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The Empire of the Dead


Metro: Denfert-Rochereau Price: $6 Bring: flashlight, jacket

The sign above the entrance reads THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH but for some reason it doesn’t register with me, at first. “Bullshit”, I mutter under my breath but check anyway for the tenth time my flashlight, its switch, make sure it goes on; rubbing my finger over the ridges, making sure it’s still there, making sure I’m sure. I adjust my daypack. Tighten the straps.

Joey takes to the steps first. I follow. Rickety, gray iron makes for an old fashioned, unsteady, and far too dramatic stairwell. We descend, around and around, gravity taking hold, and we reach bottom within minutes.

The cold here creeps up unnoticeably as you get closer to ground zero. You feel it on the legs first, then the body, then it devours your face. Once at the bottom the number one thing that unconsciously sucks your balls up into your ass is the silence. Use any cliché you want about how quiet a place can get and there you have it. How can you describe silence though? It’s like trying to describe water or giving the definition of love a day in court.

My ears, my head quickly stuffed up. This air below is vacuumed packed. You know the sound that comes off a jar of Planter’s Peanuts when you first pop it open? Figure that had to have happened here on a much larger scale. It, the catacombs, were sealed in for the freshness yet it feels like all the air had been sucked out when somebody screwed that giant cap off a long time ago.

Low-wattage light bulbs are strung along the ceilings of the tunnels for guidance but still, take a flashlight. And, voila! There you are. Step right up. No waiting here ladies and gentlemen! No shoving or pushing please! Plenty of room for everybody! For the bones of over six million souls are stacked neatly, wall to wall, from the second you stumble into the tunnels, to the second you manage to scramble back out–and they ain’t going nowhere, folks!

You are immediately overwhelmed. Nothing in your life thus far has prepared you for such a sight as this.

You creep forward, hesitant at first simply because you can’t believe what it is you are looking at. I became unbalanced. Dizzy. Short of breath. Taken aback for a few seconds. Faint maybe? I’ve only had this staggering sensation three times before in my life: 1) The time I saw my first UFO. 2) The time I saw a tumor the size of a golf ball on the x-ray of my father’s brain. 3) The time I saw a photograph of one of Ed Gein’s (America’s first serial killer circa 1950s) victims. She had been hung upside down in his basement, and eviscerated. But not just any ‘ol evisceration, no, no, no, not for that sick-fuck. What this old guy did was neatly and, some say, quite professionally, carve out the entire pelvic region of a young lady. He scooped it out I guess you can say, essentially creating a missing puzzle piece. Just thinking about that makes me shudder even now as I write this at 4am

There are millions of skeletal fragments and parts. So many at once, but this isn’t a movie. This isn’t one of those “Faces of Death” videos where you go, “Oh, fuck, dude,” then take another hit off your pipe and/or swallow/gulp from your bong. This, as many say, is the shit.

What’s even freakier though is that the bones have been separated; skulls on this side of the cave, femurs on that side, and a little further ahead the ribcages. Bizarre. Because you stop to wonder: who was the poor sonofabitch that had to sort this out? Covered in soot and antiquity, they lay there, ensconced in tight packages, like 99 bottles of beer. And, as far as I could tell, no cameras, no trip wires for alarms. No security walking about the place, which is odd because the sudden temptation to fuck with the remains is overwhelming. You can touch them; at least I did. Ran my fingers over their cold surfaces. Stood close to the walls and inhaled, oddly, the musty scent of jasmine and cinnamon. Gazed into eyeless slots. Sacrilege? Blasphemous? Disrespectful? I don’t know, maybe, but the urge is too great. It’s a warped fascination to be sure. I’ve met death before, had a cup of coffee and a chat with him the night he came to claim my father. So I recognize him. I sense his presence. After the initial shock wears off though I linger far behind Joey.

I shuffle along, my flashlight sweeping over wall after wall of this madness. I spot grave placards cemented onto piles of bones with dates going back to the 17th century. Every so often too I come across other tunnels branching off into nowhere. Pitch black. The inside of a Hefty Bag. With steel bars top to bottom denying further access, making sure we don’t go wondering off and becoming permanent residents. I shine my light down one of these tunnels and can barely decipher the outlines of crushed and discarded remains, the edge of my light is swallowed up by the stillness. Unnerving. The lights in the designated paths, no matter how meager, do make a difference. I feel the inevitable cold draft pass over me. I do shiver. I must turn away.

I can’t imagine being down here for more than an hour, but others before me, those that fought in the Resistance during World War II used these very tunnels to carry out their missions, quite literally under the noses of the occupying Germans for they never knew such a place existed.

Supplies, guns, spies, POWs, and even relocated families used the catacombs to survive. This house of death fueled their survival. Oh how terribly ironic, but nevertheless true. If anything, the catacombs must be visited for that historical significance, no matter how ghoulish. And it is twisted, never said it was otherwise, for you can hear footsteps dragging over the ground and hear the muffled whispers coming out of the shadows, the walls, in the walls.

