The Lost Girls of Rome, p.41Donato Carrisi
The miracle is happening in front of her eyes and Sandra is incredulous. The poorest of the chapels, the one devoid of marbles and friezes, has become the most beautiful.
A new light appears on the bare walls, forming turquoise inlays. Filaments climb over columns that seemed bare. The total effect is a blue glow, like the tranquil depths of the ocean. It is still dark, but a blinding dark.
Sandra smiles. Phosphorescent paint.
Yes, there is a rational explanation, but there is nothing rational about the step she has taken inside herself to discover all this. It is pure abandonment, an acceptance of her own limitations, a wonderful surrender to the unfathomable, the incomprehensible. It is faith.
This was David’s last gift. His loving message to her. Accept my death, without asking yourself why this happened to us. That is the only way you will be able to be happy again.
Sandra looks up and thanks him. There is no archive here. The secret is all this beauty.
She hears footsteps behind her and turns.
‘The discovery of phosphorescence dates from the seventeenth century,’ Marcus says. ‘We owe it to a shoemaker in Bologna who collected some stones, roasted them over coal and observed a strange phenomenon: after being exposed to daylight, they continued to emit light for several hours, even in the dark.’ He indicates the chapel. ‘What you see here was executed a few decades later, thanks to an anonymous artist who used the shoemaker’s substance to paint this chapel. Think how astonished people must have been at the time. They’d never seen anything like it before. It’s not as surprising today as it was then, because we know the reasons for the phenomenon. Anyway, each person can choose whether to see this as yet another of the oddities of Rome, or as a miracle of some kind.’
‘I’d prefer to see it as a miracle, I really would,’ Sandra admits, her voice tinged with sadness. ‘But reason tells me it isn’t. Just as it tells me that there’s no God and that David isn’t in a paradise where life goes on forever and is always happy. But I really wish I was wrong.’
Marcus was not fazed by this. ‘I understand. The first time someone brought me here, he told me I could find the answer to the question I asked myself when, after my amnesia, it was revealed to me that I was a priest. That question was: if it’s true that I’m a priest, then where is my faith?’
‘And what was the answer?’
‘That faith isn’t simply a gift. You always have to look for it.’ He lowers his eyes. ‘I look for it in evil.’
‘What a strange destiny unites us. You must deal with the gap in your memory, and I must deal with all too many memories of David. I’m forced to try and forget, while you try desperately to remember.’ She pauses and looks at him. ‘What now? Will you carry on?’
‘I don’t know yet. But if you’re asking me if I’m afraid something will corrupt me one day, I can only say yes. At first I thought it was a curse, this ability to look at the world through the eyes of evil. But finding Lara has given my talent a meaning. Even though I don’t remember who I was in the past, thanks to what I’m doing I finally know who I am.’
Sandra nods, but feels as if she is at fault. ‘I have to tell you something.’ She pauses for a long time. ‘There’s a man looking for you. I thought he wanted to find the archive, but after what I’ve seen here, I’ve realised he has a different aim.’
Marcus is surprised. ‘Who is he?’
‘I don’t know. He lied to me. He passed himself off as an Interpol agent, but it wasn’t true. I don’t know who he really is, but I suspect he’s very dangerous.’
‘He won’t find me.’
‘Yes, he will. He has a photograph of you.’
Marcus reflects. ‘Even if he finds me, what can he do to me?’
‘He’ll kill you.’
Sandra’s certainty does not affect him. ‘How can you say that?’
‘Because, if he isn’t a policeman and he doesn’t want to arrest you, then that’s his one aim.’
Marcus smiles. ‘I’ve already died once. It doesn’t frighten me any more.’
Sandra lets herself be persuaded by the priest’s composure, it inspires trust in her. She still remembers the way he stroked her arm at the hospital, and how good it made her feel. ‘I’ve committed a sin and I can’t forgive myself.’
‘There is forgiveness for everything, even for mortal sins. It’s not enough to ask for it, though. You have to share the guilt with someone: letting it out is the first step to being free of it.’
Sandra bows her head, closes her eyes and starts to open her heart. She tells him about the abortion, the love she lost and has found again, the way she has been punishing herself. Everything emerges naturally, the words gush out from somewhere deep inside her. She imagined the feeling would be the same you feel when unburdening yourself of a weight. Instead, it is the opposite. The emptiness left inside her by that unborn child fills again. The anguish she has been feeling in those months heals. Something in her is changing, she is becoming a new person.
‘I also have a grave sin on my conscience,’ Marcus says when she has finished. ‘Like you, I have taken lives. But is that enough to make us killers? Sometimes we kill because we have to, to protect someone or else out of fear. There should be a different measure by which to judge such cases.’
Sandra feels relieved by his words.
