Lone Star Stories

                                                                Speculative Fiction and Poetry              

              

 
 
 
 
   

Book of the Flagellants

by Mikal Trimm

  

Would you like to enter?

Yes, yes, more than anything.

Then you must have faith . . . .

 

1.

I was a good man.  Good husband, good father.  Churchgoer.  Not perfect, but none of us are.  We merely strive.

This is the way I remember myself.  This is the image I cling to.

The young girl lying dead at my feet couldn’t care less.  She might’ve been a junkie, or a hooker, or just another homeless runaway before I found her, but now she’s a bloodless cast-off, sprawled in a pile of piss-soaked trash.  I want to cry for her, but I’m not hungry anymore, and I just don’t care.

No.  I need to remember what life was; I need to remember what caring was.  I need to pray for her, for whatever is left of her soul.

“Our Father . . . .”  The words are acid spilling from my mouth.  My lips blister at their passing.  My throat twists itself into knots, and my tongue swells in my mouth.

So much for prayer.  I pick up her body and bury it in a nearby dumpster.  Unhallowed ground by a long shot.  Then I slip back to the night streets, looking for a place to rest.

I thought fasting was a good idea.  I thought I was strong enough to resist temptation.

I was wrong.

*     *     *

There is a little church in the barrio on the south side.  When I was alive, I wouldn't set foot in this part of the city.  Now . . . .

The building is old, fading into the disarray of the neighborhood; there's a small graveyard out back, no more than a dozen old headstones, worn granite, and a gap-toothed picket fence enclosing the church grounds.  For all I know, the place is abandoned.  I can't get close, though.  My feet tingle when I approach its gates, and the first step on its grounds is like walking across hot coals.  I tried, once, and never again.  I can't even tell what denomination is represented here -- there's a weathered sign out front, but the words are illegible.  Or maybe I just can't read them anymore, being what I am.

There's a tall, graying cross on the steeple.  I've tried to look at it a few times, but it hurts my eyes.  The longer I try to hold the image in, the more my eyes feel like they're drying out in their sockets, threatening to shrivel away into cold lumps of ash.

So be it, I think, but the hunger to live -- no, to exist -- is too strong.  Even now, the idea of self-mutilation is repugnant.

The moon is full tonight, and bright enough to cast pale shadows across the churchyard.  I keep coming back here, searching for what? Redemption?  Peace?  Poor choices.  I don't feel any better when I'm here.  If anything, the constant reminder of my lost past is almost too painful to face.

Almost.

Maybe the pain is why I come back, then.  Maybe I'm not looking for redemption, but expiation.

The shadow of the church stretches out past the little cemetery, and the cross on the steeple is echoed as a jagged pattern across the ground.  Standing in the shadow of the Cross.  Something I heard in a song once, but the words have a strong pull to them, an unassailable logic.  How's that for an act of contrition?

I'm already in motion, heading for the ghostly crucifix, when a strong hand grabs my shoulder, not ungently but firmly, and a voice whispers, "Not for you, friend.  You haven't earned it yet."

*     *     *

"Who are you?"  I know what he is.  I can feel the connection between us, an unmistakable bond.  He is as I am.  Changed.

A small shake of the head, an indication with the hands that I should wait, and before I can ask again another figure appears, as suddenly and quietly as he did.

He calls her Santa Juana in a ragged whisper, and I see his lips blacken and blister with the name's passing.  He smiles at this, and the pustules crack and bleed with the strain of the motion.  The girl strips off her tattered clothes, her pale body gleaming in the moonlight.  She's very young, I think, but it's so hard to tell with our kind.  She is beautiful, I know that much, and for some reason she seems -- virginal, I guess, untouched by the Change in an elemental way.

She walks slowly, head bent like a penitent, and reaches the edge of the shadow.  Then, turning quickly, arms out-flung, she steps into the nexus.  The shadow of the cross lies perfectly down her body, the transverse following the rigid horizon of her arms.  There is a moment when she seems bathed in dark brilliance, a negative halo.

Then her skin bubbles and smokes, the black crucifix branding itself on her pristine flesh.

She never screams, even as crisp strips of skin peel away from her body.  She stands and burns, never moving a muscle, until the moon shifts enough to move the shadow away from her.  Then she drops her arms, sighs, and collapses.

More figures emerge from the night and carry her away, silently, reverently.

*     *     *

He introduces himself as Speaker.  "You may call me Padre, if you wish, but I doubt you will do it more than once."

I try to say the word, and my mouth fills with brimstone.  "Speaker it is, then.  Who are you?  Who are they?"

