The Argentoratum

The Argentoratum

Neither Valéry nor Marianne wanted to make another trip underground after finding the basement mosque, but finding that he was more efficient by himself, Nico knew his exploration had just begun. He no longer prodded his siblings to go exploring. He’d set off on his own a few more times, repeating the same trail underground, starting with his metal likeness on rue Raphael each time. But looking at the nearly identical bronze boys the fourth time, Nico had realized who he needed as an underground companion — someone just his size. When school started in September, Nico arrived first in his grade and trained his eyes on the classroom entrance, hoping his future partner in crime would soon come through the door. He had almost lost hope as grandmothers and parents dropped off child after child, some clinging more than others, but none recognizable to Nico.

The teacher had already started doing introductions when Nico heard cries approaching from the hallway. Gripped onto a black-veiled woman’s leg was Mehmet, tears streaming down his pink face and dampening the dark curls that framed it. Nico pulled out the tiny wooden chair next to him, but Mehmet didn’t notice through his sobbing. When Nicolas stood up and walked over to the boy  the teacher stopped and the class quieted. He grabbed the boy’s hand and pulled him over to the little chair next to him. He said in a loud voice to the whole class, “I’m Nico and this is my friend, Mehmet.” A chorus of bonjours echoes around the room.

“Mo.” came Mehmet’s voice, drawing on the strength of Nico’s. “You can call me Mo.” He sniffled loudly once, but never cried at school again.

With Nico’s father working a second job and his mother eternally stationed in front of her stove, Nico was free to wander. He went to Mo’s cramped apartment on the eleventh floor and kicked around Mo’s room until his father sent them to air out in the utopian garden, which consisted of a broken swing-set and a graffitied climbing structure surrounded by burnt wooden benches. Mo’s mother cleaned offices in Strasbourg so Nico never saw her after that first day of school. The boys would run out and play ‘wolf’ then ‘color wolf’ before sneaking through the green door, across the carpets and into the underground maze.

By the time they were ten, they continued to stop by the basement mosque, but where Nico grew more interested in the dominant religion of the painters’ quarter, Mo drifted inconspicuously away from it. Nico always wanted to know more about Mohammed, Mehmet’s eponym, but Mo was bored by all of it. His own family was attending prayers less and less. When Nico decided to fast for Ramadan, he was appalled to find Mo eating Malteasers in his bunk bed. If he could no longer interest Mo in reading the Koran in the basement, he knew another yarn, borrowed from his grandmother would draw him back underground. He gave a first-person narrative, as if his Mamama herself were sitting on a pile of carpets two stories below the street.

My father, your great grandfather, wasn’t some sort of revolutionary, but he was a prankster. He saw Kaiser Wilhelm roll into town every few months in a fancy Mercedes and he could see in the faces of everyone he drove by what it did to them. The Kaiser was trying to make everybody build another wall around Strasbourg, but none of the locals would do it. He’d come check the progress every now and then and try to make the people forget their French. Forget their food. Eat more sauerkraut. He changed all the names of buildings and his dad built him a palace.

My father followed that ugly parade around town and watched where he parked that car, in a building with horse heads sticking out the sides. He knew the tunnels below the city like the back of his hand. Wilhelm never even knew there were so many mice crawling underneath his palace. He sure didn’t know when my daddy tunneled in right below his stable to steal his mechanical horse, the fanciest car of his time.

He drove it underground all the way to St Kell and that’s where he met my mother. They hid the car in the Unterkeller and it’s still down there today.

Mo interrupted at this point. “That doesn’t make any sense, he couldn’t drive the car underground. None of the tunnels are big enough. And how would he get into the stable in the first place? A Kaiser? Isn’t that like a king or something? He would have better security than that. And-“

“Okay, okay. So he probably drove it above ground and parked it in the barn or something. But it is true. I’m sure it’s true. She’s told me this story a hundred times. She says the car is in St Kell. A 1915 Mercedes. It’s been there since before she was born and no one else knows about it.”

