There are many forms of revenge, some too terrible to contemplate.
The night was almost falling, but the bus had already crossed the last tunnel, entering the final coils of the asphalt spiral that ran through Serra do Mar. Unable to sleep, Rogério Abrade looked through the window. The thick, multicolored smoke of the factories in Cubatão danced a surreal ballet in the atmosphere. Refinery chimneys spit jets of fire towards the skies.
It's hell, thought Abrade, incapable to refrain a shiver. How can anyone get used to living in such a place? An idiot question, as he well knew. How can anyone get used to poison, visible and palpable in the air? Or to the brainless children?
Rogério's attention was drawn from the window to the paper in his hands. It was a letter, printed by a computer. An invitation to spend Christmas night on the beach. It had surprised him, no question about it; even more coming from whom it had.
It was not that Abrade and the author of the invitation, Guilherme Beromel, were enemies. They were just estranged since the death of Beromel's sister and Rogério's girlfriend, Cíntia, during an abortion attempt.
It had happened on a very hot afternoon, maybe one of the hottest of the year, in October. The phone had rang in the apartment that Guilherme shared with his sister since their parents' death. It was an anonymous call, a man's voice saying that "Cíntia was having troubles," and giving the address for the clinic. Beromel was only able to find the place after an hour. The door was open and there was no one there. No one alive, besides the fat bluebottle flies.
The smell was one of a slaughterhouse. Twisted over a table red with blood -- naked, with some kind of metallic instrument emerging between her open and bent legs, in an image of tragic obscenity -- lay the lifeless body of Cíntia.
Then came the doctors and the police. Those responsible for the clinic had ran away, and it was unlikely that someone would be arrested or punished. The autopsy revealed the presence of fetus' remains in the victim's womb. An investigator asked Guilherme if he knew who the father of the child was; Beromel, after thinking for a while, said he didn't.
At the wake, Abrade had approached Guilherme to offer his condolences and to state that he had no knowledge of the pregnancy, that he hadn't suggested an abortion. Beromel, in turn, spent the whole time completely ignoring his friend's words and presence. They hadn't seen each other since then; a week before, though, the postman had brought the invitation.
Rogério didn't know exactly why he had accepted it. Sympathy, maybe. With the death of his sister, Guilherme was completely by himself, without a family. And it's terrible to be alone at this time of the year, Abrade was thinking. God, I think I'm the closest thing to a relative he's got.
The beach house of the Beromel family was a kind of circular tower with two floors, more wide than high, with round windows imitating the portholes of a ship and a door shaped like a pointed arch. The external wall was white, thick and rustic. Rogério couldn't contain a smile while leaving the taxi and halting in front of the building, imagining that, some decades ago, the aberrant -- and definitely tasteless -- design had been considered "in the vanguard" and "modern." The location of the house, though, was irreproachable: the beach unrolled itself immediately behind that strange castle of sand and concrete.
The door stood at the end of a small, ogival corridor, about one and a half meters in length, and was, in fact, a mosaic of colored glass that displayed a green triton contemplating his own trident and blue waves against a golden background. On the wall to the right, inside the corridor, there was a button, possibly the bell. Abrade pressed it, readily hearing afterwards the pleasant, though muffled, sound of little bells chiming. The entrance was soon opened by a fat lady, of low height, with too much painting on her face and reeking of cheap makeup and perfume. She carried two loaded handbags, and left the house as she invited Rogério in.
"The master is waiting inside. It would be nice if you could cheer him up," the woman sighed. "Well, Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas . . .," replied Abrade automatically, while the sturdy figure walked away. The maid or housekeeper, he thought, going home to have supper with her family.
Rogério crossed the passage and found himself in an empty hall, overlaid in wood. He waited there for some minutes, but soon became convinced that no one would come to welcome him. He then decided to choose one of the four available doors in the room and explore the house in an attempt to find his host. The search wasn't one of the most complicated: Guilherme was in the dining room, right behind the only unlocked door in the entrance hall -- except, of course, for the stained glass that led back to the street.
His host was sitting, downcast, on one end of a great ebony table; over the black piece of furniture rested, steaming, a sumptuous Christmas supper. Rogério cleared his throat to announce his entry and Guilherme rose up to welcome him.
Beromel had lost a lot of weight, really a lot, according to Abrade's recollections; as a result, his skin had wrinkled completely, having taken a sickly tone of a glossy, almost grayish yellow, and it enveloped little more than his naked bones and flaccid, dilated veins. Guilherme dressed in black suit, shirt, tie, socks and shoes.
