The Devil in San Marco

An excised scene from Sabra the Astonishing, in which her father, Ananias Buck, encounters the Devil in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice.

San Marco

San Marco

There arose from above and behind him a sound like asthmatic breathing, much amplified, followed by a sound like rotten gauze being rent. This, in turn, was followed by a low rumble punctuated by squeaks. Then tall organ chords began to crash all around him.

Ananias spotted a set of worn stone steps leading upwards – it was from here that the music emanated. As the unseen organist pumped out the sort of tune appropriate to horror films — now lugubrious, now thunderous – he mounted the stairs and found himself in one of the Basilica’s several choir lofts, dominated by an enormous Tamburini organ. A small man with a closely shaven head sat in front of the forest of bristling pipes. He was wearing a rumpled black suit, as shapeless as a priest’s and cut of the same slick, rusty cloth.

Ananias crept closer; he squinted.

A white-tipped cane lay propped against the balustrade; the organist wore dark glasses; he must be blind. He leaned into the keyboard, shoulders hunched, his fingers chasing one another down the keyboard like spiders seeking to top off a mating with a meal. His body bobbed back and forth as he pumped the heart of the great church with his dexterous feet.

The tune modulated into something recognizable. Berlioz’s Requiem? Ananias paused for a moment, waiting until he could positively identify the piece. Yes, it was the Requiem. Whenever he heard it, he had a vision of some nineteenth-century gentleman paddling a canoe through the sewers of Paris. That was how he envisioned Berlioz’s dark night of the soul. And his own? Well, that would this night, here.

He turned. The loft invaded the nave’s airspace in a network of narrow bridges. Over time the foundations of the Basilica had shifted and its floor had buckled; the bridges were far from level and so narrow that only a very meager person such as Ananias or a child could have hoped to negotiate them; nor did their banisters inspire confidence.

Interior, San Marco

Interior, San Marco

Ananias set tentatively forth along one of the bridges, both hands gripping the crumbling railing. Above him vaults arched, lamps swung, gigantic figures swelled and billowed: Elijah; an hirsute Baptist; a ranting Amos, prophets all. Hunger stirred in his gut, becoming, through some subtle malevolent transformation, nausea. Colors dimmed and sharpened, sounds muted, then burgeoned. It was as though someone — not himself — was attempting to adjust the intensity of his perceptions with knobs or dials. He reached the end of the bridge and turned back to look back at the loft. That was the moment he remembered that he was scared of heights, had always been. No sooner had he realized this, than his knees liquefied and he sank into a deep squat. His eyes slid shut and he folded forward into a half-faint. It was all too much: the wallop of incense, the sweat of unwashed pilgrims, the crazed organ’s musical antics, this insubstantial bridge on which he now crouched — corridor of a nightmare, a bridge that went so far, then stopped mid-air. He dragged a limp, damp hand over his forehead, aware for the moment only of his heart, that inexorable pump, pounding away in his breast. Once, only once, had he been so conscious of a heart. A pet parakeet had died in his hand.   It had been horrible, that tiny death.

He blinked his eyes, adjusted his spectacles, and struggled to his feet. While he had been indisposed, another visitor had climbed the stairs to the loft. There he sat, in a metallic folding chair pulled up close to the organ, a gaunt, melancholy-looking gentleman of distinguished appearance, with thick white hair and refined features. His gaze was directed towards the organist, whose white-tipped cane he held in front of him; the fingers of his right hand curled around its handle; those of his left encircled the cane’s metal shaft. He wore evening clothes under an opera cape. Snow melted on the pointed tips of his well-polished black shoes.

Ananias recognized him instantly. He was the Devil. Who else could he be? What other stranger is so familiar?   And in that moment of recognition, he had also recognized something else, something momentous. The Devil was perfectly at home in this great church because this was his house. It might have been God’s house a long time ago, but it was no longer and it hadn’t been for a very long time. Ananias was reminded of Leon Foote, his brother-in-law the doctor. On fine days, Leon would instruct his receptionist to say that he was with a patient, then close the door to his office and sneak out the back, golf clubs in tow. Like Leon on a fine Spring day, God had skedaddled and the Devil had just moved on in.

The organ at San Marco

The organ at San Marco

By this time he had managed to grab hold of the balustrade and haul himself back onto his feet. He stood there, swaying, clutching the railing with both hands.

As the organist rummaged brutally through an ominous arpeggio, the Devil glanced in Ananias’s direction. The glance was languid. Their eyes met. Even at a distance of some twenty five feet, Ananais could see that the pupils of his eye were so large that he could detect nothing in the way of iris. A spatter of bright red burned in the sclera of his left eye, giving him an indisputably sinister appearance. But his gaze . . . it was compassionate, even tender. Never in his life had anyone looked at him with such compassion.  The Devil then touched his own left cheekbone lightly amd nodded, as if to beg his pardon for the bright dot of blood in his eye.

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