The wind blows in from the northern boulevards and there’s a new moon. That means reincarnated souls have just arrived in maternity wards and on the streets. Only some will be human.
It’s always the same story: people are given the choice between come back as human but outside of Paris, or stay, but take whatever’s left — which means turning into a pigeon, a mouse or a cockroach — , and they all go for good old City of Light.
Watch them prance around in the gardens of Palais-Royal. Nibble on kebab leftovers while admiring white and blue tiling in the métro. Make their space in lush apartments and run-down kitchens, and boast that they’re a special kind of survivor that’s been around for a gazillion years, until they get squashed with a shoe.
When I die, I’ll stay. But I’d like to become a cat. I’d be born in a litter of five because someone forgot to bring their kitty to the vet, then I’d get adopted by a couple. Double income no kids, artists or graphic designers, living in a loft in the cool part of town. I wouldn’t cause them much trouble — I’d go out at night, every night. I’d gobble up some mice on the sly in restaurant kitchens, flirt with feline ladies because I wouldn’t have been neutered either, and slip in the best nightclubs. I’m sure bouncers would think I’m so cute, they wouldn’t throw me out.
Everybody likes cats.
“If I die before you do, I’ll give you all of my previous lives,” I tell my aunt.
“Don’t joke about this, Dorian,” she says. “By the way, I need you to go harvesting tonight.”
I knew it. I already helped her clean, put away her crystal balls, swept the floor with the birch broom while she smudged sage all over the place. Now she’s sprinking salt in the corners of to get rid of the smell of broken hopes and dreams gone sour. A day in the life of a good witch, clairvoyant and specialised in white magic.
Her business is solid. She lets me stay in a studio apartment at the sixth floor of the building where she works and live, in exchange for a few chores that leave me plenty of time for college. I mostly answer the phone a couple of hours a day. Sort out and color-code boxes of various magical substances. Cleanse hex-absorbing dolls and give back supernatural waste to the earth. That’s one of the worst parts; some of them try to bite. And then there’s what she calls harvesting: collect the raw material for fairy dust, the one that makes her spells work.
I try not to show how annoyed I am. A friend is DJ’ing at rue Berger tonight. He showed me some of his selection and there’s a classic house track I’m crazy about. Much better than going after reincarnated souls.
“You’re not thrilled,” my aunt says, putting her hand on my shoulder.
She’s petite, but man, her grip is strong.
“You know how much I need it. Don’t you remember that trip we took together when you were little? When I guided you along the hidden pathways to the fairy judges who greeted the souls of the dead and decided upon their next incarnation?”
How could I ever forget. Fairy judges have the body of a child but their face has a thousand years. They always look like they’re in on some kind of secret joke. At the fairy hearings, people’s lives, past and future, were assessed in five seconds each, tops.
Then, they were given the pearl that contained all of their previous experience.
Humans keep it in their last vertebra, the one that’s considered as a vestigial organ but actually isn’t. Animals get born with pearls attached to their body. Sometimes they’re so small you can’t see them. Some get destroyed by accident. Some are loved, some are discarded. Once harvested, those pearls can be transformed into what is known as fairy dust.
And that’s what my aunt is asking me to do now. It has its risks. Reincarnated souls don’t always agree, but it’s good training for me, or so she thinks. For her, studying, partying and refusing to think about the future are just a phase. I’ll come round and embrace my legacy, she says.
I don’t want that. There’s too much empathy involved for this job. My aunt’s client throw all their fears and anxieties at her, and she has to turn them into hopes and wishes in less than an hour.
She uses every pyschic protection spell available, for her and her office, but I can tell it’s wearing her out. Magic travels through hidden portals are all very good, but it’s not my jam, thanks but no thanks.
I envy people who don’t know about it all and just laugh at the supernatural. Their lives seem so simple. They look so self-satisfied. If I try hard enough to look like them maybe I’ll be like them.
“Dorian, you’re straying off your path,” my aunt often tells me. “You’re losing your way and you can’t even see it.”