‘In 1314, in the Ardèche, in the South of France, the plague was ravaging the population. Taking advantage of this, a band of brigands sowed terror in the area, sacking, raping and killing. People were scared, barely able to survive. So some priests from the mountains, with little experience of the world, joined together to confront the criminals. They took up arms and fought. In the end, they prevailed. Men of God who had spilled blood: who would ever forgive them? But when they returned to their churches, the population acclaimed them as saviours. Thanks to their protection, there were no more crimes in the Ardèche. People started calling those priests the hunters of the dark.’ Marcus takes a candle, lights it with a match and hands it to Sandra. ‘So the judgement on our actions is not up to us. All we can do is ask for forgiveness.’
In her turn, Sandra takes a candle and lights it from his. Then together they start to light all the candles at the feet of Christ the judge. As the collective flame comes back to life, she feels liberated, just as the penitenziere predicted. The wax again starts dripping on the opaque marble floor. Sandra is calm, contented, ready to return home. The phosphorescent glow starts to fade. The luminous frescoes and brilliant friezes disappear. Slowly, the chapel becomes bare and nondescript again. As she lights the last candles, Sandra happens to looks down and notices that some of the drops on the floor are red.
They form a small ring of brown stains. But it isn’t wax. It’s blood.
She looks up at Marcus and sees that he has a nose bleed.
‘Careful,’ she says, because he hasn’t noticed.
He lifts his hand to his face and then looks at his fingers. ‘It happens every now and again. But then it passes. It always passes.’
Digging into her bag, Sandra takes out some paper handkerchiefs, to help him staunch the flow of blood. He accepts them.
‘There are things about me I don’t know,’ he says, throwing his head back. ‘Before, every time I discovered another one, I felt scared. Now I’m just surprised. Even these nose bleeds. I don’t know where they come from, but they’re part of me. And so I tell myself that maybe one day they, too, will help me remember who I was before.’
Sandra goes to Marcus and hugs him. ‘Good luck,’ she says.
‘Goodbye,’ he replies.
ONE YEAR EARLIER PRAGUE
He had stayed in Prypiat another few months, to make sure nobody else came looking for him. The work he had carried out on his latest victim had been long and demanding. This one hadn’t been like the others. They had told him everything after a few hours of torture. But it had taken several days to force this one to tell him everything about himself, so that he could learn t
The transformist looked at himself in the mirror. ‘Marcus,’ he said. He liked it.
He had arrived in Prague three days ago, and had taken a room in a hotel. The building was an old one, with a view of the black roofs of the city.
He had a lot of money with him, taken over the years from the men who had yielded their lives to him. He also had a Vatican City diplomatic passport, stolen from his latest victim, whose photograph he had replaced. The identity on the document was already false, because it didn’t coincide with the one he had extorted. The explanation was simple.
The hunter didn’t exist.
It was the ideal condition for the transformist. Becoming a man nobody knew made it virtually impossible for him to be tracked down. But he couldn’t yet be sure. He had to wait, that was why he was here.
He was going over the notes he had taken in Prypiat – a potted biography of his new identity: only the essential information, because he had learned the rest by heart – when all at once the door opened.
In the doorway there stood a weary-looking, hollow-faced old man, dressed in dark clothes. He was holding a gun. But he didn’t immediately open fire. He entered and closed the door behind him. He seemed calm and resolute.
‘I’ve found you,’ he said. ‘I made a mistake and I’ve come to remedy it.’
The transformist said nothing. He wasn’t fazed. Calmly he put down the sheets of paper he had been reading on a little table and assumed an impassive expression. He was not afraid – he didn’t know what fear was, he’d never been taught – he was merely curious. Why did this old man have tears in his eyes?
‘I asked my most able pupil to hunt you down. But if you’re here, that means Marcus is dead. And it’s my fault.’
The old man was aiming the gun directly at him. The transformist had never found himself so close to death. He had always struggled to survive his own nature. Now he had no desire to be killed. ‘Wait,’ he said. ‘You can’t do that. It isn’t right, Devok.’
The old man froze, a look of astonishment on his face. It wasn’t the words that had stopped him dead, or the fact that he knew his name, it was the sound with which the words had been uttered.
The transformist had spoken in Marcus’s voice.
Now the old man was disorientated. ‘Who are you?’ he asked, fear in his eyes now.
‘What do you mean, who am I? Don’t you recognise me?’ He said it almost imploringly. Because the transformist’s weapon – the only one he needed, the most effective – was illusion.
Something incomprehensible was happening, right here in front of the old man’s eyes. He was witnessing a kind of transformation. ‘It isn’t true. You aren’t him.’ Although he knew with certainty that he was right, he hesitated for some reason. It was the affection he felt for his pupil that made him pause. That was why he no longer had the strength he needed to pull the trigger.
‘You were my teacher, my mentor. Everything I know, I owe to you. And now you want to kill me?’ As he spoke, he was getting ever closer to the old man, step by step.
‘I don’t know you.’
‘There is a place where the world of light meets the world of darkness,’ he recited from memory. ‘It is there that everything happens: in the land of shadows, where everything is vague, confused, undefined. We are the guards appointed to defend that border. But every now and again something manages to get through … My task is to chase it back into the darkness.’
