My roommate Kris and I were ready for an adventure. We set out on the grey, blustery October morning to explore the ancient city we called our temporary home. La Ville Lumiere, Paris, the city of lights, with its beautiful spires and magnificent architecture, is known throughout the world for art, culture, food, and romance. Our destination this day was Père Lachaise, a cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.
My French professor often regaled us with stories of Pere Lachaise. It was immersed in history. The famous and infamous alike were laid to rest here.
Kris was into history, French History. But I, I was into dead things. I had a morbid fascination with the dead. Headstones, crypts, grave markers, mummies, ghosts. The thing that drew me to Pere Lachaise was the gravestones. I was determined to collect a few grave rubbings for my collection.
I was on a mission, a mission to find Jim Morrison’s unmarked grave and do a rubbing of his tombstone. I might be able to sell a few of the rubbings to help supplement my income while I was here at La Sorbonne, studying the greats such as Moliere, Voltaire, and Dumas.
Oscar Wilde, the playwright, died a pauper, penniless after serving his sodomy sentence. His adoring fans still leave his tomb marked with letters, red lips, and poems filled with lust. Maybe I could make a few francs from his rubbing.
The overcast sky greeted us as we arrived. There was a damp chill in the air, forecasting the arrival of rain. I found the cemetery strangely beautiful with its crypts and headstones dating back hundreds of years. The gothic influence wasn’t lost on me. I relished Pere LaChaise even more, basking in the unspoken loneliness of this dreary, lovely place,
We procured a photocopied map from a gnarled, decrepit French woman with long, grey, willowy hair who smoked like a chimney stack, her blue eyes cloudy with cataracts. Her strange dress was reminiscent of another time and place, a long skirt, worn peasant blouse an undecipherable color, faded red vest strung together with a shoelace she had yanked out of her boot, black with the tarry mud from the graveyard. Her vestments were completed with a grey trench coat which covered her from head to toe. No buttons, it hung open in the front.
We handed her a few francs as a tip. She spat out directions in her indiscernible French, pointing to interesting sites such as the graves of Moliere, Jean de la Fontaine, and Gertrude Stein.
We hardly saw another soul, our noses buried in the map, as we started searching for points of interest, avoiding the long narrow walkways.
At Moliere’s grave, I took out my graphite pencil and my pad of paper. A cold burst of wind blew across the back of my shoulders, hate shivers crawling down my spine. I caught the flash of something in my peripheral vision. I looked up. Nothing was there. Kris was several feet away, perusing the map for our next stop. I looked behind me, nothing. I bent down to start the rubbing when I felt something brush against my cheek. I jumped up, looking for whatever it was. There was nothing.
The sun poked out from behind the grey cloud, at its zenith. We had many more graves to discover. Onward we marched.
We picked our way through the cemetery, one grave after another, keeping in line with each gravestone, stepping gingerly, carefully navigating our way so we didn’t step on someone buried underneath. I stopped at Chopin’s grave, grabbing a hurried rubbing. The soft sound of a piano reached my sensitive ears. It seemed to linger here, coming to me on the blustery wind, specter-like in its essence, as if it came from another time and place.
At Gertrude Stein’s grave, I had to sit. Hours on the hill had me parched and my feet were worn out. Again, I sensed a presence, just out of sight, goosebumps sliding up my neck and down my arms. I looked up quickly, catching a glimpse of a skirt disappear behind a large tomb. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being watched.
“Kris, did you see that?” I asked.
“Never mind. I thought I saw something.”
There were so many other famous people buried here, it took us a couple of hours to traverse the graveyard, walking back and forth diagonally on the hillside. We finally found Jim Morrison in his unmarked crypt, our last major discovery of the day. With this rubbing, I took my time, not wanting to make any mistakes. This would top off my collection. Lyrics popped into my head.
People are strange when you're a stranger
Faces look ugly when you're alone
It was as if Jim himself were giving me my own private concert. Maybe it was just my imagination.
I kept rubbing, Jim kept singing, ghostly guitars strung along with him.
When you're strange
No one remembers your name
When you're strange
When you're strange
When you're strange
I finished my rubbing, and the song in my head came to an end.
When it started to drizzle, dampening our feet and making us shiver with cold, the light fading, we decided we had seen everything there was to see.
As we made our way to the entrance, I felt it again. The feeling that I was being watched, like someone had eyes on me.
“Kris, do you feel like you’re being watched?” I asked.
“You’re imagining things,” Kris said, but the look on her face, like she had the heebie geebies, said she had felt it, too. “Let’s go.”
We made our way to a cafe, ordered croque monsieurs and a bottle of wine.
The waiter brought our order, ending his shift. He asked to sit down, making eyes at Kris.
“Where have you been on this dreary day?” he asked, peering at our mud-stained shoes.
“We’ve been to Pere LaChaise.” She answered.
“Ah! Did you see le fantome?” he asked.
“Haha, very funny,” Kris said. “No, we didn’t see any ghosts.”
“Are you sure?” The waiter asked, a strange expression on his face. “It is said an old woman still haunts the grounds.”
“An old woman?” I asked.
“Yes, an old hag of a woman with long, willowy grey hair. It is said she roams the grounds, searching for her lover.”
Suddenly, a knot formed in my stomach. I looked at Kris.
“Is there anyone at the front gate collecting money for a map?” I asked.
The waiter cocked his head to one side, a curious expression on his face.
“Non, entrance to Pere LaChaise is free. It is still accepting ‘guest’, n’est ce pas? One cannot charge to visit the dead. The maps are left in the shack for anyone to use.”
Kris and I looked at each other, knowing what we had experienced, what we had seen at the cemetery, the old crone with her eccentric costume.
“How long ago did she die?” Kris asked.
“It is said she lost her lover in La Revolution. She roams Pere LaChaise looking for his body,”
Later that night, after we got home, I took out my rubbings to properly take care of them. As I carefully prepared them for storage, the rubbing of one seemed a little off.
Oh Great, I thought. Now it’s ruined. I took a closer look. The rubbing was of a gravestone, but transposed over the top was a faint image of a woman, an old woman.
Had we inadvertently brought the old woman home with us?
I quickly set the rubbing down, my hands burning.
I ran into the kitchen, grabbed a pair of tongs and a match. That crone wasn’t staying. I lit the rubbing, saying a silent prayer to myself, to the universe to release her spirit, if she had come home with us.
As the thin paper caught fire, a blue flame leaped into the air, singeing my eyebrows. I dropped the paper on the floor, aghast. The flame flickered for a minute and went out, leaving a scant trace of the rubbing. I grabbed ahold of it. No woman on the tracing. The rubbing of the gravestone was clearly still visible. Who was that old woman? Maybe she had come home with us, maybe she was now released, at rest with her lover. The only way to find out for sure would be to return to Pere LaChaise. Alors, that is another story.