On my journey to the House of Serpents you will recall that I was removed from my donkey Ariel by a hooded rider and that I only discovered its identity when its hood slipped off as it was leaving me. Well, while we were flying, my cherubim decided it wanted to talk. In fact it proved to be a very talkative cherubim, what with having a captive audience and all that. I’m always eager to hear other people’s stories so this way I was killing two birds with one stone.
The cherubim told me that when it is not helping out lost strangers in the outlands of Duwamish, it normally resides in a fresco in a church that goes by the odd name of St Nicholas of the roofs on the island of Cythara. I’d heard of this island and of this particular church. In fact there is another curiously named church on the island called St Nicholas of the cats. Apparently St Nicholas kept cats to keep the serpents away. Does the House of Serpents have a resident cat, by any chance?
St Nicholas of the roofs is so called because the church has two roofs, one on top of the other but nobody seems to know why this is and the church is full of frescoes peopled by all sorts of creatures, many of whom are employed in a similar fashion to the cherubim, who was currently acting as my flying taxi. Unfortunately the contributions from the tourists were not enough to keep them all in the pristine condition they could wish. My cherubim pointed out that the price of armour oil being what it was, it was no wonder its amour was starting to go rusty and that this was why a number of them had sought employment elsewhere – being a pretty face just didn’t hack it. Although I had my trusty digital camera with me the cherubim wouldn’t allow me to take a photo of it, as the bright light from a flash was harmful to frescoes and it was already looking a bit faded around the edges.
It recounted to me all the marvellous things it had seen, it had been present when Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified and had ascended into Heaven. It had seen the arrival of many of the other frescoes over the decades. I asked it if it had a favourite fresco and it replied that its favourite was the Tree of Jesse. It passed the time of day by inventing histories for all the people depicted there. I asked it to describe the church for me. It explained that this particular church was considered so special that the people from Unesco had declared it to be worthy of being nominated to cultural heritage status and that there were a total of ten such churches on the island. It personally had not visited any of the other churches, not wishing to know what the competition was, but it assured me that hearsay had it that the others were pretty good too, although of course, not in the same league as St Nicholas of the roofs. St Nicks had the added advantage of being situated in a woodland spot, not in the middle of some baking hot village in the middle of nowhere, although St John’s did benefit from the river running by. St John’s was also inhabited so there was a constant to-ing and fro-ing of resident monks, priests and visitors, which made life all the more interesting.
St Nicks, as it affectionately described its home, was also home to a large collection of icons. The icons were housed on an iconostasis (posh name for a wooden screen), but they were an arrogant lot – too much gold – and didn’t have much to do with the frescoes. The icons were actually convinced that they were the sole reason tourists visited the church. The cherubim sniffed in disgust at this. I could see its point. All that glitters is not gold. The icons were also considerably smaller than the frescoes and from their lofty perches looked down upon the frescoes. Poison comes in small packages they say and the cherubim didn’t have a good word to say for the icons, snooty lot that they were. They disregarded the frescoes, who were afraid of the light and lived in the dimmer recesses of the church. They didn’t wear rich clothes either, for their clothes, such as they were, were distinctly threadbare. No bright colours either, their colours having faded in successive washes as misguided restorers had sought to renew their colours. Nor were the frescoes decorated with silver or gold. What they did have however, was the detail with which their clothes had been painted and the liveliness of their facial expressions, particularly those who dwelt in Hell. The angelic ones, on the other hand looked stiff and uncomfortable. Who was to say which were the better off. My cherubim explained that it was perfectly happy where it was, on one of the columns just inside the entrance to the church so that it had a good vantage point from which to observe all the visitors to the church. On a good day, you might get half a dozen. The individual visitors were by far the best contributors, the coach tours were just rabble. All they wanted was to be able to boast about how many churches they’d visited and to buy a T-shirt. Sniff.
I asked why it was wearing a hooded cape. Oh that’s just a gimmick it replied handing me a business card on which I read the logo “Black Cape Enterprises. Flying Taxi Service. We take you beyond”. Beyond what, I wondered but thought “well I have already gone beyond my normal boundaries, so why not?”