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Paris, June 29, 1887
Nathalie used to think that if she wrote of death, she’d only need two words.
Or, “he died.”
What else was there to say? That should be enough. Why embellish death? It’s the story of someone’s life, come to an end, with that person’s thoughts, prayers, and feelings all culminating in the same final reality. Everyone knew what it meant, or should mean, if they thought about it.
The past two weeks had taught her that most people didn’t really think about it. Not in that way. “She died” wasn’t the end of the story. Sometimes it was only the beginning.
All of this went through Nathalie’s mind as she surveyed the trail of straw bonnets, pipes, and walking sticks behind her. Death brought them all here, piquing their curiosity, to show them what would become of them. But not yet. Today it was someone else’s turn to be dead.
A crow perched itself over the entrance and cawed. A warning or a lament?
Eight people left to go until she’d be allowed inside.
She’d expected a longer wait than usual, given how quickly the news had spread this morning, but she hadn’t anticipated a line this long. Even people watching, always a favorite pastime, had become tiresome. The mother entertaining her toddler with the story of La Belle et la Bête (the little girl squealed with delight when the beast became a man again), the old gentleman with the wheezy cough (he was most likely to die next, she supposed). The American couple who discussed something called a Florida, which was not a term she’d ever heard in English class. The portly man wearing white gloves (in this heat!), the woman who twirled her parasol incessantly as she hummed. The British drunkard in a shabby top hat who stumbled by, ranting about both the price of absinthe and Queen Victoria, and who was shooed away by a guard … well, there was only so much curiosity you could muster about the people in line after an hour. Even the beggars had moved on.
The sun, which hadn’t made an appearance in days, came out just after Nathalie arrived. As it grew more intense, the people in line began to sweat, and before long the stench of Paris invaded her nostrils.
She’d used a washcloth this last night but, guessing by the waft of perfume that mingled with the stink, she supposed the people around her hadn’t in days. True, she was getting over a cold and her sense of smell and taste were still impaired. Yet nasal congestion didn’t mute the raw notes of that distinct scent.
Nathalie pulled out the journal from her bag and jotted some notes about the sun, the perspiration, and the crowd. Monsieur Patenaude had told her to pay attention to details whether they seemed important or not, because sometimes the asides in an article were “like giving coffee to a tired story.”
Someone touched her arm. “Flowers, Mademoiselle?” It was the old woman who shuffled up and down the pavement selling bouquets, one of many merchants who sought to entice the ever-present crowd. She had to have been born during the Napoleonic Era, Nathalie thought. Her skin was weathered with time and memories, and her eyes betrayed resignation. Or boredom. Maybe both.
The woman held up yellow blooms for Nathalie’s inspection.
Bold. Vibrant. The epitome of summer.
“My mother would love this bouquet,” Nathalie said. Papa always brought Maman flowers on the day of his return. Unfortunately that was months away—he’d been at sea since April and wouldn’t be back until September. Her mother could use a burst of color these days. Her recovery was bleak and painful and anything but yellow blooms and sunshine.
Nathalie tucked the journal and pencil away in her satchel. She searched her dress pockets until her fingers found several centimes. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, the République Française motto fiercely proclaimed everywhere the state could stamp it, glistened as she counted. “Is this enough?”
The elderly woman plucked some coins from Nathalie’s hand and left the rest. “This will do,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Take them.”
She handed Nathalie the flowers and slipped away. Nathalie counted the remaining coins before returning them to her pocket. Good. She’d still have enough for the café afterward.
“Pretty flowers,” said a young voice behind her.
Nathalie turned. She didn’t understand why people brought children here, although she’d seen it many times before. The brown-eyed little girl, a three-year-old reflection of her petite mother, grinned from beneath her red-ribboned hat.
“Well, then,” said Nathalie, plucking a bloom from the bouquet. “You should have one.”
The girl beamed as Nathalie gave it to her. “See, Maman?” She raised the flower to her mother, whose bright blue frock made the bloom appear even more radiant. “For me!”
Nathalie smiled and faced front again. Only four people separating her from the entrance. The little girl spoke to the flower as if it were a new friend. Her voice faded into the background as Nathalie’s anticipation grew.
