Everyone in Europe who had come across Gotthold Kröger during his early years as a classics scholar knew he was destined for greatness—no one, though, could have predicted the extraordinary nature of his eventual achievement. Gotthold Kröger, the continent’s leading scholar of ancient Greek and Latin literature, had by the age of thirty become world-renowned for his brilliant commentaries upon the greatest works of the ancient Mediterranean literary world, but even into his seventies his greatest goal—the discovery of an ancient manuscript that would forever alter humanity’s picture of the world of antiquity—had still eluded him. He had labored tirelessly for five decades in countless libraries across the continent in search of such a prized finding: in Athens, Acre, and Cairo, he had sifted through a near-infinite number of papyrus fragments; in Istanbul, Damascus, and Thessaloniki, he had scrutinized innumerable vellum parchment scrolls; in Rome, Paris, London, and Berlin, he had poured through a myriad of paper-bound codices, but all his efforts had been for naught. He had not found a single scrap of text that would secure his place in the annals of archaeology nor a single manuscript that would transform humankind’s conception of itself.
And so, at the age of seventy-seven, the celibate scholar Gotthold Kröger travelled to Italy and arrived at the Laurentian Library, the great library of the Medicis in Florence.
He had told his colleagues that this would be his final sojourn at a library in search of the kind of world-shattering manuscript he had been looking for, and had said that if he didn’t find anything there, he would return to his native Hamburg and retire, content that he had given the quest his all, but disappointed that he had not accomplished what he had set out to do all those years ago.
Those who saw the old, gaunt, white-haired scholar in his tailored gray suit and black derby hat walking with a cane to the Piazza San Lorenzo each morning at dawn and limping back to his hotel on Borgo Pinti after midnight each night were at first startled to see such a worn-down-looking old man enfeebling himself even further with his excessively arduous research work, but upon learning something of the nature of the man and his world-renowned scholarly pursuits, they decided to simply wonder in perplexity and amazement at what it was that he may have been up to inside the library rather than attempting to get him to ease up on his work for the sake of his health.
“Doktor Kröger,” said Piero Rossi, Gotthold’s old colleague from the University of Bologna, while chancing upon Gotthold returning from the library one night with a bundle of books in one arm and his cane in the other, “I fear if you keep this up, you’re going to kill yourself.”
“Professor Rossi,” responded Gotthold, pushing his round wire-framed glasses up his long, angular nose, “if I don’t succeed in finding what I am looking for, then I will have lived a wasted life and might as well be dead.”
And so Gotthold Kröger labored unremittingly day and night, combing through the endless stacks of the Laurentian Library’s ancient volumes and scouring the secret vaults of the Medici Family, stopping only at midday for two slices of focaccia bread and a bowl of olives before returning to his fruitless, interminable, mysterious work. After five months of ceaseless searching, about ready to give up his quest and head back to Hamburg, Gotthold, in unspeakable frustration over his immense failure, dropped his pile of ancient books upon one of the library’s old carved wooden desks, accidentally puncturing a hole in the priceless piece of Renaissance-era furniture. While stretching his hand into the hole in the desk and trying to pull out one of the books which had fallen into the cleft, he felt a crisp, slightly creased piece of parchment. He pulled it out, pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, and gazed with astonished steel-blue eyes at the well-preserved manuscript he was clutching in his bony, withered hands. “Propter eos qui perspicuae veritatis luce delectantur,” read the hand-written title page. “For those whose delight is the clear light of truth,” whispered Gotthold, translating the ancient Roman script to himself.
“Good Lord,” he gasped, holding the manuscript in front of his deeply lined, clean-shaven, waxen face. “It is the Veritatis Luce…the long-lost, most prized manuscript in the history of ancient civilization…here it is, the Veritatis Luce, in my very own hands…and it is mine, all mine…”
Shiftily darting his eyes around the Mannerist, Michelangelo-designed terra cotta-paneled reading room to make sure no one was looking, he quickly tucked the manuscript inside his jacket, left his stack of sewn-bound books on the shattered wooden desk, and inched soundlessly out of the library and into the strong, pure light of Florence at midday. Making his way as quickly as he could to the trattoria on Via del Sole where he was sure he would find Piero Rossi working on a manuscript of his own, Gotthold inwardly exulted, jubilant with the thought that his lifelong devotion to classical learning, and his decision to forgo a family life for the sake of the world-changing contributions he always knew he would eventually make to human knowledge, had finally, at long last, so dazzlingly paid off.
