Sarah Leipciger

Coming Up for Air

L’Inconnue Paris, 1899

I was still alive when I was pulled from the black water. The batelier who hauled me out slapped my face once or twice and, when he got no response, assumed I was dead. I seemed dead, and anyway moments later, I was. Besides, he wouldn’t have been able to resuscitate me had he known there was still a beat to my heart – he wouldn’t have known that was possible.

The chances of his having come upon me in the moment that he did – in the seconds I stopped struggling but before I would have sunk – were minuscule. But this was the way it happened. He became aware of me in that navy light because of one flap of my arm. He thought he’d come upon an enormous bass, and was fixing to drop a line when he saw the moon-pale flesh of my hands, my arms suspended in the yoke of the dead man’s hang. The deep was claiming me fast, and it was only because he had the bargepole in his hand that he was able to catch me. After hooking me at my collar, he hoisted me up by the waistband of my skirt. Bemoaning the loss of  a good fish supper, he dragged my sopping bulk over the  side of the boat and covered me with an oil-stained, sooty blanket. He tucked me between two barrels and carried on with the morning deliveries that stood between us and the morgue. And I. Lay there, dead. A frothy mixture of air, water, blood and mucus issued from my mouth and nose, and water dribbled thinly from my ears. One unseeing eye casually open like a door somebody forgot to close.

The morgue was located at the south-eastern tip of  the Île de la Cité, and was like most other administrative buildings in Paris: a stone box fronted by Grecian pillars, mansard roof, a facade screaming post- revolutionary idealism engraved with the words: Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité! The building backed on to the river,  its stone wall almost flush with the bank, where the bodies of the drowned – and there were many – could be delivered by boat.

This wasn’t the city’s first morgue. The original, a stinking black hole dug underneath Le Châtelet, the prison, was nothing more than a cadaver dump. Deceased prisoners were shunted down that hole but also Paris’s anonymous dead; men and women like I had been, pulled by their shirt collars from the river, or loners from the streets, or lost children. More murdered than not. Scores of suicides. The dead were piled like bricks on the floor, uncovered. It was a place you would go if someone in your life had disappeared and you hoped (or hoped not) to find her there, in the pestilent fug, with only the oily flicker of the warden’s lantern to guide you.

When the prison was demolished, the medical inspector insisted on a new morgue that would be much improved upon the old, including better light, ventilation, cooling systems and a salle publique more suitable for viewing, separated from the dead by a wall of glass.

I was delivered to the morgue in the purple smog of early morning. My arrival was one insignificant and regular detail out of a million details in a city waking up for another day. A gang of workers was crossing the Pont de la Tournelle, shovels slung over strong, bent shoulders. Smoke rose from a thousand chimneys and street by street, alley by alley, people living on top of one another were swinging their legs out of bed, their feet landing on cold, waxed floors. Boiling water for coffee or standing in front of shaving mirrors or darning stockings that they hadn’t had time to repair the day before.

Towering over the morgue there was of course Notre-Dame, white birds circling and screaming around its spire.

Mine was the only body to be delivered to the morgue that day. I was received by the pathologist on duty, Laurent Tardieu, a man who daily wore a fragrant sprig of dried lavender (tied tightly and sent in batches by his sister, who lived in his native Provence) in the buttonhole of his jacket to help ward off the stench of death. The lavender was no match for the fumes in which Laurent Tardieu worked – an odour like syrupy fruit from the fresh corpses, like rotting fish from the overripe ones – but all the same, he wore it.

Laurent Tardieu laid me out on a marble slab in the examination room and, as a formality, felt for my pulse with the pad of his middle finger pressed against the inside of my wrist. He listened for my heart through a small brass stethoscope shaped like a trumpet. After officially confirming my death, he logged my arrival into the morgue records, which were reviewed regularly by the gendarmes. He then peeled off what remained of my outer clothing. My linen petticoat and skirt, my blouse and cardigan. My stockings. He was not surprised that I wore no boots, and assumed that they had been left by the riverbank. (Later that morning they would be found, where I’d left them with my coat, by a young bookbinder, and taken home to his sister. She would, in turn, pass the boots on to a friend and get great use out of the coat for many years after.)

Laurent Tardieu left me in my chemise and culotte while he checked the pockets of my skirt for anything that might help to identify me. He found nothing. He then inspected my clothing for laundry marks, initials sewn with cotton thread on lapels or inside collars or waistbands. He did find initials on my blouse, which he added to the log, but on their own, meant not a lot. As far as he knew, my clothing could have been second- or even third-hand. He took note of the condition of my belongings: everything inexpensive but well looked-after. A tightly sewn patch on the elbow of my cardigan, neat darn tracks on the heels of my stockings. He noted that I wore no wedding ring nor any other jewellery. No lace or ribbon adorned my underclothing. Though my hair had become tangled and undone under the water, he could see that it had recently been washed. From my hands he retrieved one brown leaf and a slippery tangle of river weed. Common, he knew, from the struggle of the drowned. The residue of bloody foam in my mouth told him that I had inhaled water into my lungs, which meant that, when I entered the water, I was still alive. The lack of trauma to my body told him that, most likely, the water had been my choice.

