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Dark Night of the Soul

-- LA Moss


A soft pounding roused Demetri from a fitful state that could hardly have passed for sleep. He placed a hand over his chest feeling the rhythm of his heart, finding the beat more quick and steady than the sound that had awakened him.

"Demetri, it's me." A hushed voice seeped into the room through the cracks around the door; through the wood itself. Antonio's voice. "I've brought some stew for you. Come, let me inside."

Demetri thought to bury himself beneath the bedcovers and hide there until Antonio gave up and went away. Company was the last thing he wanted -- and food. But his friend had risked being caught out of his room after curfew and Demetri would not have wished a demonstration of Father Vincent's creative punishments on anyone, especially his closest friend. He had no choice but to let Antonio in, if nothing else, to save him.

His head swam for a moment after he rose. By the time he reached the door, the dizziness had begun to ease away. He found Antonio waiting outside not so patiently, grimacing at the groaning objection of rusty hinges that certainly had reached Father Vincent's ears even through the closed door of his office a floor below them. Father Vincent, it had been said, had been endowed by God with supernatural hearing that sharpened even more after the Major Silence was evoked. He could hear ants tiptoing in the basement if he were so inclined to listen for them.

Antonio crept into the room, cringing again at the rusty creak when Demetri closed the door. His too-red lips drew back, exposing clenched teeth.

"Damn that door!" he hissed, shuffling past Demetri gingerly as he watched the bowl and cup on the tray he carried with careful determination until he could finally rid himself of the burden. The dishes clanked against each other as Antonio deposited the tray on the writing table next to Demetri's bed. "It is freezing in here!" He frowned up at the only window in the tiny room, shaking his head. "It is the dead of winter, Demetri. Do you want to take a chill? You're sick enough already."

Demetri watched his friend pull the window closed and latch it while he cursed the winter's cold breath. Demetri hadn't noticed the room was all that cold, but it must have been, Antonio was hugging himself and dancing in place and looking at Demetri as if he'd gone insane.

"I was worried when you didn't come down to dinner. I thought the stew would make you feel better. It's only broth really. I strained the potatos and meat..."

"You shouldn't have gone to the trouble." Demetri turned away from his friend and leaned over the tiny dresser that stood beneath the window, mindlessly running his fingers over the cracked finish of the old violin that had lay there untouched for weeks now. The dresser creaked and groaned under his weight. He felt sympathy for the old, rickety piece of furniture. They were so alike, both ready to collapse beneath the weight of a terrible burden.

Warmth crept up behind Demetri and he forgot his thought of the dresser. The heat of Antonio's body reached out to him with such potency that he could have sensed the young novice's presence even in complete darkness; an ability that often astounded his friends.

"You are so pale." Antonio said. "Come and sit down."

Antonio sat beside Demetri on the bed, studying his friend with a somber intensity. Demetri avoided his gaze. It was too much to bear; the questions, the concern, the suspicion. Instead, he let his gaze drift to the crucifix hanging above the head of his bed; so beautiful and so ghastly a thing; his beloved Lord pierced and bleeding and dying; his face twisted with pain. You forgave them, Demetri thought, You forgave those who killed you and yet you cannot forgive me. He fought back a sudden urge to snatch the hideous thing from the wall and fling it out the window.

Antonio leaned forward and rested his arms across his thighs, lacing his fingers together in that way he often did when he was about to speak some grave or profound word. Someday those thighs would be a lecturn, Demetri thought, and the simple cassock the young man wore would be the robes of a priest.

"I have heard you at night."

Demetri forced a pitiful smile. "It always amazes me how you can say so much with so few words."

"I cannot be silent about this any longer."

Demetri nodded. "I know."

"So?"

"You should not be concerned."

Antonio sent Demetri an astonished look. "Not be concerned? You have been ill for weeks. I hear you retching and weeping at night. I hear you cry out in your sleep. You hardly eat and what little food you do take rarely stays with you. Look at yourself, Demetri! You are so thin. Have you not seen a doctor?"

"There is no reason. I'm not ill." The overpowering smell of the stew triggered a sudden wave of nausea. Demetri pushed himself from the bed and rushed to the window. He threw it open, gasping, drawing the cold, fresh air into himself. His body convulsed and he began to retch though his insides had nothing to give. He sank to the windowsill and laid his head on the back of his hands allowing the cold breeze to soothe his damp, fevered body.

"I am going to find Father Vincent!" Antonio said.

"No." Demetri shook his head. It rolled back and forth against his hands. "Just sit here with me."

"Demetri, look at you! You should be in the infirmary!"

"Just sit here with me, Antonio."

He could feel his friend behind him again; the heat that reached out to him, building as Antonio came closer, and the wonderful warmth as he laid his arm across Demetri's back. He thought he could hear Antonio's heart beating. He was certain he could hear it. He began to sob against the windowsill.

