3LBE #8
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Porta Nigra

by
Darren Speegle

 

As the Christmas lights began to come to life over the cobblestone streets that converged at the Hauptmarkt, Archbishop Stephan von Saar awoke from long sleep. He awoke with a rhyme on his lips, and a stiffness in his wretched body, and the knowledge that it was Advent. He awoke knowing his name, Stephan Wolfgang Muhr, and that this was not the eighteenth century but the dawn of the twenty-first, and that outside the stone walls of his prison the day was giving over to the long December night in the ancient Roman capital of Trier, Germany’s oldest city.

I am cursed.

He knew for he dreamed. With eleven months separating one year’s period of Advent from the next, and every hour of these months passed in slumber, it might otherwise have been easy to forget. He dreamed the sort of dreams that men do, strange strains drawn of memory and experience. Yet unlike those that haunt the rest of us, his were of the nature of things as fell within the guidelines of the waking world. The fantastical and the absurd were there, but only as they existed in the realm of reality. Reality, for Stephan von Saar, was intensely ugly, nightmarish in its configurations, and for better than two hundred years, it had been his only domain. He not only failed to find solace in his long sleep, he failed to find fantasy. And so he emerged from those depths without disorientation, which absence was perhaps as poignant in its event as the hunger that seized him almost upon the moment of his awaking.

Cursed, I am a slave.

To rise from his place of unrest he drew upon the unwholesome strength that had been given to him by the same curse which bound him to his cycle. The stone slid with a grinding noise as the tomb was opened and he crawled out of his containment into the whispering hollows of the catacomb, so familiar for their meaningful, meaningless song of clashing morbidity and perpetuity. Above, in the cathedral’s cavernous hall, the tourists would be murmuring in reverence and admiration over the lofty ceilings, the great pillars and buttresses, the elaborate eastern chancel and its Baroque treasury, where the Holy Robe was kept. Believers and unbelievers alike drifting from one wonder of architecture to the next, unknowing that one of the tombs below had been opened and a sleeper was coming forth to move among them on the streets of ancient Trier.

Enslaved, I am a predator.

Before resealing the tomb, the archbishop checked the pockets beneath his aging robe, adding to the cloud of dust already surrounding him. Satisfied the keys were there, he returned the lid to its rightful place then stole from the cellars by way of a passage rarely visited anymore, emerging on the ground floor of the old chapel, which had long been shut off to tourists.

He fell out of the window onto the cobblestone, startling a passerby. The woman would have run, he'd little doubt, but for the daring volume of Glühwein which she had consumed. Today’s Christmas Market, he knew, not so unlike the days of yore, very much started at the square’s center, where the mulled wine was served, and radiated from there. He himself had spat some of it out only last year, after accepting the mute offer of a stranger. The present company would not serve his needs — although so easily obtainable as she stood there regarding him in open wonder — for the hour was yet young. When he lifted his right arm in her direction, she saw the hairy monstrous claw that protruded from his sleeve and moved off hurriedly, Glühwein or no in her dark veins.

Predacious, I am by definition without conscience.

Snow had been falling for some time, and continued to fall, its blanket covering every available surface. The Christmas lights formed spiraling designs over the way, arched bridges between the venerable walls that flanked the cobblestone avenue. To his senses the air stank of wine and worse, and this was good for he would not be smelling so pleasant himself after his slumber. Nevertheless it was in the opposite direction of the square and its throng that he went, and with a nimbleness more befitting a shadow than anything of material makeup. He knew his destination, and it was the ancient Roman gate, where the ticket booth would be preparing to close for the evening.

No matter how many times he saw the blackened monolith that was the Porta Nigra, Archbishop Stephan von Saar found himself in awe of it. There it stood in the falling snow, spittle in the face of time and its destructive ways, a testament to man’s strength, his fortitude, his defiance. Blackened with the weathers of two thousand years, majestic and mysterious, stood this mighty gate, and never mind that it was no longer attached to the walls that had surrounded ancient Trier, for those walls must only have deferred to this great stonework edifice which the archbishop, for one month out of every year, called home.

And yet I am here.

He would have remained here admiring its architecture and motif, its massive circular towers, the arches of its twin gates and the windows that lined each of the three floors over its inner court, but the hour was failing and the ticket booth would in moments be closed. The rhymer was in the booth, this his fifteenth consecutive Christmas season, and it had been eleven months since von Saar had seen the man’s bearded face or heard his rich rolling voice.

