk past. Up ahead there is another tourist taking a photo. When his camera flashes I see them--beneath the streets they are making hearts and rows and crosses and pathways to the other side--stacked femur upon femur, skull upon skull, lined up so evenly they look as if they have been shaved to fit together. They don't really have a smell. But the air has an erie texture, smooth, almost slippery. There are a few cement placards embedded in the bones with quotes from poets or philosophers. One that translates:

"Or is it death, always future or past, that it is already more."

And I stop long enough to photograph it, my flash lighting up the bones. Suddenly I am alone with them. I turn to move through the tunnel and I am walking faster now, but the bones seem to go on forever. I come around a corner and suddenly my right foot is cold and wet and I suck in a couple quick breaths. A man laughs. I look down. My sandal is all wet. It is the tourist from before. And a puddle. I look up. The gypsum is leaking. Dripping. Into this puddle and all over the footpath.

I continue on, embarrassed but no longer completely alone. I can see the tourist and his sweetheart up ahead. What were you laughing about? She asks him in French. Nothing, he says. A woman stepping in a puddle. But now I am taking a picture of the next placard, and the next. I can't read the French. I'll translate it later, I think.

And I snap and walk, and try to keep an eye on the ground. I'd hate to slip and fall into the bones. What a riot that would be. Hilarious. My heart is pounding. I start to pray. I repeat a simple prayer over and over. One that I know by heart. I am alone again. I don't know how I lost everyone. I hear a rustling. I keep walking. Rustling. Jesus. They are talking.

Fine. What do you want?
Cry for us.

But what they mean is sing-- sing so that we may feel the lif
e in you-- sing Amazing Grace, sing Elvis, sing anything. And so I do. I start humming. I don't want any of those tourists to hear me. When I was a little girl, walking home in the dark sometimes, I would sing to keep from being scared. I tell myself it is like that. And then I sing the words. Deep beneath the city my voice echoes and I sound like I wish I always would. There is no one to hear me but the bones. I think, there is no better audience.

When I finally reach the exit, there is a man with a thick African accent who asks to check my bag. I hold it open.

"No bones. Thank you."

And I see two skulls set aside on a table, confiscated, apparently, from would-be skull-thieves. Who would dare? I think.

When I get home, I translate another of the headstones which reads:

Listen. Listen to the dry bones of the Lord, The Almighty God of our ancestors, whose breath created the world. Come back from the far reaches, you will have flesh, new skin will form on these bones, and you will live again.

1 comment:

  1. You are now entering the empire of death.

    We didn't go here when we went to Paris last summer - I read about it after we returned. But I am making a list of all the things I want to do next time we go.

    And there will be a next time, I promise!