Crimson Rain

Nicholas

I will give a faithful account of the strange events that took place in the courtyard at the Archbishop’s residence. But to do so I will need to share some things that happened, and did not happen, a long time ago.

In my youth I was not an especially clever student, so it was frailty of constitution, the result of asthma, that spared me the burden of military service. I consider myself fortunate. My brittle wit was no match for the iron logic that sanctions contests of science and horror. I happily accepted a medical dispensation.

As a consequence, my humanist principles did not clash with societal cravings for destruction until much later when my writings began finding their way into print. But even then, I set no significant noses out of joint because my readers were primarily students of Western Cultural History – a group that is, by definition, out of touch with the present. They and I can say pretty much whatever we please since no one else is listening. Or so I thought. But I get ahead of myself.

Until the incident in the Archbishop’s courtyard it is unlikely anyone ever speculated about my motives. Or if they did, the conclusion they would have reached was that I had none beyond the reflexive promptings of habit. Nonetheless, so you will not find my actions entirely out of character, I will confess to a special interest which is inconsistent with my otherwise retiring academic persona.

For the past seven years I have had a growing interest in certain fierce aspects of Japan’s medieval culture. What eventually became a fascination started out innocently enough as a hearty appreciation for Shoganate screen paintings. The vital subject of these works was often the Samurai, and in my imagination I sometimes found myself on the streets of old Edo, armed with traditional swords and a stern, unblinking mask of austere discipline.

While in the throes of these fantasies, which usually took possession of me in the entry hall after breakfast, I would grasp my longest umbrella, hold it point down at my side, then swing it up over my head with a twist of the wrist as I raised my arm. Grunting fiercely, I would charge my opponent. The hat rack beside the door never showed fear and I always spared it, but not before stealing a glance at myself in the mirror. Here I would pause, with umbrella raised, and wonder how it had come to be that so frail a young man could be growing stronger in his later years.

At first I thought it was a benefit of the vegetarianism I was obliged to embrace, also about seven years ago, to avoid certain unfortunate reactions the consumption of flesh elicited from my physiology. As I moved into my late fifties, however, it became increasingly unlikely that my remarkable good health was solely the result of dietary influences. Especially as I abhor exercise.

This gave rise to another theory that I came to think of as “Passive Body Enhancement Through Fantasy” – an individual gifted with lively faculties of imagination pretends his way to a robust constitution. What might have triggered such an unlikely process in me was a mystery I never really probed, perhaps out of an intuition that close scrutiny might break the spell. Instead, I smiled at my reflection and promised myself that I would purchase some modern clothes, but I never did.

So regarding what happened in the Archbishop’s courtyard, on October 25th, entirely out of the blue, I received an invitation from the Archbishop to attend him the following morning at his home. The short note, which I assumed to be in his own hand, stated simply that he had come to understand I was, as he put it, “a serious student” and “certain volumes in our possession may further your studies.”

Need I say, I was delighted. If there is anything I had always hope to be considered it’s “a serious student.” And at 62 such recognition is especially encouraging, even if it comes from a religiocrat.

I tried to imagine what had attracted the Archbishop’s attention. Perhaps my analysis of the suppression of the feminine principle in Christian mysticism – which is about as close as I ever came to causing ripples in the vast, silent pool of unquestioned ideas. Though greatly flattered, I could not help but assume it was the Archbishop’s intention to draw me near, then attempt to persuade me of the error of my ways. I would, of course, attend him as I relish nothing so much as a lively debate.

When I go out I always carry my longest umbrella. It wraps neatly and its exaggerated length makes it a comfortable walking stick. On those rare occasions when someone asks me why I go about armed thus even in fair weather I gravely reply, “A man must carry the banner he believes in.” No one ever laughs except me. Inside I’m convulsed with mirth.

So on the morning of October 26th, the copper grommet at the end of my umbrella tapped the damp pavement as I made my way through narrow streets and the heavy fog that crawled across the town from the river.

I had never met the Archbishop or visited his abode, which left me free to imagine him as I wished. What came to mind was a lean, elderly fellow. Perhaps a decade older than me. Stoop shouldered to suggest humility. Impeccably robed. Watching from his chamber window. The morning sun reflects in his eyes off the smooth stones as I approach and he has to turn away. But not before he hears my tap, tap, tap.

