Authors: Gael Baudino
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,
London W8 5TZ, England
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2
Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,
Auckland 10, New Zealand
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published by Roc,
an imprint of New American Library
a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.
First Printing, November, 1993
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Copyright © Gael Baudino, 1993
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
—a soldier of the Great War
Ante diem festum Paschae, sciens Jesus quia venit hora ejus, ut transeat ex hoc mundo ad Patrem
. . .
Easter was late that year. So was spring. Out in the Bay of Maris, the water was cold and gray, the breakers washing whitely the feet of the steep headlands that guarded the harbor. Gray water, gray sky, gray rock. The foam was the color of milk . . . or of death.
And Omelda was washing the floor of the Betancourt mansion.
. . .
cum dilexisset suos, qui erant in mundo, in finem dilexit eos.
The water in her bucket was gray, and it foamed whitely as she sluiced it across the gray stone floor of the kitchen. Spill, slosh, scrub. Omelda's knees were sore, and her back was sore, too. Her hands were dry and cracked from weeks of scrubbing and laundering and cleaning, and her hair hung in sweaty tendrils despite the cold that whispered winter's parting words at the windows and the chimney and the doors.
. . .
sciens quia omnia dedit ei Pater in manus, et quia a Deo exivit et ad Deum vadit: surgit a coena, et ponit vestimenta sua,: et cum accepisset linteum, praecinxit se.
Holy Week. Maundy Thursday. Vespers. The house was silent, with no stump of the polished, mercantile boots of Nicholas Betancourt himself, no patter of the steps of his prim and pretty little wife, no unctuous tread of his servants. Everyone was at church in the great cathedral. There, and in a hundred smaller churches and private chapels in the city, the mysteries of the Passion and Death were being commemorated even now: choirs singing the gospel and antiphons, men—sad-eyed men, avaricious men, men whose hands knew the slick feel of gold and the chill of silver, men who had been born into sheets of linen and silk—baring their feet as their priest, whether mitered bishop or humbly tonsured friar in orders, knelt to wash them in memory of another washing, now fifteen hundred years past.
And Omelda washed the floor. Alone.
Mandatum novum do vobis: ut diligatis invicem
. . .
More water—on the feet, on the floor, against the cliffs.
Beati immaculati invia
. . .
The cathedral and the churches were distant, but Omelda knew exactly what the cantors intoned and the choir sang in reply as the water trickled over bare feet. She knew because she heard it. She was a mile away from the nearest service, but the words and the melodies, made a part of her by over twenty years of cloistered monasticism, rang in her mind, shouldered her own thoughts aside, blurred her washing of the kitchen floor into the washing of the feet.
Postquam surrexity Dominus
. . .
It was always this way. The music had long ago become an inescapable part of her nature, and whether she was an obedient nun—a prisoner of custom, enclosure, and church law—or a contumacious and apostate scullion,
excommunicate for her absence and her lack of repentance, the music was still there, an incessant, intrusive, violating presence.
She had fled the nunnery to escape the melodic possession. But though she could climb walls, and though she could elude the beadles and sheriffs and searchers, she could not so escape from her own mind. For two years, she had run, hidden, prayed for relief. To no avail.
Every night, she would awaken to a ghostly choir of memory and habit singing matins and lauds, and she would lie sleepless until they were finished. With the sunrise would come prime, and then mass . . . all in her mind. And whether, during the eight periods of monastic prayer and worship that occurred each day—the Hours of the Holy Office—she ran errands, washed dishes, cooked food, or, as now, scrubbed the floor, she did so to the inner accompaniment of plainchant. In her mind, the psalms ran their full course each week, the feasts and holy days came and went, and the special antiphons that the Benedictine order zealously kept separate from the body of the Church sounded quietly and austerely.
. . .
Her inner cantor intoned the first words, and then as the waves of the North Sea rose up to batter the cliffs about the harbor, so the choir's response, plexed, multi-voiced, rose in a wave of song and flung itself against the private thoughts and conscience of Omelda the nun, Omelda the apostate, Omelda the damned—
. . .
postquam coenavit cum discipulis suis
. . .
—and she had at last reached the conclusion that it would never end. No amount of labor, physical privation, mental discipline, or distance from her cloister would ever banish that invisible choir, would ever give her the inner silence that she craved. Two years now, and nothing had changed about the endless violations save her will to endure them.
. . .
lavit pedes eorum, et ait illis
. . .
She dropped the brush she was holding and put her soapy hands to her ears. But the voices were within her, and they continued, unperturbed:
Scitis quid fecerim vobis
. . .
“Stop,” she murmured.
. . .
ego Dominus et Magister
“Please . . .” Aching with the defeat and the utter futility, she bent her head. Cold water trickled down her cheeks, mingled with her hot tears.
Exemplum dedi vobis, ut et vos ita faciatis.
Her words echoed off the roof, fell into silence amid the rustle of embers in the hearth. The wind answered her, the wind and the voices in her mind:
Credidi, propter quod locutus sum
. . .