"Welcome," said his host, extending his emaciated, bony hand in a surprisingly firm handshake. "Come on, sit down! You need to eat, I imagine."
"Me?" Rogério laughed a little. Their friendship had once been solid enough to resist an exchange of ironies from one side to the other, and maybe it still was in spite of everything. The guest decided to take a chance and finished, "I'm not the one cultivating the Ethiopia-look."
Beromel opened his arms, in a theatrical gesture, and looked down at his own body.
"Really," he agreed. "Have you heard of inedia?"
"Don't you mean inanition? Or anorexia?"
The host shook his head negatively.
"Inanition is to die of hunger. Anorexia is an aversion to food. Inedia is the power, physical and psychic, to survive without food. Scientific records speak of at least three persons who managed to do it and for periods that vary from 20 to 50 years."
"And you decided to be the fourth."
"Oh, I don't have such a pretension. But the fact is that fasting has some interesting properties. For the initiated, of course."
They sat at the table. Before Rogério could help himself, however, Guilherme lowered his head, closed his eyes and muttered something that sounded like some strange prayer.
"Gof'n hupadgh Shub-Niggurath . . ."
Abrade sat motionless and in silence for some time in consideration for his companion's litany, but after two minutes he couldn't contain himself any longer. "What is it? Some new saint, or something like that?"
Guilherme lifted his head, stared at his friend, smiled and said, "In truth, almost that. Since Cíntia died, I've been doing a little research about." He paused. "This is going to sound a little ridiculous for you, but it's alright." He took a deep breath. "The ultimate truths of existence."
Silence. Nobody laughed.
"I respect that," said Rogério; he himself had gone through a period of religious self-evaluation after his girl friend's death. "But what happened? Have you been going back to Church, or . . ."
"No. But I went in search of other things, other beliefs. Other explanations. You know, for example, why this is Christmas night?"
"Something about pagan cults . . ."
"Exactly. The Nordic Yuletide, the Celtic Samhain. Among the pagan peoples of Europe there always was a tendency to celebrate the passage of the Winter solstice in a series of festivals which went from the first of November to the end of December. To compete with that, the Catholics invented All Souls Day, Christmas, New Year's Day . . . All celebrations with significances very close to those of the pagan festivals: death, fertility, rebirth.
"Fertility and death . . . it may seem weird that those two things are celebrated at the same season, isn't that right? But we now very well know how one can lead to the other . . . isn't that right?"
The way that last sentence was said -- in a tone mixed with scorn and accusation -- caused Rogério to spring to his feet.
"Now listen," he said, almost shouting, "if you think that you still have some score to settle with me because of Cíntia . . ." The guest stood silent and slowly raised a tense, clenched fist, his index finger held up, while he searched for the right words. Finally he continued, "I slept with your sister, on various occasions, and she got pregnant and then died during an abortion attempt; if that is what you mean with that talk of 'fertility and death,' and if this supper is an effort to make me feel guilty, you should know that I already feel terrible, and without your help. You should know now that I never forced Cíntia to do anything. If she wanted . . ."
What? -- This isn't happening, yelled a voice inside Abrade's head. He doesn't know, nobody knows. No one could know, God Almighty.
"You demanded the abortion. She told me so."
The accusation left Rogério dumbfounded. He thought of denying everything, but the glow of conviction in Guilherme's eyes was too powerful. Slowly, the guest leaned against the wall, searching for support; he felt suddenly very tired.
"You knew? Before it all happened, you knew?," he managed to stutter.
Rogério ignored that last statement. He just stood there, in the same place, shaking a little.
"The Celts," Guilherme was speaking in a neutral voice, devoid of any emotion; apparently, his role of prosecutor was over, "defined Samhain as a season when 'the barriers between this world and the one that lays beyond grow thin.' They were right, as you will soon find out."
And in that moment, Guilherme Beromel, the last survivor of a long lineage, reclined in his chair at the head of the table, threw his head back and said, "Iä! Iä! Shub-Niggurath!"
A heat wave spread through the room, making Rogério step back, protecting his eyes with his forearm in an instinctive movement. Right afterwards, Beromel's body burst into flames, the big yellow flares freeing themselves from his epidermis. Disgusted, Abrade ran in the direction of the door that lead back to the entrance hall, and from there to the stained glass that separated him from the street.
That door, though, was locked. In panic, Rogério used his own fists to try to break it -- it was only tempered glass, after all -- but he couldn't. Exhausted, he let himself fall down to the floor of varnished wooden plugs.