I hoped with all my heart he would take note of my umbrella. Then, even if it was confiscated at the door, the Archbishop might ask the umbrella-in-fair-weather question, I would give my reply, and we would laugh. I somehow felt certain he would understand the joke.

“Surely, my son, you believe in more than just the eventual return of inclement weather?”

Stimulating conversation could not help but follow. The Archbishop would champion the Church’s prerogative to reveal God’s will through dogma. I would haughtily insist that the eye is more precious than the promise of Beatific Vision. His Excellency would smile superiorly and say that through dogma even the blind may know God’s will. And I would snort that the blind benefit more from compassion that catechism. We would conclude by politely calling each other horses’ asses. I was thrilled at the prospect.

In my youth I hid behind my ill health. I side-stepped my responsibility as a humanist to denounce the mighty institutions that kill and maim in the name of all that is holy, just and good. But now, through my impending confrontation with the Archbishop, I would redeem myself. I would stand my ground. I would risk being thought naïve. I would declare, “I have written what I have written, not because I am frail, or squeamish, or afraid, but because I know in the depths of my being that the only evil is violence!”

My heart was pounding so hard I had to stop and rest, supporting myself on my umbrella panting like a beagle. Had I climbed a hill? No, the street behind me was entirely flat, but my feet seemed weighted with lead. “Too much excitement,” I laughed, then coughed, patting my forehead with a handkerchief.

When I looked up again the sun was peeking around the tiled dome of a remarkable structure at the end of the street. It was the Archbishop’s residence.

The building appeared to be of Mid-Eastern design, high walled, with no windows around the outside. I leaned against the cool yellow plaster while I caught my breath. The gateway beside me was framed in blue-green tiles that seemed to bear a subtle pattern. Though I moved my head slowly from side to side trying to see, the shimmering image would not hold still long enough for me to get a good look at it. Suddenly I found myself feeling quite refreshed. Even a little giddy. “Perhaps his Excellency is closet Greek Orthodox,” I chucked under my breath as I pulled the bell cord.

A moment later, through the iron bars of the gate, an old monk could be seen descending the granite stairs on the far side of the interior courtyard. At the foot of the stairs he stopped, turned to his right, and looked up at something I could not see.

“The Archbishop is reminding him that if it’s a beggar at the gate he’s to beat him soundly,” I speculated. The old fellow pulled his hood up over his head as he approached.

“I am Brother Nicholas,” the voice sounded far away inside the cowl. “I am his Excellency’s secretary,” he added, relocking the gate.

Tick, tick. The courtyard was paved with Byzantine tiles. His Excellency will ask about my umbrella, I was certain. Tick. Tick…

I stopped, then stepped back startled. The dome I had seen from the street surmounted a fat, round, windowless tower rising from the ground at the far end of the courtyard – and the entire structure wore a slick skin of green tiles. I felt as though I was standing before a giant ceramic worm.

“Preposterous opulence!” The words were out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying.

Brother Nicholas, already climbing the granite stairs, did not seem to hear my remark, or chose not to let me know if he did. Sheepishly I moved my gaze up the wall to my left fully expecting to find the Archbishop, robed in crimson, scowling down upon me. His hand with the ring of office clutching the balcony railing for emphasis. Instead I was much relieved to see the dome and sky beyond it reflected upon a gallery of tall closed windows. Suddenly weak kneed, I climbed the stairs using my umbrella and the iron railing for support.

Inside we moved along a high empty hall winding to the right, past closed doors and curtain-less windows that looked out on the courtyard, until we came to a straight-backed chair of black wood and inlaid ivory.

“Please sit here,” my guide instructed. I turned to him, prepared to relinquish my umbrella, but he was already walking away down the hall.

Though the day had hardly begun, and the chair was by no means comfortable, I started to doze off almost as soon as the seat of my pants came to rest upon the intricate ivory pattern. I shook myself, stood up, and yawned. Warm light through the window beside the chair felt good on my face. I could see the courtyard gate and the stairs I had climbed just moments before.

Weariness overcame me again and I sat back down, slouching forward with my chin propped on the backs of my hands on top of my umbrella handle. This was, to be sure, not the most refined posture to assume in anticipation of the appearance of a senior churchman, but my eyes felt determined to shut. And they would have, then and there, had my attention not become focused upon the unusual doorway across from me.

