The world seemed to be steeped in slate. Paris was silent but the streets were crowded with hundreds shod in black, giving the impression of a populous of ghosts. Their steps bled together into a whispering that filled the street like the sound of a light wind. There had been music and the sounds of wheels rattling against the stones, but that had long since gone, leaving nothing but the procession behind. L’Arc de Triomphe was draped in yards upon yards of black crepe.
The funeral of Victor Hugo drew the city’s gloomy attention, and stray mourners flitted through the cold streets like circling vultures. The city was full of the bereaved, but no prayers were said for one poor soul in particular.
The corpse in question floated motionlessly in the ash-gray Seine, the frigid water barely seeming to part around her. She almost seemed imbedded in it. A butterfly pinned under glass. Her insipid skirts fanned out in the water like the tail feathers of a downed bird. In this manner, frozen still and face down, she drifted listlessly to the Southwestern side of the Île de la Cité and towards the stone arches of Le Pont Neuf.
The constable who patrolled the bridge in the mornings had already sent notice to the coroner about the woman, and the corpse catchers were gathered at the base of one of the arches, long, curved metal hooks upright in their hands and bristling above their head like spears. Bets had already been placed between the three men on the state of the body: murder or suicide? It certainly wasn’t going to be any type of natural. Natural causes don’t end up face down in the Seine.
When the corpse had drifted close enough to reach, the corpse catchers cast their hooks out, tangling in her skirts and hooking over her side. They drew her unceremoniously from the cold water and loaded her onto a stretcher, peering down into the rigid white face.
“Quite a young thing,” one of the men observed, squinting down at her, “Just looks like she’s sleeping.”
“A damn shame,” another muttered at the same time as the third snapped, “Well, she ain’t sleeping. She’s dead.”
The first man made a rude gesture at the third. “I know that, tu salaud! I just meant she looks peaceful — she’s even smiling, look at her!”
True to his claim, the young woman’s face was arranged in a mask that seemed more alive than dead. Her eyes were closed, wet lashes clumped together in small dark triangles, her water – darkened hair still tied back in a simple knot, and her closed lips curled softly into the ghost of a contented smile.
It was this youthful, almost living face that drew Doctor Jean – Louis Léger’s eye when he found her on his table. She’d been stripped of her sodden dress, and she lay bare before him, her modesty preserved by a thin white sheet, her blonde hair twisted in a cushion under her head. He conducted his examination in the quick, personable manner that he always used, speaking to the corpse softly under his breath. It was something his colleagues continually made fun of him for — speaking to the corpses, but it was something Doctor Léger insisted on. The bodies were his patients and they had carried the souls of their owners while on this Earth, they deserved the same care and dignity as the living.
As he spoke to her and poured over her body, finding no blemishes apart from the natural, he began to feel strangely like he was examining a living woman. Her chest didn’t rise but her cheeks held faint color and her limbs moved with an elegant pliancy uncommon to the dead.
“Ah, mon cheré,” he said, tilting her head to the side to press her neck, looking for breaks or markings, “I know twenty living women who would pay an obscene number of francs for skin as soft as yours.”
He spent several hours with her in the cool, tiled examination room, and found nothing that could hint to the cause of her death other than the circumstances of her discovery. She must have thrown herself into the cold waters of the Seine before and allowed herself to sink into the murk, surfacing the next morning with the gray sun. He wondered which one of the corpse catchers had won the bet this time. The nameless death certificate listed her cause of death as suicide, and she was only identified by the moniker L’Inconnue de La Seine — The Unknown Lady of The Seine — on the papers and the tag affixed to her right toe.
Doctor Léger restored her shroud and called an attendant to fetch her and bring her to the mortuary upstairs to be displayed in the window with her fellow unidentified in the hopes a passerby or on the street would recognize her. For the first few hours of her installment there no one paid her any mind; the city was preoccupied with mourning the great writer. However, as the day passed, rumors of the beautiful corpse with an untroubled smile began to creep through the city like the many branching fingers of a tree root, gradually becoming more and more elaborate as it spread.
One said the La Morgue de Paris was keeping a living woman imprisoned in their museum gallery as a product to sell to the highest bidder, another claimed that anyone who looked on her face would be cured of all ills, yet another theorized the corpse was cursed and would bring death to anyone who looked on her. Doctor Léger laughed at each of the florid stories as they were brought back by colleagues and assistants from their lunches and breaks. Not all of them saw the situation as humorous as he.
“But, Monsieur,” one of the more superstitious assistants asked, “it’s not exactly a regular body.”
Doctor Léger looked up from the body he was examining for signs of poisoning and chuckled. “My good man, you’ve worked in this business long enough to know there is no such thing as a regular body! They all have something irregular about them! Now hand me that scalpel, would you?”
