Patrick ten Brink
My name is Amelia Borgiotti, and I was buried in the Chiesa di Santa Maria Del Popolo in Rome in 1643. It used to be that only saints, holy people and a few well-connected men could rest in that sacred church. I joined their ranks in my prime, decades too early. At least my ghost-face will look young until eternity. I have lived death for more years than there are days in the year, and this is how it all began.
The first day as a ghost was the strangest – I floated in my coffin looking down at my body wrapped in white cotton sheets. My remains were a giant lumpy cocoon. I couldn’t feel anything, but the smell of burnt wood haunted my nose. I tried to block out that lingering memory and only remember the seven children I saved from the orphanage, with their tears running tracks down their soot-soiled cheeks. But the smell filled me, becoming a stench, of burning flesh – of the three children I failed, who perished when the orphanage’s blazing roof collapsed. I recalled the stinging billowing smoke, my burning eyes, stumbling around, the screaming children, my screams, the searing pain, then all was black, so black, so silent, just an utterly empty darkness.
I rose out of my coffin as fast as I could, floated through the burial stone and hovered above it, staring at my white stone face of sculpted marble, my skin polished and smooth like hard cold silk. I was beautiful, serene; the sculptors did me proud. Ah, the screaming was gone, the smell vanished, and those hours of living hell seemed someone else’s. It was a new morning, the first beams of light streamed through the colourful rose windows, lighting up the dusty air, pews and marble floors.
A dozen angels, hewn from rock, looked down from the arches. I floated up next to a white marble angel who was leaning forward, wings spread wide. He had a good view of the whole church — the altar with the golden chalice, the glinting organ pipes, the wooden benches with the dozen burial stones carved from marble on their left and right. Mine was on the back left, near the entrance, alabaster white.
‘Do you like the view?’ I asked the angel. His rocky gaze was fixed on the altar. There were tiny crystals in his skin. Like captured stars. I told him that. He didn’t budge. Perhaps these angels don’t speak to ghosts. I leant closer and shouted, ‘Fly!’, but he ignored me. Dead rock I guess. I touched his cheek, but my fingers went straight through. It seemed warm inside. Strange, I didn’t think ghosts felt anything. I floated into him, adopted his pose and looked through his eyes.
The colours of the rose window became brighter, warmer; the golden chalice on the altar was glowing. I felt cosy inside my angel, much better than being next to my bones. I tried to move his arms, his wings, but no success. I said thank you and floated on down to the ground to explore my old church with my new eyes.
The dozen rounded apse chapels had always been my favourite places, each a little world, decorated with oil paintings and mosaics, finely chiselled statues and sarcophagi of the great and the good, or rather the institutionally holy and the rich. I was just getting into my tour when the two great oak doors creaked open, and family after cloaked family crowded in, crossed themselves, and took their places in the wooden pews.
I couldn’t resist, I floated above the altar and bathed in the sun that shone through the large rose stained-glass windows. I let the rays of light pass through me. They didn’t warm me, but a little of the light stuck. I glowed, and my shape formed coloured shadows that played on the marble floor. The adults that came into the church for mass missed it all, the unthinking brutes. But a couple of children, ha, how their eyes widened when they saw me float in the light, spread my arms and bow to them. They poked each other in the ribs and pointed, but their parents shushed them, made them bow their heads and read the psalms.
I spotted other ghosts lurking in the shadows, grey see-through ghosts. Their eyes were on the masses, on the flesh-and-blood priest in the long white robe opening the great leather-bound Book, on me floating in the light. All of them were men, most old, a few with hats of ecclesiastical rank. I wasn’t sure that I liked their look or would enjoy their company, so I turned to the children and tried to make them laugh. That was when I made my first mistake — I spread my arms wide and accidentally formed a cross as I floated in the light just as the priest talked of sacrifice, of how a young woman gave her life to save orphans.
Straight after mass, the elder spirits emerged from the shadows and surrounded me, their grey see-through faces scowling disapprovingly. Hardly the welcome I deserved. The tallest, a grey ghost with an ornate pointed hat, shouted at me, ‘How dare you take His sacrificial form!”
‘It was an accident!
