Opium
by Rikki Ducornet
 
 
Once, not long ago, the Pope issued a Bull extending his powers across all territories known and unknown, illusive yet looming, dreamed and undreamed; and to all crimes against the Church, known and unobserved, ancient and newly rehearsed.

But now this Pope of infinite powers, who has the authority to transform living souls into torches, and who in the simplest things has discerned a sorcerous complexity, is himself failing. In a dream he imagines that he is a lump of hot and heavy matter slowly receding, as if time were a silent vortex and his fall both final and without risk. Cushioned by opium, his fall is delicious. Steadily he sinks into his feather bed, almost vanishing altogether much the way the droppings of a polar bear burn their way down through arctic ice before tumbling into an element too deep to be fathomed.

For weeks the Pope's only nourishment has been little balls of opium wrapped in gold leaf and flavored with honey; opium and the milk of a wet nurse. The milk is fed to him from a gold cup. But this morning the Pope makes a request. He wants the wet nurse to come to him herself and suckle him directly. His voice is weak and strange; the words bubble from his tongue like oil from a bottle and yet there can be no doubting his intention: the cup hurts his gums, he has tasted blood, he can no longer lift his head without vertigo. He wants the girl to open her blouse here in his chamber and to cause her breasts to dangle in such a way that he may seize the nipples between his gums.

This is a delicate matter. How may the Grand Penitentiary comply with the hierarch's request without scandal? Hurrying like a huge bird through a succession of apartments, he comes to the door of the chamber where the wet nurse now prepares to ease her milk into the half-moon of glass she holds pressed to abreast. Just as a spray hisses into the glass, the Grand Penitentiary knocks. Startled, the girl and the nun whose special office it is to carry the gold cup to the Pope's chamber, exchange a troubled look. Having announced himself the Grand Penitentiary steps inside.

The room smells of lactose and of freshly threshed hay; it also smells of verbena: smells that ever after will evoke the young girl who, her shawl pulled tightly across her bosom, the glass clasped in her hand, is burning two holes in the floor with her eyes. The Grand Penitentiary bows his head and attempting to put the two women at ease, aborts a smile. Then fluttering his hands in the air as if to dispel an invisible threat hovering there, a threat caused by the sweetness of the girl's own perfume, he bids the nun to leave. Dissolving, she could not do this more precipitously.

The Grand Penitentiary is standing before the girl who is so small he thinks he could crush her with a word. Her hair is so pale it is almost white and her little hands are no bigger than a child's. He wonders at her youth; she looks no more than twelve. Why is she not a virgin spinning in her father's house? As she stands before him trembling, he recognizes that the situation makes him anxious also. And floods him with shame. The milk, until this moment an abstraction, is, he sees this now, a sexual fluid. He wonders if there is an infant at home. Or if the infant, her first, for whom the milk was intended, is dead.

'Child in Christ,' he manages at last. To his terror and surprise she lifts her gaze from the floor and with two perfectly clear, grey eyes, eyes spinning like the wheels of perdition, needles him through and through. He turns away and utters a prayer; recalls how in the presence of the sumptuous courtesan sent to seduce him in his cell, Blessed Thomas took up a branch from the hearth and putting it to his loins, quenched his own fire.

'The Pope. . .' he says. 'The Pope...'

The morning they found her, a mole had made its way into the kitchen so that when she was asked to follow the Papal messenger, she was amazed that such unprecedented good fortune should attend a bad omen. But now when she hears the Pope's request she knows she is doomed. As she follows the Grand Penitentiary down the hall and into deep rooms thick with tapestries and gilded stoves, she falters and her shawl slips to the floor. Treading upon it, the half-moon of glass she has held so tightly slips from her fingers and breaks in two. As from out of the air a page smelling of amber appears. Picking up the pieces he vanishes.

'No matter,' the Grand Penitentiary whispers as he cleanses the air with his fingers. 'It doesn't matter.'

Although the day has only just dawned and a grey light illumes the city, entering the Pope's bed chamber is like entering a cathedral at midnight. All the curtain shave been pulled and the room's bilious atmosphere is blistering with more candles than she has ever seen. These candles illume the figures of angels that in the flickering light appear to scurry up and down the walls like monkeys among the tendrils and vines of an enchanted forest. Or troops of evil angels riding saddled owls and even the old gods, cloven-hooved and horned: the figures evil women use to enflame the passions of their rival's husbands and kill infants in the crib. These figures adorn cabinets and candlesticks, chairs and chests and the Pope's own bed and are reflected in and multiplied by mirrors. The walls of the Papal chamber are crusted with mirrors: should the Evil One ever manage to enter here, he will be struck down by the compounded shock of his own fatal glance. But the wet nurse thinks the mirrors do not exorcise evil so much as conjure it. She has heard of the nocturnal orgies of witches and imagines they take place in rooms such as this.

