That morning was just a typical winter Parisian morning. It was cold and foggy. Just the perfect weather – I thought, for the adventure I was about to undertake.
After many holidays spent in Paris, I had listened carefully over and over to my mother’s stories about that mysterious place in the very heart of Montmartre. Every time I would arrive to the old church’s stoned patio, I started wondering what could be hidden behind that imposing iron door, imagining the life of the people that rested there, trying to figure out what made them so special to be buried in that little old cemetery.
I’m a dreamer. I confess. I was sure the reason why that huge door was closed 364 days a year was to protect some secret story of French history from curious passersby. I remember every time we reached that door, my mother would tell me the legend of the Three Musketeers and say how some of them were buried in the small cemetery behind it, while I tried to find any hint through one of the door slits.
That was it. I finally arrived at the conclusion that they kept the cemetery closed to us mere mortals to keep the legend alive, simultaneously protecting the rest of those who were now part of history.
Fast forward to that foggy morning of La Toussaint at the top of Montmartre’s hill. I was surprised to realize that I wasn’t the only one curious about that hidden little place. My anxiety made me rush up the hundreds of steps that take you almost to the doors of Sacré Coeur. Instead of visiting this famous basilica, I quickly walked towards the old roman church of Saint Peter, strange and barely visited by tourists, that stands beside the oldest cemetery in Paris.
I was a little disappointed when I saw I would have to share the moment that I had been waiting for with others. It might sound strange, but for some reason, in my imagination, I thought I would be able to explore that sacred place, dating back to 1600, all on my own.
As soon as I went through that big intimidating door, and climbed some improvised stairs made of old tree branches, I silently observed the extraordinariness of the moment. Immediately I felt as if I were traversing not simply a mysterious iron door but, time itself. Everything was grey. Only some shades of green from the floor stood out. I couldn’t help thinking of the irony of it. Stone and moss, life and death, past and present. I looked around. There was not one grave that looked from this or even from the last century. Most of them were so old one could hardly guess who resided beneath the headstone.
The quiet of the cold morning was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a black raven contemplating – and commenting on – the scene from the top of a leafless tree, as some sort of privileged spectator.
Although the place was pretty small, I wasn’t sure where to begin. My main mission was to find any trace of the Three Musketeers’ legend, passed down from generation to generation by the women in my family.
The smell of the smoke coming out of the neighbors’ chimneys made me wonder how would it be to live beside a place like that. Interesting neighbors – I said to myself. The pain in my hands from the cold brought my mind back to the grey garden in which I stood, and I knew I had to focus back on my mission.
Wandering around, I closely examined the stone graves which had firmly stood the test of time, giving testimony to those extraordinary lives. Writers, soldiers, sailors, and important members of the French and European aristocracy. People that lived and died by their ideas and convictions, defending their land from invasions or sentenced to death during the terror of the Revolution. They all had one thing in common: they all found their final resting place in that 600-square-meter garden.
Of all the graves in the cemetery, one stood out from the others. It appeared bigger and more important than the rest, making me think there must be something special about it. I could hardly read the letters carved in the stone, covered in green moss and autumn leaves yet there was still no sign of a famous name on it. As the guide approached, I suddenly overheard a name that immediately caught my attention. I listened carefully as part of the mystery was revealed.
Another visitor had asked him about the possibility of d’Artagnan being buried somewhere in that small cemetery. He paused, a nervous smile was drawn in his face and then he explained that although part of the family of the famous d’Artagnan was indeed buried in that place, the legendary Musketeer was not one of the cemetery’s eternal inhabitants. But, if he was not buried there, then where was he? Some say he died in battle, yet his grave has never been identified. The fact that nobody knows the answer to this question makes me still wonder, still believe, that maybe, the myth my mother told me is true after all.
I choose to believe that the unknown destiny of his resting place is another chapter of this legend. I choose to believe the magic of the stories that have been shared through the generations of my family. After all, what would life be without the myths and legends of great people that keep history alive and keep our imagination running wild? As I walked out of the cemetery, leaving that cold iron door behind me, the grey fog of the winter morning contrasted with the bright colors of Montmartre and the loud voices of the visitors around.
I was probably a pre-teen when I discovered Alexandre Dumas's novels. I was an avid, indiscriminate reader, and I devoured them all, buying some, borrowing others, until there weren't any left.