Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss
The following is a conversation between a boy and his father in Colonna, a small town at the edge of Rome. It could have taken place at any time after the voyage of St. Ursula.
The father is about to step out of his son's room before the boy speaks again:
"It's been 13 days, Papa."
"I know, Angelo. I've been counting, too."
"In two hours it will be 14 days."
"Get some sleep, figliolo."
"Do you think she was here? When you were telling me the story?"
The father turns around and returns to his spot on the boy's bed, which is still warm.
"I know she was. She was listening in, like always, and watching the moon."
The father points to the full moon outside the boy's window. He knows his boy has a particular fascination with the moon. On this night it is floating just above the row of houses on the hill across from the boy's window, so big and orange it looks like it could fall from the sky.
"Tell me one more story."
"What? Another one? You need to sleep, Angelo."
"No sleep without another story."
"Fine then. Would you like to know why the number 17 is so unlucky in our country?"
"Yes, that would be a start."
"Okay, how would you write 17 in Roman numerals?"
The boy finds a piece of paper on the small table next to his bed and scribbles XVII.
"Now watch, if you just switch the numerals around you get this..."
The father writes VIXI on the same piece of paper with slow steady strokes.
"Do you know what that means in Latin?"
"It means 'I have lived' or 'I am no longer alive.'"
"Papa, that's creepy."
"I know. And did you know most buildings in Italy don't have a 17th floor?"
"Nope, I didn't know that, either."
"Buono. Now, Angelo, you can go to bed."
"Papa, that doesn't count! One more story, or I will never sleep. And I will sing songs outside your door all night."
"You will sleep, or I will shake you to sleep."
The father puts his arms on either side of the boy and begins to make the bed quake. The boy laughs so hard he can't seem to catch his breath.
"No, Papa, stop, I can't breathe..."
The father stops and tosses the boy's shaggy brown hair around.
"So, you must be ready to sleep then, huh, figliolo?"
"Not yet. Just one story. One day you will be sad you didn't tell me every story you could. I will be all grown up and living in my own house, and I won't be interested in your stories anymore. Then you will wish I was there to tell stories to."
"Figliolo, who taught you how to argue like that?"
"I've listened to you and mama for seven years, Papa."
"Well, there's not much I can say to that then, is there?"
"Nope, there isn't. One more story."
"Well, do you want a little story or a big story?"
"A big one, of course. The biggest story you have. Gigantesco."
"If I tell you my biggest story, you definitely won't be able to sleep. I promise you."
"Who cares about sleep, Papa? I don't know why you make such a big deal about it."
"Really? You want the most gigantic of my stories?"
"Yes, Papa. Il più grande!"
The father takes a moment to look into his head. He considers whether it is time to tell his son this particular story.
"Well. There is a story I've wanted to tell you for a long time. But I'm not sure you're ready. You might never sleep again."
"Yes! Tell me!"
The father sighs, though he smiles through it. He pauses, looks his son in the eye, and waits a few seconds. The son is aware of this tactic and understands the father is only building tension and has already surrendered to telling his story.
"Ora, Papa. Your trick doesn't work with me."
"After I tell you this story, nothing will be the same again. Are you ready for that?"
The boy's face pinches and wrinkles spread over his forehead before releasing—he realizes this is a new tactic. Then his mouth opens. "Of course. I trust you, Papa."
"It's not important you trust me; it's important you trust yourself, Angelo."
The boy tries hard to imagine a story that would require him to trust himself, but he cannot.
"You can tell me."
The father's eyes look up and to the left as he begins to tell the story. "I first heard this story from your great grandpa. My Nonno. When I was your age."
"I don't believe you were ever my age, Papa."
"I was, figliolo."
"Okay, whatever. Go on, Papa."
"It starts at the beginning of time. The true beginning of time."
"Like when there were dinosaurs?"
"No, billions of years before that. Before stars even. When the universe was just a tiny puntino."
"How could everything in the universe fit inside of a puntino?"
"Because nothing existed yet. There was nothing. Only space. Silent, still, space."
"What was the puntino made of?"
"No one knows exactly, Angelo. We only know it contained pure magic. Because out of it came everything we see right now. And everything you don't. You and I were in that puntino billions of years ago."
"So, then what happened to it?"
"It burst, figliolo."
"What made it burst?"
"Only God knows."
"But you should know, Papa."
"I promise, figliolo, I do not."
"So then what?"
"Everything changed as soon as the puntino exploded. Stuff started to be—stuff you could touch. And all the stuff started to get pulled together by invisible hands."
"Again, figliolo, no one knows."
"Okay, keep going."
