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1652, a London prison:
The bell tolled the first hour after midnight. For the past two days rain was falling ceaselessly upon the city. The cell dormer formed an ideal passage for the water to trickle into his solemn quarters. The steady sound of falling droplets imitated a funeral procession, their march creating a reverse Jacob’s ladder, casting unanswered from the heavens the pleas for life of their dispatcher. He had nowhere else to turn to in his despair, no one but the supreme Power. The belief in Its existence had nurtured him since birth, the faith in It had nourished his being through three decades of life. Now, in his hour of need, It had rejected him.
Last night, the visiting abbe had promised that, his innocence, be it true, would shine like unvarnished gold before the grand Judge of life and death, it would endow him with a seat beside his creator, a place to praise the Lord for all eternity. An eternity remote to him, seemingly far removed, though with every bell chime that distance was devoured. Stifled was his desire for giving praise to anyone now, though nigh was the hour of his death. He lusted to keep breathing through his broken nose, to keep touching with his scalded hands, to keep his tattered mind thinking, for many years to come. His body had paid a heavy toll to the inquisitors’ instruments. But it was his body nonetheless, shuddering chills coursed through him in the thought that it would be lost in a few hours.
His stomach convulsed again, he fell down to his knees, trying to discharge the remaining of its contents, to raise them as votive offerings of hate amidst the stone floor tiles. Unsuccessfully. His throat coarse, his gullet contused, they opposed the thick saliva as he tried to swallow. Rejection everywhere. It was as if a precocious noose was constricted around him, eager in its decisive pitilessness, insatiable its cruel gluttony for doomed necks to snap. He couldn’t breathe, in vain did his hands try to deal with the nonexistent knot.
Recovering, he rose, stepped on a newly formed urine pool with his bare feet, fell down again, tried to crawl on his hands, hands irreversibly deformed by the fiery blades of inquisition. He spat, and his outer vision darkened, letting his inner one to be filled with the phantom of the gallows. He opened his eyes quickly and screamed bitterly. Tears ran down his filthy cheeks, the knot in his stomach tightened. He didn’t want to die. He hurled himself at the plain yet staunch to its purpose door, he tried to bite it with the fragments of his teeth. The pain unbearable, yet not a sliver of redemptive unconsciousness did smile upon him.
The bell tolled the fifth hour after midnight. He heard the austere, heavy steps of the gaolers approaching the inviolable door. He started clobbering again the stone floor, breaking one of his wrists. The gate unlocked, opened. The torch’s light blinded him, the smell of burning fat, used as fuel, prevailed in his nostrils. Strong arms lifted him, iron grips like black vises around his body. They dragged him out of the cell, out of the tower dungeons, as the cloudless morning sky flared red in the east. The procession onwards marched, a blur of images. He had shut himself up, barricading every route of communication with the outside world, he ruminated the feelings of despair and of his approaching end.
The next stimulus were the judge’s final words: “…sentenced to death by hanging. May God have mercy on your soul.” He looked around and saw that he was upon the wooden gallows. The audience of his upcoming death consisted of a dozen curious bystanders, a few drowsy trumps, the judge, the trio of guards that had carried him. In the opposite corner of the square there stood a musician, a flutist. A lugubrious entourage to cheer the dropping of his curtain.
Hearing a heavy breath from behind, he turned his head. He saw the last actor of the shadow play that was his life. Black-hooded head, gray-washed eyes, pulpy, aged hands. One of the man’s palms was scarred, he was watching it as it slipped the noose over his head. Not great was his surprise as he realised that the abbe was his executioner. Ironic thoughts about forgiveness and selfless love came to fruition in his mind, but they were all abruptly dispersed as the knot tightened about his neck. The trapdoor opened underneath him, a momentary levitation, before the ruthless professional knot snapped his nape. Time enough to empty his lungs with a sour, desperate cry, before he died.
The musician brought the flute to his lips. Instead of blowing a melody, he inhaled through it the last cry of the condemned, he wove it into notes inside his lungs, and trapped it in his instrument by exhaling. Thence he turned around, placed the flute at his belt, and continued down the road.
1349, a Nuremberg street:
The last corpse-carrier of the day had just moved on, his cart not claiming any cargo from their hut. She felt lucky, being able to keep company to her three children for one more night. Their groans, like rusty arrowheads they pierced her body, they rattled it, they nailed it to the wooden boards of the humble abode. Still, those cries were preferable to the endless silence, to the eternal muting of her children’s voices.
She removed the dry cloth from her youngest son’s forehead, immersed it in a bucket of water, water that she had drawn from the family well. Cold and moist again, she retied it around his head. Then she drew the Freyja rune in the air, muttering a three versed prayer to her ancestral goddess. The low volume of her voice was a result of convention, not related anymore to the fear of discovery. She was past that threshold, not bothered by accusations of heathen worship. This god that she was forced to praise throughout her life had probably sent Black Death among them. At the very least he had left it unchecked to reap their lives. She had stopped praying to him two weeks past, when the plague claimed her husband. She had turned to the gods of her forefathers, with only vague knowledge of their worship, with no idea of how to communicate with them. It was a last desperate cry for salvation, she beckoned Odin to emerge, riding Sleipnir the eight hoofed, to dispel the spectre of disease from the town.
