Printed from WriteWords -

American Atheist: #19

by  Nelly

Posted: Saturday, November 5, 2005
Word Count: 5183

Naldo rode the steel elevator up through the vaults, calmly watching the old metal dial count upward with a steady click. Beyond a dust-covered portal he caught glimpses of white coats and black machinery. He smelled disinfectant and plastic, damp and rust, but there was something else too, a pungent odour of turned earth, like a freshly dug grave. Ice shivers rippled down his spine. It layered over each floor, moving with the air, settling like an unwelcome guest upon his clothes, his hair - even his skin. When the elevator reached the first floor, it ground to a halt six inches below the frame, then juddered upwards before stopping with a wheeze. A soft bell chimed twice and the doors rattled open.

He stepped out into a foyer with a polished mosaic floor, which depicted Julius the second - the warrior pope who famously donned armour and led his troops into battle. Pillars the colour of sour cream supported the roof, giving an overall impression of excess, of lavish expense and pointless grandeur.

The foyer was vast, stretching over ninety feet in length and was filled with people, moving hastily about their business. There was a rushed feel to the crowd. No one spoke, but the sound of a hundred footfalls echoed continuously across the entrance hall. At the far end, two gold-lined doors led to the Vatican gardens; the branches of the orange trees just visible over the sea of bobbing heads. Sunlight filtered in through the east windows. The room felt hot and stifling, already a light sweat had broken out upon the nape of his neck.

A guard sat behind a lacquered wooden desk, the legs of which were grotesquely shaped like four gargoyle’ head’s. He was not dressed in the flamboyant purple, yellow and red of the Swiss Guard, but wore instead, a simple suit and tie. He looked bored, his eyes flickering randomly across the room.

Naldo walked over.

“May I help you?” the guard asked uncertainly.

“Yes. I ordered a package to be left here. I’m Father Naldo.”

The guard twitched and gave a sickly smile. “I have it here,” he said weakly, reaching down behind the desk.

Naldo waited while the guard rummaged frantically around. He looked back to the crowd: mainly office workers, clerks and accountants, all harried, studiously avoiding touching each other as they passed.

The guard lifted up a long canvas bag, setting it upon the table. “Anything else?” he asked, with forced politeness.

“I need to pray, but in private. Is the Desproro Chapel being used?”

The guard shook his head; “It has remained empty all day.”

“Good. If anyone asks, can you direct them there, but tell them to knock, as my mediations are deeply… personal.”

“Of course, Father.”

He swept into the foyer, a dark patch moving through the light. The crowd parted before him, understanding on some deep unconscious level, a predator walked alongside them – a monster in the form of man.

He stopped outside a plain wooden door, cracked with age, the varnish chipped and faded. A round iron handle rested against the wood and felt cold to the touch, as if immersed in the depths of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The door gave easily into a mushroom grey corridor, lavender had been placed in a small bowl and left upon the floor, dried, brittle, easy to snap. The smell was pleasant enough, a welcome change from the oppressive odour of the vaults. The corridor ended at a second wooden door, thick steel hinges set firmly into the stone wall. He felt a chill permeating the air, an invisible force pushing out from inside and pinching at his skin. This door was locked, but the key rested on a hook in the wall and only with the briefest of hesitation he unlocked the door and entered.

The Desproro Chapel was a minimalist affair. In one corner there was a red velvet cushion and large golden crucifix, that if sold upon the markets would fetch millions of Lira. In another a bible rested, set upon a low stone plinth, its leather cover creased, worn over years of use. The chapel was cold; he could see the faint mist of his breath as he exhaled. He shut and locked the door, leaving the key inside, the noise from the foyer fading to a gentle murmur.

He felt a tickling of the skin and a curious sensation, as if he were being watched.

