Holy Water, Holy Blood

Issue #186

The fishing village where I was born and would, I felt certain, also die sat at the foot of a towering, battle-worn castle. The castle stared out, as if stunned by time and the folly of men, at the great, green Ligurian Sea. Although we had heard rumors about the Drinkers of Blood, how Rome was falling under their teeth and thirst, the story sounded absurd.

Such rumors could not matter to our little world anyway. We knew all that we needed to know: that our castle and its seaward fortification would always be prized by the great and jealous city-states of Genoa and Pisa, the Archbishops of Parma, and the famous Medici family of Florence. They had fought over us before. They would again. How could these “Drinkers of Blood” matter? They were far away and, like most rumors, would fade with time.

At the moment, our castle was in the hands of Genoa again. Peacefully so. This did mean, however, that Genoese soldiers occupied the castle and would not let us boys play there. So Father Tamillo explained to us, after mass in our village’s tiny stone church—and more than once, since he did enjoy talking.

The Genoese occupation of our castle had occurred a week before the night in question and bore no relation to it. Why would it? The maritime maneuvers of city states had nothing to do with a message a father might send to a son he had never seen.

I was standing on the wharf below the castle, waiting. I had no idea the message was coming, so I was not waiting for it. Instead, I was waiting for my mother to finish entertaining her last guest of the night—a man from the village who, like so many others, had a wife who could not make him happy. I loved my mother and knew she entertained men only so that we might have the florins we needed; but I felt what I always felt when I was alone on the wharf and waiting: how much I missed him, my father, though I had never met him and knew little about him. He had spent but one night with my mother, long enough to make me, and then had passed on to the north, to Lombardy.

He had been a strange man, people said—with hair the color of bright rust, an accent from the cold countries far to the north, and a musical instrument he played just once in the square. With its leather bladder and pipes, it had sounded, so they said, like a dying animal, though not one afraid of death.

As I waited for my mother, I tried not to scratch my rash, which had always plagued me and which the salty air annoyed. I stared out at the inky sea, listening to the waves lapping at the wharf. What I heard must have been my imagination: Thinking so intensely of my father I was hearing what I wished to hear, not what was really there: A sound like a dying animal....

It was indeed there, however, and it was growing louder. It was not the moan of some great sea-beast but rather the squeak and sigh of something much smaller. Dying, yes, but not grandly.

The man approaching me now under the torches of the wharf was dressed like a minstrel but without the bright tunic or cap minstrels wore, as if preferring not to be noticed except by his strange music. He was holding a little cornamusa made of a sheep’s bladder and two pipes. The music came from it as he blew through the bigger pipe to fill the bladder, which he compressed with his left arm to make it sing and groan. He didn’t bother with the little pipe. As he reached me, stopping but a stride away, his lips left the pipe, and he smiled as if he knew me.

Looking around once, he said:

“Hello, Emilio.”

How did he know my name?

“Hello,” I answered hesitantly.

“I am not sure where to begin,” he said. “Wherever I begin, you will not believe me—at first anyway. I shall begin with this: That your father, whom you must think of even if you do not know him, has sent me. If you are your father’s son, which you are, you will do what I ask because he is the one who asks it, not I. I am but a messenger, and not one as commanding as your father would be were he here, cornamusa and all.”

It was true. I did not believe him.

He wanted something from me—that I understood—but what? He was spinning a tale—one about my father, whom perhaps he had heard about from a villager—so that he might obtain what he wanted. But what might that be? That I follow him in the night to my father, so that on our journey he could attack me? But why? I had nothing worth stealing.

“You do not believe me. Yet if you do not do not believe me, Christendom will fall to the Drinkers of Blood and their dark communion. And you, my boy, for the remainder of your life, will know that it fell because you did not believe. I do not know how else to say it, cruel though these words may sound.”

I squinted, trying to see his face in the torchlight. Understanding, he stepped closer. It was not a face I knew. It was aquiline and weathered, and certainly a stranger’s. His smile turned serious as he said:

“Do you not have a rash on your skin, which, though unpleasant, warns you of danger when others cannot sense it?”

This was true. My mother did not like to hear of it, so I had stopped telling her; but the boys I sometimes played with had witnessed it: there were things I knew that a boy should not. A viper we might have stepped on in the olive groves. A thief fleeing for his life from the market in the square, about to collide with us in his panic. A poisonous bush. A rabid dog. All because my rash—which was red, but also bluish—itched badly at such times, warning me, and I could not but mention it.

But how would a stranger know this? Even if another boy had told his parents, how would this man know?

“Did your rash tell you to beware of me—that I am a danger?”

“No.....”