‘One doesn’t form a cross by accident, silly child.’
‘I wasn’t thinking.’
‘Clearly,’ he said in a thin, cutting, holier-than-thou voice.
That was too much, so I told him, ‘You should show some respect to me. Didn’t you hear the priest praise my Christian act of ultimate sacrifice? Doesn’t martyrdom deserve forgiveness?’
What reaction did I get?
The dusty long-faced ghost just blinked.
I told him all the details of the suffocating pain of burning alive to save the children, that I merited being honoured by a marble face in this distinguished church.
He blinked again, and said, ‘Jesus suffered far more.’
‘I didn’t mean to compare myself…’ I started to respond, but trailed off, as I saw a shadow cross his gaze. I think the men-ghosts just didn’t like a woman in their midst. I suspect they wanted to be in the first row when the Judgment Day came and didn’t want to have to be gentlemen and let me go first. The old ghost and his flock hardly talked to me for a week.
I didn’t care; there will be plenty of time before Judgment Day, and by then I’ll be in the group welcomed by Him. At the next Sunday Mass, the sun’s rays didn’t breach the rose windows, so I managed to resist entertaining the children. I floated near the Caravaggio paintings – the Crucifixion of Saint Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul – from a persecutor of Christians to an apostle on the road to Damascus. I was just getting a good look at this noble transformation when I felt something scratch my eye.
I turned around. A man with a bulging gut had his foot on the left marble eye of my white burial stone. ‘Hey!’ I shouted, but nothing. ‘Get off me!’ The man didn’t move. I could smell the leather of his sandal. I approached his face. Veined bulbous nose. Watery eyes. As ugly as his insensitivity to the dead. ‘Move!’
Shouting didn’t help.
The other ghosts laughed. ‘You have a lot to learn young lady,’ said the grey ghost with the tall, angular hat – the Bishop. I ignored him and the other ghosts who were huddling behind him and floated through the man still standing on my face. That was horrible, and he didn’t even flinch; he just shivered a little.
My eye was hurting. I had to think of something else to get that oaf off my marble face. I made faces at a little girl kneeling on the pew a few paces from the man, hoping she could see me in the candlelight.
She looked at me with big brown eyes.
I held out my necklace to her.
The girl jumped up and walked towards me, bumping into the insensitive brute.
‘Mind where you are going, child!’ He cuffed her on the head.
‘But the floating lady!’ said the girl, pointing at me. I was hovering on his left. He had black hairs sprouting from his ear.
The man squinted in my direction, shook his head, blind fool, but quickly kneeled on the nearest pew, crossed himself and prayed. ‘Dear Jesus-’
‘He’s not in today!’ I whispered. ‘And for you, He will never be if you step on my face again.’
I returned to my burial stone and inspected the damage. My white cheek was scuffed and sullied. A fresh scratch ran across my lower lip. I hoped that Jesus or Mary listen to the prayers of ghosts as I had a favour to ask. I couldn’t bear the masses coming in and walking all over me, or the others. The others? I floated from burial rock to burial rock. The Bishop’s marble nose was completely worn away. An Augustinian monk, whose stone ran along the right of the main entry, had lost an eye. A famous banker, who helped finance the church, had a confession box on his face. Poor souls; short-changed by their afterlife.
At the next mass, the priest, with wine-red lips and a grey fuzzy circle of hair like a monk’s tonsure, swung his silver incense ball on its creaking metal chain. I wanted to fly through the little clouds of incense, but the Bishop caught my eye. I recoiled to my coffin under my burial stone and breathed in. The smell of incense was delicious. I was amazed to smell that perfume. I couldn’t smell it before. I thought ghosts could only see and hear. I needed answers.
I decided to swallow my pride and flew to the Bishop. I hovered next to him. He didn’t turn, being, oh, so absorbed in the priest’s psalms.
‘I am sorry for the other week, forming the cross was a foolish mistake,’ I said. ‘Can I ask you a question?’
‘The priest puts the emphasis in all the wrong places!’ the Bishop finally said, still looking straight ahead. ‘They don’t teach them how to imbue intonation with respect anymore.’
‘You can hear him?’
‘Of course. What a silly question. Even for a new member of our church.’
