Catacombs

Natascha Wood

Paris is a city built upon ossuaries, on dark secrets and spilt blood—though should one choose only to pay heed to the romance, the fine dining and lavish store-fronts, it would be easy to stroll past the wrought iron gates, beyond which the Catacombs await.

Streets and magnificent monuments lie atop a great warren of pitch-black passageways and crypts, where the bones of six million nameless, dismembered skeletons are laid to rest. Some are victims of pestilence, others the victims of brutal strife, some are nobility, many are the poor, but all are one in the grave. Their skulls line the walls, like cobwebbed gargoyles with hollow eyes and gaping jaws. They dutifully guard the entrance to the empire of the dead, and what lies under it.

At some point during the early sixteenth century, exact date as yet unspecified, the first crypt was built in the old quarry where the catacombs would later be. A small group of labourers constructed it under cover of night, one hundred and twenty-five metres into the earth, with all the finery of a royal burial.

It was built like a miniature Gothic cathedral; its marble floors inlaid with gold and silver, its arched alcoves filled with statues of a winged woman. From its entry-way, an empty nave led the way towards the chancel where a wide hexagonal coffin had been placed at its centre. It couldn’t have been intended for a human, it was too wide, and the lid was too heavy.

Then, once the tomb was completed and the presumably deceased tenant sealed under the coffin’s marble lid, they closed the entrance with a steel vault door, almost as though it were a prison. And it likely would’ve worked very well as a prison, had it not been for the subterranean earthquake of 2013 that dislodged the lid and broke the door open.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, a blinding light, like a great supernova, grew from the open coffin until it consumed the tomb and spilt out into the narrow passageways. Once the light was at its brightest, it imploded and vanished suddenly, creating a great sonic boom which shook the city once more.

A waxen hand rises from the open coffin. It reaches out for the edge, trembling, searching, as if trying to claw its body out of a great cavernous depth below, from an ocean of dust and mildew.  Once its narrow fingers wrap tight around the marble edge, a pair of giant charcoal wings emerge from the dim grey, towering up towards the vaulted ceiling and disturbing the air around them until they conjure up a storm of filth. The owner of said wings, however, takes a little longer to haul itself—herself out.

She comes forth finally, like a dishevelled spectre, a Dickensian urchin, swathed in vast lengths of white hair and faded black rags, clinging to the side of the coffin. Beyond the veil of hair, there is visible the vague silhouette of a face; a long aquiline nose, a sharp jaw, a crooked mouth and flashing silvery eyes. She resembles a haggard crone dressed in widow’s weeds, but the smooth skin of her hands indicates some sort of supernatural youth. Either way, there are no obvious reasons for the excessive security keeping her there.

 

Delirious, gasping for stale air, she leaps for freedom on weak legs and scrambles blindly towards the chancel walls for purchase—though she quickly becomes tangled in her own hair and the faded tatters of her clothing, causing her to hit the floor with a dreadful cracking sound, knees hitting marble.

She hisses in frustration at her predicament as she kneels beside the wall with her trembling fists clenched and her coal-black wings tensed as if they might lash out at any moment and strike the wall beside her. Ancient words filled with indignation are uttered from beneath the veil of white hair, punctuated by the snapping and gnashing of teeth.

In the dark, she sees the freshly created crevasses and cracks in the ornate marble floors, where the earthquake had ripped the earth open. A tragedy really, for the reliefs carved into those floors are true masterpieces, more beautiful than anything ever carved into the tombs of Kings and Pontiffs.

The gold lines, silver constellations, the polished granite and marble forming pictures and scenes she recognises all too well. They are moments from her long and turbulent life; a battlefield between two hills, a throne, and a magnificent winged woman—sword in hand and a crown upon her head. The woman is her, or, it used to be.

She touches her spectral fingers to the marble relief, feeling the minute lines etched into the wings, the delicate folds of her robes billowing and flowing like rolling waves, the primordial symbols that formed her name. Iz’rail.

But they are just markings on a prison cell, identifying the prisoner, or a gravestone memorializing someone who might as well be dead. Grimacing, she withdraws swiftly.

Soon, the creature Iz’rail finds that she can no longer stand the reminders, nor is she particularly comfortable inhaling the thick air laden with dust. Regardless, her life has always been one of endurance, and the narrow traverse to the surface will be no different. So, she pulls herself up once more, trawling her hefty feathered appendages across the nave, where she sets eyes upon her escape route.

The ominous vault door, having been forcibly ejected from its mount by the earthquake, had left a narrow fissure where the granite wall would’ve met the steel door. She could slide through it with relative ease and crawl to freedom.

