“He’s right that there’re more rats here than us. I’ve read that Paris has four rats for every human,” said Aunt Mill. We were having poulette en pot-au-feu at the Saint Gervais. I had told Aunt Mill about my walk with Sief and had tried to explain what he’d said about the rats, gargoyles, Big Lady, and the whole upside-down, inside-out thing. “And there’s some wisdom in identifying gargoyles and rats as guardians of borders between two realms,” she added.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Gargoyles hold an ambivalent place in church architecture. Saint Bernard hated them—thought they were the devil’s work. On the one hand they have an important function, conveying tons of rain water off the roofs of these massive stone buildings so they won’t collapse on the heads of the holy, and on the other, they allow pagan imagery, nightmare imagery, even humor, irony, mockery, to creep into the otherwise serious iconography of sacred architecture. But you never see them inside Notre Dame. They decorate or defend or demark the outside of sacred space.”
“And rats, which are certainly grotesque to us in the same way as gargoyles, generally demark the border between above and below. They scurry at our feet, live in cellars and sewers, in secret warrens. In the Fourteen-Hundreds, Paris lost half its population from the plague, carried by rats. So of course rats have a connection to death, the underworld, to evil, all that.
“Plus, there actually is a vast, other Paris below Paris. You’ve noticed, no doubt, that this is a city built of pale limestone. Calcaire Lutécien it’s called. Since Roman times, Paris has built itself by quarrying stone from the outskirts to construct the center. As it expanded, it filled in the quarries with dirt and rubble, or, if the quarries were underground, forgot about them altogether, digging other quarries beyond, filling those in, forgetting about them, quarrying further out, and so on. From time to time, one of these forgotten quarries would collapse. People would wake up to find the houses across from them had disappeared during the night.”
“You’ll have to put the catacombs on your list of things to visit.”
“Catacombs? Like bones and skulls and stuff?”
“Yes, well, we’re eating, but suffice it to say, bones and skulls—and rats—a whole underground city full. So Sief was making sense, in his curious way.”
Madame Rose came over and asked how everything was and if we wanted dessert, or at least I think that’s what she asked, and the two of them started gabbing in French while I watched. After Rose left, Aunt Mill sipped her wine a moment and said, “Have you called your mom yet?”
I shook my head.
I shook my head again.
“I thought you talked to her.”
“That’s not the same as hearing from you.”
I shrugged. She gave me her Aunt Mill frown. I stared at my plate. She sipped more wine, eyeing me over the rim of her glass.
“Aunt Millicent, can I ask you something?”
“Well, last night, when I was going to bed and you were in your study, you were working on an old paper or something and your safe was open and there were other old-looking papers in there.”
“What were you doing?”
“Working on old papers.”
“What kind of old papers?”
“Why should I tell a girl who can’t be bothered to call her own mother?”
“If I promise to call her will you tell me?”
She smiled, waved for the bill, and said, “come on, I’ll show you.”