l’Empire de la Mort
Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort!
Stop! This is the empire of death!The Catacombs of Paris
I will die soon. The sign over the door predicts my fate.
I sit amongst the bones of six million Parisian. I have become frail and tired. I miss the sun. I miss being warm.
I remember the day that the world changed. May 30, 2041. As the world woke, from time zone to time zone, people were missing. Those who saw it said it was like watching a picture fade until the person was gone. Wives, husbands, children, whole communities.
I was hiding in Paris. Hiding from my old life. Starting a new one.
I’d dreamed of freedom as a little girl, watching the buffalo as they wandered across the plains of Montana. My parents made me always wear a dress and keep my hair braided and clean.
I wanted the braids to come loose. I wanted to wear pants and dance under the moonlight.
But there was no escape from my tiny Montana town. No escape from our church that had wrapped me in its communal arms; the motherboard of our community, the backbone in which everyone and everything connected. No escape from my rigid parents, the role of dutiful daughter, one of three girls; me, the youngest.
Until I became the dutiful wife.
I was only 17 when the new youth pastor arrived. He was beautiful and mysterious to my small world. He was 22 and I imagined him giving me the freedom I had always craved.
He kissed me under a sycamore tree and carved our names into the bark—Jeremiah and Jenny—sealing our commitment to each other.
I remember our wedding.
It was my 18th birthday and I wore my mother’s yellowing wedding dress; high collared and buttoned at the wrist. My hair hung in long brown braids. The Montana Tulip was in bloom and I wore a flower crown picked from my mother’s front yard.
My parents sat in the first row looking proud at their place of honor—their new stature within the church.
The very first night, he hit me.
I didn’t know how to leave or what life could look like beyond the plains with the buffalo.
I stayed for another year, hiding the bruises under long sleeves and long dresses. He began to talk about children, and I knew I couldn’t bring them into this world, not with him as their father.
One night, after dinner with my parents, I excused myself to their bathroom. I snuck into their bedroom and lifted a secret loose board in the floor.
I took $300, hoping it wasn’t enough to be missed right away, and folded it into my restictive bra. I saw an envelope tucked beneath the old tin box. Inside were our birth certificates–one, two, and three–my sisters and I.
I took them all.
I went home with my husband and allowed him to beat me one last time.
As he lay snoring, I slipped out the back door and ran to the end of our country road where my sister was waiting for me. She drove me to the bus station in the next town over.
She kissed me goodbye, told me to go with God, and slipped another $103 into my hand.
It’s all I had, she said.
I tried to give it back to her.
You need it more than I do, she said. Don’t tell me where you’re going. I won’t be able to lie to them.
I gave her the envelope with her birth certificate and that of our sisters’.
Now you can go somewhere if you want to, I said. Give it to sis for me?
A bus left for Idaho at 6 am, and I was on it.
I made my way to New York, always looking over my shoulder. I thought I could get lost there. I took a job as a waitress and saved every penny I could, sleeping in a crowded women’s shelter at night with screaming babies and exhausted women.
But I was free, as free as I could be.
I applied for a passport.
I had seen the Eiffel Tower in an encyclopedia at school once. I’d only been allowed to go to school through the 6th grade.
Why do girls go to school? my father used to say. You need to learn from your mother, how to churn butter and care for the land.
But still, I dreamed of looking out over that dreamlike city of Paris.
Never did I imagine that I would die in its underbelly.
My passport came and I carried it like treasure, tucked into a cloth belt that sat hidden at my waist along with the money I made.
I didn’t feel safe, but I was afraid to fly; didn’t know how to buy an airplane ticket or what an airport even looked like.
Until the day came that I walked into my waitress job and another waitress said, A man came looking for you today, Jenny. He left this for you. Said he’d be back.
A red tulip.
I slipped out the back, didn’t even collect my last paycheck. I had seen the signs for JFK on the subway. I asked other women for help and they seemed to understand the terror in my eyes. They called me honey and darling and directed me each step of the way.