She wept, but she did not scream again. It was dangerous to scream, for the fact that she was not at church, that she kept instead behind closed doors and windows and labored alone into the evening could not but engender questions. What kind of heretic was she? A Lollard? A Waldensian? A Hussite? And if she were none of these, then why was she not in church like a good Christian?
No one would understand her tale of the creeping madness of melody that was stalking her, that forced her to absent herself from services of any kind lest, so encouraged, its tyranny became absolute. No one, indeed, would sympathize with an apostate nun whose presence, if discovered, would bring the whole city under episcopal interdict. And certainly no one would heed her protests against being returned to her cloister, there to face an interior horror that would make any discipline ordained by the abbess seem paltry and trivial both.
No, it was very dangerous to scream, for screams would bring the beadles and perhaps even the Inquisition . . . and the voices in her mind never listened to her screams anyway. But dangerous and futile though they were, the screams bubbled within her, now and then rising to her lips only to be choked off in a spasmodic whimper. And thus she washed the kitchen floor.
Standing at last, shaking, her frustration turning her heedless, she opened the shutters and let the cold April air smack into her face. Evening had fallen, and the grays of the city were shading into black. Silence: only the bloodless sound of the wind and the intrusive plainchant in her mind.
Dead to the world, they had told her. Dead to everything. No man, no children, no family. Dead. And she had fled it. But whether she considered her mind, shackled by the ritual that rang unceasingly in its depths, or her body, numb and unresponsive, she was still dead.
And here, on this Thursday of Holy Week, with the spring late and the wind cold and the evening gray as a stone, she could no longer think of a reason for continuing with this parody of existence.
The house was a tomb. The city was a tomb. She was, she reflected, damned already: would suicide make that much difference? At least she could ordain her own physical death.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
She put her arms on the sill, cradled her head. “Love me, God,” she said. “Just love me. I'm going to do it tonight. Please love me anyway.”
And still the choir sang on:
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.
Maundy Thursday. Feet were being washed throughout Europe.
The central mystery of Christianity was but three days away, but the body had to die before it could rise again, the exalted had to be humbled . . . and so feet were being washed. Touched. Handled. Water trickling over toes and insteps, tinkling into basins all agleam with the light of a hundred candles.
Fifty leagues to the southwest of a window out of which a young woman stared into the night and contemplated suicide, in a shabby little church in a shabby little city, Siegfried of Madgeburg, a friar of the order of Dominic, took into his hand the foot of a man named Paul Drego. An acolyte held a pewter basin ready as another handed Siegfried a pitcher of water, but Siegfried's eyes were not on basin or pitcher or foot: they were on Paul's face. He was wondering what he saw in Paul's face.
As the water trickled over Paul's foot, as Siegfried's hand mechanically registered the fleshly fact of bones, sinew, skin, and hair, the friar wondered. There were so many layers to a human being, so many levels of deception and self-deception, so many lies and masks that made up a mortal life. And as Siegfried was Inquisitor of Furze, it was his constant business to look beyond those layers and levels and deceptions and masks, to examine every flicker of every emotion over every face with which he was confronted, to spy out—vigilantly, indefatigably—what lay beneath, what lurked in the dark recesses of conscience and private thought.
Washing feet on a Maundy Thursday, holding a pitcher of water, staring into the face of a man who made hats for a living . . . he was yet the Inquisitor. And so he paused with his hand cupping Paul's heel, weighing his bare foot, considering, for a moment, what methods might be required to lay bare the hatmaker's inner world. Here, for example, just below the ankle, was a place in which to put a needle. Not quickly, mind you, but slowly. There were certain boots in certain rooms of the House of God (it was just down the street, one would reach it in the space of time it took to say a
) made just for that purpose, with straps to hold the foot steady and a screw thread on the needle so that it could be inserted hair's breadth by hair's breadth.
Or the toenails. Or this tendon. Or here . . . or here . . . or here . . .
Siegfried knew that strangers had taken shelter in Paul's house, had stayed for a few days, and then had departed. Peddlers? Beggars to whom the hatmaker had, in Christian charity, offered the hospitality of his home? Representatives of the Aldernacht firm who had come down from Ypris to further the plans that Paul and his friends had formulated, plans to bring gold to Furze and revitalize the moribund economy?
Perhaps. It could be. Or it could be . . . something else.
What lay behind Paul's wide eyes? What lay behind the lies that made up his life? A little fear, maybe? A little guilt? Those strangers, Paul. What about those strangers?
uprooted by Cattaneo's valor in the Alpine valleys? Some Fraticelli come out of the Apennine fastness? A Lollard or two with a Bible in the vulgar tongue and a collection of pious aphorisms? Something else?
Layers. Masks. It was all layers and masks. Siegfried himself was at one with his thoughts, and his personal lack of inner duplicity, he knew, added to the fear that his office evoked in those who had enmeshed themselves in a web of heresy. They knew him for what he was, and he—a joining of the cornerstones of will and spirit so perfect that a scrap of gold leaf could not slide between them—would inevitably find out what they were.