Thursday, November 8, 2018

Mountain Augury, Part 2 of 3 Parts blog post #310

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Time to pick up the pace a little. You’ll remember that Teo Oxley has been hired to restore two frescoes in a mountain mission. The first night he’s there, he sees something that isn’t and has his dreams invaded by a mysterious specter. He hopes the arrival of the young Indian caretaker named Rodrigo will set things straight.

We’ll see.

AUGURY: (o’gye re) n. – The art or practice of divination from omens or signs (Random House Webster’s College Dictionary)

It took almost an hour, but we tore down and reassembled the scaffold so that it was much more secure. It would serve my purposes nicely. The youth hovered at my side on the scaffold as I set about examining the mural in detail.
“This is going to take a little time, Rodrigo. It’s slow, painstaking work. Actually, it’s four jobs. First you diagnose the situation. Find out what the problems are, like what caused those cracks, for instance. Do they radiate? What materials were used to create the work? The paint was ground from natural ingredients and then applied right onto the wet plaster. That’s the difference between a mural and a fresco. Anyway, I have to determine things like that.”
I took a breath and continued to scan the Saint’s face up close. “Then there’s the job of cleaning. Removing centuries of accumulated dirt and smoke can be tricky. This painting should have been cleaned every generation or so. That means St Peter should have taken twenty baths since he was created. Probably hasn’t had one.
“The third step is to repair the mural. Correct any damage, fill the holes, mend the cracks without losing any more of the original work than necessary. And then comes the biggie...the retouching. That’s what takes the longest. We’ll actually recreate the fresco using paints and colors as close to the original as possible.” I glanced at the young man at my side. “Do you know anything about painting, Rodrigo?”
He shrugged. “I do some pictures. You know, draw them. Paint them.”
“You ever painted old St. Peter?” I made it a jocular question, but he took it seriously.
 “Once or twice. But I’m not a real painter like you are. They say you painted for the Holy Father in Rome.”
“I helped restore St Francis of Assisi and did some work on the Zucarri frescoes at the Duomo in Florence.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that he was impressed before he turned stolid again.
The threat of rain hung over the mountains that night as I nervously prepared to go to bed. Would my specter return tonight to disturb my rest with that curious mixture of fear and excitement? Had I met him today in the church? The mysterious shade in the gloom of the sanctuary? But I slept alone that night.
Rodrigo proved to be a great deal of help in the coming days. But frankly, his mere presence was comforting. The gloomy old mission church spooked me. Countless sightings of shadows that should not be. A presence in remote corners. Occasional assaults on my olfactory senses even though there was no discernible odor. The impression of being observed. A few times, even the placid Rodrigo exhibited an uneasiness.
Assured by my assistant that the leak in the ceiling over the fresco in the narthex had been repaired, I set up floodlights to dry the damp plaster. Sensing Rodrigo behind me, I turned to explain I had to be careful not to dry the spot too quickly, as that would cause the plaster to flake and peel.
There was no one there!
Yet there was. I sensed him in the far corner. A darkness too deep to be natural stirred as I grew aware of it. The hair on my neck and arms rose. My flesh pimpled like a goose’s. Fear dried up my throat.
“Who are you?” I croaked.
My answer was a sigh.
My voice took on timbre, strength. “What do you want?”
The shadow undulated, as though in agitation. Angered by my interference or my mere presence in his church?
“I won’t be here long. I’m just repairing the ravages of time. Then I’ll be gone, okay?”
A gust whipped through the closed narthex. My nose itched fearfully. My body chilled before heating feverishly. What was happening?
Even as I reacted, the presence retreated. The shadow weakened, but before it faded away completely, I glimpsed a handsome face twisted in anguished frustration.
Giving way to my own fear, I scrambled down the scaffold and rushed out the heavy, carved doors into a weak sunlight, crashing into Rodrigo on the steps.
“What’s the matter?” he cried.
“I’m…I’m going to the house for a few minutes,” I gasped, pulling from his grasp and staggering across the muddy distance to the little adobe.
As August passed into September, the monsoon season weakened, bringing only intermittent thundershowers. My diagnosis completed, I undertook cleaning the main fresco. Rodrigo worked at my side, an unknowing bulwark against my unreasonable and unreasoning fears.
Other than checking on the drying plaster, I ignored the fresco in the narthex. I first wanted to finish the restoration of the major work in the nave. Normally, I tackle the minor piece first to learn the peculiarities of a job, but for some reason I was reluctant to take on that one. Perhaps it was because it was in greater disrepair. The large one in the nave was less of a challenge.
The cleaning went surprisingly well. Rodrigo set me to chuckling with his astonishment at kneading the plaster with sourdough bread to clean it. “It’s the best way, believe me. But we have to be sure to remove all of the bread or we’ll attract insects.
Rodrigo’s plodding patience paid off in spades. The tedious care demanded by the work did not bother the youth as much as it did me. But the presence, as I came to regard him, still lurked at a distance, remaining in the shadows as labor on the main fresco progressed quickly. I had lost my fear of him now, although on occasion his appearance would raise the hair on my neck. It was apparent he wanted something from me, not to harm me. But he was unable to communicate what that was.
Upon completion of the work on the fresco in the nave, the mural looked much as it had when the unknown painter first applied pigments to the fresh plaster almost four hundred years ago. I contemplated that long-departed artist for a few minutes, trying to see St. Peter through his eyes. A high, keening sigh filled the sanctuary and caused me to whirl around… to find no apparent source.

Are we there yet? No, not quite. Teo is still frightened but not terrified. He seems to be coming to terms with his anxiety. At least he’s glad to have the placid Rodrigo working with him on the scaffold. Next week, we’ll finish the story. Then you can email me and tell me what you think.

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See you next week.


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