She was terrified, wide eyes fixed on him, breath shallow, sweat across her brow. He leant closer, making sure she was secured to the pole. There was none to interfere or overhear in the crowded square, everyone keeping their distance perhaps out of respect, certainly out of fear. Brother Anteo steadied himself.
“You understand why, what I have told you?”
She nodded, cracked teeth biting her lower lip.
“When it catches do not fight the fire, it will only prolong the pain. When I nod embrace it, lean into it and breathe deeply, it will hasten your journey.”
He stepped away leaving her isolated atop the pyre of wood, a solitary figure surrounded by empty grey flagstones, flagstones in turn encircled by the village in its entirety. It was necessary and right they should see, be reminded it was their very souls at risk and the lengths the church would go to protect them.
Miguelito handed him the torch, a pitch-dipped flaming rag sputtering and spitting in the still air. Anteo walked the short distance to the pyre and placed the torch down.
He locked his eyes to hers as the flames took hold and her screams rose, pitched wailings of agony as her legs started to be consumed, her clothes filthy rags smoking then bursting alight. Gasps and muted prayers rose around him, the click of beads as Father Ignacio raced through the Hail Marys. Her eyes remained fixed on his and as the flames reached her waist he nodded. She bent forwards, soundlessly mouthing as she breathed the fire deeply, strongly, slumping forwards unmoving against her bonds.
The flames roared higher, the rising wind carrying smoke and the scent of burning flesh over Anteo. Neither the sickly sweet smell nor the sounds of vomiting and abhorrence were unfamiliar. He would stay until her very bones were ash, as would everyone around him lest they incur his displeasure, not be seen to understand and accept the discipline of the church. The smoke started to sting his eyes, permeate his clothes but his gaze remained fixed, countenance set, hands steady. A shower of sparks soared upwards as she settled into the pyre, bonds breaking, charred smoldering stumps that once were arms flailing outwards in embrace macabre. Stifled cries from his left side joined muted prayer from the right.
It was only hours later with the pyre reduced to a low mound of embers that Anteo shifted his gaze slowly and deliberately across everyone gathered in the square. None had dared leave. Gazes of fear, obedience, belief met his. For her family hatred and sorrow salted the wounds, a wasteful and unfeeling god taking four children before they were six and one to heresy when not yet thirteen.
Beads still clicking through his fingers, Ignacio’s pasty white face framed staring, unseeing eyes. He had no desire to be here but it was his flock, his duty. A small cough gained his attention.
“You must tend your flock.”
Ignacio stared at him, stumbling to find thought or word in response. It was hardest the first time, he’s probably married her parents, baptized the child, watched her grow.
“Remember Ignacio, remember why and rejoice. Her confession the other day, her walk back from heresy.”
“Yes, yes,” unconvinced, uncertain “she gains eternal life through the purifying fire.” He smiled wanly. “Saved from heresy, a lesson, a teaching in truth to us all.”
Anteo squeezed Ignacio’s shoulder then moved past him, Miguelito in tow, towards his room. A lesson perhaps, a waste certainly.
– – –
Anteo slipped his sandals off, stretched his tired legs as Miguelito prepared the salve. The days and miles were hard on old feet and the work endless, the welcomes unfailingly forced. Here perhaps a little warmer, a touch more open, Ignacio not having the company of an inquisitor before. The invitation to sup remained. He tapped Miguelito’s head, mouthed the words slowly.
“Do you wish to accept Fr. Ignacio’s hospitality again?”
Miguelito smiled, shook his head. A deaf mute was the perfect choice of attendant but it created its own peculiar worries. It was also no fun for Miguelito, what business could a young boy have in the company of two old men?
“Then go, return to me in the morning. Do I have to remind you not to bring shame on this office? I have not forgotten, nor has the girl’s parents.”
Miguelito shook his head, clasping his hands in promise. His eyes betrayed the memory, youthful lusts still written large. Anteo sighed, waved him away.
– – –
Ignacio was shaken but welcoming, the meal simple and plentiful, eaten in silence as the order required. They sat alone at table, cups of wine in hand as the evening darkness ate into the solitary candle’s glow.
“The other, your business will be concluded soon?”
“Of course. One day, perhaps two, no more.”
“Wherever I am led.”