“Trust me, then, Emilio. Your father, who knows all about you, has sent me to tell you that you are the only one—because you are more than his son—who can, if you do what must be done, stop the Drinkers on the shores of a great northern lake. There, light and darkness will meet to decide our fates, and there your father awaits you even now....”

I wanted to believe him and thought I could feel it on my skin, the truth of what he was saying. I wanted to meet my father, to know him at last, to see hair the color of mine, and to discover, too, whether his ears were as big as mine.

“Do you believe me now?” he asked at last.

I nodded.

“There is not as much time. You have more leagues to travel than any boy should have to, but you must travel them soon or the events the world needs will not occur.

“You must find the holiest water in the land and take it with you. Otherwise, nothing else will be possible. You must go to the Island of Elba and find the Child Pope Boniface. You must reach him as soon as you can, for only he has the holy water you will need. From there you will go to Siena, to find a horse-racing girl named Caterina, who—”

“Why would il Papino give me holy water?” I asked.

“Because of who you are.”

“My father’s son?”

“No. Because you are the emissary of the spirit of La Compassione, without whose blessing the Drinkers will prevail.”

I did not know how to answer.

Looking behind him in the darkness, as if hooves or claws might suddenly sound on the cobbles, he gave me a leather pouch. From it, my hand shaking, I removed a long, dark fang—what could only have been a dragon’s.

“It is no dragon’s,” he said, as if hearing my thoughts. “There are no dragons.”

“But this tooth is real,” I answered in awe.

“Because the creature it belonged to is real.”

The tooth was as long as my hand and tied to a short leather cord. I did not want to look away from it, but the pouch held other things. I pulled them out: Ten ducats. Ten florins. And two empty glass vials, capped with cork and the length of my finger.

“If the Child Pope does not have glass like these, you will need these. You do not need to wear the tooth of the great beast for protection, for you have other ways; but wear it now, Emilio, so that it does not break the glass should you fall on the pouch.”

As I stared at the tooth, I asked: “Why are you helping my father?”

“Because he taught me how, with this little cornamusa, to call the creatures of the lake,” he answered. “And because he needs my help now, just as he needs yours.....”

As the tooth continued to hold me mesmerized, he gave me other directions—ones I barely heard. When I looked up again, he was gone. I could hear his running feet in the darkness and, beyond them, something heavier running, too.

He is drawing them away from you, a voice said to me. That you might be safe. That you might take the journey your father needs you to take....

I had heard that voice my entire life—telling me, among other things, that my father awaited me somewhere—but I had always thought it was daydream.

It was not, I saw now.

I went ahead and obeyed the man. I put the leather cord and its tooth around my neck.

As he left, the stranger had said, “We will be waiting for you at the lake named Como, Emilio. Do not lose faith.”

Of all the words he had spoken to me, it was these that most helped me to believe.

I left the next morning without telling my mother. I wanted to tell her, but I also knew she would try to make me stay. That I could not do. How to believe the tales of a minstrel in the night, but how not to—if it meant seeing my father? It made me sad to look down at her sleeping body, but she would be safe in the village. I understood this even though I was a boy. The Drinkers, if they existed, had no reason to bother common villagers; they were interested in larger matters. If what the minstrel said was indeed true—that I was important to a battle to come, that I was an emissary of a spirit that would matter in that battle—the Drinkers would follow me and not remain here.

I thought of telling Father Tamillo, because he had taught me so much about the world beyond our little cove and castle. But I did not want to argue with him either, and he too might try to make me stay.

I had ways to protect myself, the stranger had said. Was this true? If it were, did he mean more than my rash, scaly as it was, and the itching of my skin?

How to know until danger found me?

I took my dog, Stappo, stocky and ugly as he was, because he wanted me to. He knew I was leaving. He wished to go with me, and I wished him to go. It was that simple.

How we reached Elba, when the odds were against us, is another story for another time. But reach it we did, as stowaways in the night on a quarry barge, sleeping on the beach at Porto Azzurro in an abandoned stone hut.

What had the stranger said before he left, in his bee-swarm of instructions? “You will find Il Papino in a crumbling church with windows as narrow as slits and a priest’s residence attached. You will find it on the side of tiny Monte Castello, just above Porto Azzurro, the harbor you must sail to, however you manage it.

“Do not go too far up the mount. The church is hidden on the leeward side in the tall trees, ones the sea winds cannot dwarf. It is the other churches, Emilio—bigger, grander, less humbled by time—that interest both rulers and commoners... and creatures who were once men.”

When we woke at dawn, it was from dark dreams, but we headed bravely toward Monte Castello.

The monte in question was barely big enough to be a mountain and therefore took little time to reach. Its leeward side, a sheer cliff of rock, protected the little forest of tall, dark trees the stranger had spoken of. We chose the path that led toward that darkness. I looked for a flash of marble or glass in the trees but saw nothing. We walked on, entering the forest, and still caught no glimpse of chiseled stone among the trees.

