She still carries the picture; it’s creased from countless folding and worn setting the edges from being shoved into wallets and pockets, but it was the last part of him she had, the only part of him. Sitting alone she pulls it out and looks at it, letting her fingers trace the smooth edges. The writing has almost worn off, but that didn’t matter she knew what it said. Knew the name, the date, and the hastily scrawled message. The one where he’d promised.
She looks away from the picture, watching the rain falling on the Paris street. The same street was in the picture, but he sat in the early morning sun. His smile glorious, jubilant and his battered canvas backpack at his booted feet. On that day, she’d learned a new kind of exploration from him. He taken her to places she’d never known existed, places maybe no one knew existed. And the taste of his flesh and dust had never left her tongue.
She looks at the wall his leaned against in picture. It has stood for hundreds of years, yet he was only there for a second and then he is gone. If she touched the wall, could see feel him again? Could some alchemy of photography and desperate hope, let her feel a hint of the heat of his skin left in that wall?
His skin had always been hot, almost fevered. Even in damp and dark miles they traveled, his skin could burn her.
Now, looking up, the wall is wet, empty of anyone and anything in the cold, winter rain. Touching it, she knew, would yield only chilled, wet stone. But that too was a touch she associated with him. The cold damp stone against her back, against her thighs, and bare skin.
His brief touch may have changed her, but it never touched the wall.
Sometimes, mostly at night she could still hear the echoes, the whispering voices from the damp, dark tunnels that riddled beneath the city. Sometimes even under the humming bustle of the city, she could heat the sibilant siren calls.
At the bistro, before the concerned waitstaff had hustled her inside, out of the cold, the rain dripping from the gargoyle’s mouth recalled the sounds of water always present, always dripping, seeping, leaking into the tunnels they’d traveled.
They’d met seeking the hand-sketched maps of the twists and turns in the city below. Each map with notations unique to the creator. On one map a symbol may indicate a kilometer, on another that same symbol noted a flood or crumbled wall. Reaching such impasses, he’d add his own notes to the maps and the walls. She never did. She’d watch his strong fingers, rough, abraded and coated in dust using pencil and spray paint. The hands that so carefully took hers as they scrambled through the darkness, plunging without fear into the unknown.
Pressed into the tight spaces, bodies touching, their motion halted. They could feel each other’s breath in the absolute darkness. Her hands traveled everywhere, touching everything. He said he loved her boldness, how she reached fearlessly, touched with wonder. And her touch rewarded her, as she found paper tracts slid into crevices or on protruding bits of rock. They were left for the hands brave enough to plumb the darkness.
She slipped the photo back into her journal, next to the grime stained tracts. The rain beaded against the window, and dimly she could see her own reflection superimposed over the gray streets. A passing bus, smeared with graffiti took her back to the room, that moment they’d found together.
Crawling through the brick lined tunnel, the broken stones made her knees bleed. Blinking away tears as the decades old mortar disintegrated sifting into her eyes, she followed his lead. This was another new place, a place scribbled about in the pamphlets and scrawled on the walls. A place they’d needed to go together.
They were panting when the tunnel opened, widening abruptly into a room no longer lined in brick but cut from the bedrock. Their flashlights reveled candles wedged on top stone lips and into cracks in the stone. Without a word, they walked slowly, lighting those dry enough and large enough to hold a flame. When the flickering glow warmed the air and the dripping wax spattered onto the dirt floor, they could see what they had come to see. Their shadows loomed and twisted over the uneven walls, dancing in their own orgiastic frenzy. Their sweat and dirty hands touching and coming together, and his skin so warm against hers, chased the chill from her bones. He tutted at her bloody knees, and she stroked the bruises blooming on his arms and shoulders.
It was their shadows they left behind, seared unto the walls, adding to the layers and layers of paint and pain the walls held. She’d taken picture, after picture. Turning in a slow circle to catch every centimeter of the walls, all the while the candles burning down and guttering out. So many of the paintings relied on the uneven walls. Every stone curve and bump added depth and the flickering light made them live. She laid her fingertips on the pictures, reverently, needing to make them tangible, making the real.
He claimed the room had been used by the resistance. How countless others had come together in this space to plan and perhaps find safety. He pointed to the slogans smeared across the walls, mixed with the art and silent cries for understanding. She silently took pictures, not sure if she believed him, but she knew that the shadows grew and crept toward them the longer they stayed. Her skin cooled and the damp chill crept over her faster than the shadows. As they dressed, they listened and from somewhere even deeper inside, deeper down the continuous dripping of water echoed. And the final candle fluttered and died. For a moment, only the dripping broke the perfect darkness.
They left an offering of fresh candles near the entrance, the pristine white rods, at odds with the shadows and dust. Behind the walls, higher and toward the open skies the rumbling sounds of thunder filtered through the stone. In the darkness, she could have been alone, perfectly contained in the void. But his light flickered on, warming and brightening, revealing him waiting near the tunnel and then it was time to go.
Not that time existed for them. In darkness time ceases; there is only being. At least that’s what one of the damp, smudged tracts read. Words that were embedded in her flesh. While searching for the void, encased in perfect darkness, she found him.
She watched the rain from the café window, her hands wrapped around the warm mug. The bright lights of the café glittered on the rain drops that collected on the windows. The waitress asked, “Would mademoiselle, like more café?” She made a vague answer, and released the cup to the woman. The warmth was now nearly scalding, and again, she wondered if his warmth remained in everything he’d touched. Would that room still hold him? Would his shadow still be there? Would hers be there?
Once again, the gravel and rough stone tore at her jeans and the already tattered flesh of her knees. Her blood seeped through the fabric and into the bricks, a sacrifice. Her blood adding to the centuries of blood in this place.
When they could walk again, he held her hand leading her back to the broken grate that covered the sky. The light bleeding through was gray and dark, and a few inches of storm water sloshed around their feet as the rain began its own journey into the caverns below. He said they had to hurry out of the storm drain as the rain began banging sharp tattoos on the metal over their heads.
Smiling he led her out into the night sky. And the clouds seemed endless, the arch of the sky so vast and distant. She turned her face turned toward the rain and let the water wash the dirt and blood from her skin.
He’d promised to return, but he hadn’t. Only the picture remained, his words inked on the fragile paper, indelibly inked on to her.
The sunset quickly in the rain, that sky of granite darkening to slate in minutes. With the photograph and its promise to return, his promise to find something even more spectacular for them, once again tucked away in her journal. The journal slipped into the bag at her feet, safe now in the waterproof backpack at her booted feet, she left a few bills on the table, and slipped on her coat. Outside, in the incomplete darkness of the city, the rain fell on her face, washing him from her skin.