Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
The water seemed to breathe. That was how Marc thought of it, that faint suggestion of air from the depths. Now that the moment had arrived, Marc wasn’t sure he wanted to plunge into that still water. He adjusted his head lamp, checked his gear again.
Félicité never understood why he had to go creeping into abandoned buildings. Why he had to go there and ‘look into the dark’ as she put it.
“Why can’t you take pictures of things in the daylight, hmm?”
“Mon coeur, I have to do it. It’s my art, my life. And sometimes, sweet, the dark looks back.”
It was true. That feeling in utter darkness of a presence. Being watched when there was no one. It was his constant desire to capture it, to make the viewer feel it too, that drove him to those places.
He had an installation opening in a small gallery tomorrow. It was his Eastern European trip hung up and framed in quiet black plastic. Félicité wanted to know why he couldn’t make art in France, if he insisted on doing it. Truth be told, he hadn’t considered France to be that interesting. He’d always lived there and so, as people do, he’d stopped really looking at it. But as she talked, he became excited. There was one place he’d heard about, one place he’d always thought he’d like to see.
When Charles Garnier built the Paris Opera in 1861, it was discovered that they were digging the extraordinarily deep foundations into an underground lake. After attempts to drain it failed, Garnier instead constructed a huge subterranean cistern to contain it. This, of course, later inspired the famous Phantom of the Opera, but there had always been a mysteriousness associated with the idea that, while glittering gentleman and ladies laughed and savored the music, beneath their feet lay deep and silent water.
Proper permits were, of course, out of the question. For one thing, Marc’s persona was built in large part on the idea of a man outside the usual bounds of society. No trespassing signs didn’t apply to him. Permits were not his style. But mostly because they wouldn’t have given him one anyway.
Now-a-days the lake was used for training firemen to dive in the dark and it was never included on tours of the Opera. Marc had scoured the internet for information, but he’d actually found very little. So, finally, he’d simply thrown some basic diving gear in a duffle and bribed a shady janitor to let him in after midnight.
It was now or never. He breathed deep, preparing himself for the cold that would seep in regardless of his wet suit. And he took a moment to feel the weight of the massive old place, all those many, many levels piling on top of him, before he put his foot on the top rung of the ladder.
Oh, it was cold, alright. Bone chilling. But the visibility was better than he’d thought. Algae grew across the bottom and sides of the tunnel, giving the water a green cast. The tunnel was about ten feet wide and an indeterminate length, with a curved ceiling coming down to meet the water’s surface. The depth about eight feet or so.
Marc snapped a few pictures before biting down on his diving regulator, dipping under and swimming farther. At the end the passage branched to right and left, though the left hand way looked like a dead end. Before long, the water deepened, grew murkier. At the same time the tunnel widened out to become a kind of chamber ringed with a little dry walkway. Marc heaved himself out to examine the walls. There, sure enough, was graffiti scratched by a long dead builder.
Herbert Duguay, 1862.
Marc photographed it, and a few other scratches he was unable to make out, probably worn away by rising water. Back into the murk, through another opening into a central hub of arched niches. The room was apparently vast and pillared. Light from his headlamp barely reached the ceiling and failed entirely to penetrate to the farther walls, but after swimming all the way around, it became apparent that this was it. There was no outlet.
This was a disappointing end to his adventure. According to legend, there were miles of of winding passages. He’d expected vaults and caverns at least. This was…boring. No wonder they used it for diving exercises.
Well. There was no reason he had to dash back to the surface. He might as well examine the walls for more graffiti; make the night worthwhile.
After a twenty minute search there was nothing. Not a scratch that looked anything other than natural faults in the stone. He was on the verge of taking what he had and going back, when he saw something moving.
It was bobbing under the water, disturbed by his swimming; a woman’s dress caught on some sort of grate several feet below water level. This was what Marc had hoped for. Something interesting at last.
The weight of the waterlogged fabric threatened to drag him under, but, though he struggled, he was able to get a look at it clearly enough to realize it wasn’t a dress – it was a ballerina’s tutu, complete with beaded bodice.
That made sense – the building being an opera house – though how it got down here was a mystery. Must have been recent or the delicate fabric would have rotted away entirely. The process had already started. He let it drift a little, then got a quick picture. That grate was more intriguing.
Rust and algae coated the surface in thick sheets; this was obviously an original installation. Marc suspected one good kick would get him to the other side, but he didn’t know where it led. There could be an entire maze through there. Félicité would be screaming if she knew he was contemplating going through. It was reckless. He could get hopelessly lost.
The dark on the other side called to him.
It was immediately deeper. How he knew wasn’t entirely clear, since he hadn’t been able to see the bottom for some time, but he knew it all the same. Breaking the surface, Marc realized he had swum into another single chamber, not a series of tunnels as he had hoped.
There was a bright spot, however. This pillared room was considerably smaller, but more carefully constructed. The tops of the columns had been rudimentarily carved, even connected up with arches. Swinging round, flashing his light in the darkness, he bumped hard against something in the water. Cursing the rough stone and nursing a scraped hand, he investigated.
It appeared to be a column, broken a few inches under the water, and piled haphazardly with heaps of detritus. Branches, scraps of things too moldy to tell what they’d been. There was probably some good stuff in there. The makings of a few creepy photographs at last. Marc clipped his diving regulator to his shoulder for easy access and, gingerly, mindful not to bring the whole thing tumbling down, hoisted himself up onto the top.
They weren’t branches.
His first clue was the unnatural whiteness. Second, was the skull staring blankly up at him out of its cradle of little fish bones and curving vertebrae.
