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What do I remember?
"There he goes -- !"
"Don't let him escape -- !"
I was running right and left, wildly and without thought, threading my way through the stalls of the market in the main square.
Ten paces behind, a great crowd was chasing me, waving sticks and fists, cursing and shouting. Some of them were old, but that didn't stop them. There were women, too. All had sour faces.
They thought I was a thief.
If I was caught I would be strung up by the neck from the nearest doorway and left there to swing, for the dogs to bark at.
So I ran and I ran, skipping in between the market stalls, knocking down barrels of salt fish and baskets of red plums, always keeping a tight hold on my ragbag.
Each time someone new saw me running, they took up the alarm --
"Somebody take him!"
"The boy must be stopped!"
But I would never let them -- even though I felt sick almost to death. I had the fever, I knew that. There was a mist in front of my eyes and I was burning up inside.
But to stop now was to stop forever.
Never! They would never take me while I lived.
I led them around and around, diving under tables and over carts, pulling down barrows and boxes behind me, but still they followed, more and more of them.
The sun was blazing overhead. It was midsummer. The flies were thick in the air, hanging heavily over the meat and fish.
There was a terrible smell. I wanted to vomit.
And then I stumbled -- and a great cheer arose from behind me.
"Take him now! Now!"
But I got up almost as quickly, my head spinning, bright lights flashing in front of my eyes. Which way -- ?
Fifty paces ahead of me was the Cathedral.
The great doors were wide open.
I started for them.
Up the marble steps -- one, three, five -- leaping over a beggar, fast asleep --
"He's entering the Cathedral!"
"He mustn't -- !"
And then I was inside.
Running from the bright white summer light into the dense dark gloom straightway robbed my eyes of their sight. I rubbed them again and again.
The marble under my bare feet was cool. It made me shiver.
High above me in the Cathedral vaulting I could hear birds flapping their wings. The sound filled my head. I clapped my hands over my ears. All my senses were on fire because of the accursed fever.
The windows were made of glass stained blue and green and red. The light streamed through them. I looked at my hands, covered with colored bands. The marble floor was filled with a rainbow light. The colors were swirling before my eyes. I was going to fall -- I couldn't stay up --
"There he is!"
No time to rest. No time to think. They were still on my tail.
I took a deep breath and started to run again --
Up the central nave towards the high altar at the far end of the Cathedral.
God will save me!
A priest ran out of the shadows --
"Halt, boy! You cannot -- "
No! I pulled myself past him, leaving him to fill his arms with air.
I looked left and right --
The mob was inside the Cathedral, fifty or more of them, fanning out across the vast floor, their cries echoing against the high walls.
"He's over there!"
"We've got him now!"
Then I saw it.
A candle in one of the side chapels gave off a dull yellow light.
A half-open door.
I ran between the benches, falling over one old man praying -- no, he was drunk, by God, and let out an awful groan --
Across the aisles and to the door. I pushed it open.
A staircase leading upwards.
Nowhere else to go --
I started to mount it at a run, counting the steps in my mind as I went.
Twenty . . .
Round and round, the stairway wound.
Forty . . .
A small, barred window. I looked out. Below me, roofs and more roofs.
Sixty . . .
The dizziness came over me again. I leaned against the cool white marble wall for a few breaths, until the strange feeling had passed.
The walls surrounding the stairway were so close now that they almost grazed my shoulders as I made my way ever upwards.
Eighty . . .
The only light was a dull gray haze that came from small square holes in the wall.
It was cold.
But I was sweating fit to melt. The fever gripped me in every part. My legs felt lead-heavy. How much longer did I have?
Voices! Almost like whispers, so far below.
At least I had a good start. And they would only be able to climb the stairway in single file. It was too narrow to let them all up at once.
One hundred . . .
My breath was coming so fast I had to slow myself, I was coughing madly.
Up and up the stairway went. Would it never end?
One hundred and twenty . . .
I stopped again to listen. Not a sound. Had they abandoned the chase? Silence, except for my heart, thump, thump, thump.
The air grew even colder.
One hundred and forty . . .
And then, when I thought my legs would give way from the effort, I was face-to-face with a small door.
I pushed at it. And again. Rusted hinges. At last it opened --
And for a moment I had to shield my eyes from the dazzle of the afternoon sun.
On each side of the walkway were many carved spires pointing upwards to Heaven.
The wind was blowing a gale up here.
The clouds were so low they were almost grazing the tops of the spires.
Birds were perched on the statues lining the sides. There were nests tucked into the stonework.
I was on the very roof of the Cathedral.
I ran to the edge and looked out between the spires to see what was below.
Roofs, streets, and people small as crumbs.
I looked up. Beyond the city -- fields, forests, and, in the far distance, snow-capped mountains.
It was so beautiful.
But I had no time to admire it.
"I see him!"
They had followed me up, and faster than I thought they could -- now they were spilling through the little door, one after another.
I ran headlong to the front of the Cathedral.
"He can't escape!"
Nowhere to go now. Nothing in front of me but air. I stuffed my ragbag inside my shirt.
Then I climbed up the marble carvings and stood at the top, holding on to the cross at the highest point.
"Come any closer and I'll jump," I shouted.
They halted, the great crowd of them.
One man, bearded, stepped forward.
"You're a thief. And you've led us a fine dance. Now give back what you stole and we'll hand you over to the Guard."
"String him up!" someone shouted.
"I'm not a thief -- I took nothing!" I shouted back.
"Come down, boy, or suffer for it," the man said.
"I'll die before I let you take me," I yelled, and cast a quick glance downward. It made my head spin. Could I jump? Did I have the courage? I hoped I would not feel anything when my head hit the ground. Perhaps it would all be --
And they ran at me.
I climbed to the very tip, and then, standing as tall as I could -- I let go, holding my arms out wide.
"You'll fall, you little fool!"
I smiled. Truly, I did not care.
"I'm not a thief!" I shouted at them.
"Then show us what's in the bag!" one of them bellowed.
I pulled it out from inside my shirt and prepared to undo the knot.
And then --
The great bells started to ring. Dong! Dong! Dong!
And at that moment the sun turned its face towards me and my eyes were filled with light -- my whole head was bursting with light and sound -- I shut my eyes, and for a moment I felt calm and at peace, nothing but the feeling of the air surrounding me -- and then I felt myself falling over the side -- but I did not try to stop myself or clutch at the stone ledge as I fell -- it felt good to be free of the earth and to close my eyes, I did not want to open them again, ever -- and I let myself fall over the side of Milan Cathedral, still clutching my ragbag, and as I fell I was so happy that now I would be able to sleep and sleep forever --
Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Grey