City Within


Beneath Montréal’s underground city is another, hollow and with endless storeys. I discovered the entrance by chance, and I head down there almost every night after work, closing the door behind me. Innumerable passageways connect rooms that are for the most part empty and uninhabited. Several intersect or follow each other—in the eighth sub-basement, there are six parallel hallways—with openings that pass from one to the next, though they don’t really seem designed to lead anywhere in particular. Most of the floors are connected by trapdoors, which you can slip through, though if you fall you’re likely to get hurt. You can reach some of the traps by scaling pyramids made from furniture and planks. I stacked some for this very purpose, inspired by pre-existing structures.

Staircases are pretty rare. I know there are some that span several floors, though it’s impossible to actually access any of them, until a door might open five or six landings down. Obviously exploring floors that appear at first to be completely cloistered becomes a fixation.

Over the course of several visits, I finally found a way to get to every floor except the third, which is still impenetrable: I couldn’t find a door or a trapdoor to get in. When I climb up a staircase that crosses the third floor, and I bang against the wall, I can hear an echo behind it, though whether it’s accessible or whether there is only an enclosed, unreachable space, I don’t know.

The fourth sub-basement has particularly low ceilings. You have to get around on your hands and knees, sometimes even crawling. The rooms there, on the other hand, are vast, wide expanses through which I inch along, dragging myself across the floor with my elbows or on my stomach.

In the sixth sub-basement, the ceilings are surprisingly high—you’d have to be three times my height to touch them—and several corridors are so narrow that I shuffle sideways with my head turned so my shoulders don’t rub against the walls. A door opens onto a spacious room bathed in pale light, the source of which remains invisible and mysterious. I once saw paw prints there, in the dust—a cat, but I never saw the animal. One night in December, as I was walking through the seventh sub-basement, I heard a meowing sound that seemed to be coming from the ceiling. I tried to get to the cat but couldn’t.

My explorations can be dangerous. I carry a bag with a rope, a water bottle, and some snacks, and I keep my flashlight handy. I don’t always need it: several rooms and corridors are lit by lamps dangling from the ceiling, which I figure must be connected to the electrical grid of the outer city. Or skylights filter the glow from higher levels. There’s also an entire floor, the eleventh, where to my knowledge there is not a single light. I find my way with my flashlight, or sometimes I deliberately just grope my way along. The game of blindness. It is completely dark. I step slowly, carefully, to avoid tumbling down stairs or through a hatch. The game goes on until I click on my flashlight again, often in a place that looks different than what I’d imagined. Then I’m off again to explore other floors.

In remote parts of the fifth sub-basement, water dribbles down the walls. Some rooms are flooded, and I paddle across on rafts cobbled from pieces of shelves, tables, and chairs that I nail or tie together. A projector shines a white rectangle on a wall but no film flickers. Most of the rooms in the underground city are empty, but some have furniture, evidence of more or less recent occupation. In one, in the eighth or maybe the ninth sub-basement, I once found a bathtub, full. The water was warm, almost hot, and I slid in. Somewhere farther along I could hear water falling drop by drop and, elsewhere, an almost inaudible squeak. I closed my eyes and I dropped my head under the surface, with only my lips and my nose above. I breathed slowly as the city radiated out around me, the rooms I imagined repeating endlessly, with me at the centre. I got out of the tub and dried myself, using my T-shirt as a towel, and walked outside.

I never saw the bathtub again. There are several rooms I’ve been to—often, even—without being able to find my way back. In one hallway I must have walked down a hundred times, last summer I saw a door I didn’t know existed. When I tried to open it, it was locked, but two nights later, when I passed it again, it was open. Behind the door, a staircase led to the floor above, stopping at a wall. I panicked at the dead end, and bolted back down the stairs and through the open door, in the grasp of a fear, most likely irrational, that the door would close and I’d be left alone, hungry and thirsty in the stairwell, to curl up slowly in the dust.

Although I’m sometimes afraid of getting lost in all the rooms and hallways, or of becoming claustrophobic, that’s never stopped me trying to get in. Over time I’ve created a map of landmarks and arranged the premises to make things easier—I tied a rope at the top of a shaft so I can slide down without falling, and I chalk markings on the walls—crosses, arrows, and circles to help me find my way around. I’ve also gotten into the habit of drawing half-plans, outlines of rooms, stairwells, and hallways, their proportions imperfect. When I see them again, they never seem to correspond exactly to the architecture of the place, and so I sometimes go back and adjust, erasing or colouring in the initial diagram in pink or yellow chalk over my white lines. I’m not sure—I’m not sure of much of anything about this labyrinthine underground—but sometimes, when I look at these drawings, I think others have altered or completed them, contours filled in for rooms I don’t remember visiting. The length of a corridor surprises me. The cartography seems suddenly new, suspicious.

I don’t know anything about the origin of the maze and, after venturing through it for months, I have no clue as to what it might have been—the whimsical project of a billionaire architect, or maybe an enormous atomic shelter—but everything down here is a study in uselessness: this is not a place made for living. The rooms and hallways don’t seem to be arranged according to any logic, or at least none that I can discern. The scraps and the few pieces of furniture that are still in good shape give the impression that someone has lived here, but they could also be objects dragged in by other visitors before me, who might have chosen to live here for a time before going back to the outside. When I first heard a pounding pulse between the walls as I walked in a darkened hallway in the eleventh sub-basement, a noise like someone running, the sign of a human presence, I wondered why they were running away from me, how I could possibly be a threat. A slow fear shivered through me. That night I came home earlier than usual, but my return to the surface seemed to take an especially long time. I paused, often. I stopped to listen. Nothing suggested that anyone else was there.