The airport was huge with people moving everywhere. I didn’t understand how to buy a ticket or how to ask questions and finally slumped into a corner and began to cry.
An older woman in a uniform came up to me, a cap on her head and a pin with wings on her chest.
Are you okay? she asked.
What could I say that could explain my ignorance.
I’ve never been to an airport before, I said. But I need to get out of the city.
Do you have a ticket? she asked.
I shook my head. I have money though. And a passport.
The woman smiled.
Do you know where you want to go?
I’d like to see the Eiffel Tower. I saw it in a book once.
She pulled her phone out of her pocket and I thought perhaps she’d forgotten me.
Finally, she said, There is a flight leaving for Paris in about 5 hours, I can show you how to buy a ticket. I’m Lisbet, you can call me Liz. Do you have a name?
She must have seen the panic on my face, but seemed to understand my thoughts.
Once you’re through those gates, she whispered conspiratorially, only someone who has bought a ticket will be able to go through. Whoever you’re trying to get away from, do they know you’re here?
I shrugged. They had found me in the city.
Come on, she said.
She took me to a counter with a woman who had on a uniform with the same logo.
Hi Celia, she said to the woman behind the counter, this is a friend of mine. I’d like to buy her a ticket for the 13:20 to Paris. And I want to make sure she can wait in the VIP lounge until the flight leaves. Can we make sure this happens?
She pulled out her credit card.
I tried to protest, but she turned to me and said, You don’t look like you have much. Let me help you.
Thank you, I whispered.
For the first time in my life, I felt loved, loved by someone who didn’t even know me. Someone who wanted nothing from me.
The woman behind the counter asked for my passport and the idea of taking it from my hidden belt terrified me. I realized I was still wearing my apron. I used it to hide my legs as I reached up under my simple dress and pulled the passport from the belt.
Both women averted their eyes while also making a barrier so that others wouldn’t notice my caution.
Do you have any bags? The woman behind the desk asked.
I shook my head no.
Soon, I had my passport back.
You’re going to need that to get through security, said Liz, and again to get on your flight. I recommend we get you some other clothes so that it’s easier for you.
I nodded my head.
I saw your name was Jennifer, on your ticket?
I go by Jenny, I said.
She took me through security, flashing a card that seemed to stop all questions. She bought me pants with elastic at the waistband and a soft sweatshirt. She tucked my long hair up into a baseball cap and put sunglasses over my eyes.
I tried to pay, but she wouldn’t let me, claiming she had needed to use the points on her card. I didn’t know what she meant but felt a growing excitement.
There, I’m going to take you to the VIP lounge, but even if whoever you’re running from sees you, I don’t think they’ll recognize you.
She turned me to face a mirror on the wall and I didn’t even recognize myself.
She took me to a room with soft chairs and TVs on the wall, coffee and tea next to cookies and sandwiches. Then she went and spoke to someone in another uniform.
Returning, she said, When it’s time for your flight, I’ve arranged for someone to come and get you. They will get you on board. Someone will meet you on the other end and help you get settled for the night.
Then she held her hand out to me as if I were her equal.
I hope you find a good life in Paris, she said.
I remember that sensation of the plane lifting off as if it were yesterday. Holding my breath, my body feeling heavy, and then seeing the world grow smaller beneath us; the ocean stretching out in all directions.
I slept. The first solid sleep I’d had since marrying Jeremiah.
When I arrived in Paris, a woman met me at the gate, holding a sign that simply said, Jenny.
They took me to a small hotel, hidden amongst the other buildings of Paris, and told me that my room had been paid for a month. There was a shared bathroom on my floor and the room was the size of a closet, but the sheets and walls were clean.
The front desk gave me a card, the name of a restaurant, and told me they may have a waitress job for me.
I started small, serving drinks and seating diners. But I worked my way up and could survive on my small salary, eating baguettes and cheese and fruit.