“You have performed this … duty for a while?”
“Four years, perhaps longer, I keep no account.”
“The calling must be strong, it is not a thing I could do.”
“You would were you asked. But yes, the calling was clear.”
It could not have been clearer, simpler, more unsettling. Alone in my cell fasting and praying for fourteen days it had happened on the last evening. Pitch black as I extinguished the candle one second, an explosion of light the next, it stood within arm’s reach towering in front of me clad in shimmering silver-white, burning halo, wings touching either wall. All my faculties deserted me, I stood unmoving, uncomprehending in its presence. ‘You are called,’ it spoke in a hundred voices, lips unmoving ‘and you will do your work diligently as unto the most high.’ All I could do was shake, mumble incoherently. It placed a crucifix and a book on the edge of my cot. It stepped closer, close enough for me to feel the cold surrounding it, the iciness of the fire. ‘You will tell no one born of woman what you find, of the relics I have given you.’ It grabbed me, held me, two hands to my head, two hands to my sides, eyes fixing me, mesmerizing me. ‘You will invoke the most extreme penalty on the heretic. It is not enough they recant, they must be removed.’ It opened the book. ‘Seek me while holding this and I will send you,’ then pointed to the crucifix ‘and invoke this to remove the stain of heresy from both heretic and earth.’ With that I was released and my cell returned to its former dark, empty state.
“The say the Holy Father takes a care for each inquisitor sent.”
“That is true, each of us is sent by him.”
That night, alone with the relics, I was left to worry. I could not simply walk out claiming visitation; I would suffer the same fate as any madman doing so. And with my vows taken, my life’s path set, I was not free to change vocation. How small my faith was, for on the morrow the Abbott handed me the warrant from the Holy Father. I opened it to reveal the hand of Gregory IX, tiny droplets of ink across the page witnessing a hasty, uncertain scrawl. I was to have no master above me save himself and God, and I was to be sole judge and agent, alone responsible for sentence and execution.
Ignacio sighed, leant back into the shadows.
“He expects us to lead them in faith by example, but an unruly flock at times needs a firm hand.”
“And that is my calling.”
Yet even from the start my faith was challenged. As I kneeled in prayer that night in my cell worrying uselessly about the morning I saw the water where my visitor stood. What need of water does an angel have I asked. Another mystery awaited for, as I touched the wet stone it brought back a scrap of fabric layered, white upon silver upon black upon white and fine, thinner than silk and smoother than polished metal. What angel garbed themselves in cloth? I have kept that scrap with me all these years, one scrap of doubt tucked away in my cassock while other scraps gathered in my mind.
Ignacio stood. “The day has been long. It has drained me I fear, I pray I will have the strength to accept it, to grow accustomed to it as you have. I bid you goodnight.”
I watched him leave. I would never grow accustomed to it, don the garb of indifference or rejoicing other inquisitors wore. No matter Miguelito’s efforts my clothes always bore that sickly sweet smell, the hearth contained their eyes, my joy in the bonfire’s warmth replaced by the horror of the pyre. Nor was there solace in the sacraments now as hollow cymbals to me, or in the dark as my mind changed sleep to a seldom seen friend.
– – –
The guards at the door regarded me differently this morning. Respect and curiosity was replaced by fear and submission. It was one thing to be told a man had power over body and soul in this world and the next, another thing entirely to see it exercised. Miguelito and I passed inside knowing the door was closed and we would remain undisturbed. Once the village’s butchering room, a new butcher now simply occupied it. I sat in the sole chair, relics cradled in the bag on my lap. Miguelito poured a ladle of water over the head of the naked man chained to the far wall.
He raised his head, scarlet-cream threads of the week’s encouragement adorning his filth encrusted skin. A piteous human seeking mercy I could not give. When I came here he truly had no concept of his error, my purpose, his future. The simplest of a village of simpletons, his very innocence sealed his fate, one a smarter man would have closed his mouth and mind to avoid.
“Let us continue Sebastian. Miguelito, tend the fire.”
The fire spurted, black irons starting their transformation to dull red.
“I will say what you want, as you want it your holiness.”
“Yes, you will, but it is not what matters. This is to save your soul, prepare you for God. Would you want to be before him unworthily, a liar in your heart?”
