Mannequin Monday – The Whisper of Bones
“Come to Paris. Your sister is dead.” The opening lines from Elle Marr’s debut novel The Missing Sister. This week we clothe our mannequin with words, stories set in Paris, We visit three novels, two historical, one contemporary, all set in the City of Light.
And can we talk of Paris without Edith Piaf joining us? I offer an imaginative story of my own about the Paris catacombs. Thanks for joining us this week.
This Week’s Fiction
Over the last few months I’ve read, by coincidence, a handful of novels set in Paris, written by women authors, featuring women protagonists. Two were historical fiction, one contemporary. And all gripping reads.
The first was Pam Jenoff’s The Lost Girls of Paris. Here’s the opening line: “If not for the second-worst mistake of Grace Healey’s life, she never would have found the suitcase.” The story moves back and forth between New York in 1946 (the opening line) and Paris in 1943. A woman administrator in the London office of war operations proposed using women operatives behind enemy lines.
So many of their Allied agents in France were being picked off by the enemy. A male spy stood out, argued a woman, Eleanor Trigg, in the Director’s office. She hesitated: “Send women.”
“But what would they do?” asked the male director.
“The same work as the men. Courier messages. Transmit by radio. Arm the partisans, blow up bridges.”
Trigg went on: “Young men are scarce in France, but women are everywhere. They blend in on the street and in the shops and cafes.”
“They would have to be trained,” he countered.
“Just like the men. No one is born knowing how to do this.”
And then we deploy them.
“And then we deploy them.”
The second book: Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris. The book cover reads: One American rifleman, one impossible spy mission, one shot at changing the course of history.
The story began in 1940, nine days into the German occupation of Paris. A woman marksman has been dropped into Paris to assassinate the German Führer.
“Sacré-Couer’s dome faded to a pale pearl in the light of dawn outside the fourth-story window. Kate’s ears attuned to the night birds, the creaking settling of the old building, distant water gushing in the gutters. It was her second day waiting in the deserted apartment, the Lee-Enfield rifle beside her.
Will this really happen?”
The third novel was contemporary, set in Paris, The Missing Sister by Elle Marr. This was a fascinating story, as a woman searched for her missing twin sister in the Paris catacombs.
The book opens with Shayna Darby rushing by taxi through Paris streets:
“Come to Paris. Your sister is dead.
The rest of the words from Sebastien’s email fade against these opening sentences. The world slams to a halt – again – and I suck in another stupid, shocked breath as though it’s the first time I’m reading his email instead of the eighty-second.”
Later in the action, a Paris contact prepared to take Shayna into the Paris catacombs. She asked why.
“Because it was the subject of Angela’s doctoral dissertation. She was studying urban planning of the twelfth century and the catacombs’ role in World War II.”
As always, I expect a book to take me someplace I’ve never been. These three books do not fail.
My Current Writing
Here’s a short story inspired by the Paris catacombs. I had fun with this. Hoping you enjoy it.
The Whisper of Bones
Brill Cardiff stepped into the Paris jazz club an hour after closing time. The staff at the club had finished cleaning after last night’s performance. The basement room smelled of cigarette smoke, scotch, sweat.
The owner greeted Brill. “You have four hours. Then we return to set up for tomorrow’s afternoon show.”
“Merci. I appreciate this.”
She had asked the owner – begged him – to allow her a few hours alone here to work on her script, a story of club performers during the German occupation of Paris in World War II. The owner agreed – after accepting a handful of Euros and a fine bottle of cognac.
“You are a strange woman, but I understand… you are an artist.”
“Oui. I hope to feel the history of this place.”
The owner left. The bartender set a steaming mug of black coffee on Brill’s table. “You will need this.”
She nodded to him.
“Trust what you feel tonight,” he said. He placed a glass of scotch on the stage near the mic. “That’s not for you.”
He left her alone in the club. A dim light illuminated the bar. A second light burned over a small stage dwarfed by a drum kit and a piano.
Brill sat at a tiny table no bigger than a serving tray, her back to the bar, sipping the coffee. From her shoulder bag she took out a laptop.
Hands poised over the keyboard, she hesitated. Closed her eyes. Centered on her breathing. So many jazz performers had sung and played this club. The building was easily a hundred years old.
