REFALCO HANDIA LIMINATUS
Refalco Handia is a solitary traveler. His journals are filled with drawings, watercolors, notations, equations, and dreams written in mirror script with iron-gall ink and sharpened reeds and quills in homage to Leonardo. Best known for his translations of hieroglyphs and languages thought indiscernible, and his theories of underground magnetism, Refalco (or RH, his chosen abbreviation for anonymity’s sake) is considered by scholars to be a false pundit at best or a conman at worst.
Refalco’s family were immigrants who kept their origins and culture secret. The working-class neighborhood people were wary, and, at times openly antagonistic due to the Handias’ odd name and secretive nature. They lived, or more truthfully, barely made ends meet adjacent to a lens factory and a dense forest. The factory won, for it discarded its toxic waste such as the rouge used to polish lenses into the forest and stream below. Why not murder oak, hemlock, and birch, fungi and bacteria? Why not let female ginkgo trees’ pungency compete with factory smoke? Why not pollute fish and frogs that swim and reproduce in water filled with factory chemicals?
Deformed animals (Refalco once found a frog with two heads) could not survive here, but he memorialized them with drawings and notes. Only red ants—perhaps fire ants—could thrive in this forest. Though the factory was for crafting eyeglasses Refalco was not immune to its poison: blindness took away his sight in his left eye while he itched at recurring pustules. At age four, Refalco found his neighbor dead of factory poison, ants swimming in his blood. His father came home from the factory and stood in the driveway, nervously passing his metal thermos and lunch pail from hand to hand. He watched along with his wife and oldest sons as ambulances and fire trucks filled their driveway and took him away. Refalco hid from fear and irrational guilt.
As only a four year old could, Refalco became obsessed with his neighbor’s death so he broke into the vacant house. Inside, moldy grime covered the walls and windows. The toilet, the sink, used paper plates, plastic spoons, and partially eaten cat food made a nauseating smell. There was no telephone. To Refalco, haphazardly stacked books, wilted newspapers and framed photos with broken glass reminded him of crazy marionettes, other stacks leaned like drunks. The tallest stack would eventually fall, like Diotisalvi’s campanile in Pisa. The domino effect would be something to see. As luck would have it the floor seemed to hear Refalco’s thoughts. It had had enough and gave way. The dominoes made a terrific crash, taking Refalco with them. Then an unexpected miracle occurred: everything from above vanished, except of course the instigator of this mishap. Picking himself up and squinting in clear window light the room below was the antithesis of everything above. Pinned to white walls were maps, drawings, equations. Aggregated into polished cabinets were arrowheads of flint, chert from North Carolina (or so the notes read), and obsidian of unknown origin. A sea of animal eyes looked up at Refalco from three cabinets. Fur, bones, indigenous knapping tools, fossils, knives, and broken crockery filled others. Refalco studied a hooded robe folded in as drawer. He couldn’t try it on; it was as brittle as bark. So his neighbor was or had been a Capuchin monk attached to the monastery just outside of town. He was likely excommunicated for his research. Like Capuchins everywhere this dead monk had arranged baroque wall pieces of animal skulls and bones in his underground room, even bone chandeliers.
After daily visits of sneaking in he found journals hidden behind the cabinets that miraculously he could read. Like transcendental sermons, the bound books contained exhaustive notes on liminal thresholds between the seen and unseen with corresponding equations. On one handwritten manuscript Refalco found the name of Pavel Florensky, who lived and died in the Soviet Union, martyred for his beliefs. His Virgilian neighbor’s writings mirrored those of the Russian Orthodox mystic, though they were strangers to each other. (This synchronicity of two or more unknowns arriving at the same conclusions is common throughout history, such as Kandinsky’s and Dove’s manifestoes.) Encoded to elude prying Soviet eyes Florensky’s writings could only be deciphered by using magic squares. Obviously Florensky’s manuscript was a treasured item, for its cover was gilt gold leaf on cherry wood. Inside most pages were now illegible beyond recognition. The deceased Capuchin had a high-powered microscope to zero in on Florensky’s passages. One was underscored: … we experience moments…when…two worlds grow so very near in us that we can see their intimate touching… [where] the veil of visibility is torn apart, and through that tear… we can sense that the invisible world (still unearthly, still invisible) is breathing: and that both this and another world are dissolving into each other. Here, in this basement, Refalco found his life’s work.
Seemingly every priest, rabbi and even two archeologists in Rome tell the same tale, that a priest had made the catacombs his home.
RH is a grown man now who draws, paints, and annotates his dreams. Prophetic dreams affirm that inside the catacombs is a hermit priest devoted to darkness and prayer; a savant who makes only queries, for there are no answers in this world. So with equal parts excitement and fear RH determines to find this hermit. First he needs equipment. Loaded in his rucksack are hardbound drawing books, ink and pens, charcoal pencils, a knife, hooded sweaters, three BIC lighters and a cardboard box filled with candles.
Where is the entrance? The worst luck: a manhole cover in the middle of the busy Appian Way. RH chooses 3AM to avoid the most traffic, rushes to the manhole, pries it open with a tire iron, climbs in, pulls the manhole over him, lights his first candle and slips on the moist stone, his candle gone. He descends by gripping tiny empty tombs that once held children. As precarious as this is, he thinks, how can anyone survive in these catacombs? What does he eat? Drink? Does his God exist?
