History 101 - excerpt

A stone clattered, the sound sharp in the brittle night silence. Barcelona was, in this part at least, asleep. Distant engines would occasionally roar, the noise carrying miles, sounding so much closer in the stillness, reverberating around the blackened bell towers. There was an echo as a wooden beam shifted, then muttered cursing.

Doménec Sugrañes closed his eyes bri
efly and offered up a mumbled prayer to a God he had started to doubt. Behind him, Juan cursed again, profaning the site. The stonemason had always been respectful before but the war had changed him.

'This still reeks of ashes,' he said to th
e old architect, 'We will find nothing more.'

Sugrañes open
ed his eyes and looked upwards. Above him, the bright moon made silver clouds glow. Even with his head tilted far back he could glimpse, right on the edge of his perception, the four fingers of the towers reaching upwards, stretching up to touch the heavens. Changing the tilt of his head, the structures rose higher until the moon was held within them. Although, he realised, the analogy was all wrong: were the church really a giant hand, he would be standing in its palm, gazing up at the night sky. Not that standing about here was a good idea.

He turned back to his fellow looter. Looter! He who had wor
ked on the structure for thirty years, who could still remember the Master sleeping in the workshop. Twenty years since the accident that had left them with sketches and models, the only clues to how the final building should look. Less than twenty weeks since the site had been torched and vandalised, the workshop smashed. Rubble and weeds were already encroaching on the crypt. Water must have poured in at some point, wearing at the plaster models that had survived, smudging the ink of the sketches. So each night, once the city had settled, Sugrañes would lead Juan here. Creeping back to the church where once they had worked, their livelihood gone in the fervour of anti-Catholism. Sugrañes was thankful God had saved them from the mobs - you heard such tales of the murders of priests - but he wasn't sure he wanted to have survived, now he was reduced to scavenging in the ruins of his old life, trying to recover the past.

He'd slip through the side-streets, mout
hing revolutionary slogans if he was stopped, calling the vandals that had done this 'comrade'. Then clambering over the rubbish-strewn courtyard, moving aside a beam and down into the ruins of the workshop to cart back a few fragments of sodden paper, or another piece of smashed modelwork. Every moment he expected to hear a shout, running boots, guards arresting them, finding his cache of reclaimed work and destroying it for a second time. Juan disbelieving that they would find anything more. Tonight, they had paused after the stone had fallen, waiting to be sure they were safe.

Nothing.

Sugrañes c
rouched by the rough entrance, one thin hand gripping a stone edge. He was surprised, even after weeks of this, to realise it was shaking. Raising his head to make a final check that they were unobserved, he thought he caught a glimpse of movement up on the nativity cloister, something flickering. A guard lighting a cigarette? He froze, eyes straining towards the spot where he had thought he saw something. There was no telltale flare of orange, no drag taken on a cigarette. The cloister was enclosed on the far side so no moonlight illuminated it: instead the back light made the area blacker than tar.

There. Something pale flitted behind the pillars and Sugrañes reached out to grab Juan's arm. The younger stonemason stared upwards and nodded. Yes, there was movement, too big to be a pigeon or seagull. Sugrañes stepped away from the entrance, turning his head to try to see what it was. There was another flicker of movement, almost jagged. He thought, wildly and briefly, that it was one of the smashed figures from the front of the nativity come to life. Which was foolish, a product of his own trembling mind. He couldn't see it at all now.

I
t was right in front of them. Glowing, screaming. A devil of light. Lacking proper form or definition. It moved unnaturally, like a flickbook animation Sugrañes had once made. He backed away slowly, letting his feet fumble across the rubble, edging towards the burnt-out school building. He glanced at Juan and was astonished to see the reprobate crossing himself and muttering the catechism. The devil was becoming more defined, angles protruding as elbows, shoulders. Sugrañes felt the iron bars of the gate at his back.

'Juan?' he tried calling
, but the mason was still staring at the devil, Latin still falling from his lips. Sugrañes turned and fled.