The cathedral’s bell tower shone dully against the late afternoon sky which, laced with dark purple clouds, had all at once turned menacing. I stuck the last of the ice cream cone in my mouth before opening the heavy wooden doors of the cathedral and walking inside.
A heavy throng of people had filled the interior. The mass was already in progress. A priest at the front was speaking the usual words in Latin but something struck me as odd, and I don’t mean the Priest pretending to turn some bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, though with some perspective this does seem positively Kubrickian.
Mass religious oddities though have become mass accepted normalities, so it wasn’t this that I found odd at the moment but rather the presence of a taller than life statue just to the right of the altar. Not of Jesus or Mary, or any other character from the animated bible cartoons I watched as a child. No, even the crucifix at the back wall was dwarfed by this larger than life figure of what appeared to be the Pope.
From where I stood at the back of the cathedral it was hard to tell exactly which pope, but judging by the enormous poster of Pope John Paul II on the wall to my right, it seemed the former Pope and current candidate for canonization was the star of tonight’s show. And indeed, a fluid ring of people was moving around the statue, paying some kind of homage it seemed.
As I moved closer, the Priest’s Latin words echoing through the cathedral like a tribal death chant, it became apparent that the venerated object was contained in a box placed at the foot of the statue. I stared from my vantage point on the right side of the large cluster of bodies, trying to discern the contents. Instead, my eyes met those of a young woman kneeling before the box who, after crossing herself, had turned to look my way. Her eyes recalled a paradise I’d never inhabited but longed to return to, eyes of almond that smoldered sweeter than those being sold from the gypsy woman’s cart on the street outside. I would have stayed transfixed for the rest of eternity by those eyes, but they broke from me, staring with much envied love and admiration into this box, the unknown contents of which I now loathed for the way they snatched her attentions from me.
She mumbled some words to the cursed thing inside before crossing herself once again and moving aside to be quickly replaced by a stereotypical Japanese couple. They popped into the frame like an annoying TV advert that has just now, at the revelation of a dynamic plot twist, cut into this enchanting religious drama that initially drew your interest only due to its captivating title. Their exuberant, overeager approach to photography would no doubt cause the electricity to surge from your television, cutting off your life support and plunging you into eternity.
The man had his camera poised and gestured to the woman, who got down on her knees beside the box, tilting her head up towards the camera with a smile that seemed more in line with the shape your mouth takes after a botched root canal.
I joined the line, curious at that point to learn the identity of this obscure object of desire, but more so out of a hope to find the heavenly creature with the almond eyes upon my exit. I waited as a bevy of elder retirees made their way around, each one pausing solemnly in front of the box, one woman even pausing to wipe tears away after the encounter. When I finally arrived at the box to see what all the fuss was about, the Priest and his backup band had taken to humming something that sounded like a rejected Enigma remix.
Then I saw it, looking back at me from the crimson pillow it sat on. I was at something of a loss to understand what I was seeing, other than that it was a vial containing a dark, red substance; the blood of Pope John Paul II as I would learn later. It hadn’t coagulated despite his being dead for nearly 8 years, supposedly further testament to his saintliness. The blood had been touring Italian villages and cities for months now, bringing the vampires, errr, faithful out in droves in the hope of receiving some of its healing powers.
As for me, I go nauseous at the sight of blood, no matter how holy, and I didn’t give a bloody frock whose DNA lied in that box. There was a living, breathing person on my mind at the moment.
Finally free from the queue of bloodsuckers, I scanned the crowded cathedral in search of her. I spotted her at last at the wide doors, eyes to the ornate ceiling as she crossed herself. A slight yet unmistakable smile passed her lips as she looked my way once again before being, in the next instant, taken from me; through the doors and into the void beyond.
I followed, squeezing past the vampires until finally I emerged from the cathedral to stand at the balustrade, searching the frenetic piazza beneath me.
