descend, spiraling madly on a staircase
that leans in on you, breathes heavily
down your back, into the depths below the city
. The sounds of the street, the
clattering of shop doors, the cries of the vendeur de les fleurs peddling his
wares—all of these fade first from hearing and then slowly out of existence
deeper into the darkness, the mysterious, the occult, the endless stairs
dropping out of view before and behind you… A chain of buzzing incandescent
bulbs process down the melancholy path until they halt at a deferential
distance from the antechamber.
It is a
yellowed, sterile room, painted and repainted, telling the history (en
Francaise) of the Catacombs. Bated breath exhales, and you quickly glance at
the pictures and move on down a hallway.
hallway gains a life of its own, grabbing and dragging you through endless
twists and turns, followed by a suspiciously long straight path only to dodge
left and zigzag aimlessly again. As the dull comfort of the prior room grows further and further away, the mystery returns. The
corridor is outfitted like a mineshaft, torn into the earth, and cauterized
with harsh, ceaseless hall bulbs that hold the darkness from flooding in every
ten feet. A wet, musty smell surrounds
you, but doesn’t impede your progress. Rather, it keeps you in the catacombs,
like an invisible swamp that you wade through, giving you a certainty that
anyone attempting to leave would only be sucked all the harder back in.
start to drip, occasionally, with small rivers that come from nowhere and to
nowhere return. More and more, dark corners and intrusions into the wall
conceal only darkness… Side pats chained off lead only into mystery and fear,
as the barren floors creeps off into black oblivion. Around each corner is a foreboding presence but as your eyes
strain, no revelation is forthcoming.
after a dozen false starts and a lengthy hike, the corridor widens and the
catacomb’s true entrance lay ahead, clearly marked. Two guards stand idly by,
making small talk, and a sign warning “No photography” bid you adieu. You enter
was the originally anti-climactic antechamber. Perhaps the pathways and
staircases lulled you into a mistaken belief of eternal mundanity. But the catacombs
are a shock: you enter a small, dark room, either side filled five feet high
with arm bones, leg bones, long thin brittle… lined perpendicular to you, with
piles six feet deep and ten wide. Skulls are neatly arranged in rows, dividing
as if they were stylized colored tiles in some greater artistic aesthetic
pattern. But the shock is that they are all, real, human bones.
Each was a
living soul, went to work or to the streets begging, told jokes and laughed,
had a story of its own. An aristocrat lay next to a pauper, a thief aside the
sheriff, all anonymous, grinning, uniform. You start to breath again, and then
realize that the room you stumbled into is not a room at all, but that you are
at the beginning of a hallway that disappears in the dark distance around
somber stone corners and the watchful gaze of silence. Millions and millions of
bodies, now skeletons, piled. For almost a mile the unblinking stare of a
million dead follows you.
is not like you expected, not at all. Death is not decay, not bleeding, not
hollow eyes or sunken cheeks. Death is not even war or pestilence—all that is
life. You expect terror, to see a rat rustling the bones, or to hear a
mysterious scurrying behind a pile of thighs.
But that—pestilence, sickness, dying—that is all decay, the final
stages of life. Death is immutable silence, impenetrable grandeur, death is
eternity. The bones have a secret—if you want to live forever, give up. It’s a
contradiction, for life is only a preparation for death, and death is only
perfection. The bones know not hunger or shame, pride or power, but only
certainty and immortality are their garb.
passing half a mile, of the stone crucifixes, the dozen silent prayers etched
in granite, the skulls set in reverent immortals designs amongst the wall of
bones, you feel your own decay, your own mortality wear away at you. And as you
slowly ascend the stairs again, for a moment you are not of the living, but
something transformed: you are one of them. Coming back into the vital
sunlight, the noise and bustle of the street, the haunting feeling leaves you,
and you shake off the gloom as a dog sheds water, but there is still the reside
remaining on you as you head to a café, the residue of something altogether alien
to your fundamental existence.