The closed door was recessed into the wall and of thick vaulted wood construction. It had neither lock nor latch, but rather a heavy iron ring. Most interesting, however, were the five ceramic emblems arranged around the doorframe. One emblem was centered above the lintel. Two others were positioned outside the jambs at the bottom, and two were attached to the wall at shoulder height about three feet from the door on either side. The emblems were round and each bore four deeply impressed signs of the sort thought to be demonic signatures by credulous people in simpler times.

I was very tired, so without sitting up or lifting my hands and chin from the umbrella handle, I pointed an index finger at the emblem centered above the door and traced a little pentagram from emblem to emblem in the air. “Christ and the Four Evangelists,” I speculated as I closed my eyes.

It seemed to me I could hear a woman’s voice far away. She sounded like my mother calling the children home. But they all had strange names. Noryel, Beraquiel, Magmini, Suryel, Balfiel…

I was so startled to find Brother Nicholas standing beside me that I nearly leap out of the chair. He extended a petite crystal goblet to me on a dainty silver tray.

The liquor was marvelous. To do it justice I must confess I found it the most exquisite I have ever encountered, though its faint aftertaste reminded me vaguely of cumin. Brother Nicholas seemed very please that I appreciate strong spirits. When I returned the empty goblet he smiled and bowed slightly. As he straightened up his hood fell back and I realized he was not an especially old fellow after all. He was, in fact, perhaps thirty years my junior, and for the life of me I could not remember what had caused me to think him long in the tooth.

Misinterpreting the question on my face he said, “His Excellency regrets that he must postpone your meeting. However, he has asked me to convey to you his sincere wish that you avail yourself of his library.” So saying he stepped aside and gestured with a small motion of his hand toward the strangely appointed doorway.

This was not at all what I had expected. Was it possible the exalted churchman really did identify in some way with my work? Perhaps so. From what I had seen of his home so far he was clearly not the typical head of an ecclesiastical province.

I, however, am an entirely typical intellectual, and my respect for the Archbishop blossomed a hundredfold then and there since it seemed that His Excellency had the sophistication to appreciate my views. Hoping to conceal my delight and surprise, I asked as calmly as I could manage, “Shall I go in now?”

“He hopes you will.”

I remember feeling the metal of the door’s iron ring cool in my grasp. The taste of the liquor came again into my mouth, and in that same instant Brother Nicholas placed a hand upon my shoulder.

It seemed to me he was whispering something in my ear. Something about a particular book with a green star on the spine. He was telling me I would especially enjoy reading it. He was saying I should take the book away with me at the end of the day. I remember an odd sensation, as if a couple of minutes had passed, and I had somehow missed them. I swallowed hard. Suddenly my head felt clear again.

I pulled the heavy door open, and as I did so it occurred to me I should ask Brother Nicholas to carry my humble thanks to his superior. But when I turned I found the monk standing transfixed in the middle of the hall. His fists were clenched so tight that they shook at his sides, yet he smiled an all-together frightening smile and stared past me into the library with a rapturous gaze.

An idea was forming within me and my body got the message before the thought could ascend to my mind. Suddenly I found myself inside the library hurrying to pull the massive door closed behind me. “He’s not allowed inside!” like a voice the idea warned me. “He’s not allowed inside!”

I leaned back, using my full weight to keep the door closed, utterly horrified. My chest ached and cold sweat rolled down my neck. Nonetheless, common sense was already animating an embarrassing intuition that I had done something remarkably ill mannered.

“Brother Nicholas,” I called softly. My heart still pounded, but I had caught my breath. “Brother Nich-o-las.” I opened the door a little and peeked down the hall. Gone.

Reason told me I was an ass – that there were numerous benign possibilities which could account for the monk’s extreme demeanor. Perhaps, I told myself, he was recalling an incident from his seminary days. At the same time a less familiar faculty seemed to warn that Brother Nicholas was still very near.

“Of course he’s around her someplace,” I muttered as I pulled in my head and closed the door again. “He lives here, for God’s sake.” My words echoed softly. I turned and found that I was inside the tower.

Light poured down through a large disk of glass in the center of the dome high above and reflected off white plaster walls providing abundant illumination. The large circular chamber was furnished only at the bottom where I stood. Its circumference was entirely lined with open black teak bookshelves that housed thousands of handsomely bound volumes, as well as numerous wonderful artifacts and treasures.

To my delight, the first rare item my eyes fell upon was a very old set of samurai swords. The blades rested on a traditional black rack and had been given a shelf all to themselves. The shelf directly below them held a great number of scrolls tied with silk ribbons. I wanted to unroll a few to determine just how far the Archbishop’s and my own interests overlapped, but this urge reminded me that I really had no idea what studies my host hoped to help me further by inviting me there. It was certainly not connected with my secret medieval-Japanese fantasies.