There are several of us now, gathered in the basement of a condemned tenement not two blocks away from the church.  Stained mattresses lie underfoot, thrown haphazardly across the floor, most of them little more than threadbare cloth with stuffing bleeding out of their sides.  Candles burn everywhere, making the concrete walls pulse with imagined life.  I see a man sitting on one of the pallets, his fingers crumbling into ash as he meticulously counts the beads of a rosary.

Speaker whispers again, and I realize that this is as loud as he can talk.  His voice is a harsh rasp, but his words still ring with authority.  I'd have liked to have heard him in the other life.  "As I say, I am Speaker.  El Padre.  And these," he spreads his arms to encompass the dozen or so people in the basement, "are my flock."

For the first time, I notice that the neck of the robe he's dressed in has been torn out, but the cut and style are unmistakable.  He's wearing a cassock.

Speaker smiles again and bows slightly.  "Welcome to my parish."

*     *     *

"The church, then.  Did you -- was it yours?"  We sit in a corner of the basement, where Speaker has made himself a nest of blankets.

"This one, perhaps, or one like it.  Remembering... it is muy dificil, yes?"

"I don't understand."

"It is hard to remember the other life.  You have trouble thinking back, yes?"

I think of my loved ones.  "No.  I still remember."

Speaker smiles, his eyes shining in the candlelight.  "Ah.  Tell me, then -- did you have a family?"

"Yes.  My wife and I had two children, a boy and a girl.  The boy was older."

"And their names?"

"Names?"  Stupid question.  How can I ever forget them?  They're as familiar as my own --

Speaker sees the look on my face, nods.  "Names are so very important, verdad?"

"My . . . my name.  I can't remember my name."  Or my wife's, my son's, my daughter's.  No names at all.  And no faces, as hard as I try to bring them back to me.  Three blank figures in my head, known but forgotten all at once.

"Then tell me this.  In this new life, how many kills have you made?"

"One."  No hesitation.  This memory will not fade.  "I've only killed once, and it was a bad mistake.  I didn't want to do it."

Speaker shifts, stands.  "Remember the horror of killing, then.  The old life is gone, and we will mourn it, yes, but that is an important memory."

He walks away to tend to his flock.

*     *     *

I want to see my family.  I want to hear their voices, feel their touch, smell the essences of them.  There is a rush of sensations for a moment -- a hint of lavender, a flash of copper hair, the feel of wet clothes and soft skin and tears against my chest -- and then nothing.  The last traces of my first life fade along with my name.  All I can picture now is a young girl, her body branded by a shadow.

Loud voices, the sound of the basement door pounding against the wall, slamming closed.  I'm up and running across the room even before I hear the chaos of several men shouting in rapid-fire Spanish.  One voice, a ragged whisper stretched to its limits, manages to cut through the babble.  Cuidado, I hear, danger.  The other voices drop to a whisper as well.

It's over by the time I reach the party.  Two men I haven't seen before, both changed, clutch a young Hispanic man.  A gang-banger, covered in prison tats, his blue bandana still tied across his forehead.  He's bleeding from the nose and a cut across his left cheek, and I can smell the hot-copper scent of it from here.  The hunger never takes a night off.

Speaker growls at the boy, his voice nearly gone now, and I can't make out his words even if I could understand them.  Someone touches my shoulder, and I can tell from the charred fingers that it's the man with the rosary.  He explains for me, his voice wavering with regret and, yes, hunger.

"This boy knows better than to be here.  This neighborhood is prohibido, he and his little pendejo friends are not allowed.  We protect our home, and the people who live near us, so we don't be bothered, quien sabe?

"But sometimes, one of these perros wakes up and his huevos are too big.  He goes hunting the monster, you see?  He thinks this will prove he is a man."

Some of the men are carrying the boy away from Speaker.  He thrashes and screams, but he doesn't have the strength to break away.  "So what happens now?"

Rosary closes his eyes, bows as if in mourning.  "He has broken the law.  Our law.  He has been judged.  Now he will be punished."  The man opens his eyes, and I see again that mix of sorrow and expectation.  "He will be a sacrifice to us."

They bring him to the girl, Santa Juana, first.  She is still so weak from her shadow-crucifixion that one of the others must open a vein for her, and she feeds like an infant, gulping at the blood, spilling much of it across her cheeks.  When they finally pull her away, one of the men has to hold her down with the weight of his body, fighting against the strength that now surges in her.

The boy still cries feebly, his words barely intelligible.  I hear him more than once whisper words that cannot cross my tongue, and they seem like small blasphemies to me.  If you can pray, why didn't you do that instead of invade this place?

I recoil from the harshness of the thought, but I realize that this dank basement is already feeling like a haven to me.  Sanctum sanctorum.