If Mo had been one year older, he probably wouldn’t have gone for it, but the prospect of the old car did intrigue him. He pressed on, “Why wouldn’t she tell anybody about it? Why not sell it? That has to be worth a fortune.”

Nico trusted Mo enough to tell him. “She says no one can find out because her dad was a criminal. That makes our whole family criminals. She was so scared that someone would find out who her dad was. When everyone in St Kell had the opportunity to became Arbogasts for a year, Mamama finally let her guard down. She changed her name from Lanvin to Arbogast and lost all trace of her car thief father in her name. It wasn’t just that Hebrew family we were saving by going Arbogast. So we can’t change our names back, there’s still a warrant out for Lanvin.”


“You don’t have to hurt everyone, Nico. You don’t have to keep defending me,” said Mo as his friend pulled him to standing after a scuffle with a neighbor. But Nico persistently sought out occasions to beat people up. Since Mo was looking less and less like his neighbors from St Kell, with his penchant for collared, ironed shirts, Nico had ample opportunity. The thrill of the punch felt just like falling, the contact of the bones with a bit of flesh between them. He needed it, like he’d needed to bite the bathtub and break his tooth, like he’d needed to ride his bike straight down a ravine, like he’d pin himself under a tree branch in the water to test his lungs. Mo could never understand how Nico’s teeth ground at night and his feet bounced imperceptibly all day, vibrating his desk with the whir from below.

As they walked away from the scene of the fight, Mo felt he owed Nico some long-lost enthusiasm for the netherworld and came up with the brilliant plan of following the electrical cords that snaked along the ceiling of the makeshift mosque and out into the tunnels. They’d surely find something this way. The cloth-wrapped cord guided them through several turns of the corridor and back above ground inside a utility shed. They could see out a broken window that they were housed in a stucco salmon-colored building that they had accessed via a spiral metal stairwell. The building was one open room with a thick coat of dust and leaves on the floor and several additional broken windows. Two metal doors on opposite ends did not yield. The only way forward was down one of the other three identical stairwells that dipped into darkness in the high-ceilinged room.

The first and second stairwell went only six steps down before a metal grate blocked the stairs. The other side was densely packed dirt that filled the entire space of the passage and seeped through the grate to a heap on the other side as well. Nico was delighted to find the last stairwell open and flicked his flashlight back on. Mo cautiously followed. The stairs were a metal spiral again, this time twisting lower and lower until they gave way to stone carved steps at the very bottom. A thick twisted bunch of cords was following the top of the tunnel walls this time.

The walls of the tunnel, which has started as the dirt and rock held back by metal mesh, transformed after few minutes of walking into fully bricked walls with perfectly rounded ceilings. The boys’ flashlights revealed electric bulbs every few meters at the height of the cables, but the only light they gave was a dull reflection from their dusty surfaces as the flashlights trained on them.

The brick hallway seemed to branch off in several directions, but most were walled off a few meters in the same way the access by Mamama’s was. Cinder blocks filled the passage from the floor up, with cement filling in the gap between the top row and the arched ceiling.

Above-ground Nico and Mo had little left in common except for their black fingernails, which Mo clacked on the dried ivories of his piano as Nico paged through the Koran in preparation for the opening of a new mosque in St Kell. Mo’s father wanted to ensure his son’s escape from what he called ce banlieu pourri, this rotten suburb, by getting him a German tutor and a chess coach. But the boys were the same down below the surface. The darkness hid the combed, carefully shaped hair on Mo’s head and the accumulation of scars from Nico’s battles with gravity.

They rounded a last corner and the passage opened into a wide room with stone benches running along its sides. The floor rose up to meet the ceiling in a full arch.

“You know what this is, don’t you, Nico?”

“A party room?” As he looked at their new discovery, he realized that he was standing in the Unterkeller that Mamama had whispered about years before.

