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A Gift of the Catacombs (1986)

A Gift of the Catacombs (1986)

©1986, 2013 by Dallas Denny

 Source: Dallas Denny. (1986). A gift of the catacombs. Unpublished short story.

The catacombs in Paris are open for tours only on Tuesdays. Seeing them is a unique and sobering experience. My character François describes how they came to be.




A Gift of the Catacombs

A Short Story by Dallas Denny


Je suis Americain. Je suis— I’m sorry. I’ve been here so long I think in this croaking language. I too am American. Where are you from? Atlanta? A Southerner, by God! I’ll just sit here on the stool beside you. Proud to meet you! Shake your hand. The damned French don’t shake hands right—it’s like grabbing a dead fish.

Buy me a drink? Sure, and in return I’ll show you something interesting. What will I drink? Oh, cognac. Rémy Martin. It’s all I drink. I don’t count the wine any longer. Wine is like water around here. Not so much as it used to be, but still— merci, monsieur bartender.

To your health, my friend from Georgia. And my health, you say? Very well. To my health. This cough? I’ve had it for years. Non, don’t shy away from me. It’s not tuberculosis, and it’s not a virus acquired by social contact. Non, mon ami, the cough is caused by dust from dead men’s bones and spores from mold-encrusted walls. It arose from long hours in the blackness and is maintained by the resentment of those who have been too long disinterred. It will last until I, too, am a man of bones. Have you read Housman? Yes? Gad,I took you for a learned man! What was your school? Vanderbilt? Moi aussi. Let’s drink to the black and gold. Garçon! Encore, s’il vous plait. And a Jack Daniels whiskey for my new friend. Avec glace. You must ask for ice around here, my friend. Otherwise you’ll get your drinks lukewarm.

Yes, I know I’ve lost my southern accent and acquired a French turn of phrase. It comes from living in this city for the past twenty years. My major in college? Don’t laugh— business administration. Yes, I know I don’t look the type, but then perhaps you’re not what you appear to be either, eh? Yes, I’ll guess. Hmmm. I would say you are— you are a professor of literature, here to study Honoré de Balzac. Non, not Balzac. Moliére, perhaps? Non. Victor Hugo. That’s it. Victor Hugo. You are here to study the works of Victor Hugo.

No? You disappoint me, my friend. You are, you say, an engineer? You don’t have the look of an engineer. You are here perhaps to study the Pompidou Center, our Beaubourg, with its guts naked to the world? Or la Tour Eiffel, which was as blasphemous in the nineteenth century as Beaubourg was in the twentieth? Non? Then perhaps Orly Airport. Again non. What, then? Oh! But of course! The sewers.

Yes, I know them well. There is, you know, a guided tour. Once a week, fat matrons from the Midwest and anemics from New York City descent an iron stair for the famous tour of the sewers of Paris. Non, I’ve never taken the tour, yet there are many paths into the sewers, and I know most of them. Well, perhaps most of them. Many of them. But the sewers are filthy. They are full of vermin and the wastes of our fellow men. And myself, also. You must excuse me. I go now to make a contribution to the sewers of Paris.

You’ll notice the cuffs of my trousers are wet. That’s the sign of a French public toilet. Only a few years ago, there was a pissoir on nearly every street corner. A man could urinate gloriously into a hole in the sidewalk. Perhaps that is why Frenchmen are so poor in their aim, eh, my friend? They are unaccustomed to toilets.

I see you have ordered me another Remy. Merci. You are a generous man. I wish you luck with your study of our sewers. I say our sewers because I am now a part of Paris. The city is in my blood. I will never leave. I earn my modest living and retire to my modest— My position? You ask about my position? Very well, I will tell you, and in so doing, you will see why I’m such an expert on the sewers. You see, I am a watchman. Although my shift is between one in the afternoon and nine in the evening, you could say I am a night watchman, because the place I patrol is as black as the night. The sewers? That is a good guess. But it is not the sewers. I patrol the catacombs below the sewers.

You know about the catacombs? I see. You have heard of them. Vaguely. Buy me yet another cognac and I will tell you about them. About the catacombs.

