EXERPT 6 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK”
The basilica at the Valley of the Fallen is hewn from living granite forming a vast man-made cave.
After entering, it took several seconds for the three companions’ eyes to adjust to the relative gloom of the artificially illuminated interior after the blinding glare of the white paved esplanade.
The most striking thing upon entering was the sweet cave smell accompanied by a wave of cold air which enveloped them like a cool blanket. It reminded Omri of walking into the treasury at Petra which although much smaller offered a similar effect on the senses; especially the nasal senses. No doubt the Jordanian sandstone emitted a subtly different smell to this Spanish granite, like two distinct wines but the general effect was almost identical.
They left the porch and passed under the ornate wrought ironwork gate with its pair of Hapsburg Imperial Eagles and into the crypt.
Despite her best efforts even Elena could not help but stare upwards at the arched vault of the ceiling and marvel at the sheer scale and ambition of the space. The roof in particular had been cleverly worked with undeniable skill to simulate a lattice of arched beams and dressed stone supporting the raw rock above.
Beneath stretched the crypt, all eight hundred plus feet of it, including at the far end a great transept and choir containing the high altar and tombs of Franco and de Rivera set under a carved domed cupola.
But then, just a few steps after they had passed beneath the iron gate Omri stopped and gasped audibly. He had caught site of two towering black metallic sculptures, dramatically up-lit and set into two raised niches facing each other across the alter. The statues were of massive winged angels cast in a heavy deco style, their gazes averted slightly towards the floor and both gripping downward pointing broadswords.
For a second or two Omri just stood there looking from one angel to the other in obvious amazement. ‘What is it Omri?’ demanded Elena tersely, mistaking his astonishment for admiration. ‘Surely you don’t like those statues too? They’re so…they’re just so clumsy. They’re exactly the kind of clunky brutalism you’d expect from an artist commissioned by a fascist dictator.’
‘But don’t you see it?’ replied Omri looking inquiringly at Elena and then at Alex.
‘See what?’ Elena came back still sounding curt.
‘Don’t either of you see what I’m seeing—really?’ Omri was almost pleading with them. ‘I thought that you guys had been steeped in this Ark stuff long enough to see what I’m seeing.’
But they both just looked back at him and then at each other in blank bewilderment.
‘Look!’ he almost shouted at them, his arms outstretched towards the two statues while gesturing with his head to each angel in turn, his eyes glaring and then pointing towards the alter with his camera. ‘Of course!’ exclaimed Alex.
‘Of course, what?’ Elena said almost demanding to be let in on the secret.
‘Elena’ Alex said now grinning broadly, cupping her cheeks in his hands. ‘Do you remember reading about the Ark in the first book of Kings in the Bible and how it sat in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple? Do you remember what else was in there, in the Holy of Holies guarding it?’
He gave her a moment to think, grinning and nodding at Omri.
Then she too broke into an open-mouthed smile before exclaiming; ‘Oh yes! Two massive carved angels!
The Ark sat between two protective angels.’
‘Two angles ten cubits tall to be precise’ added Omri. ‘And I’d be willing to bet that these two fellows here are about five metres tall, from their feet to their wing tips—in other words, about ten cubits.’
‘So what does this mean?’ Elena asked looking at
Omri. ‘It’s just a coincidence, isn’t it?’
‘Unless your husband is mistaken’ Omri said grinning mischievously at Alex, ‘and your government really does know about the Ark and placed these two statues here as some kind of secret acknowledgement, then yes it’s obviously a coincidence.’
‘I can assure you that it’s a coincidence’ said Alex ignoring the jibe; ‘These statues were commissioned at the same time as the basilica itself, decades before Franco knew about the Ark.’
‘Still, it’s an amazing piece of happenstance’ Omri declared, ‘although my high school RE teacher always assured me that there’s no such thing as coincidences.’
As they continued slowly down the centre of the aisle the Israeli resumed his photography taking pictures of each of the six apses, of the ceiling, of the floor and the seating and then the stairs leading up to the transept and the choir.
They passed behind the raised altar and stared up at the cupola before arriving at the two marble slabs denoting the tombs of Franco and de Rivera, about ten yards apart.
‘So where exactly is our object?’ asked Omri in a lowered voice.
‘You’re standing on it now’ Alex said looking at the slab beneath Omri’s feat. ‘You’re right on top of it.’
Instinctively Omri took a quick half-step backwards. Then he bent his neck and looked down at the grey paving stone beneath his feet, his chin seemingly glued to his chest. His arms sank to his sides and he just stood there like that, stock-still, for almost a minute.
Omri dropped down onto one knee. He glanced around the transept to make sure that there was no one else within earshot before taking the camera in both hands and sliding open the little panel on its rear. He then held down the button with his left thumb and began slowly moving the camera over the stone slab.
Almost immediately the camera started emitting a sharp crackly high-pitched whine, causing Omri to twitch momentarily as if he had received a mild electric shock. His entire frame remained rigid except for the circular motion of his arms as he scanned the floor.
Alex and Elena stood either side of him, both of them transfixed by Omri’s sudden display of physical concentration. Although they could only see his partial profile, they could sense the intensity etched on his face.
Then Omri relaxed and he reached down towards the slab with his hand and delicately, hesitantly touched the stone with his fingertips like it was an old master canvas hanging in a great gallery. As he did so they heard him mutter something to himself in Hebrew. And then he raised his face to look at them and they saw that his eyes were glistening.
He slowly stood up, spent another two- or three-minutes staring at the floor, breathing slowly and deeply, regaining his composure. Finally, he turned to them and said; ‘Forgive me for doubting you Alex. Forgive me for doubting a Son of Kohath.’
He then continued photographing, taking at least half a dozen shots of the paving stone and its immediate vicinity.
In all the years Alex had known Omri he had never seen him display emotion of this sort. Sure, there had been the many heated scholarly disputes, mostly with Ron and even the odd row but never anything like this.
Not even on the Arad dig when on one occasion a shard was uncovered with an inscription on it that seemed at first to contain the name of Solomon’s son King Rehoboam (but which later turned out to be merely the Holy Land’s oldest discovered laundry list). Not even then did Omri do anything more than smile broadly and congratulate the young student discoverer with a firm pat on the back
As they began their return walk back down the aisle towards the rectangle of white daylight at the entrance Alex gave Omri’s arm an affectionate squeeze. He said; ‘If you don’t mind me asking, was that some kind of prayer you made back there?’
‘Gracious no! Nothing like that!’ replied Omri returning his friend’s arm squeeze, ‘I pray about as much as you do.’
‘I never pray.’
‘So, what were you saying? Can you tell me?’
‘Sure, I can tell you and Elena too—but no one else. Not even Carlos Garcia—at least not yet.’ He stopped and looked directly at Alex and then at Elena. ‘Do you both understand?’
‘We understand Omri’ confirmed Elena, ‘but what did you say?’
‘I spoke to the Ark.’
‘You spoke to the Ark? Alex repeated in disbelief.
‘You didn’t pray but you spoke to the Ark! I think I’d rather you had prayed.’
‘Do you think that the Ark understands Modern Hebrew?’ teased Elena.
‘Of course not!’ replied Omri playing along with her. ‘That’s why I used Classical Hebrew.’
‘And what did you say to the Ark in Classical Hebrew?’
‘I merely told it that I thought it was about time it came home.’
And with that Omri thrust the camera back in his bag and marched back out into the searing daylight.