I bit my lip. I was only opening a conversation. ‘Can you smell the incense?’
The pale Bishop turned and stared at me. He had steely grey eyes. He frowned. ‘One’s burial stone permits one to smell. But alas, I have smelled nothing for a hundred years…’
‘I am sorry…’
‘You are so young.’
‘Can’t we do something about it?’
‘The man who stepped on your face is not the first uncaring ignoramus to walk all over us. We who merit more! The wait for His Second Coming will be a long one.’ The Bishop sighed.
‘Can I do anything?’
‘You have to get used to it.’ He turned away.
‘I’m not going to lie here and let idiots walk over us.’
He looked back at me, eyes boring into mine as if seeking something, weighing things up. ‘The newly dead have but ninety days in which they can leave the church. Then this is your home, your only home, while we wait for the Second Coming. We need order and a little more cooperation if we are not to go mad waiting for that glorious day together.’
‘At the orphanage I was always the first to cooperate, even after I was free to leave. I stayed on to help and one day I–’
‘Yes, yes, I know. I never forget.’
Waiting for His second coming will be long. He was driving me mad even after a week.
‘Listen, child,’ he said, ‘there may be one way you can help. But you must promise to keep this a secret.’ He had a gleam in his grey eye.
‘I promise. Cross my heart.’
‘In the times of ancient Rome, there was a spring not far from this church. Pagans flocked to it in droves. The waters were said to heal.’
‘You really promise to keep this secret?’
‘I promise, my Father.’ Respect does help.
‘Everyone wanted the water, and they dug a deep well. People kept coming. Some threw wishes into it – objects imbued with love and hope were dropped in during the day. Maybe, just maybe, you can find something in that blessed well that will allow you, allow us, to turn the disrespectful fools into richeous souls, deserving to set foot in our church. Otherwise, our wait will be long.’
‘I will find grace to enlighten the blind oafs, so they tread with a light foot, and don’t cuff children.’
He waited for me to go, but I saw something lurking in his eye. ‘Is there anything else I should know?’ I asked.
The bishop’s grey eyes bored into mine. I tried to let the ice pass through me and waited. I had loads of time on my hands, after all. He floated close and whispered, ‘There is one thing you should know. Later the well was defiled; others cast curses into its depths. And objects infused with dark thoughts were thrust inside under cover of darkness. People fell ill, and the well was abandoned.’
So he decided to warn me, finally. ‘I will find this well and seek the pure among the impure,’ I told him. ‘I won’t rest until I find a way of helping all of us at the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo.’
‘Then you may join the first group to welcome Him when He returns.’
Ninety days! I’d better be quick. I couldn’t get the Bishop on his own to ask more about the well. The other ghosts sidled up to him and debated how much longer it would be before the Second Coming and the Final Judgment. The priests, a long-wigged lawyer, and the banker spent their time launching different arguments – ecclesiastical, legal, accounting rules – arriving at estimates that ranged from any day now to hundreds, sometimes thousands of years into the future. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Once I pushed among them and said, ‘The Holy Sisters in our orphanage said the Second Coming was when one opens one’s heart. So He comes when you are ready.’
‘What nonsense!’ replied the Bishop. ‘They just say that to make you cheeky orphans behave.’ He turned his back on me.
‘There are no orphans in God’s eyes.’ I said and floated to the angel in the arches. I hid inside him. I didn’t want the Bishop to see me cry in frustration. ‘My heart is ready,’ I whispered to the angel. There was no reply, no echo, but I felt better.
In the following days, weeks, the Bishop almost seemed to encourage the debates. I couldn’t get near him. I scoured the paintings on the walls for a clue on the magic wells, the inscriptions on the tombs, the priest’s library. Now that was interesting – I learnt how ghosts could read. Initially, I floated over the priest’s shoulder and tracked what he read. This became dull quite quickly. The Bible may be a profound and enlightening book, but the priest went over and over the same texts, preparing the next mass. Worse, he tried singing some of the hymns. I prayed that someone would rub away my marble ears. I’d never get a clue that way, and I’d die of boredom. Well, too late for that. I tried to blow the Book’s pages over. I failed. In frustration, I flew through the Book itself.
