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“Listen, Jake, one of my ancestors sailed with Leif Erickson to America before it was America. Another, Johannes Svrbek, fought in the last Crusade and was knighted for service to the king and Pope. That’s before the Reformation by the way. Pope, can you believe it? On this side of the family we can claim the Pope. The Anti-Christ! Another ancestor threw his lot in with the great Gustavus Adolphus, Lion of the North, during the Thirty Years War and was beheaded for revealing military stratagems to aprostitute. Cripes, I haven’t had a conversation like this in thirty-five years. Now I’m going to make you some tea.”
“Beheaded?” Jake gulped, remembering the chickens.
“Sad but true. Another Svrbek, though by then changed to Syrbeck. He played a minor role in the second Defenestration of Prague. Surely they teach that in school, eh? Probably not. Well, most of Europe was at war, the Catholic-Protestant thing, and some high-ranking Lutherans flung two emissaries from the Holy Roman Empire out of a window at Hrdcany Castle – Vladislav Hall, if I remember right. They threw their secretary out the window too. Nobody got hurt because all three landed in a copious pile of manure, but, as usual in history, this ridiculous stunt started a war that lasted three decades. Actually, much longer. In fact, it’s never stopped. Syrbeck happened to be leaning against the castle wall waiting for something to happen. It’s unclear who employed him or for what purpose. Anyway, three bodies come flying out the window, and when they landed, droplets of dung splattered all over Syrbeck’s newly polished Prussian boots. He wasn’t Prussian, more likely Saxon or Czech, which would give you a speck of Slavic blood as well. One speck of Slavic blood equals about ten Italian specks, so get the Sicilian thing out of your head. I’m not saying Slavic is better, just more, what?, extreme? I know, I know, you’re from Genoa, north of Sicily. Ha! Take one look at that macaroni grandfather of yours, and I don’t mean me. Moorish genes somewhere in that kinky hair, or what used to be kinky hair. Hell, you’re a bit of everything, son.
“Ok, so Syrbeck thinks, Hmmm, an avenue of opportunity has opened right before my eyes. Eenie, meenie, minie, mo… I can throw my lot in with the Czechs, assailed by the latest Visigoths from the south and Swedes from the north – Swedes, imagine being attacked by Swedes! − or with the Holy Romans, or with Gustavus. If I help extricate these minions from a slough of offal, I’m an ally of Ferdinand II by default. If I smash their faces into it, I’m either Czech or Swede. If I ignore the entire situation, lean against this wall and whistle, I’ll be shot by someone. Ok, I’ll pull them out. No, I’ll smear their faces with even more dung. No… Hmmm, avenues of opportunity are fraught with peril. I believe I should simply vamoose. What year is it? 1618. The Lion ascended the throne in 1611. He won’t die until Lutzen, that’s 1632, fourteen years from now. In fourteen years I could certainly make my fortune, and if not, I deserve to die a pig’s death. Eenie… make my way to Stockholm and seek audience with Axel Oxenstierna, who runs the home show up there, the Chancellor, whatever.
“And that’s exactly what Syrbeck did. Walked and hitched rides in peasant carts and trundles the entire way. Met with the Chancellor, who instantly pronounced him an opportunist but took him on anyway as a kind of steward, handyman, courier, factotum. ‘Long as I can keep my eyes on him,’ Oxenstierna assured the Lion in privy (literally), ‘He will be useful.’
“So it’s with respect to this pile of manure that my – our – ancestor sneaks into the footnotes. I know, I know, you’re descended from popes and even fabulous Trajan himself, that’s the garbage you get over there on Miro Street. Macaroni!
“Syrbeck played his cards judiciously, wound up both a soldier and administrator, accrued the usual rewards as well as the paranoia that goes along with rewards. Years later he found himself back in Prague doing a little survey work after the Saxons had destroyed the place in long-delayed revenge for the window fiasco. Sorting through the rubble, he came across a decrepit little priest, one Father Cyril, trying to excavate something buried under a pile of bricks and plaster, all that was left of the Church of the Virgin Mary. Let’s see, the year is now 1631 or thereabouts. Syrbeck is feeling kind of generous, so he helps the priest, and together they pull out a statue – idol, he would later claim during the interrogation – of the infant Jesus. The statue is intact except its hands are broken off. They prop the statue upright and the priest breaks out in a sweat and his eyes bulge as if he’s transfixed. Syrbeck will swear he never heard a thing, but he confesses differently in his secret journal that went through our family’s hands for many generations until lost for good. This is what he wrote: Father Cyril began mumbling in Latin, a kind of chant, very intense and, if I may say so, terrifying. For the statue had spoken directly to him. I heard it too. In what language I don’t know, but I heard and understood. The statue of the child Jesus said to Father Cyril, ‘Have pity on me and I will have pity on you. Give me my hands and I will give you peace.’
“‘I made some inquiries and learned that the statue had originated in Spain, the inspiration of a monk named Joseph who as a young man had seen a vision of it. He wanted to draw the figure but could not recall its every aspect. So he yearned and prayed for restoration of the vision, which did occur but not until many years later when he was an old man. He dusted off the sketchbook, finished the details and employed an artisan to construct the statue. I don’t know how, but it passed into the hands of a rich woman who sent it as a wedding present to her daughter, the wife of a nobleman in Prague. Then the statue wound up with the Carmelites in the Church of the Virgin Mary. It has, according to varied sources, performed many miracles, and pilgrims visit regularly. Until now, that is, when Father Cyril is soliciting funds to repair its hands. They call this statue the Infant Jesus of Prague, which even I, a token Lutheran, have heard of. I must admit to sore apprehension in my heart when I heard it speak and am contemplating conversion, though it would be of great danger and certainly in the end the death of me.’
Papaw had become highly agitated during the course of this spiel and suddenly broke off, slamming his hand against his skull. “What am I doing?” he cried. “Why tell you all of this nonsense? History is GONE, Jake. Those Italians on Miro Street want to re-live it every day, revere it, substitute it for the present. Nostalgia is a disease. Somebody said that. Sounds pretty good to me. So forgive me, let’s just get on with the business at hand.”
“I thought he was decapitated,” Jake said.
“He was. In brief, the Infant Jesus of Prague drove him insane. He got drunk, roamed the streets and found a brothel. The whore later told authorities that he went berserk and blurted out every manner of obscenity and blasphemy, cursed the Czechs, the Saxons, the Holy Roman Empire and especially Gustavus Adolphus. Swedish police summarily arrested him, held a kangaroo court – that’s when they finger you but pretend otherwise – and sentenced him to death for high treason. They paid a giant Ethiopian to do the dirty work. The man worked at a local market and complained that it would amount to mere butchery to decapitate someone with a chicken knife. The soldiers urged him to get on with it, and our poor ancestor wound up, head on a tree stump, as the teary-eyed executioner whittled away at his neck. But enough! Bastante! End of story. Except that I heard this executioner sired a line of butchers down to the present day.”
Louis Gallo’s work has appeared or will shortly appear in Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth, Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review, and many others. Chapbooks include The Truth Change, The Abomination of Fascination and Status Updates. He is the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.