Sighing, I stopped. Looking at Stappo, I said, “I certainly have no idea where to go; but you, Stappo—you have the blood of hunters in you. That face of yours. Such eyes. Such jowls. Such pride and courage. You know what the tooth means even when I still do not. Take us where we need to go. Please. I cannot do it by myself.”

At this, Stappo took off, heading into darkness. Though I called to him to wait for me, he did not. Was he already hearing voices in the distance that I could not, smelling smells I could not? Should I worry? It was men who waited in the trees for us—not monsters—was it not? A Child Pope and those attending him?

I hurried on, hoping to hear Stappo’s bark. When I heard it, it was far away, muffled by the trees. I could not see him. The trees were taller now, the shadows deeper.

When I spotted him at last, he was a speck of white among the trees. He did not run to me but turned and disappeared.

I followed. When he exploded from the bushes near me, proud and excited, I looked to my left and saw it: a stone edifice begging for the sun. An oak, the oldest of this part of the forest, towered above the church itself, its roots in the courtyard. Other oaks, nearly as tall, darkened the courtyard, and a priest’s residence seemed to hold up the church’s walls. Laurel and younger oaks would have hidden it all had Stappo not told me to look. It was a perfect place for il Papino to hide. Only minutes from the harbor, he might as well have been on another island entirely.

Men who had to be guards, though they were dressed in simple robes, looking like burly monks, stood by the church’s wooden doors and watched us approach. When we reached the marble steps that led up to the doors, I did not hesitate. I climbed the steps quickly, feeling six pairs of eyes on me. How must have I looked to them—a boy with a pouch striding as if the world depended on him?

The first guard was huge, with big calloused hands, deep-set eyes and a scar on one cheek. Men like these were not in the business of smiling, so he frowned.

“I am here to see the Pope Boniface the Twelfth,” I said.

The man jerked in surprise and frowned even more. “Il Papino isn’t here,” he answered. “He is in Rome, of course. That is where any pope would be. We are but monks, living lives of silent prayer, except when a boy intrudes.”

“I must see il Papino.”

The big man snorted, looking at the two other men, who snorted, too. “You cannot see someone who is not here. Even if he were on this island, why would His Eminence grant an interview to a dirty boy with his equally dirty dog?”

He laughed at his own joke. The others grinned.

I knew what I was supposed to say. I knew what the stranger in the alley would have me say.

“Because of this,” I answered, reaching into my shirt, pulling out the tooth, and holding it in my hand for him to see.

At first the guard did not seem to notice it, or if he did, he did not know what it was. In that moment I felt certain my journey had been a mistake, that the man in the alley was not really sent by my father but was a liar or madman.

But then the guard’s eyes widened, the pupils blooming like tiny black flowers, and he straightened, stepped back, and crossed himself.

La Compassione....” one of them muttered.

The minstrel had used this same name, insisting I was “La Compassione’s emissary.” What did this mean?

“He carries proof!” the big guard was saying to the others.

“Who is he?

“The Emissary...”

“Whose...?”

Silenzio!” the big guard shouted, and the others fell silent, though all three continued to stare at me.

I let go of the tooth, letting it hang for all to see.

The big guard’s voice was different now, kinder if nervous, as he asked, “What is your name, ragazzo?”

“Emilio Musetti.... of L’Erico... near Spezia.”

“May I ask what you want of His Eminence?”

“I must ask him for something only he can give me.”

“And what might that be—so that I may tell him?”

I started to answer, but, as I looked at the other guards, I saw something in the eyes of the third—as if a shadow were there, watching and listening.

Again, I knew what to say. Was La Compassione—spirit or being—telling me what to say?

“That,” I said, “is not a question you should ask of one who carries this, Signore.” I gestured at the tooth.

It must have been true, for the guard bowed. “Forgive me. I will take you to his Eminence. I must, however, ask you to leave your dog here. As you may have heard, il Papino is afraid of dogs.”

I had not heard this. How could I have, in a tiny village so far from Rome?

The poor guard, I could tell, was afraid I would insist on keeping Stappo with me, and then what would he do—caught between the Pope’s fear and the demands of a boy who was, he believed, not just any boy?

“If I leave him with you, will you feed him and give him water?”

“Of course, Master Musetti.”

I leaned over, looked Stappo in the eye, and said, “I will be all right. Stay with this man. I will come for you before the sun sets.”

No dog likes to be told to stay when it wishes to come. But after a complaint or two, Stappo lay down on the marble and did not follow as the big man led me inside to even darker shadows.