Kneeling before the cross he made the sign of the Christ, his head lowered in reverence. He dropped the duffel bag to the floor and casually took off his jacket. Then came his shirt, simple white linen, pushing out each button to reveal a pale wiry form covered in scars, all sinew and tight corded muscle. He folded the shirt, placing it upon his jacket. He followed this with his pants and underwear, removing all items of clothing, until eventually he stood naked before the cross.

“Forgive me lord, for I have sinned,” he whispered, “and I intend to sin again.”

He sat down, discarding the velvet cushion for the stone floor, allowing the silence of the room to settle over him. Arrow-slit windows let in beams of liquid gold that split the room in half, he enjoyed the last of the afternoon sun, it had been a long, glorious day - but the night would be longer still.

Sighing inwardly, he felt the tension ease from his cramped muscles. In order to do what he intended, he would need clarity of purpose. He reached over, drew the canvas bag towards him, pulled back the zipper and stared at the contents within.

A long hunting blade, sheathed in dark leather, lay in the base of the bag.

Casually he reached down and picked up the knife, enjoying the sensation of the leather beneath his hands.

Elia had failed to kill the American spy.

He curled his fingers across the worn hilt, feeling numerous familiar marks and in one practised move unsheathed the knife. It glinted in the fading light. He rolled the blade over, studying his own reflection, twisted as it was in the smooth metal. The knife’s edge was sharp; it could cut through toughened leather, skin an animal to the bone in the right hands – his hands.

He would use this to kill the American spy. He would slide the metal between her ribs, holding her close, while she breathed out her last.

Enjoy the moment, make it last.

Placing the tip of the blade against his skin, just below the neck, he realised Elia must die as well. He could not be trusted; he may betray him to the Bishop if he thought it would gain him the Gift.

No, it would be better to kill his old mentor, eliminate the threat.

He pressed the knife into his flesh, parting skin so smoothly that he felt nothing, until blood welled up from the wound. He smiled at the pain, a hot reminder of the purgatory he had left behind.

Slowly, savouring each moment, he ran the blade down across his chest and up towards his right nipple, in a perfect ‘v’.

Blood rushed up from the fresh wounds, lusciously red, travelling down his navel, to soak into his genitals, then pour across the stone floor.

He sighed, feeling light-headed.

Once Elia and the spy were dead, he would seek out Gallo, throw himself at his mercy. He felt certain if the cardinal knew what Cecilio was attempting; he would never allow it.

The blade flashed red; a single drop of his blood fell from its tip. He ran his finger along the edge, splitting the flesh to the bone.

Cardinal Gallo needed the right prompting, if enraged he would use his formidable powers and considerable contacts to strike the bishop down, who knew what that vacuum in power might create.

With trembling hands he placed his knife back upon the sheath then leant forward until his head touched the floor. He closed his eyes.

He would be fast, swift like an eagle, cunning like a fox. There was so much to gain with the American’s death, he would be liberated from damnation and taken back to the grey coasts of purgatory.

He felt something run across his face, like soft silk and with a smile, he opened his eyes.

Hundreds of pale faces stared back, all of them grinning.

The guardians had come at last.

His chest itched, the skin closed over, the blood congealed, then turned to a dry, flaky powder.

Bishop Naldo - it had a ring to it. He said it out loud, over and over until he was shrieking each word and they started to lose their meaning.

The guardians showed their displeasure by touching him with gossamer hands, whispering his name. The spirits united in their pain, tugged at his hair, the more daring spoke of his mother, promising that she waited eagerly beyond the veil, one day, one day soon, he would see her again.

He ignored them, they had chosen to remain upon the world, losing their humanity to survive. It was the close proximity to the Gift that allowed this to happen. He knew they still watched the affairs of man and had grown jealous over the centuries, but as individuals they lacked any real power. It was as a collective they were a force to be feared; even then they were tied to the bounds of their ethereal agreement.

His hand throbbed, the skin started to itch, he glanced over to his fingers, watching the skin slam shut, the blood flaking away.

A shame about Elia, his old teacher had shared so much with him, in a real way had helped him become the man he was.