“Nor would I. All this is to your benefit, your salvation. Tell me of the things you saw.”
“I saw nothing, I swear, nothing.”
I nodded to Miguelito. Miguelito was careful and precise, the scream rent from Sebastian short, piercing. A wisp of smoke arose from his little toe.
“Truth Sebastian, truth. What you saw and what you thought are different. Again, tell me what you saw.”
“Angels, two angels in a —”
Another caress from Miguelito halted him.
“Again, what did you see?”
“Good. Tell me again, what did you see?” I signaled Miguelito.
“Men, I saw men, men, two men,” a screaming wail as the iron passed the underside of his foot.
“Good. Men. Do not lie, before me or before God. Now, remind me of that which we talked of yesterday. Describe the men to me.”
“They were tall.”
“They were bright, shiny.”
“They had, they had wings?”
I smiled, hopefully reassuringly.
“Very good. You see, nothing to fear from the truth. Now, again, what were they doing?”
“An animal, a dead animal.”
“They took pieces of it.”
“I don’t know, they just took pieces and left.”
“How did they leave?”
“They just went, they were there and then they were not.”
I walked over, close enough to smell his rotting teeth. I placed one hand on his cheek now wet with tears.
“Do you see? Your memory, the truth is there. You are nearly ready.”
I stepped back, motioned Miguelito to move to the far side of the room.
“Now tell me, who were these men?”
“I don’t know.”
I lifted a white hot iron to his face.
“No your holiness, please, they were angels.”
I thrust the iron into a bucket of water, withdrawing it hissing and smoking.
“Please, I don’t know. Angels, I don’t know, please.”
I stepped towards him, iron held out still smoking, glowing dark crimson. He struggled against the chains, eyes wide. It was still a puzzle to me how the smoking yet cooler iron places more fear into their hearts than when white hot.
“I don’t know, they were who you want them —”
I lifted his member carefully with the tip of the iron, gliding the iron quickly but carefully back to the sack, sliding it down over the front of it before I returned iron to fire. I let him scream himself hoarse to exhaustion, resuming my seat to consider him. Once the sobbing subsided I continued.
“Sebastian, you disappoint me, you disappoint the Holy Father. Who knows your heart best Sebastian?”
“And does not the Holy Father speak with God?”
“And does the Holy Father speak to me?”
“Yes, he does, you told me.”
“As God knows your heart, so must the Holy Father know your heart. So do I know your heart?”
“Are you smarter than God, smarter than I Sebastian?”
“No, no your holiness.”
“So who knows your heart better Sebastian, you or I?”
“The men, your heart knows what they were even if your mind is deceived. They were daemons Sebastian, that is the truth.”
Miguelito returned to the fire, stoking the bellows.
“It says in God’s book that the devil himself treads the earth as an angel of light to devour the simple, the unwary. You are a simple man Sebastian, easy prey for the evil one.”
The shaking returned, his voice staccato cartwheels over cobblestones.
“Yes your holiness.”
“It is for you the church exists, to save your eternal soul. The devil ensnared you Sebastian, and I am here to save your soul. Our bodies and our minds are but traps, traps for the devil to use.”
I stood, walked within arm’s reach of him. Miguelito drew near, two irons in hand.
“You were deceived, your mind clouded from the truth. Who were the men Sebastian?”
“They, they were daemons.”
“You must believe, not simply hope. Who were they?”
“You must believe, Sebastian, believe. Who were they?”
“Daemons, devils both.”
“Before God himself,” I screamed, my spittle showering his face “who,” as Miguelito danced the irons across his back “who were they?”
“Daemons!” he screamed back, and we stood there, I screaming the question, he screaming the answer accompanied to the hiss of irons and writhing feet squelching in excrement as he tried in vain to break his chains.
I signaled Miguelito to cease, Sebastian hanging limp.
“Daemons, daemons all.” he spat through gasps and whimpers. “I am deceived, damned for eternity.”
I lifted his face to mine.
“But you know the truth of it now, how easily you were snared.”
He nodded, sweat and drool cascading over my fingers, onto my cassock. I leant forwards, kissed him on the forehead.
“You are no longer deceived, you will not be damned. You are ready to face God, prepared for Him. I can release you from the pain and deceptions, save your soul. Do you want me to?”
