Ferial Day: Chapter 1

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SAYING “I should have known” is a poor substitute for analysis, but as gritty black smoke bulged through the woods, and handkerchiefs covered noses in a panicked flourish, that is precisely what Laelius said.

The blast furnace at the iron works two miles down the road had come alive. Of course. That was why he was here: the iron works. Rome wanted to build a canal to transport goods from the works to points north and to the coast. First they had to make sure the land would support the project and, what was more important, that no sacred groves or burials were at the location. A forgotten or unmarked cemetery would mean moving the canal. So far, Laelius and his team of university students had found nothing. So far, however, was hardly far at all. The study was in its early hours. Laelius had been ordered to report back to Rome before the Ambarvalia, the festival honoring Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Smoke from the furnace could postpone the dig for days, if not weeks. And the Ambarvalia, an important dies ferialis—a festive holy day—was less than a week away.

The site looked nothing like the wild vine-corseted grotto Laelius and the half-dozen young men he mentored had encountered a few hours ago. Brambles had been hacked away and small shrubs and trees rooted out. Shallow trenches scarred the turf, destined to expose the dirt and what lay beneath. Not even the students looked the same. Sparkling, clean-shaven faces and laundered, if well-worn, work shirts had acquired the scum created by playing in dirt. As the smoke invaded, adding a prickly patina of filth, everyone dropped or threw aside whatever he was holding, reached for his handkerchief and grumbled what Laelius himself was thinking but as a leader dare not voice: “Bloody hell,” “Just what we need,” “How are we supposed to see what we’re doing?” “Forget seeing! I’d rather breathe!”

Only Valeria had no complaints. She knelt in a short trench, her boots and britches caked with damp, reddish dirt not unlike the stuff she was scraping from the aside with a trowel. When the party had ridden out at dawn, she was wearing a full riding habit made of tropical-weight black wool. Now the jacket and skirt were draped atop a shaggy hedge. Though patches of sweat smutched her blouse beneath the arms and high on her back, along the neckline of her chemise, she kept that blouse buttoned high, and closed at the neck by a neatly tied black cravat. She had tied a handkerchief around her nose and mouth to ward off the gritty smoke. Her eyes had the stare of a searcher intent on a quest.

Laelius, who had resolved to set an example of courage by not covering his nose against the smoke, crouched beside her in the ditch. “Dearest, I think we should stop for the day. There’s enough smoke to fill a city.”

Valeria shook her head. “I don’t mind. The sooner we finish, the sooner we’ll be back in Rome. We missed the Ambarvalia last year. I don’t want to miss it again. It could be the last time I see my parents.”

Close by, knee-deep in a hole, spindly, red-haired Didius leaned on his shovel and wiped his brow with a clay-blotched cloth. “We will finish in time to celebrate the Ambarvalia in Rome, won’t we, Marcus Laelius?” The stress on “will” impressed Laelius as an attempt to think the wish into a reality.

“Probably not,” said Valeria while Laelius mused upon the boy’s wistfulness, “but we can always do what we did last year. Laelius conducted the rite himself. Gathered us around a wobbly altar made of boxes and made a glorious mess of everything.”

Didius squashed a snort. “You, Marcus Laelius? Make a mess of everything?”

Laelius found no humiliation in the youth’s mirth. He rather enjoyed making people laugh, even if the joke was on him. Truthful, unabashed, he said, “I’m not a priest, I’m a scholar. If you like, if we are indeed stuck here for the Ambarvalia, I’ll put you in charge of the ceremonies.”

“But you must be exceedingly careful with the sacrifice,” Valeria teased. “The animal we’re instructed to use if we observe outside the city walls isn’t as small and vulnerable as it appears. When Laelius made the cut, the blood shot out as if a water main had burst! It went everywhere—our heads, our faces, our clothing. By the time the poor creature was empty, we were sloshing around ankle-deep in the stuff and we looked as if we’d taken part in a massacre. We had to beg Rome to give us additional money so we could buy new clothes.”

“And did Rome oblige?”