I lived a simple life, a good life, a safe life. A few years passed. I turned 21, then 22.
That was the year the rapture came. May 30, 2041.
Half of the people of Paris disappeared. Just faded overnight. Half of the people I knew were gone.
And I was left.
This Christian girl from the midwest who still prayed but wasn’t sure that God actually listened. I lived in a space of doubt; why would a God who loved me let a godly man hit me? Why would my parents keep me meek?
Why would God make the buffalo to run wild and free but keep me locked up? A servant to those who wanted to control me.
The scientists were gone. The atheists. All the world religions that did not believe in Christ had simply disappeared.
I didn’t know what I was or what I believed, I was somewhere in the middle space of confusion.
Those of us who were undecided were also left behind.
Food was in surplus. Homes were in surplus.
Travel stopped. The skies cleared.
We all lived in a state of survival.
I didn’t waitress, who would I waitress for? I learned to bake bread at what had been a local bakery. We gave it freely, while other places made soup and stews. Farmers gave of their crops. Gas was plentiful, traffic was sparse.
Still, they lit the Eiffel Tower, my beacon of hope.
In exchange for bread and my help with cleaning and errands, I was allowed to move into a room that, if I stood, just right on a small balcony, I could see the Eiffel Tower. I had my own bathroom. It smelled of mildew, but it was mine.
I knew that I was safe.
But I was wrong.
We lived like this, for almost two years.
Travel began again, although limited. You couldn’t simply walk into an airport and buy a ticket. Trains once again connected Europe.
How simple our lives had been. How convenient.
The churches took over the government. And why shouldn’t they? There was no one left to argue the division of church and state.
Laws reverted to those the church thought relevant.
Abortion was outlawed. The LGBTQ community was quieted and made to go underground. Different sects in different regions enforced their own laws, and the laws reflected a different time of history.
Birth control was stolen and hidden, passed along secretly between women.
Female doctors secretly implanted IUDs that would last for years and men began to undergo vasectomies.
There were too many uncertainties.
The devout believed they must convert all of us, all of us who sat in the middle. They believed that Jesus would come, but only when we hade all have been saved.
Almost two years passed, then, in March of this year, it seemed that the whole earth began to shake. Buildings fell, and the oceans rushed onto the shore of every continent.
More died. The face of the planet shifted.
My small apartment stood, although with cracks in the walls.
The Eiffel Tower continued to light.
I continued to bake bread.
I continued to live.
We were told that the earthquakes brought an island to the surface in the middle of the Atlantic. We were told the governements believed it to be the lost island of Atlantis, sunk into the ocean before the first coming of Christ.
Rumor said there were people there and research vessels headed to rescue them.
Ships ready to spread the word of God.
And we waited. Waited to hear about this new world of myth. Waited in hopes of understanding.
The trees turned golden and then lost their leaves.
One night, only a few weeks ago, near the beginning of December, I found myself walking along the Seine. The moon was overhead and I watched her reflect her light in the flow of the river.
It was quiet here, near the Musee d’Orsay.
In the distance, I began to hear what sounded like the squawk of ravens, a calling and trilling and alerting.
Raven did not fly at night. I stopped and listened.
Suddenly, a flock of birds flew overhead, shadows reflected by the now limited lights of the city. They followed the Seine, traveling its twisting form as if it were a guide, from the west and heading east, a larger flock than I had ever seen, blotting out the sky.
Ravens, flying at night, trying to escape. Or perhaps a warning.
I ran to the next set of stairs, heading up to the street level. I watched as the ravens flew, calling their alert, and watched as the flock appeared to turn south, to follow the Seine out of the city.
Then the screams began. Coming from the same direction the birds had.
It was getting louder as it came my direction.
I felt frozen, the world dreamlike.
What was coming for me? Where could I hide?
I looked back towards the Orsay and thought I saw movement.
People; stumbling, falling.
I turned, looking in the direction of the birds, now out of the sight.
