Of the Flower of Jericho
Anno Domini 1479
Our forebears, the hard working Noricans and the warring Tauriscs, not yet having embraced the faith of Our Lord Jesus, and for this and their sinful lives surely doomed to eternal damnation, had out of some premonitory fear or demonic conscience, scraped out resting places for their dead in the vertical cliffs of the deep canyon under the overhang where our town has grown into the rock. Since then the only residents there have been jackdaws.
In spring and early summer they were hatched on the inaccessible ledges of the gray-brown rock, in its black crevices and maze-like caves beyond, where not a raindrop falls, let alone a shaft of light, high above the springtime turbulence of the river waters and far below the ground where the Sora Plain begins. Stridently they would fly off into different days - sunny and windy, tempestuous and electrified - as though they couldn’t sense danger or weather and their energy originated in itself, fed on itself and was fearless in its driven blindness. In the scorching heat of summer it was as if they were not there. They might have blended into the crazy and capricious whirlwind of summer, the tattered mass of centrifugal voices and glaring damask light. Or they might have gone off somewhere, migrated, and then returned only in the fall. We never did, to the best of my knowledge, think about it much, but it is an indisputable fact that in the fall, the further we were into the season, they would appear increasingly in the sky above the town, gliding blackly into sight, the crisp flap of wings reaching our ears. They almost became the only birds in our skies.
Every single fall, an hour before sunset, the black flock would come flying from the southeast over the parapet near the fourth city gate. It would encompass the main square like a black net, brushing Hog Street and Flower Street with its right and left flanks respectively, all the way up to the Cloister and the first city gate, then circle the latter and return in identical formation. Shortly before reaching the tall, spiked steeple of the parish church, the flock would abandon the form and order of its flight pattern, and shrilly release the tension from its collective throat while settling in hasty confusion on the steep spire, the rain gutters, the eaves, the high clock and the little windows. They did not rise again as a flock till the black of night. We never learned exactly when they did fly away. In early morning they were simply gone. Just an occasional lone, stray daw would circle low above the ground, or hop about, or scavenge in the green garbage can. That’s how it was every day each fall.
The day before yesterday, on October 28, it was exactly thirteen years since the day when on an identical, wet and overcast late afternoon we carried the last of the sick far out into the fields, to the Siechen Haus. That was the year, in 1466, when cholera last ravaged our town, and later that night, upon our return from the fields we lit a fire on the main square in front of St. Kocijan’s so big that the tongues of its flame threatened even the stone blocks of the belfry and the high clock. When the blaze was truly magnificent and so hot that it made the air around crackle, we carted up the white mucoused garments of the dead and dying, and, with pitchforks in our hands and linen cloths covering our mouths, we fed them to the devouring flames, so that the rag smoke, which smelled sickly sweet as though we had burned the poor souls’ bones along with their tatters, hung low over the roofs for three days, settling down into the small spaces between the houses into the paving of our daily paths and come through the walls. Maybe it was this sweetish smell of death which made us all feel guilty about our deed for a long time, even though this is the common ritual with the clothes of the sick in all the neighboring countries now. Back then they did not. We were the first to do it, on the advice of Father Damjan, who had recently returned from Padova or greater Friuli.
It was thus the day before yesterday, thirteen years to the day after that long forgotten time in the year of Our Lord 1466, that all these strange and unknown happenings that I must now relate began.
Shortly before five o’clock in the afternoon they came flying through the gray tarpaulin of some low clouds over the parapet, over the wet black roofs, in the same dense crescent formation as always. They also turned as was their custom. But just before they should have landed with their wings spread out and braking, claws stretched forward, settling on the edges of the steeple, the high clock and the roof ridge, they let out a shrill cry, as though they’d strayed over an abyss fire drawing then them in. With short, rending shrieks they fled in confusion in all directions, as though they were but black flotsam tossed about in a mighty stormy vortex springing from the main square ground. Almost instantly the gray sky was again empty and eerily quiet with its hovering droplets of late day moisture.
Then very quickly came the impenetrable night. It was starless, and for reasons I do not wish to reveal also unlit by torches and candles.
The following day, early in the morning, a magpie - a sight otherwise unseen in this area, circled high up the spiked spire. When it finally had to come down, we could see how terrifyingly beautiful it was. Fluid stripes of black and snow-white stretched in the direction of its flight, and behind a long tail steel color fanned out. It distracted us, for a few moments at least, and almost drove out of our minds the importance and urgency of our vital tasks.
By midmorning of that day, that is yesterday midmorning, we finally got on loan the big, silver-gray Loewe dredger, with which we immediately began excavating and piling earth and glacial gravel behind the church. By five o’clock in the afternoon the pile had grown as tall as the town hall. It also spread, perhaps beyond the intended confines, endangering the old ossuary and something else we did not know but stone slabs marked with purple as untouchable. Something was down there we knew, but we knew not to excavate, having neither the courage nor the consuming curiosity and passion to violate tradition.
