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Anno Domini 1729
Utrecht, The Republic of the United Netherlands
Someone fires a shot from the church tower. I look up, because that’s what you do when they take aim at you, but nothing is visible in the darkness above the hanging lanterns. The open square offers no cover, so I press my back against the rough stone wall surrounding the cathedral ruins, still warm from the summer sun.
A hand grabs my arm and pulls me aside. I barely manage to avoid stepping into a patch of fresh horse dung. A drunken laugh sounds from across the street.
“The laws of the divine nature in action,” Raphael whispers in my ear. His perfume almost masks the reek of the manure. “Hide.”
“What is it?”
Raphael Peixoto’s face is hidden in the shadows under the brim of his hat, but I don’t need to see the wry smile around his mouth to know it’s there. After he pulls me through the overgrown gate into the ruins, I wait for his Spinoza. The philosopher is always on his lips, and Raphael has a quote for every precarious situation, no matter the time.
But once inside, he pushes me against the wall and presses a finger against my mouth. “Beware the impersonal wrath of God in the trajectory of a leaden ball, Gysbert.”
For years the ministers have been fulminating about the wrath of our Lord, brought down on the Republic by the moral failings of its people, but this pistol shot? “Only the custos, you pompous fool,” I whisper. High above us, we hear the man cursing “sodomites and bougers” as he chases trespassers off his gallery. He is notorious for his short and violent temper. The days when the Dom Tower guard ran his own tavern in the second-floor chapel are long gone.
“Darkness doesn’t make you invulnerable, dear boy,” Raphael insists, peering upward.
“I didn’t know you cared.”
“Nothing whatsoever. Still, best to hide that pretty face.” Again the sardonic smile, then he disappears behind a bush.
We’ve been walking the cloisters and the Domkerkhof churchyard, two Academy students in search of some dirty work after a day listening to professors droning. It doesn’t usually take long before someone approaches me, attracted by my youth and my clear countenance, unmarred by the pox. But for some reason the night watch has been out in force all evening, and the guards’ whistling and rattling have scared away most of the regulars. I walk around for a while, before deciding to call it a night.
Two watchmen enter the ruins, carrying lanterns. One remains standing before the gate, while I see the other accosting someone with a hat like Raphael’s.
Where is Raphael? I whisper his name and realise I am alone in the dark. The watchman’s lantern moves in my direction, bobbing slowly. Suddenly I am rigid with panic, unsure where to go, certain I cannot stay here. I have visions of being arrested and interrogated, having to face the incredulous looks of my friends, the disapproving gazes of my professors. From the corner of my eye I see an arm beckoning from behind the Holy Font, but I hardly notice.
“Gysbert! This way!” Raphael’s voice tears me loose. Quickly I shuffle in his direction.
The Holy Font is not actually a baptismal font, but our name for a broken, slanting, and half-buried column popular with devotees of certain acts the custos would no doubt find horrifying. Quite certain the trail of fluid running down its side isn’t rain water, I hesitate before crouching behind it. Only when I see the guard looking in my direction, I duck down.
Too late. Has he spotted me? We try not to breathe as we listen to the footsteps approaching through the grass.
But the lantern bobs past. I nudge Raphael and nod at the darkened gate. “Coast is clear.”
His breath hisses between his teeth. “No. That’s the trap. They’re waiting outside.” He points at a narrow opening next to another pillar stump. “We go past the Thomas chapel.”
“And then? The Munster Gate is closed by now.”
He grins. “But have you seen the ivy on the wall there? Come on.”
I watch how he quickly moves over to the pillar stump. There he looks around, before beckoning me. I get up, but immediately a loud voice commands us to come out, by order of the bailiff. I drop to the ground again. When I peer through the shrub, a watchman is standing next to the pillar stump, and Raphael is gone.
I crawl backwards, my coattails brushing the dirt, until my shoes touch the crumbling remains of a wall. The rough ground scrapes my hands painfully, and suddenly I smell my own sweat.
A third lantern appears. On my knees I shuffle sideways, trying to hide under a huge wall ornament partially buried in the grass. By now I’ve completely lost my bearings: the ruins of the former cathedral are a place of pits, unexpected corridors, and black holes. And in the darkness, we like to joke here, all holes are the same.
