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Confession of a Dark Saint
Note: The setting for the story about the reclusive mystic Sebastiano is northern Italy in either the tenth or eleventh century A. D. Taking liberties with the legend contained in the recently discovered manuscript, I have rendered the story in first person. RL
I. Young traveler, I welcome you. I am Sebastian, and for many nights I have dreamt of your coming.
It’s a bad time to be out in this winter land of snow. The Alpine night air is death-cold. So walk with me next to the frozen river—it’s the way to my dwelling--as the sun disappears behind snow-capped mountains.
Indeed, we must move quickly, for the night air will freeze our lungs. My small warm place lies through these pine trees to your right. Look where I am pointing; you can see it from here. From the outside my dwelling is a dirty hut with a hole in the roof for smoke. Inside, however, my dwelling is clean. Ten years ago, during a spring storm, I erected the structure. With help from Brother Pietro, I cut and hewed the wood, and I broke and fit the stone. As you pause at my door—you can see it from here--run your hand over the wood. It is a special oak found only in this northern area. The golden cross on the door is a gift from the nearby monastery and has kept the dark prince from me.
Here: Allow me to open the door for you. Now, lower your head, come inside and approach the fire.
II. In Christ’s name, I welcome you to my sanctuary. Let my fire warm you. God is gracious, and we shall soon eat.
Of course, you must stay the night. You see, on cold winter nights, great wolves stalk the forest. As darkness thickens, they'll surround this dwelling. In the wind, you'll hear their howling; as you drift to sleep, they'll snarl a small measure from the door. But before we eat and sleep, allow me to tell you my story.
What you have heard is true: through me, God has healed the afflicted and demon-possessed. Once, the healings were as common as drinking water. I would preach in a small meadow beyond a mountain village. Hundreds came. I wandered among them, prayed and laid hands upon the sick. Lepers were cured, cancers removed, blindness and deafness taken away. I became so enamored of myself that for a time God denied me the privilege of bringing healing to anyone.
Then the exorcisms began; God is never idle. The crowds commonly had one or two possessed by demons. It was in a village east of here that God’s small, still voice told me to command Satan to leave a young woman—the village whore. She had green eyes and red hair. She stood in the back of the church and heckled me in an obscene tongue. Unafraid, I shouted to the demon in the name of Christ; I called its named and commanded it out.
When I spoke, the woman screamed, vomited, and collapsed like a bag of dirt. Others—-two hundred were there--thought her dead. Then the dark thing inside her shrieked, cursed the Savior, and departed through an opening in the roof. Hours later, after most had departed, the woman awoke, and she was a new person, kind and gentle of disposition. To this day, she continues to serve the Savior.
Now to the beginning. I am the product of a relationship between a brother and sister who were burned for witchcraft when I was one year. I was raised by my uncle Donato, a carpenter and an educated man—-he became the mayor of a small village hidden among the mountains to the south--and by my blessed, gentle aunt named Anna. This gaunt, dark-haired woman, for whom prayer was a second language, instructed me in the ways of God. Anna knew Latin and taught me to read and speak in several tongues. Often, she sang me to sleep.
Raised by these two kind people, I had a glorious life. Surrounded by the forest, mountains, rivers, and meadows, I played with the other children. We roamed the countryside and played children’s games.
I thought my village was a paradise.
Then, one spring morning, after the snows had melted off the lower mountains, soldiers from the north came like thieves in the night. I stood on a trunk in the pasture next to uncle’s house; the other children and I were playing, and I had become king. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flicker in the forest, then another, and then yet another. Focusing on a large swaying branch, I saw them: tall warriors, standing under the trees behind the far side of the village. Glancing around, I saw them standing next to the trees a short distance from us. We children watched them pour out of the forest like silent wolves. There were hundreds.
They swiftly moved forward and did not acknowledge us. At fourteen years, I should have been seized as an adult and died a brutal death.
I watched as they dragged my aunt and uncle from the house. My uncle was a large, strong, dark complexioned man, and it took several to subdue him. At the time, I knew that God would rescue my protectors. I waited for the sky to open, for a ball of flame to appear, but nothing happened.
I watched as the soldiers undressed my aunt Anna, and she screamed and called to me. My uncle, bound by rope to the great pine in front of our house, roared with rage. I ran towards Anna but, no more than twenty paces from her, I froze, as only a coward would do, and I could only observe as the soldiers took turns assaulting her. Then, they bound this good woman to the tree, next to my uncle, and burned them alive.