“What is it, Gotthold?” asked Piero upon seeing his old friend amble up to his small table at the back of the restaurant.
“It is true, Piero,” said Gotthold, lowering his voice and quickly gazing around the restaurant’s Roman-arched walls to make sure no one was listening to them.
“What is, Gotthold?”
“The legend of the Veritatis Luce…”
“The Mithraic manuscript that scholars for centuries have claimed to be hidden somewhere in Europe but has still never been found?”
“It is no legend, Piero…”
“What are you saying, Gotthold?”
“Piero…” whispered Gotthold, leaning forward and unearthing the manuscript from inside the folds of his jacket, “I…” he continued, his voice quavering as he placed the manuscript on the white linen tablecloth, “have found…the Veritatis Luce…”
“Good heavens, Gotthold!” he exclaimed, his eyes widening and his voice rattling. “…The Veritatis Luce…the ancient knowledge, passed down orally for generations upon generations from the beginning of time until it was eventually transcribed by a member of the Cult of Mithras in the first century A.D. but was soon lost and has still never been found….the most valuable manuscript known to humankind, rumored to contain the most secret teachings of civilization and a guide for those who wish to acquire the scientia deorum, the knowledge of the gods…it has always been rumored to have existed, but I never believed it actually did…”
“Neither did I, Piero…but it does…and here,” he said, running his hand over the yellowed parchment, “is the proof…”
The two old men gazed in silence for a several minutes at the mysterious manuscript, the mythical holy grail of classics scholarship that they both now knew was no longer a mere myth.
“Incredible,” said Piero, his sharp jaw quivering. “We must let the world know about this at once, Gotthold…we…you, the greatest elucidator in the world of ancient texts, must let the world know of its contents.”
“Yes, Piero. Of course…all my life I have been waiting for this kind of opportunity, and now it has finally arrived…I will return to my hotel room and immediately begin translating, transcribing, and elucidating the Veritatis Luce…and then we will return it to the Laurentian, to be on permanent display for all the world to see…but first,” concluded Gotthold, slowly rising from his seat and folding the manuscript back inside his jacket, “to work…”
“This is your moment, Gotthold. This is what you were put on Earth to do. And I know you will do it brilliantly. The world awaits the results of your work the way it has never awaited the results of anything else before…Godspeed, my dear friend.”
Gotthold Kröger, treading gingerly but quickly, made his way back to Borgo Pinti, locked himself inside his hotel room, and set about upon the most important scholarly task of his illustrious career. Day and night he labored, filling reams of notebooks with his copious, learned notes on the ancient Mithraic text.
After one week had passed without Piero having seen Gotthold, Piero made the short trek from Via del Sole to Borgo Pinti and knocked on Gotthold’s hotel room door.
“What do you want?!” Gotthold bellowed at Piero upon opening the door.
“I…” Piero stammered. “I merely wanted to check on your progress, and—”
“Out!” screamed Gotthold, the veins in his forehead throbbing. “Get out at once!”
“My…Gotthold, why, in all these years I have never seen you like this, are you alright?”
“Out!!!” shrieked Gotthold again, slamming the door and bolting it shut.
“Poor fellow,” thought Piero upon departing the hotel, shaking his head and rubbing his right cheek. “He’s never worked this hard in his life…I can only imagine how quickly and expertly he wants to get his translation and commentary of the Veritatis Luce out there…understandable, I suppose, why he’d want absolutely no disturbances, not even from his closest friend and most trusted colleague…”
Piero Rossi, a tall, thin, lifelong bachelor, continued working distractedly upon his Etruscan manuscript every day at the back of the trattoria on Via Del Sole while keeping his eyes expectantly open for a visit from Gotthold. When another week passed without a sign of Gotthold, Piero strode back to Borgo Pinti, ambled up the four flights of stairs that led to his friend’s hotel room, and knocked on Gotthold’s door.