I crawl underneath yet another shrub, losing my hat to the bramble and tearing my stocking. Then the ground gives way.
I grab at the branches, but immediately I slide down into a pit. Sand covers my face as I claw upwards. Spitting and coughing, I slither down a steep incline, until I finally land painfully on a floor of damp earth.
When I’ve wiped enough grit from my eyes to look around, I see what appears to be a subterranean passage. Next, a pair of sandal-shod feet. I look up. A swarthy face gazes down at me in astonishment.
The young man is dressed as if for a stage play: a loose brown tunic, leather bands around his wrists, black hair cut short. His eyes reflect the light of the small terracotta oil lamp in his hand. Peasant boy, I think, looking at his bare muscled legs and arms. I’m not surprised: the Domkerkhof attracts both low and high alike, and in his loose clothes he looks like the Ganymede of the ancient Greeks, just before Zeus abducted him. Our unnatural desires are nothing if not quintessentially human.
When he speaks I don’t recognise his strange tongue, though it has a hint of Spanish.
“Who are you?” I ask. “Don’t you speak the language?”
He is silent, his eyes blinking rapidly. His next words are Latin.
A learned peasant boy, then. For a moment I’m so surprised his words slip past me. It must be some Vulgar dialect, because I have difficulty following it. “Nil intellego,” I say. “Tardus. Tardior.” Slower.
Whistles and muffled voices sound from above. The night watch is still there.
Touching the cold stone wall, at first I guess I’m in a crypt underneath the ruined nave. Do they know of this place? Any moment now I expect them to call down, demanding that I come out.
I look at the stranger’s face. At least he doesn’t know who I am, and that somehow reassures me. “I need help,” I say. “Hide me. Please.”
As he walks ahead of me, the dark unfolds into a narrow corridor with openings on both sides. Pulling aside a curtain, he ushers me into a smell of leather, wax and old sweat. Dim light reveals neatly made bunk beds and empty coat pegs along the walls. I recoil when my hand brushes against a mail shirt hanging from one of the pegs. But most unsettling is the corner fireplace, which seems to double as a kitchen: a piece of dark bread and a chunk of dried meat lie on a wooden plate. The room looks and smells as if it’s been lived in for ages. This is not a crypt.
“What is this place?” I whisper. “Who are you?”
His answers come rapidly, and my sadly underused academic Latin is hardly up to the task. He tells me I shouldn’t be here—something I wholeheartedly agree with—because my clothes are barbarica. His cohors is charged with guarding the traiectus. I am lucky that his centuria is out, otherwise I would have been removed from the castellum immediately. He is the only one left, because. . . . The rest of his words flow past me in a meaningless stream.
He must be insane, living underground, imagining himself to be . . . what? A Roman legionary? Nevertheless I decide to play along, because listening to his raving is preferable to spending the night in a cell underneath City Hall. So I tell him I’m being chased by enemies, but I don’t say who. His grin is more uncertainty than mirth.
There is some parchment on a low table, next to a reed pen and an inkwell. I see some kind of map or diagram, but when I lean in to look closer, he pushes me away. “Praeteritum arcanum adhuc,” he says. The past is still secret? What does that mean? For a moment there is something else in his eyes, something complex, old, ancient. Then it’s gone.
I step back. There’s a stack of parchment in a corner, and I see more under the beds. Unsure about how to continue, I ask his name. When he tells me, I’m not sure I hear him correctly. But I repeat after him: “Ilurtibas,” and he nods and grins again. He can hardly be called handsome, yet each time he grins he raises his left eyebrow, which gives him a pleasantly rakish look.
“Gysbert Coolsaet,” I say, laying my hand on my chest.
He tries, but his tongue is so used to his soldier’s Latin and his own strange vernacular that it’s hard to recognise my name on his lips.
“And where are your comrades?” I ask, as casually as possible. I don’t want to run the risk of confronting a roommate who fancies himself the king of Spain.
A shadow passes over his face. “I don’t know.”
“Well . . . when will they be back?”