"Demetri," Antonio whispered.

"God is killing me."

"Please. Let me close the window."

"My soul is lost," Demetri sobbed.

"It is this fever. You're delirious. Come, lie down." Antonio tugged at Demetri gently, pulling him away from the window.

"No. This is my punishment." He grasped Antonio's shoulders. "I am not delirious. I am leaving the seminary. I will not die here and defile this place!"

"Don't say such things. You can't leave. You will be ordained in two years, Demetri. Would you abandon your calling now -- and your God?"

"He has abandoned me! I was not meant for the priesthood." He looked up at Antonio; into his beautiful Sicilian amber eyes so filled with compassion that Demetri could hardly stand to look at them. So innocent, Demetri thought. How can I tell you these horrible things...

"What is so wrong, my friend? Why do you think God is punishing you? I know you too well. Father Vincent could sin more in one day than you have in all your life."

"You don't know, Antonio. You don't know the things that are happening to me. I must confess this before I go, if only to you. Please."

"I will take you to Father Vincent. You should confess to him if you have something to confess at all."

Antonio started to back away, but Demetri held him. His friend's eyes grew wide. The blood began to pound through him.

Demetri pulled Antonio closer. "It is the dreams," he whispered. "I have committed such horrible sins in my heart, in the night, in the dreams; so horrible that God has turned away from me. I have lusted for things so dark that my heart is blackened with the evil of them. I cannot even speak these things aloud. All I can do now is accept my reprobation."

Antonio wrapped his arms around Demetri. "No. There is forgiveness."

His feathered breath tickled at Demetri's ear; warm, like the body pressing against him, like the blood that gave it life. He drew back and pushed Antonio away. "I'm tired. Leave me alone now."


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Demetri managed to dust the chapel's pughs and the windowsills before the ache in his body forced him to cut his duties short. He left the chapel without having swept the floor or washed the window glass. This illness, as Antonio had called it, seemed to grow worse with each day that passed. He could hardly keep up now with his studies, much less his daily chores. God was killing him slowly, but certainly.

But there were still chores to be done this evening. It was his night to help serve dinner. He would rest for a while first, he thought; sit for a while before heading back to the rectory.

He started down the breezeway that connected the chapel to the seminary proper. The last of the evening sun seeped through tiny spaces in the dead brown tangle of grapevines covering the lattice between the breezeway's support pillars. The ochre beams that managed to penetrate the dense mass speckled the flagstones with dying golden sparks.

Demetri hurried to beat the fading light. Cold wind whipped though the breezeway biting viciously at his face. He pulled his cassock close around him. The shivering tightened his insides, bringing on a bought of nausea that reminded him of the immortal danger he faced, reminded him again that death was stalking him, that the terror and torment of Hell awaited him. The knowledge was more impossible to bear than the pain in his body.

When he reached the cloister of the old converted monastery, the dull sound of his footsteps on the stone became a ringing echo, driving itself like cold nails into his temples. He stopped, or rather, something stopped him; a whisper across the courtyard, movement in the shadows between the columns on the opposite side, a tingling sensation reaching out to him from the darkness.

He might have imagined the motion and the sound, but the feeling was real. Powerful, unsettling; a presence like the menacing sensation of a coming storm that changes the feel of the air. The feeling gripped his spine like cold fingers of fear.

He hurried on; the fear urging him to quicken his pace. Between the sharp echoes of his footsteps, he imagined hearing a softer step behind him, slower than his own.

The sun was gone. The only light came now from the high windows of the old seminary building. It cast a soft glow onto the courtyard, but the cloister was dark now and behind him, only shadows.

He felt like a child stalked by some imaginary terror and the doorway ahead promised salvation and safety. He ducked inside, slammed the door shut and collapsed against it, panting, feeling the trickles of cold sweat that crept in stinging trails down the sides of his face. His head pounded in horrible rhythm with his heart. His chest ached from drawing in the chilled air. His stomach heaved up inside him and for a moment he thought he would vomit, but he fought the sensation until finally it passed.

He searched for a quiet place to sit for a while before going on to the rectory. The door of the calefactory was open. The room was blessedly empty. But as he stepped across its threshold, the sound of his own name rang out from the end of the hallway.

"Demetri!"

He turned to see Father Vincent's squat form waddling toward him, a tall man in a dark suit beside him; a priest Demetri had never seen.

The Master of Novices gestured for Demetri to join them. "Demetri is one of my brightest pupils," he was telling the stranger. "So devoted. He will make a fine priest. Demetri, this is Father Nikoli Waarnekhe. He is visiting us from Vienna. I have told him you are the finest violinist in all of Venice and that he must hear you play before he leaves us."

