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Friday, April 6, 2012

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Short Story: Paris Underworld

This was inspired by a National Geographic article. Jadefireeyes

Stories above, perhaps there’s an elegant café, lapping in the view of the Eiffel Tower. At night, the city will descend into a thousand gleaming lights, a thousand beautiful buildings, well-renowned monuments and opera houses. For now it’s a noon on a typical Saturday, and some shops and bakeries will be closed. A few pedestrians and traffic will be milling around the quiet streets and avenues, and the waiters in the extravagant restaurants will be serving lunch.

I am wandering in darkness, endless tunnels illuminated by my one lamp. My muddy boots splash in moist puddles covering the ground, wiping my hand in disgust on my already filthy overalls. My breath gathers in clouds, surrounding the water droplets on the ceiling, while staring at the endless chaos of skulls, femurs, tibias and other assorted bones. The cool air is tainted with the odors of mold and damp earth.

I am in the Paris underground, the chain of canals, deserted wine cellars, crypts, reservoirs and bank vaults. Remains of the dead greet me as I wind around the section of the catacomb, each hosting an individual story to tell, yet long passed into oblivion through the centuries.

It all began as quarries dug underground for its vast deposits of limestone and other bedrock, chiseled by the Romans in the 1st century B.C. who once inhabited France. After they were exhausted they were deserted, and some were filled with rubble. Overfilled cemeteries with bones were first poured into the quarries in 1786. It was the start of the French catacombs.

The Paris dwellers didn’t pay much attention to the unstable foundation they were tottering on, until the first collapstion of 1774. Many such cave-ins were to follow, including one in which the earth swallowed an entire neighborhood. This prompted King Louis XVI to create a department to monitor them, and still exists today.

On my way to the crypts I passed many murals created by modern artists. Some wine cellars have been transformed into nightclubs and bachelor parties. They are all Catatphiles, people who love the Paris underworld. Whether they come to paint, party, sight-see, hold dates, or simply enjoy the thrill of exploring uncharted territory, they all share one thing in common: they come here to have freedom from the laws of the surface. The most daring stay underground for days on end.

Patrols of geologists venture through the labyrinth as well, to make sure the quarries are strong enough, so they do not crumble. There are also Cataflies, police who chase cataphiles. Most entrances and tunnels are illegal to access.

I take off my mud stained helmet, and survey the tomb. Just in the distance I hear the echoes of more visitors pouring in. I’d better get going.

There’s a whole world down in the twisting labyrinth of Paris. How to get there? Go to the nearest manhole.

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