Georg von Falkenrath--1977
As much as he hated it, he still would volunteer to sweep the floors of the Grotto. There were too many eyes that would watch him.
They were not malicious eyes, no, in fact they were the very opposite. They were tired and old; weary eyes that watched him from the recesses of the rooms, from the seemingly shrouded darkness of certain corners of the catacombs. They watched him through the heavy air that silenced all sound save for the lone waver of his breathing. Why they were still here he did not know, of all people to be left behind these seemed most unusual. He still did not like it. It was like they knew something about him that even he did not know when they watched him. That was the one fall back of this city. It had too many eyes.
He pulled the heavy door open, the broom clutched in his hand, an stood at the top of the stairs leading downwards to his destination. The light evening air was warm still with the summer heat, as the sounds of the fountain running in the square echoed off in the distance. The man turned back to look, he really did not want to go down under the church. It was lit, simple as flicking a light switch, but even they did not run from that. In fact that seemed to make things worse. They liked the light and feared the dark as much as he did, he did not want to go down. But he had to; it was his turn to sweep the Grotto after the day's bout of tourists. He swallowed hard and then tore his gaze from the square and turned his gray eyes down into the darkness.
It was intimidating.
He was afraid of the dark still after all these years.
Carefully, He took the first step as though some unholy beast was posed and ready to spring at him at any moment. He jerked slightly and raised the broom a bit; the cassock limiting his range of motion. He was not fast to begin with and if he ever did have to run he would not be doing it in a timely manner. He took one more step. A few beads of sweat formed on his forehead, despite the temperature dropping the further he went down. A strand of his graying, once black curly hair falling free onto his face,
“Please” he prayed, “Please let them not be out tonight...”
If he was with someone there would not be as many of them, they did not like crowds apparently. But it was highly unlikely that he was going to walking back across the courtyard to where the others resided and ask one of them to come down with him into the Grotto. They would come down... and then do what? Watch him sweep? The others could not see them, but he could; and besides, he would probably be laughed at.
After what seemed like eons he finally reached the bottom of the steps. He lowered the boom just slightly before he reached over and turned on the lights. The dark was banished in an instant as the bulbs lit up and the hallway with its plaster arched ceilings was illuminated. Almost at once the first one came forth from the first tomb, sat atop the sarcophagus and stared at him. He stared at him with hollow eyes and pale face, his cheeks sallow and creating pits upon his gaunt features. The Cardinal held himself against the archway to the catacombs. Never once had one of them attacked nor done anything malevolent towards him, but how they could stare. An odd burning sensation started to grow in his middle; his hands grew clammy as well and gently began to quiver.
There was no doubt, he was nervous. They made him nervous. Being constantly scrutinized by the blackened pits where their eyes would have been made him highly anxious; as though at any moment something terrible would happen. He feared that. He was afraid that they foresaw and then would sit in stoic silence and would watch as the events played out.
”Good Day...” he half muttered half choked out at the first being.
He was too frightened to look to the other row of sarcophagi that lined the opposite wall for fear that the others were already crawling out to come watch the spectacle of him sweeping the floors. He took a few steps away from the stairwell and into the hallway. The Cardinal then put the broom bristles to the floor so softly that he might have well been keeping the broom hovering above the ground. He did not want to make too much noise. That might alert them that he was here, as if the light had not already done that enough.
He dropped his eyes to the floor.
The Grotto was not going to sweep itself.
Now he felt even guiltier. Some small part of his brain tried to rationalize with itself: if they merely watched, what did he have to be afraid of? In his younger days he had been perfectly fine with them, and many of the poor souls that had come to him out on the Front for their last rights had been nothing more than mutilated corpses. At least the ones here were all completely in-tact for the most part. Merely thinking about the Front from all those years ago made his bones ache. The missing toes on his right foot from the frost bite were a constant reminder of the war as well as the lines of scarring upon his cheeks and the missing bit at the end of his nose. It was over thirty years ago but what he had seen still haunted him. The conflicting numbers and letter tattooed on his upper and lower left arm would forever speak of his existence during those times of conflict.
And then took a moment to tug at the cassock's collar again.
Why was he afraid of them?