For a year I remained in the village, eating food left in the houses, hunting forests with packs of children a little younger than I, and managing to survive on deer, elk, and rabbit. My uncle had taught me to hunt and kill.
Many times, after the sun had gone down, I returned to my house and prayed that God would restore my aunt and uncle. I clung to the belief that they would one day emerge from the forest. A tall, sensitive young man, I was haunted most every night by the same dream: Anna and Donato screaming as huge red flames consumed them.
Finally, God sent me peace and urged me to leave the village. Packing my belongings and taking my uncle’s wealth, which he had buried in a wooden box behind the house, I left and traveled north and east, wearing my uncle’s clothes of forest green.
One early winter Alpine night, I encountered a band of rogues, the sort that live off the fair and innocent through cunning and craft. I saw them in a crowded tavern by a small lake on a clear and cloudless night, stars filling the sky, the air bitterly cold. In that tavern that night, I treasured my place by the roaring fire. Bunched around a thick table across the dimly lit room, they were drinking, cursing, and insulting the servers and patrons, both men and women. They had no respect for God.
I paused from my eating and studied them. I had never seen people so vile, and I could not help but wonder if any one of them had been among the soldiers who had murdered my aunt and uncle. They sensed intrusion and glared back at me. The entire tavern grew silent.
Finally, the biggest one—-a heavy-set, bearded, one-eyed man with dirty jet-black hair that hung down his waist—-rose, threw his chair against the wall, and walked over to me. He wore a red vest and shirt and dark brown breeches. “Fee, fi, fo, fum,” he thundered as he moved. His drunken friends laughed and encouraged him to “teach the young dog to lick the feet of his master.”
As the lummox towered over me, I remained sitting, head bowed, pretending to concentrate upon my meal. I slurped from a wooden spoon the lentil soup that I had ordered with roast pork, my favorite meat. Trembling seized me then, but it was not fear. Young traveler, I loathed this man and imagined the pleasure in slitting his throat.
I had never been in combat. Tormented, however, by my earlier failure of courage, I would not be afraid. As fury built, I fought to ignore the man. I ate. He watched. I took a sip of ale and glanced at the fire. Incensed that I did not acknowledge him, he lunged forward with a roar, grabbed my plate and bowl and threw them on the floor. And then he struck me a ringing blow to the side of the head.
“Are you the man for me, boy? Is that what you think? Are you the man for me? Or are you too green for one such as me?” he bellowed to the laughter of his friends and others too afraid to oppose him. At that moment, I wanted to strike the man, but I had been taught not to resist evil and to always turn the other cheek. So I sat still, staring at the door as he struck my face with the back of his hand several times until I bled from the mouth.
The fires of rage ignited, and I clenched my fists under the table. I slowly rose to my feet and placed my face inches from his. Our eyes met. We stood like this for some time. The place had gone silent again.
He said nothing, but when he blinked several times I knew that this man would be no match for me. I did not blink.
Stupidly, he looked back at his friends. One of them—-a small, stooped man with trembling hands and eyes of the Devil—-rose, walked crab-like toward the large man and handed him a club made of wood and metal. “Perhaps you have forgotten your favorite instrument, Lucio, the one that tears flesh from faces,” the small man hissed.
In semi-darkness, the Lucio nodded and grunted. He took and looked at the weapon and then glanced at me. Anger now burned in his idiot eyes, and as he raised the weapon I quickly removed my blade from its sheathe and, in the blink of an eye, held it to his throat.
“Stand back, you great lug-wart, or I’ll slice your huge body, cut out your eyes, and spill your guts,” I said. I laughed when I realized that my words I would certainly have earned my aunt’s disapproval.
He froze. Winter wind battered the walls. Wolves shrieked.
I could see he was daunted because one so young dared challenge him. We were like a picture: the giant Lucio trembling, a young man’s knife at his throat.
Things were looking very bad.
His friends shouted that he would prove himself a coward, calling him a woman, then coming forward and nudging him in the back. As the ape brought the weapon down I jumped sideways, and the blow glanced off and cracked my left shoulder. Dizzy with pain, I sank to one knee and bowed my head. I squeezed pain from my mind and prayed God would give me the power to strike this man and his friends dead.