“Nico, it’s a mithraeum. Remember, from the museum?” His voice sounded strangely rehearsed, as though he’d been planning this discovery for some time.

Nico had stood outside and smoked for most of the field trip to the Strasbourg Historical Museum, so he had nothing to reply.

“They found one of these across the river in Koenigshoffen, but everything had been smashed by the Christians. This one is completely intact. I wonder where the tauroctony is. Nico, look for a bull.”

Nico’s puzzled look made Mo continue his lesson in the shadows. It was becoming clear that Mo had found the mithraeum before and now recited a well-planned lecture.

“Mithraism was a really old religion. So old that no one knows much about it. But they’ve found caves like these all over the place. They’re temples. And they always have this weird scene in them – the tauroctony – it’s a statue or a carving of Mithras slaying a bull. There are other animals too, but I don’t remember what they are. There definitely should be a bull though. Let’s find it and I’ll show you.” But as the boys ran their hands around all the walls and traced both floor and ceiling with flickering flashlight beams, they found no such statue. Nico wouldn’t lay eyes on Mithras until that evening, when he looked him up in Marianne’s encyclopedia and planted a seed of obsession.

For the next month, the distance between them closed back up. Mo drew Nico back into the the mystery. They were whole again in their secret society underground. They called the society of two the Argentoratum and it met weekly, inventing potions and chanting chants, as if its very goal was infusing every action with meaning. They brought camping lanterns and started decorating. Nico knew that Mo liked all the tessellating patterns in the tiles of the new mosque being built so he made sure to stop by the building site and help himself each morning. By the time the builders noticed their shrinking supply of wall covering, Nico had covered one full wall of the mithraeum.

The Argentoratum let conversation flow uninterrupted and became a sort of underground confessional. Something about the dim light and barely distinguishable echo let the pair reveal much more than at street level. Mo talked about all the girls he liked, each week seemingly enamored anew. He even admitted to experimenting with the baker’s daughter, a round girl with discernable acne, and her even rounder cousin. Nico confessed to squeezing his sister’s rabbit too hard as a child and presented a correlation between the timing of his father’s missing watch and his first purchase of hashish.

Nico contemplated Mo, writing something in his journal and backdropped by tessellating stars. A whisper of an idea came to mind, that he should keep his friend here and refuse to let him resurface, making sure he’d never quit the Argentoratum. He still wondered if it was chance that had led the pair there or if Mo knew something more than him about the mithraeum. Something told him Mo would soon leave him. A thousand thoughts ran through his head in a split second, thoughts of captives and prey, requiring a physical shake to tamp them down.

“I didn’t say anything, Nico. Why are you shaking your head?”


“Nico, I’m changing schools. My dad got me into the European Academy.”

“You’re going to Strasbourg?”

“St Kell is part of Strasbourg, dummy.”

“You know what I mean. You’re going to be with all those Assembly snots on the north side. When do you start?” He tried to seem nonchalant, but he knew what it meant. Mo was leaving him and behind and the Argentoratum would have a membership roster of one.

Mo said he’d start the following term. “Next term is next week. Are you even coming to paint the tunnel? It’s your design, Mo.” The whole class was supposed to participate in the project to beautify a drug trafficking zone, an above-ground tunnel that linked the Painters’ Quarter to the junior high.

“Well, it’s during school hours at the Academy. I can’t miss class the first week of the term. My dad says there was a waiting list.”

“So, no then. Do you think I’m going to paint those stupid teeth if you’re not there?” Nicolas had found Mo’s sketch of the project childish, one end displaying a giant open mouth and the other a rainbow, but he’d never insulted it until now.

“Nico, I’ll still see you after school. It’s not like I’m moving.”

“Well, don’t join the debate team or anything,” Nico returned.

“My dad actually signed me up for the chess club.”

Both boys burst out laughing as they realized Mo was turning into everything they’d previously mocked about the kids who commuted to school from St Kell, wearing suits on the tram.


Mo trickled out of Nico’s life as he spent more and more time with his new friends, friends whose parents worked at the Assembly and drove big cars. Eventually his family packed up their grubby apartment and moved north, where the houses were packed together, but the neighborhood was free from what Mo’s dad called la racaille. Mo stopped by Niedergass on his way out of town, knocking on the door of the Arbogast home, but found only Mamama at home. Mo tried to speak French with her, but Mamama’s golden smile only pumped out Alsatian as she handed him cookies and patted his shoulders.

“This is my address, for Nico if he ever wants to come over. He needs to take 2 buses, but it’s not too far.” He gave Ofira Arbogast the paper and thanked her for the cookies as he left and joined his parents for their long-awaited departure from St Kell. Mamama nodded and closed the door.

Two years went by, both full and fast. Mo interned at the Assembly and alternated mock UN meetings with rugby. It was his final year of school and he’d soon be taking the baccalaureat leaving exam and applying for universities. He was surrounded by piles of books on his bed when his dad came to say he had a visitor.

Mo came down to the kitchen and saw the familiar face of Marianne. Nico’s sister was three years their senior and had always been tall, but Mo had almost caught up and could look at her from a different angle now. Her hair was lighter and longer than he remembered, but she still looked like a prettier version of Nico.

“Mamama gave me your address. Nico’s been missing for three days. I know it’s been awhile, but…” She trailed off as she looked around at the gleaming kitchen appliances, realizing she’d made a mistake in coming. Mo’s family didn’t have a shred in common with hers anymore.

“Marianne, it’s been two years. I’m glad you came; it’s so good to see you, it really is. But you should ask one of Nico’s friends. I haven’t seen him once since we moved.”

Marianne nodded and visibly swallowed before her voice started coming out too fast. “It’s just that Nico doesn’t have any friends, none that I know of anyway. He’s just by himself all the time. He goes away sometimes and I know he likes to walk by the river, but like I said, it’s been three days and I don’t know if he’s okay or if he’s left or if he’s mad at me or-“ She finally stopped for a full breath. “Mo, do you know where he could have gone?”

Mo pointed straight down. “Downstairs?” asked Marianne, perplexed.

“Lower,” he replied. “I’m sorry but your brother has become somewhat of a mole. Come on, I’ll help you find him. Oh, I’m going by my full name again, Marianne.” As he donned a wool coat and cashmere scarf, Marianne’s heart raced as she saw her little former neighbor in a new light. Mehmet had become painfully handsome.

When Mehmet offered his arm to Marianne as she climbed off the second bus, she suddenly felt shame for her neighborhood. Their homecoming was met by young men in outfits called joggings, sport attire for the athletics of cigarette tossing and popping gas-powered wheelies along the main pedestrian street. One cigarette grazed Mehmet’s cashmere coat. A short, scrubby kid with beige teeth came right up to him and spoke inches from his face. “Tu reviens au bled, Mo-Mo?”

“No, I’m not back. I’m just helping Marianne find her brother,” said Mehmet without slowing his long paces.”

“Nicolas? If that weirdo’s alive, he’s at the abandoned house on Raphael, Inch Allah.”

They thanked the kid and kept moving. Mehmet saw Marianne as the frog who’d been sitting in the water as it slowly heated to a boil, whereas he had been thrown in. He was astonished by the toll two years had taken on the main square, which was now lined with dark, cracked glass windowfronts and graffitied metal shutters. All the shops had closed, save a vegetable market with overripe, half-priced produce and an old bakery filled with cheap Chinese toys where the croissants should have been. He wanted to leap back out of the boiling water, but knew he had to help find his former friend.

Marianne and Mehmet left the square, but turned toward the tower blocks of the painters’ quarter instead of continuing to the house by the river. Mehmet brought them to a green, wooden door at the base of his old apartment building. Marianne was surprised that the door was unlocked and followed the grown-up boy into the basement of the building. The room looked familiar somehow, but as she fought to remember, Mehmet told her this used to be the mosque.