He turned his bespectacled gray eyes to the one that was sitting atop the first sarcophagus; he hadn't changed positions at all since the Cardinal had last looked. Perhaps... perhaps it was because of who they were that frightened him instead of what they were.
He took a few more minutes to muse on this, each swipe of his broom against the floor slowly became more audible as he thought and sorted things out with himself. Who they were, not what they were. That had to be it. Yes, that HAD to be it. Either that or he was getting to old to try and sort out the affairs of the dead. Too old indeed. He had dealt with possessions before and he did not think that his sixty year old body could handle it as well as his twenty-five year old one did. Maybe that was what frightened him, not only about the ones down here but the ones in the city as well, down at the Forum especially and down underneath the Colosseum. There were hundreds of them under there and those where the ones that easily frightened him the most of all the residents of the city. Those were the ones that clung to him. The ones that scratched and clawed at him because they knew, how they knew he could see them.
He once passed out because of them and doctor had no idea why.
He claimed it was because the Cardinal was overheated despite him being freezing cold.
The sweeping slowly became easier for him despite the air around him becoming heavier as each moment passed. The hair on the back of his neck started to stand on end and that was when he knew, the ones on the opposite wall were already out. For how long they had been out he had no idea, but he refrained from turning and acknowledging they were there.
Just focus on sweeping...
Swish, swish, swish, swish
He paused in his work, looking to the small pile of dust and dirt he was building on the floor. Beyond the constant sound of broom bristles scraping against the marble ground and the slight hum of the lights overhead there was nothing else to be heard. He felt as though something might be creeping up on him as he stood there frozen in position, his hands tightening their grip around the broom handle. He shivered slightly from nerves; it was always cold down here. His mouth had gone dry and he desperately licked his dry lips.
First came the whistle to break the silence; a rather tuneless sound as the cardinal was not a talented whistler but it gave him a place to start as he continued sweeping almost robotically with numb hands. The whistle soon progressed to a rather mumbled song, some small lullaby he remembered from his childhood in Ansbach, Germany. He soon started stumbling in his mutter singing, the exact words to the song slowly escaping his aged mind. He had not heard the tune in years and the true words were slipping from his memory. He made a note to himself that he would have to remedy that at some point. He then switched to something more fresh in his mind: a small bit of a hymn that he had heard that morning.
He suddenly felt a hand touch him on his shoulder. A sudden, sharp freezing cold wrapped its spindly fingers around his shoulder bone; it did not wrap around his shoulder nor did it even touch his cassock, it seemed to reach right through to his very bones. The Cardinal first gasped in shock and then jolted, quickly trying to pull away from the pain of the cold to his muscles and sinews. 'S-sorry...' he apologized with a shiver. He acted as though it was his fault that he might have walked into who ever had touched him. He was rarely touched by the ones here... to come to think of it, this was probably only the third or fourth time it had happened.
When he turned around, the sight that greeted him made his heart stop for a few moments. They were there... all of them. All of them. And they were doing nothing except staring at him. The one closest to him had his hand outstretched slightly; the 16th century garb he wore was tattered against his slightly transparent being. His mouth was moving like he was trying to say something... something. The cardinal did not hear a single word uttered. Slowly, as though any sudden movement might provoke them, he started to carefully take steps back towards the entrance of the Grotto. They did not move; none of them except for the one who was not dressed in the typical holy manner out in front. He took a small step towards the cardinal, still looking as though he was trying to talk to him and yet again there was not a sound.
The Cardinal shook his head and in a quavering voice he apologized again, 'I-I'm sorry... I-I c-can't hear you...' he nodded in regret.
He turned to leave as quickly as he could and promptly walked right into a clouded vapor area. It was cold; very very cold. Instantly his hands flew to his head, and frantically tried to brush the cold from his skull, much like someone who had just walked into a spider web would do. A shudder gripped his body as he looked to see just who he had walked into.
'Pardon me, I-...' the Cardinal's mouth dropped open a bit in shock.
This man had no head. All the ones that he had ever dealt with were all completely intact, but this one that was currently towering over him was missing his most important feature. 'My wo.... I'm... I-I'm terribly sorry...' He sputtered out as he took a step back in fear of this apparition in front of him. The beheaded man did nothing at first, sort of just stood there in a slightly agitated way before he, just like the 16th century clothed one, reached out his hand towards the Cardinal. It wasn't a grasping reach, it looked more like it was signaling him to stop, trying to halt his advance toward the exit of the building. The man behind the Cardinal was the one that was grasping; this one in front of him was stopping.