Other than the silence and the walking, and the pleasure of exploration, what I appreciate most in this underground city are the sounds. The reverberations of my footsteps. My breathing. The creak of the hinges when a door opens. The water weeping in. A pebble tossed against a wall resonating from room to room. I like hearing my voice. I let out a sigh as I walk down the halls, and the rustle of my breath repeats. Later, sitting against a wall, I catch myself talking. I wander back to childhood, that summer by a lake in the Eastern Townships, not far from the border, my body stretched out under the ferns. Diving from the rocks, the strangeness in the deep, black water full of bass and crayfish. Or I picture the rush of life above me, all the people downtown, the crowded streets. I get up, I go back to the outside. By the time I come out I’m always exhausted; I haven’t slept. When I get to my apartment on Park, it’s already light out. My cat wriggles over to purr on my belly as I fall asleep. In my dreams I’m back in the underground city again. The corridors stretch out even longer than in real life. For a long time I swim through the flooded halls. Sometimes I meet a woman there, Camille. She is sitting against a wall in a far room. Her hood is pulled over her head, and its shadow hides her face, but I think I can make out features that look reptilian. Her tongue whips and whistles. My own skin, my belly, is dry and scaly, like it’s been sunburned or like I have some disease, and I don’t know how to get out of the underground. I wake up drenched in sweat, and I swear I won’t go exploring again. Already it’s time to go back to work: I lock myself in my office and for six hours I type in the subtitles of TV series and animal documentaries. My eyelids droop, and it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open. But when I finish work, I go back to the underground city, as I do every night.

Sometimes I sleep down here. I curl up in a ball in a room, my jacket folded up under my head. The hallways stretch out around me. I breathe peacefully. The air is fresh. The room I’ve chosen isn’t too dusty, and it’s dimly lit. In a dream, I see Camille again. She looks at me as I sleep. She smiles at me. There’s something tender about her, which she never shows in real life. I tear myself out of my dreams; I’m slow to get going. I turn down a hallway that seems to go on forever, and I want to sleep again. A door to my right is ajar. Camille is here, this time while I’m awake. She’s huddled against a wall, and I sit less than a metre away, without touching her. In the gloom I can hardly see her eyes. I don’t quite know why but they seem hostile, and I feel guilty even though I haven’t done anything. There’s no reason for her to hate me.

I’d been exploring the city for weeks before I met her for the first time. As I crawled through a narrow, low-ceilinged corridor, she was coming in the opposite direction. We were still, our heads a few centimetres apart. She stared at me without saying anything until I began to squirm back as she edged forward. When we were both finally somewhere we could stand, in an open space that seemed too large, she left immediately without saying a word. A few days later I saw her floating on a raft in a wide, flooded room. She didn’t come close or try to talk to me, just poled away. Then one evening I found her sleeping in the corner of a room, her hood pulled over her head on the concrete floor. I lay down next to her. When she woke up she said, This place is mine, Rocco. Have you forgotten? My name is Pascal, and I’ve never met a Rocco, but I answered, No. I’ve never forgotten, Camille. She lay down next to me—a rare thing—and put her head on my lap. I smelled her, felt the warmth of her body, her heart beating. I wanted to kiss her.

I suspect she goes outside as little as possible. Every time I see her now I give her food, usually a sandwich I’ve made her. She never thanks me, but she swallows the meal hungrily. In one room, on a table, I once found some leftovers in a styrofoam container—some rice, chicken bones, a bit of salad. I imagined a theft, a quick in-and-out, higher up, up in the underground restaurants of Place Ville Marie.

I haven’t seen Camille for over a month. There’s no sign of her in any room, hallway, or staircase. I saw the cat’s tracks again without seeing the cat. Every night, I dream of the underground city as I lie between its walls. One night, I dreamed that the whole grid was nestled in the body of a giant automaton. Another time, the city sank so deep it seemed to plummet through the earth. I thought I’d never see Camille again, but more and more she filled my dreams. She had the face of a cat, an eel, a shrew. Her arms were coiled; my own limbs were evaporating. When I finally came across her outside my dreams, she was crouching in the middle of a room, urine puddling beneath her. I turned my head away. I know these hallways by heart, she said abruptly. Everything here belongs to me. I didn’t know what to say. I just wanted to stay near her.

At work my boss told me that I didn’t look so hot, I needed to pull myself together, I wasn’t sleeping enough. I nodded but still I continued exploring the secret city.

Today, the entrance, the only door I know of, is marked with a sign I drew, a miniature, stylized representation of a labyrinth. I pulled the door shut behind me, leaving the symbol for others, and I’ve never gone back up. Now that I live in the underground city, now that I sleep and dream here, it burrows into my body, too, into my head, letting me communicate with Camille—withdrawing into this shared solitude where I lose her and must find her again constantly. Where we live not outside of the world but in the real.

Translated by Katia Grubisic. Grubisic is a writer, editor, and translator. She has published translations of works by Marie-Claire Blais, Martine Delvaux, and Stéphane Martelly.



David Clerson was born in Sherbrooke, Québec, in 1978 and lives in Montréal. His first novel, Brothers, also translated by Katia Grubisic for QC Fiction, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation and a National Post Book of the Year.


Toby Sharpe


I don’t know where a person can go when they disappear, apart from underwater.


Young Earle Birney in Banff: September 1913¹

what a day!at the Basin2 dove from the tufa overhanginto the water, playing my trick ofseeming to drown, not coming up until I finish wrigglingthrough that underwater chimneyand burst into air. always startles the tourists.


Zamboni Driver’s Lament

i know hate, its line-mates. believe me. you kids have, i’m sure, wasted—all early morning anxious and weak-ankled—their first impatient shuffle-kicks and curses on me.