Death comes like a thief in the night.
Francesca Colonna sighed with pleasure as she removed her shoes and set her feet onto the cool marble floor. Heaven. She had made the mistake of wearing her new heels to work, and they pinched her feet, everywhere. The whole day, she wobbled on them, saying—“scusi, scusi, grazie”—as she stumbled through the long lines of tourists waiting their turn to enter the Vatican Museum. It had been quite a day, a day full of pilgrims, art historians, gawkers, and College kids from New Jersey. With the summer’s heat, everyone seemed to be complaining about something. By the afternoon, Francesca retreated into a European hauteur as she worked her way through the crowds, weaving back and forth to the archives. Unseen hands pinched her bum five times that afternoon, but now thank God the unseen hands were gone. The museum was officially closed, empty and silent, a bit eerie because every little sound echoed down the halls and back again, as if the building had been abandoned for centuries.
She was standing next to the Dying Gaul when she realized that something wasn’t right. A change in the air, a vague feeling of—something. She stopped and cocked her head, listening—but there was only silence.
But no worries—Francesca didn’t have to think about it, because she was just about finished and on her way home. A tidy woman, she was going through her personal to-do list in her head--stop at the store, get milk, bread, a new bottle of Chianti, some nice prosciutto. Take a shower, wash her hair, towel it off, brush it a hundred times, watch the news, do her nails, and then, sit on the apartment balcony, sip a glass of wine, and watch the city go to sleep. Eventually, she would move inside and sit by the window to catch whatever breeze came by, read The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and pray for true love to fall upon her, until she drifted off, the novel still open on her lap.
But not yet, not quite. She still had to straighten her office before leaving—her boss the Monsignore Abandonato was so pedante, so anal—but then she would be free. Still, these next few minutes were hers. With the crowds gone and only a few guards standing around whispering to one another in the corners or making kissy sounds at her—young men were so annoying—as she passed, she could walk the halls of the museum and visit her favorite sculptures and paintings like old friends. After a while, she drifted into the Sistine Chapel—her favorite place in the world—and stood before Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, staring at it as if it held the secret purpose of life.
This was her routine, and she did it every Friday at the end of the day, as faithfully as prayer. Two weeks before, she had found the Pope himself standing in the middle of the Chapel all alone, head cocked to one side as if listening. As she approached, he shook himself back to the present, and turned to her with a smile. He breathed in deeply, and then sighed.
“I often think that God should never have invented time. No old age. No death. That would be nice. Francesca, would you want to live forever?
Francesca shrugged and wrinkled her nose.
“You’re not sure?”
“Well,” she said, ” if I could remain 23 forever, and be fabulously wealthy, and not have to pay taxes, it might be alright.”
The Pope laughed. Francesca always thought he had a good laugh. She liked this Pope, which put her in the minority.
“I have cancer, you know.”
“Everyone knows, Holy Father.”
“Pray for me.”
“Every day, Holy Father.”
“You're a Colonna, aren’t you Francesca?”
“Yes, Holy Father.”
“Then we're cousins. That’s nice.” She thought so, too.
She didn’t see him again. That Friday evening, the Chapel was empty, and she could contemplate the fresco in silence. Sunlight filtered through the high windows, illuminating Michelangelo’s twisted bodies, looming over her, with the dead rising from their graves to her left, climbing into the sky, some shooting like rockets and others leaping toward angels standing on clouds, while the angels were reaching down to save them. In the middle was Christ as the sun, cursing the sinners on Francesca’s right, all of them inexorably sinking into the pit. Bit by bit, the silence overwhelmed her and the faces of the condemned pierced her, so that she stood before the painting as if before her own life and wept in little gulping sobs, wondering how she had become so empty. Once again she wished she was more like her sister.
A sound came from the back of the chapel, shuffling feet from the deep shadows. The little girl, about five years old, emerged from the gloom and stood there, looking abandoned. She was crying, and she said that she was lost. Going down on one knee to embrace her, Francesca said, “Oh, poor thing, let’s see if we can find your parents.”
“They’re gone,” said the girl.
“They must be frantic looking for you.
“No, they’re not.” The little girl leaned forward as if to share a secret. “You see, they buried me, and left me all alone.”
“They buried you? You must be mistaken.”
“No, they buried me, a long time ago. But I escaped,” the girl whispered.
Francesca could see that she was not right in the head, and wondered if she should call the Gendarmerie. “Maybe we can find someone else to take care of you.”
The girl shook her head.
“How can I help you, then?”
The girl smiled sadly, almost apologetically, then reached out and swiped a razor blade across Francesca’s throat. “You can give me your life,” she said. “You are quite pretty, and have a nice body. I'm sure that someone will make good use of it.”
Francesca fell on her back, gurgling, holding her throat, but the blood leaked through her fingers and pooled on the marble around her head, like a halo. As the world grew dark and as she drifted off toward somewhere else, the last thing she heard was the sound of lapping, like a dog.
The museum guards found her that evening. There was no blood anywhere. They carried Francesca’s body to the city morgue and laid her on an autopsy table. Her mother identified her body in between wracking sobs, while her twin sister Catarina passed out when she saw Francesca’s face, pale and bloodless. When he heard of her death, the Pope broke down and wept.
Late in the night, her body disappeared.