Carlos Orsi Martinho
(translated from the Portuguese by Ricardo Madeira)
Brother Alberto de Worm rides through the desert. The sky is of a dark, strong, almost brutal in its limpidity, tonality. It covers, without patches or clouds, all the earth -- and confirms, to the knight's eyes, the truth of the Scriptures; for that hemisphere of blue light is, without a shadow of a doubt, the Firmament of Creation. Even more than that, thinks the templar, smiling: the roof of heaven must be the most beautiful stone on the Creator's crown.
But, suddenly, the enchantment breaks. A rowdy vulture crosses, flying, the knight's field of vision. The black bird carries out his trajectory with a slowness that looks deliberate, and flies in a way that is careless, inelegant ... fescennine is the word that comes to Alberto's lips, leaving behind a tightness in the throat and a dry, bitter mouth.
It's in the instant he turns away from the sky his tired eyes, setting them again on the dunes, that Alberto sees the woman.
She runs. Miraculously, the thin sand doesn't hamper her bare feet. She's a beautiful girl, who dresses in slave's clothes. She carries a book, pressing it against her breast.
Behind her, three Saracen horsemen, with the uniform of Saladin's guard, scimitar in hand, fall on her for the killing. The Christian reins his mount in, readies his crossbow and, with a well-aimed shot, brings down the closest Arab. Yelling, the templar orders the other Saracens to turn back.
They ignore him.
Two new bolts cut the air, coming from behind Alberto's back. Saladin's soldiers fall, dead, hit squarely on the chest. The monk smiles, and waves, in thanks. De Worm doesn't need to turn around to know the other members of the Order of the Knights Templar, besides himself, heard the plea of the girl.
Alberto dismounts and comes closer to the woman, offering his hand in help. The slave girl steps back, scared, avoiding the knight's touch at all costs.
"I want to help you," says Alberto, in an heavily Latin-accented Arabic. The words seem to emanate from the wind around. "There's no need to be afraid."
"No man must touch me," she replies. "I am the Virgin! My name is Mary."
Without saying more, the woman hands Alberto the book. With some difficulty, the templar brother reads the name engraved on the heavy leather cover:
In the middle of the darkness, thick as lead, Bonifácio takes some instants to realize that, though he's lying in bed, he's already awake, and with his eyes open. He has the slight impression that his rousing from sleep wasn't spontaneous; that something drew away the sleep.
The eyeballs whirl, nervous, pointing the pupils to the sides, up and down, but to no effect. Dark, too dark.
All of a sudden, a sound - but so fleeting that Bonifácio reprehends himself for not having attuned his ears from the start. Of course it was a sound that woke him up.
The seconds pass, and just when the silence starts to seem as impregnable as the darkness, the noise repeats itself. This time, Bonifácio detects the origin of the disturbance: the next bed, where brother Alberto sleeps.
Again, the sound. Bonifácio recognizes it now: it's the voice, muffled, of his companion.
And, once again:
"M-m ... Mary ... kitab ...
Feeling equal doses of irritation and relief, Bonifácio, groping around in the dark, finds the shoulder of his brother in arms, and shakes it.
Alberto springs up in bed, swallowing, in the last instant, a cry of surprise and fright.
"Calm down," whispers Bonifácio. "You were talking in your sleep, that was all. Dreaming about the girl we rescued last week."
"T-thank you," mumbles the monk. "Thank you very much."
During the following weeks, Alberto doesn't come out of the keep very much, limiting himself just to the activities imposed by the rules of his Order. In the beginning, he fears having talked too much in his sleep. He fears his brothers are planning his trial for heresy. Little by little, though, that impression wears away -- and, during his study hours, in the few moments he manages to be alone in the tiny scriptorium of the barracks, Alberto again thumbs, eagerly, through the Al-Azif.
It's a compulsion, the knight knows, like wine or hashish, a compulsion he can't hold back. The book dominates him, enslaves him.
Just like the Holy Bible and the Al-Qur'an, it's a work that tells of God. But of a divinity who has nothing to do with Yahweh or Allah. The god professed by the Kitab al-Azif is called Azathoth.
And Azathoth is the Primal Chaos that resides in the center of the Universe, mindless, bubbling between blasphemies, while the Other Gods dance, maddened around him. A Power without purpose, whose only contact with humanity happens through the same slow and meticulous cruelty that cats and children sometimes impose to birds -- before killing them.
On the first time he pored over the Al-Azif, Alberto was being led by an innocent and sincere curiosity. He opened the book on the same day the woman was rescued, and only some hours after the small skirmish with the three Arabs.