"When enough stuff was pulled together, it turned into a star. And that star became like a factory, building all the elements that make up everything. Angelo, you and I are made of pieces of stardust."
The boy looks out of the open window next to his bed and tries to see the stars, but they are mostly swallowed up by the light of the moon.
"Yes, but here is where things get interesting, Angelo. There were pieces of that puntino that never turned into anything. They got trapped inside of the star stuff as it was pulled together. Throughout the whole universe, there was the whole potential of God locked inside tiny specks of magic stuff coated with the metals inside of stars. And all that power was cut off from the rest of the universe because stars are impenetrable. Nothing could ever get inside one.
"Anything within a million miles of a star would turn to ashes in the blink of an eye."
"So what happened? Are they still there?"
"Well, figliolo, some stars, when they're ready to die, will explode. It's like a death rattle. Like when mama..."
Immediately the father's face winces, and the boy understands his father wishes he hadn't used that example.
"So when stars exploded, the specks were released?"
"Yes. And for millions of years they were just scattered throughout the universe, mixed with stardust."
"Until a new star started to form, and planets started to spin around it—if one of the specks was close enough for the planet to feel it, the speck would get sucked in. And you know what?"
"No, Papa, I don't."
"One of these stars was our star—the sun."
"So the magic speck is in our sun?"
"Almost. But something impossible happened. We, Earth, got in the way. Do you know the chances of that happening, figliolo?
"I could say one in a billion-trillion, but that would be too high."
"My Nonno thought the speck was the seed of all Life here.
"Papa, you're making this up."
"No, figliolo, I promise all this is true. And the story hasn't even started yet. Before the end I will prove all this to you."
"You will see. For now it is only important to know that when the tiny speck splashed into the ocean, the magic inside of it started to bleed out, and things began to live."
"So, then what?"
"Then Life had a life of it's own, you could say. It began to unfold and make copies of itself, and every time it changed, it changed by its own set of rules. And one day Life made a human, and for the first time It became aware of itself."
The father stops for a second to watch his son's face and determine if he understands. He believes the boy does, at least on the level of instinct.
"Do you understand, figliolo?"
"I think so. What happened to the speck?"
"It floated through the oceans for about three billion years. Until it finally washed up on a shore, thousands of years before the time of Jesus. Nonno said the first people to find it didn't have bodies. They were a spirit-people who lived on an island somewhere far from Europe. Eventually, these people forgot it existed, and it found its way back to the sea. It stayed there for hundreds more years until it was found by the son of a fisherman. He was a young boy, like you, figliolo, playing on a beach somewhere in the Pacific."
"And what did he do with it?"
"He held it for awhile. When he realized it let him have control over anything he wanted just by thinking it, he showed it to his father."
"And what did he do with it?"
"He kept it safe, figliolo. He never traveled, and he never stopped being a fisherman."
"He didn't know it was magic?"
"No, Angelo, the opposite. He immediately understood that when he had the speck, he never came home without a net filled with fish, the weather was always perfect, and his family was content and happy."
"And he never wanted more, Papa?"
"No, Angelo. He did not. This is the real magic of the speck. Throughout history, anything giving power to men has always been used to get even more power over men. But a drop of blood never fell on this speck. After the fisherman, the speck went to his son, and then after him it was given to a guru in Calcutta, then a sherpa in the Himalayas, then a monk in Tibet, then a tailor in Russia, a mathematician in Poland, a painter in France, and a then a doctor in Spain. It had seen everything, every angle of life. It had been buried in the desert and lost to the sea. Through all these hands there was never any conflict. Now this is where it gets interesting..."
"Papa, you always say that."
"And I always mean it."
The father smiled and adjusted his body so his face was next to his son's.
"Her name was Ursula, and her father was a king named Dionotus. From the time she was your age, figliolo, she was special. People said she had an aura."
"It was light-yellow. But, according to Nonno, there was a very particular reason why she glowed."
"What was that reason, Papa?"
"Well, apparently, and this is according to Nonno, remember, her father, the king, had been given the speck by a mendicant. And when his daughter turned seven, he gave it to her, and like everyone else who held it, the magic started to bleed into her. That's why she glowed, figliolo."
The story is interrupted by a voice calling for the father from the hallway:
"Signor, Mr. Ghirlandaio is here to see you."
"In a moment, Ghiti. I'm telling Angelo a story."
"Where did I leave off, figliolo?"
"You were going to tell me who she married, Papa."
"In those days, a princess was not free to choose. Her father, the king, chose for her. He decided she would marry a pagan governor from Armorica. Do you know where that is, Angelo?"
"It was a part of the Old France."
"Did she love him?"
