Getting into the vault wasn’t so bad: It was the getting out that I was most worried about. I was led into the innermost recesses of these catacombs by a person who is such an expert in the Early Christian era, and so passionate about it, that I hardly noticed the time pass by—hardly suspected all the twists and turns we took.
In hindsight, I should have cautioned my guide and dearest friend against our venturing deep into a place so recently unearthed. But such was the fascination with which she told me of how the Ancients would bury their dead, that she swept me two thousand years into the past, and any fear I may felt while descending was perfectly replaced by awe and wonder.
It is, after all, her ability, through compelling rhetoric, to turn history into a vivid present that has made her one of Europe’s most esteemed archeologists. There was not, as we trod further and further down, a marking that she could not make me charmed by, or a skull that she could not make me sympathize with.
Just before we reached the deepest room, a vault with dozens of shelves replete with skeletons and an altar at its end on which rested a gargantuan bovine skull, our flashlights began to flicker and then altogether refused to turn on. Mind that, anticipating this trip, we had put new batteries in them. Our cellphones saved us from wandering in complete darkness as we surveyed the room.
But soon they too unexplainably died, leaving us dependent only on touch and hearing for our way back. It was at this point that I was introduced to a strict sense of horror. We began to perceive certain things. My co-adventurer kept me from panicking with positive and hopeful words, which, however, a nervous cracking in her voice often punctuated.
I could hear whispers from the front. Whispers from the back. And, sometimes, whispers right by my ears. I could also hear hurried steps near us—steps which did not resemble at all the measured and steady ones we were taking to not fall. And five times—exactly five times—I felt a sort of push on my shoulders. Like a goading forward. I was freaking out, not least because I was the one following, with no one behind me.
Two hours must have passed as we stumbled onwards. By dint of memory and intuition, to which likely contributed her comprehensive knowledge of Roman and medieval burial sites, my friend led me at last to the hallowed grotto that serves as entrance to these catacombs. The sound of crickets chirping signaled to us that we were nearly outside. The purple dawn greeted us when we reached the surface, and I nearly swooned out of the immense relief.