As some of us collect coins, the man who sold tickets for entrance to the Black Gate collected nursery rhymes. His collection consisted of both the German and English varieties — which of course, in the essence of it, are but one and the same — and he loved to lavish them upon the little ones in line. This evening was no different, as the archbishop stood along the wall listening.

A mother and daughter were the only ones in line. The little girl, who was three or four years of age, was saying:

“Mommy, he speaks American.”

“That’s English, sweetie. American is not a language.”

“Ah, madam, but of course American is a language,” said the ticket man.

The mother did not quite know what to say to that, so she smiled accommodatingly.

“Little Jack Horner sat in his corner, and do you know what he was doing, little lady?”

Little Jack Horner was his favorite. Not only did he collect them, which in itself was a coincidence so perverse that it scarcely affected the archbishop anymore, but Jack Horner, of them all, was his rhyme of choice.

“He was eating his curds and whey?” said the American girl.

“No, as a matter of fact — ”

“Wait, I know. He put in his thumb and pulled out a plumb.”

“Yes, eventually he did that.”

“I think that’s scary.”

Indeed, thought von Saar as he watched the man dispense the tickets.

When the mother and daughter had disappeared up the stairs that led to the sentry paths, the man pulled a sign announcing the Porta Nigra was closed for the day.

Von Saar stepped up to the window.

The look on the face of the ticket man when he saw who stood there was less a display of recognition than of desolation, seeming to wear like a confession on his otherwise warm features.

It had to be this way. Above all, the ritual. Though innocent in its appearance, this particular ritual could be regarded as almost a sacrament itself.

Von Saar held out his hand, his bestial right hand, and a final ticket, without the adornment of words, was issued.

But as the archbishop ascended the stairs, the voice of the ticket man, contrarily anguished and reverential, wafted up to his ears:

“Save us, our Lord… save the children.”

Don’t you know by now? thought von Saar. The little ones are always spared. Sister Inga says it must be so.

He went up to the highest floor, inserting a key in the lock when he arrived at the door within the east tower. For the merest second he thought he saw her standing there, quoting to him of the Bible, and the little children pawing at her feet. But it was only the air, dank and moldering textures mixing with poisonous light filtered in by the slit in the tower wall. And his hunger. His hunger murmuring not only within him but about from him.

Would they be long? he wondered. The mother and daughter. He lifted his nostrils sniffing for them, but it was no use. The lingering odors of last Advent were still on the air. He would wait till the darkness was saturating, then they would be gone, out of harm’s way.

Save us, our Lord… save the children.

Meanwhile he would sit in the corner, Little Jack Horner, abhorring the stagnant bouquets of past Christmas pyes. Until — and wasn’t it beginning already? — these palpable reminders of what he had turned into became so overwhelming that he found himself unable to refuse them any longer, lowering his face to the floor, tongue hanging from his mouth like a dog’s as he proceeded to lick the cold stone surface. And managing somehow to wonder, even as he gave himself to this loathsome act, if a significant portion of the unwholesome perfume didn’t actually emanate from his own wretched body. Would he in fact someday turn upon his own flesh in his craving? Would he create his own sort of irony by twisting Sister Inga’s already manipulated reference from the Gospels into something even less recognizable? Adding an even darker, viler symbolism to the prospect of abandoning the promised eternal life for the vain wants and desires of the earthly body?

I have committed a grave sin, Sister.

The worst of it was that he could ask himself these questions, that he retained his identity through it all. But such was of course the curse’s nature, quite as the unholy allegiance which had bound him to his fate had intended. As Sister Inga, with her very special sense of the ironic, had intended.

In my human vanity and presumption, I have sinned.

He rose from the floor, satisfied that the curtain of night had finally fallen, that he could draw no sustenance from the naked stone and its fading stains. He stepped from the room in the tower testing the air with his nostrils, detecting the faintest trace of the mother and daughter, their passage. From the Platz below, he must have seemed a shadow as he passed by the arched windows that lined the sentry way, a ghostly resident of the haunted interiors of the great Porta Nigra. The locals likely gave it not a second thought. For them, all of ancient Trier’s paths were haunted. He emerged from the monolith itself by the alcove that shaded the ticket booth. Drawing the hood of his robe around his face, he told himself he should seek new garments this time around. But he rather suspected he wouldn’t go to the trouble. It had only been two decades since he had acquired those he wore.