Oafish, Lucio studied me. As I silently prayed, my pain retreated. God restored my strength; power swept from my feet to my head. When he raised the weapon for another blow, I sprang to my feet and, slicing upward, ran the blade diagonally across his face.
He roared and staggered back.
It was a deep cut. Men yelled and women screamed as Lucio’s blood spurted like a geyser. Some of it dabbled me. Releasing his weapon and clutching his face, he stumbled in a circle. Then, dropping his hands and gritting his teeth, he lunged and, as he seized my neck, I grabbed his arms and fell backward, pulling him on top of me.
Gathering around us, his friends and some of the patrons laughed drunkenly and encouraged him to kill me.
As Lucio tried to strangle me, I tensed the muscles of my neck and smiled, for his strength was not as great as mine. It was a splendid moment among the damned, young traveler, for quick as night, I thrust the knife into his side-—like this--just below his ribs and up to the hilt. I did this three or four times. I had never killed a human before, but as Lucio’s hands fell away from me, and as he sat unsteadily on top of me, I rejoiced that life was leaving him. May God forgive me.
When Lucio toppled sideways, panting like a wounded beast, I rose and, standing in the slick of blood, faced his friends. I should have struck then as they trembled and slowly backed away. Once they reached the door, they quickly turned, opened it, and fled into the night.
My heart and brain feverish with excitement, I knelt over Lucio, wiped my blade on his clothes, then stood again. I looked around the room. Men and women cowered together, sure that I would butcher them, and in the flickering light from the fireplace I could read fear on their faces. That pleased me.
Finally, a woman whom I took to be the tavern keeper’s wife shuffled up to me. I admired her because she showed courage that few others in that room possessed. I also thought of killing her.
“Those who have left are friends of the sheriff,” she said meekly, bowing her head and avoiding my eyes. “If you don’t flee, he and his men will find you, torture you publicly, and kill you for sport.”
“They are too many, young man,” she said, stepping forward and gently placing a hand on my shoulder; “they’ll gut you like an ox.” It was as if I had been briefly touched by God, and feeling bathed in the warm glow I once associated with my aunt and the stories about Jesus, I sheathed my weapon, thanked her, gathered my belongings from under my table, and left the tavern.
It was a full-moon night. Wolves prowled the area—-I could hear them all about me as I walked in harsh wind through the forest--but they did not come near.
I walked a small path through the forest and towards mountains that loom not far from this dwelling and surround the monastery where Pietro lives and prays daily. As night wore on, I felt lifted out of myself, like a soul departing the body for the Eternal Kingdom.
* * * * *
Days later, I arrived at a town not far from here. You may have come through it; it well known for its great red stone church. Never had I seen so many people in one place, and I spent a good part of the first day walking through the streets, where everything one can imagine is sold: kitchenware, great plumed hats, thick colorful scarves, boots, doves, chickens, turkey, every kind of food. Because I had my uncle’s treasure, I found lodging over a stable, and at the week’s end I began working at the shop of an old carpenter.
The old carpenter, who spoke as I did, was losing his sight and needed an assistant. For three years, I worked for the fellow, who daily read the scripture and prayed over each meal we shared.
At the end of the third year, desiring more than the carpenter’s preaching, I joined a group of soldiers passing through the village. They were looking for anyone who wished to make his living, as they did, fighting for the various armies throughout this northern land.
Within the year, as a foot soldier fighting in the service of the infamous hunch-backed prince Dominico, I learned I was a very good fighter. I relished taking lives. I relished hewing and hacking limbs. After a battle, I couldn’t wait to kill again.
Yes, young hunter, I was a splendid fighter.
* * * * *
It was during one early winter campaign that my group was commanded to take a small river village known for harboring a witch. Witches were common in those days. The hunchback prince made it his mission to hunt down and execute all whom he suspected of practicing the dark crafts.
This river village lay some distance from here. It had a small church where St. Martin once spent the night.
The evening before, we camped next to the river down from the village. Fighting the cold and dreaming of carnage, I drank until I could not stand. When morning came, we ate and hastily equipped ourselves. Then, like wolves, we crept through the forest and concealed ourselves among the trees around the village.
A river ran through the village, which was surrounded by steep, snow-capped mountains. Spring and summer in this place would be beautiful. But I would not allow my mind to dwell on these thoughts, and when I signaled attack, I was seized by the rage had come to accompany my desire for blood.