"No. She didn't even know him. But, still she was sent to marry him. And before she left, her father found 11,000 virgin servants to go with her."
"What, Papa? Why 11,000 virgins?"
"They were an army of assistants."
"Who would need so many servants?"
"Exactly, Angelo. It sounds crazy doesn't it?"
"Do you know why it sounds so crazy to you?"
"No, but I know you will tell me."
"It sounds crazy because it was all a lie."
"You're making all this up?"
"No, the king did. He told this story to his people to hide something."
"To hide what, Papa?"
"To hide the fact that she was really running away."
"Why was she running? From whom?"
"From people who wanted the speck. For the first time in three billion years, its secret was released to the world. Nonno believed someone saw Ursula surreptitiously healing some peasants who were sick with a disease spreading through Europe at that time. And the secret spread. And you know what?"
"When the secret of power escapes, nothing around it is ever safe again. The king was told by his advisors that Ursula would be stolen."
"So she wasn't sent to be married."
"No, figliolo. The politician in Armorica had agreed to hide Ursula, not marry her."
"And the virgins?"
"They were all part of a clever plan to shroud the speck. The king's physician hid it inside one of the ribs of one of the 11,000 virgins. If they were ever caught, they would have no idea which virgin had it. They would only know it was not on Ursula, and she would never be touched."
"So what happened, Papa?"
"Well, she set sail. And just as their boats left the dock, the king's palace was attacked. My Nonno said the king knew it was coming, but never told Ursula."
"Did they catch up to her?"
"No, figliolo. There was a storm—the strongest England had ever seen. It blew her ship across the channel in one night. When she landed, she took it as a sign from God. She went to Rome and demonstrated her miracles to whoever would watch. Eventually to the Pope himself."
"They went on a pilgrimage. Ursula, with the Pope and all of her servants, moved from Rome, through Bavaria, and into Germania. And everywhere she went, she performed miracles. She became famous. But the holiday didn't last."
"When they arrived in germanic lands, they found a tribe called the Huns, who ruled most of the territory. They had heard rumors of a traveling army of handmaidens who could perform miracles, and they wanted no part of it. So they massacred them."
"Yes, Ursula, the Pope, and all 11,000 virgin servants. They all fell in one big bath of blood. And then the Huns just walked away and left them there to bleed."
"What about the magical speck?"
"It stayed there, too, hidden in one of the bodies."
"So that's it, Papa?"
"No. Before he was seized, the king, Ursula's father, had sent out a message to the King of Sussex explaining he was going to be attacked. Lucky for Dionotus, the King owed him a favor. In 24 hours, an army from Sussex arrived, surprised the attackers, and crushed them. One month later, as the king was still celebrating, he heard from the governor in Armorica that his daughter and all her servants were killed."
"What did he do?"
"He gathered a thousand men to find his daughter's body and return it to Briton, and he sent a thousand more to build a Basilica in Cologne in memorial of his daughter. But instead of it being built of wood and stone, he ordered it be built from their bones. He wanted this for two reasons. First, figliolo, because he knew the speck was inside one of those bones and he wanted it far away from his kingdom—for him its magic had only been a curse. And second, because he knew the magic would be alive inside of any structure housing the speck. His beloved daughter's Basilica, he hoped, would be a place where miracles happened."
"No one had ever seen anything like it before, Angelo. The walls and ceiling were lined with thousands of bones: ribs and skulls and shoulder blades. There were arches made of bones, bones spelling Latin proverbs, even Ursula's story written in bones. Over the years the basilica was raided hundreds of times, and eventually all the bones were tore out by men hoping to find the speck. And after each raid the basilica was reconstructed, though with fewer and fewer of the original bones."
"Where did they get the new bones?"
"That, I'm not sure of, figliolo."
"You're not sure because you're making it up."
The father smiles at his boy.
"No, it's all true. I could take you there one day, Angelo. But..."
"But there are no miracles. In spite of the bones, it was like any other church. "
"Why? How could that be?"
"The king wondered about this for years. But he never understood. He assumed soaking the speck in blood made it lose all it's power. His priests told him it had seen too much of what humans were capable of."
"Is that what you believe, Papa?"
"No. And the king didn't believe it, either. He had held the speck. He knew its power. Nothing in the human realm could come close to touching its essence.
"So then why were there no miracles?"
"Well, the miracles did continue—just not in the basilica."
"How is that possible?"
"Because, once again, Angelo, I lied."
"The one virgin, the one with the speck, she never died. Her wound healed as soon as the blade was pulled out. But she still fell to the ground in that virgin blood. And she waited."
"Waited for what?"