“Nah, I’m just being young.”
She usually replies with a condescending smile.
If she thinks I’ll take up the family business, she’s wrong. I’m playing nice to keep my place.
Still, I don’t have much of a choice for now, so I get a large bag and I’m out. No use wasting time. Pigeons like heights and I might die trying to get pearls in their nests, cockroaches’ pearls are tiny and rest under piles of garbage. Mice have the courtesy of having decent-sized pearls that they put together in a cluster. They live underground.
Some action will be required, but nothing too dramatic. I might even hit the club afterwards.
By ten, I leave the metro at porte de Clignancourt and head North. If only the underground tunnels had their entrance at the Père-Lachaise. Classy graveyard, a touch of goth — perfect. I’d just need to let myself get locked in and the only danger would have been meeting with teens drunk on cheapo wine next to Jim Morrison’s headstone, or an aggravated security guard.
Nope. I have to climb over a small barrier to walk around abandoned railtracks haunted by junkies.
The track is below ground level. I’m surrounded by buildings. At the windows and on the rooftops, makeshift antennae capture broadcasts from the whole world. It must be nice inside. I go under a bridge. People are slumped against the walls. I feel their sadness in my gut, like a punch that stops me from breathing. They’ll become insects or rats soon enough.
A couple of them notice I’m here. Now I’m very much aware I’m wearing an expensive-looking leather jacket. Fuck. I feel like a walking sack of money. How could I even think it’d be ok not to change clothes? I take a glance behind my shoulder. They’re following me.
I break into a jog and look out for the first possible access to the world of the reincarnated.
“Hey, good-looking. Over here.”
The voice comes from my right and there’s a red light. I rush in and trip.
Entrances to the underworld aren’t maintained and that’s a shame. I have to crawl on a slope for a while before I can get back up.
The voice resonates in my head but not in the room. A mouse twitches its moustache in front of me. I’m sure it’s a she. Her fur is gray and her black eyes have a familiar glint. She’s holding her paws in the air and her attitude — well, she just mouse looks cute. The way she tilts her head just reminds me of someone.
“Yeah, thanks. Have we met before?”
“You can say that, yes. I wasn’t expecting to see you again, Dorian.”
“Me neither… And who are you?”
The mouse squeaks with annoyance.
“Sorry. It’s just that I meet so many people, my memory’s really bad…”
“I can see that. I knew you were different, you couldn’t hear me otherwise. But I don’t know what you’re doing here. You don’t do drugs.”
“No, I don’t. It’s a long story. My aunt’s a witch…”
“So that’s why you wouldn’t tell me what her job was! If I’d known I might have asked for her help.”
As I observe that tiny female rodent, I begin to understand. The way she holds herself, her shyness, the playfulness that doesn’t quite dare to come out.
“It took you a while to guess.”
Nathalie is one of my exes. We only hooked up a few times, but she wanted a “serious” relationship, deep down always searching for more than I or anyone else could give her. She drank a little too much and her laugh was a little too loud. She loved to dance and spend the night with strangers. She got criticised for it behind her back. Not from me, I’m grateful for all the ladies who invited me in their bed; a true player knows how to be a gentleman. The inventory of her personal demons felt like the whole Necronomicon. It must have been one or several of them that suggested she should throw herself under a metro last week.
“Did you just get reincarnated?”
“I’m spending this life underground. There is such a thing as karma after all. I’d have liked reincarnating as a pigeon, but that’s all there was left. And living elsewhere than in Paris…”
“Nah, not worth it.”
“Thing is, I’m not sure I want to be human again. Things could be simpler this way.”
I kneel and take her hand. It’s hard to see her like this. I always thought she’d meet someone who loved her like she wanted and maybe become a housewife in the suburbs. She climbs inside my hand.
She sighs. Might as well give it a try.
“Would you mind helping me?”
“My aunt needs pearls to make her spells work. Could you tell me where I can find a cluster?”
Her whiskers flutter.