Picture it, if you can: I Sebastian ran bellowing down the small road leading through the town and towards the dwelling that I knew belonged to the richest and most powerful family. With the help of several others, I broke down the house’s thick, wooden door and found within only a young raven-haired woman and her daughter, a small redheaded thing with large soft, terrified eyes and a heart-shaped birthmark on her cheek. It was warm inside the house, and a fire blazed in the grate.
“Where is your husband?” I demanded. I was struck by the woman’s beauty. She was dressed in a white and red dress, and had piercing blue eyes, full lips, soft gentle hands, and a thin shape.
“My husband is gone,” she whimpered, extending thin arms in a gesture signifying that she was seeking mercy. Fear shook her. “Please, leave my daughter and me alone,” the woman implored.
As I looked into the woman’s eyes, and as her daughter watched, I lowered my sword, turned, and told my companions to wait outside. “Kill the husband if he comes,” I instructed them.
They smiled, then laughed and nodded their heads. They knew what I had in mind, and they knew that I was not willing to share with any of them. As my fellows stood outside and watched others of our small but cruel army slaughter the village’s adults and children, I raised my sword against her neck and commanded the woman to undress.
Too frightened to resist, she quickly removed all of her clothes. Long black hair flowed down her shoulders and onto her small breasts; her nipples were reddish-brown, her flesh white as snow. Breathing deeply to quell fear, she backed up and lay on her back on the table in the middle of the room. To me, she offered herself. For a time, I studied this treasure. She said nothing. I heard my fellows laughing outside.
Then, as her daughter wept, I mounted this woman. In those days, my appetites were insatiable. Perhaps I was possessed.
When I had finished, she lay exhausted on the table where no doubt she, her husband, and her child broke bread. It was then the lust for flesh became desire for blood. I removed my knife from its sheath, glanced at the daughter, and then strode forward, plunging my weapon into the woman’s stomach and slitting her throat. Blood sprayed everywhere: on the walls, on the floor, on the bed, even on the daughter. God forgive me, I derived pleasure from this act.
Next, I moved toward the daughter, my hand still gripping the sword handle. Seizing the girl around her head, I pried open her mouth and, as I sang a song that my aunt had taught me, I cut out her tongue. I know neither why I did this nor why I did not murder the child. As I walked toward the door, I hesitated and looked up. It was as if I had just been struck by a rock, for placed on a crossbeam was an iron cross.
The woman I had just raped and killed was no witch.
* * * * *
That was sixteen years ago. It was one year to the day after the event, as I slept with my regiment just outside the walls of the duke’s castle, that I had the first of many dreams in which I was haunted by the screams of that Christian woman. In my dreams, again and again, I plunged the knife deeply into her. At the end of the dream, bloodied and nearly decapitated, the woman always stood before me, pointed at me, and stated a prophecy that made my blood run cold.
Dreams are from God or Satan, young traveler, and so I often woke up yelling and delirious.
My men, those closest to me, thought I was losing my mind.
“These are dreams God has sent upon me from Hell,” I remember telling them one very dark night. “God is punishing me.” I trembled uncontrollably and wanted to weep but would not allow myself to do so in front of men who had always looked up to me in battle.
“These are the dreams caused by too much drink,” laughed one of them, by daylight a broad-faced man whose name I forget but who had been recently accused by one of the men of cowardice. Normally, I would have killed him for making such a bold remark.
It was so dark not even the outline of my own hand placed before my face was visible.
“I have not drunk this night,” I responded, weakly and hoarsely, sitting up in my bed. That much was true: that night, I had not consumed any wine or beer. In fact, I hadn’t drunk for months.
“Then you need to examine your soul,” said another from across the room. I knew the voice to belong to a tall, thin man who had proved to be a tremendous fighter. “This is between you and God.”
His words pierced me like a sword. For a long time, I said nothing.
“Yes,” I finally murmured, “my eternal soul. Yes, I do need to examine my soul.”
For six months after that night, at the advice of one who claimed to be a physician, I remained in the military encampment. Through winter and spring, he gave me herbs and medicines and told me to walk daily. Fears of judgment consumed me, and I wandered the infirmary like one of the dead. When the physician was away, I did little but walk and sleep. I had trouble eating and rarely kept anything down.
