San Valentino

Entry for the Phantom's Valentine One Shot Contest. Based on Susan Kay's book. Erik is a teenager, apprentice to the master mason Giovanni in Rome. With Erik's fascination for everything morbid he pays Saint Valentine a visit of sorts.

Valentines Day. Nothing Erik cared about, he cared about no Saint - and there were so many. Rome, the centre of the world - at least for the Roman Catholic part of the world - had so many buildings and statues dedicated to Saints. It was confusing. Did an almighty God need errand boys to get things done? Why would an almigthy God need bureaucracy with departments for different things?

For a boy - he was just a boy even if he fancied himself a man - who was proud of being agnostic he thought much about religions. When Giovanni - a devout Catholic if a bit superstitious in Erik's eyes - told him about the the Saint who was commemorated this day Erik asked why one would celebrate a day where Valentinus was imprisoned, tortured and murdered as a happy holiday giving greeting cards, flowers and sweets to one's beloved which easily could lead to rather improper activity the church didn't approve. The old master mason had given him such a hurt look, Erik apologized immediately and felt obliged to make up for his lapse somehow. The old master mason had shown him nothing but kindness, taken him in, gave him work, food and shelter, yes, the old man ignored the mask and pretended it wasn't there. He treated Erik like he would treat a normal apprentice and to Erik this was more than he had ever dared to hope for, so he was ashamed of his loose tongue and promised that he would never speak blasphemy again, that he would visit Saint Valentine and apologize to him personally.

Giovanni didn't know what to make of this promise, but he understood it was Erik's way of apologizing to him for his disrespect. He sighed. "If you like, you can go to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin where his relics lie."

"Thank you, sir," Erik replied with a deep bow, "I will make up for the lost time on the building site."

"O Erik, there are other things in life than just building," Giovanni replied, "You are so very young, if you keep working like this you will be an old man before you reach maturity."

Erik shrugged indifferently. "Since work is the only thing I will ever have in my life, I don't see the problem." He certainly was not as indifferent as he tried to pretend. Each day he saw the other young men at the building site, some of his age, looking after some skirts, heard them talking about girls and then suddenly they would stop telling blue jokes. Just like that. And the elder men would nod knowingly and mumble something about someone about to end his life as bachelor.

On days like this Erik found this extremely annoying. He knew that no matter if a girl was considered a slut or chaste, lazy or diligent, ugly or beautiful, not one of them would have him. Not one of them would ever accept him being near them. Even in his young age he knew he would be forever alone. And the other men on the building site knew that too and tried to play tricks of him like telling him that a girl had given them something for him, but she was too shy... Erik ignored that. He wouldn't risk a fight just because of such childish prank and he surely was too clever to fall for their stupid pranks.

He went to the church on foot. This was to be some kind of doing penance so he couldn't take one of the horses and ride there like he loved to ride: full gallop, causing the walkers to jump aside, some screaming in shock, some yelling at him, cursing him, scolding him for his recklessness. He would just laugh for he soon learned that if he shouted curse words over his shoulder it had less effect than his laughter.

Walking on foot was different. He was a lanky emaciated boy wearing the same clothing every apprentice to a master mason wore but he wore a mask too. And that mask would always set him apart from his fellow men. It wasn't about the pimples, every boy his age had them all over his face, neck, shoulders and breast, some more some less, but that wasn't unusual and it certainly was not about his mousy unmanageable hair. The mask was his stigma, a very visible sign that he was no honest man, they treated him like he was a rabit animal. But that was better than if he would take the mask off - he was sure they would stone him to death if they ever saw his face.

He reached the church he was looking for with a sigh of relief. Usually people didn't dare to mistreat him inside a church, just avoid him, but that was fine with him. There were many others, mainly young couples praying to Saint Valentine to bless their marriage. Erik briefly considered stealing their purses but dismissed that thought - he was an apprentice of Giovanni, if he would be caught stealing he would disgrace his master and that was a risk he wouldn't take.

Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The 8th century building compensated for the long walk. Erik admired the architecture, the baroque façade, but most of all he was fascinated by the second hand use of paganic architecture. Obviously it had been a temple build by ancient Romans. In the crypt were tuff stones that had been used in a Hercules temple and upon further search Erik found other things from the paganic temple dedicated to Hercules Invictus. Funny, how Roman Catholic men had just recycled parts of the old buildings. To the young apprentice this was a fascinating thought and he wondered what the church would look like if they had recycled more of the temple, if they had combined the ancient architecture with the architecture their time favored.

And there was the Bocca della Verità, the gigantic marble mask. 1,65 mdiameter and 1300 kg weight it certainly was gigantic for a mask. It was said that it would bite off the fingers of every liar who would dare to put his hand into its mouth. Erik looked around if he was being watched and then placed his hand in the masks mouth, feeling a bit odd, knowing he certainly was a liar. But this was superstition, wasn't ist? Nothing happened. Erik shrugged, smiling at himself for being nervous. Even if his logic mind told him not to believe superstition he couldn't help thinking "What if it was true?". There was always some remaining risk, he knew. One could calculate the statics diligently and the building could crumble nonetheless.

But finally he remembered why he was there. To see the relics of Saint Valentine. In a side altar on the left of the church were kept the flower crowned skull attributed to St Valentine. Looking through the glass coffin was a bit like looking into a mirror for the young man. To him the flower crowned skull was a makabre sight. Was this really the right skull? Some said the relics were in Madrid. Or wherever else. Relics could multiply easily, maybe Saints had at least four heads and one hundred fingers? Never mind. Erik remembered his promise and told the skull: "I'm not sure if I am talking to the right man, but a promise is a promise. I am sorry for speaking disrespectful about you." He straightened up and turned away, shaking his head. Saint Valentine was said to be the patron for affianced couples, so Erik thought he would never have anything to do with him, but he was also patron against fainting, for beekeepers, for happy marriages, for love, against plague and against epilepsy. Interesting combination of jobs, must be a busy heavenly bureaucrat.

Erik couldn't help these thoughts, they just came to his mind even if he didn't want them. But he felt good going home to tell Giovanni that he had kept his promise. Somehow Erik was proud of himself for keeping his promise. His future was looking good, he was apprentice to a famous master mason and would eventually become a master mason himself. It was good, honest work and he was sure he would be able to build up some sort of life for himself. He would not share the happiness every other man would be granted eventually, but this wasn't so bad. He never expected to be happy. Not being unhappy would have to be enough.