THE DEAD RIDE SWIFTLY
by Francis-Marie de Chatillon
FATHER LUCA puts the monstrance back in the sacristy of the little church of Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi on the Via del Corso. He is a rather heavy-set man in his sixties and a touch of joint pain troubles him, especially in the winter. Despite this, he’s still quite agile, graceful even. Fr. Luca has just finished the Exposition of the Host with accompanying prayers and, when all is put away at the Cerchi, he will walk to the Cathedral. On the way, he intends to get a few food items for dinner tonight and a bottle or two of not-too-expensive Valpolicella. He laughs, ‘I’m sure that’ll keep me out of heaven!’ he whispers. Fr. Luca is a devout man, a true believer who is not a pick-n-mix type of priest although, although sometimes... Well, let’s just say some things trouble him at times.
Fr. Luca is meeting Fr. Fabrizio at the Cathedral and then they shall dine together in Fr. Lucas’s small rooms across the piazza from the Cathedral. Locking the church, he makes his way up Proconsolo to Venchi, the famous Florence chocolate shop, and buys two bars for dessert. He loves the smell that the shop’s warm ‘waterfall’ of chocolate gives out. Then on he goes: a bookshop, a supermarket, some Biscotti and then quickly down the narrow Via dello Studio to the Cathedral. He cuts a fine figure, this priest, all in black with a flash of white. It’s late autumn now, lights are bright in the shops, and points of sparkle delight on the wet streets. The Tramontana has arrived—that cold, bitter wind which cuts through Tuscany from Albania—and it makes Fr. Luca pull his coat tighter to him. Soon his joints will ache, he thinks. He’s contemplating the wine when suddenly, things all turn very odd.
The street, dello Studio, is not that long, and Fr. Luca was at the junction with Oche. The Cathedral was, or should be, right in front of him now—but it wasn’t! Fully discombobulated, Fr. Luca looked about him franticly. Even the very street looked strange, different. Had he just taken a wrong turn and not noticed? No, that was preposterous. He’d lived in Florence for thirty years. The twinkle of small lights had vanished, and he felt a very strong sense of being uncannily alone. The wind, insistent now, blew stronger and colder. It bellowed down the street, pushing him onward, almost lifting him off his feet. ‘Mother of God, what’s happening?’ he cried out loudly in alarm, although no one was listening or could even hear in the noise. It spun him round and round and he felt dizzy, sick, and fearful. He was being blown on and on and the once familiar street was now stretched out before him without end. It was a terrifying tunnel, long and black. His bag flew from his hand and the bottle broke with an ugly smash. Wide-eyed, Fr. Luca wondered if he had suddenly lost his mind. The Cathedral bells were ringing furiously, crazily even as if pulled by a madhouse of monks. Then everything stopped at once.
Fr. Luca found himself in a dead silence. The frantic wind was gone, replaced by a deep, inky darkness that menaced his bones and soul. Then behind him, freezing him to his very marrow, the clip-clop of the hooves of a restless horse. Fr. Luca spun crossing himself. He could just make out in the dark the darker form of a rider. The outline of the shape seemed to change and waver. Fr. Luca stared disbelievingly, his senses now a maelstrom of terror. Fear held him fast as if by a vice. The creature leaned forward leeringly and spoke in a gravelly whisper. ‘Ahhh, good night to you, Fr. Luca. Why, priest, you look so very pale. Are you quite well?’ The words, if they were indeed real words, seemed somehow to be inside his head, despite their everyday meaning they were full of the menace of hell; and even in the dark, Fr. Luca could see they issued from a gaping, dark-red mouth. Wet lips glistened like slugs in the moonlight. Fr. Luca realised that this ‘thing’ was not of God or this world, and it had brought the wind and atmospheric tumult which had driven him along the street. It was hunting him. The figure grinned lasciviously. ‘Oh, you know now, Father, don’t you? I’ve come for your soul. To collect it!’ The creature pronounced ‘it’ as if clearing phlegm from its throat. This was followed by a soft yet blood-chilling sound; a laugh, Fr. Luca supposed, but it was anything but joyous and held nothing of mirth.
Fr. Luca, in his youth a product of the humble Tuscan soil and later of Holy Church, was a practical man. With no holy water about him and no wine to quickly bless and turn into the Real Presence, he spun and sprinted off up dello Studio, evoking something of the ‘better part of valour’. Perhaps it cannot be said that an old man can truly sprint; but fear is a powerful motivator and Fr. Luca made a good holy fist of it. As he did so, pell-mell, he prayed that regardless of the deceptions of this hideous being, the Cathedral and Mother Church would be at the end of the now supernaturally deserted street. Even so, there was a slow trotting of hooves following and a growing dank and sticky smell. Faith, Father, never despair. No, not despair. Then, ‘The Virgin be praised!’ he cried aloud from the heart, for there before him in the oppressive darkness emerged the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in all its wedding cake glory. He made the side door. Fr. Luca quickly drew his key and, straining every sinew to control his shaking hand, turned the lock, which gave a solid click. He fled inside and slammed the heavy door, then shot its bolts. He fell to the cold yet welcoming stone floor, thanking God and all the saints that his reason had not totally abandoned him. Salvation from the hands of doom had been found just in time, he thought, and then he heard the clip-clop outside the door.