So great is the girl's astonishment, so great her terror, that upon entering the Pope's chamber she neglects to make the sign of the cross. To bring her to hersenses, the Grand Penitentiary pinches her arm.

'Fe and Minus' he murmurs, thinking: The feminine is far too feeble to persist in the Faith. Still pinching the flesh of her arm he leads her to the Pope's bed, recalling the previous day when a girl not much older than this one had been chained to an iron ring. The ring was attached to an iron pole set in a circle of fire. From a Vatican window he had watched as the girl ran around and around in her attempt to escape the fire. He imagines the wet nurse running within a circle of fire

A tasseled canopy yawns over the Pope's boney head like a mouthful of gold teeth. She sees the stubborn beak of his nose, his hands like talons gripping an ivory crucifix the size of a small tree. As she unties her blouse, he opens his eyes. Those eyes are blind and this is a consolation. When she bends over the bed, her breast tumbles forth, shining like a planet in the firelight. The Grand Penitentiary reminds himself that if her breast, her throat and lips are smoother than oil, her womb is as bitter as wormwood.

There is so much smoke in the room that when the Pope gums her nipple she coughs. Her nipple leaps from the Pope's mouth making a sound which evokes childish laughter. Peering about her as best she can she sees a tiny black child dressed in white lace and circumventing the room with an aspergillum and holywater. She has never before seen a black child and she is astonished to see one here in the dying Pope's chamber. Was he a gift or had he been purchased? This power of the rich to buy the bodies and lives of others causes her to weep. Studded with pearls, the Pope's night cap soaks up her tears.

She returns to the Pope's chamber in the afternoon. Entering the room she looks up into the Grand Penitentiary's eyes which reflect the candle flames and glitter as though made of glass. Because she is wildly superstitious, when she sees those flames in those eyes she fears for her soul. And he, looking into her eyes in turn, sees a little man. Once again he knows he must guard himself against her.

The Pope drinks from her body without eagerness. She thinks that her life is seeping into a dark place like a dark hole of soft earth and wonders at the world's strangeness. Why has God caused her own little one to die that she may give suck to a moribund? For some reason she recalls how her brooding turtledove seemed to sob just as her hatchlings broke free from their shells. Moving near, the little African in his astonishing white dress offers her a shy smile. She wonders what would happen to her if she ran from the room with him. And in the village what would they say if she took him for her own? What would the child say when she fed him barley gruel and black bread? She supposes his enslavement is sweetened with spice cake and jam, things she has never herself tasted.

When having once more circled the room he approaches her again, she asks him what he is given to eat, and is it served on a gold plate? But the Grand Penitentiary is beside her and with a grimace silences her, although this afternoon the room is sighing with a conclave of cardinals; they rustle in their red robes like wind in sails; they whisper unceasingly to one another.

The following morning when she offers her breast, the Pope does not drink. Instead when he opens his mouth, a gold ball falls out and catches to the lace of his pillow. This astonishes her and she stares at the thing in awe. Later in the day the Pope dies, and as the air shudders with the tolling of bells she is taken to an inner courtyard paved with stones as white and round as ostrich eggs, and there her neck is broken.

Not long after the new Pope issues a Bull dividing all the world's undiscovered places between the Spanish and the Portuguese. A vast number of ships set sail for Africa and India although those lands swarm with infidels, astrologers, druggists, alchemists and planetarians. It is easy to find men eager to join in the adventure of territorial expansion for all Europe stinks of burning flesh. The promise of sea air, of breaking heads with mattocks and axes, of pillaging flourishing cities, of poisoning fountains of sweet water with the corpses of camels and children; to in the name of the Holy See cut off so many noses and ears the land of Ormuz will appear to be populated by lepers; to destroy all those who worship the sun, the moon, the lamp and cows, and those who hold trees sacred, and those who worship the circumpolar stars which never set, and those who worship the whirlwind, the hurricane and waves on water; to annihilate the princes of Malabar who feed the crows before feeding themselves; to slay men who for medicine inhale the powdered dung of leopards and drink the urine of virgins inspires several generations of men. Restless at sea they dream of the four tastes of the oranges of Celam, of certain hairy caps from the Levant and weapons made by wizards; of gold plugs taken from the ears of kings and red and white coral shaped and strung; of pieces of true musk the size of a fist and loaves of coarse camphor; of fine rosewater kept in little barrels of tinned copper, of earth from the tomb of St. Thomas and of opium from Aden. Upon returning they will bring a white elephant to kneel at the feet of the Pope and they will scatter the gems made by Adam's tears across the Pope's path.

For these acts of war, of faith and of longing, they will be awarded miracles: phantom earthquakes, the sight of a mosque spontaneously combusting, of a Moorish king struck down by lightning, the vision of a white city filled with cries but devoid of inhabitants. And they will be awarded glory which, like riches and miracles or so they imagine buys sufficient time to aspire to immortality.

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From THE WORD "DESIRE", ©1997 by Rikki Ducornet. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt & Company, Inc.