The Second Life of Athénais Vuillard

‘You don’t think she’ll have rotted already, do you?’asked Lambesc, more to himself than the man next to him, as they both stood before the mausoleum. It was glorious and gaudy, as befitted one of the most esteemed daughters of Paris, built of white stone in desperate imitation of an ancient Egyptian temple. The lady herself had not been Egyptian, of course, nor had she ever expressed an interest in Egyptian affairs. It was simply that Egypt was, at present, very à la mode.

Verlain fought to contain a snort; aristocrats could be notoriously thin-skinned. ‘After two days? I hardly think so, monsieur. Now come, we must be quick.’He took a quick glance at the sky. Perhaps it was his imagination, but it seemed to be getting lighter. That fool Lambesc had taken his sweet time leading him here, joking and giggling the whole way. At first, Verlain had thought the man was drunk. But no; he was simply a fool, all too happy with the direction his life was about to take. To be fair, Verlain didn’t blame him.

They entered, their oil lamps illuminating the way. Inside, the mausoleum was more cramped than Verlain had expected, though he supposed it was just as well. Why would a dead woman need the space? The sarcophagus itself stood on a raised dais, carved of simple grey stone. A stone angel watched over it, its rough features surprisingly malevolent. Verlain shook his head. He was hardly an aesthete, yet the mishmash of influences was setting his teeth on edge. Nowadays, the cream of the city had more money than sense. Of course, that was also to his benefit. Perhaps he should be counting his blessings.

It was easy enough to push the stone lid of the sarcophagus aside, once they both put their strength to it. And after a minute of effort, the lady herself was unveiled to their eyes.


Verlain himself had never seen Athénais Vuillard in life, but he’d been told she was beautiful, refined, charming. All the epithets the poets and the papers used when a lady was famous and of a good family. He had to admit that this time, they were all correct. It was early yet, and death had not spoiled her looks. Her small face was as graceful as a cameo on a brooch, and her night-dark hair shone blue in the lamplight. Her face was calm, as if she was waiting serenely for something she knew would come. There was very little smell, thankfully. As he bent closer to her he could detect perhaps a whiff of something foul, beneath the earthen coldness of the grave, but no more. 

Lambesc pressed a finger against her cheek with infinite tenderness. “Athénais. My poor love. Taken away from me so unjustly.” He smiled. ‘But we are here to rectify that, aren’t we, necromancer?’

Verlain bristled with irritation. ‘Monsieur, I have told you before, I dislike such a title. I am neither some fur-clad druid nor a Roman soothsayer. I am a man of science, and my tonic has been perfected through ingenuity and study into the mysteries of life for many years.’

Lambesc withdrew his finger and smiled at him, sly as a fox. ‘Indeed! Then why this secrecy? Why the instructions for her to avoid the light of day? The animals, the blood? No, do not deny it, you are in league with some infernal power. Else you’d take this tonic of yours straight to the Académie and reap the rewards of your ingenuity. But you are afraid of the Church, of course.’ He searched Verlain’s face, as if looking for the lie there. ‘You need not fear me. I give not a jot about whatever powers you may have harnessed, celestial or infernal. Good for you, I say. As long as you bring me back my love.’

Verlain didn’t attempt to defend himself further; Lambesc’s reassurances were satisfying enough, though he had to endure the familiar annoyance of his genius going unrecognised – again. His tonic had made him a great deal of money through patronage from interested parties, but none would believe he had devised it himself. As long as they paid, he would endure it. For now.

From his small bag he brought forth a small vial, filled with a wine coloured fluid. Lambesc stared at it with hungry curiosity. ‘This is it? The- the substance?’

Verlain nodded. ‘Come now, assist me. You must sit her up. Gravity shall help if she is upright. Massage her throat also as I pour this in her mouth. The fluidum vitae will wake up her limbs and organs, one by one, but we must help it along.’

At once Lambesc lost his joviality, absorbed by the gravity of his task. He sat the lady up, a difficult job as she was weighed down by the heavy wedding dress she had been interred in by tradition, and massaged under her chin while Verlain poured the contents of the vial down her throat. As he did so, he noticed the awkward angle of her neck. Her muscles and bones jutted abnormally beneath the skin, which was blue with bruising. There had been talk of an accident, he remembered, but nothing specific. ‘So how did the poor lady pass?’The precise facts had not been brought up in previous discussions with Lambesc.