Confusion in his eyes. “I don’t. . . . They left in the past, and the past is hidden. Yesterday . . . last week . . .” He shakes his head. “Centuries ago? Anyhow, I couldn’t join them. So I started writing. To pass the time.”
I gaze at the stacks of parchment. Time has certainly passed here.
And that’s it. Even my tolerance for insanity has its limits. “I’m sorry. I’m tired and cold.” My legs feel as if they are about to give way. “Are we safe here? Can I take some rest?”
He points at one of the low bunks, saying that it’s probably all right to sleep there.
When I wake up, my teeth are chattering, though I have my coat wrapped tightly about me. The fireplace is cold. In the faint lamplight I see him watching me from a bunk across the room. He has a thin blanket, which I eye longingly.
I’m not used to sharing a bed with a soldier, not even a scholarly one, but I’m relieved when he beckons me over.
We end up in each other’s arms, fumbling and uncomfortable, our bodies somehow unwilling to come together, despite the cold and the closeness of the cramped bunk. After a while we lie still, as if poised in equilibrium. And we talk.
At least, we try. But his Latin is not an academic language. Strange meanings emerge from everything he says. Every word we speak, every gesture we make takes on special urgency, because we have so little common ground.
He tells of battles, campaigns, friendships, loss. Time becomes fluid when he speaks of centuries that might have been days, and nights that stretch on forever. Repeatedly he refers to himself as a praeteritorum custos, and gradually I realise he does not just think of himself as a soldier, but as a watchman: a guardian of things past.
“But what is there to guard?” I ask.
“All of it,” he says, making a sweeping arm gesture. And again that ancient wisdom in his face, as if the young soldier is only a disguise. But it’s just shadows, I know, and my imagination.
“This is a place of gods. Mithras was here, Wodan, and Hercules Magusanus. But before we arrived, before the Batavi and the Frisii lived here, gods were worshipped whose names even Jupiter and Minerva don’t know. The god of the flight of the ruff in autumn. The goddess of the wind in the young reed. The god of the path the shadows of moving clouds trace across the fields. Their holy places, long gone. Their remains sink deeper and deeper. They must be protected.”
“The past must not be disturbed.”
I am too tired to keep questioning. Drifting in and out of sleep, at one point I start awake from a dream in which I see Raphael waving at me from the bushes, before his face changes into that of a watchman. At the same time I’m always aware of Ilurtibas’s warm and muscular body—right next to me, but somehow ages removed.
A pungent smell of burning wood wakes me. Ilurtibas is poking up the fire, his silhouette black against its light. The darkness in this place still feels like something timeless and eternal. My shoulders are stiff from the cold. I sit up and straighten my clothes. “I have to leave,” I say. “Probably morning by now. Is there another way out?”
He nods silently, keeping his back turned to me. A more obvious expression of unease is hardly possible, so I get up, ready to leave.
But when he slowly rises and turns around I step back in shock. Instead of Ilurtibas’s youthful face, a grey-haired old man looks at me. He wears the same tunic, but it hangs loose on his gaunt frame.
“Who . . . ?” I have to clear my throat.
“I am called Ilurtibas. I think you . . . know me.”
I shake my head. “You are not . . . where is Ilurtibas? I need him to show me the way out.”
“And you think I don’t remember? A senile old man, is that what I am?” He clacks his tongue. “Have it your way. But you’re right, it is time for you to leave now. Come.” He steps into the corridor and snaps his fingers with barely concealed impatience.
I hesitate. Waiting here for Ilurtibas would be the sensible thing to do.
The old man keeps looking at me. “You have trusted me this far, Gysbert. Why doubt me now?” The corners of his mouth turn up as he raises his left eyebrow. And the smile that yesterday was rakish, is a sardonic grin on this face: the bitter joy of someone who has seen too much. But it’s the same grin.
As he walks ahead of me in the corridor, we pass other rooms similar to his. “Empty contubernia. None have returned yet.” In his aged voice it sounds like a ritual incantation repeated daily.
Around the corner, I grow more mystified with every room we pass. There is a storeroom filled with jars of grain, another one with dried meat, stockfish, cabbage. One room looks suspiciously like a heathen temple, and there is even a simple bathhouse. But no sign of other people, anywhere.