“Alas, no. They said it was all Laelius’s fault. He knew we might still be outside Rome when it came time for the festival, so he should have known how to perform the rite.”

Didius laughed but winced. “If I may say so, that’s harsh.”

“No, that’s Rome,” said Laelius, hoping the tone would suffice to lecture Didius about the impunity with which Rome did business. If Rome was displeased about the request to fund their bureaucrats’ wardrobe, Laelius could only imagine how it would react to news about a delay in their grand plans to build the canal. No matter. He was responsible for the welfare of his students. He could not in good conscience let them work in this air-flung dung. “Time, gentlemen. We’re retreating until the wind changes.”

The students expressed disappointment at having to leave, but they packed up with a speed with made Laelius suspect the disappointment was a façade of politeness; they really had no desire to stay there longer than necessary.

Valeria slung the jacket and skirt of her riding habit across the horse’s withers and stood with one hand gripping the reins. She was waiting for Laelius to give her a leg up. Laelius, however, had his eye on the saddlebag, which was moving and making a noise that reminded him of a whimpering dog.

Undeterred by Valeria’s insistence to help her, Laelius opened the saddlebag. Inside was a chocolate-colored puppy no bigger than his fist. It was squirming, scratching at the leather with its front paws. Laelius had no idea if it was whimpering because it was hungry or it had heard the humans and hoped they would help it escape. He scooped it out and held it up to examine it. The puppy turned its head, trying to nibble Laelius’s hand. Laelius considered the little animal was happy enough. But he, Laelius, was not. “This little fellow has been in there all day?”

“He likes it in there! Besides, you wouldn’t want a puppy running around the site, getting underfoot and tipping things over, would you?”

“I’d rather you left him at the inn.”

“Locked up in the room?”

“You could have left him with the landlord. The landlord would have let him play in the stables.”

“He played with Didius and Artorius! Didn’t you see them sneaking away to feed him?”

“I saw them sneaking away, yes, but I thought they were off to Nature’s privy, not to dandle a dog.”

“Really, Laelius, just put him back and let’s be on our way! He’s perfectly fine.”

For the moment, Laelius thought as he gently set the puppy back in the saddlebag.

He knew Valeria wasn’t carrying the pup around for the sake of mere safekeeping. She was preserving him for the Ambarvalia.

He was going to be the sacrifice.

Ferial Day

 

 

 

from Beethoven’s Wife: the Love Letter

“My dearest Adela—and it is my fondest wish that you let me address you in this fashion:

Forgive an old man his boldness, but the constraints of mortality and the certainty that one’s days are not infinite drive me—no, SPUR me, with as much intent to hurt as a rider bearing a dire message means to influence his horse—to find you and tell you what you are about to read.

I sense in you the unfading sorrow that attaches itself unbidden and unwanted to all men, including your Beethoven. I would show you the worth of suffering, which I have only just learned to understand.

When I was a boy, my father was a singer in the court of the Elector of Cologne in Bonn. The city might not have the august reputation of Vienna, but the Electorate of Cologne is part of the Holy Roman Empire and attracts men of intellectual curiosity and adventure.

My father, I regret to say, tended to drink more than he should. He would become bold of speech, losing sense of what was appropriate for time and place. One day he brought home a dinner guest, a priest who had survived a mission to the Philippine Islands. I remember my brothers and I sitting at the table, enthralled by his tales of exotic lands and people. We failed to notice how much wine our father had had to drink until he made a crude remark to my mother. It doesn’t matter what he said. What matters is the effect it had on my mother, who first went the color of mortar and then the color of an open wound. The blow of the remark, my mother’s face, and the silence that followed made me nearly sick with fear over what would follow. Would Father beat her, as he was wont to do? Throw things at her, as he was wont to do? Call her a whore, as he was wont to do? And—remember!—it was all happening in front of not a mere guest, but a priest, a servant of God whom we were all brought up to respect through word and deed.

