No matter how hard I try, I can’t escape summer in Paris. Full-bloom irises mingle with Nutella crêpes on the sticky breezes. Tourists from far away lands rush into shoppes shouting their lazy vowels to be understood. Dragging the language through the mud turns the owners into the very stereotypical French snobs, but the business is good—very good—and the tourists don’t understand their subtle jabs. Schoolboys dart past me, bringing a dash of salt and dirty hair to the air. Underneath it all, Paris herself reeks of revolution warring with peace, the spilled blood of enemies and brothers, and the thrill of living. I swallow it all down. It lingers like good wine at the back of my throat.
A sandy-haired boy with thick glasses and dirty knees stops, looks perplexed, and says to no one in particular, “When you imagine yourself as a cannibal, you never think about eating babies.”
The other boys shake their heads, laughing, and continue breaking up handholding couples and hurdling over shivering toy poodles. An older man wearing a linen suit and cap shakes his cane at the boys, but they’re already crossing the street. I hug the old man. He doesn’t know I’m there, but through my black singlet his heart beats faster as if to deny me. My gloved hands tighten on his shoulder blades before I let him continue his life, unmolested. For now.
One touch of my bare hand, and this man, those boys, and the sour shoppe owners would be reduced to rotting meat. My psychopomps fly to my touch like bees to nectar to collect a mortal’s essence. I’ve been reticent today, taking only the sick when I run comforting fingers along their cheeks and brow. That final breath comes with or without a loved one holding their hand. I haunt the places where humans generally die: hospitals and nursing homes. It’s summer after all, and people should be allowed to enjoy themselves without my interfering touch. My psychopomps grow restless. Hungry.
I walk among humanity, but I am not one of them. La Morte. смерть. Y Farwoleath. Death. I collect the names humans give me like the lengths of silver on the belt that hangs from my hips. To them, until the moment of their deaths, I’m invisible but always lurking. A diminutive girl wearing knee-high Doc Martens boots with thick rubber soles to give me a few precious inches of height. The humid-heavy air and the bright sunshine don’t penetrate through my motorcycle jacket as I stroll along Place Pigalle. Its cut is more 1950s than 2010s, but I enjoy the weight of it on my shoulders.
Darkened doorways and garish neon lights blink from curtained storefronts as I make my way toward the Métro station. Hype men leave sweaty fingerprints on the ads they try to shove into passerby’s hands. Discarded flyers litter the sidewalk showing girls in questionable poses. Selling sex is so much easier under the cover of night. One of the men is close enough to touch. A wicked smile spreads across my face, but I keep my hands gloved. This section of the city is decedent, but it’s full of life. I’m not welcome here and can feel it like the thrum of a million heartbeats raging against my skin.
I descend the steps of the Métro two at a time, the heavy tread of my boots spooking a group of pigeons. I don’t bother buying a ticket. There’s a certain grace no human appreciates when I hop over the gate. Summer’s warmth and beauty is unable to find me down here in the cool and dusty tunnels. The rush of wind from a passing train tangles through my long tresses bringing with it wet earth and decay. The metal bars are tarnished from the oil of all the hands that have rubbed against them. I remove my gloves. Fingertips trail the cool steel. Only the microscopic bacteria need fear me.
A woman, adamant she won’t miss another connection, knocks into me. I’m thrown off-balance, and instinctively, I reach out and grab her to stop myself from falling. My psychopomps—looking like a hardcore biker gang in black leather and pale white skin—surround her. Small glimpses of her summer finery peek through their funeral garb, the sound of feasting fills my ears.
Before her final exhale, “Merde,” escapes her lips, muffled by steel wheels cracking like lightning against steel tracks. Her eyes lose their sparkle and she sinks boneless into the cement platform, a smear of blood runs from her nose.