Wow! The Words whispered to me. I heard through my whole body. An urgent cacophony of a dozen voices of the apostles. I lay in my coffin for a day, letting all the sentences settle in me so that I could choose which bits to heed. They vied for my attention. It took me three days to get through the teachings. Fascinating tales, but absolutely nothing of any use on the well. Fifty-six days left. I needed to choose my reading more carefully.
I brushed my lips against the spines of the books in the priest’s modest library. They tingled, and I spat out the words I didn’t like. Progress. I could avoid indigestion from repetitive declarations of piety.
There was one book that intrigued me – The Magnificent Contributions of Rome’s Emperors. I had to suppress a laugh or two as I read between the lines. Some Caesars may have built grand cathedrals, but even Jesus would have a tough time forgiving some of their sins. Monstrous, yet intriguing. There was a reference to Nero and a wood full of crows, manifestations of dark angels, but nothing of the well the Bishop mentioned. And I still couldn’t get him alone. Maybe some of the other residents of our church knew something. What could I trade?
The Bishop and the ghost priests didn’t remember everything written in the scriptures and their favourite debate was on the Second Coming and Final Judgment. I doubt they ever read like I just did. I knew things they didn’t. I chipped in a little reference here, a quote there, adding facts, and a new life, to a debate gone sterile.
‘Thank you. Their discussions went in excruciating circles,’ whispered an architect and sculptor, whose bones were buried underneath one of his statues, his chiselled name – Aurelio Giotti – still just legible. He’d never spoken before but listened. I liked that. A man of depth. Like a well. I told him. That he was like a deep well, you’d find full of fresh water in a healthy forest. ‘Are there any still functioning ones around here?’ I asked him. ‘I’ve but forty-nine days left, and I’d like to explore outside before lock-in.’
Aurelio’s green eyes studied me.
‘I can tell you what I see,’ I said. ‘How things have changed since your time.’
‘Eighty-one years, eleven months and seven days since my untimely end, since I’ve seen my works in the fine woods of Rome…’
‘How did you…’
‘I was a fool. I can see that now.’
Wisdom and modesty in death. There was hope.
‘I sculpted a giant marble angel to stand on the hill above this church – Angelus. He had such wonderful wings, with such magnificent hands reaching to the stars.’
‘To grace the church’s flock and pluck the stars like diamonds?’
Aurelio laughed. ‘That was my dream. Alas, Angelus’ right hand fell and plucked my life from me.’
‘In your prime.’
‘My work unfinished. My last wish was that my Angelus stand.’
‘Would you like me to see him for you?’
He studied my face with his calm glittering eyes. ‘It would be a balm on my soul to know that Angelus stands among the pines and oaks I planted for his sacred grove…’
‘I will go and find your angel and describe which star he is reaching for now,’ I whispered.
‘You would do that for me?’
‘I need to earn my place in this church twice, it seems,’ I said. There was no point saying that I liked his emerald eyes or that I wanted information to find the well. You can’t trust the living, so I wasn’t going to trust the dead that quickly. ‘I will be your eyes,’ I said.
‘Leaving this church is not easy. You need to travel via the underground streams. Several of us have got lost in our early days. Or stuck.’
‘The stream they used dried up. A couple never returned.’
‘They became lost ghosts, cut off from their bones. Few can survive that, I’m told. Two made it back, but too late; they are now the gibbering ghosts in the crypt.’
‘I’ll try to avoid both of those fates.’
‘Fates worse than death. You’ll still go outside?’
‘The Bishop, banker and lawyer say that we’ll be stuck in here from anywhere between tomorrow and eternity, depending on who is right. So I’ll take my chances going out. If only to get away from the debate.’
Aurelio laughed. ‘Their eternal arguments can indeed drive one mad.’ He leant close and whispered, ‘You can access the currents through the crypt. Underneath the blackened tombstone.’
There were three blackened tombstones in the crypt, covered with trails of black dots like fungal roots spreading. The first two were still occupied. I got shouted at. Outrageous language for the church’s dead – ‘Harlot!’, ‘Witch!’, ‘Unwanted Child!’ It didn’t hurt, though the words seared into my mind and made me hope that I’d find a mild curse or two to throw at them. I had a mission, so I buried that thought, and acted deaf.
