In September 2015, I wrote a short piece using the photograph alongside as a cue. I called it ‘Assimilated‘.
It is reproduced below, along with its sequel that was originally titled ‘You have nothing to fear, but …‘, and which I produced in response to a challenge at esthernewtonblog.wordpress.com that asked for a story about fear.
Shall we run with this for a few weeks, to see where it goes?
I will welcome storyline suggestions or even complete scenes, as long as they fit the overall scheme (which I hope will emerge before too long).
Sanctuary, noun: Refuge or safety from pursuit, persecution, or other danger; a holy place
That’s exactly what we thought as we entered the ancient sanctuary in a medieval city in the heart of France. We went to visit a holy place; a place that had, over the centuries, hosted the worship of countless pilgrims and, more recently, tourists; some devoutly religious, others merely curious. Whatever their background, nationality, race, age or creed; whatever their state of spirituality or their relationship with their God; every visitor who goes to the trouble of visiting the shrine shows it proper respect. And it is trouble; there are many stairs and narrow passages to be negotiated, and that’s after having descended tens of metres by roadway or stone staircase from the land above.
Our group was about fifty. That’s how many we were, not our age; you’d need a far larger number for that. We’d come on a day-trip by coach from a holiday centre about ninety minutes’ drive south of here. Not all of us were as fit as we’d like to have been, and certainly not as fit as we had been in our heyday, so we elected to use the elevator to get down to the level that they called the Sanctuary. It was marvellous, it really was. I’d been looking forward to it for years; ever since my Anne passed, really; and it didn’t disappoint. We, well most of us, managed to visit all the important spots: the simplicity of the crypt of St Amadour; the grandeur of Saint Sauveur basilica, its vaulted ceilings supported by 7.6 metre columns; and the chapels of St Jean, St Blaise, St Michel and St Anne. The most important to us, the one we all wanted to see was the Notre Dame chapel, which houses the statue of the so-called “Black Virgin”. This iconic wooden statue of the virgin with child dates from the 12th century. It was originally covered with silver leaf, but that has mostly disappeared over the years, leaving the figures almost completely black.
It’s hard to describe the atmosphere of the place. It was peaceful, serene, I somehow felt closer to God and more at ease with myself and with life than I had ever felt before. Ever since our Billy was sent down for brutally murdering those poor folks, just because their idea of love wasn’t the same as his, I’d been harbouring feelings of guilt; feelings that it was somehow my fault that he’d turned out the way he had. Then, when his mother started suffering the mental torture that eventually led to her taking her own life, I felt that was my fault, too.
All these feelings were washed away by the absolute rightness of this place.
That’s why it came as such a shock when an anguished screaming started to come from the direction of the statue. So shrill, so piercing was it, that everyone in the place clamped their hands against their ears and fell to their knees. Was this right? Was it meant to happen? I had read all the guidebooks and many reviews from previous visitors. Not one spoke of any sound beyond the distant plainsong of the current worshipping community.
This was unbearable. My friend John; John the Ping we called him on account of his hat; he and I were at the front of the chapel, and caught the worst of the noise head-on. We heard one or two at the back run out and start to throw up violently. Others started to collapse on the chapel floor. John and I turned to run, but were unable to move; it was as though we were glued to the flagstones. As abruptly as it had started, the screaming ceased. Inside my head a malevolent-sounding voice uttered words I shall never forget.
“Nine hundred years I am trapped in this statue. I have served my sentence, borne the full punishment, now my time has come.”
John hadn’t heard that voice, only I. John’s feet were released, and he ran to join the rest. As he did, he turned back and shouted, “Sorry Victor. I have to go.” I turned and saw that he was already at the head of the queue to leave, putting as much distance between us as he could manage.
I think I knew already, that my life would never be the same again, and I stared to cry.
“Weep not, Victor; for does not your very name mean winner? And winner you surely are, for what I am I shall add to what you are.”
