L’empire de la mort

L’empire de la mort

L’empire de la mort 1920 1257 Alice Langley

(Content Warning: miscarriage)

December 2021

There is death inside me. 

The scan showed no heartbeat. 


I was pregnant for five weeks. We found out early. That evening, I’d sat in the bitter no-light dusk of a Glasgow winter’s afternoon, drinking wine that tasted bad. It sat, cool and tart, between my throat and my stomach. I took the test when I got home and the digital display flashed Pregnant at me; that evening when I was two weeks pregnant feels like a lifetime ago. And it is. Just not mine. 

There was no thought of pregnancy at all, so I was brushing my teeth. I had a mouthful of mint froth when I saw the word: Pregnant. I waited for the ‘Not’ to flash up. It was surely coming. I spat, rinsed, checked again. Turned to my husband. 

We were flying to Paris the next morning, gliding from Glasgow to Edinburgh on rain-slick tarmac to catch the six am flight into Charles de Gaulle. After lying staring into the dark until it was time, we left as planned.

Beneath the roads where our taxi idled in the beeping, the exhaustive mists of Parisian winter morning, are more than two hundred and fifty kilometres of galleries. An underground tunnel network. Winding shadows twist below. ‘Underground entrails.’ (4)1 Quarrying began in the Gallo-Roman period, but it only went underground in Medieval times, when they drew on the plentiful supplies of gypsum, limestone, and chalk to build Notre-Dame and the Louvre Castle. We spent a lot of time that bitter holiday underground, examining the bowels of Paris. We wandered around the original towers of the castle that was once the Louvre, built with stone quarried from the riddling passageways of darkness twining around the sewers and the Métro.

All the GP could tell me to do was wait. Wait and take another test. 

Call back in a week. Call back in week five, call back if you stop bleeding for seven full days and then take a test and it’s positive. Call back tomorrow. 

Call back call back call back.

You are probably the most alive thing here.

In a bout of poeticism, that was what my husband said to me as we trod the catacombs. Millions of bones. For centuries, the prevailing system was to bury bodies and then exhume them and move the bones to surrounding ossuaries once the flesh had rotted. However, in Paris, in the mid-eighteenth century, the system was deteriorating. Putrefaction was rife. The soil saturated, ‘too fattened to be able to consume the bodies,’ (12) the earth could hold no more death. 

We walked through the graveyard, barren trees stark against the alert blue vista, I thought about my mausoleum. I would fill it with books that people could borrow. As a ghost, I’d keep a strict lending scheme. My ancestors, starting with the one nestled inside me, would help with the particulars. I didn’t know then that my body was about to turn mausoleum. Not yet. Scattered blood red leaves paved the way. Did I feel some unrightness on that frost-bitten morning? I wasn’t confident, was still faintly appalled by the secrecy of what was happening inside me and the mystery of those pulsing, dark caverns. There was a little blood, enough to have a future appointment with the Early Pregnancy Unit, but that would come later. In that moment, perhaps, like a flicker of a lantern at the end of a tunnel, there was hope.

A report by Doctor Thomas Thomet to the French Royal Society of Medicine in 1789: 

The funereal wagons and catafalques; those long processions of funerary chariots laden with bones and wending their way when the day wanes towards the new site, prepared outside the city walls to deposit the sad remains; the aspect of this underground place, those thick vaults that seem to separate it from the abode of the living, the hush of the onlookers, the dim light of the place, its deep silence, the dreadful din of dry bones, thrown in and rolling with a noise echoed into the distance by the vaults: everything at those moments retraced the image of death. (18-19)

Throughout it all, I bled. The baby, or the gathering of cells that might have become one, was conceived in October. At Halloween, or just afterwards. Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

Ministers followed behind the carriages containing the jumbled bones. They chanted rites, the liturgy of the dead. It went on for almost thirty years. A minister’s entire career could be spent slowly following the rocking carriages of the dead nightly through the streets of Paris, passing through pools of light and shadow as they made their way to the catacombs.

The blood is constant. The internet says that this is normal and absolutely abnormal. I have an early scan booked. The date looms. It’s the up the vag one, as my IVF friend put it. I am trapped in limbo filled with grotesquery. I take test after test, all positive. But hormones linger after a miscarriage. There is absolutely no excitement, no joy. Fatigue swells and then subsides

1780. The closure of the Cemetery Les Innocents. Surrounded by ossuaries. The bone palaces were open to the public, a gallery. The charnel houses were open to the viewing and the prostitutes flocked in. Le petit mort indeed.

We left Paris. The bubble of half hopes popped. My husband talked about stairgates and I was irrationally furious. How dare he? How dare he think that we could possibly need a stairgate when the one thing we are told again, and again, and again is a bad sign, that means you are losing the baby, is still happening? 

I have a horrible secret and wreathe myself in lies and half-truths to closest friends. All the while slowly leaking blood. I have chafed red marks along my knicker line because I have now been bleeding for four and a half weeks. It seems impossible that I am going to class, seeing friends, having meetings, when inside me something could be going terribly wrong. But I do. Like the patisseries, bars, roundabouts and roads above the cavernous halls of bone that are the catacombs, normal life must continue even though I am separated from it by sixty feet of subcutaneous stone.

Then they tell me.

If it were cancer, this would be a celebration. We would use words like battled, defeated, I would be a victor. The bones of revolutionaries, of fighters – Robespierre, Danton –  they are there somewhere in the dark caverns of the catacombs. If you look down the unlit passageways, past the illuminated walls of regimented femurs, there are heaps of skulls. In me there was death, buried somewhere deep. The womb, the part of me that is supposed to hold life, was a mausoleum. I was a carriage transporting the dead. They told me, and then they made me wait a week. Protocol. Now, months later, I feel nauseated when I remember, when I think of the women everywhere who could be in that terrible week of knowing. Knowing and being unable to dig up the bones.

I walked the halls of the dead. Like Orpheus, I kept walking. Like Orpheus, I looked back. If it were a fairy tale, I would have had something to trade. I would have swapped my baby for a wish. Perhaps there was one. Philippe Muray calls the arrangement of the catacombs, ‘symptomatic of a new relation to death.’ I have that now. 

Two hundred miles. We know a little of it. The rest remains a mystery. But they twist, labyrinthine, beneath the city. I wasn’t allowed an abortion. I had to carry that death, and wait. I told no one and outwardly, nothing had changed. Miscarriages, missed miscarriages, happen in silence. Like the night-wreathed carriages moving bones from one side of the city to the other, we hide. Nobody wants to hear about pregnancy from the childless.

The unspoken-ness of a thing gives it power. The possibility of what lies in the darkness is what’s truly terrifying. I walked through normal life like a dream, carrying something dead, and told no one. The secrecy, the silence, is lonely. We never know what is happening just below our feet, inside the strangers around us. As soon as a light is shone, as soon as we call into the abyss and hear the echoes back, perhaps the terror is diminished, the anxiety assuaged. It isn’t giving things a voice that gives power to the darkness, it’s the silencing of them. 


 1All quotations are taken from: Charbonnier, Jean-Michel, ed. The Catacombs of Paris. Paris: Connaissance Des Arts. Print. 

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