When my eyes adjusted, helped by the feeble light from the church’s broken windows, I found the guard again and followed him to the altar, where we stopped. There had once been gemstones on the altar’s figures of Christ and Mary, and perhaps, too, on the five saints that stood around them. But these had been looted long ago by one or more men who believed they needed florins more than sanctuary or grace.

To the right of the altar was a small wooden door. The guard knocked. When a boyish voice answered on the other side, the big man said respectfully, “Forgive me, Your Excellency. La Compassione has arrived.”

“What?” the voice asked impatiently.

La Compassione, mi Signore. A boy with the Sign has come....

Footsteps sounded on the other side of the door, which opened at last to a face both chubbier and a little younger than my own.

“Yes, he wears a tooth,” the face said to the guard, barely glancing at me. “But he may have stolen it.” Turning to me, the chubby face said, “Did you steal it?”

The boy—perhaps fourteen—was draped in white satin a little dirtier, I thought, than what a pope should wear, but he seemed comfortable in it.

“No, Your Holiness, I did not. I—”

“I am not ‘Your Holiness.’ I am, as God has designed it, a boy like you.” He sighed, as if carrying a great weight, and his voice, in sudden affectation, became older, educated, with no little pomposity—a voice trained by clergy and papal tutors. And yet he winked at me, as if it were a game. I smiled back, and this seemed to make him happy.

“Overfed and schooled in theological matters,” he went on, “but still a boy. My uncle, the Cardinal Vocassini—whose fondness for me is legend—convinced enough of his fellows that I, too young to cause any real trouble for the grown men in their silliness, would be preferable to the black sheep among them, a man whose machinations might very well succeed and whose papacy, as they put it, would be hell on earth for everyone. So—“ He sighed again. “—I am both pope and boy now. If you did not steal it, where did you obtain it?”

“Your Eminence—” the big guard interrupted gently.

“You think I am treating him rudely,” the boy said, “but, if he carries il Segno, he must know who he is and not need my courtesy to tell him.” Turning to me, he added with a sly smile, “Is this not true?”

When I found no words, he said, “You may call me Bonifacio.”

It made me tremble to do it—to stand before a pope and call him by his name—but I managed it:

“Thank you....Bonifacio,” I answered, and then: “And, yes, I believe that is true: ‘He who knows who he is does not need to have others tell him.’”

I was quoting Father Tamillo, or was it the old man at the wharf—the one who could barely speak. Both were wise and worth quoting, especially at a moment like this.

The Child Pope laughed, looking at the big guard. “He is smarter than his peasant clothes suggest. Again, where did you get it?”

“From a man on a wharf, who claimed he was sent by my father. He told me I should find you, Your— That I should you find here and request from you, if it is not an imposition, at least one vial of the ‘holiest water’ in the land—because you possess it.”

He laughed again and took a deep breath. “Then you must indeed be who my guards believe you are.” Then, without warning, he reached out for my arm. I flinched, but let him take it.

Without any fuss, as if he were a physician, he pulled up my shirtsleeve, inspected the arm, saw the rash, nodded, and sighed.

“Come in. Whether I can give you what you need as emissary in this terrible conflict we all face—that is, whether the water I can give you is holy enough—I do not know. But give it I shall, for I am pope, even if the night here and throughout Christendom these days fills me with fears no pope should feel. Do you fear the night, Emissary?”

“The further I travel, the more I do perhaps.”

“Then fear is good enough for this pope. If an emissary of La Compassione suffers from it, I shall too—and gladly!”

He was comparing me, a peasant boy, to himself, a pope, but this did not feel strange. He wanted us to be friends—that I could tell—so why not make of us equals?

To the guard, Bonifacio said, “He will need a bed, food and water. Prepare it.”

As the big man left, Bonifacio waved me into his room and gestured around it.

“This is where I live now, Master Emilio—now that, according to my uncle, the Holy City is too dangerous for me, day and night. Given what I myself hear, or imagine I do, in the sounds of night on this island....”

I looked at his bed. It was simple, barely bigger than the boy himself, and took up little of the small room and its stone floor. But it sat in the middle of the room, not against a wall, and this I did not understand.

“...I tend to believe him,” he finished.

Then I saw the floor and, on it, what surrounded the bed. Not votive candles, which some might use against evil in the night, but something else: glass vials, each capped with a cork, and exactly like the ones the minstrel had given me. But rather than just two, at least a hundred, making two concentric rings around the bed.

I knew what the vials contained. I knew that if indeed the Drinkers of Blood existed, and you had such water around you at night, you might feel safe. But would you be? Would the water be holy enough to protect you?

He was watching me. “You are a smart boy. I can see your mind working like a team of horses. You have perhaps made an arrangement like this yourself around your own bed?”

