Upon this rock

This is a short story I wrote way, way back. In, I think, 1982 or thereabouts. I’ve resisted the temptation to edit it or amend it. If nothing else it either shows how far I’ve progressed as a writer, or whether it’s been all donwhill since then…

Upon This Rock

Unaware of the direction he was going, the boy pushed his way through the thick foliage of the vineyards and continued up the hill.

All was silent, except for the sound of his footsteps scuffing against the dry earth and the chirping of the occasional cricket. Up here, away from the city there were only vines, vines stretching into the distance, vines covered with clusters of grapes sweating from the green branches.

The boy pushed onwards; the thick, heavy air around him and the dusty ground beneath him. Dawn was breaking, smearing itself slowly across the sky like oil. He paused and sniffed. The vine leaves rustled. The wind was getting up. Maybe there would be a storm. Maybe the air would be washed clean, rinsed free of the dust that scattered drily beneath the boy’s feet.

He looked out over the city. Below him, he could make out the huge wooden walls of the circus, then the sinuous black curve of the river and beyond that, occasional flecks of light amongst the indistinct jumble. The night had been feverishly hot and he had been unable to sleep. He had lain on his bed, thinking of rain. Then he had run, out of the house, out of the city, away from the buildings and the people and the noise. He had run up here, to silence.

The boy wondered if his absence had been noticed yet. Unlikely. No-one would have noticed him go, slithering through the window, tumbling onto the tiled roof and then dropping into the darkness of the road. His parents had been arguing when he left, they would still be arguing when he returned, or drunk, or, more likely, both. He hated the arguing, the harshness, the noise. He hated fights.

He shrugged and turned away from the view, stumbling slightly. A cloud of the thin dusty soil rose around his feet.

The idea had been to get away from people, and yet, as soon as he had emerged from the dark alley that ran alongside his house, the boy had been surrounded. There had been an ‘entertainment’ that night, in the Circus of Nero, and the streets had been full of sellers and hawkers and beggars and people rushing to and from the spectacle.

Engulfed by the crowd he had been carried north for a while. Once over the Tiber you were on the Via Cornelia, the road that led out of the city, and on to the Vatican hill and the circus. Like all roads out of Rome it was bordered with tombs, tiny houses inhabited by the dead. and the boy had no difficulty slipping away from the crowd into an alleyway that ran north, away from the road; a street for the dead.

The cemetery that spread north along the lower slopes of the Vatican hill had developed over the years into a little town, with its own forecourts, parades, streets and stairways. Like the rest of society the dead were housed according to wealth. The rich had their own mausoleums – houses with inner courtyards, statues and many rooms. The less wealthy had a sort of roofed courtyard, walled on three sides but open at the front. The poor had unmarked patches of earth topped with slabs of stone, or brick tiles.

The mausoleums were all near the road, as if the inhabitants were just about to pop out to the shops. Over the doors, inscriptions told the visitor who was lying there and in between each little house were statues and monuments, keeping up an endless conversation about the merits of the person they commemorated. The alleyway, flanked by such buildings, went up the hill for a little way and then turned into a dirt track where the mausoleums ended. The rich were not buried this far up, the unfashionable slopes were for the poor.

Their graves were topped with stone slabs or large red tiles propped against each other to form a little sloping roof over the shallow hole. Friends would scratch the names of the dead on the tiles and perhaps a little comment. “Flavius Isidorus” said one, “He had ajoke for everybody and he never quarrelled.” Another, much smaller bore the words “Aemilia, daughter of Dorus. She was only four.”

The boy had used this street before. Further up the hill the tombs stopped, the path petered out and the vines began. Many would have been afraid of the necropolis at night, but he never worried. He found the living much more frighteneing. From the city of the living, he had come through the city of the dead. Now that city was ended and the vines began.

After walking for a while through the vineyard the boy sat to catch his breath. He could see the circus quite clearly, an orange oval of light in the hot night air, lit by the torches which threw up an oily smoke. The boy sat among the vines and watched the horses driving round and round. “The Emperor will be racing tonight” someone in the crowd had said. The Emperor would be winning tonight as well. The Emperor always won. There were smells too, drifting with the wind, warm, moist, almost sweet smells from where the animals prowled in their cages, waiting for their momentary freedom.

He was no stranger to the circus, but he did not like it. His father would take him some nights – festival nights, and he would watch the fights and the races and the animals prowling. It was not that he was squeamish, nobody squeamish could live in the city. It was just that he had never liked contests of any sort.

His father would mock the boy for his quietness when everyone around him was shouting and cheering. “This is life,” he would say. “A fight to the death! A contest!” He would look at his son, wondering what he had done to deserve such a strange boy. “Ach!” he would exclaim, flapping his hand dismissively. “Maybe when you grow up you will understand.”

