It’s an older tale that reaches us today, told post-mortem in two parts by an unrelated pair of old soldiers, each a veteran of a different war.
This photograph dating to the early part of the 20th century was discovered in the estate of a former American expatriate who fought for the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. The cryptic verse scrawled on the photo itself, as it turns out, appears to be an excerpt from an old Spanish ballad, sung to this day in a traditional tune by some elder members of the Spanish Catholic community. Interesting part is that the verse, written in English, was scribed onto the photo many years after the confessional story below takes place.
This manuscript was hand written in Italian, and for it's age, incredibly well-preserved. Discovered by the widow of a retired member of the United States Army Air Force. According to the soldier’s widow, her husband served in Africa during World War II before moving with the Allied forces into Italy. Eventually, he found himself in Rome, and then in Vatican City. Security was a bit lax at St. Peter’s in the days after Rome’s liberation. It was there, at the heart of Catholicism, that she claims her husband must have purloined this written confession of a heretical priest. Extensive testing places the age of the document at over 400 years old.
My name is Father Antonio Basso, and may the grace of The Lord grant forgiveness for me through this, my written confession. All that I have done I did for love of my dear friend, whose holy light departed the world before its time. Let no mortal man cast judgement upon my actions, no matter how heretical they might appear.
Father Laurence came to the Catedral de Santa Maria from England, by way of Vatican City, where his work as an archivist – combined with his unparalleled knowledge of holy artifacts – had earned him great renown within the ranks of our Holy Mother Church. It was for this expertise that his presence was required.
For years after the final battle of the Granada War, the armies of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella continued to recover treasures of the church from the heathen Moors who had occupied these holy lands. However, such findings grew less frequent as years passed into decades, until centuries had passed without a single discovery in the region.
Then came that most horrific event, the great earthquake in Arenas del Rey. Better than 800 souls lost, with greater than 4000 homes leveled. And within the remains of one of these homes was found a sarcophagus, ancient with weathered glyphs and faded illuminations, still occupied by the skeletal remains of a man long-dead.
As the men removed the casket from the shattered structure, the debris shifted, causing the bones to spill onto the ground near a pair of corpses, both of which had just been removed from the same structure.
A few claim that the skull from within the sarcophagus came into contact with one of those dead men outside of the ruin.
But all accounts agree that one of the dead men began to shake as though having a fit, then, raising himself from the dust and debris, he began to weep openly, beating his chest and crying out to God and the heavens. And then, according to those same witnesses, his cries turned to laughter, long, high, and sustained, his eyes wide with mad glee.
He killed two of the rescue workers with his bare hands before the others overwhelmed and restrained him. God-fearing men that they are, they brought him here, to the care of the Church, where he was locked away in a cell and interrogated.
The task was given to me. As a novitiate in the field of artifacts and the history of The Church, I was to ascertain the meaning of this occurrence, and to determine the purpose of this creature.
The sight of him set loose a chill within me. Bound as he was, he remained a formidable-looking creature, with hair the color of fire, and an ashen-colored mark upon his head. His gaze fell on me with a mixture of amusement and contempt. Very little interrogation was necessary. It became immediately clear that he felt comfortable in revealing himself and his purpose.
“I am the slayer of the First Martyr,” he said to me. “Mine was the way of the Earth, rejected by God himself in favor of a sacrifice of blood and meat. My doom is life eternal. Devout men are forbidden to bring me harm. Should death befall me physically, my soul shall inhabit the first corpse of man I touch. Within that form, I live forever, unaging, until violent death begins the cycle anew. Thus I continue. Thus I endure.”
At my word, the bishop summoned Father Laurence immediately.
It was weeks later that my friend at last came to us on a night wrought with storms — a humble man, mounted on a donkey, and with a canvas sack of books slung across his back. A raucous raven clung to his shoulder, brash and eager, begging for corn. Our reunion, I fear, was more short-lived than I’d hoped.
“Take me to this dead thing,” he ordered me immediately. “For I must learn its purpose.”
I do not know how long my friend remained in the cell with that monster. I swear to almighty God that, from within, there came much shouting, and an unearthly howling, and a great bout of laughter, mocking and vile. I discerned my friend yelling in a righteous fury. And then, after much time, there was silence.
Father Laurence emerged from the cell soaked in sweat, pale and short of breath. His eyes were swollen with fear. With a trembling hand he steadied himself on the arm of a chair as he slowly sat upon it. His raven quarked, then flew to his shoulder. Laurence stroked absently at its feathers. Still wheezing, he turned his eyes to me.
“This creature,” he gasped, “is as close to the First Evil as I have ever been.
“They bound him, Antonio,” he explained to me. “The Moors. Infidels they may be, yes. But they recognized him for the abomination he is, and trapped his spirit within that skeleton. Quite a clever cage, really. And such a simple trick! He laid immobile for centuries within those skeletal bonds. There was no muscle, no sinew, nothing to propel him. He was bound within it — for all eternity, or so they’d hoped.”
