The Ritual on the Island of the Dead
The following is the opening chapter from Zoe Drake’s supernatural thriller, “The Mists of Osorezan”. Learn more about Zoe Drake here!
Ahead of them lay the island of San Michele, the Isola di Cimitero. The sight filled Professor Weiss with memories of things that wouldn’t stay dead.
The Vaporetto water bus sped on its way through the calm waters of the lagoon, Weiss and Mendelson both standing up on the starboard side, holding onto the railings. The breeze and the chill metal against his fingers made Weiss feel cold despite the early July heat. With his other hand, he held on to his panama hat, squinting against the sunlight breaking through the lemon-colored mist over the lagoon. Not many passengers at this time of day; only a few middle-aged men and women carrying bunches of flowers. Paying their respects before catching the last ferry home.
For over two centuries the island had been the resting place of the people of Venice, but a resting place not as final as others. After ten years, unless their family was incredibly rich or powerful, the bones of each individual were interred and placed in the Ossario, the collection of marble urns on the south side of the island. Interred to make way for a new occupant.
“They call this place the Island of No Return,” Eric Mendelson said.
Weiss turned his head and gave his friend and colleague a disparaging look. “Might as well call it the Island of the Revolving Door.”
Eric Mendelson hadn’t changed much. He was in his mid-sixties now, but with his tanned skin and clear eyes he looked twenty years younger. He was dressed in a casual shirt, a light summer jacket, Bottega Veneta sunglasses against the late afternoon glare. There was now more grey than black in his beard, but he still had the build of a rugby player.
He had weathered better than the slightly older Benjamin Weiss. The Professor’s hair, although still long and thick, was now completely white, and his tall, willowy figure had a slight stoop. And the pain, Weiss thought. Does he get it as badly as I do? The ulcerated insides? The stomach cramps and nausea as the years of service to the elders slowly took their toll?
“Why couldn’t we talk about this back at the hotel?”
“This is something that you have to see with your own eyes, Benjamin.”
Ahead of them, the island of San Michele crept closer and closer. It was a stretch of land completely enclosed by an orange brick façade, the outline broken at regular intervals by casements holding tall pointed windows. Behind the walls, thick green trunks of cypress trees stood shoulder to shoulder, gazing aloofly away from the island like sentinels. An elaborate Gothic portal hung in the center of the façade, its white surface stained and weathered by the waves of the centuries. A vague but tangible aura of loneliness hovered over the whole place.
Weiss pointed to the northwest. “Isn’t that the island of Murano over there?”
“The famous Island of Glass, yes. Fra Mauro kept his workshop in Murano, but there’s something in the cemetery I’d like you to see first.”
“Gosh, Eric, I never could resist an invitation like that.”
Weiss had been in Venice for perhaps two hours. He had arrived at the Bauer Hotel, and found Mendelson waiting in the lobby. We’re in luck, Eric had said, there’s still a ferry service operating until four-thirty, and he had escorted the confused Professor to the hotel side door leading out to the canal, where gondolas and water taxis were called for their passengers. A short cut to the Vaporetto stop, he’d said, I’ll explain when we get there.
The water bus sailed around the left side of the island and docked at a jetty with signs saying Isola di Cimitero. The passengers stepped carefully over the iron gangway leading to the damp planks of the jetty.
“Eric, I don’t mean to grumble, but we both know that the Jewish cemetery isn’t here, it’s over on the Lido. What’s this place got to do with me specifically?”
“Just be patient, Professor.”
The small group of people, Weiss and Mendelson at the back, walked through the main entrance, past a small church, the Chiesa di San Michele, into the cemetery proper.
It was a garden. A garden of white stone crosses in neat, tightly packed rows separated by walking paths and lines of cypress. As they strode down one of the paths, Weiss noticed that almost all the crosses had freshly cut flowers lying beneath them, and many had tiny photographs of their occupants next to their names. Weiss took off his hat, embarrassed under the scrutiny of so many of the distinguished Gentile deceased. To the north, the lowering sun, death’s rainbow, blazed naked through the windows of the Gothic portal, setting them aflame.
The cemetery was divided into sections by high brickwork walls, curving away into the trees. Mendelson indicated a path to the left, but Weiss halted him with a hand on his friend’s arm. “Eric, you look tired. Is that something to do with what you want to talk about?”
Mendelson looked surprised and shook his head. “Not really.”