The loss of her left a knot in my soul, whatever healing powers the Pope’s non-coagulated blood may hold naught for me as I was left once again alone amidst the turmoil of my disbelief.
Since Mass is all about consuming the body and blood of Jesus, why all this attention paid to the blood of the Pope when you’ve got “the blood of the lamb” itself there? If Catholics really do believe they’re consuming the blood of Jesus Christ during communion, then why not pop open the vial and make a little divinity cocktail? Religion has, if you think about it, always been obsessed with blood- the blood of the lamb, Jesus’ blood washing away sins, the necessity of blood sacrifices- that it has me wondering whether vampires and religious zealots don’t have something in common. The underreported “vati-leaks” scandal is assumed to have something to do with sexual abuse and, let’s face it, it probably does. I just happen to think sexual abuse and vampirism might go hand in hand in this one. After all, we’re told that only the Pope knows the contents of those documents so perhaps what nobody is talking about is exactly what’s going on, what should have been obvious the entire time. Somewhere within the Vatican exists a secret order of vampire priests who, like the pedophiles, are under the Pope’s protection. The body does contain a lot of blood after all and whichever priest or cardinal it was that got the bright idea to lop off part of the Pope to drain him for a vial of blood likely didn’t stop there. Vampire priests need nourishment too after all, and the word of God only goes so far.
I end the sentence and lean back against the little bench on the stone path adjoining the sea, a turquoise color emblematic both of the Adriatic and the onset of summer. Forgive me, dear reader, for abusing your good sense. I can’t help but rant in my writings these days, if not against religions of various stripes then against governments, individuals, or my heightened cholesterol level… damned Italian food. Even the glorious architecture; the towering steeples, the limestone castles; even that troubles me in its ability to make me yearn for a time I know next to nothing of… I wax nostalgic without knowing what nostalgia even means. The light breeze blowing off the sea, the pleasant temperature, the other noisy pieces of happiness all around me, only serve to pull me elsewhere, to a place and a time lost in the pages of unread books which stand stacked on shelves too high to reach.
A sign before me marks a crossroad. To the left a hand points the way to a castle, to the right a beach. The port lies straight-ahead, evidenced by blue boats glistening over a sea a shade or two less blue.
A fisherman rests just inside the point of my vision, dangling his rod over the pier that extends down from a chalky stone lighthouse.
Two tourists come down the lane, arguing over their itinerary. He wants to go to one of the neighboring town’s many grottoes while she vehemently argues for a “special offer” wine tasting at a vineyard advertised in the tourist map given to them by the hotel’s front desk staff. The husband doesn’t know it yet, but seeing the way in which his voice falters over every new objection and his body language no longer matches his words, he’s already lost. I could speak up in his defense, I’m an authority on such matters as vines and yards and know that the one where they’re doomed to be heading is overpriced and under run, requiring you to “handpick” the grapes themselves and charging you handsomely for it when there are better wine tastings to be had mere meters from here.
Furthermore the dark clouds swelling from the south indicate that this will all take place under a torrential rain which just might make one of the two of them sick or at the very least, once the husband realizes his wife’s little wine tasting will be the monetary equivalent of a Roman weekend, could be the final straw and lead to a much larger argument back at the hotel that could very well be chronicled in her letter to the divorce lawyer as the vital point at which their marriage, witnessed here by myself as so new and so promising, began to unravel but no, despite my ability to flap my little butterfly wings and alter these eventually tragic events that will see their happiness (and their children) divided into pieces between them like a Jerry Springer-officiated version of a King Solomon tale I remain silent, irked enough that their noisy badgering of one another has, in my troubled contemplation, distorted my thoughts which at one time, before their obstreperous arrival, had been sad but pleasant in the way that a fond memory can be sad and pleasant in that while you don’t live in it anymore it is still yours, so no, I didn’t care to do anything as remarkable as offering these honeymooning fools with their little Lonely Planet guidebook a little local advice that might keep their planetary affection for one another from overheating to the point of exhaustion, spun out so that it collapses but not before running into other bodies as it does so, wasting marriage after marriage, until they and all their prodigy cease to be.