I decided to survey the library, and at first the inquiry proved superior to my powers of analysis. There was clearly a purpose behind the arrangement of the books and treasures, but the arrangement was by no means topical. An early treatise on the circulation of blood stood cover to cover with The Koran and a curiously illustrated volume titled The Great Prototypal Man. There was geometry along side music, architecture and warfare. And though the emphasis was practical rather than speculative, nothing in the chamber appeared to be less than five hundred years old. Stranger still, there did not seem to be a single item directly related to the Church of Rome.

By the time I was half way around the room I had begun to suspect that the archbishop’s overall perspective might be metaphysical, so I was not entirely surprised to come upon several hundred books that were not arranged, like the rest of the library, according to a very personal linear association of ideas. These books were all occult texts of various sorts.

Something I accept about myself is that I have a sentimental fondness for traditional values, even though I also believe most of them are selfish at their cores. As a consequence, the subjective nature of occult works makes them entirely inaccessible to me. The few texts I have read out of duty to an historical figure or period left me uncomfortably empty. Unless I allowed myself to identify with the personality of the author I found the works devoid of substance. On the other hand, if I played along and relinquished my objective perspective I was flung into an intellectual terrain that had no fixed dimensions. No foreground or background. No mechanism for determining the superiority of one idea over another. Everything made a sort of crazy sense because reason could find no place to grab hold. I always came away with uncomfortable recollections like those left after a troubling dream – certainly not the stuff of which utilitarian reference books are made. So generally I did not play along and imagine what the author imagined, and invariably occult works struck me as childish, or the products of diseased minds.

I’m sure you can understand that I was more than a little surprised to find myself seated at the wooden table in the center of the room reading from a large leather-bound volume with a green star on its spine about the preparation of “The Talisman of the Moon.”

I felt like two people, one turning the pages, devouring bizarre information, and the other, my familiar self, looking on in amazement. Most of what I read was totally incomprehensible, but one or two ideas were rather fascinating.

All I had previously known about talismans was that they were believed to confer upon the bearer certain remarkable powers. But the leather-bound text provided lots of highly specific details. The Talisman of the Moon, for example, freed whoever wore it from the attraction of gravity. I was amused by the prudent warning at the conclusion of the chapter which enjoined the reader to always tie a Talisman of Saturn to each ankle before hanging a Talisman of the Moon around the neck. This procedure would apparently spare you the discomfort of bumping your head against the ceiling when you rose from the floor.

I laughed and the echo caused me to look up. The room had grown quite dark. Pale orange sky above the glass at the top of the dome told me the sun was going down. This did not please me. I looked around for a lamp but there was none to be found. How was I supposed to read in here after sunset? It seemed to me exceptionally inconsiderate of my host to draw me to so interesting a place and then deny me the means to illuminate it. Even more irritating, when I looked down again at the book not only was the light almost gone, but the words were no longer in a language I understood. Furious, I thumbed back through the pages I had already read. All gibberish! Why was he doing this to me?! And why was the confounded taste of that liquor once again in my mouth?!

In a flash I understood. He hates me! He hates my work! This whole day has been his little joke! He thinks to put me in my place!

I remember standing waist deep in the river waving the leather bound book over my head like a trophy. Shouting that fear of the Lord is the beginning of senility. I remember crawling under a pier to get out of the rain, cursing the Archbishop for stealing my umbrella, but gloating that I did not care because I had his precious book. The one with the green star on its spine. I remember a goat with fiery eyes standing over me on his hind legs.

I wanted to apologize. To say how sorry I was that I had been rude. I think it read my thoughts because it smiled as it took the book from my hands. I knew the days were passing, and each night seemed to last a hundred years.

Sometime in the wee hours of October 31st I opened my eyes to find that I was lying in the street near the Archbishop’s residence. Far above the stars sparkled in a narrow strip of indigo sky framed by the black mass of buildings on either side. A soft breeze came up and then a sound. The Archbishop’s tower rose before me illuminated from behind by the moon. It was exquisite, alive and complete. Timeless and without flaw.

But here also was shrewd malevolence. I gasped as the silhouette of a man appeared walking up the side of the tower. When he reached the top of the dome he smashed the skylight and descended inside.