Lambesc blinked very rapidly, as if startled by the question. ‘I- oh, she fell down a staircase in her own home. A tragedy. The servants found her.’

Verlain nodded. Of course. A fall would do such damage to the neck, and he’d seen enough dead to know.


They were done before long, and then came the next part of the procedure. From his bag Verlain took a small piece of offal, it hardly mattered what exactly, bought this morning from a butcher. ‘Hold her mouth open, if you please,’ he murmured, not missing the disgusted expression on Lambesc’s face. But he’d been clear about this from the start. After death, the body changed. And once brought back from death, specific measures were required to keep it functioning.

‘Is this truly necessary? She was a lady. To dishonour her body thus…’

Verlain shook his head. Had he not explained everything to this lovestruck fool already? But of course, seeing her in such a state was quite another matter for him than a theoretical discussion. ‘Monsieur, this is a precise operation. If you are unsure-’

‘So there you are,” said a voice from the doorway. Lambesc whirled around in shock and narrowly avoided knocking Verlain -and the offal he held- to the ground. ‘You utter fool.’

A young man stood there, wrapped in the midnight blue of a military coat. His expression teetered between rage and despair, eyes reddened from tears or drink. Verlain’s heart sank. He had no idea who this man was, but if he decided to summon the gendarmerie, Verlain would be in much trouble to explain what he’d been doing. ‘Monsieur,’ he started. ‘Please let me-’

The young man did not deign to throw him a glance. ‘Silence, you low creature. My quarrel is with this one here.’ He pointed at Lambesc with a shaking hand. ‘Have you lost your senses? After all you’ve done, now this? Has my sister not suffered enough?’

Lambesc chuckled. He looked not at all troubled, even though he’d just been caught graverobbing. Perhaps he had the natural confidence of the aristocrat whenever faced with some mess of his own creation, but if this young man truly was the lady’s brother, then surely his word counted just as much as Lambesc’s own in the courts. Verlain could see the resemblance in the young man’s blue-black curls, his pale cheeks. ‘Oh come now, Leon, stop the histrionics,’Lambesc said. “I will tell you what you told me. It’s not what it looks like.” He smiled jovially, all teeth. ‘And you’d better believe it. See, my friend and I were passing through when we heard her crying for help. She’d been entombed alive, you see, the poor girl. And thus we rescued her, and soon she will marry me, as was the plan all along.’

That had of course been the tale Lambesc and Verlain had agreed on to explain Athénais’ resurrection. It was as good as any, they’d decided, and such mistaken burials were heard to happen. Verlain moved his hand closer to the lady’s still open mouth, desperate to finish the job. Alive, coached by them, she would corroborate their story – how could she know better? Perhaps the brother would even believe it himself. Verlain managed to slide the piece of offal between her lips just as Leon moved past him to shove Lambesc with all his might. ‘Even if you had, by some devilish trick, managed to bring her back, I would die before I saw her married to you!’

Lambesc crashed into the wall with a gasp. He let out a mean laugh. ‘Devilish? Oh, you have the gall to say this, you? Careful now, Leon. Do not goad me into revealing your shame. None of us stand to gain anything from the truth, do we? Let her live again, and let her come with me. She will be a better bride after this little misadventure than she’d ever have been before it.’

Leon threw himself at him.‘ You whoreson-’

Verlain let them brawl, not as concerned by this display of violence as he was suddenly by the circumstances of Athénais’ life. There had been something Lambesc had neglected to tell him; he’d asked Verlain about his motives for such a desperate act, and the grief of a distraught fiancé seemed a natural enough reason to want to bring back his would-be bride. But if there’d been something else

A tiny groan came from within the sarcophagus. 

Verlain started; he’d been so absorbed in his thoughts that for a few moments, he’d forgotten the reason they were all here. He looked into the stone box and, sure enough, Athénais was gasping, as if waking from an awful nightmare. Her eyes were open, cloudy with the onset of decay, as she peered around. Verlain cursed inwardly. She was not as intact as she could have been, but he could still make do. What was some minor eye damage in exchange for a second chance in life, especially for a young woman in her prime? ‘Look!’he shouted at the two men, who were still entangled with each other, brawling. ‘A miracle! The lady is alive!’

