“Torches on the wall burst into flame revealing a cavernous chamber. In it was a low stone maze, its passages, lined with indistinct yet grotesque images, twisting and turning in different directions, apparent staircases descending into the darkness below. In the silence, I heard distant sounds of anguish.”
Mystery, obsession, rage, joy, demons, death, secrets and a lute. All to be found on Johannes’ journey – a father’s search, an artist’s mission, a lost soul’s quest – where nothing, especially Khadra the lute player, is ever quite what it seems.
Let Edward Glover be your guide as you venture beyond the borders of the Herzberg trilogy and The Executioner’s House to an intensely personal landscape in which fantasy, fable and metaphysics overlay ancient civilisations, and threads of history, music and art weave through a vividly conjured seeker’s story.
We began to pass beneath the edge of a low black cloud of immeasurable proportions that had suddenly appeared in the hitherto cloudless sky. Within minutes, a deep brooding sound started to envelop the boat. The sea quickly turned from silver to blue to dark green then inky black. Rays of the sun penetrated a few cracks in the cloud. But they were extinguished as summarily as they had come, snuffed out by the ever-increasing darkness. Khadra and I peered into the residual light. Spectral, almost formless figures emerged from the water, then slowly sank back into the sea. They uttered no sound. The wind gathered strength once more, sufficient to refill the sail to its full extent, as we travelled on towards the always-darkening horizon, the water becoming more disturbed than ever. Still the boatman barely stirred. Khadra held my hand as fear crossed her face.
A moment later, and in a great howl of wind, an enormous creature leapt from the waves. It stretched a long, scaled arm into the air as though reaching to pluck something from the cloud above. It fell back into the water, only for its head and upper torso to re-emerge seconds later amid shrieks of anger and agony. Its limbs thrashed, causing the waves to become ever rougher, flecked with furious white spume. Once more it sank back, to emerge a third time. Its eyes flashed red, its giant face and green lips tortured by evident pain. It continued to twist and turn in the water, its huge hands almost touching the side of our slender boat. It seemed to cry wordlessly for mercy from some unseen torment. I looked at the boatman, who was fighting hard to control the helm.
The concert was on Ascension Day. Earlier, the Doge, accompanied by the nobility and the senate, had sailed out into the lagoon in a special golden barge to toss into the water a ceremonial ring symbolising the city’s marriage to, and indeed its domination of, the sea. The grand gallery, illuminated by myriads of candles, quickly filled. In the front sat the rich, the famous, the powerful and the aspirants to greatness, together with Venetian patricians dressed in long black gowns, mingling with nobles from other parts of Europe. Amongst them, on his throne, sat the Doge in his finery, the perceived earthly link between the city – founded centuries before on the Feast of the Annunciation and designated a Christian realm built from the ruins of ancient Rome – the sea on which its fortunes had flourished and, ultimately, the Virgin, the city’s patron, and the goddess Venus. I sat on a stool, high above the gallery, observing this tableau of pageantry and wealth.
The orchestra entered, in their midst Khadra, wearing a gown of golden taffeta and carrying the lute I had heard her play so often. I was transfixed by her beauty, by her transformation from the young girl who had played to me in Palestine to a tall, elegant, beautiful woman, who could easily captivate anyone, male or female. Perhaps the smiling mask was right – that I had indeed fallen in love with her, that he would win his wager.
As I switched my efforts to the plain-weave prepared canvas – placing it on a fixed wooden stretcher for destubbing and then wetting, followed by restretching, a process I laboriously repeated three times to ensure the canvas’s tension – I began to consider what background I should add to the painting. Should it be European, as the council would expect, or reminiscent of the East? In the silent and sombre sacristy, I could never erase from my mind the sights and sounds of Palestine – the heat, the cold, the dust, the colour, the mysterious figures in their keffiyehs, the camels. The daily chants and prayers in the cathedral were muted by the mesmerising and evocative sound in my head of the oud and other instruments I had heard on our way to Jerusalem. I imagined the Virgin on her journey to Bethlehem riding not a donkey but a camel, swaying gently as it conveyed her to be counted in the emperor’s census, a veil shielding all but her eyes from the dust and concealing her unknowable thoughts while an abaya swathed her body and hid the Child she was carrying. Reflecting on all I had seen in Palestine – recollections I could not put aside however hard I tried – I decided that the background to her portrayal would include horses, camels and elephants, which the magi surely would have ridden as they made their way to the town with their gifts.
A fist pounded on the sacristy door.
“Johannes, the time has come. Open up.” Hendricks’ voice.
This was the moment. There was no turning back. I looked once more at the shrouded altarpiece. My hand shook as I turned the key in the lock and slowly pulled the door open. The councillor stood on the threshold, arms akimbo, dressed like an executioner in black from neck to toe, apart from his white ruff. Behind him stood eight broad-shouldered men, similarly dressed. Beyond them, flares burned in their sconces on the pillars. Hendricks gently bowed.
“Johannes, the scaffold awaits you. The iron hooks have been driven into position above the altar in accordance with your specified measurements of height and width – all exactly as you instructed. It is now time to convey your work to be hung. The great Mass to dedicate the new altarpiece is tomorrow. There is not a moment to be lost.”
I nodded. After checking once again that the red velvet shroud around the painting and its side panels was firmly secure, I beckoned the eight men to lift the picture from its support and to carry it horizontally to the scaffold – four on either side, as though bearing a coffin. I followed them, Hendricks beside me.
As the procession began its slow, careful progress along the nave, from above came the distant chant of monks in the adjacent abbey, seeming to accompany my work to its place of judgement. Behind us a solitary drum beat out the pace of the pallbearers. The flares cast flickering shadows, barely penetrating the darkness that enveloped us. I heard a strange cry overhead. In the wavering light of a flare, I looked up and thought for a moment I saw a gargoyle atop a pillar turn its misshapen, greedy face to watch the cortège. As we approached the altar, the grim outline of the scaffold began to emerge from the shadows, two ropes hanging loose in readiness for the load they would bear. I shuddered. Would it be the painting or me that would hang?
The bricks and mortar of ancient houses rarely divulge to passers-by what they have heard or witnessed. It is more often left to the curious to draw back the secretive curtain to discover, or more likely those with loose tongues to reveal, the happenings – whether death, madness, jealousy, betrayal, rage or joy – that may have left an indelible but silent imprint on the fabric of the building and the lives of the family within.
I see the house has drawn you back. I’m glad I caught sight of you, walking past the open window, as I was sitting here with little to do other than watch the world go by, waiting for my husband-to-be. I apologise for my rudeness in calling out. You smiled and doffed your cap as usual, before continuing on your way along the canal. I had to call again to make you stop. But tomorrow I will be gone, to be married and live elsewhere, and since we talked . . . the end of the story . . . there is a twist to it. Would you like me to share it with you? Now that you have turned back, won’t you come in and have a drink of milk, as before? Good, now sit back and listen to what I have to say.