“I could give you mine but not other people’s… That decision isn’t mine to make.”
Ok. Some efforts will be required. My first harvest took me thirteen hours to complete and I almost got run over by a train whose driver got hijacked by a mouse. Then, about a hundred of them chased me in the tunnels. A few of them managed to bite me and I checked myself for symptoms of the bubonic plague for weeks afterwards. I’d like to keep it simple this year. Hiding places change every time, maybe so they can avoid nutcases like me, and I don’t want to waste time looking for them if I can have a guide.
“It means freedom for everyone, Nathalie. You’ll be able to finally experience happiness once you’ve let go of your past, isn’t that right? It’ll be the same for others.”
I give her my serious expression and undersided look. I just told her the first thing that went through my mind. Some of the reincarnated don’t care about remainders from their previous lives, but they’re far from being the majority and the rest… After pearls have been reduced into powders, those’ll just lose their memories. Nathalie considers my suggestion.
“What’s in it for me?”
Too good to be true.
“What do you want?”
She doesn’t want to stay in the tunnels. Mice born at the Northern gate will migrate, but it’ll take them some time. She’d rather not waste precious days and wants me to take her out of here pronto, as soon as my harvest’s done.
I accept, of course. She scurries off and I have to run to keep the pace in those damn tunnels where the ground shakes as subway trains rush with a screeching sound. Pairs of tiny red or black eyes follow us. Furtive footsteps follow us for a while then vanish. If I get attacked, my clothes are sturdy enough to survive the pointy little teeth of overly attached mice.
I saw one, the first time, clinging to her pearl like a baby to their mother. Rainbow hues glimmered. The sum of accumulated lives. I didn’t disturb her. Even I have my limits.
“Did you kill yourself because of me?”
“Then why did you do it?”
“I didn’t have the energy to push back anymore. It’s as if I was spending my time trying to lift deadweight and then I stopped trying.”
I don’t know if it’s the night, or that jarring smell of rotten eggs, but I feel sentimental all of a sudden.
“Do you realise that when I give your pearl to my aunt, I’ll destroy all of your memories, including those with me? It’d be like dying a second time.”
She stops and turns.
“No, it’ll be like being born again, this time for real. Just like you told me.”
I think I heard whispers and laughs, faint sounds that surrounded us and vanished. My ankle itches — Nathalie’s biting my leg.
“Don’t fall asleep. We’re almost there!”
I follow her. We get to a round room, one of these decaying old places all over the Paris underground. A pyramid made of pearls lies at the center. No one to bother us. Unebelievable luck. I fill up my canvas bag, get Nathalie to climb on my shoulder. We’re all set to leave. It really was too good to be true.
The exits are blocked. A girl with an old woman’s face stands before each of them. They’re four. Wearing white clothing. They look amused. The fairy judges. Fuck.
“So, Dorian, did you really think you’d make it?”
I step back. What the hell do they want? They come closer and tilt their smiling faces towards us.
“Did you ever wonder what happened to the animals whose pearls got destroyed?”
Nathalie lets out a long shrill whistle.
“They’re freed from their deadweight!” she claims.
“Wrong answer,” one of the fairy judges says.
“They’re robbed of their past. Forced to start over.”
“As if they were being killed a second time.”
“Are you sure you want to leave with this?”
They’re pressed against us now. They feel like they’re made of bones.
“If it’s not me, someone else’ll come. If not tonight, tomorrow. Let me go.”
“We weren’t going to stop you.”
“We just want you to know you’re aware of the consequences.”
They lay their hands on the bag, whisper words in a language I don’t understand, and leave after one last sentence.
“Enjoy all your lives!”
“Get the fuck out of here.”
That’s Nathalie supporting me, in her own way. Not that I need it-as I run, she directs me, her voice clipped. We hit the ground running on boulevard Ornano and find ourselves in the metro at Porte de Clignancourt, headed towards Porte d’Orléans.