Doctor Léger was considered by most, and especially by himself, to be of a practical nature, having a clear knowledge of the distinction between fact and fiction, but as the day wore on into evening and the mortuary gradually emptied of the living, the rumors began to weigh more heavily on his mind. He sat back at his desk, watching the flickering of the gaslight against the wallpaper of his small office. The forms he’d been filling out to transfer back over to the police sat in a carefully ordered pile before him — they’d started making his eyes cross. Maybe he needed glasses. None of the display corpses had been identified that day, the young woman included. Though, her body had attracted quite the crowd of viewers as the rumors about her spread.
Doctor Léger tsked, pushing himself out of his chair and tugged on his jacket. There was nothing unusual about the corpse and he’d prove it to them! He stepped out into the cold tiled hall, musing as he went. He was the last living resident of the morgue by that time of night — again, nothing unusual for him. He had never taken a wife, both of his parents had passed years ago, and the only sibling he had moved to London. In short, no one was expecting him home. He would take his time examining the body again and report his findings to whatever silly gossips he could get his hands on come the next morning. Hopefully, the correct information would be printed by lunch. A young suicide of an unidentified woman, a regretful tragedy and nothing more.
The curtains had been drawn over the display window, heavy swaths of purple velvet that Doctor Léger thought to be too decadent. It was a morgue for God’s sake, not a boudoir! Alas, it was out of his hands, even though he’d spoken those exact words to the appropriate figures. So, the velvet curtains remained, later accompanied by gilded gas lamps that dripped with glass crystals. The place was turning into a damned tourist trap.
The row of stretchers was evenly spaced, the metal shimmering under the flickering flames, their occupants as still as the steel below them. Some of them lay completely bare, skin appearing like wax in the half-light; they almost appeared to be their own memorials, cold tilted headstones carved in their likenesses. The woman’s corpse, Doctor Léger noticed with a bit of satisfaction, was still mostly covered with the white sheet. Even in the orangey dark the body stuck out from the rest, her hair reflecting bronze, her face full of more life than half the people who’d come to see her. He stepped up onto the raised platform and picked his way to the proper stretcher and disengaged the lock on the wheels.
The stretcher screeched and rattled as Doctor Léger rolled it down the deserted hallway, the corpse quivering atop it. The exam room was colder than the rest of the building, and the wavering gaslights gave the space a cave-like feeling or one like it was submerged in water. He locked the stretcher wheels again, leaving the body on the stretcher in the center of the room like an opera singer lying in repose on stage. Her peaceful smile and lightly shut eyes could be the tragic illustration of a show poster in the box office of Le Palais Garnier.
Doctor Léger couldn’t stop himself from imagining the scene; the fair, blonde maiden who surrendered herself to the suffocating water to join her lover in death. The lady herself wouldn’t know, but the audience would weep softly with the knowledge that the lovers wouldn’t meet again in Heaven. Suicide, of course, being the most tragic of sins to offend France’s Catholic sensibilities. It would make the entire thing more tragic, and the maiden would lie alone on the stage, bathed in the swaths of blue light from gaslights shown through colored glass, at the bottom of the river but at peace. The black crepe screens would fall before the heavy final curtains, the veil of Death stealing her away from the audience.
But then that beautiful girl would rise from the boards and float off stage to wait for final bow; the unknown woman under Doctor Léger’s examining fingers would never rise. She’d sink into the ground and then into the earth, becoming nothing more than dirt. He sighed, pulling the body’s eyelids back, revealing blank eyes, white with calcium deposits. Nothing particularly unusual there either, and, when Doctor Léger removed his fingers, the lids drifted shut like closing shuttered. He examined the corpse top to bottom, finding nothing unusual, and grumbling to himself about the intellectual failings of the average Parisian, fetched a large syringe from a metal dish at the side of the room. With careful, practiced precision, he slipped the thick needle between the ribs and into the spongy, unmoving lungs. When he pulled back on the plunger, a pinkish brown liquid began to be sucked back up into the glass receptacle. Doctor Léger withdrew the needle and held it up to the light, shaking it slightly. It moved easily. Water. Stained with blood from the vessels in the lungs rupturing due to the strain of trying, and failing, to breathe.
It was as he’d first assumed. A drowning, no signs of foul play, as simple as that. Now she’d be left to rot. The light playing across her features created the illusion that the eyes would open and the faint smile would spread across the face, reveling in the simple joy of one’s heart continuing to beat.
A very strange thought stole through Doctor Léger’s mind, an unavoidable feeling, a purpose. Yes, she was dead, but what if she wouldn’t rot? What if she could continue just as she was? He had a duty to care for the dead, to grant them their dignity; maybe he could grant more to the unnamed woman. Doctor Léger could have sworn he saw the pale lips twitch and a chill ran through him, the rumors about the corpse rushing to mind. There was something unusual about it, that was undeniable. Her features were still fair and elegant, her skin and limbs still supple and flexible. She seemed to be an incorruptible saint.
The Seine had been her rebirth.