That got their attention. They stopped and watched raptly, one in glee and one in horror, as Athénais gripped the sides of her sarcophagus with both hands and raised herself upright. She was breathing in short, pained gasps. Coming back to life was, in a sense, a second birth. And almost as bloody, because a dribble of fresh blood fell from her lips; the offal was still in her mouth, and she was chewing at it, ponderously. 

Leon turned to Verlain, stricken.’Is this your trick? Have you done this? Brought her back? You may have damned her soul!’ He crossed himself. 

Lambesc looked rather pleased. ‘Excellent,’ he said, his voice hushed in awe. ‘You will get your money’s worth, I guarantee you that.’

Verlain nodded quickly, peering out the opening of the mausoleum. It was getting lighter outside. ‘Yes, monsieur. But we must be swift. We’ve spent enough time here already-’

‘Yes, yes,’ Lambesc said dismissively. ‘I am aware.’ He approached Athénais, who seemed as fragile as a newborn foal. ‘Come, my dearest. There was an accident, but now you are well. Come, let me take you home.’ He took her hand in his and helped her out.

She accepted his hand. But once she was on her feet, her legs quivering, she pulled away. Then she noticed Leon. For a moment, she stood rigid, her hands the only moving part of her, feeling about her throat for the injury that had ended her first life. ‘Nuh..’ She muttered, like an infant with a tongue unused to speech. She shook her head and moved away from them, to the corner of the mausoleum, her eyes following Lambesc intently.

A shadow of anger crossed Lambesc’s face and was gone. ‘My dear, you’ve suffered a shock-’

‘Let her be!’ Leon shouted at him. ‘You have damned her twice over!’

‘I saved her!’ Lambesc bellowed at him. He turned back to Athénais, his expression full of hate. ‘I gave you another chance! After seeing what you did, the disgrace between you,’he indicated to Leon, ‘could you blame me for my anger? There, I have made it all better now! If I sent you once to hell, have brought you back! So come with me, and be my wife!”’

Verlain at once understood. What a fatal miscalculation this assignment had been on his part. Athénais’ life had ended in violence, and violence had been the last thing she’d ever known. And the first thing she would remember now, which made Lambesc’s position precarious. ‘Monsieur,’ he said, still in mind of his unpaid fee, ‘You did not give me the truth of the circumstances. Please move away from the girl, for your own good.’

Lambesc turned to look at him. ‘If you know your own good, you’ll-’

It was the very last thing he said. Athénais leapt at him with a roar of rage and tore at his throat with her teeth. Weak as she was, she could not butcher him at a stroke; Lambesc let out a pained gurgle and tried to throw her off. Leon, stunned into forgetting his grievance, rushed at the pair, trying to assist. But Athénais was tenacious. She clung to her victim with the ferocity of the fatally wronged, her teeth gouging deep bites out of his flesh. 

Verlain saw no profit in involving himself further. It was time to leave the mausoleum and perhaps Paris itself. He ran out as fast as his legs could carry him, but stopped before long, grimly fascinated. The sun was just coming up to crown the horrors of the night with its own merciless light. Lambesc stumbled his way out of the mausoleum and collapsed. Athénais was still on him, injuring him with teeth and nails, Leon still on their heels, aghast, unable to help in any way.

The still weak sunlight bathed them all, and Athénais at once went alight like a torch, screaming, her flesh as flammable as paper. The sun was a paltry price to pay, after all, for life. Verlain had always told his clients that. He was a man of science, not a miracle worker. None could come back without an exchange.

Leon screamed, too, perhaps for the pain of losing her twice. Verlain turned away at last and fled. None would pursue him; it was not a tale anyone wanted repeated. It was time to move, north perhaps, to colder, darker climes.

About the Author

Asenath Grey is a software engineer from northern England with a secret creative side that expresses itself in writing. She has a lifelong fascination with dark fantasy and horror, and the macabre and gothic often end up making an appearance in her stories. When not writing, she spends her time reading, crocheting and scaring herself with creepy YouTube videos before bedtime.