It’s half past midnight. The next train will come in twelve minutes. Didn’t go too badly. Even went rather well. There’s a couple of guys further down the platform, but they seem okay, not even looking at us, just rolling up a joint for themselves. I slump on a chair.
Then a sound runs through the air, and I see it like a thin, white line rushing before me, and my gut clenches in response, and my bones start vibrating. The pearls become warm against my skin. I see lives pass by, then it gets worse — I feel them. That’s what the fairy judges wanted me to have and what I’ve been doing my best to avoid: clairsentience.
A hundred lives happen in accelerated speed, children fighting with red-hot tears, headache-inducing neon light, hostility, nausea. Icy chemo treatments seeping in my veins. Loud wedding celebrations, the silence of an apartment where nobody comes to visit anymore. Nathalie.
She told me about many things, she talked all the time, but she’d kept silent about that. Some people never recover if it happens to them once. It happened several times to her. She ran away. She had a few good moments, I was a part of them, other men too. We gave her a shred of lust for life. But something stayed within her, telling her it wasn’t worth it. A burden beyond words. Just a consuming desire to end it all. She kept it under control most of the time, but it was never easy. And that night, on a Thursday, Cambronne station, the rumble of a train getting in the station. The temptation is too strong.
Faint little shrieks pierce through the fog. It’s all useless.
“I didn’t go through all that to see it happen all over again!”
The pain makes me stop. Drop the bag. Nathalie is holding by her teeth on the back of my hand. Before me, the doors are open, there’s light inside, most seats are free.
“Dorian. For fuck’s sake. Get that bag, stop the fucking emo trip and get me to a nice restaurant.”
We’re outside. Finally. Nathalie stands on my shoulder, breathing in the fresh air. If she could, she’d open her little paws wide like Kate Winslet in Titanic. We’re in the deepest hour of the night, place de l’Opéra. Cars whistle by. All the lights are on at Café de la Paix. Partygoers, tourists and rich people sit there to eat good, overpriced food. One of these complete dream postcard moments, a Paris minute. The city. Our city.
I treat Nathalie to dinner outside and watch her nibbling on fries. The lives are still buzzing inside me, but not so strongly anymore. Lights and noises keep ghosts away, or at least distract attention. Then we go to Ladurée so that Nathalie can get a look at all those macarons in dozens of pastel hues. She’s so happy she can’t stop jumping up and down. Purple, green, yellow, orange and pink cakes. When she’s full, she can go to Fauchon for a bit of variety.
After we’ve found the personnel entrance to Ladurée, we exchange our goodbyes. As her tiny figure disappears, I hope they don’t have a cat. It would be illegal, but it’s the best solution against rodents.
My aunt fell asleep in her armchair waiting for me. I wake her up when I put the bag of pearls on her lap. She immediately gets to work and, for once, I stay and watch. It’s a funeral, after all. Being here is a token of respect and a way to treat this as a ritual.
As she sets the first batch in her mortar and takes her pestle, I let myself experience one last time by all the memories contained in these iridescent pearls. Lives gone by. Now the dead will be put to work to help the living. A red glimmer-rage that’s impossible to let go, words that wound deep. Blue glimmer-a summer day that was nothing special, but life was so sweet then it was remembered until the end. Gray for the sadness that came unexpected, for the faces of those people who didn’t mean anything anymore, nothing, this ship has sailed, I hate that I can’t keep you out of my mind.
I still have time to go clubbing afterward. My friend’s set has just started and he’s on for a good three hours. I regret the time when I was good at pretending because that’s gone now. I’m clairsentient, I’m not good enough to take over my aunt’s job and I don’t know what to do. The best music and the strongest vodka won’t be able to cover that anymore.
The pestle rises and drops at a steady beat. My aunt got some sleep, that’s why she’s so strong. I hope her spells will work, bring about happiness, freedom.
I’ll pay for the wrong I’ve done sooner or later, in this life or another. So I really hope it was worth stealing and lying, that it’ll bring about some good. Just a little. Just a little bit of beauty in peoples’ lives.