Father Nikoli nodded and spoke Demetri's name. The word flowed out of him like hot, liquid silver. The sound of it made Demetri shudder. Demetri stood motionless, paralyzed. The same unsettling sensation that had reached out to him tonight from the shadows of the cloister he felt again as he looked into the clear emerald eyes that stared back at him so intently.

He could hardly manage not to stare at the priest. He was an imposing figure, towering over Father Vincent, with hair the color of midnight and eyes so green they seemed almost unnatural, and those eyes seemed to see, as though the man knew at a glance, everything that Demetri was, everything he felt, every thought in his mind.

"Did you hear me, my son?" Father Vincent asked, jarring Demetri from his dark thoughts.

"Father?"

"Where on earth is your mind, boy? Bring your violin. It is not often you have the chance to play for such an esteemed guest."

"The boy is not well," Father Nikoli said. "Another time, perhaps."

His voice was soft, hypnotic, beautiful. It made Demetri think of dark red velvet; warm and rich and soothing with a sensuousness beyond what a young novice should ever have to bear.

"I think it would do him good," Father Vincent argued gently.

Father Nikoli sent a dark glance at the priest then looked back at Demetri apologetically.

"I have kitchen duty this evening, Father," Demetri said meekly. He could hardly imagine himself capable of drawing a pleasant note in his condition.

"Then I will have someone take your place." Father Vincent waved him away. "Now go on. Bring your violin and join us in my sitting room. Hurry now."


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Demetri let the soft music take him over, and while he played, the pain seemed to recede into some hidden place inside, chased away perhaps by the sweet notes and by the passion that brought them out of that old, ragged instrument. It had been so long since he'd felt that passion, but suddenly it was alive in him, if only for this short time, and he drifted with it to a place far from the fear and the pain and the promise of damnation that haunted him every moment of the day and especially the night.

The priest's unnerving emerald eyes never left him while he played, and in them, Demetri imagined he could see his own reflection; two images of some unrecognizable, pitiful wraith, once a vigorous young man, who's likeness was trapped forever beneath the glistening surface of frozen emeralds and held there by his own fascination.

He could not tear his eyes from that hideous and beautiful stare. He saw more there than merely his own reflection; danger; hunger; and the promise of dark and rapturous delights that Demetri had himself known within the horrible depths of his nightmares; the same as those that had damned him, and yet there was no shame, no guilt in the priest's eyes nor in his manner, or in the essence of him that reached out to Demetri alone.

Nikoli watched Demetri with dark intent. His long fingers dug into the arm of his chair as Demetri performed the most difficult passage of his chosen portion of Mendelssohn's Concerto in E Minor and Nikholi seemed to strain with expectation and awe as if his very life depended on the perfection of every note. And Demetri played to that expectation, finding some dark pleasure in the priest's response and the way his expression would intensify with the swelling urgency of the music. When the room fell silent, Nikoli leaned back and sighed with the satisfaction of a man who had spent himself in passion.

Demetri felt a sudden flush of shame, as if he had been the lover with whom this stranger had found his release. His stomach churning, he hardly managed to excuse himself before bolting from the room, dizzy with guilt and desire. He wanted to keep running; down the stairs, out the door, into the street and never stop until he would drop dead from exhaustion. He found himself instead in the quiet darkness of his own cell.

He flung the violin away from him. The sickening crash of splintering wood echoed through his head. He was burning. His blood raged in him like rivers of fire through Hell itself. Gasping, groaning, he threw the window open.

The icy wind swept into the room, stinging his face where tears had fallen. The skin tightened across his cheeks as the cold air dried his tears.

The heat felt as if it would strangle him. He tore off his cassock and leaned out of the window, sobbing. The chilled air poured over his fevered body and it felt so wonderful, though he should have been trembling from the cold. This is what hell will be like, he thought. And I will be there soon. He looked down at the courtyard. The moon's light bathed the winter-dead rose garden below in silvery-blue, giving it an unearthly glow that made him think of that beautiful place he would never see.

He imagined his body lying twisted and broken on the walkway below. The madness within him urged him to climb over the windowsill and dive out into the night, but the sane part of him fought the desire. Death wouldn't end his torment. Death would be only the beginning.

He pushed himself away from the window and staggered to his bed where he collapsed into a pitiful heap and wept uncontrollably until he finally fell into a fitful sleep.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

He stood before the open window again, in a dream this time. The moonlight cast its soft glow over his bare skin. He saw himself, not as the pale, thin, starving wraith he had become, but full-fleshed, strong and beautiful as he was before this madness began. And his eyes were different; no longer the dark, almost black-brown of his Greek ancestry. They glistened yellow-gold; the color of a pale topaz, and stood out like gleaming jewels against his dark lashes. They reminded him of Father Nikoli's eyes; unnatural, arresting, and the same predacious hunger filled them.

