Hook walked. Long, swinging stride that ate streets in huge, hungry bites. Cobbles gleamed with melted snow, which fell in thick veils that shifted and billowed, turning the gas street lamps into golden, shimmering stars. The rows of buildings that framed the streets could have been walls for all the details I could see.
Hook was unfazed; his sharp eyes were focused ahead, as if he see something in the falling snow to which I – cat or girl – was blind.
The cold wind bit deep, snaking past my heavy fur, which grew damp and heavy as the snow melted upon it. I climbed down into Hook’s crimson coat, only my eyes and nose exposed. I wondered if Hook knew where he was going or if his rage alone carried us through the warren of streets.
All Londons have their churches. St. Pauls and Westminster, though, follow them all. And so I assumed one or the other was our destination. The catacombs beneath either loved the wealthy in this dark and soot stained world. I wondered how we would find a child no-one wanted to remember. But I was tired, heavy with the memory of the undercity, so I curled close to his black heart and blinked sleepily in time with its beating.
When did it change? With the snow and the exhaustion, I cannot say. I only knew when I looked up and saw the ragged, broken tooth walls. The splintered and undone arches of flying buttresses stood sharp against the blowing snow. The famed window was naught but brightly colored shards. Nothing moved among the scattered gray of loose stone. The stunned silence hanging thick around us was the quiet that comes after an ear splitting scream. Or a bomb.
Broken Paris. Silent Paris. Paris Of The Dead.
“Under the church,” I whispered, understanding; not a church that London owned. The church. The only one the whole world – all of them – owned. Notre Dame. And, beneath it, hundreds of snaking miles of labyrinthine dark where the dead hold sway and the rules are all changed.
This is Paris dreaming. Lying empty beneath an ashen sky, silent, still, full of the memory of life, but only the memory. The braided steel tower stands crooked, an icon knocked off balance and forgotten. Loose papers blow through the unwalked streets, frozen on a day that had started out with news of celebration and ended in screams for mercy. This is a city caught in the aftermath, a city that never recovered itself. For Dead Paris, time is frozen. It feels like it exists in an ended world, but who can say? I’ve never seen another city so fully transformed into a tomb.
Hook moved toward the church, once grand, once a symbol of human determination. Two hundred years to build it. Two minutes to break it. And now here it was, lying like a crumpled and mashed can beside the slow, black Seine.
Hook paused, tipped his hat in a gesture that suggested the salute an old sailor gives a well respected captain at his funeral. Sleep well, may you find rest, sorry to see you go.
Then we were stepping down on hidden footholds, into the canal where the rotten water moved slow, thick with something that made my eyes burn and my skin itch. And there was a doorway, of sorts, an opening into the darkness beneath the city.
Hook’s mustache ticked. “Light,” He said, reaching out to take the lantern waiting there on a hook. It still swished with plenty of fuel. He hung it from the gleaming curve of his deadly hook. He lit it with a snap of the flint he slid from a hidden pocket. Then he stepped in.
There was a musty, earthy smell, the scent of mausoleums that house tier upon tier of the dead in coffins that weren’t made well enough to keep the smell in. It was more than a tomb, this place. It was where the living fell and no-one ever came to give them proper rights. There was no-one left to put up headstones or pray.
“They fled here, in the end,” Hook whispered. “Down into the lightless dark with their children and their treasures, but Death was all that lived here.” His boots crunched on the floor. Bones, scattered in mindless jumbles, skulls, jaws unhinged, screaming panic, begging still, even though the flesh had gone and the life they wanted was stolen years and years before. “Those that didn’t die by violence wandered here in the dark, lost, forgotten, starving.” He walked on, unafraid of the tunnels and the endless turnings, unafraid of a death found in the dark after all the light ran out.
At first, there were other openings, glimpses of the world above. Sometimes bright and sunny, full of voices and life, but mostly, they just reflected that sad and broken Paris left silent beneath the dead sky. Even those brief flickers of other Paris’ did not cheer me; it wasn’t real. It was only the memory, not the reality. All those laughing voices would soon be silenced; I could hear the low off throbbing hum of a thousand planes carrying death like birds clutching fish in their claws. It wasn’t a different Paris we saw, just a different when.
Such is the way of the catacombs. They lead you in mystic circles to show you fortunes of future and past. They twine around and around to create that magical window through which you can see all the terrible things you can’t change. We could fly out, into that sunlight, screaming the warnings the sirens would give too late. But they wouldn’t listen. They’d go on drinking their wine and laughing their triumph as they wait for the rain of fire and fury that will tear Notre Dame apart, knock their tower sideways so that it spills the people from it’s top like a glass tipping water on the table, and turn the Louvre into a fire that burns until there is nothing left but shifting ash.
I prefer to see the dead city; at least it is over, when we are there. When we pass the small crack where screams pour down like rain and the air raid sirens howl their high warning, I close my eyes so I don’t have to see the orange-red flicker of fire and I cover my ears so I don’t have to hear them dying, those merry, laughing French who thought it was all over, who believed they were safe.
Finally, it is just us in the dark, Hook’s boots crunching on bone, scraping over loose dirt and stone. “Do you know how to find her?” I ask.
“What we need will find us,” he says.
“We must lose our way.”
I frown. “Madness.” A comment on him or our quest? I don’t know.
“Sometimes getting lost is the only way to be found,” he says in a tone that tells me I’m being purposefully dense. And I am. These are Wonderland rules; what is down must go up because up is really down. I shouldn’t be surprised; I am a Cheshire, a riddler, daughter of the Sphinx and Grinner.
I’ve seen little girls shrink to an inch then grow ten feet tall. I have seen playing card soldiers shuffle themselves and blue caterpillars nine feet long puffing calmly on their hookah. These are the laws when you are down the rabbit hole; no science can calculate, gravity goes often on vacation, and two and two might equal six. Or ninety-eight. Or apple. It’s Wonderland. Madness is our daily routine.
But. Down through the twisting, musty dark which is not Wonderland and which does not love me like my home, there comes a new sound. “Here kitty, kitty.” My muscles clench tight, my whole body a fist squeezing into a knot, ready for flight. “Come, puss, come sweet kitten.” All around, coming from every tunnel, the drone of a hundred gray voices. The grate of a thousand cage doors opening. “Here kitty, kitty.”