After a few minutes of taking deep breaths and trying to regain his sanity, the man decided to get up and search for another exit. He knew the only unlocked door in the hall was the one that led back to the dining room, but he couldn't resist the temptation of trying the doorknob of one of the others.
The door opened. For some reason, Abrade wasn't surprised.
It was a small room, with tiled walls -- the bathroom. Nothing exceptional there, except for the small medicine cabinet, containing every kind of hormones and two unlabeled flasks, filled with a gray, slimy substance. Curious, Rogério opened one of them to smell its content. What he smelt was a strong odor, damp and unpleasant, like that of a goat, dirty and in heat; a smell that rapidly spread itself out of the small flask until it impregnated the atmosphere all around him. Overcome with nausea, Abrade barely had time to reach the toilet before the contents of his stomach surfaced in his throat. The vomit came in two powerful and pungent gushes.
To wash his face or mouth was out of the question, as it looked like the smell of the damned flask was contaminating the water inside the pipes. Staggering, Rogério left the bathroom and returned to the living room, where, in a reflex act, he sipped the entire contents of a bottle of wine. That, though, was useless: the odor had clung firmly to his clothes and hair.
His thirst satiated -- and already used to the stench -- Abrade started scanning the banquet room. At first sight there was no sign of the body or of the fire. The chair where Guilherme Beromel had been consumed by the flames was nearly intact; the vinyl of the coating looked half-melted in some portions of the chair's back, but that was it. Fallen on the left side of the armchair, however, was a human hand, of yellowed, emaciated skin.
When, overcoming all repugnance, Rogério decided to examine the piece, the stretches of epidermis that received the touch of his fingers crumbled in a thin cloud of almost microscopic ashes. Increasing the pressure, Rogério crushed the member with ease, until there was nothing left but a few ossicles in the palm of his hand.
Looking at those tiny bones, yellowed by the heat, Abrade started to wonder and, at last, he came to the conclusion that he couldn't be alone in the mansion. After all, someone had unlocked the door that lead from the entrance hall to the bathroom; someone had removed or pulverized the rest of the body.
More importantly, someone possessed the means to get out of that house. The main question, then, was to find that person. Another question, secondary at the moment, was to find out how Guilherme came to know that Cíntia had been compelled to have the abortion. Had he heard something about the fights, the screams? The threats?
About the punch -- short, abrupt, violent?
Well, whatever it was his host knew, it had burned with him. But what about the accomplice? If there was another person orchestrating this morbid game, it could only be an agent of Guilherme's trust.
Very probably, someone who also knew.
Back in the entrance hall, Rogério found another unlocked door. It gave access to the library.
It was an amazing sight: walls five, maybe six meters in height, totally covered with bookcases full of volumes. In the center of it all was a showcase with two Japanese swords -- really a sword and a dagger -- and a large writing desk, on top of which rested two open books.
One of them was a recent edition of The Dictionary of Religions by John Hinnels, a reference book about myths and cults from all over the world. The other one, written in German and with a more antique look, was called Unaussprechlichen Kulten by Friedrich Wilhelm von Junzt. Although Rogério didn't understand German, the similarity of the title words with some others in the English language made him think that this second volume could be called in Portuguese Cultos Indizíveis or something like that. On the page the tome was open to, there was a picture, very crude, of a man tied to a rock and with his abdomen abnormally bloated; the caption, in German, contained, among others, the words "Shub-Niggurath." Although disgusting, the scene had a certain sensual quality to it -- in its outlines, maybe -- that made it hard to turn the eyes away. Written down on a piece of paper was the annotation: "Shub-Niggurath, prehistoric god/goddess of fertility, that was afterwards softened and had its characteristics divided among several myths, like Astarte, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Pan and Persephone, but is in truth just a single one, the Great Dark Goat with a Thousand Young."
"Was it to this that he was praying?" Abrade whispered, astonished, while he stepped back.
Suddenly, Rogério remembered the swords. He had no difficulty in removing the largest one from its sheath.
The blade was solid steel, but had no edge; it was nothing more than an ornamental piece.
"But it can act as a good club, too," he considered.
Back in the entrance hall once again, Rogério positioned himself in front of the stained glass door. He held the fake samurai sword firmly in both hands. With a yell, he struck the glass barrier.
The clangor that followed reverberated a lot before it was absorbed by the soft wood coating of the walls, but the impact didn't produce any considerable damage. Yet, in fact, a tiny crack appeared close to the eyes of the triton. That small change brought a more heedful -- some could say ireful -- look to the creature.
"Oh, shit . . .," Abrade said, in a whisper. "How the hell . . ."