A mechanical roar began to rise, the sound of a motorcycle came from behind me, passing me and skidding to a stop.
Montez! Allez! Allez!
He was waving his hand at me, telling me to get on his bike.
I did not think a second more. I ran and climbed on the back.
I found myself holding on to this body in front of me as the wind tangled my hair.
The motorcycle moved down foreign streets, turning and shifting with confidence.
We turned a corner and there was a woman helping a child as she climbed down through a manhole, the cover pushed aside. Another man stood to the side, frantically looking up and down the street.
He waved to us and began to yell, Vite!
My driver came to a halt, next to the hole.
Allons-y, he said. Let’s go.
Vite! Vite! the man with the street cover again yelled.
Leaving the bike, I swung my legs into the hole. C-shaped bars clung to the walls, descending into darkness.
I began to climb, the ladder seemed never ending. The motorcycle driver came next, holding a flashlight, and then the man at the top followed, pulling the cover and sealing us in this underground world.
I began to see light below me; two children—girls that looked like twins—, a woman, and a teenage boy, all stood at the base of the ladder, silent and holding on to each other.
Louise and Emma, Elaine, and Henri. They would become my life. And Alexandre, the man on the bike, who would never give up.
The ground and walls were covered in thick dust. There was a metal gate and the walls had numbers and letters carved into them; coordinates to identify where you were.
When the last man arrived, he began to lead us along the cold and dark hallways. There were compasses carved into the walls, showing north and south. There were occasional street names, showing the roads that ran above our heads.
We came to what looked like the end of the tunnel, with only a catlike hole at shoulder level.
I thought we had come to the end when the man stuck his head and shoulders through the hole and seemed to slip through. He reached back and helped the children, the teen, the woman, and finally, me.
I found myself in a cavernous space, with stairs and arches and graffiti on the walls.
There were more people here, perhaps 20, all speaking in whispers.
As a group, we began to move.
The man from the motorcycle came to stand next to me.
Where are we? I whispered.
You are American? he whispered back.
Yes, I’m sorry. I can speak French, I’ve been here for years, I just, when I get scared, I have trouble finding the words… Je suis désolé, je divague.
It’s okay, you don’t have to apologize, and you are not rambling. I can speak English, he said in a strong French accent.
Where are we? I repeated
The catacombs, he said.
Why? What was all the screaming?
The monsters, he said. The monsters have come.
What monsters? I asked.
The monsters of Atlantis, and then we continued to move deeper in the world of the bones.
The weeks have passed. Time down here makes no sense and the tunnels seem endless. We can not wander on our own, it’s too easy to become disoriented and lost. We stay mostly within the two manicured tourist miles, despite being surrounded by the dead. This area is safer. Other tunnels, over 200 miles worth, are more confusing, many have collapsed and still others have floors covered with the bones of the French. To be lost in the catacombs is another form of death and insanity.
The entrances are locked with metal bars, but there are so many unknown entrances and exits to these mazes.
Discovery parties look for secret exits, bringing back food and water when they can, looking for safety. But the supplies have dwindled and our population is getting smaller; many of our discovery parties come back with fewer people, if they come back at all.
I hear a rumbling in the guts of the catacombs.
Moans, grunts, echoing through the hallways.
There are rumors that one of us was eaten; rumors that the creatures can take our memories, and when they do, they will know the secrets of the catacomb.
Alexandre comes running into the room.
“Il faut courir!” We have to run!
And now I hear the screams, echoing from distances in the catacombs.
Louise and Emma cuddle closer into my body. They have adopted me as their mother.
I look at them both, “Soit brave, il faut courir.” Be brave, we have to run.
Echoing up through the tunnels, wails of agonly, we don’t know how far or how long we have.
I take their hands and run behind Alexandre, up the spiraling stairs to the exit the public used to know.
He unlocks the gate and I feel the fresh air, want to breathe it in, but there is no time.