The third tomb was empty; no sign of any bones. There was an urn full of coins though, and a couple of dusty bottles of wine. I glided through wondering whether I could taste wine like I can read a book. Alas, not. There was a crack in the base of the coffin. I slipped through into the moist earth.
It took me a while to see the water in the dark. I didn’t see it really; I heard a light splashing, a gurgle. I approached the sound and felt a tug, drawing me downstream. Wow, I didn’t know ghosts could feel running water. Delicious! It felt like being baptised, my whole body immersed. I laughed, maybe the wine had worked. ‘Amelia!’ I admonished myself. ‘You have a mission!’
I swam against the current. My arms and legs were useless; I had to feel the water with my mind, where it flowed, how it moved and project myself to where I wanted to go and tug myself there with my will. I counted to keep a sense of distance. After two hymns worth of counting, the stream split, one branch continuing in the same direction, another flowing down. I chose the latter.
The current became a spring that splashed into a lake covered in mists. I floated among the white wisps and stared up. A full moon was out, the stars too. Tall, dark trees surrounded the lake. A clump of leaning umbrella pines huddled around a tall winged white form – Aurelio’s angel! Beautiful. His face looked up at the sky, and one hand was raised as if trying to pluck a jewel from the star constellations. The trees were like his devoted flock.
I stayed with my body merging with the mists and studied the landscape. Four dark birds flew in front of the moon, the lead cawed, and they all dived, heading directly towards me. I sank lower and into the water. The fog swirled above me, black wingtips beat down, and four sets of claws cut through the mist. More caws. I held my breath and willed myself to the side of the lake and found a thinner patch of mist I could just see through.
The birds circled around where I had been, then rose as one and flew to the pine next to Angelus.
I breathed out, and almost laughed when I remember that I no longer actually breathed. Reflexes live through our deaths.
The crows huddled together, seemed to debate, and cocked their heads, eyes darting left and right in the moonlight, searching the lake’s surface. The four birds lifted off as one and flew into the wood up the hill.
Before I knew what I was doing, I floated after them, keeping trees between them and me when I could.
The birds landed on the round rocky rim of a well, leant over, squawked and flew up into the pine branches above and waited.
A grey ghost, flecked with black spots, shot out of the well and shouted at the crows. A rant full of blasphemous expletives that I couldn’t possibly repeat. The birds cawed, like peals of edgy laughter, and flew off, the ghost racing after them, hurling more abuse.
The well! I floated down maybe four, five times my body’s length. A wooden bucket bobbed on the water’s surface, half full of oak leaves and pine needles. A couple of stars danced in the water as I dived deep into the well. It all went dark. I froze, looked up. Oof, it was just a cloud. I scoured the bottom of the well. Yes! A gold bracelet, a bunch of silver rings, one with a black stone, a mass of effigies – some of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, others of people with silver hearts attached to them, and a few with nails in their chests and wire coiled around their necks. I shuddered at those. There were more. One caught my eye – a wire-and-glass statue of a woman holding the hand of a man with a bishop’s hat. They both had identical silver hearts. She clasped a smaller silver heart in her other hand. Interesting! I tried to grab the statues. My hand stung as it went through, like through icy air. Enchanted! Even more interesting. I slipped my finger into the ring with the black volcanic rock and started to feel drowsy. I jerked my finger out. As I did, my elbow went through the bucket and bumped into something. Under the leaves was a little tightly wrapped packet. My fingers touched its smooth surface. That was odd. I shouldn’t have felt anything. I grabbed it. Yes! It was in my hand. I tried to glide my finger through the wrapper, but it just struck. I slid my fingernail under a fold in the wrapper, and my finger tingled.
Distant squawks echoed down the well. A string of hoarse expletives trailed behind. They were getting louder. I rose up and out of the well and hid behind a large oak just as the crows emerged from between two pines and landed on the metal arch above the well. A frayed rope dangled down from near the bird’s feet.
‘Vile birds!’ Shouted the ghost. ‘Devil’s spawn! I’ll strangle the lot of you with this rope. He grabbed for it, and his hands went straight through. The crows cawed. I’m sure they were laughing.
