Friday, 20 March 2009

Saint Lazare

The Paris of my childhood was a decaying, gloomy city, ill at ease and dangerous. The acrid smell of human waste, blackened vegetables, hides and sweat hung everywhere. Buildings rotted from within and collapsed. Not far from les Halles was a timbered house whose first storey had subsided halfway into the mud; it was still inhabited by fifty people. The poor lived and died in the road and the alleys, pressed into every corner and nook and refuse hole. The wealthy built walls and went everywhere with handkerchief and violets at their nose. It is no accident that perfume was a Parisian invention. Only main roads were paved, and those poorly, with open sewers and slick, uneven stones. We were nearly a million inhabitants, squeezed into a blighted space abandoned by the King, who did not bother to disguise his hatred of us, and forgotten by God, who sent disease and the devil to feed on our multitudes. Plague broke out frequently, and houses were burned down with their living inhabitants inside to limit the spread of pestilence. Bands of cutthroats and thieves preyed on the widowed and orphaned, and armies of beggars extended their own kingdom and governance over large parts of the city.

Beneath the ponderous weight of this restless humanity, the dead slept in their shrouds, jostled into mass graves and fossa, layered and compressed, so that they sometimes burst through basement walls or erupted into ill-placed wine caverns. They reeked and exuded their mustiness at night, and it was against that noisesome vapour that we shut our windows when we slept. We had only forty odd cemeteries to serve the recently dead, though some of these contained crypts that snaked in long, dark passages over vast areas underground. The remains of a poor soul in a common grave would be lucky to spend ten years in the ground, before being exhumed to make way for new arrivals. No one knew or cared what happened to their bones. The rich funded the decoration of the churches and the enrichment of the clergy; they were granted sanctified plots where they built their own cities of tombs and sepulchres. Though my mother was unlucky in life, in death she was granted a tomb of her own at Saint Lazare, purchased by my father for himself, for he had no ties left to his ancestral home. It was more space than she ever occupied while she lived.

Saint Lazare was as crowded as all the other cemeteries of Paris, where funerals or interments were popular public spectacles, where the grave-makers performed with skulls and bones for the amusement of the crowds, and hungry coffin-sellers plied their wares. Charlatans sold tonics and plasters made of the shrouds of supposed saints, and guides led bands of wide-eyed gagglers from monument to monument, telling lurid tales of the unhappy inhabitant. My mother was buried along a quiet, narrow laneway of dull, country nobility, and when my uncle and I slipped out of the hot living crowd into the shadowed stone passage, it was like moving from one world to another. Here the vanity of the inhabitants had raised monumental structures and bizarre forms, for we were not so far removed from the medieval Dance of Death, and skeletons in stone appeared everywhere in bas relief and high relief, and in the round, waiting upon stone ladies sleeping in veils and portraits of men in outmoded fashions.

My mother's mausoleum was a simple low house built of rusticated stone, a pair of doric pillars on either side of five steps leading to the bronze door and a low, undecorated frieze. My uncle produced a large key from his pocket, and unlocked the massive door. The sound of the lock turning rung out in that silent place: we were far from the church and the common yard, and there were no birds or trees in sight, only solemn piles of carved stone, obelisks, crosses and megaliths.

"Your father would have been buried beside her," he said to me as the door swung outward, "but his body was never found."

We passed into the dark interior. In the wall at the rear was a small, high window that gave the only light, and beneath it lay two tombs, one obviously vacant. On my mother's tomb were the wilted remains of flowers crumbling to dust. My uncle swept them away with his sleeve, and I laid in their place the lilies I had cut from his tiny garden behind the printing shop. The air was cold and still, and I thought of my mother's soft body pressed to those icy stones and shivered. She was separated from me by those stones forever, and I knew that no power could bring her back.

There was nothing more for us to do there, and my uncle was in a silent mood. Presently we turned and left, and he pushed the heavy bronze door back in place with a metallic thud and struggled to turn the key in the lock, that had opened so easily.

I felt a prickling on my nape and turned to find a strange man watching me while my uncle yanked and pressed on the latchkey. He was dressed at the height of fashion, in a rocquelaure and slate-coloured moire full-trimmed silk coat with large decent cuffs and buttons of hammered silver. He tucked his hands in the waistband of his breeches, ostentatiously displaying the gilded hilt of his sword and pendulant sword-knot that dangled on the ground. His cane hung negligently from his right arm, also trailing against the stone pavement. His waistcoat also was fringed in silver, his breeches were of dove satin and his stockings the same. On his head he wore a large, grave, decently powdered three-tailed wig, and a flamboyant travelling hat decorated with black lace.

I had not seen anyone when we went in, so that I had the impression this vision had simply appeared out of thin air. His face was smooth, and his lip curled in a disagreeable sneer, but his eyes sparkled with a lively amusement, that I did not feel alarmed. I made a small curtsy and he gave me a slight bow, bending at his waist stiffly and nodding his head with his hand to his hat. I tugged on my uncle's coat, but he was swearing at the intransigent lock and had not noticed our remarkable companion.

The strange man held out his ungloved, closed hand in my direction. He had long, slender fingers, fastidiously clean nails, and several large silver rings. At his invitation I touched a prominent knuckle and his fingers uncurled, revealing a tiny bronze figure reposing there. He indicated silently that I take it, and when I plucked it from his palm, the metal felt as hot as if it had come from an oven. It was a tiny man, in a pose like the famous Dying Gaul of Pergamon, no longer than my thumb, and as detailed and perfect in form as any sculptured saint I have yet seen in a cathedral. But I did not think it represented any saint, for it was as naked and immodest as a slave.

The strange man put his long finger to his sneering lips to command my silence, but I turned to tug on my uncle's coat, who exclaimed with an expelled breath as the bolt shot home. "Uncle Adraste, may I...?" But I never finished my question, for when I turned back the strange man had vanished.

"I can almost smell Madame Boucher's crêpes, can't you? Shall we hurry back before it gets too late? Did you say something, Yolande?"

But I slipped the little man in my pocket and put my warm hand in my uncle's, and said nothing.

1 comment:

Osprey said...

Ooh. Be careful, Yo - a man who can disappear may well appear again with darker purpose. Put that trinket in the sunlight to clear it of the lingering influence of its former owner.