I feel sunlight on my skin, am blinded by the suddenness of the light. For weeks, I have been a creature of the dark.
Everything is a blur as my eyes struggle to focus.
I make out the outline of a car as my eyes begin to adjust.
Elaine, clutching the wheel, her eyes are locked forward in an intense focus. Henri standing with the back door open, he leaps in, his arms spread to take the children.
Alexandre lifts Emma and I lift Louise and we run in the warm daylight, Henri pulling hem into the back. I follow them and slam the door shut while Alexandre climbs into the passenger seat.
Elaine begins to drive.
There are automated bodies dragging themselves down the street, their skin greenish and peeling.
One looks up and makes eye contact.
There is thought behind those eyes. A smile on his lips.
I will die soon, but not today.
This Week’s Prompt
Week 24 – The early days of the zombie apocalypse.
Include the words; motherboard, buffalo, Eiffel Tower, raven, motorcycle, envelope, tulip, moon, reflect, sycamore
Read my writing partner Bridgette’s story here.
Week four of our 52-week challenge gave us the prompt, “a missionary in a remote village.” My story that week could have easily fit this week’s story of “the early days of the zombie apocalypse.” I came into this week with the goal of continuing the original story.
Finding a place to start was my challenge.
I began by continuing with the story of the missionary, his thoughts clear but his body disintegrating. He was plagued by hunger but knew that if he ate everyone on board, there would be only him and a failed mission to bring “the truth” to those left in the world.
I was going to have him turn the captain into this new way of being and bring the captain “food” so that the captain would take the memories. I would have them turn any vital members of the crew into the thinking version of the zombies, save the rest as food, and then turn around and head back to Atlantis. There, they would rescue the Atlantians, stopping in the Canary Islands to eat the population before heading to dock in Barcelona.
But I couldn’t find a rhythm. Neither the journal entry form of the first story nor a first-person narrative worked for me.
My daughter suggested an approach of several different viewpoints; newscasters around the world, journal entries from different people, and newspaper articles.
I then began to imagine journal entries from an opposing force, someone different that the missionary of the first story.
I kept imagining a story that took place in the catacombs of France; a place I am so grateful to have visited in my life. Tunnels that date back to the 13th century. Bones of humanity are stacked like art, bones that date back more than 1,200 years. It is a reverent place despite the macabre.
Then my daughter and I discussed a more sentimental story. She talked about a mother and a daughter waiting for death as the zombie apocalypse happened around them; reliving their life together. She is of the opinion that my sentimental stories are better than the twisty ones.
This took me back to a single subject, a young woman, reliving her life. It started as journal entries, but I wanted to give you, the reader, a chance to read of their escape and that didn’t work with the journal. I also wanted to work with the sentimental ideas that my daughter talked about.
I removed all reference to her writing (why would she have a journal down there with her anyway?) and chose to let us live in her memories until the time of escape came.
This brings us here, dear reader.
We visited the catacombs in 2016. All pictures are from our trip.
We walked something like 22 miles that weekend, walking along the Seine across the city. It was one of the best weekends of our lives.
One of the neatest links I found this week was about the illegal trips into the hidden entrances of the catacombs. There are miles of tunnels that are forbidden, with unexpected entrances. I’ve included a link to a really neat article with lots of pictures in the links below.
I hope you enjoyed this continuation of the story. If you did, I hope you’ll share it with someone you’d want to explore the catacombs with.
Special thanks to my daughter for letting me use her art for Jenny. Please follow her on Instagram at Isobell.dohn.art
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The following link is about the very illegal ways of touring the hidden entrances of the catacombs. I highly recommend it as it has some amazing photos: Penetrating the Paris Catacombs: Level One | Messy Nessy (the secret entrances)
Next Week’s Prompt
Week 25 – The main character thwarts traditional gender roles.
Include: woman, bestseller, buttress, goldfish, barnyard, walkway, crop, winter, driveway, steer