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Authors: Jessica Cornwell

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BOOK: The Serpent Papers
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‘That is preferable.’

I push the fear down, feel its weight settling at the base of my spine.
No. Do not buckle. Wind howling like a banshee.
He points to the crevasse in the sky. ‘I will check the damage to the wall outside, on the cliffs. Perhaps something has fallen there? Be warned. The rockwork is very weak. If the wind picks up the roof will collapse further.’

When he is gone I am still. Resting in the empty chapel, looking up into ravenous clouds. With each gust, the roof creaks and groans like the hull of a broken ship. But I only listen to that thing peculiar to me.
For the sound of colour.
For the song a book makes.
Here amidst the shadows and great stones, the mortar and dark mud, the ash and blackened beams. Where even the gold takes on a lustreless pallor, disappointed in its fate.
First to the wind.
Purple and thick.
I wait until I can feel the pages, grasping at a shape. Calling from beneath the stones. Emanating from the dark heart of this chapel. A single image emerging with the gusts, rising up from the rocks in the golden shape of a bird.

Impulse guides me.


I place my hands on the wall, feeling along the cracks. I drop to my knees at the place the book was found, running my hand over the flagstones. A thick paste of snow and dust comes away. I reach back. Startled.
Black hairs.
A matted tuft poking through the earth. I gather myself. Look closer.
Almost human. Horse most likely, judging by the length of the strand, or sheep’s wool for insulation and binding.
I rub harder.

And then a little bone. Black soot between my fingers.


The half-notes of a song. Indistinguishable from the roaring of the sea but for a golden ringing. A bright tolling against the slate water.

The bone staring back amidst the stones.


For what?


The aching begins at my temples. The shooting pain that pulls at my head like forceps.
Somewhere inside.
I wait for the dowsing tremor, hunting for a seam on the air, a little thread that weaves through the chapel.
Pure discovery belonging solely to me.
I push forward, into the rubble, stepping behind the altar, moving back in the stones. Snow floats through the roof, landing and melting on my shoulders. But I no longer feel the cold, mesmerized by the ripple of gold, warmth blinking from amidst the rocks. A sliver of ore, invisible to the naked eye, but
binding me to the solitary travellers, the grubby monks, second sons, farm workers and monastic librarians who once trod these fields. The men who moved swiftly, leading sheep or bearing fresh orders of pumice stone and vellum, the crescent tools to scrape the animal hairs and fat from parchment; who gathered ancient heresies but could not burn them, for love of words or want of paper, and so rubbed them dry, back to flesh, leaving palimpsests they promised not to read, one book written into another, text beneath text. Ghost fragments of Seneca and Cicero, Archimedes and Homer. Reduced to flecks and smudges. In the era that formed this chapel, such books were not mass-produced commodities nor adventure stories. They were the maps of the world as God made them. Keys to our cosmos not gifted to the commoner. They were holy testaments of meaning. They were heretical or they were gospel. And nothing in between.

In an alcove beneath the creaking timbers of the roof, obscured by shadow, I reach into the cavities beneath stones. Crawling forward. Centimetre by centimetre, I stretch out onto my belly, wriggling until my hand reaches the firm, fleshy object whispering from beneath the rock. Instinct drives me. I pull gently, not wanting to lose my arm beneath the pile, holding the weight with my shoulder, tugging at the mass until it comes free with a slick, chugging thud. Struggling back from the other side of consciousness, I cannot see clearly, enchanted by the light’s movement.
The fleeting, darting paroxysm of its stillness.
Gradually I focus on the physical. A heavy weight. Coated in black dust, sealed with a strap of cloth and an old tortoiseshell button.
One breath. Two.
Electricity shudders up my knuckles. A pulsing. Just behind my ears. Emerging thickets of sound. The wail of a finger sliding along crystal, taste of sherry, stale bread. I open it gently. Black ribbon of mould, fecund and festive dancing round the edges. Dank potato odour. The hard scratch-scratch of a metal nib, bent at the side, inky divots on pearled paper –
Dear Heart
 – my eyes roam across the page.
A quick desire. Irresistible. Pure.

‘Miss Verco?’ my guide calls.

Snap it shut. Hold the contraband against your chest. Hide.

‘Anna, where are you?’

I do not answer. Crouched against the flagstones behind the altar, snow wet into my knees. He calls again.

‘Quick, Miss Verco! The storm has come too fast. The wind will blow us off the mountain.’ The beam of his flashlight scrapes against the musty air. He swallows his words. Staring into me.

‘Are you mad? It is pitch black in here.’ His flashlight reaches my face. ‘Anna, you are covered in dirt.’

‘I fell,’ I say, dusting off my clothes. Adjusting the weight of the bag around my shoulders. Sliding the satchel behind my back.

He frowns.
Now. Outside

We stand in the snow. His gaze flicks to my clenched fist.

‘What have you found?’

‘A bone.’

‘Show me.’

I give the fragment into his gloved fingers.