‘How dare you interrupt me when I was talking with the stars! You mock me at the risk of your life. I’ll turn you all into beautiful doves!’ shouted the ghost. ‘I have magic in my well. Strong magic.’
The birds flew to higher branches, but still cocked their eyes, heads jerking left and right. The ghost raised a fist at the birds. ‘My magic will transform you into innocent doves, clean you of your souls of pitch. And, then you can make the ultimate sacrifice – let the townsfolk catch you and feast. You’ll taste real fine stuffed with chestnuts!’
The ghost dived into the well. Another cloud hid the moon.
A stream of expletives exploded from the well. ‘Damnations! Even the clouds are getting at me! Now, where is my book?!’
‘Book?’ I looked at my hand. I still held the package! I floated as fast as I could from my great oak to the next.
The ghost in the well hollered, ‘Someone stole my book! Vile thief! I’ll curse you until you wish you had never been born!’
The birds squawked, and wings beat frantically.
‘You demon-spawned filthy black birds with souls of pitch!’ he shouted. ‘I’ll have you. Give it back.’
I slipped to the next tree and another, trying to get back to the spring. My mind was getting numb, my hand horridly heavy, as if I were carrying a boulder, not a book.
The crows flew past, and I just managed to slip through a crack into a hollow oak. The ghost flew after them. My head felt as if in a vice. The caws and cusses were faint. I left my hiding place and found the pond and spring. I dived into the spring but got stuck. The package wouldn’t come with me.
Damn! All this for nothing. The crows’ caws seemed a little louder. My nails unwrapped the package. Inside lay a book. It glowed black. I floated through it, headfirst, or tried to. I bumped off it. It didn’t work like with the bible. The crow calls were getting nearer. I quickly snapped open the book and read page after page, running my fingers down them. The caws were screeches now. I flipped open one more page and held it to my lips. Ouch! I dropped it. Talons flew through my arm and grabbed the falling book. I dived into the pond and held my breath. The bird flew to the top of the highest tree, its friends settling around it. The ghost shouted, ‘So you have my Book of Words! Vile thief! It is mine!’ and flew after the crows that jumped off their branch and flapped their wings frantically.
My head hurt badly. My eyesight was blurring. I dived into the spring, joined the underground stream, and sang a hymn, line by line, counting, hoping I’d not made a mistake. I almost missed the crack in the crypt. I flew up and curled up in the sarcophagus, my head throbbing; if only I could drink that wine. I lay there.
I must have fallen asleep as I was dreaming.
‘Amelia, are you okay?’
I was dreaming of Aurelio. We were sharing a tomb. That’s unorthodox but nice.
‘Amelia, are you okay? I shouldn’t have…’
Green eyes looked down at me.
‘Where am I?’
‘In the black sarcophagus in the crypt,’ whispered Aurelio. ‘You’ve been missing for days.’
‘I found it.’
‘Majestic leaning pines under the stars.’ I watched Aurelio closely, ‘and a magnificent white angel underneath, wings spread wide, hand reaching for the stars, your Angelus.’
Aurelio breathed in deeply and sighed. ‘They kept their promise, and he is still standing there after all this time. Thank you.’
‘And I found something else.’
I hesitated, laughed and said, ‘Your green eyes looking down at me!’
Aurelio smiled. ‘Amelia, I was worried about you.’
‘I can take care of myself.’
‘You got past the crows?’
‘How do you- ‘
‘They perch on the rose windows and make a racket. They keep pecking at the panes of glass. The Bishop is furious, blaming you for some reason.’ He leant forward. ‘What happened to your lips?
‘What do you mean?’
‘They are darker, almost black,’ said Aurelio, leaning closer still. ‘I can almost see writing.’
‘Hey, we are dead. And ghosts. Don’t try to kiss me! Any ruse, just like the living! Anyway, it wouldn’t work.’ I suppressed a giggle. ‘I got away. I saw your angel. I’m back.’
‘You were away too long. You could have got stuck or been driven mad.’
‘I am tougher than I look, but thanks for caring. I am touched. Really.’ I smiled at him. ‘Surprised too. Few people care for orphans…’
‘You must have done something right. You are buried here.’