The boy is passed around, each of us given an equal share.  Speaker enforces this, gauging our thirsts, our desires for the sacrament of blood, using force if necessary to save us from the sin of overindulgence.

When we have all fed, and the boy is little more than a husk, still breathing but insensate, fading, Speaker murmurs over the body, his words barely stirring the air, meant only for this boy and Another.  I see the damage this causes him -- Speaker's mouth smokes and blisters form across his face -- but he finishes his speech despite the damage.  There was Latin in there, I think.  Then Speaker leans down and whispers in the boy's ear.

The boy's eyes flutter, and he stares at Speaker, listless but with obvious understanding.  In a harsh croak, he mutters some profanity, then tries to spit in Speaker's face.  He doesn't have the strength.  The spittle runs down his cheek.

Speaker flicks his hand in a practiced motion and rips the boy's throat open, spilling his remaining blood on the floor.

Rosary whispers in my ear.  "It is a mercy.  He was given the chance to accept -- " and he flicks his gaze skyward in explanation, "and he refused.  We would not have him turn unless he might also be saved."

Some of the others bundle the body in old blankets and take it away.  I don't know where they'll hide it.  I don't care.

I've fed.  And I have a family again.

2.

I've been here six months, from what I can tell.

We judge the passing of time by the phases of the moon.  Or by the depths of our hunger.  We hunt in packs, not for our own safety, but to ensure that none of us falls prey to greed.  We keep each other in check, all members of some twisted support group.  Enough is our watchword, our pledge to each other.

When we hunt, we start early, right after sunset.  We can't hunt in the neighborhood, it is forbidden -- prohibito, as Rosary would say -- so we spend much of the night traveling to and from our little sanctuary.

The neighborhood, as delineated by Speaker, is not a small place.

There are always certain targets; we feed on the night-people.  Just as I did, by instinct, when I came into this second life.  There are too many people out there who have willingly thrown their lives away before we ever find them: junkies, hunched in alleys, with arms so brutalized by needles that we can smell the rot in their veins; hookers so riddled by disease and desperation that they would give us the blood we wanted freely if it weren't for the pimp who'd kill them after; runaways who've done so many things to survive that they looked on death as a gift.

We aren't allowed to kill, though.  If a victim asks for death, begs for release, we bring the lost soul to Speaker.  He talks to them, his lips swelling and bursting as he mentions unmentionable things, and finally, his face a scoured mask, he decides.  Have they repented, or do they need more time?

The underlying question, of course, is this:  Are they beyond help, or are they able to earn salvation?

Only Speaker makes that decision.

Once, in the months I've been here, we turned someone.  The girl, a young thing who'd been allowing a man to burn her with cigarettes for the price of a fast-food meal, cried and tried to kiss us when we took her.  There were three of us, each guided by the others as we fed.  Rosary was there, a near-constant companion since I became part of Speaker's congregation.  The third member was a woman who wore a St. Christopher's medallion -- it had burned such a deep hole between her breasts that it lay there, encapsulated in her flesh.  All you could see now was the dainty chain that once held it, lying limp around her neck.  We call her Chris -- none of us remember our first-life names anymore.  When she's nervous, Chris tugs on the necklace, releasing puffs of acrid smoke from her chest.

Like Rosary's, her dedication to pain amazes me.

We took the girl back to Speaker.  She collapsed at his feet as soon as she saw his face, crying and begging for release.  As he spoke to her, his face writhing against the poison of his words, she reached a hand out and touched his lips, her own hand blistering with the heat he gave off.

Speaker wept.

"She is like Santa Juana, I think," Rosary whispered.  "She has an innocence that needs to be released.  It will not happen in this life."

Speaker agreed, apparently.  He took the girl by the hand and led her to one of the pallets, explaining things in a low, calm voice as he went.

We all fed, but this time something was expected of us, as well.  Each of us opened a vein and allowed her to feed as well.  It wasn't easy on the girl -- she choked on the taste more than once -- but Speaker sat beside her, massaging her throat, keeping her calm.

When it was over, she fell asleep, pale, her face smeared with our mingled blood.  Santa Juana cleaned her up and lay beside her, wiping the girl's forehead from time to time as she sank into the grip of a raging fever.

Speaker walked over and rested a hand on my shoulder.

"This works?  You've done this before?"  I needed to ask this.  It led to a more troubling question.

"It works.  Sometimes.  Other times, the penitent dies.  The body rejects the gift.  There is no way to know who will survive.  We wait.  We watch.  We pray, in whatever fashion each of us is allowed."  He stared at me, waiting.

"What else could -- if this didn't happen to someone, I mean, why else would he change?"

