After the serenata, late at night, we settled down to the tables in front of the Florian Café in Piazza di San Marco. Your little one, but, as they say, a select company: the redhead goddess and her innermost followers. Three Hungarians: the goddess, Jancsi Karvaly and me, a Croatian: dr. Krics and a man of rare nationality, a nationality not very often seen in gate society, as alive I know only one thing: a thoroughbred Albanian, Ostris Milos, the sculptor.
He was otherwise a new figure in the company. He stumbled upon us here in Venice. Karvaly Jancsi knew him from Budapest, the master school, he introduced it. That’s how Ostris came to us, of course to his loss. To her loss, because she was huddled in the redhead goddess along the way. That was supposed to be the case. We knew this in advance, we had fun with it. Everyone who came close to the goddess did so. Given the goddess’s hair, we called it “red fever.” The doctor from Rijeka -177-also found the scientific medical name “febris rossa concupiscentiae”.
Well, we settled in front of Florian, because in Venice it is customary to sit only in front of Lavena during the day, and at night Florian is, so to speak, obligatory.
It was a beautiful moonlit night. It is one of those milky white-bright nights when the yellowish-filthy flames disappear into the gleaming world, and only where the ink-like shadow of the Procuratias flows out do they write glowing dots, dim curves into the great blackness. But the greatest light, the greatest glitter, flowed from the magnificent church of San Marco. About the gilded boy, the fat neck of the Greek bronze horses, the plenty of robbed, smooth marbles; the white domes, the golden crosses, seemed to be woven from fog and light, so hovering so easily over the wonderful church. A light shadow slid past the image of the ancient, timeless masterpiece; somewhere here and there, emerging from the darkness of an arc, disappearing into the shadows of a carving, the shadow of a dove changing its sleeping place, but in the fairytale night one thought,
Well, we settled in front of Florian. Everyone ordered something, who did this, who did it. Only the Albanian did not order anything. He was just looking at the red goddess, staring at hungry wolf eyes. We had an opinion about it, Jancsi Karvaly, the doctor, and me: she was in a terrible pose-178- we considered the Albanian a frater. He always spoke sought after, always behaving in a way worthy of an artist. Karvaly once said – and I find it apt – that the Albanian is constantly wearing his artistic passion, which is just as indecent as wearing a fur coat with his hair out. If you have a fur coat, have a fur coat, but don’t branch out with its hairy nature.
The red goddess spoke:
“You’re terribly boring again today.”
The words of the goddess contained as much ungratefulness as is unacceptable only to the most beautiful women. After all, we did everything to entertain him all day! We tossed solds to the children who had brought them up from the bottom of the lagoon by swimming, we took them to the serenata, where at the cost of American nabobic tipping we only managed to sing his songs on the tali, the doctor from Fiume spoke his most horrible pathological cases to entertain, Jancsi Karvaly produced the killing of pigs, starting from wood cutting, knife grinding to pig chirping. And yet he says that…! We were deeply offended.
– Yes, you are terribly boring. Even the funniest is Ostris Milos, at least he listens.
We were even more offended, and the Albanian smiled, only with his eyes, but he smiled. However, the goddess continued before us with no more unusual logic:-179-
– Ostris, tell me something. Can’t you hear? Tell me.
He nodded as a sign of the Albanian’s obedience. Then he stood up. Then he put down his hat and smoothed back his bluish-black hair. He took a deep breath and then coughed. Terrible pose frater, I thought to myself and said to Jancsi Karvaly: Fur, and he calmly replied:
– Bunda – Bunda.
But the Albanian began to tell:
“See, goddess of gold, so looking at San-Marco at night, I can hardly believe that this basilica is a reality and not a dream. And I dare not go close to him, because I imagine that it is distributed along with fog, mist, nothing. It is from there, perhaps, that in my country a tale is told there in Chernagor, a tale of a large, mysterious, magical church. A legend that was born there somewhere in the Thracian mountains, where so many heresies once raged, where the half-forgotten memories of the heresy of Arian and Bogumili still live. And this legend, both Christian and pagan, was not born of orthodoxy, but something of a mixture of Eastern and Western conceptions. Heretics, too.
“Don’t make such an introduction, Ostris,” the goddess said.
The Albanian drove himself and continued:
“I’ll tell you the way they’re told there, the way my mother told me there”
At the highest, steepest, most deserted peak of the sheer Karst once stood a church, -180-mysterious, huge basilica; its narrow marble pillars were lost in the rock cliff on which it was built, rising from it up, up, up, to the carved architravas, to the pierced lace gable roofs above which a huge gilded dome rose, embossing the unbroken logic of its sphere in a regular arc. Multi-branched, buttoned crosses spread their golden arms above the temple into the sky as if to embrace the skies.
The huge temple covered the whole mountain like the crown of the heads of kings. Where the walls of the church ended, the vertical slope began. Ut did not lead up, no bridge approached, he stood on the ridge of the mountain, surrounded by depth, inaccessible. And yet on the façade of the basilica, under a triple-arched arch, a large bronze gate rose, opening into nothingness, into the cavity. But the gate was locked.