The blasphemy he read struck him like a slap in the face. Taken by surprise and repulsion, the knight understood, clearly, it was his duty to destroy the work.
Before he did that, though, he came to the conclusion it would be necessary to question Mary. Maybe she was a witch. And maybe one single bonfire would take care of both.
After closing the kitab, and storing it in safety -- so that no other brother would dirty himself with the impure words -- the warrior monk descended to the pilgrim's quarters, where the Saracen slave girl had been lodged.
The place was more like a dungeon cell, with its heavy walls of black and gray stone, the water tureen and the pile of dried straw to one corner.
Alberto held the sword in his hand.
"You're one of Satan's Brides?" he asked. "That was why the Saracens were chasing you, isn't it? I know they also don't tolerate ..."
In that instant the monk blinked and, for the first time, the name -- Azathoth -- loomed up, in flaming letters, in front of his eyes. Scared, Alberto didn't move. But the lips became suddenly dry, the stare, worn out, the complexion, pale, cadaverous.
"You read." It wasn't a question. She knew.
"The book will be burned." The templar felt an unpleasant shudder, a quiver in his arm, and became aware of the cold sweat in the palm of his hand. The sword's hilt was starting to slip.
"You can't run from truth," -- Mary's voice chilled the chamber's interior, even in the very desert -- "from true faith."
Alberto opened his mouth to answer, but found himself mute. He realized, shocked, that he desired this woman. Not physically -- though the vow of chastity wasn't taken too seriously in the military orders -- but in his very soul; it was like a kind of profound curiosity and, at the same time, like something poisonous.
Her look, as well as the image of the name, the book's words, all that burned inside the templar's head. And there was certain lasciviousness in that flame of the spirit, a languid desire of letting himself be consumed.
His eyelids closed themselves and, again, the fiery word exploded before his eyes. The weakness was growing. The sword felt very, very heavy.
"I will be back," he said leaning against the door, already sheathing the weapon, without knowing if the sentence represented a threat or a promise.
The knight left the lodging, slammed the door, furious, frustrated and, almost without being aware of it, returned to the scriptorium.
Since then, Alberto found himself shackled as much to the book as to Mary. No matter how hard he tried to spend the whole day fulfilling his duties, no matter how many times he volunteered for patrols, no matter how much he took part in escorts of caravans and pilgrims, there was always, in the end, some time remaining -- time to caress the leather binding, to run his fingers through the aged pages, to admire the meticulous calligraphy of the Arabic script -- and, of course, to delve, ever deeper, into the secrets of the Al-Azif, to plunge into the verses of tantalizing meter, into the revelations that, like parasites, devoured all inner faith. In some way, the book was always present, always close, was it in the tower's scriptorium, in the brother's dormitory or in the traveling saddlebag.
Incapable of controlling himself, Alberto started to defend the Al-Azif's theses during the monastery's rhetorical exercises. He would do it in an artful way, masking the book's arguments, presenting them as variations of this or that Gnostic sect. And, if in the public debate the Christian orthodoxy always came out as the winner, in the intimate debate, in his heart, in his mind, in Alberto's guts, Azathoth emerged triumphant.
But his fidelity to Yahweh wouldn't be turned over without a fight. As much as he desired Mary and the book, Alberto longed -- or maybe that was another Alberto -- for a few moments of peace and communion with the Lord.
Feverish and desperate, gazing, in the polished surface of shields and blades, the pale reflex of his own gaze, the knight attempted to extirpate the blasphemy. The monk compared Azathoth to Baal, to Astaroth, to Moloch and Maleduk, pagan gods, devourers of virgins and babies, long ago discredited by the Savior's Word.
But at night, with the restraint of consciousness submerged, Alberto was assailed, in dreams, by vivid images -- by horrors extracted, ironically, from his own Christian faith.
Alberto saw the specter, purple, swollen, of the countless victims of the deluge; contemplated the cadavers, corroded by salt and sulfur, of Sodom and Gomorrah; was suffocated by the cries of Jericho's citizens, women and children, all begging for mercy before death by the blade of the armies of Israel.
Afterwards, he watched the templar's war, his war, the Great Crusade in the Holy Land. A spirit, a shadow, took him by the arm and forced him to count the dead, the thousands of bodies on both sides; made him witness the vulture's feast (Look to the birds of the sky; thy celestial Father feeds them, whispered, blaspheming, the mysterious guide) and participated in one more of the innumerable military parades through the streets of Jerusalem, where Christian generals displayed, proud, necklaces and waist belts made with eyes, noses, ears and scalps of infidel warriors.