This produced a deep laugh, from the pit of his belly, shaking his body as if he were in the grip of convulsions.

Elia was a tragic man, old and decrepit, but he wasn’t always that way. There was a time when he had been young, energetic and full of life. In those days it had shone from the young priest like a beacon of hope.

As Naldo’s skin continued to heal, he cast his mind back and thought of the first time he had met the Jesuit priest…


After his release from German liberated Warsaw, Naldo left Poland, travelling on to Berlin and eventually Italy, settling in the city of Venice. Having no money he was forced to steal whatever he could lay his hands on, making a pittance from begging. He relied on his youth and fast feet to see him through the long days and cold nights, but soon enough the venetians of each sestiere got to know him and he was forced to move on. Travelling to one island after the next. A lost soul wandering through the labyrinth of streets that made up the ancient city. Eventually, he gravitated towards the famous sights, Piazza S. Marco being an obvious choice. Chased away by the guard he would return the next day and beg and steal what he could. Life was harsh and he would not have survived long. Eventually a priest, Father Elia, took pity upon the wasted figure of a boy he had become. Elia had caught him stealing and chased Naldo across the Rio Batario, where he was easily caught. Naldo had put up a brief struggle, but Elia was a strong man and held him firmly in place. The priest could have handed him over to the local police, he had been in their care many times before and he would receive the same beating he always received, until he was old enough to go to jail. Elia however was a generous man and lifting Naldo up by the scruff of his neck showed him the passing water of the Batario.

“In Venice, it is said, water and light combine to create a restless magic, how about if some of that rubs off on us both? If I put you down, do you promise not to run away and listen to what I have to say?”

Naldo had readily agreed, anything to be put back down onto the floor, but when his feet touched the ground, he glanced up into the man’s eyes and saw a trust there that kept him rooted to the spot. He kept his word and listened to the priest - scarcely believing his ears- he was being offered a home, food and a warm bed for the night.

He couldn’t say ‘yes’ fast enough.

Elia was true to his word, offering Naldo a sense of family and commitment. In his care, Naldo had a taste of normality, which had so long been denied him. He went to school, played with the other children and in every respect, became another child in Venice. He never spoke of his past and Elia only ever tried to coax it out of him once. He didn’t mention it again and Naldo assumed that Elia respected his need for privacy. He knew nothing of the burning guilt he sometimes felt, which kept him awake at night and awakened his love for God and the Church.

They were happy years, a brief glimpse of the sun in the darkness that had become his life. Naldo grew into a man, his need for spiritual fulfilment increased, and Elia eventually sent him to the priesthood.

In time, he became the Father to an old tucked away church in the San Polo sestiere. The church was over four hundred years old and like much of Venice, prone to flooding. Rats were a problem; he could often hear them scurrying around in the gaps between the walls. Or he would glimpse a pair of beady red eyes regarding him with disdain in the piles of refuse he left out back. It was in desperate need of money, but there was never any to spare and the church remained almost derelict. His flock as a consequence had been small, but his people were devoted. At first he thought he would help these troubled few, but when everywhere he turned he saw only hate and bigotry, his desire to help –his belief- faded.

Then he started to hear the voices.

Alone in the church, he had no volunteers to help him open for the day or lock up last thing at night. Sometimes as he dusted down the isles he would hear whispering or a childish giggling, sometimes he thought he could hear his mother crying. There were many stories of ghosts, spirits and the supernatural in Venice; they were an accepted part of the old city. Naldo was prepared to tolerate them, what choice did he have?

Then the thing moved in.

He was never sure exactly how it happened. But one night he felt it watching him, squatting on the edge of his bed, watching and hating. It knew what he had done, knew his terrible secrets.

What was he doing, living the life of a priest?