The Cathedral was empty. Harking, Fr. Luca found no sounds of soft prayer and, more to the point, no Fr. Fabrizio. Fr. Luca paced about in a state of high anxiety. ‘What shall I do? How can I escape from this fiend? I must get away!’ Then he remembered there was a tunnel, now disused, which ran from the crypt of the original Santa Reparata cathedral over which the now Santa Maria was built. Within minutes he had found the door leading down into the crypt. The light was bad and the air tainted and musty, the product of centuries of tombs and buried bodies. The stairs rang and echoed. His knees hurt and he cursed old age. The tunnel, through which he was going to escape from the hideous being, was once used by Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici to flee from the Cathedral in the deadly Pazzi attack on him of Easter Sunday 1476. His escape route connected directly to the church of Santa Maria Maggiori. Fr. Luca thought, in his panic, that this same route might give relief from his infernal persecutor. Would not, however, this hellish creature know how and where he had fled? Could supernatural power be so easily duped? Well, he’d soon find out, he mused.
Fr. Luca limped and trotted until the end to the tunnel gave way to the small wooden door at the Maggiori. He needed to push hard against it to free up the rusted hinges. Worn stone steps led up into the church where an army of saints seemed to look down at him pityingly. From here he would find Berta’s Head! He hoped—believed indeed—the superstitions and well-attested legends surrounding her sculpture would put to flight the grim form pursuing him. Berta was a poor yet holy woman that aided everyone she could. She was known to give vegetables to those in need, and as a reward St Zenobius gave her a bell so she could alert merchants when the city gates were about to close for the night. In gratitude for her works the Florentines made a bust of her on the side of the Maggiore. Berta was also evinced to have put heresy and even the Devil to flight. She had, for example, seen through the evil wiles of a heretic and alchemist that was being taken to the stake. Passing by he begged her for water, but Berta refused, knowing this was only a cunning ploy to prevent the fire consuming him and his sins.
Fr. Luca waited and listened. No more than moments later his original question was answered when he heard again the clopping of hooves. The fiendish creature was outside. The smell of before, which had faintly pervaded the deathly image, had now grown to a stench. Fr. Luca felt sick, and his legs trembled. He grasped an altar crucifix and held it before him. He would have to face the evil outside. Flinging the door open and mustering all his faith and courage, Fr. Luca stepped out into the darkness. There before him the figure of his fear sat astride the animal, which was clumping urgently with one forehoof at the cobbles. He could now see it was as decrepit as its master. ‘What is it you want from me? Tell me. Tell me now!’ demanded Fr. Luca, bolstering his courage with an imperious tone. The thing of evil made no word of reply, only a long glutenous sigh. Bored and contemptuous it was a sound from unfathomable depths, from unknowable darkness. It stretched forth a parchment covered hand as if to clasp him up. Fr. Lucas stood stock-still. Fear had taken all movement and, like a deer in headlights, he froze and stared.
It came of a sudden: a noise, a scream, a roar like the Marzocco itself might give out in defence of Florence. The ground vibrated in sympathy. Fr. Luca half spun and looked up. Berta’s Head was growing to outstanding proportions, the neck stretching from the wall like gum. ‘Dear God,’ muttered Fr. Lucas impotently. Berta’s Head was moving down from the wall of the Maggiori to look face-to-face with this graveyard adversary. She screamed with terrifying intensity at the rider. Her mouth, now as large as a medicine ball, looked set to devour the decaying horseman. The horse reared, nostrils flaring, forcing the rider forward in his saddle to balance the sudden move. Fr. Luca, seeing a chance to have agency and disregarding his erstwhile fear, ran forward and pressed the crucifix hard onto the horseman’s chest. In an instant a single flame broke out and then more. Berta’s screaming fanned them, and the horseman contorted, making a more hideous spectre than before. With a howling of sorts, he and his mount seemed to slowly fade and delimb, then disintegrate into the darkness. A brisk breeze blew for a second or two and then followed a stillness and profound silence. Fr. Luca watched with dropped jaw as Berta’s Head slowly moved back to its position on the wall of the Maggiori. Then tears welled in his eyes.
There was a bang and a flash of light. Fr. Luca sat bolt upright on his bed. A rivulet of sweat ran down his face. ‘What the....’ It was morning. His housekeeper had brought his coffee and pulled the curtains.
She said, ‘It’s a bit late, Father, but I didn’t want to disturb you. Nice evening, was it? With Fr Fabrizio?’ He stared back at her blinking, uncomprehending. ‘You’ll have to change that cassock, Father,’ she said with a cheeky grin. ‘you’ve been in it all night and there’s a nasty wine stain. I can see it from here.’
Later, after Mass, Fr. Luca made his way to Santa Maria Maggiore and looked at Berta’s Head high on the wall. Was it just him, or did he see a slight smile, a Giaconda smile on her lips? Where he wondered, looking down outside the door, had all the dung come from? What were those odd hoof marks too, that looked scorched into the stone? Oh yes, Fr. Luca wondered sometimes. He sometimes wondered about it all.