‘I died young. Aurelio, my head aches. I’ll sleep it off; then I’ll tell you more of the outside world, the lake covered in mists, your Angelus reaching for the stars. But there is more, much more – Nero’s crows are still there, and I saw a mad ghost-’
‘Shh, don’t let the Bishop hear you. He’ll banish you to the crypts.’
‘I’ll tell him that I’ve been studying the Roman emperors and gods. It’s our history. Not blasphemy. Can you distract him so that I can get back to my coffin unseen? I need a rest and can’t bear to see him now.’
‘I can understand that.’ He bowed and swept out of the room.
On my way back to my coffin I flitted past the golden chalice and saw my reflection. My lips were dark as soot, criss-crossed with sentence after sentence of tiny black hand-writing. A dozen words stuck to my chin, like a tattoo. What!? I fled to be with my bones in their cocoon. The screaming memories were faint now. My mind raced back to the crows, the ghost and his Book of Words. How did the writing stick to me? I lay down. So, what were the words I had seen – some were in Latin, but another script was older, Semitic; Hebrew, I think. I tried to float lines in my mind. They were coming into focus, I mouthed the words, not daring to speak them. ‘Ouch!’
The fat man stepped on my face, again! I shouted the words from the book that were floating in my mind and felt my lips burn as I screamed up at him to get off. I rose straight from my coffin, and, without thinking, my lips brushed his leg on the way up. Some of the letters from my lips smudged his skin, stretched out as a sentence, coiled up and became a black circle. He shrieked in pain, jumped up and off my marble face. He pulled up his trouser leg. A small red-black blister formed on his skin. ‘Something bit me!’ he shouted. I was scared by the letters and the boil, but his face was so funny – red like a boiled beetroot. Served him right.
The people stared at the growing boil on his leg and backed away. The priest hurried over. His face turned grey. He crossed himself and wafted the incense over the pustulant skin, sprinkled it with Holy Water. ‘My son, you have to see a doctor of physic immediately and exorcise that boil. Please leave my church.’
‘But Father, I was feeling fine! Just standing on this stone here and then I was bitten. It must have been a hornet.’ He stared down at my marble face. My actual face was right next to his, watching his trembling lower lip, the panic and anger in his eyes.
‘Get away from my tombstone, you oaf!’ I whispered in his ear. A few more words jumped from my lips onto his ear.
He shrieked out. A boil grew on his earlobe. Quite a nice one.
People backed away.
The priest made the sign of the cross. ‘Please, hurry before it spreads. Leave. I will bless my parish.’ He turned to the crowd – ‘May Christ protect you all! And especially you, my son,’ he added to the fat man, pushing open the creaking oaken doors.
The Bishop floated next to me, took me by the elbow and pulled me too an apse on the right, hissing at me, ‘What did you do?!’
‘Nothing your Excellence. I just shouted at him. And he is gone now, as you desired. I don’t know how. The letters…’
‘What letters? Why are your lips black?’
‘There was a book in the well you mentioned…and a mad ghost.’
‘In Latin and Hebrew. I learnt a page off by heart before I almost got caught. The words led to the boils. It was an accident, honest. But…’
‘I think we can get rid of the others that step on your flock’s gravestones, as you wished.’
‘This is not what I had in mind!’
‘I went to the well as you suggested.’
‘Your lips are poisoned.’
‘Only by doing your bidding.’ I stared at his lips, his tongue. Surely there were some black poison letters there, maybe hiding.
‘I can’t have witchcraft in this church again…’
‘Can you exorcise the black magic?’ I asked. I didn’t want to be infected for the length of my death. ‘Wait, you said again…’
‘Not every soul deserves its place in this church.’
‘You…did you banish the tormented soul in the well?! What did he ever do?’
‘How did you get past him and the crows?’ asked the bishop.
‘You know of the crows…?’
‘Everyone knows the crows,’ he replied, a little too quickly I thought.
I stared at him, waiting.
‘They tap on the rose windows during mass,’ he added, his eyes refusing to meet mine.
He is hiding something.
