The Man in the Paris Cemetery, Ch. 2

CHAPTER TWO (see chp. 1)

Gemma trailed behind Daniel and the boys as they walked down leafy Caulaincourt Road and up the worn stone steps to the cemetery. They approached a large laminated map mounted on a forbidding stone wall, complete with numbers and a guide to the famous people buried there.

Gemma skimmed the list for familiar names. She recognized the composer Hector Berlioz, the filmmaker Francois Truffaut, and one of her favorite artists, Edgar Degas. A Degas print of a woman at her bath hung in her living room. Was that a good enough reason to visit his grave? Gemma was an aspiring writer, not a painter. Alexandre Dumas would be far more appropriate, but suggesting it would make Gemma feel like a fraud. She’d only seen the movies, not read The Count of Monte Christo or the Three Musketeers.

“Is there a specific grave you want to visit?” she asked Daniel.

Before he could answer, the boys dashed down a long, cobblestone lane and dodged between graves in a ferocious game of hide and seek.

“Doesn’t look like it’s up to us,” Daniel said, sprinting after them. “Don’t go far!” he called out to them.

The boys raced around the monuments until Daniel snagged both of them by the back of their tee shirts.

“I love this place,” Gemma said, as she breathlessly caught up to them. She was pleasantly surprised to find she felt completely at home here. “Some of these tombstones are so old, their writing looks washed away, as if they’ve spent centuries beneath the sea.”

Daniel ran his hand over shiny stone that looked like it had been carved yesterday, and pointed to a color photograph inlaid in ceramic on the granite headstone. “And this picture looks like it’s from a fashion shoot.”

Gemma squinted at the inscription. “Poor girl was only twenty-three. And so beautiful.”

“No one’s immune to death,” Daniel said.

Gemma shivered as she gazed at the unending procession of monuments. “It’s hard to believe that all these people were once walking along the streets of Paris, exactly like we’re doing today.”

“It’s a sad thought,” Daniel said.

“And a reminder,” Gemma said, determined to shake the gloomy mood that was pressing down on her. “Life moves pretty fast,” she quoted. “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. That’s from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.”

“Nothing like a great movie to give you perspective,” Daniel said, grinning. He turned and jogged off to catch up to Aidan and Finn who had wandered away again.

Gemma raised her hand to her eyes to block the glare of the sun, and set out after them. She resolved to be more upbeat.

The boys were squatting beside a stand of small headstones overgrown with weeds. A crow hopped from grave to grave. Finn looked up at Gemma and put his finger to his lips, then reached out to the bird.

The crow turned its head and gazed at Gemma with a piercing black eye.

 “Are you as great a fan of crows as your son?” she whispered to Daniel.

“No.” Daniel smiled sheepishly. “The crow fan is my wife.”

So, there was a wife after all. Well, that was that.

Gemma wanted to ask Daniel where his wife was right now, but that would be too intrusive.

“Why is your wife a fan of crows?” she asked instead, going for a mildly interested tone of voice.

“She’s pre-occupied with death,” Daniel said, absently running his hand through his hair. “And superstitious.”

The boys wandered off again and Daniel followed. “I hope I don’t sound negative,” he said, facing Gemma and walking backwards. “Or bitter. We’re separated. In the process of a divorce.”

“You don’t sound bitter,” Gemma said, trying to tamp down her sudden flush of hope. Maybe this trip would prove to be more interesting than she’d expected. “Are Aidan and Finn having a hard time with it?”

It was a callous, and stupid, thing to ask. She regretted the question the moment it left her mouth. Of course they would be having a hard time. Her own boys had gone through it even younger than Daniel’s sons. She knew only too well how distressing a divorce was for everyone.

“Not so much the separation,” Daniel said. “Mostly just their mother’s boyfriend.” He squinted at his sons in the distance. “I’d better round them up. Enjoy your day. See you later, maybe.” He gave a little wave and jogged off, his lanky runner’s frame shrinking in the distance.

As she watched him, she laughed at her uncanny ability to screw things up. She’d met a possibly available American man in Paris and then ruined it by telling him she was there with her newly non-existent boyfriend.

But maybe there was a more positive way to look at her lie. Things would never work out between her and Daniel anyway. The man was in the process of a divorce from a crow-worshipping wife who was pre-occupied with death and had a mean boyfriend. Added to that, Daniel was too young, too handsome, lived too far, and had kids too dependent. She’d just saved herself from more heartbreak.

She turned and headed in the opposite direction, reading gravestones as she passed, compulsively calculating the ages that people had died. She stopped occasionally to mourn those who’d died young, and to envy those who’d died old.

Her gaze was arrested by a sleek crow peering at her with tilted head. As she approached, it hopped away. She came to an abrupt stop and it mimicked her, then stared into her eyes as if it were beckoning. Follow me.

A chill ran through her. She thought about Finn’s story. Crows, and the dead souls that hitched a ride in them. “Gemma,” she admonished herself. “Stop being so suggestible. You’ve been ruined by a lifetime of fairy tales. There’s nothing spooky about graveyards or death.” What had Dumbledore said in her favorite Harry Potter books? To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

Still, this particular crow looked like it was awfully curious about her.

It flapped its wings and landed on a sleek, highly polished, granite headstone. She approached it.

As soon as she reached the grave the bird took flight. It soared above the trees and out to the street before vanishing.

The monument it had led her to was for a man named Corin Falconer. A black and white photograph was affixed to the headstone. As Daniel had commented about other memorial portraits, this one looked like an eight-by-ten headshot from an actor’s portfolio.

The man’s face was stunning, and crowned with dark hair, full and wavy. He’d been born the same year as Gemma, but he’d died ten years ago. Her throat tightened. “Oh, Corin,” she said hoarsely, checking to make sure no one was around to hear her. “You were only forty-five. What happened to you?”

Her eyes welled with tears. Why did this particular grave affect her so much? The whole cemetery was filled with sad stories.

“Your name sounds English,” she said, speaking to the dead man and attempting to calm herself with speculation. She had no one else to talk to, so why not an imaginary friend? “What is an Englishman doing in a Paris cemetery?”

Living alone for so long, she’d developed the habit of talking to herself. She’d always believed it was a common practice of perfectly sane people. She often spoke to her dead grandfather but she knew that the wise responses she heard in her head came out of her own imagination, not Grandpa’s brain. Talking to a dead stranger, though, in a foreign cemetery, was a new low for her.

She glanced up at the sky and squinted into the sun. The crow had returned. It perched on a branch above and watched her. It couldn’t be the same crow but she had an eerie feeling that it was. And it was listening to her conversation with the dead man.

She looked back at the simple headstone. It revealed nothing but the man’s name and dates of birth and death. As she leaned in closer, she saw that his photo was captioned with two small engraved words. Love survives.

“Does it?” she asked, thinking of all the men she’d loved and how nothing, except for her sons, survived of those previous loves.

That’s when the idea gripped her. Talking to her dead Grandpa was comforting when she lay in bed at night with insomnia, trying to push worries out of her mind. But this trip to Paris, all by herself, needed something extra.

“Corin Falconer,” she said, playfully addressing the grave. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be my escort on my first trip to Paris.”

 The man in the photograph seemed to smile wistfully up at her. She pulled out her phone and snapped a picture.

“Maybe not escort,” she revised. Too much sexual connotation. “My companion.” Too elderly sounding.

She shrugged. Not being able to come up with anything better she said, “My boyfriend.”

Continued in Chapter 3

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