Over time, writers can become inordinately fond of certain characters, which makes it difficult to give them the axe when it becomes apparent they don’t have anything to do with the work at hand. One of my personal favorites is Lorenzo Da Silvio, an aging, dissolute Italian portrait painter who’s been hanging around my novel, Sabra the Astonishing, for well over thirty years and is now being consigned to outer darkness by a plot that appears to no longer need him. In his honor, I reproduce his recounting of the death of a Christian martyr in the early Roman period, told in the style of The Lives of the Saints and made up on the spot, improvisation being one of his strong suits:
“Having refused an order to burn incense on the Emperor’s altar, the martyr is thrown into a pot of boiling oil. Remarkably he survives for several days, all the while singing hymns to the one true God with such good cheer that he converts one of his keepers, a guard who climbs into the pot of boiling oil beside him and, sad to say, promptly fries to a crisp.
“The other guards, alarmed by the subversion and death of their fellow guard and sick to death of the martyr, who is remarkably tone deaf, haul him out of the cauldron and chop off his head. Not to be deterred, the martyr stands up, picks up his still-singing head, tucks it under one arm, and proceeds to wander around the city for three days, bumping into things and causing general mayhem.
“The Centurions take the headless, crispy martyr into custody a second time and, at their earliest convenience, throw him to the lions in the Coliseum. The lions refuse to eat him, perhaps because they like their martyrs raw or perhaps on account of the psalms the disembodied head continues to sing, which make them sleepy.
“Exasperated, the Centurions toss both the man and his head into the harbor, known to be infested with sharks. He fetches up, three days later, intact if a bit soggy and, once again, takes to the streets, his head singing loudly and tunelessly away.
“Finally, driven to distraction by the martyr’s constant warbling, a young soldier wrangles the decapitated head from his grasp and, tucking the terrible thing under his arm as if it were a football, takes off across the crowded marketplace, the headless man in stumbling pursuit, toppling jars of steaming goat milk, trampling rickety children covered with excrement, stampeding goats, scattering chickens, and knocking over wicker cages of sacrificial pigeons as he goes. When the soldier saw that he had a solid lead on the martyr, he stopped, drew his short sword from its scabbard, and, just as the head was about to declaim ‘I shall not want,’ cut out its tongue.
“The headless martyr stopped in the center of the marketplace, holding himself very still. If a headless thing can be said to listen, well then, the martyr seemed to listen. The people who a moment before had crouched haggling in the dust, slowly rose, then fell back, gasping in horror. The decapitated body began to shake, a little at first, then more and more until every limb of his body quivered, and he resembled a fish in its final agony when the hook is pulled from its mouth and it lies gasping and writhing on the shore. He raised his hands to the place where once his head had sat and felt about in thin air for his nose, his brow, his cheeks. Not finding them, he slices the empty space above his gaping neck with the edge of his hand several times as if he had just guessed that he was no longer in possession of a head and was now testing the truth of this theory. He falls to his knees. The people in the marketplace scream and flee, stumbling in every direction. The martyr tumbles onto his side, jerks once, spasmodically, rolls over onto his stomach, and at last, at long last, dies.
“. . .
“It’s midday. The sun is high. The marketplace is now deserted, save for the soldier and the headless body of the martyr, lying crumpled amid the glittering wares, the copper pots,and the bolts of rough cloth stacked in piles.
“The soldier wipes the bloody blade of his short sword upon his tunic and slides it once more into its leather sheath. Tossing the martyr’s head onto the blood-drenched cobblestones next to the severed tongue, he saunters off.
“But wait! What is this I see? Around the corner of one of the buildings appears a figure clad all in white — an old man, lean yet robust, with white hair and beard. He hesitates but for a moment, then quietly enters the deserted marketplace followed by a handful of women and men similarly clad. It is the bishop of the place, of course, old Saint So and So, destined in his time to suffer a martyr’s death together with these, the bravest of his followers. But that time is not now. Now is the headless martyr’s moment of glory. Reverently the Christians kneel beside the body of the martyr. Reverently they lift their hands and faces towards heaven in prayer.
“But there’s no time to lose. People are beginning to gather on the periphery of the marketplace, their fear yielding to curiosity. The bishop gives his orders in a low voice. The four men take one limb each of the martyr’s body, while a woman kneels to pluck the head from the ground and to hold it to her breast. . . .
“And then they hear it. They all hear it!
“The tongue on the cobblestones – singing, ‘Pange lingua, gloriosi!’ ‘Sing, my tongue, my Savior’s glory!'”
Goodbye, Da Silvio! It’s hard to cut you loose after all these years. I’ll miss you.