Speaker closed his eyes.  His hand tightened on my shoulder, fell.  "Am I privy to the secrets of creation?  Better to ask why our kind is allowed to exist at all, I think.  If there is a G--" and even Speaker could not force that word through his battered lips, "If a Higher Being exists, why would It give us the second life?  Why turn Its children into hunters?"

No answer, no answer at all.

"Unless . . ."  and Speaker's eyes opened again, burning in the darkness of the basement, as if the light of all the candles had been gathered and magnified through their lenses, ". . . this is our last chance."

"I don't understand."

"Were you a good man before?"

"Yes.  I mean, I can't remember that life very well anymore, but I know I tried to do right, I read the B--"  My throat closed on the word.  "I read the good book."  That, I was able to say.

"Yes, but were you good enough?  If you had died the true death, would you have gone to . . . a better place?"

"I-I don't know.  I like to think I would have."

Speaker laced his fingers together, looking into them as if they should be filling up with knowledge.  "I think many of us are like that.  I believe we go through life, doing our best, yet wondering deep inside if that best is truly enough.  I think, I hope, that this second life is a last chance.  A final opportunity to earn the promised reward."  Speaker's hands trembled, and he clutched them together, squeezing them into immobility.  "I cannot remember the right words...there is something about a narrow gate . . . ."

Without thinking, I said, "For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few."

There was a roaring in my ears, as if a freight train had used my head as a tunnel.  I fell . . .

. . . only to come to, my head in Speaker's lap.  Rosary, his fingers smoking, was writing on the wall nearest us with charcoal.  Speaker repeated what I had said slowly, a word at a time, small flames flickering on his tongue.

By the time he'd finished the sentence, his mouth was a gaping hole, and Rosary's fingers gleamed bone-white in the candlelight.  My head pounding, my body on fire from the inside, I passed out once again.

*     *     *

3.

They told me I'd been out for three days.  Utterly out -- I couldn't even feed.

I was still too weak to care.  The hunger gnawed at me, but its teeth were blunted.  I lay there, half-drowsing on my pallet, while the others came to me, one by one, caressing my head or kissing my cheeks, kneeling beside me as if I were an object of worship.

Rosary came to sit next to me, his fingers nearly whole.  It was the first time I'd seen him without his beads clutched in his hands.

"What's going on?"

Rosary smiled, pointed at the wall behind me.  Half the candles in the room burned there, illuminating his writing -- a crudely-printed, barely legible line:

For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Strangely, I could read the words without pain.  My eyes didn't shrivel in their sockets, my brain didn't threaten to swell in my skull.  They were just words, graffiti in an abandoned basement.

They could all read it, all who had the ability to read, anyway, although Rosary told me that it was painful for the others.  A few had to rely on Speaker, who would say the words to them, suffering as he always suffered when proclaiming the holy.

For me, just words, as if I'd already paid the price for their existence.

The young girl we'd taken came to me as well, Santa Juana at her side.  She, too, was weak, still an infant in this new life, but she'd found the strength to come to me.  She knelt, as the others had, and whispered thanks in my ear -- whether for the words on the wall or the act of bringing her here, I'm not sure.  Then she kissed me on the lips, chastely, the way a mother would kiss her child.  Santa Juana helped her back to her own bed after flashing a sad, lovely smile my way.  I felt a warmth inside me at that, a heat that in the other life might indicate arousal.  Now, it merely meant comfort.  Family.

There is no escaping that word.

Speaker's voice, harsh and sweet.  "We call her Santa Maria."  He came to me last, as the girls walked away, sitting beside me and clutching my hand in his own.  "She is a beautiful child, my friend, giving, selfless . . . what else would I name her?"

Three nights without Speaker's voice, even nights when I was unaware of the world around me, had been too long.  "Why is everyone acting this way?  What have I done?"  I looked again at the words on the wall, an empty phrase, meaningless.

Speaker, for once, was at a loss for words.  "I-I'm not sure what you mean.  You see what you've done, surely."

"I said something.  Rosary wrote it down.  Who cares?"

Speaker dropped my hand, agitated.  "You are tired, hungry I'm sure.  Confused, yes?  There is a hunting party out.  They should be back soon."  He stood, still out-of-sorts.  "Perhaps we should wait to talk until they return, until you are stronger."

Whatever you say.  I lay back on my ragged bed beneath the useless words, waiting for dinner.

*     *     *

Later, after I'd fed from a man so far gone with whatever disease he had that he cackled at each touch of teeth to his flesh, Speaker came back to me.

"You are stronger now?"

The blood filled me, gave me more sense of myself.  They'd let Santa Maria and I feed first, being the weakest.  "I'm fine, Speaker.  Ready to hunt, if you need me -- I know I took more than my share."

Speaker still looked -- I don't know, different.  His eyes held secrets.  "Are you strong enough to look at the words again?"  He gestured toward the wall.