And suddenly, Doctor Léger knew what he must do. He fetched the plaster powder from a storefront down the road that was being refinished and mixed it in a bucket with water from the examining room tap, moving on to other preparations as he waited for it to thicken. He opened the corpse’s abdomen and removed the organs, setting the heart aside. The jugs of alcohol kept for the preservation of bodies gave him some trouble; they were heavy, and he was unsure of how much to use or how long to keep the corpse submerged. The fumes made him cough, burning his nostrils. He gutted several stuffed chairs for their stuffing and refilled the abdominal cavity with it. The corpse would keep its shape and the removal of the organs would limit the buildup of gas.
The heart was the first thing to be covered in plaster, white creeping slowly over the purple flesh, hardening around the lines and veins of the organ until it dried into a perfect sculpture. The heart was returned to the ribcage and sewn in. Applying the mixture to the rest of the body was a delicate matter. Doctor Léger posed the limbs after the model of a Greek statue, driving long nails through joints with a crunch to prevent them from shifting and propped up others. Plaster was applied with a brush, making sure it sank into every crevasse, immortally intombing the muse. The face took the longest. Doctor Léger made certain each detail was captured in stark relief, as delicate and peaceful as the moment she’d appeared before him the first time.
The hours passed as Doctor Léger worked. More layers were applied and dried, a length of cloth was draped about her and also frozen, one dead hand clutching it demurely to her chest, the rest of the fabric twining about her body and pooling at her feet. He had some trouble getting her to stand, but this was solved with the inclusion of a heavy base that the body was fixed to.
The sky was just beginning to lighten beyond the windows when it was done. Doctor Léger staggered back, falling against the wall, dizzy from exhaustion and the caustic smell of alcohol and blood. He had achieved immortality. It stood before him in sweeping planes of plaster and the slight curl of a smile on the face of an angel.
The others who worked the morgue would be arriving soon, and, through his haze of delirium and triumph, Doctor Léger knew he must hide her. They wouldn’t see the angel, her benevolence or power, they’d prefer to put her in a box and let her rot. Yes, he needed to keep her a while longer. Now dry, the statue was heavy, unwieldly, and Doctor Léger was gasping for breath and wiping rivulets of sweat from his brow by the time he’d deposited the statue in his office. Stepping back, he reeled to the side, his legs collapsing underneath him, and he caught himself roughly on the edge of his desk. A drink. Yes, he needed a drink and a rest.
Doctor Léger stumbled to his desk chair and groped in the bottom drawer for the bottle of whiskey he kept there. He didn’t bother with a glass, instead electing to drink straight from the bottle, staring across his dim office at his creation; she was beautiful. Perfect. He slumped back in his chair, taking another draft of whiskey, his eyelids beginning to droop. There was an odd hissing noise he hadn’t noticed before. For an instant, he imagined the woman opened her eyes and fixed them on him. He gasped. They were white and expressionless, but not plaster. They were the eyes of the corpse woman.
Doctor Léger lurched upright, rubbing his eyes. The illusion was gone. The eyes were sealed with plaster, not open. Disquieted, he pulled a cigar from the case on his desk and stood, wobbling to inspect the statue. The hissing had gotten louder, the infernal noise. It sounded like the hissing of a snake. Doctor Léger heard a thousand souls condemning him in the hiss. He shook himself. Nonsense, he’d done right, by the will of God. He’d made an angel. He huffed and pulled a match from his waistcoat to light his cigar. The scratching noise immediately preceded a blast of white and noise, the spark catching the loose gas in the air from the gas lamp that had been broken as Doctor Léger navigated the statue into his small office.
The blast and the ensuing fire burned hot and fast, quickly consuming La Morgue de Paris, sending white tongues of fire up into the navy early morning sky. While the fire brigade was able to save the rest of the street and the main façade of the building, everything inside was consumed. Everything except a strange sculpture that stood white and undamaged in the destroyed former office of Doctor Léger, coroner. An unidentifiable set of remains were also discovered in the ruins, and were assumed to belong to the coroner himself as he had gone missing the same morning, his house left empty and locked.
The statue was removed from the wreckage and placed into the care of the owner of the building who promptly passed it off to a private collector, citing a ‘strange and watchful’ sensation surrounding it. Rumors flew throughout the city; the resemblance to the unidentified corpse that had taken the city by storm the days prior was quickly recognized. The most sensible and believed of the theories said that Doctor Léger having thought the dead woman was beautiful, commissioned an artist to create a statue in her likeness, and realizing his own loneliness, had set off the blast intentionally. Small replicas of the statue bearing the name L’Inconnue began to be sold across the city, becoming quite the popular trinket to own. Though those that laid eyes on the original began to whisper about a curse on it, a bad spirit. They said they could hear crying coming from it at night, and, sometimes, that the eyes cried tears of muddy river water.
Chloe Spector is an aspiring novelist and writer in the process of obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from Berry College. This is her first publication.
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Excellent story, Chloe! You do a great job of foreshadowing and building dread. Congrats on your first publication.