I followed because I wasn’t sure what else to do, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Everyone else was going to the Basilica and it looked like I might find some high point where I could get a good view out over the city. The old cobblestones here were thousands of years old, not just a little weathered by the rubber soles of tourists, and I wanted to see them connect to each other in the serendipitous way of streets in ancient cities. They were the foundation, sinking and crumbling at the sides and around each individual stone. The tour group I was with kept their eyes up, enthusing over ruins, restored buildings, and signs in Italian. I kept finding myself drawn to the streets themselves, each stone polished enough by wear to be slick if they didn’t form such knobbly patterns under my feet. For the other tourists, the experience was wrapped up in the scenery, architecture, and people – mine was in the feeling of the city beneath my feet, completely alien from modern pavement. My tour group was charging ahead of me, oblivious to the bumps and dips beneath their feet. I picked up my pace and rejoined the tailing few, one of whom was my friend, Clare Dunnell.
She was annoyed with me again. It was getting to be a habit of hers to look at me with irritation. “Why are you always lagging behind?” she hissed under her breath, so she wouldn’t interrupt the tour. Our guide was a classic Italian demi-god, flashing white teeth under dark curls as he exercised his obnoxious ability to talk faster than he walked.
“I wasn’t done back there,” I explained logically. “That’s the problem with these tours: no one can go at the pace they want.”
“Well you promised me we could have a guided tour at some point in this trip, and this is where I want it, so we can actually know something about the place we’re in this time,” she snapped back. I had the vague feeling that I couldn’t win this, but I didn’t have the sense to remain silent.
“You don’t want to listen to the guy’s information, you just want to keep looking at him,” I pointed out. Clare glared at me with pure exasperation and no humor, exactly the opposite of her friendship with me that began our freshman year in college. I wasn’t sure why graduation was making her take herself so seriously; but now she moved away from me, up to the head of our group to ask some clueless tourist question she was obviously making up on the spot. I sighed, dispirited. This was supposed to have been the trip of a lifetime, a post-graduation splurge before we both “got a real life”. I had assumed Clare would loosen up again once the strain of school was over.
I trailed our group all the way up to the Basilica, hanging my head a little and staring at the street. The old gray stones were shiny even when dry, a stable plan that had enabled the city to change through all those years. Streets were the lifeline of a people, even after subways and airplanes. My feet paced up and down them, following the same path millions of other feet had taken through a crushing amount of years.
Suddenly we rounded a corner and the Basilica rose before me in an awesome way, too grand to behold in one view. I stood a little apart from the group as the tour guide, Andreas, smiled his blindingly white teeth and began his spiel. Not being the tallest tourist in Italy – in fact, probably one of the shortest – I could see more easily without other people obscuring my view.
The church seemed hundreds of feet high, rising over the city without an equal. But there was something more monumental about it than sheer size, that was a combination of comparisons and expectations and something else I couldn’t pin down. It felt grander than anything I had seen before or would ever see again, so steeped in age and tradition that nothing I could do would touch it. I didn’t notice when our group moved on: I abandoned them entirely and didn’t even remember to glance over at Clare to tell her where I would be. We had become separated several times before on this trip, and every time she made me promise to stay closer and communicate better. But the awe of the Basilica pushed her right out of my mind.
There was a detailed sign before the avenue to the entrance. It was full of tiny text in flawed English, but I only gathered from it on my way by that the floor plan was that of an immense cross. I walked slowly up the avenue to the entrance, feeling the change from knobbly cobblestone to intricate brick paving. It was worn much flatter and had a gritty feel beneath my shoes. The surroundings were remakably plain: On the east side of the cross was a square encroached by shops on all available sides, and on the west side was a mediocre plaza with a small fountain and some benches. It was all nice enough, but everything was insignificant and cluttered next to the Basilica. I joined the steady stream of tourists and stepped inside.
I had to blink until my eyes adjusted to the much lower level of light. I paused after my first step in, feeling the tile solidly comprising a vast floor. Light diffused faintly in through stained glass windows as tall as other buildings outside. It was like a different world: The light was softer and dimmer, not seeking to pry your eyeballs from their sockets as the sunny day outside was trying for. Nowhere was there deep shadow, only rays of light that seemed to disintegrate before dividing any place between light and dark. I looked back through the entrance to outside and saw dust motes floating in golden patience to the avenue. The streams of people dirstubed them, whirled them into little eddies where I lost them. Only in the dark protection of the Basilica could I seem them.
The noise of the Basilica was also night and day to outside. Noise inside was almost non-existent, ceasing to be as soon as I had crossed the threshold. The further I progressed down the main limb of the cross, the more insular the Basilica became. It was a haven from the city, dispersing the people and intimidating all into respect. There were no attendants to ensure proper reverence; the building alone was enough to do that. It spoke to the senses in a way that was both alive and very, very still. It was immovable and had weathered everything the earth had weathered as a culmination of architecture no single generation of man could hope to achieve. Had I been listening to Andreas the tour guide, I could record the years of construction, but I only knew it to be hundreds. I did not need the exact dates to know it was old before it was finished. This was the life of the Basilica: its sheer age – the number of people attributing it importance throughout the years to now – was enough to stagger to me.