They were all bones.
Marc froze, unable to decide if there was a reasonable explanation why the bones should be there. Maybe…maybe this underground lake was connected, somewhere deep, to the extensive catacombs that ran under Paris. Nobody had ever fully explored them. It was possible heavy rains and flooding could have washed bones down here. They’d piled up on this column because…because it was the only high ground.
It wasn’t the sturdiest of arguments, but the other explanation was that some person or animal had deliberately woven them together, and, as Marc was well aware, he was the only one here. That grate hadn’t been opened since the place was built, that was clear. When he’d kicked it it’d come out of its frame entirely and was now resting on the bottom. And there was no other way out. The tunnel led here, and only here.
Swallowing his distaste, Marc began poking around. Most of the bones were fish and rodent; their skulls made that obvious. Comparatively few were human. There was only the one skull, but he noted several long bones that were undoubtedly once legs and arms. Slowly, as he crouched there, he began to see a progression. Like strata on a rock formation, he could trace the age; bones still with flakes of scale or scraps of hair clinging to them, giving way to yellowed, mottled pieces, then down under the water, where, lowering himself so he could see, the bones were so old and damaged they’d fused to the stone. That didn’t look good for his theory.
Another odd thing. The more he looked, the less random the arrangement appeared. In fact, he thought he could see a depression in the center, surrounded by a uniform lip.
Like a nest.
A soft ripple of water, coupled with a suggestion of something pale at the edge of the light made him look round. He hadn’t noticed how silent it was until that moment. He froze, searching the water. Nothing. He realized, suddenly, that this room was unknown to anyone but himself. If he went missing, no one would look here.
It occurred to Marc that what he’d seen was only one of the white catfish said to live in the underground lake. The staff even claimed to feed them on occasion. He breathed a little easier.
This was ridiculous. He returned his attention to the bones. Something was shining deep in the tangle. He’d see if he could get it out, take a picture, and then maybe it would be better to leave, get back to the main cistern, if he was going to be so jumpy. Reaching in, elbow deep, Marc fished around, fingers scraping against slime. Whatever it was eluded his grasp. He turned his head, trying to avoid smelling any more of the musty, fishy scent than he had to, when he saw it.
A white hand, like a pale spider, resting on a leg bone. The rest of the body was hidden by the lip of the nest, but it was moving, rising, pulling itself up in one strong, accustomed movement.
The creature was sickly pale; a creamy gray color like the underbelly of a dead fish. Marc could see its ribs pushing against the skin, all its joints unnaturally prominent. It was human-shaped, but grotesque. Webbed fingers, and where legs should have been, a long, supple tail, thick as a man’s waist and covered in raspy skin like a shark. But the face…the face was the worst. Hollow cheeks, hairless, a wide, lipless mouth. Too wide, really, for a person. And the eyes… Huge and round, ringed in silvery bronze with an enormous black pupil.
It stared at him. Motionless.
Marc felt like screaming. He felt like running, tearing at the walls, throwing bones at the creature, clawing his way out onto the street. But he knew, in the way a man knows in the presence of a tiger, not to move. Slowly, millimeter by millimeter, he drew his arm up through the bones, reaching for his camera. If he could distract it…
It was hopeless. The distance of dead water between him and the grate opening was too large. And even if he made it, what was to prevent the creature following him through? There was no getting out. Marc knew that too.
A little piece of his brain broke off and ran, childlike, along a trail of curiosity. What was it? How was it here? Maybe Herbert Duguay knew. Maybe Herbert Duguay was in this pile of bones. Right at the bottom.
The other part of Marc’s brain could only think one thing, and the thinking of it terrified him.
Don’t eat me. Please don’t eat me. I don’t want to be eaten.
He said this over and over to himself as he inched toward his camera. A mantra to keep the beast at bay. It would hear him. It would understand.
Mouth open, showing teeth, so many, many teeth jammed together every which way. White and sharp, they sank into his shoulder; cold fingers digging into his arm. He was dragged across the bones into the water and down, down.
The regulator was still clipped to his shoulder. If he could turn his head… His arm was going numb, and he could see the streams of blood from his punctured shoulder in the light from the headlamp, but at least he could breathe. As long as he had air, there was a chance. He’d fight the creature, swim for his life.
The water was deeper even than he’d thought. The bottom rose to meet them, covered in strange lumps and mounds that revealed themselves to be twisted metal rods too damaged to be recognizable, rotted chests, discarded waste of the opera above. All carefully piled up and hidden away.
Bodies, too. Complete this time. Arm and hand bones sprouted from the rock bed like bleached water lilies. Skulls, glued to their spines by all those flesh eating organisms that spread in the darkness. Marc began to struggle.
The thing turned on him – those eyes – biting and dragging him down, pinning him to the bottom, wedging him under something, he couldn’t tell what it was. He started to scream, the water and his diving regulator muffling the sound to barely more than a vibration in his chest.
He thrashed, gashing his free arm on something sharp, blood clouding the water. It was storing him here, down in in its cool larder, keeping him fresh, waiting for him to die. Marc knew. He knew his struggle was hopeless. That every gasp drained his air tank. But he no longer had control; the animal part of him desperately craved life. He clawed at the stone and rotted wood and at his own body, trying to rip himself free.
There, at the edge of the light, the creature hovered, arms outstretched, relaxed; the blank fish’s eyes watching with almost human interest. Then it receded, but he could feel it, even as he felt the ache in his lungs, telling him his air was running out.
Marc stared into the dark that was so full now of something looking back, waiting for him to breath water. Waiting to feed.
Credit: Rosemary Hamend