The avenues of old Trier unrolled before him, less-trodden ways branching off towards destinations unfulfilled. The high towers of the cathedral stood dark and majestic against the deepening sky, lording over this place of mystery, enchantment and unrest. Music drifted from the square, song of pipes and drunken accompaniment. Somewhere in the virgin night a cat cried, the realm of darkness its pleasure as surely as it was the archbishop’s disanointing. He remained apart from the main crowd but ever upon the market’s fringes lest the cathedral itself fall completely out of sight, which would not do.

Even as you partaketh of the flesh, which is the bread, and the blood, which is the drink, you shall be looking upon the cathedral, where the desecration was done.

Oh Sister, that you had not depended so upon my piety, feeding on me as if I were your own manna. Better you had stayed with that nest of witches from which I rescued you. You should never have known the abbey and its abstemious living, for in the end you were no better than I, wanting more than we are given, and seizing it in your greedy fists, at all costs, humility be damned. For wasn’t that our downfall, Sister — reaching like the tower of Babel for heaven itself? Never mind the children, never mind their bright eyes upon you as you read to them, for it was to another, higher purpose that you went about your work. Even as you held your Mother Goose’s Melody before you, reciting as from the Word itself upon the little ones’ dazzled ears, you were seeking attainment by pretentious works and deeds. Would that I had never brought that book back with me from England. For you used them, the little children, made them your disciples to spread the news of you, the news of you to the mothers and fathers of Trier, to the bishops and cardinals of the Church, to the very highest of the high, even Our Lord on High, Who surely hath cast us both forever into darkness for our vanity and pride. You used them as you used me, although my sin was no lesser for it.

A man stood slumped in the niche of a shop doorway, his inebriation obvious, his eyes only half seeing von Saar as the archbishop passed.

Von Saar’s hand began to throb, the pain starting as an ache and then evolving into something more intense, more sinister, as he stopped in his tracks and looked back at the recess whose wall now hid the figure within.

So shall you be cursed with not only a beast’s appetite but a beast’s rapacious hand…

He placed himself against the continuous wall that flanked the street, slipping along the glass storefront back in the direction of the drunken figure. Sister Inga’s words were not only pulsing in his head, they were on his tongue, bristling to be spoken aloud, announcing his deformity in advance to his victim so that there be no mistake about the nature or mechanics of the thing to come. As he reached the corner, swiveling on his heel to block the entryway, his claw spoke for him, leaping forward to hover above the startled face of the man.

“Was ist los?” said the man, as if a casual verbal reaction might somehow mitigate the horror of it.

Although the magnificent, overwhelming hunger to which he was enslaved, there was the usual moment of hesitation on the archbishop’s part. A moment in which to entertain the thought of first allowing a confession. That it would fall upon the ears of a dark priest was but another blasphemy in a book of them; that it might actually work in some hideously reverse fashion like damning the victim forever was the deciding factor.

Dropping his transmogrified hand to obtain the preferred angle — a lie so quick it stood no chance of being judged — he plunged it into the man’s body, upwards beneath the rib cage to seize the heart, retreating with the thundering organ in the grasp. He closed his eyes in simultaneous revulsion and ecstasy as the blood erupted from the wound.

As he sank his teeth into its pulp, he heard the bells of the Abbey of St. Agnes, where rested the bones of Sister Inga, patron saint of hypocrisy. He would go there, he knew. When the feeding was finished, he would go there to place upon her tomb a token of his remembering her, an organ from his victim. For the curse wasn’t so thorough that it abolished his every freedom.

He consumed only what he could not endure — or spare the risk — to savor at the site of the kill, then moved swiftly along the shadowed cobblestone streets, with his load over his shoulder, back to the Porta Nigra. In his room in the tower, hunched by the narrow sentry window through which he could just make out the spires of the cathedral, he gave the feed the etiquette it deserved. He wiped up after himself with the sleeve of his cloak, now the textured cloth of his tongue, abandoning not a morsel save the spleen, which he thought a fitting gift for his witch at St. Agnes's. As he consumed he felt the lost year returning to his body, the degradation reversing, the tissue and material of him regenerating towards the whole. The blood vitalized him, made him feel as though it were the year 1790 again, and the aspirations of his virginal body and mind pushing him towards that conclusion which stood alone in time and space, like this mighty Porta Nigra, Black Gate, reality of itself.