When you first hear these rattlings your heart freezes. Then you try to rationalize it away: fuck it; it’s probably the booze from last night still in your system giving you the delusions. Only when you can make out the words “Do you have any extra batteries for my light” do you realize, why hell, ol’ buddy, it’s just other yahoos like you out for an afternoon stroll. Just like you indeed. That’s all it is, right? But why do we whisper down here? Afraid of waking the dead? It’s such a natural thing to do when confronting the beloved. As if that’s going to bother them now? And then

I think I smelled smoke. Did somebody light up a butt down here? That slight whiff of cigarette mixed with the pristine cold instantly has me standing in the basement of my aunt’s burnt out house. The smoke got to her first, they said, finished her off before the flames came. I stood over her chalk outline as the rest of the men of the family helped to clean up the next day.

According to the drawing, she had curled up in a fetal position to die. I squatted and touched her ground: amazingly cool, as finger-like tendrils of smoke rose from scattered piles of rubble all around me. I tried to feel something.

My aunt’s death was the first in a string of particularly nasty endgames in my family. Her, then my father six months later to cancer, after that my uncle with a heart attack, then another aunt with a stroke.

At the receptions they all served chicken. To this day I hate chicken I quicken my pace then and luckily find Joey, who happens to be picking up a skull as I’m approaching. An icy touch traipses up my spine. “What the fuck are you doing?” “Here, catch” “No.” but it’s too late. I can barely see it, but fortunately I do and snatch it out of the air and place it on another pile behind me. “You fuckin’ nut!” “Oh, come on. I see you leering at ’em. Take out your camera already you morbid sonofabitch.” I do: Me, holding a skull and with my flashlight peering into a cavity. Me, kneeling in front an entire wall of skulls; my own head blending in quite nicely. Me, on a chair-where did that come from?-relaxing in front of a bank of hands & feet. Joey being Joey in front of another wall of friends. Most of the other shots didn’t come out because it was too dark, and believe me, that’s a good thing: “Ah, Senator Joey, will you please explain to the floor what it is exactly you are doing with the skull in this photograph?”

Assuredly, while here, at some point, you will begin to feel trapped. It’s a natural side affect to this place. No matter how much huffing and puffing you do before you enter- this is bullshit, this doesn’t bother me-your “wall” is whittled down, and you will feel it. You may pull at your shirt, maybe you scratch your arm repeatedly, maybe you begin to clear your throat more and more, or maybe that shearing, dull pain is stabbing your left shin, the sort of pain that always hits you there and lets you know that something is wrong or that maybe you should be worrying about something but you don’t know what. It’s a feeling of helplessness, my friends. And what do you do when you start to feel helpless? Why, find a way out of course!

There are no signs to help guide you. You don’t know where to go. The only reason why you don’t get lost is because of the blocked off passageways I mentioned. If you run into any of those, turn around, go the opposite direction. Disorienting as all hell because at one point that’s all I run into. “Fuck!” we both shout. Turn, go another way. “FUCK ALREADY!” Turn, try another tunnel. You’re breathing hard now. Is it a good thing to be breathing your own exhaled air? I remember Liz back in the 10th grade: beautiful, hot young lady, smart, all the guys wanted her, I used to jerk-off thinking about her mightily; then one day during “nutrition” break Mr. Schwartz told me that Liz killed herself the night before. Got into her mother’s car, which was tucked away in the garage, then turned the fucker on and went to sleep. I couldn’t believe it. That bitch. Immediately while with Schwartz the recollection of seeing her kiss her boyfriend through the frosted glass door of my science class came to mind and I had mumbled “You lucky bastard” and then the image faded away, and then the scene with Mr. Schwartz vanished, and then I’m back, here.

For a split second you think maybe you just might disappear too. Turn over and gulp in stale air until you start chokingbut then you turn and continue searching. Turn again. Look some more. Then the French, even with their version of reasoning, somehow, in the end, make sure that the very thing you fear doesn’t happen.

Up ahead you finally see light, and feel the fresh air and suddenly it’s breathable again. Heart rate leveling off. The sight of the skeletons to either side of you dissipates. Only the light matters. Light good. Dark bad. It’s as simple as that.

We hear others far behind us wondering aloud about an exit but I don’t say anything noble like, “Come toward the light! Follow my voice to the light!” Naw, fuck ’em. A man should always find his own way.

Topside now. Back on the street. Deserted. There are the others that came before us. Smoking. Leaning against walls, sitting on curbs, bent over, holding their knees. We look at each other but don’t say anything. Nothing more to be said. Already know the feeling. I have a warm beer in my daypack that I drink. I can’t speak for Joey, he looks stoic as usual.

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