Oberammergau, Just Before Dawn, May 4, Anno Domini 1670
Jesus was nailed to a cross and died, but this time there would be no resurrection.
Though it was pitch black, Dominik Faistenmantel could see the rough outlines of the gravestones in front of the Oberammergau village church. Now and then he could hear the fluttering of wings and assumed the sound came from ravens sitting on the gravestones, watching him curiously. The huge, intelligent birds were no rarity in the Ammergau Valley. Their nests were high up in the mountains, but they often came down into the valley to hunt and forage for rotting carcasses. Faistenmantel shuddered.
If help didn’t come soon, he too would be a corpse for them to feed on.
The young woodcarver groaned, and when he tried to raise his head, a searing, almost unearthly pain shot through the tense sinews in his neck. His cry was muffled by the filthy rag filling his mouth. He slumped down again, coughed, and gasped for air, but the only sound that came through the gag was a rattling gurgle.
Thisisthewayoursaviordied, he thought. Whatagony!Withtheburdenoftheworldonhisshoulders.Lord,comeandhelpme!
But the Lord did not come, no one came, and once again, despite the gag, Dominik tried to shout for help. It was not yet dawn, and most people in the village were sleeping. Wouldn’t the sacristan for early Mass be awake? His house stood right next to the cemetery wall, just a few yards away, but no matter how hard Dominik tried, all he could do was groan and whimper. It was so cold, so damned cold. Here, in this Alpine valley, even a night in May felt like the middle of winter. It was a dark and starless night, and he was nailed to a cross dressed only in a loincloth, freezing and trembling from the cold as the ravens stared at him.
If I fall asleep, they’ll fly over here. Your eyes are the tenderest place, they say. That’s where they’ll start. I .?.?. mustn’t .?.?. fall .?.?. asleep .?.?.
While Dominik Faistenmantel struggled to stay awake, little scraps of memory passed through his addled brain, memories of the rehearsal that afternoon. As he spoke the final words of the Savior on the cross, a few rotted boards on the stage caught his eye. He’d asked Hans Göbl, who was about his age and playing the part of the apostle John, to have the boards replaced immediately, before there was an accident. But Göbl had just rolled his eyes and whispered something to the other actors, whereupon they all broke out laughing. Dominik knew that the hot-tempered Göbl couldn’t stand him. Hans wanted more than anything to play the role of Jesus in the Passion play, and he had been generally viewed as the favorite for the part. But the council had given it to Dominik. Should he have turned it down? His father, a powerful merchant in town, had made the final decision, and no one dared to contradict him ?— ?not the priest, not the elders on the town council, not even his own son.
Dominik was just about to emerge from under the shadow of his father, and he had dreamed of going to Venice or perhaps even farther, over the great ocean to the New World, where gold and silver flowed from the mountains like water. If his plan worked, he could have brushed off his father, whom he hated ?— ?and also loved very much ?— ?and said farewell forever.
But his plan failed horribly.
Once again, Dominik tried to pull himself up on the cross, and once again he began coughing violently and collapsed. The little wooden step that always had supported his feet in the rehearsals had been removed, and his cramped posture made it harder and harder for him to breathe. He tugged on the heavy ropes binding his arms and legs tightly to the wooden beams, but they held him as firmly as if they were metal wires. In any case, he was too weak to pull himself away.
His head still hurt from the blow he’d received. He had heard a whoosh of air behind his head, felt a sudden, searing pain, and when he came to, he was tied to the cross, freezing and naked ?— ?a living stage prop staring down at the graves still partially covered with snow.
“Help!” he cried through the gag. “Help .?.?. me!”
The muffled sounds were carried away by the cold wind sweeping down from the Ammergau Alps into the valley. The houses remained dark, a few cows mooed, but otherwise there was not a sound. Behind Ederle’s house a small light suddenly appeared. Probably old man Ederle going to the latrine out back, holding a burning pinewood shaving. The house was only a stone’s throw away from the cemetery, but it could just as well have been a hundred miles.
“Help!” Dominik gasped again.
Actually, he’d known for a while he was going to die, either by freezing to death or suffocating first. Even now, hanging there, he could barely breathe, and it became harder and harder for him to think. The only thing that kept him going was his certainty about the perpetrator’s identity. He’d underestimated him. Never would he have thought the man capable of such a deed. This was madness, the work of a demon. Someone had to warn the villagers of the devil who was loose in their midst. Dominik had seen the madness flashing in the man’s eyes. He should have known.
Now it was too late.
Once again there was a fluttering of wings coming from the direction of the gravestones and, opening his eyes briefly, he saw a few dark shadows flying toward the cross, settling on both sides of the crossbeam.
There was a cawing that sounded almost like a human voice, and a patter and scratching of feet as the birds moved closer.
Father,Father,whyhastThouforsakenme, he thought.
Then the ravens were there.
Schongau, on the afternoon of May 4, Anno Domini 1670
With glassy eyes, the Schongau linen weaver Thomas Zeilinger stared at the rusty tongs ominously coming closer and closer to his lips. A thin stream of saliva ran from the corner of his mouth, and his hands trembled as he clung to the arm of the chair. He opened his mouth, closed it again, and finally shook his head dejectedly.
“I think .?.?. I think I need another swallow, Frau Fronwieser,” he stammered. “Can I .?.?. have...