I proceeded slowly down to the top of the cross, lined on either side by gilded pillars that supported a ceiling so high above it was the darkest area in the Basilica. The structure felt big enough to house the entire city, yet pooled all the peace and grace I had expected to find in Italy. I stood in the very middle of the arms of the cross and listened. The whispering of the people around me faded, and the light from a massive round window was recumbent in shattered rays on the floor. I stood amongst all the different colors and could not close my eyes for the beauty of my surroundings. I think a tear ran down my cheek at last, and I blinked to clear the rainbows from my lashes.
And when I opened my eyes from that instant, all had changed. The light ran through me like silent swords, terrible in what they illuminated. Blood stained the ornate tiles that were several hundred years newer but dirtier than they should ever get. There was screaming around me, high-pitched terror mixed with hoarser cries of rage and desperation. People of another time swarmed around me like a school of fish with sharks in their midst, each new flower of blood attracting more and more. The stench of filth and the iron tang of blood was abhorrent in my nose, gagging and disorienting. I spun around in utter confusion, watching the slaughter inside the church. Horror does not begin to describe what I felt, for the grace of the Basilica was drowned in bloody hatred, emphasizing atrocity in the same way the Basilica I had entered emphasized separation from the city outside. I could not get my bearings, nor tell any reason for the slaughter. Men were killing other men, women, and children without mercy and without remorse. My body was sick and I closed my eyes to retch.
And it was gone when I opened them. The people of another time were long-dead, and the tiles were shining clean. The priceless stained glass windows were intact, softly illuminating the curves of the pews and arches of the walls opposite. I stumbled a little and sat down hard in the nearest pew, still fighting nausea. I looked around in disbelief at all noise respectfully subdued. The only smell was dust and age and candles. The pews sat in precise rows, the altar was not burning, and the people inside the Basilica ignored each other and were wearing modern clothes like mine. I felt dazed and shut my eyes briefly – but when I opened them again, all was the same. There was my tour group now – and there was Clare, peeling off and hurrying towards me. Her face was angry.
“Stop going off! The tour is fascinating and you’re making me miss it worrying about you!” She was flushed and determined, sparking as she attacked. The faces of murderers hundreds of years before were no more cold.
I looked up at her, still dizzy. “You only know what they want you to know,” I heard my voice tell her. She stared at me.
“I don’t believe you,” she said finally, and raised her chin. “Don’t bother coming back to our hotel tonight,” she added decisively. “I’m sitting next to Andreas at dinner and I don’t want you anywhere near.”
I gave no reply; she didn’t really wait for one. She strode back to the other tourists with an air of having finally cleaned her shoes of all the fecal matter she had stepped in moments before. I felt nothing as I watched her go, still numb from all the blood I had seen.
There was an elderly lady sitting on the other end of my pew that had not been there previously. She was obviously Italian, but spoke to me in excellent English. “I run an inn very close to here,” she told me. I looked at her wonderingly, not having known the natives to reach out to someone who was so obviously not from their country. Her accent was less than Andreas’.
“You may stay in my inn, I have a room for you,” she told me. The sun coming through a window was on her face, highlighting the wrinkles in velvety blue, red, and gold. The meaning of her words finally penetrated my mind and I scooted down the pew to be closer to her. “What is it called?” I asked.
The crow’s feet and crinkles in her smile placed her at more than sixty-five years old. “The Inn of the Basilica. I will give you the best room for nothing, cara mia.”
“Why?” I asked stupidly. My mind felt disconnected, still recovering from the blood in the church. The old woman reached out and took my hand in a grip as warm and soft as old silk.
“You stood in the center of my Basilica and wept. Out of every turista who visits, and every young Italiano who steps inside, you are the only one to feel.” Her voice was deep with pride, as if I was a child she was raising.
“I – I saw – so much blood,” I managed to say. She squeezed my hand and nodded towards the great round window over the altar.
“Do you see the difference in the light and dark, my young friend?” I nodded. I was surrounded by gentle shades of it.
“Then you know the healing that came from the tragedy.”
I stared at her. Then I stood on my feet and looked up at the enormous round window, the focal centrepiece of all the conduits of light so carefully preserved over the years. I could see the light reaching into the darkness. I looked back to tell the woman I understood, but she was gone. All I saw on the pew was a postcard of Italy marked “The Inn of the Basilica”. I reached towards it, picked it up, and gently turned it over, as if I was afraid it would also vanish. On the back, in a small, plain hand with a few shaky infirmities of age, was written: “Heal My People.”