As I slouched over my plate in mid-chew, not knowing if the turmoil inside me would manifest itself through nervous laughter or the expulsion of what I’d just eaten, the priest, with no show of offense or condemnation, recalled how, on Good Friday, some of his converts proved their commitment to their new faith by processing through the Stations of the Cross, each carrying his own cross. They said prayers and sang hymns, and in the end, each man lay full length upon his cross on the ground and allowed his friends to nail him to the wood. The crosses would then be lifted up and the crucified left to stand for nearly an hour.

It was quite an event to describe to young boys, and the gruesomeness of the account certainly did distract from the gruesomeness of Father’s assault upon Mother. But if I’ve remembered the missionary’s tale all these years, it’s not for the horror of either the tale or the dinner. It’s for what the priest said as he ended his testimony.

The men withstood their crucifixion in silence, he said. There were no screams, no moans, no tears, no dramatic invocations to God to end their suffering. But there was suffering, all the same. Nails were hammered through hands and feet. Blood flood. Bodies writhed, involuntarily, with every blow. ‘You see the agony of others,’ the priest said, ‘and you want it to end, yet you can do nothing to end it. All you can do is pray for them to continue to endure with grace and courage. And as you stand there, praying, watching, willing them to survive, you realize it’s not the person in torment who finds courage and comfort. It’s you yourself. The person in torment, acting with grace and courage, has already found what you want him to have. You are the one who is comforted, because the grace and courage of the sufferer give you more heart and consolation than any prayer can bestow.’

I tell you this as a pale explanation: The grace and courage with which you accept your own torment has given me the courage and contentment I’ve sought for years. You have more than my thanks. You have my affection. When I sign this ‘your obedient servant,’ I write it not out of courtesy but as your Beethoven, a man who will do what he must to assure your contentment.”

from Salutaris: A wee bit of a teaser

HANCE HAD lived in a time when homes were heated and brightened by fire, and the only way to make a fire was with the contents of a tinderbox. So he had held fire in his hands; encouraged it by poking logs around a fireplace; observed it dancing on the tips of candles. He understood it: heat rose; flames were coolest at their base.

As smoke and ash roiled around the parlor, he pulled Emmy and Renato, who had jumped up screaming from the couch, down to the floor, where the air was less poisonous. Listening for noises that would indicate the rectory was about to collapse, he led them, crawling, down the hallway to the entrance vestibule. He felt the door, finding naught but a customary tepidness. The fire had not reached the threshold.

It would, though. Soon. As he threw open the door, he perceived flames everywhere on the ground and above. The air was an almost-unbreathable brew of charred furnishings, carbonized trees, and the chem-lab reek of gasoline. Blobs of silhouettes agitated against the undulating scarlet light as campers headed toward the road in a frantic quest for safety.

A man and woman dragged a little boy through the dirt. The child was screaming, kicking, writhing to break free. The screams were more than noise. Hance distinguished rising and falling sounds that denoted words. Emmy understood. “His pet is in there!”

It was then that Hance recognized the boy who owned the guinea pig. He knew what was going through the child’s mind: the vision of a blackened potato of a corpse; the knowledge that he would never see his pet again; the supposition of the horror that the little thing must be feeling, trapped in its cage; the guilt of being made to stand back and watch; the anticipation of irretrievable loss.

Hance might have done nothing for Mary Guaire, but he would spare the boy the sickening memory of a sickening night. There was no time to explain. He pushed Emmy and Renato toward the street, yelling, “Get out of here,” and entered the inferno not daring to look back.

The heat seared him through his clothes and he could taste the smoke without opening his mouth, but the fire was so unlike any he had seen before that he didn’t believe it was real. He had reached into the flames around the corpse he had seen in the rehearsal room, hadn’t he? Yes, he had reached into the flames, and they had disappeared along with the rest of the vision. The flames hadn’t hurt him then; they shouldn’t hurt him now. They couldn’t hurt him. Not now.

Please, not now.

Fire dripped around him as he found the spot the boy and his family called home. The guinea pig was breathing but crouching and fluffed up in fear. It made no fuss as Hance lifted it from the cage. With the little creature safely tucked in his blazer, Hance turned to run but tripped on a mound he hadn’t seen in the murk. The length and soft solidity of the thing suggested a person. With his free hand he grabbed the back of the body’s clothing and inched the inert mass along the ground. Suddenly the mass twisted. A hand gripped his throat. He heard Marsden.