"Of course."  I read the words again, knowing I'd said them for some reason, still missing the import.  I tried to read them aloud.  "For the ga-- "

And there it was, that tightening of the throat that indicated imminent closure.  I choked, a thin drool of blood dripping from my mouth.  I think I screamed.

Speaker's hands were on me, as well as others -- Rosary's, Chris', several people's whose names had not yet been decided.  They each pressed their palms against me, as if they could pass their strength on by the laying of hands.

Faith-healing.  I could barely remember the term, but I knew I'd never believed in it.

Until that moment.  I could feel their strength, their love, passing into me, stronger even than blood.  I know I screamed then, the uncontrolled wail of a newborn, lungs rich with life.

Speaker clutched my head, sweat beading on his face, as if he were pulling me from the womb, guiding me through some transition I couldn't grasp on my own.  "My son, my son, forgive me.  There is something I would say about faith . . . ."

Again, without volition, my tongue betrayed me.  "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

And it was goodnight, goodnight, goodnight . . . .

*     *     *

When I finally came out of my deep siesta, weak as a newborn lamb, the hunger again a toothless gnawing, they were calling me Book.

Rosary, first in line, took my tired head into his arms and bullied me into sitting up.  "Look." 

He pointed to the wall next to me, now so bright in the glow of candles that the rest of the basement grew shadows like mushrooms.  I saw the words there, the old and the new, and I tried to read them with some form of reverence, tried to reach an epiphany.  Anything, frankly.

Dull, smeared writing on a crumbling wall.

What do you want from me?  Too tired to speak, to consider, to care.

Rosary showed me his fingers.  Charcoal-blackened, withered.  I tried to focus, weak, always weak now . . . .

I grabbed his hand, pulled it close to my face, knowing something was wrong.  His fingers curled into his palm, flexed.

"What is happening?"  I could barely whisper the words.

Rosary took out his beads, fingered them, ran them through his fingers.  I smelled a light scent, smoke-like but negligible -- the windborne remains of a lit cigarette, no more -- and I realized that his fingers merely looked old.  Not burned.  I'd seen the bone beneath his blackened flesh so many times, and now his hands capered in delight.  He put his cheek against mine, and I could feel the heat of his tears.  "What is happening?  My friend, compadre, how can you ask?"

He stroked my head tenderly as he lifted his gaze and read the words.  Silently.

"What is happening?"  Speaker's voice, behind me.  "You are giving us the path, Book.  You remember the way to forgiveness."

Someone fed me.  Many others kissed me, cried over me, held me.

I lay there, numb, stupid.  I stared at crooked marks on a crumbling wall.  They made no sense to me.  None at all.

*     *     *

Santa Maria took it upon herself to be my guardian.  She'd come through the change well, strong and graceful, her youth a constant solace for the rest.  Even Santa Juana deferred to the girl, her own tragic beauty somehow clarified by the girl's presence.

I had little choice in the matter.  I'd been struck by some netherlife version of glossolalia -- even a casual comment might set me off.  Chris mentioned how child-like Santa Maria seemed, even though we could tell that she must be in her late teens, and I spouted out, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom."  Then the slow fade into coma.  Another time, one of the newer arrivals apologized for taking too much blood, and I countered, "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."  A few words spilled, a few nights lost.

Whenever I came out of my little deaths, two things were constants -- the wall would have more writing on it, courtesy of Rosary, and Santa Maria would be beside me, shushing me if I tried to speak, stroking my forehead, comforting me.  No matter how foreign the new words might seem to me, her touch made it all make sense, somehow.  She guarded me in my weak times, making the others go elsewhere for their conversations in case I heard another trigger-word and passed out before I could feed and strengthen myself.  I loved her.

Something I couldn't imagine would be allowed in this twilight life.

I loved.  Her.

The words on the wall began to take on meaning once more.

*     *     *

A strange interlude, during one of my more lucid moments.  Speaker came to me, sat next to Santa Maria beside my bed, and handed me a skull.

Sugar spilled across my blanket as I took it.  It was a candy skull, about two inches long.  I didn't have a clue, and it showed in my expression.

"Dia de los Muertos".  Speaker's whisper of a voice still managed to reverberate with meaning.  He gestured at the head.  "Eat it.  It won't harm you, I promise."

"Why?"  Food meant nothing to us.

"Consider it a gesture of good faith."  I could make out a hunched shape behind him, hiding from the eternal glare of the candles.

Sugar and dough, and no taste in my mouth.  The flavor of blood kills the taste-buds for anything else, I guess.  Still, I managed to swallow the confection without choking, which seemed to be the right thing to do.