Who did he think he was? Had he forgotten where he had come from? It wouldn’t work; all he had to do was look around him. Life was cheap. Venice had become the centre of the Papal States for all manners of sin: corruption, prostitution, gambling and greed. All had their place in the city. Greed was the worst. Showing in the faces of those he passed, from the fat bankers of Mercerie Calle to the red-faced children fighting in playgrounds. Even reflected in his own haunted eyes. Still, he had tried to persevere, looking to the Lord for guidance, seeking wisdom where he could.

But he found no comfort there.

Ten years in Venice and the relentless procession of lost souls broke him down. Day after day of forgiving, accepting, listening to the terrible secrets of his fellow man and in the end, he could bear it no longer. His mortality, his fragile sense of self, his desires, repressed through the servitude of his ideal, his God, combined with his inability to effect change, altered something deep within him, or perhaps awoke something that had always been there, waiting calmly beneath the surface of his mind.

He took in one of the working girls, just turned twenty-one, small, fragile, with big wide eyes. She came to his church on Sundays and took confessional. She had been easy to approach; shivering in the mist shrouded Venetian night, offering a brief disapproving glance to his advances. He had taken her back to the church, unsure of what he intended. It wasn’t until he saw her before the Crucifix of the Christ: painted face, short denim skirt, red high-heels and a vague look of disgust upon her pretty features, that he knew what it was he must do.

He had killed her.

Grabbing her by the throat he squeezed, applying as much pressure to her thin neck as he could, hoping it would break. But he was a small man, with slight build, and she had fought back. Even breaking free of his strangle grip and shouting for help. Seizing the first thing that came to hand – a bronze plated pedestal - he beat her about the head, three times in quick succession, he caught at her dress, tearing the thin fabric, so her pale breasts were exposed. Each blow resounded with a powerful crack that echoed across the pews and was lost in the marble shadows. It took a long time for her to die, not like he had seen in the movies or read about in books. She kept on attempting to rise, and each time he hit her as hard as he could, hoping it would be the last; only it wasn’t. Towards the end she gave up on standing and crawled on her belly, leaving a slimy trail of blood down the centre isle. She reached the main doors, although the effort exhausted her and she twisted over onto her back. She looked deep into his eyes with such utter hatred that he almost stayed his hand, but the fear of her living pushed him onwards and he hit her repeatedly, until her skull had cracked. When she stopped moving, her last breath rattling from her lungs, he was overcome with such intense feelings of revulsion and disgust he had fled the church, screaming into the night.

He didn’t return for three days. Finally guilt and a kind of morbid fascination wormed their way into his waking thoughts and he had been forced to come back. He crept into the church and found her there, still upon the floor, body bloated, her skull cracked and exposed. Flies had swarmed up angrily as he approached, and maggots wriggled across her exposed breasts He tried to move the corpse, only when he touched the clammy flesh; he glanced into her eyes, and saw there the same hatred, frozen forever in death. He covered her face before he could continue and dragged her into the cellar below. Afterwards he had scrubbed the floor.

Over the following months, life continued much as it had done before, with one important difference. He no longer felt the crushing weight of defeat. The girl’s death somehow liberated him; he had made a difference, removed her from temptation and delivered her to Heaven. He felt confident that he could put this period behind him, could once again lead his flock, a guiding flame to light the way through the dark.

It didn’t last.

Gradually, he was ground down, and a longing stirred within his chest -within his loins. He would lie awake at night reliving those final moments, enjoying the sensation of righteousness that came with it. At times, he wasn’t alone, the thing looked down in the dead of night, chuckling and gloating. It empowered him.

It could not be ignored.

The next woman he chose was young and scrawny, barely a woman at all. He guessed her to be no more than seventeen, although she already had the look of the experienced whore. She had accepted his offer easily enough and walked with him back to the church. She talked about simple things, the subjects light as if they were friends walking home late at night. Once inside, he exploded into rage, ripping at her clothes in his eagerness. She screamed and this had spurred him on, grabbing at her exposed flesh in his need.