Then, the boy’s father would turn back to the fight, his eyes bulging with excitement as he watched the gladiators and the animals and the violence. In that moment just before the kill, when the crowd would always fall silent, a thin bead of saliva would dribble from his father’s mouth, which he would wipe away with the back of his hand. “Yes!” he would hiss. “Yes…” After a while the boy left off watching the circus below him with its smoky, orange glow and its sickly smell and the roar of the crowd. He had turned away and continued up the hill. Now he was alone with the dawn and listening to the silence.

He pulled up with a start. The wind had carried something to him. A sound – indefinable, eerie – floated through the air, a sound that pulled him taut with its strangeness; that struck him like a blow.

What was it? Distant and imprecise, it seemed to fade almost as soon as it had started. The boy turned and started to move in the direction from which he thought the sound had come. He clambered through the vines until he came to a thin track. He waited.

It came again, rolling through the air, playing the boy like a string. He turned into the wind and started to run along the track. And, as he ran, the noise grew louder and more definite; no longer the ethereal whisper he had first clutched at, but a series of sounds, as haunting as pain.

There was something very normal about it, something everyday, but, at the same time warped, a strange thread woven into its fabric. It made him think of the animals in the circus, weary and pained and trapped.

He could never remember, afterwards, how long the hunt had taken. In the dead heat of dawn, it was as if time itself had been condensed into a single, unending moment, a single throb of the pulse. He was closing now, running silently and listening intently – hunting his prey. He came to the crest of a hill, and in the pale light of dawn he could see a tall, thin line, sillhouetted against the sky, jutting vertically upwards.

His feet thudded into the dust, splashed through a small stream that crossed the track. Suddenly the vines were falling away each side of him, like the wake from a boat and he was at the edge of a patch of wasteland. He stopped at the edge of a wide circle of charred ground, where, each winter, the old vines were burnt. In the middle of this wasteland stood the object he had seen moments earlier.

It was a cross, an inverted cross, with the horizontal beam a few feet above the ground, and the single vertical beam pointing blasphemously at the sky. And on this cross, hanging upside down, they had nailed a man. His head was a little above the burnt earth, so that his long grey hair, darkened by sweat, fell against the dead soil. His legs, stained red from his feet, pointed upwards where the dawn filled the sky. The blood had congealed around the nails with which he was pinned.

He was tied into position by thick, coarse rope. But he was not held by the ropes. He was held by the nails.

As the boy stood and stared he made out the features of the man. He was tall and old and muscular, and from his open mouth came a trickle of thick blood. The mouth was moving, tortuously producing the sound that had pulled the boy here. For a moment it seemed to him that the man was crying out in pain and humiliation. Then it dawned on him that it was not a cry, but a song. His lips were bloody and thickened, his voice was hoarse; what melody there was was broken by agonised breathing. But it was a song.

It was not a sad song, nor was it a song of hate. It was a song of victory, a great, pained song of victory. Framed in a language the boy couldn’t understand, were words of pain and loneliness, strength and triumph, even love. It was the man’s final defiance, this song, killing him as surely as the nails which pinned him to the wood.

The singing stopped and the man gave a moan. He spoke, in Latin this time, through clenched teeth.

“Crucified again,” he said. “Again and again and again…”

The boy moved. The man’s eyes flashed open. Bizarrely they looked at each other across the clearing – the thin boy and the upside-down, crucified man.

“Boy,” the man said, “come here!” The boy walked a few paces forward and the man looked at him, his eyes white in the cold dawn light. He was breathing with enormous effort. There was blood from his mouth.

“Is there any water around here? ” he asked. The boy nodded dumbly. “Please…” Miraculously, the man smiled.

The boy turned away and broke into a run. He ran out of the charred wasteland, and down the track he had followed. Behind him the broken, pained cadences of the song started again.

A few strides brought him to the small stream. Once there, he ripped a piece from his tunic and soaked it in the muddy water. Below him, in the distance, he noticed that the lights from the circus had gone out, that the contests had finished. He thought of the gladiators, who even now would be wiping blood from their bodies, and binding up wounds. He wondered what they would think of the song that was fading behind him, with its celebration of a victory they would never understand.

Holding the soaking rag, the boy turned and ran back to the clearing. He went straight to the man’s side and, kneeling down, pressed the cloth to the man’s blood red lips.

It was only then, close to the body, that he realised. There was no sound. No song. No hiss of breath. The body hung limp, as though frozen in an endless dive. The head hung back, the grey hair grazed the charred ground. The big man was dead.

Without knowing why, the boy began to cry.

His tears fell like rain onto the face of the man, running across the lips and down onto the closed eyes.