My name? Here, I am called François. In America, I was Frank. My given name is Franklin, after my birthplace in Tennessee. But the catacombs, my friend. Don’t distract me. I must tell you about the catacombs. The catacombs are a vast series of interconnected tunnels which underlie the city. They are ancient rock quarries. They run below the sewers, below the Metro, below everything else. If you were to hire an archaeologist to go to the Left Bank, near Notre-Dame, and make an excavation, he would find, below the styrofoam containers from le Burger King and the refuse from the Vietnamese vegetable vendors, below the foundations of the Sorbonne, below even the sites of the Stone-Age fishing village which was once the entirety of Paris, below the thick-browed skulls and stone spearheads and middens of the Neanderthal, below even the remains of the near-men, the Homo Erectus—he would find the remains of the first inhabitants of Paris. As he dug, he would unearth successive civilizations and societies, just as a chef of the nouvelle cuisine will peel layers from an onion. He would find Paris has been continuously inhabited since before the age of men. And, lost in the mists of prehistory, who knows the nature of those first inhabitants?

But the catacombs! My catacombs! The catacombs meander beneath modern-day Paris like the tunnels of a crazy mole. They cut here through the time of the writers of the Lost Generation, there through the reign of Louis XIV, running here through layers which were deposited during the lifetime of Christ, and there through strata more ancient than Moses. The catacombs touch all that Paris is and all that Paris has been, and they are influenced and colored in so doing. They are steeped in the lore and lives of all the inhabitants of Paris throughout all time. They are the true essence of Paris itself! The essence!

The catacombs, my friend, must be seen to be believed. They are full of human bones. Here one finds a room full of femurs, neatly stacked waist-high; there a passageway is knee-deep in shards from ten thousand skulls. There are chambers full of small bones—ribs and phalanges and vertebrae. There are rooms for each type of bone, and there are rooms in which bones of all types are to be found. There are bones which are bleached white by the sun, bones which have been blackened and cracked by unknown fires, bones which have been stained yellow and brown and gray by the grounds in which they once lay buried. There are the bones of giants and the bones of dwarves. There are bones of men and women, blacks and whites, children and adults, idiots and madmen, priests and peasants. There are rooms full of skeletons without heads, a grim reminder of the Terror. The bones of rich men lay next to the bones of paupers, bones of commoners are balanced atop of the bones of dauphins, the bones of sages can be found beneath the bones of fools. The remnants of the diseased lie crazily atop the remnants of the healthy. All the bones share a common citizenship. And all have laid there undisturbed for more than two hundred years.

The bones of more than six million people, my friend, lie silently in the catacombs, waiting. Waiting, I say! For what, I cannot say. They are patient, those bones, and they don’t say. They lie there, in rows or heaps, those men of bone. And six million souls? I don’t know where they’ve gone. Perhaps many of them have gone to heaven. Perhaps many of them have gone to hell. Perhaps six million souls wander the catacombs. Sometimes I think so.

Where did all those bones come from? Well, monsieur, if you will consult the map of Paris which I see in the pocket of your jacket, you’ll notice Paris is a city with a plan. Straight, wide boulevards run parallel and at angles to one another, crossed occasionally by other fine boulevards. There are wonderful gardens and woods and spacious parks. But the simple fisherfolk on the banks of the Seine did not have the foresight to make such plans. No, as Paris grew, it encompassed village after village, swallowing them like a giant amoeba. The Paris that formed was not like the city of today. It was instead a haphazard conglomeration of narrow, gloomy, twisting streets, dark alleyways, and courtyards which never saw the sun. Sanitation was a great problem, and travel a nightmare.

Something needed to be done. And, of course, something was. One of the Napoleons decided to remodel the city. He hired an architect who presented a plan to turn Paris into a model city. Paris would be full of sunlight and air. It would have beautiful parks and promenades, and, of course, beautiful monuments. And a famous plan it became. Architects from other countries flocked to Paris to use it is a model for their cities. Even the capital of the United States was modeled on Paris.