Only her screams had been answered. She was not alone. A man followed the pair back, whether it had been to safeguard her well being or had they planned to rob him, he would never know. He was taller and stronger than Naldo and easily dragged him from her. As Naldo struggled back to his feet, the man produced a gun - a cannon - heavy in his hand.

He might have begged for his life, he couldn’t be sure, those final moments were all a blur. The man had pointed the weapon at his chest and three bullets ended his life.


With death, one world collapsed and another was ripped open. He fell into this domain, shrieking cries of anguish, a whirlwind of emotion, knowing that he deserved it all.

He was not alone.

Thousands – millions - rushed to meet him, their forms not seen, for he had no eyes with which to see them, but rather felt as discordant flashes of pain.

Free me from this place,” a man demanded.

Release me,” another screamed.

Did we win?

Help me?

Do you know my wife? Is she here?

Please, I beg you, let me go,” the frail voice of a child, its singular pain rising for a moment over the tide of others before falling back into their mindless babble.

He bucked and thrashed, but they surrounded him, pressed into his being with their own.

Could he help them?

Would he help them?

A million voices all at once, shouting, screaming, and insisting to be heard.

“No,” he shouted, although he had no voice with which to speak, “no I cannot, where am I? Is this death? I don’t understand?” But no sooner had he said the words, they were swept away into the collective mass and gone, he felt as if he was drowning, suffocated in their endless madness and watching him, watching them all, he sensed suddenly a presence.

They scattered then; a jolt of fear swept through the collective, so intense it left him numb. Another creature descended. A mass of swollen dark cloud, ugly purple blotches rose up from within and yellow patches of light, the colour of old skin formed within its depths. He felt the cold edges of its intellect sweeping over his own.

“God in heaven have mercy!” he cried, but the only response was a stab of pain, not from the sum of one human, but several, coalesced into a shapeless being of screaming desire and dark intent. This gestalt entity fell upon him, devouring his thoughts, consuming his essence. He resisted, instinctually twisting away and the thing cried out in frustration, but lost its hold and he slipped free, falling again, dropping like a stone through a gossamer cloud - his reason failing.

He could sense the tips of a tower, impossibly tall, reaching from the core of a world that could not be Earth, the landscape a twisting mass of shifting shape and colour, of black metal and long spikes tapered to thin points. Swarming around this, like a hive of giant angry wasps were metallic shapes fashioned from bronze or copper. Some floated in the air; others raced across the grey skyline. Metal chains hung from their underbellies and they moved as if they had a will of their own. They ran across the tower’s surface, searching, tenderly seeking and probing into the gaps between the metal.

He spiralled as he fell and the world pulsed, beating with a heart of its own, when he next glanced at the tower - much nearer and racing up to meet him - he saw what it was the creatures were searching for. With a dull thunderous cry, like the horn of a distant ship at sea, one cried out, its chains -ten in total- thrusting forward and deeply into a long groove in the towers skin. A chain flicked back out and attached to its hook, a woman struggled. Only her skin was like clay, ill-formed and only partly completed, her hair was black, long and matted, but had the constituency of leaves, breaking apart as she was swept away. A red light spilled from its innards, two sections slid open and with a brief scream she was deposited within.

One turned, its eyes glaring portals of light found his own and with a faint hum of power accelerated up towards him.

His mind collapsed, stretched too thin, it finally snapped and all rational thought passed, he gave up his struggles and allowed the clawed tentacles to reach out and pluck him from the air.


He opened his eyes and they hurt. The contents of the room were both familiar and strange; he did not want to be reminded of anything, and sought the quiet refuge of the pain that he had known for so long.

Movement in the shadows, things made of skin and bone, smelling of earth and fear. He did not want to be reminded, he did not want to be brought back.

He moaned and tried to push away, only to find that he could not, his arms and legs, even his head were restrained, leather straps holding him in place to a plain plastic table, covered loosely in soaking wet sheets, drenched in blood.

His blood?

It did not matter.

One of the figures stepped forward, its soft eyes regarding him with an strong emotion.