When he was done, he laid back not in sleep — for he would not sleep for another four weeks — but in meditation. Next in the broader ritual, the cathedral, where the desecration was done. Perhaps this time…

Ah, but that was an illusion.

In its peculiar configuration the window to the treasury annex looked like the mouth of a grotto — or perhaps the over-scaled cross section of a piece of hollow quartz. But for that jagged glimpse into the sacred chamber, the treasure it had been built to house might have been some concoction of an overzealous mind. As it was, one had to venture to the back of the chancel, defying the velvet roping that fenced off the area, to look over the lip of the aperture and actually view the glass-encased Robe. Though a security matter and nothing more, this inaccessibility to tourists undoubtedly lent to the relic’s mystery in their eyes. The clergy of course had their own access, which Archbishop von Saar knew all too well.

He went by way of the chambers below, passing the reliquary, which closed around the same time the Porta Nigra did, and coming to a door for which his pockets provided the key. He hesitated before opening it, remembering the sound of her voice, so full of consternation, self-righteousness, concealed pleasure, finally jealousy — although she would never have admitted it. The door opened into the treasury, and his eyes fell upon the transparent case reflecting the flickering light of surrounding candles. Within it, spread out as for consideration for wear —

Perish thy wicked thoughts, Archbishop von Saar!

— der Heileger Rock, the Holy Robe of Christ.

In the cathedral’s main hall, the noises of footfalls and whispering voices, the discomforts of children and introspective adults, would be echoing between the great walls. Here in the treasury, no sound save for that of his breathing, breaths which came short, invasive, out of harmony with this sanctum.

It was here he had stood when she had caught him. The very place where ten years prior to his profanation, when she was still about her witching ways, he had made her stand and look, unconcerned that her mere presence might be a sacrilege. Here, at this spot, within this manmade addition to this manmade church where this manmade cloth offered the bridging of gaps which might otherwise have remained impassable.

Or so he had believed.

He had shown her this human remnant of his Lord and she had converted soon after, eventually becoming a nun, then an abbess, then a judge herself, as she caught him, in this very room…

Oh Lord, deny me if it be Thy will…

With the Robe of Christ upon his shoulders.

What sense, what knowledge, as he had placed it over his back? Power? Assurance? Invincibility? Godliness? No, none of these. Only a robe. A robe and his shame. A robe and his shame and the gasp of her, the abbess, as she beheld the sacrilege he had performed.

Back to the nest she had run. To the witches and those black powers she herself had once shared in employing. Back to the womb for the means of accomplishing her revenge upon him, an action forgivable by her God for the reason that the end justifies the means. Unwilling to accept the same logic of him, who donned the Robe only to know God.

Or something like that.

Archbishop Stephan von Saar stared at the content of the glass case, and he wondered if perhaps this time…

But wasn’t that an illusion?

He brought his fists above his head, prepared to shatter the case, to put his hands on the cloth once more. Anguishing, he could not bring himself to do the thing.

• • •

The abbey was silent, unvisited. The nuns slept. Inga’s tomb stood in an alcove appending the chapel, the resting place of a figure of great importance. Paintings decorated the walls, angels and children dancing around the enclosed remains of her, wishing her the best in her heavenly place.

The archbishop placed the organ on the tomb.

“So that we remember each other,” he said quietly. But he knew the rats would have it before dawn’s light.

As he stepped out into the night, he thought of procuring another companion for the evening. The urge passed as the majestic Roman gate came into view and he decided he would mingle with the ghosts instead.

 

 

Darren Speegle resides in Germany, where he is employed as a civilian by the U.S. government. This is his seventh story to be accepted for publication. Among those magazines which are (or will be) representing his work: Blue Murder, Alternate Realities, Futures, and The Edge: Tales of Suspense. Also, his story “The Wholesome Scent of Cedar” (first appeared in The Edge), will soon be available on the Web at The Lost Ages Chronicle. When he is not at work or writing, Darren is experiencing Europe with his wife and their two daughters. Visit him online at www.dspeegle.com.


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ISSUE #8

March 2001

FICTION

ART