Once every year, on Christmas Eve, the day of Adam and Eve, the church was still full of man. With more people every year. It could have been a hundred thousand, more, I don’t know. There were people of all orders and ages. Beggars in rags, peasants in sheepskin, knights up to their feet in iron armor, cute silk robes, women, girls, priests, friends, tetrarchs, kings too, with heavy, stony crowns, in purple heels. And these clothes were from all ages in Christian times, people from all ages.
A four-poster altar in the saint of the saints, under which an old priest officiated. He looked terribly old-181- this priest, tired, faint, and hunched, as if he had pressed his shoulder for centuries, as if it were not the grace of God but his wrath that kept his servant beyond the human age.
How did these get into the inaccessible church? How could they come through the depths, through the ever-locked gate?
A living man could not get here, only a dead one. Because people were dead, dead who were neither guilty enough to hell nor good enough to deserve heaven. They are dead who have not triumphed over temptations in their lives, but have turned away from them. Those who closed their eyes to the beauties of life, full of fear, in the words of the Lord, were “neither cold nor warm.” These came together here, all the cowardly men of the centuries, who turned from the demands of life out of fear. They came together here to tempt one day every year.
And the old priest, who trembled before the altar burning with candlelight, was the servant whom Matthew testified to the talent, but who, though he did not preach, hid it in the ground and did not steward it according to the decree of the Lord. .
Fear, dread, a trembling cry for help sounded in his old, captain’s voice, he also resounded in the voice of the huge audience, roaring to himself, in the word of the organ. Prayer, singing, broke out even more fervently than usual because of the mystical temple -182-mysterious letters shone in his mosaics, proclaiming that the hour of final redemption, or final damnation, was not far off.
Next to the far column was a young Thracian shepherd. He was here for the first time this year. He had grazed his flock there among the cliffs last summer. He spent his short life there. Away from the world, away from temptations. That’s how he got here.
Now there was a terrible crackle from the big church door. The singing stopped and everyone’s eyes looked at the gate in horror. For now came the hour of temptation, which had been the same for centuries. Only the organ sobbed in a painful, crying voice.
Some secret force tore open the gate with a big bang and a shepherd boy kneeling at the far pillar saw a tall white female figure enter through it. She was covered in a long white swinging dress, her unfolded golden hair fluttering over her shoulder as if it were playing around in the rays of the sun. He held a large red lily in his hand, as if offering it. His face was as pale as a pair of marble. Swollen, bleeding lips and a lily were just red throughout the apparition. The “Devil of Venus” whispered a man next to the shepherd and cast a cross.
As the gate opened, as if some wind had struck it, the audience rippled in the basilica; who fell to the ground, who crouched in the dust, who covered his face and the soft, dreaded prayer under the vaults of the giant cathedral sounded like the quiet knock of dense rain. It’s the old priest-183- hoarse in a hoarse voice in front of the altar: Libera nos domine…
Slowly slowly; barely moving, eyes wide open like a sleepwalker, the female apparition headed for the altar. He passed slowly among the audience and always held the red, mystical lily in front of him. As he passed among the people who turned away from him, who covered their faces with the enticing temptation, the earth began to tremble. There were more and more terrifying screams in the organ, and dark wings fluttered behind the large, painted windows, as if the gleaming interior of the church had dragged the ghosts flying into the night.
The woman in the white dress had already reached the altar, where the captain of the captain desperately embraced the chrysoprase gold cross, turned there, and slowly, terribly slowly, always offering the damn flowers, headed for the exit. The organ screamed insanely, as if a devil had roared in every whistle, the temple ground swayed at every step of the woman, some stones fell from the cute mosaics, then several whole pieces fell, the variegated glass of the windows rattled, the walls, the large the dome also began to crack and the horrible jaws of a thousand demons grinned through the cracks, the cracks in the broken windows. In vain did the psalms of the faithful wrestle with the terrible roar of the afterlife. The woman had already reached the last column, she was almost over it, the vault of the large porter had split in two, the long columns of columns were already swaying, the whole giant ship was about to collapse.-184-
The white apparition passed by the shepherd boy. The shepherd jumped up. He grabbed the woman. He tore the red lily out of his rainy hand. He hugged her. Violently. And he pressed a hot kiss to his red, bleeding lips.
The image of the church changed magically. Triumphant-sounding roaring trumpets in the organ on the wing; through the window benevolent angels flew under the great dome, six-winged, hundred-eyed, glowing cherubim and walls, smiling stars shining through the cracks of the shops to the redeemed believers, the celestial harmonies of the shining universe.
The Albanian bowed before the beautiful woman.
“Im, this is the lady I dream of before San-Marco.”
The goddess gestured graciously. He looked at himself in front of him for a few moments. We started.
I was annoyed by the attention with which the goddess listened to the tale. Karvaly also annoyed Jancsi, the doctor from Rijeka. What a posey frater! – I thought and said to Jancsi Karvaly:
– Fur, of course, fur! He replied with a bitter smile.