He knew it -could remember if he chose – no… he would not.

“Rest easy,” the figure said. “You have been allowed a second chance at life.”

Naldo’s response was to scream and continue to scream, thrusting against his bonds, until his skin broke and blood ran across his wrists and feet.

“No! You have tasted the flesh of an angel, it has saved you from the shadows.”

But he just struggled further, arcing his back in a near impossible angle, spittle spraying from between his teeth.


The months that followed were a blur, with little making sense, he could sometimes look back on a fragmented memory and guess at its meaning, much like a single photograph, a caught moment of time in another’s world.

To help him recover he was assigned a priest, Father Elia, who visited daily, talking calmly and listening to every word that Naldo had to say, even when most of it was gibberish. In this manner he had recovered, clawing back, piece by piece, something of the man he had once been and slowly beginning to understand something of the being he now was.

When he showed signs of understanding, Father Elia explained why the Gift had been given to him. Word had reached the Vatican of this much-loved priest of Venice, found dead in the ally outside of his church, food for the rats –of which a vast number had gathered. A bishop or perhaps a cardinal had extended the Gift to him allowing a second chance, redemption if you will. Even then Elia had pressed for information on the Gift, what it was really and what had Naldo seen beyond the darkness.

He had said nothing, Elia could never understand.

At night he would lie awake thinking of the exquisite pain and the sense of completeness that came with it, a sense of belonging.

He placed his hands to his chest, feeling for the three marks, an old habit of his, his fingers traced the now familiar wounds and he felt comfort in their design.

It had grown dark. The guardians had gone, fading back into the shadow, although they remained close by, a barely perceived presence. Quickly he dressed, then took care in cleaning his knife, before returning it to the bag. Time was now of the essence and he could not afford to waste a single moment more.


Naldo waited impatiently as the elevator cranked its way back through the Vault. He had taken his hunting knife and hidden it within his jacket, reassured by its weight, an old friend accompanying him on one more journey. The elevator shuddered to a stop and the doors trundled open, the familiar warmth of the lower levels striking him as he stepped outside.

The room was small and square; a single fluorescent tube flickered haphazardly and shadows danced across the plain rock walls. He could hear the whine of the electric fans as they continued with their endless task of circulating air through the numberless passageways. A steel door led from the room, guarded by a bull-necked man, his countenance grim. As he approached, the guard simply moved to one side, opening the door. Naldo paused as he passed and asked, “Has the Bishop returned?”

The guard seemed to think hard, as if the question posed was unusually difficult. Finally, he answered, “No… I haven’t seen the bishop come this way.”

There were twelve different entrances into the tunnels; it was possible Cecilio had accessed an alternative route. But Naldo doubted it; the elevator was the closest to the cell -and the easiest - a different path would have brought him near to the Gift. He wouldn’t have gone there, unless he had a vested interest in doing so.

He had time, if he hurried.

He entered a corridor, lit by shaded lamps. There were doors on both sides, a countless number, like a reflected mirror image stretching into infinity. He walked up to the first, his hand straying inside his jacket. This was the watching room before the cell; Elia was within. He would have to be fast, kill Elia, then the girl. He gripped the weapon, took a deep breath, held it and thrust open the door.

The room beyond lay empty.

Naldo stood there stunned. Elia must have left! He crossed the room and openly laughed. This would make it easier; he didn’t have to kill the priest after all. He felt an odd sense of relief at the thought, but brushed it away. There was no time for sentiment. He glanced through the window to the cell, wishing the American was awake. Let her see exactly what would happen and by whom.

The cell was deserted.

As if doubting his eyes, Naldo threw the door wide open and stared into the silent room. Comically, even looking behind the door -but he was alone.

Where was she?

His face reddened, his mouth twisted into an ugly snarl.

How dare Elia deny him this chance! Did he think she could be hidden?

The fool!

He lashed out at a chair, sending it smashing into the wall.

He would gut them both.