He nodded vigorously, eyes now wet with hope.
“Tomorrow the fire will purge your body, send your soul to God, saved for all eternity. Do you want this?”
“Please, yes please your holiness, yes.”
I reached behind me into the bag and pulled the crucifix out and held it to his face. The effect was immediate, his breathing slowing, his eyes fixed on the Christ as it glowed opalescent, tiny shards of colored light dancing across Sebastian’s nose.
“I envy you. Tomorrow through a brief veil of pain you shall see God.”
I stood there until the crucifix returned to wood and stepped out, Miguelito in tow. The guards sprang upright, but not quickly enough to disguise their eavesdropping. I turned to Miguelito.
“Get some water and clean him, give him to eat and drink. Do not tarry as we have more work.”
I then faced the guards. “Keep a mind to your work and my words. There is room in the fire for more than this one.”
I walked through the square, back to my room closing the door after me. I placed the bag on the cot, crossed the room into the small enclosed courtyard beyond. I sank to my knees shaking under the olive tree, heaving out my breakfast and the previous evening’s meal until winded and emptied. I tipped on my side, cold shivers rippling along my body, hands pulling my knees tight to my chest. Waste, waste, only waste.
– – –
By the time Ignacio and Miguelito returned I was composed, cleaned, the afternoon sun a bloated orb wallowing towards the horizon.
“Is it wise to go there?”
“Miguelito and I will be fine.”
“You do not wish me to accompany you?”
“No. Stay and prepare for tomorrow.”
Ignacio watched on uncertainly as Miguelito and I left, walked out of the village and disappeared over a small rise.
– – –
We walked a little way then I rested, taking the book from my bag. Of itself it was an object of beauty, small, leather bound, the handwritten parchment precise, impossibly symmetrical and without error. It must have taken months for someone to copy it out, to illustrate it in such detail. I opened it at the twenty-third psalm and did as I had been told, placing my finger on the page and translating the Latin to the vulgate in my mind.
“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.”
I had no sooner finished than the vision came to me, the small clearing, copse of trees, low rocky outcrop in the middle. Half an hours walk, to the left, past the brook. I stood, strode confidently away.
– – –
Reality again matched imagining. I left Miguelito at the edge of the clearing, making my way to the rocks. Just as Sebastian had described, an animal lay spread eagled across one boulder in perfect symmetry, untouched by scavengers. It was at least one week dead yet had no signs of decay. I pressed my finger against the cold flesh which bounced back against my touch. The skull and backbone had been cleft in two, the cut a precise and clean stroke betraying an ease and effortlessness that no human could match. Here and there holes had been cut, perfect circles down through the flesh, organs and bone, some to the rock itself. I placed my finger in one hole, moved it around and drew it out bloodied, dripping.
I shook my head, it was the same as I had seen on occasion over the years, animal, beast or human but always the same, laid out precisely even lovingly, life erased and replaced by mystery. At my first three years ago I had wondered what satanic ritual drove such things; then later at what purpose taking the same pieces from such diverse examples could be; to now a sickening questioning over the wasteful repetitiveness of it all.
I removed the crucifix from my bag, held it glowing bright green above the animal. I paced my way slowly to Miguelito, stopping in front of him as the crucifix resumed its wooden pallor. He looked at me expectantly, I pointing to the spot just in front of him.
I separated Christ from the cross and handed Him across.
I returned to the animal, placed the cross upon it, and returned to sit next to Miguelito. He handed me the Christ quickly, smiling and fidgeting in anticipation. He always looked forwards to this as, I would admit, did I.
“Miguelito remember, this is holy work and should be done somberly. This time please, no clapping.”
I grasped one arm of the Christ in each hand, placed my lips against the back of His head and turned Him towards the animal. A beam of light sprung between Christ and cross, a swirling rainbow of color expanding to a dome encompassing the animal and the clearing. It stayed there, a dancing wall of colors and sparks occasionally lit by flashes of lightning from within until a minute or so later it receded rapidly to the cross, extinguishing itself with a flash and barely audible pop.
I turned to se Miguelito leaning forwards, a child’s smile of delight on his face. He saw me just in time to stop his hands meeting in midair.
“Yes, that was colorful but still no reason for that. Stay here while I get the cross.”