People rush to her aid, too late. Too late. I step around men in business suits and women in frilly blouses and pencil skirts, hands balled in fists deep in my jacket pockets, the weight of an unscheduled reaping sits on my chest like a ship’s anchor. Lost in thought, or panic, I take one train, change stations, and take another that sends me vaguely east and then south. It’s not until Les Halles that I realize where I’m headed: the Louvre. The palace hasn’t been around as long as Stonehenge or the pyramids of Giza, but it holds objects older than both. The vast breadth of human art and experience pieced together in separate collections and protected by glass cases will act as a balm on my guilty conscious.
Like the boys earlier this afternoon, I tear through Les Halles, passing people so fast they turn into a blur of sugary colors and exotic perfumes dripping of sandalwood and myrrh. I hop over turnstiles, ignoring the beeps the machines make to acknowledge my presence. The doors almost close before I duck into the right boxcar.
“Next stop, Palais Royal and the Musée du Louvre.” The voice is stark and music to my ears. I take a seat in an empty row, thankful and calm and not expecting the guy sitting across from me to be staring so intently at me.
He’s wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt unbuttoned with a popped collar. His skin is sun-kissed, the hairs on his arms bleached almost white. His lean legs are crossed loosely at the knee, and he’s sitting back, half-listening to his friend natter on in English about the difference between the French word “expirer”, its Latin roots, and its English equivalent. He catches me staring back, a wide and easy grin spreads across his face. He’s young. Maybe seventeen. And his life force could brighten the entire City of Light for centuries.
I give him a close-lipped smirk, unconvinced he’s actually looking at me. The train whooshes into the Palais Royal station, slows, stops. The doors open and dozens of people, all talking to each other or on phones, squeeze in. I don’t move. The guy does, giving his seat to a pregnant woman with a bag filled with museum souvenirs.
“Merde,” I say, an echo of the dead woman’s last regrets.
The guy raises an eyebrow; amusement plays at the corners of his mouth. He can see and hear me. I scan him for some fatal disease which lowers the veil between life and death. Nothing. He’s mortal. This can’t be happening. The train enters the Tuileries station, and I jump to my feet, grab a metal pole and brace myself to stop.
Smooth as liquid, he’s at my side, reaching up to grab the same pole. In instant before skin meets skin, I drop my grip, curl the pole into the crook of my elbow. My hand returns to its pocket, fumbling for the protective gloves I must have dropped.
“Wanna walk through the gardens with me, gorgeous?” he says with a Parisian accent. His voice is autumn honey poured over sandpaper. Cocky. Confidant. Blissfully unaware of what—who?—I am.
Behind the guy’s arm, sitting near the pregnant woman, one of my psychopomps licks her jewelry-studded bottom lip and waits for me. The only color in her entire monochrome look is a purple bruise under her right eye. She’s thin and desperately hungry. None of the rest of my gang is on this train, but one touch to any of these passengers and they would appear in nanoseconds.
I look up at the guy, tall and ruggedly handsome. His bed hair hangs in his face. The cut more punk than his clothing belies. A flick of my wrist and I could get a better view of his mottled brown and amber eyes.
“No, thank you.” My voice cracks with disuse. I squeeze my fists in my pockets as the train stops.
He leans in closer. “I can tell you the history of every statue in the park.”
I close my eyes, remove my hand to steady myself as more people step in and out of the train. I turn to make my exit, and this guy, this beautiful, stupid guy, grabs my wrist. He falls against me, off the train, the crack of his bones sounding when he slams into the pavement. His friend shouts, never having seen me, the color drains from his face.
The psychopomp from the train is at my side in an instant. Black wings snap all around as more and more of them arrive. I take the guy’s broken body into my arms, the gang pacing around me, hyenas to my lioness. I bend my neck so we’re eye-to-eye and kiss him hard on his full lips feeling life pulsing deep inside. I encourage it. His mouth is salt water taffy against my tongue. I can’t fix his cracked rib or his twisted ankle, but I can keep him from the hyenas with a kiss.
So I kiss him until my black wings open and rip my leather jacket to shreds. I kiss him until my fingers char and turn into boney claws. I kiss him until my skin blisters off. I kiss him until all that’s left of me is bones and the will for him to live.
And live he will.
Special thanks to Audrey for the amazeball cannibal line. You can’t make stuff like that up!