However, to follow the plan— to build those wide, pleasant boulevards, it was necessary to destroy the narrow streets, tear down dwellings and churches, widen the alleyways. This would necessitate the relocation of countless small graveyards. It would be difficult for an American to imagine, my friend, how many bones some of those graveyards held. I give you an example. Until about 1800, the main graveyard of the city was Le Cimitiére des Innocents. The boundaries of des Innocents were but 60 by 120 metres. Yet during the 800 years of its existence, more than two million people were buried there. Two million! One cannot begin to imagine the great mounds of bones that were unearthed when it was excavated!

To re-bury the bones would have required a sizeable portion of all of France. It was someone’s idea to stack them in the catacombs. And that is what happened. It was done with typical French bureaucracy and inefficiency. Beginning in 1786, by order of one Monsieur Thiroux de Crosne, Lieutenant General of Police, the bones were stacked in the catacombs. The laborers who stacked the bones, made uneasy, perhaps, by their Stygian task, carved gloomy inscriptions in Latin and French throughout the tunnels. And, when all the bones had been placed in the catacombs, they inscribed these words at the main entranceway: “Arrete! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” Stop! Here is the kingdom of the dead. The kingdom of the dead, my friend!

And I work in these very same catacombs.

My job requires me to walk the tunnels and guard against—I’m not sure what I am to guard against. My rounds have been ever uneventful. I’m not even sure if my job is to keep things out—or things in. At that, I don’t suppose it matters. I walk the catacombs with a flashlight. Some of the tunnels—the ones the tourists see—are lit with electrics, but most are dark as the pit. I tell you, it can get exceedingly spooky down there with the dead, with only a bulb and two batteries between you and the darkness. One hears unnameable sounds. One learns to live with the feel of feral eyes watching from the blackness. During my first years, my imagination—

You may be surprised to hear this, my friend: it can grow boring. One tunnel looks much like another, one bone much like the next. There is a constant danger of becoming lost, but one grows accustomed at last to the catacombs, and the nights grow long and dreary. And when one has patrolled the catacombs for seventeen years, as have I, one begins to play little games to keep oneself company.

I’m sure you know what I mean. One man may make up songs in his head. The next may envision in graphic detail the next encounter with his mistress. And I! I began to study and name the bones. One skull, set high on a shelf of rock, I named Monsieur Acadia. I would nod and tip my hat when I passed, and, I swear this, monsieur, Mssr. Acadia would grin and nod back at me. I made up names for the rooms of bones, and, eventually, names for individual bones. I would pick up bones and study them, comparing them to the illustrations in a Gray’s Anatomy I carried with me. In this way I became quite an anatomist, mon chere. I know more about the individual variability of leg bones than most physicians. And skulls. It would astound you the number of ways in which one skull can differ from another. And then—

But for me, another cognac, my friend. And for you, another Jack Daniels whiskey from Lynchburg, Tennessee. Non, I will buy this round. You appeal to my generous nature. Garçon! Another, if you please. Merci.

You keep looking at your watch. I beg of you, just this last drink. I am reaching the conclusion of my story. I will reach the finish before you reach the bottom of your drink. Very well. I continue.

I must assure you that if I didn’t come to know the bones of all six million inhabitants of the catacombs, I knew a sizeable portion. And then, there was something—a something. At first it was but a glimmer, a gnawing at the mind. It slowly grew until it was a puzzlement, and then a suspicion, and finally, a certainty. A horrible certainty. Monsieur, I tell you now what I have told no other. The number of bones in the catacombs is growing! Every day there are more bones!

Non, don’t laugh! I say, don’t laugh! This isn’t an amusing matter to me. At first I thought perhaps one of my fellow watchmen or watchwomen had idly picked up a few tibia and set them down elsewhere. But I spoke to them of this, and they denied it. I began to study the new bones, to compare them with the bones I knew. I made this hypothesis: the new bones came from a larger, heavier, breed of man than the original bones. The implications of this hypothesis made me shudder. But how to prove it?

I began to make lists and calculations. Of course, it was impossible to fit the bones of any individual in the Catacombs together and measure the height— the bones were too jumbled, you see—but there are more roundabout ways of determining height. I measured two hundred of the older femurs, and fifty of the new ones. The new femurs— yes, you are correct, the femur is the heavy upper bone of the leg— the new bones were on an average nearly thirty percent longer than the older ones. Thirty percent! It was a statistically significant difference. You are an engineer. Can you not guess what this means?