“In a basement? Why?”

“This was the only space we had. There was always water leaking in. And rats. Eventually, they built a new one, a real one with tiles. Kind of a wimpy minaret though,” he said with a half-laugh. The Catholics and Muslims of St Kell had tugged the dimensions up and down until they’d settled on a spire that just poked above the tree line. “I never even made it inside,” added Mehmet. He and his family hadn’t practiced their faith as enthusiastically as their neighbors and were even labeled apostates by some of the herd.

As they continued through the room, its sheets of faux-wood paneling curving up away from the walls with moisture, another door became visible and the familiar sense of unease came back. As they walked through the other side into the darkness, Marianne felt the strangle of panic come back. She now remembered when she’d been here before. It was the first time she’d seen little Mo, legs crossed in the corner and now here by her side in the tunnel.

“I-I can’t,” she said in the suffocating space. They had rounded a corner with enough light to see that there was no visible end to the tunnel. “I can’t see the way out.”

“Close your eyes, Marianne,” he said patiently. He stood behind her and put both arms around her, crossing in front of her shoulders. The confinement of Mehmet’s arms and the darkness of her closed eyes somehow made her feel less enclosed.

“We need to keep going. He has to be down here.” Slowly at first, then picking up speed, Marianne kept moving with Mehmet directing her from behind. He didn’t loosen his grip around her shoulders, but just kept willing her on in the dark, not unhappy to tuck his head closer to hers as their feet plodded forward. They made it all the way to the spiral stairs into the salmon-colored building before she blinked open her eyes. He left a space between the two of them now and her back felt cold where he had pressed his body. He started to lead her to the other stairwell, but Marianne protested, “No, not back down, Mehmet. Please.” Seeing the genuine terror in her eyes, he nodded and they agreed that he would go look for Nico alone and she would wait in the stairwell room, reassured by the natural light that entered through broken windows. But when he started down the other stairwell, a tighter panic arose in Marianne’s chest than before. Quickly weighing which of the two situations was worse, she ran to the stairwell and joined Mehmet in the dark again. This time, she pressed into him and placed his arms in the same position as before, but held on to them on her chest. She decided that not only could she go on with him, but that she even preferred his warmth underground to his distance above.

“Marianne,” whispered Mehmet as their steps came to a stop in the tunnel. “Open your eyes.”

A pale blue light was coming from around a corner and the air felt significantly warmer. Marianne’s curiosity overtook her fear and she pulled away, moving toward the source of light. They both turned another corner and found themselves in a grand room with an arched ceiling and a tiled wall. The surprise registered on Mehmet’s face even more than Marianne’s.

“It didn’t look like this before,” he said quietly, but his words were drowned out by the hum of the great machine before them. Mehmet ran his hand along the smooth top of it, a shoulder-height metal box with hundreds of tiny blue lights intermittently flicking on and off at random intervals. It made the air look like the trail of a sparkler that never went out. He looked at Marianne. They’d been reunited for exactly two hours and had barely known one another in the past, but the blue light invited him to kiss her and she gave every bit right back.

“Mo!” came a voice from the other side of the machine, startling the pair apart. Nico appeared, bathed in the same mottled blue like a second Marianne. “You’re back, Mo! You’ve come to bring the bull back. The mithraeum could never be complete without it. And you brought my sister, you devil.” His hair was savage and his shirt streaked with something dark. Mehmet offered his hand and Nico took it in a vigorous shake, pumping up and down until he suddenly stopped, Mehmet’s hand still in his.

“You haven’t come to return the tauroctony.” He turned wide-eyed toward his sister.

“I don’t understand, Nico,” she said sadly, finally seeing the madness people saw in her brother that she had tried so long not to acknowledge.

“But you do, Marianne. He’s a thief. He stole the American and now he’s trying to steal you.”