Almost precisely at the stroke of five, when the mysterious and damp October dusk envelops everything and the boundaries between body and shadow, they suddenly returned. In a flurry of flutters they flitted over the flat sky, just as they had scattered the night before. Nervously they swooped low over the roofs, past thick walls and under the high clock, desperately panting and flapping as if struggling through viscous oil. As if an invisible mesh barrier in the air prevented any progress, they settled their heavy bodies on the piled mound of dirt, grit and rocks soon covering it, bringing it to life, making it appear at least twice its actual size. Out of this mass an occasional arrow would shoot vertically up, reach the soggy gray canopy of the sky, perhaps pierce it, then plummet like a stone and hit the ground with a soft thud and lie there on the heaped material with outspread wings, its beaked head under a stone or stuck in the dirt. Later, in pitch darkness, we stood facing this pyramid from under the low roofs near the open doors, and looked northward and eastward. But there was no sign there, no northern lights, no eclipse of the moon, no shooting star, comet or bolide. We still had worry in our eyes, and were perhaps relieved once the night had become so dead and still that it covered this huge anthill of blackly inhuman birds, and in its strange way muffled their panicky voices of insanity.
This morning before sunrise the mound was bare, allowing our primitive machines to remove the gravel, sand and rocks and haul them far away completely fettered.
In the early afternoon we started to gather. Again we looked at the low sky, as though at least in the afternoon hours a sign might appear, low up there, a sign to be explained, to be guided by. But before twilight - when there had been nothing - we became frantic, bitterly aware that we were just gawking and dawdling, while there were urgent tasks at land that demanded our attention. Man has so little time for his life, and will must be stronger than itself.
In confusion we found the courage to decide.
We lifted the slate slabs marked as untouchable in purple. We brought hoes, shovels, picks, and spades. The closer the clock drew to five, the more we hurried, the more numerous we were, while the air of late fall cooled our flushed skin. We were there from all walks of life and from all professions in our town, from merchants and peddlers to the clergy and almost the entire town council with the county magistrate, the procurator, the orphanage superintendent, the catchpoles, the bridge supervisor with the bridge attendants and gatekeepers, what perhaps left all the city gates and toll bridges wide open. We drew quick breaths and looked up only briefly now and then in fear lest nightfall overtake us.
When we had lifted enough flagstones to pave a medium-sized courtyard, we dug a hole some five feet deep. This we lined on the sides with glass wool and resin. The time of dusk was drawing very near; impatient and breathless we poured in ten barrels of oil. Without pausing, the high clock struck a quarter to five and as darkness fell the heavy oil still lapped the edges of the hollow and we strewed a trail of gunpowder from the edge up to the temple and set fire to it there, and the fire found its way and direction and swiftly raced to the oil and there erupted into a crimson explosion, making us cringe where we leaned against the walls and pressed under the low roofs. Then a thick, impenetrable mushroom cloud of smoke surged from the hollow, rose vertically without changing shape, and slowly drifted away on the wind just above the rooftops toward the west. From down the hollow a blood-red fire gushed up, still smoky and sooty at the edges but inward increasingly amber and bright, until the dead center revealed its absolutely smoke-free and completely motionless and non-pulsating purple heart. The high rocky mountains far off in the north glowed red, and the huge rose-bush growing at the mouth of Flower Street absorbed with its white petals the scarlet glints like manna.
When the flames had evened out over the hollow and the initial explosion had crept into the walls, they came flying and without faltering, their wings wildly flapping, they plunged downward. With short, hardly heartrending cries, with claws stretched forward and heads jerking sideways as though they were pecking at the fire which was to consume them, they shot into the burning greasy slime like catapult missiles or black Greek fire. They came in wave after wave so that towards the end only their black feathers singed and together with the remnants of the burning oil produced a smell we were faintly familiar with from before. - Let them fall, we suffered with tightly pressed lips… It’s hard to say whether it was those hundreds upon hundreds of bird bodies which in the end smothered the fire or whether the fuel had burned out and the first surge had charred on the bottom. Later, when we went home, carrying torches in trembling fingers, our faces crimson, our eyes bulging, it was all black in that space, a heavy heat billowed from the hollow, and an occasional small bird’s wail broke through the smoke and the blackness.
As I am finishing this report, the night having reached its zenith, I can hear the unhurried trot of a horse’s hoofs coming from the Rider’s Pass. I know. Clad in a helmet and coat of mail, brandishing a damask sword, from the east-west side comes he who claims to bring the rose of Jericho to blossom in the rain ... Will we rip the low sky with this sword, will we be able to plant this strange rose! ... We’ll see tomorrow, because later it will snow.