Concluding the diary of an anonymous nineteenth-century Jesuit, translated and annotated by Brigadier Sir George A.M.F. MacPhail (author of 1000 Uses for a Fruit Knife).
I shall not live long. We are dying, Father Dalmasso and I, by degrees. If we are not killed, then we shall surely starve or go mad. This is the valley of our death, and we shall not escape it. But Father Spada has saved us for now. This heroic sacrifice, this senseless waste of life – call it what you will, it has spared us for another day.
The night after Father Olivero’s death was a dreadful one, the worst of my existence. Dalmasso and I kept vigil – we could not sleep. Spada slept deeply. He slumbered as if from a blow to the head, and we had the greatest difficulty in rousing him when dawn came.
It is well known that shock can alter a man’s personality, but I never believed until today that it could effect such a drastic change. Spada woke up, once he did wake, quite a different man. His bluster was gone. He was quiet and purposeful, and his voice and eyes were cold. We had not finished our breakfast before he was on his feet and commanding us to walk.
“We can strike out in any direction,” he said, rather sharply, as I began to ask where we should go. “We’ve seen these woods from above – we know they don’t go on forever. We shall reach the plains eventually. Besides, better to die on our feet than be caught loitering.” And he turned and strode off, the spear tucked under his arm. We could only follow.
We walked in silence until the trees began to thin out, and we could see shafts of sunlight ahead. My heart lifted, for I was sure we had found our way out, but my hopes were soon dashed. Ahead of us was a broad clearing scattered with large rocks, with a river through it – on the other side of the river, endless trees. We had but reached the heart of the woods, and the sun was already beginning to sink. The prospect of another day in this murderous place with its giant bloodthirsty birdlife struck me as appalling beyond measure, but Father Spada clapped his hands together and said that this place would serve very well, and we should settle in immediately.
Father Dalmasso must have felt much the same way I did, because he asked Spada what in the h– he meant by that.
“Look for yourself,” said Spada, and pointed with the spear towards a cluster of rocks on the bank of the river. At the base was a hole large enough to admit a man standing. “We can set up our camp in there and roll a few stones across the entrance. It will be quite a fortress.”
“Assuming it’s uninhabited,” said Dalmasso.
Spada did not answer, but simply walked over to the cave and vanished within. A moment later he returned, brushing a large cobweb from his shoulder. “All clear,” he said.
“And what about these?” asked Dalmasso, gesturing to the bank of the river. Sunk into the clay were a host of footprints, all of them three-toed, some as long as my arm.
Spada cast me a scornful look. “Giant cows,” he said, and turned away to go back to the cave.
I was much affected by this, for I was – I am – painfully aware that it was my own wish to descend into the valley. Father Olivero’s death was on my conscience, as Father Spada’s must now be.
The cave proved to be spacious, large enough to hold all of us and allow room for a fire. Father Dalmasso questioned the wisdom of lighting a fire at all, given that it must attract wild beasts, and we should be trapped in the cave. Father Spada maintained that we should die quicker without a fire, and that any beasts that might come near would surely be frightened away by it. As for me, I could not speak. And so a fire was lit, and the discussion began as to who should hunt for our dinner.
I could not stand to stay behind and send another man in my place to face the dangers of the woods, so I took up the spear and managed to say that I would go. I did not wait to hear their answer – I made to hurry out, and was stopped only by Father Dalmasso seizing hold of my arm.
“For heaven’s sake,” he said, “look where you are going!”
Directly before the mouth of the cave was a creature rather smaller than the lizards of the plain, but no less awe-inspiring. Its fat oval body was covered in thick horn, like a suit of armour – it had a flat bullish head, and a tail like a mace, with a great bulb of bone at the end. I let out a bellow of shock, and so did the animal – it turned and lumbered away into the trees, and I staggered backwards into the cave and very nearly stood in the flames.
“Well,” said Dalmasso, “it wasn’t scared of the fire, at any rate.”
“But it was scared of man,” said Spada. “Another plant-eater, I dare say. Don’t tremble so,” he barked at me. “You survived the encounter, didn’t you? Which is more than poor Olivero did, God rest his soul.”
Father Dalmasso put his hand on my shoulder – a simple gesture of friendship for which I shall forever be grateful. “I think we had better fortify the entrance,” he said. “You stay here for the moment. Keep the fire going.”
They went out, and a few moments later I heard the sound of rocks being rolled around, and their raised voices in discussion – I listened as a child in bed listens to the comforting murmur of his parents’ conversation. Before long we were barricaded in, with a gap big enough to see out, and to let the smoke escape. Spada produced another of those small brown forest rodents, which he had felled with a stone, and laid it in the fire to cook.
It was our undoing. Whether it was the firelight, or the smoke, or the smell I do not know – but that last meal brought death to our door. The meat had only begun to roast when we heard a colossal thud, and then another, and another – coming ever faster, and every closer, until the cave seemed to judder around us.
“The fire!” cried Dalmasso. “Put out the fire!” But we had no water, and no loose earth, for the soil of the cave floor was tightly packed. In the end I stripped off my cassock and threw it over the fire and, with a stink of singed cloth, it was out.
For a moment I almost believed us safe again. The footsteps – for such they were – had stopped. The cave was silent. Only the birds of the trees spoke, shrieking as if for help. And then the cave was abruptly plunged into darkness. The creature had wedged its snout into the gap – it drew in its breath, and then blew out a stream of hot, fetid air that made me retch. It rumbled in its throat, and withdrew – the light and the air flooded in, but there were no more footsteps. The thing had not moved away from our cave. It was waiting.
We did not speak for a long while, and then Father Dalmasso said, in a whisper: “What shall we do?”
“What can we do?” replied Spada, with monstrous composure. “We have not eaten today, and we’ve d–n little to eat now. It will starve us out.”
Dalmasso fell silent again. I think I began to pray out loud, though I cannot remember what I said. I know I prayed for Olivero’s soul and for my own, and that I begged God for a way out of this death trap – but if I believed that what happened next came by His intercession, then I should lose my faith altogether.
Father Spada rose to his feet. He snatched my cassock from the dead fire, and threw the half-cooked rodent onto the ground between Father Dalmasso and myself. “Eat it, and live,” he said. He went to the mouth of the cave and began to roll the rocks away, and I realised with horror what he intended. I cast myself after him and begged him to stop – I grabbed at him, and he threw me off – he pushed at the rocks, and I tried to pull them back again. But he would not be dissuaded and, snatching up the spear, he thrust it at me so that the point nearly pierced my chest.
“Get back, will you,” he cried. “Let me draw it off!” And with a great heave he rolled the last stone away and ran out into the failing light. I saw him wave his arms as he ran, slipping as he went, along the muddy bank – I saw an immense dark shape emerge from the shadows and follow him, bounding along on powerful hind legs – and then the trees swallowed them up, and the birds ceased their calls.
Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei: requiescat in pace. Amen.
[The manuscript ends here. — G.M.]
© Alix Montague 2015