In that moment, half asleep, half awake, Alberto heard Mary (could she be the somber spirit?) asking him -- no -- suggesting to him: After all, couldn't Azathoth be the true god of man, the true god of vultures? Couldn't Azathoth be the true name of Baal, Astaroth, Moloch, Maleduk ... and, why not, of Yahweh and Allah, too?
And then, as the night's last dream, he saw himself riding through the desert. The sky was of a dark, strong, almost brutal in its limpidity, tonality ...
The battle lasted six months; it consumed each and every single one of the seconds that separated winter and summer. The clash that, later, Alberto would define as the dispute between Hope and Truth, between God and Nothingness, by the dominion over his soul.
And to Alberto, in the end, Truth won.
The capitulation happened on a July night, when the templar descended, again, to Mary's cell. It was strange that a woman, moreover being a Saracen, had been able to remain untouched for so long in that tower. But, in general, it was as if the others had forgotten her. No one mentioned her presence, no one suggested that she'd be cast out -- and the pages who brought her food and water fulfilled their duty in silence, almost as in a trance.
The very guard of the guests' sector ignored Alberto's constant comings and goings.
"What do you want?"
The knight made his question standing, keeping to the doorway. Inside, the flame of a candle illuminated, diffusely, Mary's shape. Alberto admired the pictorial beauty of the scene, the golden flame reflected in the soft curves and in the firm and tender volumes of that body -- but, as always, there was no desire. Not of that kind.
"A son. His son."
"But, is it possible ...?"
"He can be summoned. Like the hyena, lured by the antelope's carcass. And He has ... instincts. You know. It's in the book."
"Maybe, through the Son, He finally perceives us."
"And ends. The suffering, the vultures, everything."
Once more, brother Bonifácio found himself awake, alone, in the dark. Once more, his eyes probed, unsuccessfully, the darkness. This time, though, the responsibility for that discomfort wasn't a noise.
It was a pressure.
A weight, right over the chest and that, in some way, toiled all movements of the arms and legs. A weight that threatened to crush him.
Bonifácio tried to scream, but his lungs were empty -- the most he managed to do, with the effort, was fill his eyes with tears.
Then he heard a crack, felt pain, and guessed a broken rib. The heart, compressed, beat quickly, beat strongly, and the knight started to fear that, jumping in that way, the muscle ended up impaled on the broken bone.
The possibility filled his mind with despair -- he was almost able to, in some obscure corner of his brain, feel the texture of the sharpened, pointed edge, penetrating the flesh, making the blood bubble, ripping the tissue.
And his heart accelerated, beat louder, leaped stronger.
The mouth, mute. The eyes, soaked.
The torture lasted until Alberto took pity.
On the following morning, brother Bonifácio's body was found, with a cut throat, in bed. Over the chest, traced in blood, a symbol similar to a witchcraft pentagram, but in a version unknown up to then -- the arms of the figure were curved, undulated like tentacles, and in its center there was something like a mouth, or an eye. The general shape reminded one more of a starfish or an octopus.
The fact that Mary was never mentioned in the inquiry -- hysterical and summary -- that followed was, to Alberto, one more proof of Azathoth's power. On completion of the investigations, an old Italian woman, a senile pilgrim, that talked alone and moved her hands in a bizarre way, was accused of murder and witchcraft, and burned at the stake.
In the night following the execution, Alberto visited Mary again.
"And now? The sacrifices have been made. When ..."
"Soon. Ere long, when the stars are right."
Three days later, the carbonized body of the old "witch" still hung from the stake, erected in front of the templar tower's great door. Several parts -- like fingers, teeth and eyes -- had already vanished, devoured by mice and vultures or torn off by other pilgrims; for, in that age, each European hamlet had its own recipes, likings and uses for witches' flesh, ashes and bones.
On the fourth day, the Saracen troops showed up.
The blow of the trumpet and the tolling of the bells placed the garrison in a state of alert in less than five minutes. That, after all, was the moment for which all had been waiting, the situation for which they had trained their whole life to face, the battle that justified the very existence of the Knights of the Temple of Jerusalem.
It was a mix of joy and apprehension that the soldier-monks dressed their armor -- the chest plate covered with white linen, the great crimson Cross in the center -- girded on swords and mounted their horses. Finally, the shadow that hung for so long over them, that pursued them during meals, sleep, even hovering in the very chapel, had materialized in a visible and mortal enemy. The anguish gave in to thirst for blood.
Finally, the Siege to Jerusalem was starting.