Speaker, meanwhile, communicated with the shadowed figure behind him.  Santa Maria sat by me, diligent.  As clueless as I was.

"Dia de los Muertos.  For these people, it is a holiday, the Day of the Dead.  I had forgotten . . . ."  Speaker gestured to the shape behind him, pulling her into the light with the strength of his presence.  "This is Adela."

Adela was old.  Ancient.  The years had conspired to press her body into itself.  The candle-light played across her hunched back, her withered features, her toothless mouth.  She grinned at me, her shrunken gums glittering in the play of light.

"Adela is visiting us tonight."  Speaker nodded for my benefit, expecting me to get the significance.

This frail woman walked into the lair of the hunters.  Why?

"She comes from the neighborhood.  She is a bruja, a wise woman.  She was sent to us.  By the others."

Again, I missed the point.  Too tired, too weak to think.

My Maria understood.  (My Maria -- already I'd taken her as my own.)  "They know we're here, Book.  They know, and they're not afraid of us."

Adela came forward, Maria's comment apparently giving permission.  She looked at the words on the wall, pointing at phrases as Speaker translated them.  I remained in the hinterland of the lost.  Something was happening, and I was somehow involved, but I couldn't make any connections; I felt only confusion and hunger.

"Es verdad."  Adela reached to touch me, almost collapsed.  Speaker caught her, eased her down next to me.  "Es verdad, you see?"

I didn't see, not at all.  "Why is she here?"  This addressed to Speaker, the only voice I trusted now.

"She lives here.  In the neighborhood," and Speaker waved his arms, encompassing all things, it seemed to me.  "You must understand, once this was not a good place to live.  This barrio knew death more than life -- the gangs claimed it for themselves.  They sold drugs, turned the hermanitas into whores, drove through the streets shooting at each other, missing their targets, yes?  Only the bullets still needed blood, so a child would die, an abuela, perhaps.

"And then we came."

Adela reached for my hand, caught it in her dry wisp of a grip.  Maria crept over, her guardian duties in disarray, and Adela snatched one of her hands as well.

We lay there together, linked by a woman who made no sense to me.

Speaker sank to his knees, joining us in our little ball of confusion.  "My friend -- El Libro -- Adela is here to give you a gift."

"Why?"  The only word left to me.  The rest of my vocabulary was etched on the walls behind me.

"We have made the neighborhood safe.  We have driven off the bad."

"No, why?"

Speaker fluttered his fingers, nervous.  I'd never seen him this way.  "They live their lives, they walk the streets, without fear.  Do you understand?  Do you know what they think we have done for them?  They trust us.  We are not the work of el diablo.  We are not -- " and Speaker's throat swelled with the words, "We are not the damned!"

Silence, but for Adela, who kept repeating es verdad, es verdad . . . .

"No."  Tired, hungry, afraid of what was happening to myself.  "Wrong answer."  Maria stroked my forehead with her free hand, still keeping contact with the old lady.  "Why is she here for me?"

Speaker knelt beside me.  The candlelight played across his face, melting it one second, making it whole the next.  "She is here because I told her about you."

Even why was too much to ask.

"We have been here for a long time.  We have lived here in peace.  We are not invisible, my friend, do you understand this?  The people that live up above, the ones who try to survive in this place of grief, they need help, you see?  They need protectors.  Not the police -- they do not have the time, even if they cared, to be here all night, every night, in a neighborhood that was lost to the darkness years ago.  So who could help these people?

"We could.  We found this sanctuary."  Speaker paused to stroke Adela's remaining wisps of white hair.  "And they found us.

"And now, you have found us as well, and you have changed us.  Before, we were bound by our pain, our willingness to suffer, so that we might think of ourselves as something other than what we are.  We postured, no better than flagellants, as if mortification could save us.  Now, you have given us something more.  You have shown us the way."

Too much.  Speaker's words, always reasonable, now pummeled me, tainted by the zeal of the fanatic.

"I didn't do anything!  I'll spout out some verse every now and then and collapse!  If anything, I'm a liability to you.  I'm always too weak to hunt, you have to bring victims back here to feed me -- you might just as well chain me down and let me starve to death, or throw me out the door when I'm weak so the sun can finish me off!  I am not important!"

And the fury passed, and I fell into Maria's lap, exhausted.  I still felt Adela's dry husk of a hand clutching my own.  I doubt she understood a word I said.

Speaker grabbed my face in both hands, forced me to sit up.  I could feel his muscles trembling with rage.  Or maybe something else, since his voice was as low and kind as I've ever heard it.  "You would make us murderers, then?  You would have us be like the rest of our kind, soulless beasts, killing to feed and feeding to kill?  You told me once that you were a good man."

