In those days, the year of our Lord Jesus Christ one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven, Paris was a city abuzz with death. It buzzed as a topic of conversation: in the private apartments of His Majesty King Louis XVI at Versailles; in the salons of nobles (who fretted, too, about the aroma of revolution in the air); and in taverns, soon to be called bistrots, in which lesser men shouted and sang around mouthfuls of veal. It buzzed in the clouds of pernicious insects thickening the air over churchyard cemeteries. And it buzzed in the streets, as soldiers, executioners, and laborers made use of what few livres they earned, some by killing, others by handling the remains.
For it was in that year that millions of erstwhile Parisians, some nestled safely in the arms of their Father above, some wailing and roasting beneath our feet, saw their mortal remains transported from the overflowing Cemetery of the Holy Innocents and many other places into quarries nearby. These tunnels, first mined by our Roman forebears, were to be employed as an Empire of the Dead, an ossuary that stretched on for leagues. Thus, the noxious smells and gruesome remains of our ancestors from centuries past were to be relocated between earth and Hell. I, like many others who lived in the shadow of Montparnasse, had been hired by the Council of State to assist in the exhumation and transportation of bodies. It was grim, malodorous, pestilent work, the kind that draws men together even as it enflames their weary spines. Yet I suppose even the most burdensome labor may grow routine after a time; and so it was that I struck up a friendship with a fellow I was proud to call Henri. A large man, broad-shouldered and strong as a wall, he seemed to have been made for such work. Never once did I observe him so much as scowling or flinching, though the spectacles of Hades affronted us daily.
Henri and I would load an empty horse cart with a tangle of sickening remains in the cemetery, cover this soulless matter with black cloth, and then drive the cart south through the Barrière d’Enfer, or Hell Gate. A resigned priest marched beside us, singing prayers to the best of his ability the entire way. Upon its arrival, the cart would sit until nightfall, at which time a priest would speak another series of prayers, then step away so we could carry our ghastly freight down into the quarry by torchlight. I never thought to question why so many fervently uttered prayers were directed at matter which had already relinquished its appointed souls, nor why such rites occurred in the dead of night. It was simply the way these things were done.
Would that I had been more curious, though surely such as I could never have anticipated the unholy events which befell late that summer. It was unseasonably cool that evening, and the sun had just descended on its heavenly course below the western horizon. We had driven our first of the night’s cartloads through the Hell Gate and up to the mouth of the tunnel. We unyoked the horses; a boy led them away to be watered. The priest completed his praying and, upon his “amen,” backed away so we could untie and pull away the cloth. I wadded the inky raiment and set it aside for a subsequent load.
In such circumstances, of course, it would not have been greatly surprising had the contents of the cart assailed our nostrils, though the wagon loads often smelled like nothing more offensive than earth. Yet the first hint of trouble was a cloying miasma of sweetness. I have since been told this smell may accompany disease, as of those festering maladies encountered in equatorial lands. All I knew at the time was astonishment. Henri startled to attention. “Foul monster!” he cried, and then, Titan that he was, he lost no time in backing away from the cart. Distracted by this movement, I did not see the pile of bodies shift beside me until it was too late to remove myself from any danger. What happened next, may Almighty God see fit to at long last remove from my dreams.
At first it seemed a skeleton, dressed still in clods and ribbons of flesh, was prying itself loose from between the other bodies. I stared, goggle-eyed, as it exposed first its skull, then its jutting shoulder bone, then an arm, the bony fingers of which scrabbled toward me and clutched at my own person. I confess to have lost whatever powers of reason I may normally possess. You will think, perhaps, no less of me if I made water which spread down my legs. In all those long months of carrying the dead, never once had I imagined such horrors. Until that moment, the common dead had been sufficient food for my nightmares, yet now I saw the skeleton moving itself; nay, in truth rotting flesh manipulated the gnarled bones from within like a puppet in a marketplace spectacle. As its claw pulled me closer, I saw, by the flickering glow of the torches, that what I had first taken to be human carrion was even fouler than that. A fetid rope composed of something very like worms filled the marrow, congealed into a muscular tangle that writhed like a serpent of once-human flesh. A beast was coiled inside that skeleton, inhabiting and articulating it as a crab fills its shell. The eyes of something horrid, I must even say demonic, stared wildly from the ocular recesses of the skull. Whatever it was, I sensed innately that its long hibernation or entrapment underground had driven it steadily and irrevocably mad.
I was unaware in that moment that mighty Henri had grabbed me by my collar and was tugging as hard as he could, hard enough to lengthen its threads near to snapping. Yet even his enormous strength was no match for the beast, which strained against moldy bones hard enough to crack them lengthwise. “A torch,” Henri exclaimed. “Give it to me—now!” A young priest nearby, emboldened, no doubt, by his vigorous faith in the succors of Heaven, withdrew a torch from its sconce and approached Henri’s side. In the mere instant my brave companion needed to grab and gain control of that torch, the snapping serpent-flesh within the moldering skull shot forward. Like a spear tip, its snout jabbed into the crook of my elbow. A jet of scarlet betrayed the great thirst of the monster, which I now saw was probing for blood in the deepest meats and sinews of my arm.