Her parents had forbidden her to come here until she turned fifteen, and she’d mostly obeyed, except for that one time when she was thirteen. A man shot himself and hadn’t been found for days; the newspapers offered such provocative descriptions that she and Simone, an adventurous ally who was a year older and whose parents were less strict, couldn’t resist going after school one day. The man’s face, or what used to be his face, was nothing more than one eye and half a nose. Simone reported having lost her appetite for a day, and for a week Nathalie dreamed the corpse was in her bed.
And yet, as with many people, the experience intrigued her as much as it repulsed her.
The old man in front of her spat blood before going inside. Sidestepping the foamy mess, Nathalie began to follow him.
“One moment.” The guard held up his hand.
She peered over his shoulder but couldn’t see anything. After a minute that seemed like twenty, the guard waved Nathalie into the public morgue.
A dozen bodies were on display, but only one captivated the crowd. Murder victims always did. The morgue was—officially, anyway—a means to identify bodies found in the public domain. Parisians came here because it was something to see, like the great Notre-Dame Cathedral that stood in front of it.
To go to the morgue was to poke the grim reaper in the ribs, to tell him he was riveting. Because if he was riveting, he wasn’t scary. Death was for other people.
Nathalie still couldn’t see the bodies. People clustered on the left side of the viewing pane, an X on a macabre treasure map. The fetching young morgue worker stood, as he did almost daily, beside a black velvet curtain on the other side of the glass. With an alert, steadfast expression, he watched the crowd. She always watched him in return but looked away whenever it seemed he was about to catch her. Including today.
A few people shuffled away and she stepped up behind the gathering. Despite her considerable height, she was unable to see much other than the poor victim’s matted, sand-colored curls and the bloodstained pink dress hanging behind her. Nathalie’s eyes leapt to the other eleven waxen corpses resting on slabs. One additional man from yesterday, sunburned and nondescript, making it nine men and two women. In the old days a stream of slab-cooling water dripped from overhead, a constant baptism of indignity. Now the corpses were refrigerated for hours, then displayed in a chilled room.
Behind the bodies hung the clothes they were found in, as with the victim and her dress. The only thing clothing them now was fabric over the groin. Most of the dead would be here several days, until the display room couldn’t preserve them any longer. Unless someone claimed them—that is, knew them to be a person with a name instead of a corpse on a slab—they’d be taken away. Buried alongside the forever unknown.
The group shifted as several onlookers left the room. When she saw, truly saw, the air in Nathalie’s lungs went along with them.
Angry gashes screamed from the young woman’s flesh, mocking her state of eternal silence. More girl than woman, she had full lips and plump cheeks. One side of her face was bruised, a ghastly palette of purples, blues, and reds.
The other side of her face was sliced like a slaughtered pig belly. Deep knife wounds ran from the right corner of her mouth down through the center of her neck and traveled to her collarbone.
Nathalie found herself clasping the collar of her dress and let go. She shifted her weight, unable to pull her eyes off the victim. Never had she seen a corpse so viciously slain.
Whoever did this would get sent to the guillotine. Nathalie wanted to see it, just as she wanted to be there for the execution of that horrendous murderer Pranzini. Anyone who slashed two women and a girl—in their beds!—deserved to go, she thought, and so did the monster who killed this girl.
The elderly man beside her let out a raspy sigh. Softly, tenderly, he spoke. “Requiem Aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei.”
Nathalie recognized this funeral prayer. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord. And may perpetual light shine upon her. Indeed.
She leaned toward the glass, swallowing away the lump in her throat. The anonymity added to the callousness of it. The girl with the bloodstained dress, the victim; that’s all she was to everyone right now.
She couldn’t have been more than seventeen or eighteen. Her freckled skin was yellowed and even more bloated than the other corpses because she’d been pulled from the Seine. In life she must have been pretty.
What’s your name, you unfortunate soul?
The little girl, quiet since coming inside, now whimpered behind her. “It’s too dark,” she said. “I don’t like it here.”
Copyright © 2019 by Jodie Lynn Zdrok