At the end of a long passage we come to a low arch. And beyond it, the labyrinth starts.
It exists as little more than glimpses caught in the lamplight, as it moves and shifts along tunnels and pathways. The whole place seems to be made of walls, pillars, and arches, whole or broken, a bricolage of stone and masonry. Walls are built on top of each other, through each other, or next to rows of bricks supported by layers of pebbles, scattered over blocks of tuff. We pass the immense foundations of the Dom Tower, burrowing down through it all. When we go deeper, the walls become wooden stakes.
I come to a dead stop, wrapping my arms around me, shivering. Is this still Utrecht? “Where are we?”
“History,” says the old man. He draws up his shoulders. “It sinks ever deeper. Look.” He points at a rift in the wall.
Lights. Lights glimmering in the deep. Like looking down on the stars of an underworld firmament. But I’ve seen enough now. “Get me out of here,” I whisper.
He nods. “The past wants to remain hidden.” When he looks at me, it’s as if his eyes have seen that past, all of it. His gaze bores into me, and I turn back to the rift again, afraid he sees too much. Then he beckons, and we walk along a broad tunnel to a double gate of weathered wood. “This is the via principalis. I can’t leave the castellum. You must find your own way out.” He puts a hand on my shoulder.
I pull open the gate and step into a draughty corridor. When I glance back at him, the old man is gone. It’s the young Ilurtibas standing there, an unreadable expression on his face. Before I can ask him where he was, he raises his hand and pushes the gate shut.
After we delegate Tervaert to fill us another bottle of Rhine wine at the tavern, I throw in an offhand remark: “Well, what about that rumour of a secret subterranean labyrinth?”
The morning’s lectures concluded, four of us are spending a sunny afternoon under the trees of the pall-mall court just outside the city walls, watching the youths swing their mallets, whistling at the girls. I haven’t seen Raphael for days, but ever since I emerged from the strange underground warren, I’ve been thinking of Ilurtibas’s words.
“Rumour?” Cuylman’s speech is slurred. His soiled wig is hanging lopsided on one ear. Three sheets to the wind already, and the pockmarks on his face have taken on a purple hue. “There’s all kinds. All kinds of. Stuff. Beneath the Domkerkhof. That’s not rumour. That’s fact.”
“Such as?” Nieuwmeyer demands. I wait in silence. Cuylman is the man to ask, I know, given his other interests besides drinking and whoring.
“The Dom wasn’t the first cathedral built there. Actually.”
“First to collapse when the bishop sneezed, though,” Nieuwmeyer snorts.
“Franks. Franks had some kind of castle.” Cuylman pushes a finger in his ear and wiggles it vigorously. “And the Romans.”
I try not to show my surprise. “What about the Romans?” I ask.
Inspecting the brownish glob on his finger, Cuylman says, “Latest thinking, they had some kind of garrison here. Camp or some such. Lots of coins around.”
“Coins?” Nieuwmeyer rubs his nose. “Know your Pliny, old man. Roman soldiers were paid in salt.”
Cuylman gives him a glassy stare.
Then Tervaert returns from the Maliehuis with two flasks of wine. “Call that a rumour?” he says, refilling our cups. “Let me tell you gentlemen a rumour. Have you heard about Peixoto?”
“What’s he done now?” Cuylman asks.
“Appears to’ve gotten himself collared near the Vreeburgh privies, a few days ago.”
I feel every hair on my arms standing up. Raphael. Rumour has transformed Domkerkhof into Vreeburgh, but I dare not correct it. I take a swig of wine to hide my apprehension.
“Privies? What’s wrong with the canal?” Nieuwmeyer, always slower on the uptake.
“That’s disgusting,” says Cuylman. “No surprise from a cursed Israelite, but really . . . a filthy bouger? Never expected that.” He leans heavily against the wooden fence surrounding the playing field. “Now, him!” he blurts, pointing over the fence. “Him I’d suspect.”
An elderly man with an old-fashioned black wig and a walking stick strolls along the path, two servants at a respectful distance behind him. The embroideries on his elegant pale blue justaucorps and waistcoat glitter in the sunlight, and his buckled shoes are perfectly polished.