Father Laurence trailed off, staring into a corner of the room. Then he leapt from the chair. His raven, startled, gave a cry of complaint before flying across the chamber and taking refuge on a great golden crucifix.
“We must bind it as they did,” Laurence said. “I require a corpse. We need a corpse of bones, a skeleton. Nothing else.”
I explained to Laurence that our crypts within the cathedral were sanctified and sealed. Only the bishop could access them. And he, I fear, had already fled this place.
Father Laurence slumped, and his eyes sought the sky as his hand drew a cross upon his chest. He looked around the room frantically. His raven called out again, agitated, and Laurence’s eyes were thus drawn to the bird and his perch. With a heave, he crossed the room to that golden crucifix, shooed his bird away, and yanked it down. Then he handed it to me.
“You must kill me, Antonio,” he said. “Strike me with this cross. Deliver to me a fatal blow to my head. Crack my skull. Damage the brain. Then deliver my dead form to the creature within. Its touch will transfer its soul to my body. But with only a damaged brain to guide it, the monster will be helpless, harmless.”
My soul quailed at the very notion. This was my friend, a man of God whom I loved. I explained to him that at no time, in no way, could I so much as conceive of the notion of slaughtering him. Not even to prevent a great evil. Laurence’s gaze fixated on me. His hands grasped me by the collar of my robes as he begged me again to offer his body upon this altar. And again, I refused his pleas.
He released me with a roar. Shaking – be it with madness or with rage, I knew not – he threw his gaze left and right and up and down, until his eyes fell at last upon the great window. With one last look at me, sad and filled with regret, he ran to the open portal. He paused at the precipice to look at me, and said, “Do it, Antonio. You must. There is no other way.” Then he threw himself into the night.
With arms spread wide like those of our Lord on the cross, my friend dove from high atop the cathedral walls. The cries of the raven and my very own anguished screams did little to silence the horrific sound of his body crunching against the flagstones below. I could do nothing. Father Laurence was not killed by the fall. When I arrived at the bottom of the tower, his body still drew breath on its own. I knelt and gingerly examined his head, then quailed at the sight of the damage done there.
A large flap of flesh hung from the side of Laurence’s skull. A section of bone had broken free of his skull, exposing the gray matter of his brain beneath. Blood flowed freely down his face, past eyes that stared, vacant, yet which rolled in the sockets. His mouth hung loosely, slack-jawed.
Though his body yet lived, it was clear that his mind was gone.
I swear to almighty God the Father that my memory of the minutes that followed is gone. I can recall nothing between the time of Father Laurence’s death and the moment that I came to my senses, throat raw from screaming, sweat burning my eyes, and with my hands wrapped around the throat of the abomination. He was on his knees with his arms hanging limp at his sides, his hand upon the floor. His face was the blue of darkest midnight.
I wept there for some time as I came to grips with my sin – that which I’d just committed, and that which I knew was to follow. Then, shouldering the body of the man I’d slain over my shoulders, I began the long walk down the slick stone stairs to the courtyard below.
The deed was accomplished, and the effect was just as Laurence had predicted. Laurence’s body lives to this day. But there is a rage in his single functioning eye that was never there before this half-life. The creature is clearly within. I bound the possessed body of my friend in chains in a hidden cell, then barred the door with a heavy beam of fire-hardened oak. I uttered multiple prayers and blessings over lock and bar and door, dousing them with holy water. And there I left him.
Over the years I cared for Laurence as best I could, keeping his existence a secret from the world. On occasion, a choirboy or nun would swear to having seen a creature matching his description wandering the cathedral. And every time word of this reached me, I would race to Laurence’s cell in a panic, throwing open the door to find him still there, single eye staring at or through me. Yet even with these rumors, it took years for the Church to discover my crime.
Many times over these weeks of inquisition I have been asked, “Why did you not, at the first opportunity, slay the body of Father Laurence? Why not then do as the Moors had done once you were able to place this creature’s spirit within another skeletal prison?”
My reply until now has been no reply at all. But in the spirit of this, my confession, I will say this: I did it out of hope. I am an old man now. But the body of Laurence remains undiminished by age. Crippled as it is, and inhabited by evil, it is still the flesh of my beloved friend. And occasionally, as I stare into that creature’s eye, bound in his chains, I catch a glimpse of something other than hate. Compassion, maybe. Regret, perhaps.
But within those glimpses I see the soul of my friend. I am certain of it. Some part of Laurence remains within, trapped with that creature, struggling, I believe, for control. And for so long as there was hope, I was so compelled to aid him.
I do not know what my superiors have done with this thing. I have asked, but have received no reply. And tomorrow I go to the pyre, victim of accusations of heresy and witchcraft and consorting with The Devil. It matters little. My soul is held in the arms of Our Lord. He knows my heart and mind better than these men.
It would seem a stretch to try to connect the apparent ramblings of a convicted priest from the 1500s to a photograph taken in the 1930s.But the architecture in the photo bears a striking resemblance to that of the now-ruined Catedral de Santa Maria. Is there a haunting in the house of God?