“No, but I understand its usefulness.”

“Thank you for the graciousness.” He was teasing me—I could see it in his eyes–and yet he was indeed grateful.

“Do you suppose,” he went on, “that were I to give you one of these—no, two, in case one breaks on your travels—it would make a difference? There are 123 vials here. Would removing two allow the Drinkers to take me in the night?”

He was not teasing me now. He looked serious, and he had made his fear of the night clear.

“I do not know, Bonifacio. I would not wish to put you at risk by—“

“It is worth the risk, Master Emilio, if you will take it and use it where it may wield more power than the protection of a single boy.”

I must have looked terribly serious myself because he said: “Master Emilio, I have worried you. I apologize. I am accustomed to too much free time and the banter which such free time affords those who inhabit the Holy City with little to do other than pray, study and chatter. Two vials cannot possibly make a difference in my defenses. But let us talk of other things now.” Bonifacio stepped over the vials to his bed and gestured for me to follow. “There are no soft chairs in this room—nothing like the chairs of the living spaces of the Vatican or Castel Gandolfo—and I apologize for this too. There is only that one hard chair. Sit here with me, please.” He patted his bed.

I had never sat on such a bed, one with a satin coverlet, but it was not the coverlet that made me uncomfortable. It was the smell of this Child Pope—perfumes that a pope would of course be made to wear, and washes for his hair. I sat down anyway beside him, not wishing to offend; and for a while neither of us said a thing. The silence seemed to calm him.

“Is silence not wonderful?” he asked at last.

“Yes....”

“Did you know,” he went on, “that there is a blind nun here on the island, at its one convent, who can see the future?”

“I did not.”

“I talk to her often because she seems able to hear what I most wish to say, whether I say it or not. Because she cannot see me—because she cannot see either boy or pope—she must listen to the spirit in me, the one in us all, and to this I am not accustomed. I am thankful for her presence and friendship. She tells me remarkable things, Master Emilio. Only yesterday she told me that in three hundred years an emperor will sleep in this very bed. An emperor! He will be so small that he can sleep in this very bed, which will still be here. Is this not remarkable?”

“Yes, Bonifacio.”

He smiled at his name. For a moment I thought he might thank me for using it.

“Let us take a reprieve from battle,” he said suddenly. “I have a collection of seashells. It is my special vice, collecting them. Would you like to see them?”

“I would, yes.” I had grown up in a village of sea shells.

“They are in those drawers.” He rose from the bed and pulled from inside his vestments something that dangled from a satin ribbon. “Only I have a key.”

Unlocking them one by one, he pulled the drawers out. All displayed seashells of different colors, sizes and shapes. As I bent closer to see them, I expected to smell them; but there was no odor. The Holy City would of course know how to wash the sea and rot from shells when a fishing village did not.

At first these seashells, though more exotic and free of any sea life that might have grown upon them, looked like any others. Then I saw the difference.

“As you can see, Master Emilio, they are all ‘left-handed.’ Most snails from the sea and land open to the right, but these—which have been given to me by those who know of my obsession—open to the left. They are a little like us, are they not, Emissary?”

Scusi?

“They are different from their brothers and sisters, as you and I are, would you not agree?”

It was true. These sea snails, their mouths opening on the opposite side, were strange, yet wonderful. Sinistrale. “Left-handed.” Unique.

“Yes,” I answered.

“This one,” Bonifacio said, picking up one that looked duller than some, “is special. It is viewed, Master Emilio, as holy in a vast country far to the east. The great-great-great grandson of the explorer Polo—perhaps you have heard of him—brought it to me at my uncle’s request. It is my favorite. In that country, Polo the Minor tells me, they call it a ‘chank.’”

Bonifacio offered me the shell, and I took it.

“The people of that world, whose eyes are unlike ours, believe in a god who was once a man but became a woman so that he could experience the suffering of mankind. According to the legends in that land, this God, or Goddess, began to cry one day because of human suffering, and her tears filled the seas.... Does this story not sound familiar to you? Does it not sound like what La Compassione would wish of us all—to weep for others?”

This was a boy, I saw again, who wanted company, and could have it if he told his visitor stories.

“It is almost dark, Bonifacio,” I said gently.

“Do not be afraid. You may sleep with me, if you wish, with the holy water around us both.”

“I am, forgive me for saying so, thinking of my dog. I left him outside the church.”

Bonifacio frowned. “You have heard of my fear?”

“Yes.” I smiled.

Bonifacio gave back a smile. “If you wish to sleep with your dog in the next room, do so. But how—“

“I will be safe if I simply have candles to surround myself with, and, should you feel safe in sparing one, with but a sole vial of holy water.....”