“Excuse me.” The woman’s voice interrupts the thought. She’s standing in front of me now, no longer arguing with her husband but looking at me with an inquisitive expression that seems derived from years spent watching the lectures of particularly onerous professors, judging by her quick change in demeanor possibly at law school… or else in actual theater.
“Yes?” I ask hesitantly, deciding at last to speak English rather than feigning ignorance but showcasing my displeasure at the interruption nonetheless.
“My husband and I were just wondering whether you knew anything about the little vineyard up the road, the Tarantella?”
What a predicament I should find myself in now, the ability to influence a marriage nay, many marriages, within my grasp.
“That’s okay,” her husband, a towering man with an athletic build and a balding, sunburned head gently takes hold of her arm. “Honey, we can go for the tasting. I want you to be happy.
She smiles, surely her husband’s approval and not mine was the one she’d been inquiring after and, perhaps, expecting. They make to walk away, both tipping their heads with a little nod of appreciation in my direction as they gain the pavement again.
But I couldn’t resist.
“I wouldn’t if I were you.” They turn, mouths half-open in surprise, back to face me. “It’s a lovely dance but it makes for a shitty vineyard.”
“What?” The woman says, her voice taking on a hostile edge.
“The Tarantella. It’s a lovely dance, but the wine is crap.”
She pauses, chewing her lower lip before tossing me aside and turning back to her husband.
“I don’t believe it, I think we should go. Giovanni at the front desk said it was a must.”
Giovanni. The front desk worker at the Vaticano. I knew him from a scandal over months old cornetti (croissants) that rather than disposing of, he’d knowingly pedaled to unknowing tourists while working as a barman in Italy’s most popular café… before it was shut down for health code violations. I had been fired as a result while Giovanni, the little mollusk, had left before the whole thing was routed back to him. He now divided his time between the Hilton… and the Tarantella Wine Company, where he worked as a “bottler,” the Italian vineyard equivalent of a political lobbyist.
The husband’s protestations had begun anew. “But this guy just said…”
“I don’t give a damn about what he said, he’s blond and blue-eyed so what would he know of Italian wine anyway!” She grasps his arm, his sandaled feet dragging on the blistering pavement as his voice feebly gives way.
Si. No way that marriage was going to last.
I grimace at a thought. If you are there God, help me to not ever have to get married.
I turn my face down along the lane again. At the thought of marriage and God a nun had just appeared and was strolling up, at a quick pace, presumably to the church.
I don’t recognize her until she’s already in front and stepping past me, her almond eyes set dead ahead.
It had been many months now since I had seen her, whispering words into a basket containing the little vial of Papal blood, but those eyes were unmistakable.
It was her.
I sit frozen as a wave of heat engulfs me. My eyes lock on her as she reaches a crook in the path. She seems to feel my eyes on her and turns slightly, peering in my direction- a slight, unmistakable smile crossing her lips before disappearing.
I stare after her. A cyclist passes. Then another. The smile served as a confirmation of sorts, a confirmation of a conversion, of an answer to a personal spiritual quest. I get to my feet, stumbling over a fisherman’s lines at the end of the path before turning, full of fear that she’s disappeared again.
Instead when I turn the corner I see that she’s stopped and is leaning over the rocky balustrade overlooking the port, and the castle, gazing reflectively out to sea.
I’ve always heard it said that “the Lord works in mysterious ways,” but now, taking in the stretched fabric of the nun’s habit beneath which I can just make out her godly thigh, I know it’s true.
Perhaps I’ll join the priesthood. I don’t even mind the thought of blood anymore.
Just confirmed last week by the Catholic Church, and I’ll be damned if I don’t second it:
That dead Pope really is a saint.