Iz’rail makes her way back up to the surface, through low tunnels and knee-deep water, until she emerges on a dry, well-worn passageway lit by electric lamps. Strange. Her last memories had been of dark age Damascus, amidst the chaos and brutality of the first Crusade, now she finds herself in a tunnel of bones and electric cables, the distant gentle roar of engines coming from above.

The deafening cacophony of unfamiliar sounds render her momentarily frozen in the passageway as she adjusts to the noise of twenty-first century Pari: the creaking of pipes, the rattle of subway cars racing down the tracks, tires driving over cobbled roads, slamming doors, phone calls, church bells, car horns, sirens, voices, music. The sounds begin to build towards a crescendo until her thoughts are lost in the chaos.

Hyperventilating and listing dangerously to the left, Iz’rail again forges on and makes one final break for the narrow stairway up to the surface. She rounds the corner with as much speed and agility as her ailing condition would allow and begins crawling up the stone steps as if they are the final few steps before the summit of a lofty mountain.

The wrought iron gate at the top of the stairs, however, presents no such problem. All she has to do is wrap her trembling fingers around the bars and wrench the gate open with herculean strength, so she can finally stumble to freedom.

Unfortunately, the sight that greets her is just as unfamiliar and unknown, just as terrifying. She has never felt so alone as she kneels on a street pavement in the dead of night, reeling back, confused and frightened upon seeing a car for the first time in her life.

She flees from the street-lamps and headlights before anyone on the number 21 bus witnesses the wings protruding from her back, and keeps going down the nearest street, never straying from the shadows. On the other side, a trio of women walk arm in arm, all of them dressed to the nines in short dresses and high heels. They spot the creature hunched over in the shadows across from them and snicker amongst themselves—their insipid laughs rattling around inside her addled mind like a loose screw. They assume that she is some poor, lonely drunkard trying to get home, which, in their defence, is not uncommon on a Friday night in the city.

She is trying to get somewhere; she just doesn’t know where that somewhere is until she stands at the front door of a church in the middle of the fifteenth district, having been drawn to holy ground. There, she finds kinship. It is the closest she can get to the world she remembered. She places her palms flat against the locked door and pushes gently, though she still manages to leave the door in splinters, which in turn alerts the resident parish priest to her intrusion.

 

 

Said Parish Priest, one Father Léon Bisset, arrives in the chapel not a few minutes later in his night-clothes, wielding a broom, clearly intending to confront the intruder. However, all thoughts of doing so are hastily discarded once he sets eyes upon the ebony wings draped across the altar steps, extending from a shivering, damp mass of limbs, ashen hair and tattered fabric.

Fortunately for the awe-struck Pastor, she doesn’t notice his presence, nor does she cease her distraught, desperate prayers before the altar. She simply continues unabated, ranting in ancient tongues, glassy eyes fixated on the ceiling. Léon wants to call out to her, to perhaps break her out of whatever frenzied reverie she is consumed by, but he cannot, for he too is caught up in something entirely out of his control.

He finds himself paralysed, almost suffocated by the thick atmosphere of menace lingering about the intruder. Her presence sends chills down his spine, and he cannot know or understand why. How could a creature so delicate-looking and so profoundly sad, be simultaneously the source of real terror, the likes of which he had never known?

When her head snaps around in his direction, he discovers the answer in her sharp, metallic eyes. They stare out from behind the veil of white hair with piercing intensity, but in them, he sees a tempestuous rage and a weariness that one could only acquire by living a hundred thousand lifetimes.

Léon should’ve fled at that moment. However, it is the better part of him that intervenes, telling him to stay and help the poor creature, regardless of the fear settling in the pit of his stomach. He casts off all notions of danger before approaching her slowly and carefully, but her eyes do not follow. She instead remains deathly still, looking more like a winged wax-figure than a flesh and blood living being.

Then, just as Léon apprehensively touches his fingertips to her shoulder, she keels forward like a dead-weight and falls to the cold marble floor, overcome by a deep, feverish sleep. It is only then that Leon remembers to breathe again, suddenly free of the oppressive weight upon his ribcage. He gasps for air, like a man breaking the surface of the water, and wipes away the tears forming in his eyes.

Above him, on the vaulted ceiling, rosy angels with white wings perch upon clouds of pink and gold, holding gilded harps and trumpets aloft. And at the altar, the polished white marble statue of the Virgin Mary stands ever watchful, crying tears of crimson blood.

 

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Natascha Wood is a 25-year-old emerging writer, freelance editor and graduate of the Algonquin College of Applied Arts and Technology’s Professional Writing program in Ottawa, Ontario.