“It’s just that you look worried.”
“Well yes, I’m worried. Just a bit. And you? How are you enjoying your retirement from active service, Professor?”
“I’m fine. University budget meetings and questions from other scholars on the finer points of early Aramaic literature. Things couldn’t be more relaxing.”
“You’re lying, Benjamin.”
“Yes, but so are you.”
They looked at each other and both laughed at the same moment.
As they walked, Weiss could see that the walls were actually comprised of what he could only describe as tombs – contiguous, marble-topped crypts that lay at the foot of lavishly carved tombstones, each the size of a grown man, flush into the surface of the wall. The only sounds that broke the silence were the crunching of their footsteps on the pebbled paths, and the humming wake of the water buses beyond the walls, passing by on the way to the next island.
“Well then,” said Mendelson, “Time to disappear.”
He took from his inner jacket pocket a small pouch of black silk. Opening it, he produced a square of waxen paper with an ornate sigil drawn upon it – a sigil that Weiss recognized as the Sixth Pentacle of the Sun. He held it up to the gentle breeze, and whispered a sentence in Hebrew.
Weiss indicated a bench over to their left. “Why don’t we sit down while we’re waiting?”
The last Vaporetto left at five thirty. A few moments before, the warden from the ferry walked through the cemetery on his rounds, making sure there was nobody left behind on the island. Weiss and Mendelson sat on the bench, concealed by the power of the Sixth Pentacle; the warden walked past them without giving them a second glance.
Venice, Eric had once remarked of his adopted home, is a city of masks. The bright carnival colors are only there to hide the decay. The undead sorcerer Casanova had worn such a mask. A featureless, gleaming white Buotto covered what was left of his face as he shambled through the sewers of Venice in creaking leather. Holding himself together through the incantations in the books stolen from Count Cagliostro in the late eighteenth century. Seventeen years ago – the last time Weiss had been called to Venice – he, Mendelson and three other agents of the Lamed Vav had finally cornered Casanova in a stinking tunnel beneath the Palazza san Marco, up to their waists in filthy water.
I left all of that behind me, thought Weiss. Or I assumed I had.
“How are the others back in London?” Mendelson asked.
“Busy. All performing their appointed duties. All of them trying to be in the right place at the right time.”
“Yes, well, we shouldn’t have much longer to wait. One way or the another.”
Weiss looked away across the cemetery. A tall stone angel stood with its time-darkened face turned to the ground, as if despair at its flight and fall from Heaven. The silence was oppressive. It seemed the island, and the whole of Venice beyond the façade, was holding its breath, getting ready to speak, getting ready to utter some grand and terrible Word.
Weiss leaned back, breathing out with a sigh. “So tell me more about this Fra Mauro. The PDF you sent me says he was a cartographer in the early fifteenth century, and rather good at what he did, but what’s your interest, Eric?”
Mendelson thought for a moment, staring out over the gravestones. “Fra Mauro was obsessed with finding the perfect map of Creation. Orbis Terrarum, Benjamin, the entirety of God’s works. He produced a cosmographic map of the world commissioned by King Alfonso V of Portugal, and another work that’s now conserved in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican.”
“And what’s brought him to your attention?”
Mendelson leaned his head towards his companion. “Well, one of the world’s little mysteries is how accurate Fra Mauro’s maps were, considering he’d never been outside of Venice in his life, and hardly ever left his monastery. The official records say he used information brought by Venetian navigators, but there were other rumors at the time, hinting at how he used…other sources.”
“This is what you brought me here to tell me?”
Mendelson gave Weiss a cool, steady look. “Dreams, Benjamin.”
“Yes. He divined his knowledge from dreams, and not just anyone’s dreams, but those of the Devil himself.”
“Ah. I was wondering when the devils and demons would turn up.”
“The rumors said that the monk had the power to access Lucifer’s dreams, and make them visible to others, projecting visions onto the clouds above this island. Fra Mauro used the visions to learn about the uncharted far reaches of the world and put the information in his maps.”
Weiss tapped a finger thoughtfully against his lips. “What you’re describing is remote viewing.”
“Exactly. And history is repeating itself, Benjamin. Over the last few months, the Italian press has reported people ‘seeing things’ in the skies over San Michele. Lights. Shapes moving in the clouds.” Mendelson raised his eyes to the darkening sky, his expression grim. “Faces.”