Of course! My surmise was correct. The new bones came from a race of men and women who were quite tall. And only in modern times have men come to be so large, on the average, as you and I.

I next turned my attention to skulls. To my surprise, I found a few skulls with signs of surgery— from which the patient, to judge by the new growth of bone—had recovered. Oui, I am aware of the trepanning of skulls which occurred as long as two thousand years ago, but this was different—the cuts were more elaborate, more smoothly-edged, more indicative of modern surgical practice. And they showed signs of healing; many had lived long lives after their surgeries.

I told you I only gradually grew suspicious. Perhaps the turning point occurred when I idly picked up a tibia and found a curious set of scars. After searching for weeks, I found another tibia, and a femur, all with the same scars. I hid the bones under the jacket of my uniform, and, when I had a day off, took them to a specialist. He told me the scars were the marks of surgery to place marrow in the bones. This operation is of quite recent origin. He asked me if the bones belonged to a relative who had died with leukemia, or perhaps to one of the unfortunates who did not survive the Chernobyl disaster. He offered to buy them from me, insisted that I sell them to him. I ran from his office, monsieur, and that night, I entered the catacombs from the sewers and took the bones back to where I had found them. Since then, I have spent my free time, as well as my time on duty, prowling the most obscure corners of the catacombs. But all I’ve seen are hints of shapes beyond the range of my torch and the sounds of unknown things moving in the darkness. I’m sure that there is nothing there. Surely, it’s just my imagination playing tricks on me.

I see your drink is empty and you are anxious to leave. I will delay you no further. But monsieur, I must tell you of my latest discovery, the discovery of three nights ago. I was in a new section of the catacombs; at least it was a new section for me. I cast the light from my torch into a room. It was full of skulls. This in itself is not unusual in the catacombs, but the glint of gold was. I climbed over the breastworks— this consisted of a waist-high stack of bones, with skulls embedded in a diamond pattern—and picked up a jawbone. In the beam of my light I saw—and monsieur, this you may not believe— that there had been extensive dental work. Modern dental work. Cavities were filled, and there were three gold crowns. I pried them loose, put them in a pocket and picked up another jawbone. This one was smaller, as if it had belonged to a child, and there were no gold teeth, but I could see two small cavities had been filled. I went from jaw to jaw, and I swear to you, nearly all had fillings. I took several of them to a friend, an orthodontist, who assured me the alloys and amalgams in the fillings dated from this very century. And I know that to be impossible, for the last of the bones were placed in the catacombs nearly two centuries ago, before the advent of modern dentistry!

I see you don’t believe me. I will allay your skepticism, my friend. You may wonder what is in this cloth sack. You will note it is much like the sacks of the old gold prospectors in California and Alaska. And that is because it holds much the same treasure. Look, my friend, as I empty the bag on the table. See the glint of gold, the silver sheen of amalgam, in these hundreds of fillings and teeth I have pried from the jaws of the dead in the catacombs! And in only three days!

How you blanch! How you stammer! Monsieur, do not be frightened of François. Do not be afraid of me. I am at best a detective of sorts, and at worst a grave robber. But monsieur, I call to you. Monsieur! Who do these new bones belong to? Who is putting them in the catacombs? And why? Do not run away, my friend. Stay, have another drink, and you tell me a story, eh? Come back!

Garçon, another cognac, please. Non, my friend has left. Oui, he did look a bit frightened. Non, I cannot imagine why. Yes, work is slow. But I have five new patients this week. And two of them need extensive work. Perhaps things will look up. These? Oh, they are simply old fillings and crowns. For years, I have saved them. Whenever a patient comes in to have his filling redone or to have a new crown, I drop the old one into this bag. It is simply an idle habit of mine. I carry the bag with me because it amuses me. Perhaps my new friend had a toothache, yes? Or perhaps he is afraid of dentists.

Oui, the Rémy is very good. Excuse me. That looks like a fellow Canadian. I must say hello.

Je suis Canadien. Je suis— I’m sorry. I’ve been here so long I think in this language. And you do not have the look of a man from my native Quebec. Where are you from? Vancouver? Remarkable! I once lived in Vancouver…