“Renswou, Baron Big Nose,” says Tervaert. “Well, what do you expect? Plenipotentiary for Utrecht at the Peace of 1713, no? That close to that many foreign diplomats, anyone’s bound to pick up some of their . . . habits.”
“Prattle,” I say. “That’s sixteen years ago.” But I’m not even fooling myself. I’ve seen the baron strolling the Dom cloisters, I’ve recognised the look in his eyes, the hunger, the dull resignation to the certainty that his wealth will buy him everything but true companionship, genuine brotherly love. I’ve even heard whisper why he is called “that gentleman with the big nose.”
“So where’s Peixoto?” Nieuwmeyer asks.
“Locked up at Catheryne Gate, I presume. Maybe City Hall.” Tervaert smirks.
The world seems to recede. As I close my eyes and steady myself against a tree, a memory surfaces: Raphael Peixoto, two years my senior, opening a tavern door and motioning me into a new world which I had never known existed. The Wine Wreath near Saint Paul’s Gate offered drink, merriment, and what Raphael called “the dirty work.” At first I loathed the ostentatious effeminacy of many of the regulars—the powdered perruques, the rouged cheeks, the vulgar perfumes—but then I found that the company of stable hands and cab drivers could be just as fulfilling. My world expanded, and I, Gysbert Coolsaet, son of a respectable merchant family, learned things about myself which would otherwise have been kept hidden, locked away as unspeakable secrets, silently poisoning my being.
“What’s this, Coolsaet?” pulls me back to the present. “Can’t hold your drink? Gentlemen, the boy is in need of a glass of orgeat!” Tervaert starts bawling the latest drinking song.
Cuylman is sitting in the grass with his chin on his chest, which allows me to make a joke of it, but the joy of the afternoon has evaporated. I excuse myself, pleading academic duties.
As I cross the Malie Bridge and look at the arbours and pleasaunces on the Lepelenburgh bulwark where the well-to-do are enjoying themselves in the sun, oblivious to anything beyond their garden fences, I feel as if I’m invisible. I want to scream, I want to tell somebody about Raphael, I want to ask what’s going to happen to him. I’m not even sure if it’s Raphael I care about, or the sudden revelation that whatever happens to him, might at some point also happen to me.
If my faith were stronger, I would pray. If I were a papist, I would go to confession. But prayer has not helped me in the past, and I’m not sure that God even listens to someone like me. I hope Raphael’s God listens to him. His father is one of the Jews of the Portuguese nation, allowed back into Utrecht during the great speculation craze of 1720. They needed his money then. They don’t need him now. They certainly don’t need his son.
In my room above the wine merchant’s shop, I try to concentrate on my reading. Raphael has lent me his copy of Spinoza’s Opera posthuma. The infamous freethinker's Ethica distracts me for a while, but my thoughts keep wandering, so later that evening I go out and roam around the city for a while. The urge to talk to someone has become unbearable, but I don’t dare trust anyone not to hand me over promptly to the bailiff—the only difference between a Jew and a sodomite being, as far as my social circle is concerned, that a sodomite might actually be willing to part with a guilder or two in exchange for his pleasure.
Of course I end up on the Domkerkhof again. The shrub behind the Holy Font is undisturbed, the tunnel entrance surprisingly easy to find. As I slide down the hole, I don’t even wonder why no one else has discovered this tunnel. In a place like this, apparently other laws hold.
Before I can lose my way in the dark he appears in front of me. It is Ilurtibas, but he is neither the young man nor the old codger. This is Ilurtibas in the prime of his life, a soldier and legionnaire. “Quis es?” he demands in a deep and resonant voice, and it’s almost as if the echoes call the corridor behind him into being, as if nothing existed there before his footsteps solidified it.
“A friend of mine has disappeared,” I blurt, ignoring his question. Lord, but the relief of getting that off my chest, even in halting Latin!