The moan of her youngest son disrupted her fruitless prayer, she hastened to his side. Since yesterday his flesh had started blackening, his skin bruising. His hands and feet, already dark, exuded a putrid stench, like meat left for days under the summer sun’s gaze. She knew what to expect come next morning. Oh, how the invisible, the all-invincible rider would drain slowly the breath of her child, till the only thing left would be a half-rotten husk, prey to the gravediggers. It would be thrown upon their cart, then carried like a log to the great pyre, the bonfire that burned incessantly for weeks, feeding of the flesh of the deceased. The pyre had already fed on her husband, her parents, it would feed on her children, on her, on the town, on the whole world.
In two nights time she had only her elder son left, the disease already blackening him. Her pleas to the ancient gods had not been answered. She felt her own legs rotting. Since sunset she had fallen next to him, incapable of moving, not able to touch him, though not even a yard separated them. It was like a cavernous chasm had appeared between them, a chasm that would exist past death as well. Woe to the pitiless gods, old and new, that had deprived her of the mercy of dying embraced with her offspring. She cursed them silently, for gone was her saliva for hours, blackened was her tongue and blistered like a tainted tree bark. She cursed Hope itself, that remorseless mistress, who would stay her hand from taking her own life while she was still able. Then she passed away.
A filthy charlatan had moved outside her window since twilight. He raised the flute to his lips, assimilating her last curse. He wove it inside him, then encased it in his bone instrument. It matched those curses already collected, but far from complete was his assortment. He replaced the flute on his belt, and set off into the night, silent as a shade.
1180 b.c. The Mycenaean palace:
She gazed upon her reflection in the silver mirror gracing the north wall of her apartment. Even after ten years of hardships, her figure was exquisite, a genuine princess of Illion. If her mindset was anything like her brother’s, she would be reveling in the thought of the royal line. But no Hector was she. No beloved Hector who was now forever lost in the cold halls of Hades, traduced by his killer. She was Cassandra, the accursed oracle, damned by a capricious god. A god luminous for all humanity but her. In Cassandra he had birthed darkness impenetrable.
The mirror turned blurry, murky. She acknowledged the signs of the impending vision. In a moment of rare refusal, denial, she tossed the copper cup in her hand towards the polished metal, with desperate force. Only a small scratch did she managed, and from that scratch thick, seething blood started oozing. It spread all over the surface, apart from a vague area in the middle. There appeared an image of the palace baths. The baths where the conqueror of Troy had raped her for the past three nights, as he would continue doing, unless she mustered the courage to take her own life.
The scene in the mirror pulsated, like she was watching it through a curtain of blood. She saw the hated king approaching her, taking her by violence, leaving bloody marks on her body. She watched Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s puppet, rushing fully armed upon them, flanked by his personal guard. She watched as he stabbed them passionately, as he ravaged and scattered the flesh of Agamemnon, as he made love to her own naked, dead body.
No hope had she that the vision would come to be deceptive, false. Every time she had dared to think so, the tragic confirmations had come rushing, ripping apart her few vestiges of hope. She would give her mind over to a fatalistic void, would await passively her damned, short life’s end. She, Cassandra, princess of Troy, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, lover of Apollo, cursed by him, she would be quenched, she would descend to the mournful halls of Persephone, she would be one of the countless shades, the ones that wail endlessly for what they have lost, awaiting the living to join their ranks.
The musician beheld from the bath window the blustering slaughter. This time no voice, no scream, no curse awaited to be trapped inside the ancient instrument of his. Cassandra’s outcries he had claimed long ago, back in Troy, while god-begotten Achilles hauled Hector’s body around the city walls. No, this time he had a melody for her, a meaningless, hopeless one, as tortured as her life was. He played the flute awhile, then returned it in his belt and roamed far away.
…Somewhere in time
For millenia had he gathered them, moans from the whole world, screams of death, misery, pain, screams of raw despair. He was methodically questing for them, through time and space. Fastidious he was not, any sound was suitable, as long as it was in total negativity with his flute’s inmost core. As long as it shattered infinitesimally what was hidden in the deepest burrows of the bone tube. So innumerable were the screams, that it had been almost totally gnawed. One more, then his work would be complete. Then he could rest.
To the East he marched, on the greatest mountain range he climbed. At the top of the world he perched, as night fell. There, beneath the clear and pure shimmer of stars, he grasped the flute in his weary hands, prying it for a moment, sensing the tortured pulse of the voices, the melody of the damned. He raised it to his lips and uttered his last words, words that he had woven since the dawn of Time. They parted with him, gone to meet their comrades, inside the bony maze.
…And he performed the End melody. He of many names, Pandora being his last, he suffused humanity with the discordant veil of hopelessness.
…And humanity listened and understood.
…And darkened were their eyes, and the stars were hidden eternally.
…And cracked were their ears, and music muted forever.
…And sealed were their nostrils, and flowers forever withered.
…And cut were their tongues, and all nourishment was ash.
…And fallen were their extremities, and they did slither like snakes.
…And broken into pieces were their souls, broken like Hope that they themselves had murdered.
(Published in the short story collection «Legends of the Universe I»[Θρύλοι του Σύμπαντος Ι], Universal Pathways Editions, in 2008)
27 Feb 2016