“You are certain.”

“My skin warns me to danger....”

Bonifacio looked at me puzzled for a moment, but then said: “Here is a vial, then. If you wish more, let me know. I will have Frazetti bring you ten thick candles that will last till morning. He will check on you during the night, but without waking you. Will your dog bite him?”

“I will tell my dog not to.”

We looked at each other for a moment.

“In what way,” I asked finally, “is the water you have surrounded yourself with the ‘holiest’?”

He sighed, then said: “It is merely water that I myself have blessed, and yet, I regret to say, it is probably the holiest in the land because what watches me at night—and what follows you, I am certain—wears the gowns of Roman priests and bishops—too many of them—and so the holy water there has been tainted by them. The Holy Spirit has fled the city....”

He looked away, seeing something other than the room. When he spoke again, it was to say:

“Sometimes I am afraid that I will be the one who invites them to me, who lets them past the vials of holy water even as I sleep. Do you walk in your sleep, Master Emilio?”

“No, I do not.”

“Some do, and I am one. It is not demonic, nor a sin, nor even something to be embarrassed by, I am told. But I worry that I may walk some night while I sleep and kick the vials away... and then where will I be? Frazetti has offered to sleep with me, to keep me from walking; but that is what one does for a child. Besides, I am not sure I fully trust him and his fellow guards. There is one—” Bonifacio stopped himself.

Embarrassed, he smiled and added, “Thank you for coming all this way to see me. I have enjoyed our conversation and your kind company, Master Emilio. If you hear any disturbance in my room tonight, or any odd sounds in the hallway—ones a guard would not naturally make—I hope that you, your dog, and the spirit whose emissary the tooth proclaims you are will look in on me.”

“Of course. My dog’s ears are excellent.”

“Perhaps if I met him tomorrow, I might overcome my fear with him. Perhaps, then, you could both sleep in my room tomorrow night.”

He did not want me to leave. He felt alone, and why would he not? It was a lonely island, I imagined—especially at night, and especially if one feared the night and did not trust one’s men.

“Certainly,” I told him. “And after I have put my dog in my room, may I return to bid you good-night?”

“I would like that.”

He wanted me to know one more thing. I could tell. I waited.

“You do know that the Oldest Drinker was born on the same night as God’s Son, but to another mother, and that his first drink was not milk, but blood.”

“I did not.”

“Now you do. It will matter, the seer tells me, in the conflict to come.”

Bonifacio was already asleep when I returned to his room. The one candle lit on the dresser of seashells revealed the vials in their perfect circles, and I left a little less worried about him.

Stappo and I—full now of the zuppa di pollo, Elbanese pane piuma, pears and cheese brought by the big guard—fell asleep easily enough in the room next to the Child Pope’s. Our candles flickered on the floor around us, and I kept the vial in my hand, as the voice had told me to do. We barely heard Frazetti when he looked in on us. Later, however—when a boy’s voice cried out in the next room—both Stappo and I sat up, our hearts beating like immense wings. There were no other sounds. Had it been but the cry of a boy-pope’s bad dream?

No. My skin was itching.

Scrambling off the bed, the vial of water still in my hand and Stappo barking frantically beside me, I rushed to Bonifacio’s room.

The door was open. The crying-out had turned into screaming.

When I looked inside the room, I nearly screamed myself.

The Child Pope had been walking in his sleep. He had indeed kicked a path through the vials of holy water and was standing unprotected, fully awake, screaming at a pitch entirely appropriate for what stood before him, illuminated by the one candle in the room.

Dressed in a shredded, black robe of the kind priests wear, but far too small for it, the figure was bigger than any priest. Even hunched, as it was, it was taller than the big guard. As I watched, it moved toward Bonifacio on heavy legs whose huge, bare, and misshapen feet scratched the stone floor like metal nails.

Bonifacio was looking up at the face, which I could not see. He had stopped screaming. He could not breathe, his arms out in front of him helplessly.

Where were the guards? Had the creature killed them? Had they run away in fear?

Before I could restrain him, Stappo had thrown himself at the thing, toward its neck, but the creature simply brushed him away with the back of an immense hand.

Stappo landed on the floor, slid a stride, jumped up, and began licking at the wet, red slit in his flank left by the creature’s hand. He looked up at me, his eyes asking “Again?” I shook my head and shouted “No!” I did not want Stappo to die. He would die if he tried again, and he would try if I wished him to.

I had, for the barest of moments, seen the thing’s face, and it was a face that would stop anyone’s breath.

The hairless, twisted mass of bone that was the head had a mouth, but it was not a mouth. It was a hole, a circle of flesh, with teeth around the hole. I thought of the lampreys my friends’ fathers brought up in their nets. Faces built to drink blood. Faces from nightmares.

