April 5th, 2023
The Vatican Grottoes were some of the only places Giovanni could find the peace to think in solitude. With the business that was constant in St. Peter’s basilica above his head, the quiet of the halls beneath it were a welcome respite that did not require him having to seek solitude far from the center of the Faith.
The Grottoes were the resting place of dozens of Saints, their tombs or memories laid out in the mazelike halls. It felt, at times, like the purest part of Vatican City, so close to the beating heart of the Faith. It was presently off-limits to most, by Giovanni’s decision. He enjoyed padding through the admittedly cramped halls in full form, an enormous black-haired wolf walking silently among the tombs. More than a few wayward monks had been terrified by the sight, fearing a monster in the halls. Most by now knew better. Giovanni was, after all, their most stalwart protector.
The interrogation of the vandal had not gone well. The enchantment on him had eventually been broken by Lord Nassar after several failed attempts by other mages. He had admitted to being a member of a new cult, much to Govanni’s relief. The man might have renounced the true faith, but what information he had grew only more disturbing.
The sound of another set of footsteps roused him from his reverie. He had been lying down on the cold stone foot, great paws crossed under his muzzle. Giovanni recognized the footprints from the start, and did not move as Stella rounded the corner to face him. If she attempted to hide her surprise, she did a poor job of it, nearly jumping in place, hand grasping for the wall as she came face to face with a five-meter long wolf.
“F-forgive me, Mister Giovanni.” She stuttered. Giovanni didn’t mind she was there. He had told her to come find him if he was needed.
“What is it, Stella?”
“The bishop is still requesting your report from the interrogation.” She said.
“I told him the man has broken ties with the faith. We are free to renounce him.” Giovanni said gruffly.
“He…he wished for more detail…”
Giovanni was more comfortable in the shape of a wolf than as a man, but the discomfort and fear in Stella’s eyes was plain. He shifted his weight slightly, making himself more comfortable. “I would have you tell him then. I think I’ll be spending the night down here.”
“Of…course.” Stella said “What should I say?”
“After some carefully applied pressure, the vandal admitted to being a part of a new…I suppose you would call it a Doomsday Pact, they call it the Hour of the Wolf.”
“Hour of the wolf?” Stella asked, her hands already moving like lightning as she recorded his words.
“No relation.” Giovanni chuckled darkly. “It is a Norse cult venerating Skoll and Hati. According to Nora these are the sons of the great wolf Fenrir and they chase the sun and moon across the sky. At the end of the world their hunt shall succeed and the world will be plunged into darkness.”
“Well…” Stella’s words paused with the movement of her hand. “I suppose it’s good the sun is still shining outside.”
“Quite.” Giovani said. “They’re an unsponsored cult, and we’ve spoken with the representatives of the Way of the One-Eyed Traveler and the Hammer and Lightning. They have disavowed any relation, of course.”
“Do you think they’re just covering themselves?” Stella asked.
“Nora doubts it on theological grounds.” Giovanni made a rough lupine suggestion of a shrug. “I have no interest.”
“What will be done about the cult?” Stella asked.
“Nora and I will be working together, she suggested I find an agent for infiltration and I am giving it some thought.”
Stella was silent again for a time before she spoke. “I’m not sure if I’d be capable…”
Giovanni let out a low drawn out chuckle, mouth opening to reveal sharp rows of teeth. “No, Stella, you are too useful to me here, and while you are a diligent and pious young woman I do not believe you have the stomach for espionage and deception.”
He could see he relief spreading across her face. “Thank you, Mister Giovanni.”
She finished writing her report but didn’t leave afterwards, spending a few minutes in silence with him in the tombs.
“Is something wrong, Mister Giovanni?” She asked.
He glanced up at her, quiet for a moment before responding. “Why do you ask?”
“You’ve been at the forefront of the investigation, but you started drawing back after he was caught, and now you’re delegating the report to me when you would have given it to the Bishop in person just a week or two ago. I can’t help but think that something’s wrong.”
Giovanni sighed, his mouth drawing back in something like a smile. “Bless you Stella, your compassion is admirable. But the troubles of a wolf should not bother the hearts of humans.”
“You’re not just a wolf, you’re our protector.” Stella kneeled beside his head. “Besides I have some time before the Bishop expects me to turn in the report. It’d be nice to have some time to talk.”
“There are few things nicer than time to talk.” Giovanni admitted. “And what would we talk about, Stella?”
“Well, we could talk about what’s troubling you.”
Giovanni chuckled again. “Are you trying to coerce me into confession, Stella?”
“Oh heavens no.” Stella smiled, raising her hands innocently. “I’m not qualified. Besides what is there to absolve? Wolves can’t sin. Think of this…as a friend reaching out.”
“If you must insist.” Giovanni took a deep breath, sides visibly rising as he did, only making him look larger in Stella’s eyes.
“When I apprehended the vandal, when I caught him in the act, I was not merely trying to catch him. There were…old instincts at play. I stopped being an agent of the church trying to stop an act of evil. I was…a predator hunting its prey.”
“Well that just seems natural.” Stella said. “You are a wolf. You have a wolfish instinct.”
“We are both fooling ourselves if I claim to be an average wolf.” Giovanni said. “I am not human, I do not possess a divine soul as you do. In the hierarchy of creation I am less even than that vandal, but I am blessed with a man’s intelligence, the capacity to reason and tell right from wrong. It is a test for me every day, and one I failed that night.”