Brill Cardiff had researched the Paris clubs and their performers. Deep under this jazz club ran a section of the Paris catacombs. Miles and miles of tunnels, filled with bones, skulls…memories. The spirits of the musicians of Paris. Those who escaped there when trouble approached from the street.
Brill slowed her breathing. Listening. Feeling.
A wail. Almost inaudible. A cough. Distant. Raspy, harsh.
Her eyes opened slowly. The sound was not coming from the street above.
She stood, listening. Moved towards the rear hallway. The wail was louder there.
A single panel in the wall swung open as she passed. The sounds grew louder.
She peered into the black space. She could barely make out a stairway, steep stone steps curving down. She pulled a penlight from her pocket, flashed it to get an idea of what was there, and flipped it off again. She ventured a few steps.
The wail wafted up the stairway. Brill felt her way down the stairs. It grew cool, then cold. The stairs ended on an earthen path. She flashed the penlight again. The path tunneled forward, curving out of sight.
A whispered voice.
Non, rien de rien.
Non, je ne regrette rien.
Brill felt her skin tingle.
A wispy shape, dark, shimmering, drifted down the tunnel. A tiny light flared. A cigarette ash? Brill felt for the wall, leaned to steady herself. Large boulders? Smooth, round. As the shape grew closer, the light increased. Brill spied skulls embedded in the walls. Hundreds of them.
Floor to ceiling. Eye sockets staring at her. Staring in all directions.
She pulled back in a panic. Brushed her hands on her pants leg.
Brill retreated from the shape. She began to back up. Inching her way to the stairs. Trying to avoid touching the walls. The skulls.
The shape moved up against Brill. And then it was gone. She turned to run. The shape had passed through her, moving towards the stairs.
The shape floated up the stairs and into the club. Brill stumbled up the steps as she followed.
In the dim light of the club Brill could make out facial features on the shape. A woman. Pale. Thin. Petite. Short, frizzy hair. A cigarette hanging from her red lips.
The woman drifted to the stage. Positioned herself behind the microphone. Brill heard a faint clinking. Like ice cubes in a glass of scotch. She looked around. The club had filled with bones. Skulls.
The woman waited. Silence. She turned to face Brill. She nodded to the mic. Every shape in the room seemed to turn to Brill.
Again the spirit gestured to the mic.
Brill took a tentative step. Approached the mic. The shape stepped back. Nodded.
“Bon soir, mesdames et messieurs.” Brill said. This can’t be real. Clinking from the room. “The woman you have come to hear.”
Brill turned to study the woman. “Piaf?” she whispered. The figure smiled.
“Please welcome Piaf. The Little Sparrow.”
Brill moved away from the mic. Piaf stepped forward.
“Merci,” she whispered to Brill, to the room. The shape began to sing.
Non, rien de rien.
Brill shook her head, thrilled yet disbelieving. She returned to her seat.
Non, je ne regrette rien.
A gentle clinking of bones. Piaf’s audience. Piaf continued to sing.
Brill grabbed her phone. Tapped for the camera function. Stopped. No. Listen to her.
The spirit that was Piaf reached down and picked up the glass of scotch. Held it in the same hand with the cigarette. Sipped it.
Brill felt the raw heat, the power in Piaf’s voice. A heat with a searing intimacy. She’s singing to me. For me.
The bartender’s voice came to her. Trust what you feel.
As Piaf sang “La Vie en Rose”, a wailing siren passed up on the street, breaking the mood. In an instant the bones and skulls were gone, fleeing down to the tunnels below.
Piaf stood, rigid. Her white hands stood out against the black dress, fingering the cross on her necklace.
“The fear never leaves us.”
Brill said to Piaf. “Are there others here like you?”
“Some,” Piaf whispered. “Others have moved on.”
“Why do you stay?”
Every night I sing “I set fire to my memories.” She hesitated. “All of us did. The good and the bad memories. From the occupation. From all the terrors.”
Piaf shrugged. “But there is one memory…one will not leave me.”
“Tell our stories.” Piaf pointed to Brill. “Speak the truth of our nightmares.”
Brill reached to touch Piaf’s hand. She grasped the empty glass.
She was alone.