Weiss nodded, looking down at his hands clasped together in his lap. Dark and unbidden, an image of Casanova hit his mind. Mendelson had punched him so hard that his fist had gone right through the mask and the thaumaturge’s rotting head, coming out the other side of the skull, his knuckles streaked with carrion and maggots.
Mendelson’s title within the Lamed Vav was Ayin, and the Professor’s was Resh. Ayin, meaning Eye. Vigilance. Watchfulness. Again, it seemed, that vigilance had noted something while the other members were engaged in their own plans and responsibilities.
Mendelson leaned forward again and continued. “There’s more, Professor. Things are being written on the walls of Venice.”
“Graffiti such as nobody has seen before. Symbols that look like hieroglyphics. An unknown language.”
“I see.” Weiss looked down at his hands again, breathed in deeply. The air was redolent with the scent of so many flowers.
“Well.” Mendelson abruptly stood up. “Shall we go?”
They returned to the Chiesa di San Michele at the entrance to the cemetery. The first Renaissance style church to be built in Venice, its white Istrian stone gleamed in the melancholy light as the two scholars walked past the archway leading to the cloisters. Weiss felt his sense of unease grow; the palms of his hands were moist, and his stomach was sending out warning signs of pain. In the shaded passageway, he looked out over the railings to a courtyard holding an ancient stone well.
“Look at the walls,” said Mendelson.
Smeared on the cloister wall in a dark, nameless substance were three concentric rings of lettering. Runic jagged lines, loops, circles, waves. Alien but, to the Professor’s eyes, somehow familiar. In the center of the three concentric rings was a curious sigil; two joined circles overlaid by a square and a jagged slash running diagonally through it.
“The wardens had something very interesting to say about this. The woman on duty claimed that nobody had actually written it. She saw letters appearing on the wall, as if rising out of the bricks themselves.”
“Invisible ink,” muttered Weiss. “Things from the past making themselves manifest in the present…but why now?”
“Do you recognize the symbol in the middle of the circles?”
“I’m afraid I do. If I remember rightly, it’s the sigil from the front cover of the Book of the Veils. But that’s impossible…the Book of the Veils is part of the Hohenstaufen Collection. It never leaves Vatican City.”
“Not until now,” Mendelson said quietly.
Weiss turned. His colleague was holding something in his hands, something taken from his briefcase. A slender object swathed in black silk. He began to unwrap it, and Weiss could glimpse leather and yellowed papyrus.
“Eric, that isn’t…”
The other man’s manner grew furtive. “It certainly is. The Achaz Codex, otherwise known as the First Book of the Veils. Liberated from its unfair imprisonment in the Vatican.”
Weiss was aghast. “Are you out of your mind?”
Mendelson leaned forward conspiratorially. “I’ll be all right with you to back me up, Benjamin, won’t I? Anyway, just think of this as a preliminary investigation.”
He gingerly eased the Codex out of the silk, and waved his colleague away from the wall. Weiss’s stomach felt as if someone had plunged a stiletto into his guts and was twisting it. He winced, trying not to let the pain show on his face.
“I’m not going to conduct an exorcism, Benjamin, I just want to see what happens when I…” As he spoke, Mendelson carved his hand and began to carve a symbol in the air, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph.
It was so fast.
A blinding flash of light like summer lightning. A sound, a great rending of the earth, a booming that made the Professor clutch his ears in agony. The smell of flowers becoming strong enough to choke on.
When it was over, the Professor staggered, shaking his head to clear it. After-images danced in his eyes. He felt as if he had gone deaf. The first thing he saw was Eric Mendelson’s hand, fingers outstretched towards Weiss as if reaching for help.
Jutting out of the wall.
Weiss tried to understand what he was looking at. It was a mockery of life. A conjuring trick, a bas-relief in the shape of a man.
No: it was Mendelson. Fused with the cloister wall. Standing upright, his face twisted to one side so that one dead eye was staring back at Weiss. Flesh almost as discolored and pockmarked as the stone the head was embedded in. At his feet was the Book of the Veils, lying where he had dropped it, its pages open.
Struck dumb, Weiss stared back at the body of his friend, embedded in the center of a maddening and incomprehensible alphabet.
All of Zoe Drake’s horror novels are half-price through August 2018. Go here to find out more!
This entry was posted in Horror
, The Occult
. Bookmark the permalink