It came back to that, then.  "I was a good man.  Now I'm not even a man.  I'm a monster.  I don't know why, don't really care anymore.  If you don't get rid of me, I'll do it myself.  I'll find a way."

Adela understood more than I gave her credit for.  She slapped me, letting go of Maria's hand to do so.  "No!  Es pecado!"  She rattled off something to Speaker.  He nodded, still holding my head in his hands.

"You would commit suicide, then?  There is no pardon for killing yourself, my friend."

All too surreal.  "I can't kill myself.  I'm already dead."  Even I heard the resignation in my voice.

Speaker released my head, letting it fall back into Maria's lap.  Santa Maria, my Maria...  I was just so tired.

Speaker stood, a smile forming, as if he'd just won a battle for my soul.  "No, you cannot be dead.  Do the dead feel love?"  And his eyes took in everything.  More than I ever guessed.

"No."  After long silence, after giving myself a mental excoriation that burned me more than the words on the wall ever could.  "No, I'm not dead."  I gripped Adela's hand, felt the sturdy bones under my fingers.  "No pecado."

Lastly, Maria.  She sat there, head bowed, and when I lifted her chin I saw shock in her eyes, tears on her cheeks.  "I'm sorry.  I didn't tell you."

She shuddered, wiped her face, grabbed Adela's slapping hand.  "'S okay.  I-I just don't know what to do about it."

Adela brought our hands together, kissed them both.  "Regalo."

Speaker stood above us, presiding over this awkward gathering.  "It is time for Adela's gift, Book.  Do not refuse it.  It will make you whole."

I nodded, barely.  Adela took it as a sign.  She released our hands, shakily unwrapped the scarf around her neck, and bared her throat.  "Regalo."

I hesitated.  Hunger was one thing, but this?

Maria, Maria, Santa Maria.  My guide, in all things.  She kissed Adela lightly on the mouth -- greet one another with a holy kiss, I thought, and the room spun -- and then bent down, nipped Adela's neck lightly, and waited for two drops of blood.  No more.

This, she offered to me.

And I was hungry.

Adela waited, her patience mocking my desire.  For one terrible moment I wanted to rip her throat out, feast on whatever ancient blood still ran through her body.  If you want to give me a gift, sister, give it all!

The thought ran rampant and vanished before I could grasp it.  I bent down and licked the drops of blood from Adela's throat, praying for satisfaction, or at least control.

Adela stood, nodding, no, bowing to the three of us, and made her slow, cautious way out of our lair.

*     *     *

One final scene from the past three months.  A nail in my coffin, a brick in my wall, whatever.  A lesson, I call it, a reminder of lost humanity.

They came back from the churchyard, everyone but Maria and myself.  I was too weak to go, and Maria wouldn't leave my side.

Another visit during the full moon, of course.  Another attempt at forgiveness, fulfillment, finality.

Santa Juana, her body burned yet again by the shadow, carried by the others.  Maria -- no, Santa Maria at this point -- shrieking at the damage, running across the basement, a banshee for the undead.  General confusion greeted her intensity.

She touched Santa Juana.  There was a crackling sound as her fingers pressed against the burned skin.  "What did you do to her?"

Maria had never been to the church, and we'd all forgotten to explain to her what happened there.  My fault, since I'm sure everyone else assumed I'd done so.

I held her shoulders, turned her to face me, taking her eyes off Santa Juana's disfigurement.  "She did it to herself.  This is her way of doing penance, showing that she deserves-- "

"Deserves what?  To burn?"  Maria spat the word out with utter loathing.  I could see her as she'd been when we found her, covered in scars and festering sores.  What does she remember?  What hell does Santa Maria carry in her mind?  Maria pushed me away, the first time she'd ever touched me with anything but kindness since she'd taken over my care.  "No one deserves to burn. No one."

She bullied the others into leaving Santa Juana at my pallet, where she washed her and sang to her in a wordless hum.  She paused once, when she noticed me still standing in the center of the basement, afraid to move or say anything in case I made her angrier.  Finally, she gestured me over.

"Promise me something, Book."

"Anything."  Stupid word, that.

"Promise me you won't let this happen again.  Nothing like this should ever happen."

"It was her choice, Maria.  What am I supposed to do?"

Santa Juana started whispering her name, Santa Maria, Santa Maria, over and over, and Maria turned back to her patient.

"Find a better way, Book.  Give us a different path."

*     *     *

4.

Another full moon.  The church still huddles beside its little graveyard, abandoned, a memorial to something we've lost.

We come in hopes of finding it again.

Speaker and I have spent long nights talking of the past.  Why we forget so many things and yet remember others vividly.  Why he still feels the need to follow a calling meant for another, earlier life.  Why I pull holy phrases, full-blown, from a book I can't even name in this life.