Henri had seized the torch, and now thrust it into the demon’s encapsulating skull. Upon contact, the fire made a great hissing noise against the ungodly meat of the creature. The foul thing then retracted its stinger of a maw, which exuded clots of thick, mucous ichor at its tip. The sharpened proboscis danced about wildly, whether seeking new prey or performing Saint Vitus’ dance I cannot say. My arm, infected with satanic foulness, hurt as though it had been branded. This agony now spread toward my shoulder as the claws of the demon finally surrendered their grip on my vestments. Reduced to the infantile crawl of a sot, I gibbered in utmost terror as I fell on my back and wriggled away from the fire-maddened hydra. My wound left a trail in the earth like the filth of a slug.
Recovering its wits, the serpent turned its baleful glare fully toward Henri. My friend redoubled his attack; soon others found courage enough to assist him. The beast struggled with fearful determination, yet half its skeletal apartment was still wedged between the bodies in the cart. It was therefore unable to withdraw, or to engage in further mischief by fleeing northward into the city, nor by slithering deep into the bowels of our subterranean ossuary. The flames, which illuminated the skull and ribs from within, ignited and gnawed at the devil’s flesh. A loathsome evaporation of marsh gas escaped this foul lantern to hang thickly about the mouth of the quarry. Slowly, gradually, as if the beast were formed of wet pitch, its sinews were fully consumed. It relinquished its struggles, then returned at long last to the domain of demons.
The next thing I knew, Henri was hunched over me, his face pallid and damp with perspiration. “I can help you,” said he, “but it will cost me dear! Ah, well, ’tis fortunate for you that I deem you worthy of the expense.”
I made some response, God knows what. The pain of the venom robbed me of thoughts and was worse than I could bear. It seemed to me a vast pressure had grown inside my extremity and would soon free itself by splitting the skin in the manner of an overstuffed sausage. I uttered desperate and agonized shrieks. In my wretchedness, it felt as though my flesh had been made swollen with child. Perhaps it had, as when a spider injects its wriggling young within a wasp so that the victim becomes a womb, then a maggot’s first meal. “Henri!” I cried mournfully. “Henri!”
He unlaced his purse and withdrew a small, corked phial. He set it aside, then clutched at my arm and squeezed with all his might. The gash popped like an ulcer, expelling a great quantity of malodorous phlegm over Henri’s left shoulder and spraying the earth with thick vomit. He milked the wound of all the venom he could, my exhausted voice cursing him with foul imprecations the while. Then, Henri uncorked the phial and emptied its contents into the wound. The pain subsided a bit, enough for me to converse in the manner of a Christian. “The beast,” I exclaimed. “Is it dead?”
“Never mind that,” my savior replied. “Our churchmen have burned it alive.”
“O, thanks be to God!”
“It is well you should honor God, truly, for it is only by His grace that you live.”
“Indeed, I do live by His grace, and your strength, which you wield to His glory. But tell me, I beg you, what was that despicable creature?”
“We have no words for such monsters in the French tongue,” replied he. “Few mortal Christians know, nor wish to believe, that such fell things remain in the earth. They are, perhaps, the offspring of Nephilim, re-birthed from the muck as God’s Deluge subsided. The Romans knew them as striges, the drinkers of blood. They have long been held captive below; it is only in the course of this hideous transferal of bones that we encounter them again. Fortunately for you, my friend, a godly priest has discovered a physic which reverses the venom’s putrefying effects. Had the stinger remained in your arm, no potion known to any man would have saved you, yet it seems to me that we may have applied it in time.”
“This good potion,” said I. “What is in it?”
“Lunar caustic,” said he, “a salt the alchemists extract from an acid they pour over coins of pure silver. Now you see that your life has been costly indeed! I procured this phial for myself and my sons at considerable expense once I learned why these bodies were carried at night. Only then do such demons arise, revealing themselves to God’s servants, who then put their damned bodies to the torch.”
“Why was I never told of their existence?”
“Ha!” laughed he. “Would you have joined our merry procession, had you known what might await you at its ending?”
“By the love of God, no!” I replied.
“Wisely said! Yet these bodies must be moved, the scourge of striges within them destroyed for all time.”
And so it was. The reburial of bodies continued for a year and a quarter. Humble laborer that I am, I returned to work as soon as I could, putting food on my family’s table even as my nightmares deprived me of sleep. My arm, like my sleep, recovered but slowly. It remained marked with a cloudy black scar like the blemish of Cain, though from venom or silver I know not which.
This city, I hope, will soon forget these unholy terrors we encountered as our dead were re-interred within the wounds of the earth. As we delved through those seams, the beasts within them found our own flesh as well. The Devil’s menagerie claimed fourteen lives that year. We burned our friends’ bodies and pulverized their bones before strewing them deep in the ossuary, unmarked and before long forgotten by men. May God have mercy on the souls we thus set free.
*Christian Carvajal is the author of Lightfall, a 2009 novel released by Fear Nought Publishing, and he’s currently shopping a new novel with the working title Mr. Klein’s Wild Ride. His work has been published in Cinefex and Literary Cavalcade, and he’s a regular theatre critic and feature writer for the Weekly Volcano. His short story “A Boy and His God” earned him honorable mention in the international Writers of the Future Contest. “Carv’s Thinky Blog” is at ChristianCarvajal.com, along with purchase information for his nonfiction e-book, Rereading the Bible: Agnostic Insights Into Genesis, the Gospels, and Revelation. Veritas!