‘Perhaps.’ I bide my time. ‘I’ll have Picatrix send up an archaeologist in the morning. They’ll want access. No one should touch it until then, Anselmo.’

He nods, placing the bone in a handkerchief produced from his coat pocket. ‘We will give all the help we can, Miss Verco. With some parameters, of course.’ He slips the cloth bundle into his pocket and taps it twice with the flat of his hand. ‘Privacy is paramount. You understand that, I’m sure. We trust you. You have done great work for us, and now the favour will be returned.’

In the pantry, I reach for a round winter squash, two onions and a head of garlic.
Cinnamon. Brown sugar. Chives.
I heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade. The blade of a broad knife scrapes against the skin of the squash, looking for an entry point. I push my weight into the gourd, snapping it in two, then scrape out the centre, saving the seeds for roasting in the oven. I crush the head of garlic with the fat side of the knife. Rub the clove into the meat of the squash.
Olive oil, rosemary, sea salt.
Slicing the onion, my eyes burn, but I continue fiercely. An hour passes. Maybe more. I try not to think too much. There are patterns in the wooden cutting board like shells and leaves. Stains made over many months.

‘Where are you hiding?’ Francesc calls from the door. A cold draught billows into our house at the edge of the village. I shout back that I am in the kitchen.

‘I can smell a feast!’ Francesc slides his coat onto a hook by the door, leaving his satchel on the kitchen counter. A good-looking man, with a square jaw and bright hazel eyes, short beard and thick brown hair. He wears a knitted fisherman’s cap to ward off the cold. A recently broken pair of spectacles perch at the end of his nose.

‘You didn’t come back to the lab?’

‘I was tired.’

His face close to mine.

Book Finder Braves Perils on Mallorcan Coast
he teases. ‘I can see the headlines now:
Savant discovers Ancient Gospels in Church Struck by Lightning. Island Sanctifies Atheist for Contributions to Society.
It’s what you’ve always wanted.’

I laugh and push him away.

He holds me tighter. Hands pressing into my waist, bringing my chest closer. Pulling me into him.

‘No compliments?’ he murmurs into my ear. ‘
My darling, you are a genius.
That would be nice . . .’

He smells like musk. A nice
smell. A lovely smell.

‘I spent my day slaving away in a laboratory to stabilize your manuscript, while you got to frolic on the mountainside. And you didn’t even come by to see what we have done for you! I’m insulted. Deeply offended, but I’ll let it go. Just this once . . . Think of it from my perspective. Anna Verco abandons Lowly-Professor-Who-Sacrifices-Life-and-Limb to resuscitate parchment
. Letters come from the Spectroscopy Department of the University of Barcelona and the Laboratory of Restoration at the Archive of the Crown of Aragon: “Join Us . . .” Professor asks Book Hunter: “Will you come with me?”

‘Is that true?’

‘Not yet. But one day soon.’

I kiss his ear then push him softly. ‘The soup will burn.’

‘It wouldn’t be the first time.’ He lifts me up onto the kitchen counter, back against the cupboards. ‘Tell me everything you know,’ he growls. ‘What did you find at the chapel?’


‘Lies!’ he teases. ‘You sent down a bone. And not just any bone at that.’

I blush.

‘A human phalanx.’ He beams.
The final joint of a finger.
‘We haven’t dated it yet, but it must be thirteenth-century. Buried around the time the chapel was built. I imagine it was some old anchoress.’ He kisses me again, tongue warm in my mouth. ‘We’ll start looking for the rest tomorrow.’

I have never seen anyone else so excited by a skeleton. ‘Now. More importantly: we have wine and you’ve cooked dinner.’ He laughs and lets me go.

‘A glass each? A toast? What do you prefer? I couldn’t decide what to get. Red or white . . . They were all asking at the market. Word travels fast in this town. They all want to know the secrets. I said there are none.
Senyoras, Senyors, I humbly proclaim that the mouldy lump is just an old book, nothing more. No conspiracies. No occult machinations. It is literature! A palimpsest!
Now may I have some
, two bottles of wine and a bag of apples?’

Francesc unpacks his satchel. Bottles clunking on the kitchen table.

A palimpsest? Is that a curse?
An old woman who was buying bread asked me that.
No, madam
it is a better deal – two books in one.
With that I made my exit.’ I watch as he pulls a tablet from his work satchel, accompanied by a bound case of papers, loose receipts and a chewed pen. He takes an envelope from the case and gives it to me.

‘This came in for you today.’ It is a simple white envelope, with a lime-green stamp of King Juan Carlos I. There is no company insignia or business template, and no return address, though the postal markings indicate that the letter had been sent from Barcelona.

‘Maybe it’s another love letter from one of your old antiquarians,’ Francesc laughs over his shoulder. He fetches glasses from the cupboard and a corkscrew. I open the envelope. He begins to lay the table, rhythmically.
A bill.
I sigh.
A fee for the location of a few out-of-print nineteenth-century novels.
Personal interest. Nothing more.

BOOK: The Serpent Papers
2.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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