Behind his back, loud and clear, the he heard a metallic clicking noise, like a key in a lock. The last door was being unlocked.
As quickly as possible, Rogério turned around and ran to grab the doorknob in an attempt to open the door unexpectedly and surprise Guilherme's accomplice. As soon as his hand touched the lock, though, Abrade felt the touch of sharp extremities against his back. Turning his body around with extreme care, he saw what could only be described as the product of a hallucinating mind: the green triton, with his trident in rest.
It wasn't, however, a mere animated version of the figure in the glass. The creature, alive, was much more hideous than the artist responsible for the mosaic had romantically supposed. The monster's face didn't exhibit any trace of human physiognomy; there was no nose; the mouth, filled with tiny sharp teeth, was twisted down, under the weight of the thick cartilage that gave shape to the cheekbones; the eyes were large and vitreous, two black hemispheres where Abrade saw his own terror reflected.
And yet, the thing possessed a body, disjointed, true, but with torso and limbs; it was something humanoid.
Without uttering a sound, the monster charged with the trident.
Startled and terrified, Rogério wouldn't have had the time to defend himself; at least, not if the attack was dealt with normal speed. The humanoid, however, showed himself exceptionally sluggish and clumsy in his attempts to impale its opponent. In fact, only two energetic strikes, dealt by the dull sword, were enough to make the creature draw back, screaming in pain, and cower against the wall. The monster uttered crying shrieks, that terrified one even more for being so alike the screams of a child; if he closed his eyes, Abrade would be forced to believe he was torturing a newborn.
Stepping back without turning his back to the triton, Rogério came closer to the door he was about to cross before the arrival of the monster. Groping behind his back with his left hand, he found the doorknob and turned it. A few moments later, he found himself on the other side.
It wasn't a room, but a corridor. To the right was another door -- to the kitchen -- and, ahead, a stairway leading upward. He decided to climb it.
On the top floor he found several locked doors, possibly entrances to different bedrooms, and only one unlocked door. He went through it.
What he saw on the other side finally lent some sense to Guilherme's madness, and to the various hints his host had made to pagan rites and "the barrier with the beyond." For that room contained a great black altar, almost the height of a man, carved into the shape of a goat's head. And over the altar, naked, pale as only death can be, but without showing any sign of decay, rested the body of Cíntia.
Astounded, Rogério dropped the sword. As if awakened by the sound of the weapon against the floor, the woman lifted half her body, propping herself on one of her elbows, and said, sleepily, "Who brings the perfume?"
Breathing deeply, Abrade again felt the smell of the gray substance, still impregnated in his clothes and hair. Now, though, the aroma didn't seem the least bit unpleasant.
"Ah! It's you!" The cadaver smiled and in a leap crouched over the altar. In that position, Cíntia's knees pointed directly to Rogério's eyes.
Slowly, the living-dead started to spread her legs, revealing the dark recess that stood between them. "Come . . ." The voice passed to a more sensual register. "It's been so long . . ."
Part of Abrade's mind told him that this was madness, that the woman was dead, that the offer that came from that altar wasn't of passion, but of horror. Suffocated by the nauseating spirals of gray perfume, though, Rogério readily lost the ability to distinguish between one thing and the other.
And he walked to the space that appeared between her thighs. Abrade felt the muscled legs cross each other behind the back of his neck and pressing his lips, with gentle urgency, against a pubis surprisingly warm and moist.
At the same time, Cíntia screamed in a frenzy of ecstasy:
"Iä! Iä! Shub-Niggurath!"
Outside on the beach, fires and cracklings celebrated the 1996th birthday of the Redeemer.
Today, Rogério lives under the sea in a species of cocoon stuck to the rocks. He believes that the cocoon was once his skin, but he's not quite sure. Sometimes it's just so difficult to know what is really a skin. The memory is like that, it fails from time to time. It seems, anyway, that the triton (the same one that brings the food) took him there after everything was over. His recollections, anyhow, are confused; there was the room with the altar, and the thing, of course, that came through the vagina of the goddess dressed as Cíntia; the thing that descended through his throat, creeping, and that ended up impregnating him. Now that hurt a little.
Today, as a result, a thousand eggs are incubating in his gut. Someday, surely, all of them will hatch. And on that day and afterwards for a million years, the brood of Shub-Niggurath will devour him, very slowly, from the inside out; now that will hurt a little.
And there's also a stained glass, universes away, that shows the calm blue sea, the golden sky and nothing more.
Just for the meantime, of course.
Created: July 1, 1998; Current Update: August 9, 2004