‘You set me up!’ The conniving, better-than-thou, so-called holy person. ‘You didn’t want me to succeed. You wished me out of this church, trapped outside!’ I wheeled around. All the ghosts were bunched together watching from the opposite apse. Aurelio was struggling in their grasp.
‘Aurelio!’ I shouted. ‘The Bishop-’
‘If you say another word,’ hissed the Bishop, ‘I really will banish you, and Giotti!’
‘Who are you to be judge and jury?!’ I spat back.
‘I tend to my flock until He returns.’
‘You care for your flock?’ I asked, biding my time. Something was not quite right. ‘You love your flock?’
‘It is my duty,’ he said, touching his forefinger to his pointed bishop’s hat.
The shape of bishop’s hat was the same as the statues! Maybe the statue of the man and woman with the three hearts was his. ‘I know of you and the woman,’ I whispered.
The Bishop blanched but tried to hide it. ‘What are you talking about, girl?’
‘I’ll not leave without a fight. I’ll tell your loving flock that you did not respect your promises of celibacy to the church. Then when He comes back, how do you think He will judge you?’
‘Have you gone mad?!’ His eyes were racing across my face, seeking, searching, prying.
I floated near his ear. ‘There was a statue in the well, a woman, a man with a hat remarkably like yours, and they held silver hearts in their hands, three silver hearts.’
His eyes widened, tinged with fear and sadness, but I might have been imagining that.
‘The third heart was small; a baby’s I’d say.’
The bishop closed his eyes.
‘You are a good man at heart,’ I said, not fully believing it, but I do believe in redemption. ‘I stay,’ I whispered. ‘Aurelio stays. I kiss the ankles of the fools that tread on us. We get the living to show due respect for us dead. And I’ll say nothing to your loving flock, and you can be the first to kiss His feet when He returns. Deal?’
‘I don’t do deals with witches!’ hissed the Bishop.
‘I didn’t die a martyr to become a witch. You are a bishop; please cleanse me of these black words.’
‘I won’t touch a witch.’
‘If you knew what I went through to land in this church, I think you’d see me more as a saint than a witch. Saint Amelia, I quite like that.
He studied me with his steely grey eyes.
‘It is in your interests too, your Excellency,’ I added. I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. I could see he was weakening and needed him to agree.
The Bishop blinked. ‘And no one need know,’ he said. ‘Not even Him.’
You are in no position to state conditions now Mr high-and-mighty. ‘He will know, but He will understand. And forgive. He does work in mysterious ways, and His heart is infinite. And if they do make me a saint for saving orphans, I’ll put in a good word for you, Bishop. You do believe in the church caring for orphans, don’t you? Don’t you have it in your heart to possibly love an orphan, Your Grace?’
The Bishop’s eyes bored into me again, seeking something with his icicle stare. I ignored that and gave him the slightest knowing smile. ‘Was it a son you handed into the orphanage’s care all those years ago? Had I been alive then, I would have cared for him, spoilt him even, trying to make up for a lost father.’
He winced, released my elbow and returned to his flock. They let go of Aurelio, who came straight over. ‘What was that all about?’
‘He won’t trouble us anymore, and we just agreed to put a little order into this church. Soon the living will no longer walk all over the dead and rub us away underfoot. We can have our revenge on the disrespectful living before we all become faceless ghosts. And then we wait for His return.’
‘Sometime between tomorrow and the end of time?’
‘At least I found you. Did I tell you that you have wonderful green eyes?’
‘Ah, you bewitch me with flattery.’
‘Do you mind?’
‘I couldn’t ask for anything more.’
I smiled. A life as a ghost was more exciting than I had imagined when alive.
Patrick ten Brink writes non-fiction on environmental issues during the day, and a mix of fiction and poetry in any spare time that he can find. He is a member of the Brussels Writers Circle and editor of their second anthology – The Circle – which is coming out in October. His short story – “The Taken” – received honorary mention by Glimmer Train, and his poem – “Zen Garden, Kyoto” – was a winner, receiving honorary mention, in Dreamers Creative Writing’s Haiku competition. Patrick was born in Germany, grew up in Australia, Japan and England, studied in the UK, France and Mexico, lived in Belgium, and worked with writers from all continents.