I stood, walked to the rock. The grass crunched under foot, the air smelling as it does after a storm. The cross had returned to wood and lay quietly atop the rotting remains of the animal, slack skin enveloping bones wrapped in putrefied flesh. I lifted the cross and saw a small object under the animal’s hide. I tugged at it, revealing it to be a thick silver disc as broad as my palm, cold and smooth. It began to vibrate, sending tingles down my fingers. I had seen this once before. I dropped it where I found it, hurried back to Miguelito while jamming the Christ back on the cross.
“Go now back to the village. I will join you shortly.”
He pointed to the sun now resting on the horizon.
“No, I will be safe. You must go, go now.”
He shook his head again. I grabbed his shoulders.
“Miguelito. They are coming back, the angels of God or the daemons, I know not which. Do you want to burn at the stake?
He paled visibly, concern on his face.
“I will be protected by the relics but you are vulnerable. Go, no, run back to the village and wait. Worry yourself not about me.”
Without further encouragement he turned and fled. I sat low against a tree, partly obscured by the grasses.
– – –
I didn’t have long to wait, the sun barely replaced by the moon when the clearing was transformed from soft silver to glaring blue white light. Four figures appeared in silver white clothing, burning halos around their heads. But none bore wings, and the four were of different statures. Here now these perfect beings were before me but each was different. How could that be? And no wings, so how could they travel? Small doubts piled on small doubts gathered over the years.
They circled around the rocks, one taking a stick from its back and waving it, one cupping a hand to its ear chanting silent incantations to the sky. One picked up the disc and placed it within its vestments. Another approached it, spoke in earnest, then pointed in my general direction. The other nodded, the first one moving towards me in haste. I pushed myself deeper into the grass, hand in bag clutching the relics.
It stopped perhaps twenty paces to my left, leaning with one arm against a tree. I started reciting the psalms in my mind, my fingers driving between the covers of the book. The figure shifted slightly, its free hand moving to its waist then, with a sigh a stream of liquid passed between it and the tree, spattering droplets clear to me. It took a second for my mind to understand it. It was relieving itself? An angel? A daemon? Only flesh and blood needed to but if that were so —
My thoughts were erased by the vision in my head. My hand, my fingers in the book had sought out the well-worn page and now the vision of the clearing overlay my view of it. Instantly the four figures turned to look, walked unerringly to me until I was surrounded. I shook uncontrollably, my bowels loosed themselves, and I waited for judgment.
One raised an arm holding a short grey rod, the one beside it grasping it with one hand, waving the other three vigorously. They seemed to argue, pointing at me, the sky, each other until one looked a little closer at me, the spreading stain on my cassock, and drew the others’ attention. They stood briefly in silence then started to laugh, deep throated noises. Three of them disappeared, leaving me alone with the tall one. It placed a finger behind one ear. The hundred voices returned from lips unmoving.
“You. Again. Was not the last time enough?”
“It was late, an accident.”
“You should have left with your boy.”
“I was curious.”
“You should not be. Do you forget your instructions?”
The hundred voices were now ten thousand, crashing through my skull.
“Then stay to those and no more! Do not doubt that we can inflict worse upon you than the flames on those you deliver.”
“I do not doubt.”
It bent down, placed an ice cold finger under my chin and lifted up my face.
“Oh but you do Anteo, you do. Simple, simple man, your mind is an open page to me. You doubt everything since our first time but you do not have the words to say how. And I will not give them.”
It stood, stepped back
“Take a care with your work. Do not disappoint us again.” with which it disappeared, and I into the night.
– – –
Sebastian was terrified, wide eyes fixed on me, breath shallow. Beneath the fear the eyes showed faith, trust, hope, fixed on what lay hours away not within the hour. I leant closer, making sure he was secured to the pole. There was none to interfere or overhear in the crowded square, everyone keeping their distance. I steadied myself.
“When it catches do not fight the fire, it will only prolong the pain. When I nod embrace it, lean into it and breathe deeply, it will hasten your journey.”
“Thank you your holiness, thank you for helping me to see the truth.”
I locked my eyes to his, and as the flames danced around his waist I nodded.
Truth. What is that? There is no truth in this, just lies as there was for the others, yet still I continue.
Yet still I continue.