In other points and fortifications, the battle was quick, and not very bloody. In greater numbers, better organized and, not less important, moved by a just ire against the pillages and assaults promoted by Christian bandits, Saladin's Muslims were soon able to enter the Sacred City, getting a prompt surrender of the European command.
In that templar's keep, though, destiny was resolved to allow few -- very few -- to escape the violent death. When the first blood was shed, the very sand seemed to contract, and to bubble.
From that crimson spot appeared a fierce whirlwind, which grew stronger at every instant. In less than a moment, all the battle for the keep was being fought inside a violent storm.
With every soldier blinded by the sand and the commanders' voices obliterated by the whine of the wind, what should have been an ordered siege soon degenerated into absolute anarchy. Disoriented, templars killed templars, and Muslim blood was also shed by the Saracen sword. In the middle of all that, Alberto -- imbued with an almost supernatural lucidity, his senses untouched by the turmoil -- saw various men, of both armies, disappear in middle air.
It was as if a cruel child was playing with them -- lifting them as puppets, manipulating and twisting the human spine in impossible angles, tearing off limbs and, finally, making the bodies vanish into rifts in the very space.
Sometimes, in a trick of the wind, the sand storm almost delineated the contour of the Creature. But that, Alberto perceived only through the corner of his eye; and the direction of the gusts always changed far too quickly.
Little by little, though, the knight noticed a pattern in those quasi-apparitions; he realized the Thing was coming closer, ever closer, to the stone tower, in a slow and inexorable pace.
A blur, like those created by hot air over the sand, distorted the image of the old pilgrim's scorched skeleton, still fastened to the stake.
Alberto felt the heart pulsing, one, two, three, four, five times. A little before the sixth beat, the invisible shape reached the tower's gate. At first, the wood appeared to swell, forming bubbles, and flow like hot metal, all this in barely an instant. Afterwards, the door was simply shattered -- without a single sound.
Next, Alberto saw the strange "hot air cloud" envelop the rocks around the opening. The granite flowed without leaving its place, the air trembled with the heat, but there was no heat. Entire blocks, and fragments of other blocks, started ceasing to exist, opening a more or less circular passage -- from which irradiated, like big cracks, five undulating tentacles.
Some time passed.
A door slammed.
A scream. Mary, perhaps?
It would be impossible to be sure. For, in that instant -- as if the special protection granted to De Worm had suddenly been revoked -- the sand found its way to Alberto's eyes and lungs. Lashed by the pain, suffocated by the mixture of dust and blood, the knight fell and rolled through the desert floor, moaning and coughing in violent spasms, until he was senseless.
When Alberto regained consciousness, it was already night. The desert nights could be quite bright, with the glow of the full moon and of the milk way almost replacing the sunlight.
Alberto looked all around. There wasn't a single dead body, man or animal. Just a few blood stains over the sand told of the battle that happened there.
That and the fallen tower, of course.
For the advanced outpost of the templars wasn't more than a heap of rubble now, a circular pile of rocks with less than two meters of height. Most of the blocks was intact, though out of place. But some looked broken and, others, more rare, burned or dissolved. From those, dripped a maroon, almost golden, foam, dense and with an acid smell.
It was difficult to scale the remains of the rampart. But, on the other side -- right on the center, miraculously clear, of that imposing ruin -- Alberto found Mary.
She was naked. All the beauty was gone; the woman was extremely thin, reduced to a poor specter of emaciated skin over pointed bone, goggle-eyed and with lips so retracted that they were barely able to cover the gums decently.
And there was the belly. Huge, sick, denouncing a preternatural pregnancy that appeared nine, maybe ten, even twelve months old.
When he was drawing near, Alberto noticed that Mary was sitting on a pool of that acid foam that had corroded the rocks. Coming closer, he could see that the substance originated in her body, trickling through an orifice of five tentacled points, located where the vagina should be.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Mary asked, with a dreamy look, when she realized, sort of ashamed, what Alberto was looking at.
"It is, yes," he answered, sincere.
"Take this. It's yours," she said, handing him the copy of the Al-Azif.
"Should I take it to Europe?" the knight asked.
Mary shrugged: "Do whatever you want."
Alberto caressd her belly.
"You will be all right?"
"Now I'm carrying the Son of Azathoth. What could happen to me?"
Alberto smiled: "You're right ... what?"
After a while searching the rubble, the knight found more appropriate clothes for a trek through the desert, at night. He thought of wrapping Mary in something, but he dismissed the thought.
She would be all right.
Created: October 28, 2006