Contemplating bones in a bejeweled reliquary, they heard faint Bach, greatly improved, it turned out, by the distance.
They’d thought Protestant music, like bare shoulders, was banned from Saint Mark’s Basilica but no: in an obscure corner of the edifice a hand-wringing contralto, a portable organ, an oboe and a cello were earnestly rendering, in no good sense of the term, a Bach cantata to fifty listeners, now fifty-two.
“Come unto Me, fear not,” the contralto urged, off-key but moving.
But soon beginning to move the listeners the wrong way. Not coming, as ornately urged, but going. Going noisily, upsetting their chairs, some jumping up and down like madmen, arms flailing. His wife tisked at the inconceivable rudeness. The musicians meant well.
Then he saw the first of the pinkie-size roaches twiddling their feelers as though beating ironic time to the aria.
Recounting the incident much later, he evacuated his original panic in favor of humor. Roaches in a church! Scarabs in an Egyptian temple, fine. In a Catholic place of worship praying mantises maybe or lady-bugs (originally Our Lady’s Bird and “bête à bon Dieu” in French, he would add pedantically) but not kitchen-sink roaches!
Of course it wasn’t piety but sandwich remnants littering the ancient flagstones that explained their presence. Mass presence, for now--the moment of pure panic, nothing to joke about--he saw them everywhere, by the hundreds, on those flagstones on the pillars, on the laps and shoulders of the listeners.
Feeling one on his cheek he shot up, stamping and waving. His wife too.
They fled with the other tourists past a black-clad old woman, still seated. She was covered with roaches but ignored them as she ignored the false notes, her withered face wet with tears at the reiterated urgent invitation: Come unto Me, fear not.
Howard Waldman's three novels are available at Amazon: Back There Time Travail The Seventh Candidate A fourth novel, When They Die Good Americans Go to Paris, will appear shortly.