As he stood in the chill of the open window, he felt a warmth reach out to him from behind. He knew even before he turned that is was Antonio. He felt happy to see his friend; happy -- and unashamedly aroused. He stretched his arms out to Antonio and pulled him close, savoring the warmth that radiated from Antonio's body and the heat that it evoked within his own.

Antonio tried to pull away, mumbling something about his eyes, but Demetri held on to him, whispered soothing words to him until he was still again.

He let his lips touch Antonio's throat, feeling the bewitching throb of the pulse against his mouth. That part of him he had cursed so often before became instantly like stone.

He felt a hand caressing his back. He shuddered at the sensuousness of the touch, drew back and opened his eyes. It was Father Nikoli he embraced now, and for a moment, Demetri allowed himself to savor the touch he had so wickedly craved; the velvet caress of those cool hands over his shoulders, the nape of his neck. But the pain was returning. The pain was returning, and...he was not dreaming.

He was not dreaming this!

Terror exploded within him. Slivers of moonlight streamed through the window, falling across Father Nikoli's face and he seemed at that moment, a beguiling spectre; beautiful and ominously engaging. And he held Demtri in his arms like a lover, stroking his hair as if his intent had been to comfort and not something so repulsive as Demetri feared.

Demetri tried to wriggle from the priest's grasp. "Please. Not this!" he pleaded, gasping. "Not this!"

But as terrifying and revolting as Father Nikoli's touch should have been, it wasn't so. It was electrifying; drawing gasps of pleasure from some wicked and depraved place deep within Demetri's soul.

"You are so weak, little one," the priest whispered. "Don't exhaust yourself with this struggle. I would never hurt you." He looked down at Demetri affectionately, brushed the stray hair from his forehead. His eyes were calming and filled with that dark promise and with the intent of delivering it now. Demetri could feel an urgent tension beneath the gentle caress of the Father's cool hands. He felt it in the deep, heavy breath against his throat. He felt it in the strong, pounding heart that urged the blood to quicken through the body poised above him. But there was not a hint of tension in those beautiful emerald eyes. There was only comfort.

"I know it hurts you. I know this pain. But you needn't be afraid, Demetri. Tonight will see the end of it."

"I don't want to die." Demetri sobbed. He threw his arms around Father Nikoli, not caring what horrors might be waiting for him within the clutch of the priest's embrace.

"You have no reason to fear death," Father Nikoli said. "I will not allow it to take you." He stroked Demetri's hair as he spoke. "I've come to finish what has already begun."

"But I'm dying. I've sinned. I've allowed evil into my heart..."

"Your only sin is denial. This is something you cannot fight, Demetri. It is in your blood; your father's blood." The priest's arms tightened around Demetri. "He must not have known he had a son. He would have come for you by now. He would not have allowed you to suffer this pain." His lips brushed Demetri's throat as he spoke. "Do you remember the night you took food to the old groundskeeper?"

Demetri nodded. He remembered. It had been only a month ago. The old man was sick and Demetri had taken it on himself to tend to the man.

"I saw you that night," Father Nikoli said. "I saw you and I knew. I felt how you needed me."

Demetri felt dizzy. The hot sting at his throat came suddenly, but not surprisingly. He had dreamed this moment as he had dreamed of giving this dark kiss himself. He had tasted the bittersweet essence of life even as Nikoli tasted it now. It terrified him. Intrigued him. A part of him tried to protest, but couldn't. He wanted to scream, but only a breathless groan escaped him. His fingers tangled in the thick locks of hair that caressed his face as the pain began to fade. A gray amnesiac haze crept into his awareness, pushing back all memory; arresting all thought and leaving only the present. Nothing mattered but this moment; the silky touch of strange hands over his skin; the spiced scent of this stranger's hair; the powerful throbbing of Nikoli's heart that quickened as Demetri's own began to slow, and the ever increasing heat of his body pressing close, drawing Demtri's fever into himself as he drained the very life from him.

Demetri was not certain when that near eternal moment ended; faded into the next darker one and absorbed into the past, but he would hold that moment dear in its new form, as the greatest of memories.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This too, he thought, gazing up at the sharp silhouette of gothic towers that rose before a fat, cold moon. He anticipated a pang of sadness that never came as he lingered there on the walk among the thorny twigs of a dormant rose garden. He let himself remember their sweet scent as he reflected on the time spent within those walls. He would not close a door to this past. He would leave it here, he thought, as he reached for the ragged old suitcase that stood at his feet. The world waited beyond the gate, and in the shadows there, he imagined some slight movement, a whisper from across the yard and a sensation that reached out to him from the darkness. Nikoli had been patient, but it was time to go.


1996