Alone, so no one could see me, I began to pray to the God my aunt and uncle had worshiped. In the weeks that followed, however, my condition worsened, and at times I broke into a feverish sweat and my heart beat erratically. During the day, as I often lay in bed, I was assailed by images of the bloodied woman and her daughter. I stopped eating.
I was wasting away. But one night, an unusual thing happened. Certain that I was dying, I lay a-bed. My candle burned low on the table next to me, and I was hoping for a peaceful end when I closed my eyes. In a flash, the darkness within me exploded into light, and opening my eyes I saw descending through the wooden roof a winged angel of God. Floating to the foot of my bed, he told me to leave the infirmary, to leave the camp, and promised that if I did so, and if I pledged myself to Christ, God would heal me.
When the angel left, I felt the power of God moving into me and enabling me to get out of bed. That night, as the other sick and dying slept, I returned to my barracks, packed my belongings and left soldiers whom I regarded as the only family I had on earth.
Desiring to end my torment, seeking union with the Savior of my aunt and uncle, I wandered as a crazed person in the dark green forests and high mountain meadows. My appetite gradually returned, and I ate whatever the forest provided. My black and dirty hair grew down to my waist, and my fingernails became black claws. I reeked. When I walked through a village, no one stayed in the streets long enough for me to speak to them; everyone fled, for I had become as a curse. In the villages, though I often begged from door to door, I was not given any food or drink, so I was forced to return to the forests, and there I found a cave and lived off small animals, roots, slugs, and spring water.
Sometimes my thinking would clear, particularly at night, and in those moments I wondered if God had sent a demon spirit to torment me. At night, before I struggled with sleep, which often stayed away, I knelt and wept in my cave that for a time served as my home. Nightly, on knees bloodied by the rough stone floor, I asked God to forgive me for raping and murdering the woman and for disfiguring her daughter. Weeping, I asked him to forgive me for killing Lucio in the tavern. I asked him to forgive me for the murderous life I had led as a soldier. God’s ways are beyond our knowing, young traveler, and for a long time the only answer I received was an occasional cold mountain wind whistling outside my cave.
But I learned during that year of my madness and exile that God does not abandon his children, even though He may sift them like wheat. Finally, the horrible dreams stopped and it was then that God flooded my soul with the message that He would never leave me. I began to sleep through the night. When I slept on the straw in the cave, angels often filled my dreams and I awoke knowing that the Kingdom filled the very air I breathed.
During spring, I moved out of the cave to an area not far from here—-a meadow set in the middle of towering mountains--and there I was allowed to stay with an old couple. For three years, I did everything for them: I cut the wood, I hunted and prepared the meat, I nursed them in sickness, I protected them from robbers.
One day, just as the late fall rains began, I was walking through the forest looking for meat for the old couple, and it was then that I was captured by a group of four men and two women. A dirty, savage people, they threw a great net over me, and then, as I cried out and struggled to escape, they jumped out of the trees surrounding me and, with great sticks, beat me viciously. As I lay on the ground, bleeding freely and several bones broken, they dragged me in the thick net back to their camp.
In their camp down by the frozen river we walked beside today, these savages freed me from the net and then undressed me. As I tried to stagger to my feet the men kicked and struck me repeatedly. The two women hurled stones that cut.
Throughout the nights and through the next two days, they used forms of torture upon me. One of them enjoyed putting a flame on the soles of my feet so he could hear me scream in pain. I knew that the repeated agony would drive me back into madness, and silently I cried out to God, asking Him why he had turned me over to people of the Devil.
Then, one morning, as rain poured from the leaden sky, they bound naked me to a stake with a heavy wooden crossbar near the top. This was to be my end. One of the women-—a tall, thin woman with short hair, who might have passed for a man--remembered me as soldier. Her name was Francesca. She stood a foot away from me and said I had been part of the group that had murdered her parents and brothers and sister.
“You are the one known as The Butcher,” she said as she approached me with a large knife in her hand. “Do you have a heart?” she asked. She studied me. Her eyes were filled with the dark hate that I had seen in many whom I had enjoyed killing.
“Yes, I have a heart,” I said, my voice broken. I breathed with difficulty. “Everyone has a heart.”
The rain increased and I felt chilled to my soul.
“The devil has no heart,” she yelled. The rest stood behind her. I thought of the tavern where I had learned the pleasure of killing human beings. Dank, disheveled, the woman grinned. Her teeth were perfect and she paused and put the blade to my chest, just below my heart.