In his contubernium I ramble on about Raphael, about how we met during a lecture on Saint Augustine, how he showed me what lay beyond the limits of my world, how he taught me to navigate the currents of our dark desires. I tell him how I feel about Raphael—something I have never told Raphael himself. I tell him that I sometimes imagine us to be Achilles and Patroclos, or Alexander and Hephaistion, and I try to explain why that feeling makes me stronger, as if it helps me to become a better man. Other people would be shocked at what they’d perceive as a tale of innocent Christian youth corrupted by the perverted Jew, but Ilurtibas just listens.
I’m not sure he truly hears, though. His face is still a hard mask. Finally he asks, again, “Who are you?”
Have I misunderstood after all? “Gysbert Coolsaet,” I say, unsure. “Remember?”
“That is what you have told me. But you shouldn’t be here. I know who let you in, and that shouldn’t have happened. It’s my duty to throw you out.”
“Ilurtibas . . .” I shake my head in exasperation. Now that my story is done, the questions return. “Who are you? Every time you look different. I’ve heard tales of witchcraft, but this . . . and your writing . . .” I glance at the parchment on the table. When I look up, I involuntarily take a step back, and hit my head on the edge of a bunk bed. The soldier is gone, and now the old man is standing in front of me again.
He looks past me. “Not my duty to tell you. Not anymore. The duty used to be everything, long ago. The watch, the camp life.” His gaze glides across the parchment. “The historia. But now I only have to make sure there’s a proper ending.” He looks up at the low ceiling. “History moves in waves, you know, one flowing over the other. A new wave washes away the sediment of an older one. But never completely. There are places in this world where waves meet and strengthen each other, where they rise up in a peak in which time is bundled together, into a single point full of meaning and possibility.” He gestures at the sheets on the table. “The history of this place turns into the future. It is a Metamorphoseon my spirit has moved me to write, in which all things are turned into new and strange forms. I see now that you have not been written yet. I thought you were just a local who had wandered in by chance. But no one else has done so in centuries. You belong to later times, the waves above, the higher layers, the temples of that new god, the cruciform foundations.”
I’m surprised at how much I want to accept his words. He sounds like a doting old man, but I remember the labyrinth outside this room, this barracks, and there is seductive logic to it.
This time he does not stop me. The handwriting is dense, virtually unreadable, and what little I can make out is colloquial and full of neologisms—Ilurtibas is no Spinoza or Ovid. It appears to be a painstaking description of the tunnels, in dated entries. As I leaf through a few pages, I see Julian dates but no ab urbe condita or even a single consular year, no starting point to his calendar. There are maps that seem to change from year to year, as if the maze is in constant transmutation.
Feeling slightly embarrassed, I ask, “Who was emperor when you . . . ?”
“The august Antoninus Heliogabalus is princeps,” he says without hesitation in a deep and powerful voice. I don’t dare to look up, but I know the soldier is standing next to me again.
As I try to remember the position of Heliogabalus in the ranks of the heathen rulers, Ilurtibas grabs my shoulder so hard it hurts. I look up in surprise, and now it’s the young man looking down anxiously. “Who is princeps . . . where you are from?”
It’s difficult talking to three different people at once. How to explain that his empire fell apart a long time ago? “We . . .” I begin. “The Dutch people only recognise the absolute authority of our Lord Jesus Christ the Redeemer. Our leaders are just regents.”
I expect him not to believe me, but he nods slowly. “New gods have taken over. Old ones are buried. Again.” He sits down. Elbows on his legs, he stares at the ground. “I didn’t know. Not really. But it’s clear, isn’t it?” He looks around the small room, the empty bunk beds, the dark doorway. “Buried,” he whispers. “It’s been so silent here. More silent every day, ever since you turned up.”
I sit down next to him, self-consciously putting my hand on his shoulder. “Ilurtibas . . .”
But he turns away and says gruffly, “Get out.”
As days and then weeks pass, eventually panic gives way to reason, a relentless academic detachment forcing me to think things over logically. I ask around, only to realise that I don’t know any of Raphael’s friends. Our fellow students just repeat the rumours Tervaert has been spreading with obvious relish. I visit Raphael’s rooms, but his landlady only scowls at me. When I muster up the courage to inquire at the Magistrates’ Court, it leaves me none the wiser. At night I roam the Domkerkhof in vain.
And finally I decide on another way.
Read part 2 here