For my part, I'll have to fall back on rote memorization.  Years of church, from childhood when every story was another fantasy and every word another mystery, to adulthood where the whole experience could take on the tones of stultifying ritual.  Read this, I was told, know it, keep it fresh in your mind.  These words are important.

All those verses, repeated time and again, finally nothing more than pieces of trivia, like baseball lineups or track listings from favorite albums.  Good men knew these words.

And I was a good man.

Speaker still doesn't understand my lingering bitterness, but I think Maria does, just a little.  Or at least she pretends to, which is sometimes enough.

If I told them the truth -- Speaker, Rosary, the rest of the motley assortment of not-good-enoughs that make up this group -- if I told them what I felt, deep inside, they'd laugh at me.  Or pity me.  Or try to convince me otherwise, even worse.  They have such high hopes for me, my little extended family.

But somewhere inside, a nagging voice keeps telling me that, no matter how I might want to remember my first life, I never really believed.  In anything.

Stop.  I get locked into this self-pity now and then.  Look around you, idiot.

We've learned a lot in the last couple of months.  Rosary's fingers gave us an early hint.  Activities involving the words don't hurt so much.  After a while, we build up an immunity.  Maybe more of a comfort-zone, I'm not sure.  It worked for me, as well.  My little catnaps after tossing off another quotation dwindled, two nights, a night -- now I get a little dizzy, a little shaky, but that's about it.

Speaker takes this as a sign.  So do the rest.  Chris even pulled the medallion out of her chest, a nightmare of a job.  Maria refused to watch, but she smiled, nights later, when Chris' chest was whole again.

Some of the others have found blank diaries and such.  They're learning to copy the words down, slowly, as they get used to the process.

Speaker wants to translate it all into Spanish.  Then Latin, which he swears he still remembers.

Funny what we remember . . . .

The moon is directly above us.  No shadow of the cross for us, now, just the church and its graveyard, glowing gently in the light of a cool, clear night.

Certain things are different tonight.  I can smell the blood around us.  Adela is here.  She's brought friends.  Speaker's idea, but I couldn't say no when he told me. 

After all, one of them opened the church door.  More of them entered and lit candles.  All of them are gathered out there in the darkness, watching.

Santa Juana enters the moonlight.  She wears a white gown, spotless, her face a rival to the moon.  I hear the hushed murmur out there, where the living are.  They take a great chance.  They take our ability to control our hunger as a given.

Adela's gift meant much to them.

Speaker goes to Santa Juana, takes her head in his hands, kisses her forehead.  His voice rises, still not loud, but not the rasp it once was.  It carries.

"Would you like to enter?"

Santa Juana gives her response.  "Yes, yes, more than anything."  This seems so familiar to me, these images, but I can't --

"Then you must have faith."  Speaker kneels, grasps the bottom of her gown, and raises it over her head, gently.  More whispers from the shadowed crowd.

Her body is revealed, flashes of white and black, a living parchment in sharp relief.  She is covered with writing from the top of her feet to the base of her neck.  Rosary's doing.  All of the words I've dredged up from memory, from a book that remains nameless to me, unable to be voiced.

There are cries from the people out there, prayers falling from their lips that would blast us all with the fire of their intensity if they were turned against us.

Speaker turns to me.  He waits for something, and I search for the connection between the pictures in my head, people in white robes in a river, and the words that need to be said --

Click, and my mind spins and my body trembles and my lips and tongue burn, not with fire but spirit, and there are two elements fighting in my head at once, and it all comes out in a rush, confused, not something defined by rote memory, just ideas thrust together, but right, right, somehow:

"You have been baptized by fire.  Now, offer your body as a living sacrifice; this is your act of worship."

I try to stay standing, but there's too much going on in my head; I've broken something, or saved something, or cursed it or blessed it or --

Santa Maria holds me up.  My Maria takes my weight.  I can't speak now, but I can watch.

Santa Juana, her naked skin gleaming between the lines of scripture, turns and walks down a path none of us has dared set foot on.  There is pain; you can see it on her face if you need to find it, but she never miss-steps; she never wavers.

Into the open door of the church, gone from our view.  We see her shadow limned against the dirty windows by candlelight.

And the candles flicker, and there is a breeze and a soft flash of light, and her shadow is no more.

 

 

About the Author:

Mikal Trimm writes short fiction and speculative poetry. He has made more than eighty sales to such diverse markets as Polyphony 4, Surreal, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Strange Horizons, among many others, and his poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling award.

And he still ain't famous.
 


 

Story 2005 Mikal Trimm.  All other content 2003-2005 Lone Star Stories.

   

   

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