Where were the guards?

Two more steps and the creature’s talons would be on Bonifacio. I shouted, shouted again, but the creature did not turn. I ran toward it, my heart thundering, and kicked its leg, kicked it again hard; and still it did not turn.

What happened next I could not have explained. One moment I was kicking a leg as thick as a tree, and the next there was more light in the room than a hundred candles could have made.

The creature turned away from il Papino toward me. Why?

I looked down at my arms. They were glowing. It was not possible, but it was: the light was coming from my body. It was shining through my leggings and my camicia as if they did not exist.

You will not touch him!” a voice boomed, and it was mine, and yet a voice I did not know.

Domina sancta misericordiae!” the voice boomed again, and, though not a boy’s voice at all, it came from my throat even as the light grew brighter.

The creature, coils of fat showing at its neck, took a step back, forgetting Bonifacio. Then it rushed me, as I had somehow known it would.

Uncorking the vial in my hand, I hurled the water at its face.

The creature bellowed. Stappo howled. The creature tossed its great skull back and forth to free itself from pain. The head tipped back, as if trying to see but unable to. The holy water had become a mist, swirling through the air, bright in the light from my body.

Would the creature remain blind?

I did not think so.

When the creature stopped rubbing its eyes, it would see again and grab me.

But it did not. Instead, it stood there. It could not look at me because of the light, but it did not turn back to Bonifacio. It was perfectly motionless.

Bonifacio had turned away, too, blinded by the light.

I was shining with the sun of a thousand candles, and in that light the creature was changing.

It was growing shorter, but only because it was changing in other ways as well. The hunched back was straightening, the hands and feet becoming human again, the eyes smaller, the face a man’s face again, though covered with burns where the holy water had touched it.

The creature was moaning horribly as it changed—as it became what it had once been and what it both did and did not want to be.

Stappo, seeing a man now, not a monster, rushed the figure again, clamping his jaws on its left arm. The figure did not bellow this time. It screamed as any man would and collapsed to the floor, where Stappo held him tight.

Bonifacio was staring at me. I looked down at the light of my body and could not see it. The light was too bright.

He dropped to his knees, bowing his head in supplication. What was he doing?

In nomine matris misericordiae,” he was muttering, hands in prayer as he forced himself to look at me.

Emissarius sanctus, protega nos,” he was saying, his eyes burning with the light.

“We must go!” I shouted.

He did not answer. He was still on his knees, looking at me.

“Grab a dozen of the vials! Please!” I shouted.

This he did, getting up shakily, making himself look at the vials, and gathering them one by one. Then he stood there, like a statue, eyes on mine, until I grabbed him by the arm. He jerked as I touched him—as if my glow might burn him—but then he moved at last even as Stappo let go of the man on the floor and joined us.

The light from my body was dimmer now. I could see it fading. We needed to be elsewhere before other creatures arrived.

There were indeed others. My skin was itching insanely.

#

When we reached the church, we found the body of the big guard, poor Frazetti, naked on the floor. His head had been crushed with a rock or staff, but there were no talon or teeth marks on him.

“This was not done by the Drinkers,” I said. “This was done by a man.”

I remembered the eyes of the third guard.

At the main door of the church—the night as black as ink beyond it—a figure moved from the shadows to block us.

It was not a Drinker but indeed the third guard; and Stappo, growling, stepped between the man and me.

“You have sold your soul cheaply,” I heard myself say. It was true. A man could indeed sell his soul, and always too cheaply. Father Tamillo had said it often: “There are many ways to sell your soul to the Devil, ragazzi miei. Some men do it without knowing they do, so you boys must be on guard every day. Once you have reached Heaven, of course, you may rest; but not before that day. And it had better be Heaven rather than its opposite you reach!”

What had the Drinkers promised the man?

Though exhausted by events, Bonifacio had not lost his wits. “You were damned before tonight, Signore,” he was saying to the man. “I saw it in your eyes.”

“You saw power,” the man answered, full of contempt. “The power that will take both of you tonight, as it has taken the Holy City, not to mention two stupid men who imagined they could guard a pope.”

“Stappo,” I said, and Stappo obeyed, leaping at the man. A knife had appeared in the guard’s hand, glinting in the candlelight, but the man knew how this would go: a large village dog—part “bull,” part Maremma—would have him by the throat before he could use the knife, and killing a dog while he himself bled to death on the cold floor made no sense.

The man, spinning around so that Stappo’s jaws caught robe, not flesh, tried his best to flee. Hurrying down the steps, he fell to one knee under Stappo’s weight. No man should have to run while carrying a large dog.

‘“Stappo!” I yelled, and Stappo let go, hitting the steps in a leggy heap, and with a mouthful of white lint. His pride needed at least this souvenir.