Stella took a few moments to think before she spoke again, and Giovanni knew what she was going to ask.
“Mister Giovanni…how does one go about becoming a Catholic wolf? Isn’t this something of a no-win scenario? No matter how virtuous you can be, it’s not as if you can become human.”
“Ah sweet Stella, it is not so hard. A virtuous life performed only at the promise of heavenly reward is hardly virtuous. You do it because one with the capacity for virtue should always strive for virtue, it is the right thing to do and that should be reward enough.”
“Of course, forgive me.” She bowed her head. “But how did you become…what you are?”
“I made a promise to someone a very long time ago.” Giovanni said before rising somewhat into a sitting posture to better speak to Stella, who shuffled a little to make room for him.
“I am the youngest of the wolves in Rome, I think. Angel’s age I truthfully don’t know save that she is likely truly ancient. Capitolina is nearly three thousand years old, Kebechet is nearly twice that at five thousand years by her reckoning. I am a ‘mere’ eight hundred years old. Almost to the year, I might add.”
“Still quite a bit older than I’ll ever be.” Stella said. “But I hear that’s the norm for spirits.”
“Once a story gains momentum it never truly dies, though my case is an odd one. I was fairly well known in my day before I became the wolf you see before you. Unfortunately back then it was infamy that followed me.”
Giovanni saw Stella’s eyes glance to the scarred flesh and matted fur that covered most of his body, relics from an abandoned life.
“In those days I was feared as the worst sort of beast, a man-eater, unkillable and uncatchable as I plagued the town of Gubbio in Umbria not too far from here.”
“Gubbio…” Stella tested the name, before her eyes alighted and she clapped her hands together. “You mean…Mister Giovanni you’re THE Wolf of Gubbio?”
“The very same.” Giovanni smiled. “I see you know the story.”
“Oh yes,” Stella nodded, placing her hands back in her lap. “But I’d love to hear you tell it.”
“Well then I suppose I can indulge you.” Giovanni said.
“In Gubbio, around 1220, there lived a terrible wolf. A man-eater that had plagued the town for years. The spears and arrows had bounced off its hide. Nothing could kill the beast, and any man bold enough to challenge it was devoured. It would wait outside the city gates to feast on anyone foolish enough to venture out alone. To put it in more recent terms, the spirit of the Wolf of Gubbio had ascended from the tale of a mere dangerous wolf, and it had become as true a monster as the dragon slain by Saint George…
“It would not be a sword-wielding warrior that came to Gubbio, however, but a humble holy man. He had foregone ordainment of any kind, not even a priest was he as he walked to the gates of Gubbio to meet this wolf. Dressed in frayed robes and threadbare shoes he was hardly even a morsel for the ravenous wolf, but he was lucky as the gates were deserted and the wolf had taken the evening to lurk in its den. The holy man made the sign of the Cross and stepped out of the gates, a small gaggle of villagers following him, half-curious and half-afraid of what might happen to this humble man of God.”
“And what happened?” Stella asked, still smiling.
“Despite the protests of the townsfolk, the man walked to the very lair of the Beast. At the entrance he crossed himself once more and stepped within while the townspeople stayed behind, though still able to see what transpired.
“The wolf attacked, but the man said that the wolf was to cease and listen in the name of God. In that moment, the wolf felt something it had never felt before. Awareness, consciousness, a sense of grace no monster had ever felt. It stayed its jaws as the man commanded. And the man spoke again with words I still recall quite clearly, the first words I ever truly heard:
‘Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, if so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee anymore.’
“That is what he said to me, he offered his hand and I placed my paw upon it. And from that day on I was a changed wolf. I knew true compassion, I felt the grace of God within me, and I came to be at peace with the town of Gubbio.”
Stella knew the tale of course, but it was clear she really did enjoy hearing Giovanni tell it, and he had to admit it brought a sense of peace to him as well.
“I knew that man for many years until his death. It is why, when I came to the defense of this holy place six months ago, I gave his birth name as mine, Giovanni.”
“Though of course we know him better as Saint Francis of Assisi.” Stella said. “I suppose I should have caught the reference. The story ends after you make peace with the town. You really remained his friend afterwards?”
“As much a friend as a wolf can be.” Giovanni nodded. “He had a tendency to wander and I preferred the wild places, but I have never known so good and whole a man. It is good to know he rests in the kingdom of Heaven.”
“You said you made a promise to him?” Stella asked.
“Indeed I did. I made a compact before him and the people of Gubbio, that I would never again offend either man or beast or any kind of living creature. I do not hunt, I do not steal, I live as pious of a life as can be expected of a wolf and more. Some days are harder than others…”
“I think you do marvelously.” Stella said.
“You are as kind as ever, Stella. I only wish he were here to guide me in these times.”
“We don’t expect you to be a Saint, Giovanni.” Stella said. “You’ve protected and helped this city for months and we already owe so much to you. It was the teachings of Saint Francis and the will of God that brought you to us, and I’m sure they will continue to guide you.”
“You’re a fine speaker, Stella.” Giovanni smiled. “Have you considered missionary work?”
“I’m just relieved it doesn’t sound like empty platitudes to a centuries-old wolf.” Stella returned the smile. “I do my best.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=36&sl=190 ))