I had never seen it rain so hard.
“No,” I mumbled, not sure if my words were clear, “he certainly does not. But I am not the devil.”
From deep inside, I could feel fear move to the surface.
“Are you the devil?” Francesco asked, grinning with contempt. She did not seem to notice the rain.
Icy panic swept through me.
“No,” I whispered, “I said that I am not the devil.”
She nodded, a wry smile on her face. “Then, if you are not the devil, you must have a heart. ”
Silently weeping, I begged God’s forgiveness and wondered if He would abandon me as he had my aunt and uncle.
“I am going to find out if you have a heart,” she said.
As she pushed, the sharp blade slowly entered my flesh between my ribs. The scent of my own blood filled the damp air.
I looked away, turning my eyes and thoughts onto the pines. Shrouded in dark clouds, the mountains were no longer visible. As Francesco shoved the blade more deeply and began cutting the flesh around my heart, something extraordinary happened.
The air around me became uncommonly bright, and I squinted and looked up for the source. My eyes scanned the sky as the damp air grew brighter and brighter, and looking up, I saw the clouds lifting from the mountains; the rain stopped. Just over the largest mountain, I saw a parting of the clouds, and then a golden glow. I could feel heat from the glow. Risking blindness, I looked into the brilliant glow, and as I did I saw another cloud that looked as if it had been made of spun gold.
I heard a beautiful singing; it was heaven.
I continued to look up. I shall go blind, I told myself.
In the midst of the cloud was a throbbing radiance, and in the radiance one clothed in pure white garments, a crown of stars on His brow. His arms clothed in white raiment were raised, and His hands and feet had been pierced. His voice filled the heavens and the earth, and my soul knew the words. A shaft of light burst from the man and fell upon me.
I felt no fear. Pain had temporarily left me, and I felt my bones melting, my heart quaking. I opened my mouth to praise God. No sound came out, and slowly I looked down at my enemies. All of them, Francesca included, had dropped to their knees. Bathed in light, some looked at the vision, hands shielding their eyes, while others turned away. None could rise, nor could I move, as I watched the Savior fade, saw the cloud turn from gold to gray, and waited until the skies were once again dark.
I looked at those who had tortured me. Their eyes were upon me and held only fear and confusion. Francesca gazed up with her mouth open. The knife lay on the ground next to her, and looking down at my chest, I saw that there was no wound.
I took deep breaths and closed my eyes.
No rain fell.
It was then I felt warm fluid slowly flowing from my forehead onto my beard, a warm, tickling fluid streaking from my hands down my arms; I felt the blood on my feet and, in the eye of my mind, I saw the bloodied Jesus hanging from the cross.
I was bleeding from my forehead, my hands, my side, and my feet. I had heard stories of men bearing the wounds of Christ but had never believed. But now His blood poured out of me and spilled onto the muddied ground.
Then I felt the Spirit was flowing into me, and I felt lifted beyond myself on that gray, rain-drenched day.
I looked to my enemies but no longer saw them as my enemies. Francesca fell prostrate to the ground, her face in the mud and her arms spread before her. One of the men, a great fat fellow who later became a monk, kept to his knees and bowed his head. His name was Pietro. As the rain began again, Pietro wept and prayed aloud.
The others seemed untouched. In the angry shouts, they rose growling, slowly backed away, then turned and falling and tumbling in the mud ran into the forest.
I hung through the afternoon, consumed by the chill that comes from rainy autumn cold. Francesca and Pietro remained kneeling, their hands clasped in front of them and raised above their heads.
As darkness fell, they unbound me and lifted me from the cross. I barely had the strength to move, so they took me back to their camp and, in the great tent, wrapped me in blankets. In the weeks to come, they moved me to a dwelling outside a nearby village where I became ill unto death. I would remain at the door of death through the harsh winter. These two daily cared for me. They gave me food and drink, and I slowly recovered.
We stayed together until late autumn. When the first snow fell, Francesca left for the nunnery to the north, and it is there that she lives to this day. Having taken a vow of silence, she speaks to no one but God. Pietro took me to his brother’s dwelling just on the other side of the ice-river you walked down today. We spent another cruel winter together in a small, warm lodge where we prayed and sang.