Anger shook me so hard that something unfamiliar awoke within me, drawing me up through my delirium to consciousness. I was of two minds. One admonished, “Stay as you are. Forget that your goodness has been used for evil ends. Account yourself lucky to have gotten off with just a dreadful scare.” While the other – my new and unfamiliar self – experienced the moonlight shadows lying across me as an oppressive weight of heavy dust trying to hold me down. “Don’t go!” the entirety of my life before that moment begged, but as chill dawn approached I arose from the cobblestones and stumbled to the Archbishop’s house.

The gate was unlocked. Thick fog crawled in through the bars behind me drowning the tiles that paved the courtyard. The tower’s green bulk was black against the clouded sky. No vigil lights burned. Not even in the windows overlooking the stairs.

I walked through the dark house from room to room and ascended to the second floor as though I had lived there all my life. I felt I knew where I was going and almost expected the foul smell.

Holding a handkerchief to my nose, I stood in the doorway of the Archbishop’s chamber. Pale light through the gallery of tall windows revealed a decomposing form in scarlet robes on the bed. Fluids from the body had soaked through the mattress and dripped to the floor leaving a dry, shiny stain. I could not guess how long he had been dead.

“And what has become of your flock?” I asked him, though I knew I would find that his most treasured books were gone.

The library door stood ajar as I had left it. Once again the pentagram seal could not keep out a fool. Slivers of shattered glass crunched under my feet. Near the table in the center of the room I waited while the sky grew light beyond the broken window at the top of the dome.

What was the order of events, I wondered. Had the Archbishop sent for me, but died before I arrived? Or maybe he was already dead and his secretary simply forged the note? Most of all, I wondered if the Archbishop as well as Brother Nicholas had guessed I could penetrate the pentagram. It seemed I would never know.

Morning light revealed that all the shelves where books of magic had once rested were empty. A broad path of hand prints and scuff marks ran up and down the white plaster between the tops of the bookcases and the breach in the skylight. In my imagination I could see Brother Nicholas, with a Talisman of the Moon hung around his neck, and a Talisman of Saturn tied to each ankle, scurrying up the wall. A sack of books dangling from his shoulder. Laughing. It seemed as if the tower still vibrated with the sound. But then I realized it was someone singing.

From the window in the hall I could see Brother Nicholas. He stood in the courtyard dressed in modern clothes like those I had always promised myself that I would buy. And he leaned against the handrail near the bottom of the stairs with the air of a man who has not a care in the world. His voice was indescribably sweet and mocking. His song in a language I did not understand. “A rude lullaby,” I speculated. It seemed to me that he sang for the benefit of one who slept nearby.

I wondered what the Archbishop would say if he could arise and look down into the courtyard. I imagined him standing at the windows, very old, but sharp eyed.

“Surely, my son, you believe in more than just the eventual return of inclement weather.”

It occurred to me that I had left my umbrella in the library.

When I appeared in the doorway at the top of the stairs, Brother Nicholas was still leaning against the handrail below looking dapper and content. As I descended he turned a charming smile to the gallery of windows above us and remarked, “I can’t imagine what you saw in him.”

Much as I hate to belabor the obvious I could not resist shouting, “He’s got a better eye for detail than you, old son!” And it was true. My nemesis had failed to notice that my umbrella had sprouted a second handle.

The samurai blade flashed in the morning light as I swung it up over my head with a twist of the wrist, then sliced down across the handsomely tailored cuffs of Nicholas’ modern trousers. His left foot fell from its pants leg and a Talisman of Saturn clinked on the tiles beside it. The monk screamed and clutched his chest tearing open the front of his vest.

I knew I had to work fast, but my practice exercise had never taken me this far. I hacked frantically at Nicholas’ legs but his curses were taking their toll. My strength was fading. The sword felt immensely heavy in my hands. In desperation I threw all my weight behind a swing. Nicholas grabbed the railing as his other foot, and another Talisman of Saturn, tumbled out of his tattered trousers.

“Mercy,” he pleaded. “Brother, have mercy I beg you.” This was his most potent curse and he had saved it for last. Our rasping breaths mingled and his pain filled me. As I watched, he slowly let go of the railing with one hand and reached inside his shirt. His eyes met mine and for an instant I forgot which of us held the sword. Which of us longed for peace.

But then I remembered and sliced through his other wrist. Blood poured down as the fiend rose twisting and howling into the clouds.

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