The door slowly opened, and Gotthold Kröger was standing behind it—wearing a torn white shirt and covered in sweat, his eyelids inflamed and his knees shaking.
“Well?” asked Piero, inclining his head forward and trying to steal a view of Gotthold’s paper-laden desk. “How is it coming along, my dear friend? When will the Veritatis Luce at last see the light of day?”
Gotthold, his eyes expressionless and face unmoving, stared back at Piero as if he were complete stranger to him.
“Gotthold? It’s me, Piero…are you alright? Can I get you some water, perhaps? Something to eat? You look terrible.”
Gotthold’s mouth was open, but no words came out.
“Oh, dear, Gotthold…” muttered Piero, shaking his head. “You’re working too hard, I know it…how about joining me tonight at the trattoria? Take your mind off the Veritatis Luce for at least one night?”
Gotthold gazed at Piero as if he were speaking in tongues.
“Well, Gotthold? Can’t you at least tell me something about it? I’m dying to hear what’s in it…all these years, all these centuries of rumors, legends, fables about the Veritatis Luce, and now we have finally discovered it…oh, Gotthold, please, can’t you just tell me about the contents of one paragraph—one line, even—of the Veritatis Luce?”
Gotthold’s frozen expression had still not changed, and his opened mouth was still silent.
“Well, my friend,” said Piero, shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders, “I don’t know what’s come over you, but please do remember to take care of yourself, yes? If you need anything you know where to find me. Buona notte, Herr Doktor.”
After yet another week passed without a trace of Gotthold, Piero marched back to Borgo Pinti, hastened up the four flights of stairs, and knocked on Gotthold’s door. Piero, his heart beginning to pace, waited for two minutes; when the door did not open, Piero knocked again.
“Gotthold?” Piero called out, placing his mouth up against the door panel. “Gotthold? Please open up, Gott…what—what is that?…that smell…smoke?…is that smoke?!…oh no…Gotthold!”
Piero, mustering up all the strength that his seventy-five-year-old body possessed, rammed against the door with his right shoulder until it came off the hinges and fell to the floor with a dull thud.
“Gotthold! Dear lord!” cried Piero, raising his arms to his temples. “How could you?! How could you have done this?!”
The world’s only copy of the Veritatis Luce, along with all of Gotthold’s notes upon the Mithraic text, was burning inside a small fire in the large ashtray next to the desk. And beside the desk lay Gotthold Kröger, his bulging eyes glazed over, his face frozen, and a single piece of paper lying upon his emaciated chest. Piero knelt down, grasped Gotthold’s cold left wrist, and could not feel a pulse. A sinking feeling came over him.
“Oh, Gotthold…Gotthold,” he cried, tears staining his deathly pale cheeks. “What have you done…the Veritatis Luce…destroyed!…gone!…why?!…”
Piero picked up the piece of paper that was resting on Gotthold’s chest, and instantly recognized Gotthold’s distinctive curlicued handwriting upon it. It was written in a messy, hurried scrawl, as if Gotthold Kröger had been in a race with time to put his final words onto paper before his life ebbed away.
“It,” read the note, referring to the Veritatis Luce, “is monstrous…and should never be read…by any living person…”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer, rabbi, and Ph.D. candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is studying English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University. A contributor to the Books & Arts section of The Weekly Standard, he has published in numerous academic and popular journals, magazines, and newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, Tablet, and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. His short stories have appeared in The Cortland Review, aaduna, Bewildering Stories (“The End of Days,” winner of the 2015 Spitzer Prize and Mariner Award), Calliope, Aurora Wolf, The Sea Letter, cc&d magazine, aois21 annual, Aphelion, Short-Story(dot)me, Litro Magazine, and The Acentos Review.