That Spring, before leaving me to live in the monastery just not half a day from here, Pietro helped me build this lodging, which I have joyfully inhabited since that time, more than ten years ago. It was from this small lodging that I began my earthly mission, wandering the forests and countryside, teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out demons.
For the last two weeks, God has spoken to me in a dream, and what he has shown me makes my blood freeze. Sometimes, I think of venturing outside in the snow and taking my chances with the wolves. One cannot, however, tempt God.
These dreams have not let me sleep. For fourteen nights, I have watched the growth of the little girl whose mother I raped and murdered. Her name is Gabriella. In dreams, I watched Gabriella grow into a beautiful young woman, one who cannot speak and whose one desire is to avenge her mother’s death. Her hatred of me drove her nearly mad, and at fifteen, she left the home of her cousin, who had taken upon himself the job of raising her. Eager to shed my blood, Gabriella prowled the woods and villages, luring men to dark spots. Each time, she waited for the man to begin enjoying her before removing a knife she had concealed under a bed or directly beneath her and slitting his throat from ear to ear.
Each murder was more hideous than the one before it, and soon Gabriella was dismembering her victims; once, in the dreams, she tore out the intestines of a young, strong blonde man whose wife had just died of smallpox.
The final dream came three nights ago. I shall tell you every detail. It was a year ago, on a day marking her mother’s murder, that in a tavern Gabriella offered herself to a young university student from Denmark. The Danes are a proud and warring people, and one winter night this youth was telling of his country’s exploits. A harsh winter storm had kept all residents inside their houses, and few visitors left the inn. It was, I believe, around midnight, as the young man and his fellows were drinking and conversing, that a young woman with flaming red hair and an unusual birthmark on her cheek walked past them. Her blouse hung open, and when this youth saw her, greatly aroused, he took her by the hand, stood, and asked her to his room. His room was on the third floor of this wooden building.
Gabriella agreed, and the young man carried his mistress up the stairs and over the room’s threshold, barring the door behind him, and began undressing himself. In all this the woman never spoke. The youth turned away from his catch as he removed his shirt and his breaches. It was time enough for the woman to take from her person a great sharp knife that she had strapped to one of her legs, swiftly move to the young man and shove the blade into his back.
The young man screamed weakly—-one can barely speak with a blade in the back--but the storm outside muffled his sounds. As he fell bleeding to the floor, Gabriella seized his ankles, turned him over, and dragged him back to the bed. She was enormously strong and, with little effort, lifted the young man onto the bed, bound his wrists and ankles to the bedposts. Though severely wounded, the young man was awake, and he watched as she pierced his stomach with the knife. Then she stood back, smiled and watched the young man, still conscious, bleed to death.
The young man’s body was discovered in the afternoon three days later. The walls had been streaked in his blood. There was no sign of the woman Gabriella. She had left the tavern and wandered back out into the storm. Though the young man’s friends could remember what she looked like, the sheriff and his men could not find the beautiful young woman.
And now, here, this woman Gabriella crouches in front of the fire and looks at me. Her eyes, your eyes, are two blackened dots.
My child, I have done you a great wrong. But bound to Christ, I am no longer the soldier who raped your mother, cut out your tongue, and watched outside as others hacked your frantic father to death. Your mother and father are safely in Heaven.
Nonetheless, I offer myself to you. I stand now and remove my thick robe. I do not resist. Take my life. It is just retribution.
I see you stand and walk around the fire to approach me.
End my years of torment, and bring your knife to my throat. Drive the blade through my neck, and do not be deterred when you see that Christ’s wounds have become, somehow, my wounds. To the end of my days, I must bear His grief. These are my hands and feet; they bleed. My forehead bears the scars of the crown. I bleed; I bleed; and so, with one cut, I am with Christ.
Your blade quivers, Gabriella. You hesitate. Do you know why? Perhaps you have been moved by my story. Perhaps you see that I have already suffered. Perhaps, you will stay with me and offer yourself to the One who promises to break you, mould you, and shape you.
Your blade is at my neck. It pricks; it cuts; do I die? What you must do, Gabriella, do quickly.
Why, child, do you hesitate?
And this is the story of Sebastiano, which I have pieced together on the basis of manuscripts preserved in a small museum in northern Italy and attributed by scholars to the young woman Gabriella, who committed her life to serving the Savior and who cared for Sebastiano until the day he passed from this earth.
Milan, Italy. Summer, 2001. RL
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