“Here I am, John. You can take your revenge on me and be undone among the flames, or you can follow me out of here and live. No one will miss you. They won’t even remember you. Everything will be as it was before you went to Paris. Everything. Even Mary will be there. What do you say? It’s your choice!”

The hand dropped. Laughing, the mound re-shaped on the ground with outspread arms, like Christ on the Cross, and then dissolved.

Excerpt: from ‘Salutaris’: Darkness Beyond Nature

THE FINAL rehearsal for the spring concert was held in Renato’s church at night. It could have taken place in the afternoon, but Hance wanted his singers to get the feel of performing the Tallis and watching for their cues in dim lighting. Only one of the choirs was front and center in the sanctuary. The choir with the strongest musicians was up in the choir loft, which was over the entrance. The remaining four choirs were positioned in pairs across from each other in the side aisles. The idea was to envelope the listeners in the piece’s layers of polyphony. It always worked.

Renato was edgy. Protestors had tossed garbage at campers who were leaving for work that morning, and a puddle of gasoline had been found in the driveway. Renato said he had called the police, but the officer was useless. “He thought one of the campers had brought in a container of gas for a portable generator. I told him there weren’t any generators because there wasn’t a source of electricity out there. He thought someone might have hooked up an extension cord to an outlet in the garage, but I didn’t see one then and I didn’t see one this evening.”

The orchestra had been setting up for the first part of the program when Renato pulled Hance aside to tell him this. Hance wished he was closer to the back door; he wanted to see for himself. “Did you hear anything running on electricity back there?”

“Nothing.”

“What about landscaping equipment? It’s spring. Some of those men work for landscapers. Maybe they’ve got leaf blowers.”

“Leaf blowers? Do you think somebody could walk off the job with a leaf blower attached to his body and nobody would notice?”

Hance remembered seeing backpack blowers with tubes the size of an elephant’s trunk affixed to the groundskeepers at the college. “I’m trying to be reasonable. What else could the gas be for? A barbecue grill?”

“There isn’t supposed to be any gas in the camp at all! It’s one of the ground rules. I thought you knew that.”

“I didn’t.”

“No gas, no propane. They aren’t even supposed to have cigarettes.”

“They’ve got to make fires for food and warmth with something.”

“Yes, but I draw the line at propane and gasoline. Matches and cigarette lighters are enough.”

“If you’re so concerned about the gas, then wait until a break and I’ll go out there with you and have a look around. Do you have a flashlight?”

Ren balked. “I don’t know, John. Maybe we should leave well enough alone.”

Never had Hance seen Renato in such a state. “What’s wrong? These are the people you’ve been sheltering since last September. What do you think is going on out there?”

“I don’t know. And that’s the problem. I do not know. It’s too quiet. And dark. As if the place is deserted. But I know it’s not.”

“Don’t some of them work at night?”

“It’s not that kind of quiet. It’s a stillness. A vacancy. I see nothing. I hear nothing. I smell nothing. And it’s cold. A raw, steely cold, like the interior of an unheated subway car.” Renato shivered. “Just thinking about it skeeves me out.”

“Good heavens, Ren, it’s your backyard! It’s no different now than when you saw it in daylight.”

“Except there was gas out there, and no one could say where it came from.”

“I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Be patient.”

Though Hance projected reason and calm, Renato’s news left him uneasy. He suspected Marsden was involved, but he refused to give in to fear. The best way to reject Marsden and to rally poor Renato was to press on as if nothing was the matter; nothing existed but the music.

The rehearsal was set up later than expected, started later than expected, and ran much, much later than expected. Hance never did go outside with Renato at the break because there was no break. Once they had warmed up, the choristers wanted to keep going. They had been enjoying some success with the Tallis in the rehearsal room; they couldn’t wait to hear what it sounded like in the church. Despite Renato’s plea for him to leave the lighting alone, Hance had the lights turned down far enough so the choirs could still read their music and see him. He brought his singers through the work until he was certain they were irrefutably confident with their lines and his directions..