The cardinal shook his head and side stepped the headless man. With that he dropped the broom and took off running as fast as his old bones and the cassock could take him. He ran, ran from the place, ran from them, ran from all their eyes that were watching him. He ran from the hands, from the headless one, from the heavy air and from the freezing cold feeling. He stumbled up the stairs and clamored to get out of the room, closing the door behind him. The Cardinal was breathing quickly as he leaned against the door trying to slow down his racing heart from that encounter. The night air was warm as it descended upon him, dispelling the clinging, chilling cold from the grotto that had settled into his shoulder.
He ran a hand over his forehead as he heard the sound of someone clearing their throat in a gruff manner next to him. He turned to see a man next to him, a tall fellow that towered over him because of the Cardinal's short stature. Other than that he looked like any other man that would be coming to take a tour of the Museum and Basilica during the day time, he was fair skinned with dark black hair and a searing pair of green eyes.
The Cardinal blinked, “H-Hello” he stammered, rather taken aback. This man was real but... what was he doing here and at this hour? He was not part of the police, was he? “C-can I help you?” he asked timidly.
”Yes.” was the single word response he got.
”H-how? Uhm... s-sir...I apologize sir, but... the grounds are closed... un-unless you live here or... a-are part of the police w-we have to go talk somew...”
”Are you Cardinal Georg von Falkenrath?” the shadowy man interrupted harshly.
The Cardinal jumped a bit in surprise, “Y-yes.... Wh-w...”
”Were you part of the German Army during the war?” he practically snarled this out, causing the Cardinal to jolt.
There was a long pause, “I-in a... w-way... I was a Chaplain with the 113th-“
”Thank you.” The man cut the Cardinal off again. He let his eyes scan the aging man in front of him before he spoke again, hissing out his words, “November 30th 1944, do you remember it?”
The Cardinal called Falkenrath swallowed hard, his hands entwined tightly together to keep them from fidgeting, “Th-that’s a very specific date.“
“Perhaps a man by the name of Moishe Rosenthal, do you remember him?”
Falkenrath’s eyes widened, that name struck a chord. A silent shadow of his past suddenly reared its head, like a great hulking beast in the dark recesses of his mind. That name. He remembered now and would forever remember the last name of the family that he had lost. Far out in Russia, someone had found out that he had been helping hide people and someone had reported him to the authorities. Someone had discovered those he had promised to help and turned them in. A frown found its way to his mouth, the corners dragging down wards as the memories came back to him.
“You do don’t you?” The man snapped harshly, his voice wavered slightly, “You remember my father well, don’t you? What of my mother?”
Some shaking anger rattled around with in the man’s words, dagger-sharp emotions were being slowly driven into the cardinal and he could feel them. The cardinal felt as though he was weighted down to the ground by the very hand of God himself, forced to stand there frozen and look to the man who was once that little boy that he had tried to save, had failed to help and thought had died with his family. The man’s glaring eyes kept glaring at him, searching him, looking for something that was not there.
“How about the number of others that you betrayed, do you remember them? You put us there and then you told them where we were. You don’t deserve to be here with what you have done.”
“Th-that is not what happened, I-I did not tell anyone that you were th-“ Falkenrath could not say any more for he was once more interrupted for a final time. The man suddenly reached into the jacket he was wearing, despite the temperature of the summer night, and pulled out a pistol aiming it right at the Cardinal's chest. Falkenrath's face drained of color, his gray eyes widening in horror.
The man snarled, “They give you a medal, but they don’t really know…”
In those few seconds of dead, seemingly eternal space and time that flowed between him and the end of the fire arm something came into his mind. It was not a reaction to scream or to run or to call for help or even to beg for his life, it was an image of all those eyes down in the Grotto. All of those eyes, they had known something was going to happen. The grasping one and the stopping one... they had known something was going to happen. They were not malicious and he should have known that...
They had known
But he had been too afraid to listen to them.
“Pl-please… don’t shoot, that wasn’t what happened… I-I-I didn’t mean for them to die...”
The man pulled the trigger