“What do you mean?” I asked aloud. “Who, what are you?”
“I was Martin; a mason working on the building of this shrine in which we now are.”
“Not Martin the—”
“The very same. I was visited by an angel of darkness and my mind was joined with the horde.”
“The horde. The same horde that controlled the Tartars, the Hun and whatsoever groups throughout history that have visited mindless, uncontrolled violence on others, often in the name of ‘religion’, and it continues to this day. The horde is an instrument of the Fallen One to prevent the will of God being fully manifest on Earth.”
“So what now?”
“Now, Victor, you will remain as you ever were, but with one small difference; I shall be your motivator. Every choice you make, every decision you face, will be my choice, my decision. You won’t know that, but it will be so.”
“I needed someone with a lot of guilt; enough for me to clean out and replace with my genius. But not just any guilt. The guilt I sought had to be related to something so heinous, so horrible, that nought but the peace of this place could set it aside. Only then could I escape my shackles and move in.”
“So what happens now?”
“Now you must go. Go and join your friends.”
“Then I shall call you when I need you. You won’t know it is I calling you. You will know only that you made a choice, a decision; one that you would never normally have made.”
I put on my sunglasses and cap, picked up my rucksack, and rushed to take my place with John at the front of the group.
When I eventually caught up with John, he was at the head of the group, all of whom were rushing away from the sanctuary as fast as their ageing legs would allow them to.
“What’s everyone in such a hurry to get away from, John?” I asked, sounding more confident and upbeat than I felt.
“Didn’t you notice what happened in there?” he said, “Are you the only one didn’t feel the terror in those screams? Can it be that you alone were unaware of the number of people who ran out vomiting, with some even passing out on the floor of the chapel?”
“Of course I saw all that, John,” I replied, “but I also felt the calm of the place and, after you had all left; when I was alone in the sanctuary with that awful screaming; I realised that there was nothing to fear, nothing to justify the mindless panic that you all displayed. It was only a sound, for goodness’ sake; in all probability a change in temperature triggered a release of gas or something that had been trapped inside the wood for ages.”
“We’ll talk about it on the way back to the hotel” John said. “These people with us are seriously concerned about what happened there. If you can throw any light on it, I’m sure we’d all be both grateful and relieved.”
Oh, I can throw some light on it, John, but if I tell you the things I know, I don’t believe gratitude and relief will figure among your responses.
“Of course, John,” I comforted him, “I’d be happy to tell you what I learned after you all scurried out like so many rats from a burning sewer. Notice, though, that it is not I; I who stayed there despite the panic, I who learned of the source of the screaming and what it really meant; it is not I who am afraid. No, it is you; you who let your irrational fears take over and cause you to flee.”
You whose feet weren’t glued to the floor so you couldn’t leave, even if you wanted to. You were right to be afraid, but I’m not about to tell you why. Not yet, anyway.
Back in the bus, everyone eventually settled. Some of the sturdier folk comforted those less able to deal with what they had experienced, while some administered smelling salts.
“I didn’t know people still used smelling salts, John,” I said, “I’ve not seen them since my grandma used to use them when any of her more delicate friends came over giddy at the first sight of a bare knee in the 60s.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that what they’re using was left over from then,” John replied with a chuckle. “Anyway, today’s outing was my idea so, as the next in line, it’s down to you to decide what we all do for entertainment tomorrow, Vic.”
The voice inside my head laughed the archetypical evil I’ve-chained-your-girlfriend-to-the-railway-line-and-the-express-train-is-approaching laugh and I had an inkling that this was to be his first decision.
“I’ve had a funny day, John,” I said, “I don’t think it would be a good idea to ask me to choose our activity for tomorrow.”
“We’ve all had a funny day, Vic,” he replied, “you can’t worm your way out of this one that easily.”
At that moment, I suffered a foretaste of how the rest of my life was to be. I have often been worried about what other people might do, but being terrified of what I was about to do was a new experience for me.