When rehearsal was over and the musicians left for home, it was after midnight. Though the church would be locked for the night, Renato raised the lights and left them burning. Hance detected the quiet that his colleague had spoken about. It ranged well beyond the ordinary quiet of the premises. It was the hush of a house that was not a house, where the walls were the illusion of walls, the floor was the earth, the roof was the sky, and what he wore on his back was what had been hiding in his heart, exposed for all to see. He remembered Marsden and what Marsden had done to him on that patch of snowy earth.

Not again. Not tonight. Dear God, not tonight.

Renato was beside him, tentative. “Shall we?”

“Shall we what?”

“Go looking for where that gas came from.”

“I don’t think that skulking around in the dark, waking people out of a sound sleep, is the way to go about it.”

“What should we do?”

“Get some rest.” Hance pulled his car keys from his pocket.

“You’re going? Aren’t you too tired to drive? I can make coffee.”

No need to ask what was wrong. Hance smelled Renato’s fear.

Poor soul. He doesn’t want to be left alone.

Hance smiled. “Coffee sounds good, thanks. Emmy?”

She leaned against the pew, yawning, her arms wrapped around her backpack. “Coffee, yes,” she murmured, and with half-closed eyes went into the rectory with Hance and Renato.

Renato turned on every light he came upon. He asked Hance and Emmy if they’d mind helping him with the lights upstairs. There were so many, and he didn’t want do it all by himself.

“But you’re not by yourself, Father Ren,” Emmy said. Her tone held no allegation of cowardice, no presumption that he was being silly.

Still, Ren didn’t go upstairs. Nor did Hance make the ascent. He didn’t want to leave Renato and Emmy.

The three sat over empty cups, waiting for the coffee to brew. Emmy rested her temple against her fist, eyes closed. Renato had the inward stare of someone so seized by horrific possibilities that he’s lost his grip on the reality beneath his nose. Hance attempted to bring him back. “A shame you don’t have a piano.”

“I don’t play.”

“No, but every now and then you have company that does.”

“Oh.”

Renato reunited with his ruminations for some moments before telling Hance, “Sing something.”

Suffer little children. Especially when they’re little boys afraid of the dark. “I really don’t have a voice at this hour.”

“I don’t care. Just sing. It’s too quiet.”

The first thing that came to mind was “Gute Nacht,” from Schubert’s Die Winterreise. The range and phrasing were simple enough, and the text was not inappropriate.

“Fremd bin ich eingezogen, Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus . . .” A stranger I came, a stranger I leave.

“Der Mai war mir gewogen, mit manchem Blumenstrauss.” May woke me with its abundance of blossoming flowers.

Sluggish with sleep, Renato pushed himself away from the table and got as far as the parlor couch, where he fell upon the cushions. “Just keep singing, John.” The command was slurred. “Keep singing . . . so we know you’re here.”

We? Small chance Emmy would know anything. She was already asleep at the table, head on arm, her cup of coffee pushed well clear of her point of repose.

What was going on out there? When did it start? Why didn’t everyone notice when they were leaving the church after rehearsal?

Half muttering, half singing the rest of the song, Hance went into the parlor and peeked between the edge of the shade and the window frame. There was no moonlight or starlight or any suggestion of artificial light in the camp within the trees. There was only darkness so pure and dense—so undeniably absolute—that it couldn’t belong to nature. No wonder Renato was frightened. But sleep was no escape. There was no escape. There never had been and never would be.

Whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present. Perhaps darkness shall cover me: and night shall be my light in my pleasures. But darkness shall not be dark to thee, and night shall be light as day: the darkness thereof and the light thereof are alike to thee.

“Father John?”

Emmy. She stood like a four-year-old, her arms limp at her sides. He imagined a teddy bear dangling from her fist. Her face was white, shining with tears. She sniffled.

He went to her, to draw her into his arms. As he reached for her every window burst, blasted to bits by a fire that had not grown by degrees but was there all at once, raging, enshrouding the rectory, the church and the woods.

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