“What a masterful job!” Bonifacio exclaimed, and it was to Stappo that he said it, not me, and with no fear in his voice. A friendship had been born.

“We are not safe on this island, Bonifacio,” I said, watching the guard disappear into the night.

“No, we are not. They believe, the Drinkers, that they can stop it here and now by killing two boys, or changing them into what they themselves are. They will keep trying. I do not wish to leave this place, Emissary. I do not wish to leave my friend, the seer, or the solitude. But I must. Otherwise, I will indeed die—or worse. You, Emissary, may be able to postpone death by the miracle you are, but I am only a child-pope, and one who sleepwalks. Take me with you....”

“Of course, Bonifacio. That is why I am here, I know now....”

Was La Compassione whispering this to me? I could not tell, but it was the truth.

“Is there a boat standing by for you at all times in the harbor?” I asked as we hurried to the harbor.

“I believe so.”

“Are there guards at the wharf whom you trust?”

“I trust no one now.”

“Then we must find another boat.”

And we did. Between the fading light of my skin and a moon that hadn’t been there before, we found our way out of the forest to the little harbor, the beach, and a boat— the only one in sight.

It was small but of the kind every fisherman wants: sturdy, so that it will not tip over when men stand up in it; a short mast and boom to match it; and just enough room fore and aft for the nets and lines and folded sail.

There was no one on the beach or the nearby wharf, and I found this strange. There are always fishermen who cannot sleep and so pace a beach or wharf, waiting waiting to sail before dawn. There is always someone who has imbibed too much and cannot fall asleep until first light. But no one paced or staggered here. No voices muttered in the night.

For a moment—and for no reason other than the loneliness a night wind can make one feel—I missed my mother. I missed my village. I worried about her and everyone else, whether it made sense to or not. I wanted to be with them. These were not, however, feelings I could afford. To stand transfixed by love, by longing and memories, when the world was waiting—this I could not allow myself to do.

The boat had been pulled onto the steep shore—but, oddly enough, not so far up the beach that Bonifacio and I could not wrestle it back into the water. The tide had come in, and that certainly helped; but it still made no sense: no fisherman would ever leave a boat like this, so close to the day’s high tide mark. The sea might, with a surge, carry it away.

“Someone is watching over us,” I said quietly.

“Yes. I believe it, too.”

We did not speak for a moment. Stappo regarded us both, waiting. Bonifacio knew nothing of sailing, and even I, who should know something, knew little. My uncles were fishermen, but what fisherman invites to his boat, for teaching purposes, a boy with a rash made worse by even a splash of seawater?

I stared at the boat and at the dark sea. I felt the wind on my cheek and realized that my rash had stopped itching. Since leaving the village, it had itched every hour of every day. Now it was silent, an ordinary skin.

I knew then that we would not need a sail this night. Whatever was watching over us would use the winds and tides to take us through night to the mainland... and to the long journey it wanted us to make.

Bonifacio was thinking the same, I could tell. He was smiling, ready to laugh, trusting the world and his God. The events of his room had not defeated him. His fears would not either. This he vowed, I knew, and I was proud of him, my new friend.


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Bruce McAllister's science fiction and fantasy stories have appeared over the years in the field’s major magazines and many “year’s best” volumes (like Best American Short Stories 2007, Stephen King ed.). His short story “Kin” was a finalist for the Hugo Award; his novelette “Dream Baby” was a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards; his novelette “The Crying Child” was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award. He is the author of three novels: Humanity Prime, a chronicle of humanity on a water planet in the far future; Dream Baby, an ESP-in-war tale; and 2013's The Village Sang to the Sea: A Memoir of Magic. His short stories have been collected in the career-spanning The Girl Who Loved Animals and Other Stories. He lives in Orange County, California, with his wife, choreographer Amelie Hunter, and works as a writer, writing coach, and book and screenplay consultant.

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3 Comments on “Holy Water, Holy Blood”

3 Responses to “Holy Water, Holy Blood”

  1. Wait… This is the end? There’s more to this story, it seems to me. While I enjoyed this quite a lot, it leaves me wanting more. Like who is Emilio’s father, really? What is the tooth from? I sincerely hope to read more of the adventures of Emilio and the child pope.

    • Scott H. Andrews says:

      There is indeed more to the story! :) Mr. McAllister has penned a number of other adventures in the continuing quest of Emilio and the Child Pope, including “Madonna” in BCS #167.

  2. […] “Holy Water, Holy Blood” by Bruce McAllister He was comparing me, a peasant boy, to himself, a pope, but this did not feel strange. He wanted us to be friends — that I could tell — so why not make of us equals? […]

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