The old man shivered, he was yielding. The transformist was close to him, close enough to grab the gun from his hand, when he saw the first drop fall on the carpet. He realised his nose was bleeding. Nosebleeds were the one thing about himself he couldn’t change. The only original element, the rest was borrowed. His true identity, buried for decades, was contained in that one distinguishing feature.
The illusion shattered and the old man realised the deception. ‘Damn you.’
The transformist threw himself on the hand clutching the gun, and grabbed it just in time. The old man fell to the floor. The transformist had him in his sights.
Lying on the carpet, the old man started laughing, wiping his bloodstained palm on his shirt. The transformist’s face was covered in blood.
‘Why are you laughing? Aren’t you scared?’
‘Before I came here, I confessed my sins. I’m free and ready to die. And besides, it amuses me that you think you only have to kill me and you’ll solve all your problems. Actually, they’re just beginning.’
The transformist scented a trap, he wouldn’t fall into it. ‘Maybe it’s better to keep silent, don’t you think? I don’t like last words. They’re usually quite undignified. All the men I’ve killed tarnished their deaths with insipid, trivial phrases. They asked for pity, they begged me. Without knowing that for me this was the confirmation that they had nothing else to tell me.’
The old man shook his head. ‘Poor fool. A priest who’s a lot better than me is hunting for you. He has the same talent as you: he can become whatever he wants. Except that he isn’t a transformist and doesn’t kill anyone. He’s good at assuming the identities of people who’ve disappeared. Right now he’s posing as an Interpol agent, which means he has access to police files. Soon he will track you down.’
‘But you’re going to tell me his name.’
The old man laughed again, coarsely. ‘Even if you tortured me, it wouldn’t get you anywhere. The penitenzieri don’t have names. They don’t exist, you ought to know that.’
While the transformist was trying to work out if he was bluffing, the old man took advantage of his distraction and somehow summoned up the strength to leap at him. He grabbed hold of the gun and pushed it downwards, revealing an unsuspected agility. The struggle began again. But this time the old man wouldn’t let go.
A shot rang out, the bullet hit the mirror, and the transformist saw his own image shatter. He managed to direct the gun towards his adversary and pulled the trigger. The old man froze in dismay, his eyes and mouth open wide. The bullet had punctured his heart. But, instead of collapsing backwards, he fell forwards, hitting the ground together with his killer. The impact made the gun go off again. The transformist seemed to see the bullet pass like a fleeting shadow in front of his eyes, before lodging in his temple.
Lying on the carpet, waiting for the end to come, he looked at his own image reflected in the thousand fragments of the shattered mirror. All his identities were there, all the faces he had stolen. It was as if the wound in his temple had freed him from the prison of his mind.
They were looking at him. Moment by moment, he started to forget them.
By the time he died, he had completely forgotten who he was.
The corpse opened his eyes.
This story has its origin in two unforgettable encounters.
The first of these was with an unusual priest, and took place in Rome late one afternoon in May. Father Jonathan had arranged to meet me in the Piazza delle Cinque Lune at dusk. Obviously, he was the one who fixed the time and place, and when I asked him to be a bit more specific about ‘dusk’, he calmly replied, ‘Before sunset.’ Not knowing how to respond, I decided to arrive well in advance.
He was already there.
Over the following two hours, Father Jonathan told me about the Paenitentiaria, the archive of sins and the role of the penitenzieri. As he spoke, it struck me as incredible that nobody had ever told this story before. Our walk through the back streets of Rome led us eventually to San Luigi dei Francesi, and to Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St Matthew, which is the first stage in the training of these priest-profilers.
In many cases, the priests collaborate with the police. In Italy, since 1999, there has been an anti-sect squad in which they work with the police to gain a better understanding of so-called Satanic crimes. Not because they are trying to reveal the existence of the devil, but
In the two months following our first meeting, Father Jonathan taught me many things about his unusual ministry and introduced me to a number of magical places in Rome, some of which took my breath away, and which are described in the novel. His range of knowledge was extensive, not only in the field of crime, but also in art, architecture, history, even the origin of phosphorescent paint.
As for questions of faith and religion, he good-naturedly tolerated my hesitations and dealt openly with my criticisms. At the end of it all, I realised that I had unwittingly been on a spiritual journey that helped me gain a better idea of the story I wanted to tell.
In modern society, spirituality is often seen as a bit of a joke, considered as something fed to the ignorant masses, or that has given rise to all kinds of ‘new age’ practices. Individuals have lost the elementary distinction between good and evil. The result has been to hand God over to the fundamentalists and extremists on the one hand, or the humorists on the other (because fanatical atheists are not so different from religious fanatics).
All this has produced an inability to look inside ourselves, beyond the categories of ethics and morality – not to mention the totally arbitrary category of the ‘politically correct’ – to find the essential dichotomy that allows us to judge human actions.
Good and evil, yin and yang.
One day, Jonathan told me that I was ready to tell my story, he hoped I would ‘always be in the light’, and then said goodbye, promising that we would meet again. That was the last I saw of him. I have looked for him in vain, and I hope that this novel will lead to us meeting again soon. Even though part of me suspects that will not happen, because everything we had to say to each other has already been said.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes