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The tongue of men and angels

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I.

"The Pope is dead," they tell him, as if if he's not holding the man's hands, still somewhat warm and not yet cold, in his own, "the Pope is dead, and you are nothing now. Remember your place."

Oh, the smugness, the certainty and privilege in their voices. In reply, he smiles. "My place," he says, still not moving from the dead man's side, "is here."

Some of the Cardinals look amused, others sympathetic; after all, the same blood that gave the dead man life pulses through his own veins, and even if they do not take him seriously, they grant him grief for his kinsman. None of them takes his true meaning.

Rodrigo Borgia is twenty seven years old, younger than any of the other Cardinals around him, when he decides he will sit on the throne of St. Peter and become the rock on which God rests his church. The rock on which the rest of them shall dash their brains out if they try to stop him. He's not so foolish to believe it will happen soon. His uncle, Alfonso Borgia, Pope Calixtus III., had to wait nearly all his life for this. But it did happen, and so it will again. Rodrigo will make it happen.

II.

"The Pope," they say, "is dead, or nearly so, and there is no time to lose." He can hear them. They hardly bother to whisper while they make their plans, promise each other this office and that, and swear that never, never again will they be forced to bow to a Spaniard.
He burns, like the heretic Savonarola, he burns, and all inside him is pain. But he is not dead. Or is he? For a while, he feels Vannozza next to him, and Lucrezia, and knows he is not, knows it by the familiar touch of their hands tracing his own, but then they leave, and everyone else seems to be certain of his imminent demise.

God is not there. That is the worst. God is not there.

II.

"Your son," Vannozza tells him. He's breaking tradition, seeing her so shortly after she's given birth. Well, seeing her at all. Most of the other princes of the church have their mistresses and bastards, true, but the unacknowledged rule is to pay for the bastards, if they occur, and stay as far away from them and their mothers as possible, moving on to the next mistress who has no visible proof that lechery has occured. This is what Rodrigo has done, too, as a young man still trying to follow the rules, and has come to regret it, as he knows little of his first three children, Pedro, Girolama and Isabel. He has seen to it that they lack nothing, but the very few times he has met them, under the guise of pastoral visits, they have been well behaved strangers, intimidated by his robes.

This child will be different. This child, and all that will follow. He's done with staying away, and with secrecy. Vannozza looks at him, the child in her arms, her face proudly owning the exhaustion and the triumph of birth. She'd been already past thirty when they met, and he but a year short of his fortieth birthday; not a girl, but a woman, as he was a man, not a youth. They were a match in experience; she'd been famous as a courtesan, with nobles vying for her favour and poets writing paeans to her name.

He reaches out, carefully, and touches the cheek of the child. Soft, so incredibly soft; it seems a miracle God should create such tender helpless creatures out of passion so fierce and demanding on both sides, with no quarters given.

"Ours," he says.

III.

"Your son," he tells Vannozza, and what he means is: explain him to me.

He'd been so certain, once, that he knew Cesare, and knew what was best for him. Cesare, who was without a doubt the most brilliant of his children, save perhaps Lucrezia, and Lucrezia could not follow him. Cesare might yearn for the glory of arms and a worldly life; Rodrigo, who'd been the youngest brother once upon a time, and had watched his brother Pedro Luiz being given the command of an army by their uncle the Pope, had experienced some pangs as well. After all, every boy was told that a man's highest virtue was to be tested in battle.

But there were battles of many types, and only the Church was eternal. Pedro, who'd risen so far as to dream of seizing the kingdom of Naples for himself during the Papacy of Calixtus, had died, pursued by enemies, his worldly glory not surviving their uncle's death by much. Rodrigo had lived, and risen, had made alliances, had defeated and outmanouevred his enemies and had known God had blessed him when making his uncle choose the church for him. Cesare would come to understand the same thing. He'd clung to this through every argument until that last, most devastating confession.

"Your son as well," Vannozza says, by which she means Rodrigo already knows all there is to know; he just won't admit it.

IV.

His enemies have called him every name under the sun, and whether or not their accusations and insults were true, he had not minded, except for one that came with a biting compliment by his oldest rival. Giuliano della Rovere accusing him of simony, lechery and corruption had been faintly amusing, since Rodrigo knew very well that the good Cardinal had simply been outbid in their struggle for the Papacy. But this: Guiliano della Rovere telling him that as Vice-Chancellor of the Church, Rodrigo was an excellent administrator, but that there was no spirituality in him - that stung.

Of course he bought and sold offices. That was how the game is played, and if God would not have wanted him to play it better than anyone else, he would not have let Rodrigo succeed, it is as simple as that. But he has taken his priesthood seriously ever since making his vows. Through all the decades, it has not seemed contradictory to him to lie beside a woman and know her as Adam knew Eve, and then to rise and pray to God. He can not do without the one or the other. What his old rival implies is that Rodrigo understands only the ceremony, and not the content. That he is hollow. He pretends not to understand, but the words keep pursuing him until the tiara is placed on him, and instead of the expected sense of triumph he feels humbled and shattered in the true presence of God. He can understand now what St. Augustine meant, tremendum et fascinosum, and he tries to share this with Cesare, but Cesare only looks at him bewildered.

That is when the next, worse fear starts. If Cesare is truly like him, and Cesare has no sense of or even interest in the presence of God, doesn't that mean that Guiliano della Rovere is right and what Cesare reflects back at Rodrigo is his own lack of a true calling?

This can't be. If this were true, Rodrigo would have committed an unforgivable blasphemy when claiming the Papacy. And so, he's even more determined to make Cesare see the light.

V.

There is only darkness, and fire. He tries to find God. He's never needed God as much as now. "Surely even you," says a voice, "know that there is only one place where God cannot be, and that is hell."

It's not Giuliano della Rovere's voice. It is the heretic, Savonarola.

"I am not in hell," Rodrigo wants to say, if not every bit of his mouth and throat were burning, "because I am not dead."

"Then how can I be here?" asks the Dominican.

Hounds of God, that's what they call themselves, the Dominicans: domini canes. He'd offered the man mercy and had gotten spat at with blood. Blood, blood on his face, blood at his hands: Rodrigo has worn red for most of his life, Cardinal's robes before the Papal white, symbolizing the blood a prince of the church had to be willing to spill in service for the church. Savonarola had not been a prince of the church. He'd been a monk, refusing advancement, scorning it as bribery.

"That is not virtue, Father," Cesare had said. "He does not need office, with Florence cowering before him already. He even burns people at his own leisure. No, there is no virtue there."

It had been simple for Cesare: Savonarola was a dangerous opponent, and so Savonarola had to go. Which was very true, and yet: Savonarola claimed to have visions. Claimed that God was with him, always.

"Our Lord did not leave me," Savonarola says, "when you had me tortured. Why do you think I never broke? He was with me. But he is not with you now. Because you are not worthy. You are in hell."

"If God is with you," Rodrigo says, or tries to say, and somewhere, someone is telling him not to try to speak and putting something cool and moist on his face, "and you are here, then this can not be hell."

Rodrigo's face is moist, and burning, and he knows it is blood, the blood of the heretic, and it won't go away.

VI.

There was a vision for Rodrigo once. It was not remotely like the ones Savonarola claimed to have. He did not see the fate of humanity. Nor did he see armies, or revelations. He very much hopes what he saw was not the future, either.

What he has seen was his daughter Lucrezia, as through a mirror, darkly, following St. Paul's description. Her corpse, he feared at first, but then she opened her eyes. "God may forgive you," she had said, "but I never will", and pronouncing his damnation, she had ascended to heaven.

He has never spoken of this vision to anyone. Sometimes he thinks it has already come true, when Lucrezia looked at him over the corpse of her brother Juan and told him why she could not grieve.

If God does not forgive him and has in fact abandoned him, does that mean Lucrezia will forgive him instead?

VII.

Pope Calixtus has an official confessor who could have performed the last rites for him, but Rodrigo speaks them instead. He loves his uncle. Not disinterestedly, but he has loved him, and as the man who has shaped Rodrigo's life more than his earthly father has is dying, he wants to make sure his uncle knows that he is not alone among vultures.

He speaks the man's name, the name this Pope had been baptized with, says it defiantly in Spanish, not even bothering with the Italianate Alfonso. "Alonso," he says, "Alonso, child of Christ," and his uncle and father in Christ hears him and replies.

There is enough consciousness in him for the Viaticum, the last Eucharist, but not enough strength for the host; it has to be wine that Rodrigo carefully lets drop into his uncle's trembling mouth.

He prays, and he feels the moment his uncle's hand slackens in his own. There is no doubt in him that God has received his uncle's soul.

When Rodrigo finds the body of his dead son Juan among the many corpses fished from the Tiber, he knows Juan has died unshriven, alone except for his murderer. There can't have been an opportunity for Juan to repent and be absolved. This means Juan is condemned to purgatory from now till the Last Judgment, and Rodrigo thinks it cannot get worse until he hears Cesare confess and knows he has failed both of his sons.

 

VIII.

The Bible never speaks of Adam when Cain slew Abel, and was marked by God. Nor does it speak of Eve. Rodrigo has not told Vannozza what Cesare told him, even though she is, in the first weeks after his recovery, the only person he can bear to be around without constantly guarding his every word. She might guess; he hopes she doesn't.

Before the poison, after the burial of Juan, he had started to speak to Cesare. He'd meant to ask for and offer forgiveness then, feeling raw, as if his skin had been shed along with the earth that covered Juan's grave. But the words, only half said, had been drowned in the poison that nearly tore him apart and took his life, and spat it out again blackened forever. They were replaced by fire and bile.

God has not been there.

God has created Adam in his own image. Rodrigo has always taken this to mean that God must have loved Adam. Now he is no longer sure. Maybe that is what the fall truly means: God has turned away in disgust from what he has created. How can Adam, in turn, embrace Cain over the bloodsoaked earth Adam himself is made of?

He can, at best, let Cain go and know that neither of them will ever be in the presence of God again.

IX.

Rodrigo's oldest son Pedro, named after Rodrigo's late brother, lived in Spain, died during a brief visit to Italy before Rodrigo ever reached the Papacy, and was buried in the church Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, which means Rodrigo now is closer to him, day by day, than he ever was during his eldest's life time. The sadness this leaves is numb; a nagging sense of time wasted, the loss of someone hardly known. It has not prepared him for the engulfing tenderness he felt when his and Vannozza's children were growing up, and it has not prepared him for the guilt, the anger, the worry and the ferocious longing he feels now.

Still, he finds his way to Santa Maria del Popolo more and more often. Not in the papal robes, of course. He goes in the nondescript layman's cloths he wore when searching for Juan's body. If he's recognized, he is at least left alone. At first, it is an effort to go outside the Vatican without soldiers to guard him. He'd never been a fearful man; even his enemies would have been ready to admit as much. But now every sudden move seems to bring a hidden blade to light, every reached cup could harbor poison again. Paradoxically, it becomes better after the second assassination attempt. There is blood all over him, not just his face this time, and he has a sense that even if they burn these robes and sow new ones, he'll never see the papal white clean again, but if God has spared him twice, it has to mean something. Maybe not forgiveness. But something.

At the very least, it means to get on with the business of living. He makes himself visit Santa Maria del Popolo without his guards, and every time it gets a bit easier not to grit his teeth and flinch when sudden shadows fall on him.

The prayers, though, they always remain the same. For his uncle and father in Christ, long dead, and his brother; for his dead sons. And then, at the last, because they demand the most, and only here, where they are not, he can talk to them without fearing all his conflicting emotions will tear him apart, for his living children.