Yet, I eluded him. My corpse and what I wore revealed very little about who I might have been, other than the assumption that, at some point in my life, I must have had some claim on the future, otherwise why the careful darning? Why the effort to make an item of clothing last just that little bit longer? This, more than anything else in his work, was what touched Laurent Tardieu’s heart the deepest. Jackets worn down to the seams, elbows reinforced with leather. It was the ingenuity, the bringing out of thimble and thread that represented some will to survive, but then, in the case of suicide, the evidence before him on the slab that this woman or that man had, at last, given up.

Laurent Tardieu was a wonder at recognising professional darning and leather patchwork, and sometimes traced the dead through the establishments that performed these services. He knew where certain silks, velvets and satins were sold, the signature styles of lace and needlework, of seams and cuffs and collars. He knew the craftsmanship of several cobblers in Paris, and had identified more than a few victims with the help of these artisans.

Meticulously, in tight, slanted handwriting, Laurent Tardieu added to his log every blouse, shawl, boot and bonnet. Every scar, tattoo, broken bone or missing digit. Wounds or blemishes on the body were attributed with their size, severity, location and possible cause.

He had observed that most river suicides were carried out by single women. Often on a Sunday. Often in the spring. It was the blooms and the stench of reproduction, he believed, that spurred a certain melancholy in unwed women of a particular age and social standing. These women were alone in the world, or at least alone in Paris, and proof of this was the fact that they usually went unclaimed, their corpses blackened and split like rotting plums after days of submersion. They would have known the river, these women. Perhaps they lived close by. They had spent time walking its bridges and embankments. They imagined what the cold water would have felt like, or what would have waited for them down in the dark. They imagined their own loose hair and skirts flowing with the current, down there with the weeds and the silt and the other unknowable things.

Laurent Tardieu’s logbooks read like a saga but the real drama existed within him, within the stories he imagined beyond the physical clues.

There was the boy who had been dragged from the river the year before, and in his pocket were found a few bits of string and a rat’s tail. Laurent Tardieu composed a life for this boy that played out in a tiny attic, looked after by a single mother with raw, laundry-house knuckles. The boy, about seven years old, only wanted to be with the other children who, in summer, bathed off the Quai de la Rapée. Not knowing how to swim, he dipped into the water and lost his purchase, and no one noticed when the river drew him, lovingly, into her body.

Or what about the elderly man who, before drowning himself, dressed in layers of clothing? Shirts and collars, waistcoats and trousers, top boots over his woollen slippers. His torso, thighs and chest were pocked with the ghost scars of syphilitic papules, a decade healed. In his pockets: a silver snuff box, a leather pouch of tobacco, keys and spectacles. A foreigner, obvious from the cut of his clothes, who, Laurent Tardieu concluded, lived a few steps below the position he would have liked to have occupied in life. Probably widowed. Likely confused and stumbling through the tertiary stage of his venereal disease, demented or insane.

Though he found no signs of trauma on my body, Laurent Tardieu did discover a familiar bilateral bruising along the muscles of my neck and chest, further evidence of  drowning, or rather, the thrash and struggle  of the drowning victim to survive. He began to create my story. Suicide, naturally. I was the right gender, the right age. He inferred correctly that my missing boots had been placed deliberately on the bank. Apparently quite common.

He palpated my abdomen, and determined from the shiny, pale lines that branded my skin where it had stretched, and from the dark rawness of my nipples, that I was a new mother. I was employed, he decided, with work unsatisfying to me. I hadn’t really wanted to die, those bruises told him as much, and was probably downtrodden by the baby or a lack of love or too much of its unhealthy sort. With a cold sponge and a bowl of warm, soapy water, he washed the bloody foam from my chin and neck, inspected my fingernails.

Being the fresh specimen that my corpse was, Laurent Tardieu knew that any number of the anatomy labs in Paris would pay a good few francs for it, and he considered this option carefully, as his daughter was engaged to be married and the money would have helped a great deal. But there was something about me that intrigued him. He wanted to give me a chance to be found, and presumed that even after a few days in the viewing salon, and with enough care, my body would still be worth a small sum.

He laid my arms across my chest, and covered my body from the chin down with a linen drape. He could barely believe I’d drowned as my face wasn’t bloated, nor my skin sullied. My high cheekbones and the shadows cast by the dim electric light gave the impression that I was smiling, and in that smile Laurent Tardieu sensed a secret, a hint of wisdom, or, more accurately, cynicism. It was this that prompted him to send his courier out with a letter for his nephew, an apprentice mouleur who worked in a model shop on the Left Bank that produced, among other things, death masks. His nephew had been failing to impress his master mouleurs and, though I wasn’t any sort of important person at all, Laurent Tardieu knew instinctively that my face – the smile, the beguilement, the youthfulness – was a good candidate for a striking mask. He also knew that, with every hour that passed, as the fluids in my body pooled with gravity, my face would sink deeper and deeper into the grotesque. He implored his courier to be quick.


Sarah Leipciger’s short fiction has been shortlisted for the Asham Award, the Fish Prize and the Bridport Prize. Her first novel, the critically acclaimed The Mountain Can Wait, was published in 2015. Coming Up for Air is her second novel (Doubleday, 2020).

Reproduced with permission from Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger (Black Swan, 2020).

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