"She waited to be sure she was alone, Angelo. When she stopped hearing the gallop of the Huns' horses, she resolved not to stand until she finished counting to 10,001. When she finally finished, she looked around and cried. And then she walked west, back to Rome, following the sun. It was all she could think to do."
"Do you know what her name was?"
"I do. Her name was Amata."
"She was by herself? All the way to Rome?"
"Yes, but at the same time she never went cold or hungry. It protected her."
"How long did it take?"
"Three months. When she finally got to Rome, she told the Vatican the Pope was killed. At first they put her in prison and questioned her. Eventually, one of the cardinals recognized her face as belonging to one of the 11,000 handmaidens with St. Ursula. They took care of her for weeks, until she got her health back. Eventually she left Rome and lived with a family in Ardea with connections to the church. They were a simple family: chiffonniers, wig-makers. She lived with them year after year, and she also learned the art of making wigs. But according to Nonno this trade was only to cover for what she really did.
"She took what was bad out of people. At night people were brought to her, though no one ever knew who she was. They were led into a room inside the small cottage in Ardea where the family lived. Amata sat in the corner of the room. She was covered from head to toe—everywhere but her eyes—with a long white sheet. Sick, blind, broken, leperous people would be carried in, laid at her feet, and she would kneel down and just hold them, cradle them in her arms, for only a minute. And you know what, Angelo?"
"They all got better."
"Yes. Not always right away. Sometimes it took a day. Sometimes a week. But eventually they were always healed."
"And she did this for the rest of her life?"
"Well, that's the strange thing, figliolo."
"What is strange, Papa?"
"It was about 15 years later when Amata, and everyone around her for that matter, began to notice something."
"She never aged, Angelo. People began to notice that while they were getting older, as their hair started to turn to grey and their skin became thin, nothing ever changed in Amata. They watched her for years, figliolo, years. And suddenly an entire generation had passed and Amata still looked like a young woman."
"People had different theories. Some people thought she was being rewarded by God for her work. Some thought she was an angel. But, Amata knew. It was the tiny piece of God put inside of her. Time did not exist for her, even though she lived in a world requiring time."
"So she was able to fix people forever, Papa?"
"Well, figliolo, here is the most interesting part of the story."
"You always say that."
"Yes, I do. But, just listen."
"Well, go on then, Papa."
The fathers rhythm slows, and each word comes out slowly, as if he chooses every word before he says it.
"After working for hundreds of years—and everyone she ever knew and loved living and passing—she met a boy who was very sick."
"It was called Il Sangue Bianco. When he bled, he couldn't stop bleeding. Even gentle touches turned into bruises. He always had a fever, and his skin was cold. He had only a few heartbeats left when he met Amata."
"Does the boy have a name?"
"No, figliolo. The boy does not have a name in this story."
"But everyone has a name."
"Not now, not in this story."
"His parents brought him to the room where she was wrapped in her white sheet. She knelt down next to him and held his shivering body. Knowing how close he was to the other side, she held him for an hour. The boy remembered her whispering to him. She said this hurts, I know, but nothing hurts when you remember nothing last forever. She kept saying that over and over, figliolo: Nothing lasts forever, tesoro. He remembered feeling a love for her even though he never felt the sickness leave him."
"She didn't make him better?"
"The next morning he woke still sick and shivering. And the morning after that. A week went by, and the boy was still getting worse. People worried, for the first time, that Amata had failed. The boy's parents went to tell her, and when they did, she didn't seem surprised, as if she had known she was unable to heal the boy, as if she knew this case was different."
"So what happened?"
"She said she needed to see him again—this time alone. So the boy's parents led her back to their home in the ghettos of San Cesareo. They led her to his room, and they left her alone with him. She was in there for the entire night—a night the boy couldn't remember because parts of him were already starting to die."
"Did it work?"
"The next morning the boy's parents woke up to the sounds of their boy humming La Bella Lavanderina. His face was pale and soaked in sweat, but he was awake. The morning after that, they found him walking through the hills behind their house."
"And Il Sangue Bianco never came back?"
"No, the boy was cured."
"And all was well?"
"For the boy, yes. But, Amata was never..."
The father's sentence is interrupted by the voice of a woman again, this time coming from behind the door to the boy's room. "Signor, I'm sorry to bother you again, but Mr. Ghirlandaio is waiting for you. I think he's growing impatient."
The father replies, "It's only a few minutes now, Ghita. Mr. Ghirlandaio can wait a few more minutes. Pour him a glass of the Gaja Barbaresco. The papers can wait."
"Where was I, figliolo?"
"You said, 'Amata was never...' Never what?"
