He was interrupted in the middle of a sermon, you see, by a coughing fit, was only able to complete it with the greatest of exertions, and the next bout of this nasty coughing even brought up blood. The doctors decreed unanimously that Fra Celeste needed to give up preaching for an indeterminate period, otherwise he must prepare for the worst. For one such as him, for whom speaking was as necessary as breathing, this was difficult enough; added to this, though, was the Holy Father’s wish that the monk spend his convalescence in his monastery; for seeing that his death had been announced as being in all probability imminent, it was thought best that the holy man crown his glorious life with a worthy death. It was believed that this momentous scene could best be played out at the monastery, whereas it was to be feared that in the spa resort on the Mediterranean that the doctors had recommended, and where Aglaia was to accompany him as his carer, all kinds of worldly matters, even if merely in the form of rumours and suspicions, would taint this image.
In order not to agitate the beloved invalid with these matters, I resorted, without his knowledge, to rather drastic means; after swearing Cardinal San Fiori to secrecy, I told him I had reason to believe that my master intended to convert to the Protestant faith. He had been in contact with a Protestant clergyman of high rank, who was apparently determined to win over the famed preacher to his church; he had wasted no time in hinting at the worldly advantages that would accrue to the monk through such a move, such as an accumulation of riches and even the ability to take a wife. Although I knew full well, I said, that my master could never be swayed by money or women, I was still mightily concerned since as a result of the conflict he had had in the past with the Abbot, he would never agree to return to the monastery, yet as it was impossible to get by in the world without any means of support, it was possible that necessity might still drive him into the enemy camp.
It was as a result of this ruse that I received the first of three kisses that Aglaia bestowed upon me. In order to lift her spirits, I told her of the conversation I had just had with the Cardinal, and letting my imagination run free, I embellished it a little by saying that he had secretly engaged me to watch over the monk’s every move, to keep him informed of every detail and, should it come to that, to thwart the conversion to the Protestant faith by any means necessary. Startled, Aglaia asked what was meant by ‘any means’, at which I asked her whether she had ever heard of a colourless powder that could be mixed with the wine of a mortal enemy to deadly effect, and whether she knew that fanatical believers would even use such powders against their friends if they believed it to be in the best interests of the church.
I then went on to speak of the wonderful offers the Cardinal had made me, saying also that while he had departed believing that I was not averse to serving him, in truth, of course, I would never betray my master. The darling Aglaia, with a smile on her lips, said that as I must go without the wages of sin, she wished to keep me harmless, and asked what reward I desired, at which I knelt down before her and requested a kiss from her lips. She took my head in her cool hands, causing a pleasant shiver throughout my body, and slowly kissed me on both eyes, saying: “These eyes are as devout as the dove and as cunning as the snake.”
In fact, the Cardinal truly did engage me to inform him of any unusual steps the monk might take; for since the emergence of this threat of conversion, he was now seen as a magnificent, yet dangerous animal, from whom the most terrible actions could be expected. They treated him with as much care as the Egyptians did their holy crocodiles and oxen, showered him with honours, promised him as much money as he wished and allowed him to depart with their blessing for the little place by the sea that had been recommended. However, the beloved man was now so sick that he had no interest in anything around him, not even Aglaia, who had swiftly travelled to join us in order to care for him. Just as Mohammed describes how Allah, his God, led him through all seven heavens while his body was still down on Earth, thus might have been the case with Dolfin. He often lay there as unresponsive as if his soul had left the still living body.
Even when his spirit was present, Fra Celeste took no notice of his surroundings, and while he tolerated the company of Aglaia and myself, it was plain to see that our presence was neither welcome nor intrusive. Should he speak to us, it was indeed with the patience and gentleness of a departed spirit, but also as if from a great distance, and so incomprehensible that it was impossible to tell whether he was babbling from his fever or whether he was already drifting over into other spheres. What pained Aglaia most was that he spoke of their shared past as if it were a vague dream or a foolish childhood, indeed, whenever she passionately kissed his face and hands in order to encourage and revive this memory, he gazed upon her in sympathetic astonishment, as would Christ look upon a barbarian who still delights in offering up the remains of slaughtered enemies to his idol.
For me, these sad days were rendered sweet by Aglaia, who usually sat with me by the sea for hours, sheltered under the shadow of a high rock upon whose jagged protuberances she rested her blonde head. The laughing blues of the water danced unnoticed before her as she softly, just as a sorrowful, distant bell rings, told me of the divine wonders of providence that she had herself experienced. For, this is how she explained it to me, I have been attached to worldly affairs ever since I was born, and even my love for Dolfin, which has caused me to do so much good, was a mere earthly love. I rarely attended church when he preached, and whenever I did, I listened as if to beautiful music, or appreciated his divine thoughts as I would precious jewellery with which one adorns oneself. The world I served gave me everything I could desire, but there, at the limits of its dominion, I stand like the poorest of beggars, and the crumbs I am offered are mere stones. And I deserve this, for I never asked what was on the other side of this boundary and never learned the language that is spoken there. You know, she said, I once read a fairy tale about an enchanted forest where all who were not in possession of a small golden key were turned to stone. I never sought out this key as I never thought I would ever need to enter the forest; now Dolfin no longer recognises me and kicks me away like a stone.
I did my best to comfort her and told her all I knew, and did not know, about eternal life and the resurrection of the flesh; for such conversations soothed her as they made her feel as if she were doing her best to become closer to Fra Celeste. On occasion, she said, she was able to transport herself into the blissful, all-encompassing existence of a purified spirit, and a breath-taking ecstasy would then come over her, a sensation akin to an ever-growing great blue wave rushing towards her and then drenching her whole body with its warmth. Yet should she then look around and recall how, on a certain evening long ago, she had sat beneath rustling trees and waited for Dolfin, and how she had suddenly heard his voice softly call her name, and how she had felt at that moment, these pale vanities vanished like stars before the Sun, and she would give up a millennium of heavenly bliss just to experience such a moment again.
When she sat there all huddled up in the midst of this southern heat and splendour as if she were cold, and I was free to examine the white face standing out against the wet, dark-green rocks, with eyes that seemed to implore yearningly: love me; alone and wistful like a water lily floating on an underground sea which no person had ever managed to find… my heart drew me nearer to her, and I was often close to taking her in my arms and kissing her. However, something always held me back, perhaps the unconscious, constant thoughts of him to whom she belonged, and whom I revered like a God amongst men.
Translation © 2020 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.