With each step the blackness and shivering cold increases. He lights another candle. Everywhere are bones, hair, teeth, dead rats. Lured by the warmth of his body, blind translucent spiders the size of his hand make clicking sounds as they approach. Foot high phosphorescent mantises and an army of glowing aphids skitter into holes. Tree roots drip their nectar, a reminder of the outside world. Tunnels and graves made of volcanic tufa were wet and easy to carve in ancient times but became rock hard when exposed to air. Bouquets of green moss are sugared with a palette of raw sienna, cerulean, ultramarine and cadmium. Together they snake down walls in glowing color. The odor, a soup made of the aforementioned, is strong but not unpleasant. He thinks it will be easy to find the priest but it isn’t. Instead he travels for miles searching for the priest. Unsuccessful, RH questions the truth of the tale.
Is this akin to the Minotaur’s labyrinth? Am I some naive Theseus, to never find the priest’s hermitage? If only I had Ariadne’s thread to guide me through this endless maze, but bringing string never crossed my mind. Perhaps I should gather spider webs and weave my own thread. RH never weaves anything for it would take years and he doesn’t know how to do it anyway. Instead he goes on and on.
RH made drawings up on innumerable scaffoldings, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Piero’s “Story of the True Cross”, painted remnants atop the Parthenon. He travels to China and Japan to draw ancient scrolls. Bourgeois, Salgado, Beuys, Darger become friends, even Ted Serios. But the crudely painted catacomb frescoes are hypnotic and indomitable. Crumbling images tell of Shadrach-Meshach-Abednego, unharmed in the furnace in which they are thrown. Immanuel and Christ take orant poses surrounded by bestiaries. The Virgin suckles. Other frescoes serialize: Jonah is swallowed by the serpent-like whale; out comes Jonah with whale vomit; Jonah stands triumphant. Marble reliefs, sculptures, texts memorialize saint-tombs, Sant’Agnese-SantaCecilia-SanSebastiano, now vandalized. Incised supplications of crude graffiti overlap one another in an attempt to be as close as possible to each saint’s tomb. Amalgams of Greek and Latin have grammatical errors.
Certain tunnels are more spiritually potent than others. In one, RH hears loud marching feet, hundreds of them. In another, he feels a presence behind him and keeps looking back. One time he catches a glimpse, not of the priest, but of a drifting girl. Sant’Agnese? SantaCecilia?
Miles in, walls go transparent, levitate, proving the theories that so intrigued RH years ago when reading J. Udvardy’s “Spirits and Daemons: Hermetic Practices of Catacomb Rituals” (Wilson Press, UK, 1891, second edition). Transparency leads to fresh and aromatic tributaries of potable water sweet to the tongue. Food? Trilobites and eels. Thanks to phosphorescent mantises and shining aphids RH no longer needs candlelight. Darkness and fog give way to dripping stalactites, stalagmites that fill loculi and cubiculi, the whole of which make blinding nimbi. RH makes ablutions.
Was I mad looking for this hermetic place? Was the priest even alive? Did he ever leave the tunnels? Did he become blind like the spiders? Was he a neophyte to silence, only hearing his breathing and his heartbeat? Was he a troglodyte?
Unboundtime equals vertigo; RH repeatedly throws up. In this endless spinning, leucorrhea oozes. The spinning halts. The hermitage is here for it has all the telltale signs: bundles of hair and bones for paintbrushes, chewed mosses, mantises of innumerable colors packed in handmade vessels for paint, cracked glass lamps filled with aphids for light.
His clothes, now rags, are soaked in sweat. Refalco Handia climbs into his cubiculum and retrieves his brushes to paint.
Then he sleeps, content.
HOTAY OLNILL, THE BLIND FARMER
In the 1500’s in what is now Gabon, Hotay Olnill, typhlotic since birth, lived on the equator in a village by the sea. She was a good swimmer, as fast as dolphins, stingrays, sharks. When she slept she dreamed old beyond old songs, moon-sea-stars-garden songs—arcane beyond understanding. She intoned occult songs to her soil and her garden bred moon pumpkins sea amaranth star cassava; cowpeas kale okra yams. She sang her banana and ube trees lilies and orchids to unimaginable heights. Villagers with equal parts awe and jealousy thought this blind farmer a god.
Hotay fed the village with food from her garden.
Dik-diks appeared one night, following the stars, shy pilgrims. In Hotay’s blindness, she felt their arrival, sensed their hooves float, their breath on her fingers. She stroked fur, kissed eyes, felt warmth in their bodies and coldness in their shadows. Soon they made this Eden their home. Their hooves helped Hotay dig, their feces enriched the soil.
After innumerable seasons of abundance a pestilence of bones and stinging insects materialized. Hotay invoked the moon-sea-stars-garden with her songs. Nothing worked. She succumbed to unremitting sorrow. One night the dik-diks left. Replaced by this scourge the garden could no longer feed the villagers, much less Hotay Olnill. The villagers came, their footprints kicking up dust. Bones tripped them, insects stung them. Hotay wept, her tears sprinkling arid ground. She hid under a blanket and starved.
She sang of her innocence of wrongdoing in the main square. Showing no gratitude for season after season of food, Hotay Olnill was clapped in chains by the angry villagers, sold as a slave and put on a ship at the port of Badagry bound for the new world.
Halfway across the Atlantic, the ship’s captain, arrogant and superstitious, resolved to punish her as befits the despicable. Hotay Olnill was made to walk the plank. At the edge of the plank she jumped without hesitation and felt her bare feet enter her resplendent garden. Her hands brushed the leaves where she would live forever.