"She was never the same, Angelo. Well, in some ways she was the same. She continued to stay a young woman. Her hair never grayed. But in other ways she was different. Especially in one important way. She lost the ability to take the bad from people. Or at least she said she did. After she fixed the boy, she began to turn away the long lines curling out of her house and down the road."
"Who knows. Nonno thinks she used everything left inside of her on the boy."
"Did she live forever?"
"Even though she still didn't age on the outside, figliolo, she started to age on the inside. In her mind. It was an invisible aging. But she accepted it. She continued to take walks through Ardea. And no one knew who she was. But, she always had one-third of a smile, Angelo."
"I don't feel like the story is over, Papa."
"You're right. It's not. The boy began to obsess over her. She was in his dreams every night, and the scene of her saving him played out in his head every day. But that's not all he began to remember."
"What else, Papa?"
"He began to remember what really happened when he was alone with her."
"He saw her make a small cut into her side and pull out a tiny speck. She washed the blood off on her dress and then put it in his mouth."
The woman's voice interrupts again, almost desperate this time. "Signor, Mr. Ghirlandaio is threatening to leave. Please. Come down now.
"Just one minute, Ghita. Keep his calm for just a few more seconds. I'm on my way."
"After these memories, he tried to find her. But it wasn't easy. His parents refused to tell him. So he decided to fast. He went 11 days without food before they finally gave in."
There is a soft, low-frequency hum coming from outside both the father and son can hear. It becomes the backdrop to the next part of their conversation.
"He went to see her."
"What did he say?"
"Nothing at first. He knocked on the door and couldn't think of a single thing to say. So she invited him in. Then she sat down and started teaching him how to make a wig."
"That's how it happened?"
"Yes, that's exactly how it happened. He started coming every afternoon, and every afternoon she taught him how to make wigs. But... this got them talking."
"About everything. Everyday she told him a new story—remember Ursula sailed from Briton in the third century, so there was a lot to tell. She painted the characters of every century; there were conquistadors and knights, magicians and sirens, everything a boy wanted to hear. He didn't even care if the stories were real or not. Much like you, figliolo."
"How old was he?"
"At this time? He was seven or eight. Also just like you."
"Okay, keep going."
"When the boy was old enough, they began to take walks through the city. Amata taught him how to drink coffee and tie his tie. They watched magicians on the street, took trains to Florence and Pompei and Torino, devoured books together; they became inseparable."
"Then one day he was 19, and he kissed her."
"I didn't expect that."
"I know. But, figliolo, now I'm going to tell you the most important part of the story."
"You say that everytime, Papa."
"I really mean it this time. After I tell you, you won't be the same. You can turn back now."
"No, Papa. You already started. Tell me."
"There's one more lie I told in this story."
"Yes, but this is the last one."
"Which part was the lie?"
"The part where I told you Nonno told me this story."
"If not Nonno, then who?"
"You knew Amata?"
"Yes, figliolo. And so did you."
The boy pushes his father and turns away subtly, as if to tell him the joke isn't funny.
"I'm telling the truth, Angelo."
"Papa, stop it."
"It's true. All of it. These 13 days have been closer to hell than anything I've ever known. I know you understood that. Now you understand it in a new way."
The boy rolls away from his father.
"How did she leave us, then?"
"I don't know, Angelo. God is as He is. And that's all any of us can know."
The father clears the shimmering streaks from his son's face with his thumb.
"There's something else. Something I hope you understand from all this."
"That you are also in this story, Angelo. You are inside of everything I just told you."
"What do you mean?"
"It means everything you can imagine."
"I don't understand."
"You will. And now, unfortunately, I need to go meet with Mr. Ghirlandaio. Get some sleep, Angelo."
"No, Papa. No. This can't be the end of this story."
"It's not, figliolo. We are still here."
The father looks at his son and pulls his sheets up to his chest.
"We have tomorrow to talk some more. And the day after that."
The father leans forward, dusts the hair away, and kisses his son on the forehead. Then he leaves the bed and walks out of the room, gently closing the door behind him. The boy sits for a few moments in perfect stillness, his mind so vanquished it falls silent. He closes his eyes and sees the face of his mother. He opens his eyes and sees the clock on the wall. In one hour it will be 14 days. He looks out through his big window at the big moon reflecting orange light from a sun that can't be seen. He wants to have it in front of him, just to see it up close, and know what it's made of. As he thinks this thought, it arrives, resting in his two cupped hands. His first reaction is surprise when he sees it is a perfect sphere and not two-dimensional as it is in the sky. He rubs the surface with his fingertips and thinks about how it is the smoothest thing he has ever felt, despite all the blemishes he had always assumed were craters and valleys.