Black Petals Issue #72 Summer, 2015

Brutal

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Mars-News, Views and Commentary
Brutal-Fiction by A. M. Stickel, Editor
Chaos in Corollary-Fiction by A. M. Stickel, Editor
In Dreams, There Is No Time-Fiction by George Gad Economou
Nuncapisco-Fiction by A. M. Stickel, Editor
Ocean Life-Fiction by Lael Braday
Onward Traveler-Fiction by Kathleen Wolak
The Beach House-Fiction by Roy Dorman
The Weeping Man-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Poetry & Prose by Alexis Child
Poetry by John Frazee
Poetry by Denny Marshall
Poetry by Jeffrey Park
Poetry by Dr. Mel Waldman

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Brutal

By A.M. Stickel, Editor

A believer’s tale

 

 

A pilgrimage to St. Peregrine’s Monastery entails a brutal journey. Seaward, waves wash the feet of pilgrims daring the steep ascent to the ruins, undeterred by the place’s utter desolation and tragic reputation. They come to honor the martyrs whose blood bathed the feet of warriors that destroyed, not out of need, but because they could. Once within the grounds, the weary pilgrim might pause where a single archer took his stand to pick off survivors, while comrades, after dispatching the monks, swarmed downslope to hack and hew, pillage and burn. Erased from this life before sunset were herds, flocks, harvest-ready crops, sturdy dwellings, and, down to the tiniest infant, the valley folk. A single soul, by the grace of God, escaped the massacre.

 

It was the Feast Day of the Holy Angels. Brother Marcus, high in the scriptorium under the bell tower, might have seen the marauders approaching. His eyes, however, were intent on the scripture passage he was illuminating. So the warning bell never rang. His superior, Abbot Albinus, in the midst of hearing confessions, had nodded off. He had no idea he was about to receive an arrow through the heart, leaving several penitents to perish unshriven.

The crypt, not the chapel, provided the sole sanctuary from raiders who sneered at the divine, yet avoided tombs for fear of the demonic. They did not believe in the power of blessing, let alone sanctifying such a place. Their own dead were burned upon water or left in trees for the vultures so as not to pollute the land with hauntings.

Between interments, only lowly novices entered the crypt, there to scour away the venial sins of minor infractions that displeased the vowed monks. Given nothing but bread and water, candles and flint, rags and cleaning implements, the poor youths remained locked in until their brethren were convinced of their penitence.

Unknown to most, the crypt’s several levels went deep into the mountain. Thanks to nature and desperate novices reconsidering the commitment to their vocation, some were flooded or otherwise eroded. Many a lad had gone missing, either buried by cave-ins, or, burrowing through to the sea, drowned and ground on the rocks by pounding surf. Few succeeded.

 

Fourteen-year-old Michael knew he had done nothing since arriving (at age seven in a sinking boat) to deserve such punishment. Instead of praying to God for forgiveness, he growled as he wielded pumice and rag, pausing from time to time to dampen the rag with a dipper from his bucket. By his hour glass, a mere half hour had passed, although it felt like he’d been imprisoned in the dank darkness forever. His favorite among the brethren, jolly Brother Aldo the cook, had betrayed him for teasing the kitchen cat, Carissima.

At the rasp of a key in the lock, Michael began his apology, “I’m sorry! But all I did was—”

He heard Brother Aldo shout, “God save you, my boy!” The cook’s voice was distorted by breathless panic.

THUNK! The key stopped turning and the flinty tip of a spear appeared in the middle of the door.

Michael put his ear to the keyhole. Nothing. When he saw blood seeping under the door, he began to sob, then pray aloud; he promised his saints everything he could think of to ask God to spare him. No attackers appeared. Exhausted, the novice fell asleep, mid-prayer, atop the cold stone coffin he had been scrubbing.

 

“Oh Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!” cried Michael on waking from sweet dreams to dark, harsh reality. Being not far from the door, he crawled to and threw himself against it, hoping to dislodge the key. Feeling around him, he found his meager goods. With the rag-wrapped pumice, then the dipper, he pounded on the rusty hinges and air grate high on the door until his hands bled. He didn’t dare use the bucket because he needed the water.

Next, Michael retrieved flint and candle and succeeded in relighting the latter. He searched for as many candle stubs as he could find left behind by past miscreants on his level of the crypt. He tried setting the door afire, but the rotten wood was too damp, besides being ironbound to reinforce it.

I should eat to keep my strength up. Michael bowed his head and said grace. Thanking God that his punisher had been generous with the bread, he added, “God rest Brother Aldo’s soul.” Sipping from the small flask of spirits the cook had hidden under the bread, he toasted Aldo’s spirit until his own eased.

But the attack on St. Peregrine’s wasn’t over.

Michael’s ears pricked at the sound of a large metal object clanging along the stones of the passage that led to his haven. He did not realize how badly the raiders wanted to ensure no demons or ghosts could escape the crypt. They’d burned the bell tower, which collapsed; when the bell fell, they rolled it to the sloping crypt entryway. It gained momentum and hit the door (and Brother Aldo’s impaled body) with a deafening THUD-BONGGG!

Michael watched the door hinges rupture and the wood give. Air whooshed in and extinguished his candle. Worse yet, it was a moonless night. The novice was rendered nearly senseless, his air tainted by the smoke of burning buildings, debris, and trapped monks (some, until immolation, still alive).

Coughs wracked his body. His ears rang. The novice, a wet rag over mouth and nose, crawled along the floor to avoid the worst smoke, until he could feel the size of the gap. His hand touched the solid mass of the bell: no hope of exit there. Returning to where his candle and supplies ought to be, he felt around until he could relight the candle.

Wet rags over the gap will slow the smoke. Thank heaven the ceiling is solid mountain rock! Michael followed through on his idea, secured his bucket and small basket of supplies, and was almost relieved to hear above him cracking timber and falling stonework. His deafness had spared him the pain of knowing that as St. Peregrine’s collapsed, the cries of its doomed were drowned in a roaring sea of flame.

Now that I can see and hear, it’s time to explore the lower levels.

 

The novice found his path easier than expected. At first narrow, the winding stairway widened and the crypt levels grew more spacious to conform to the contours of the mountain’s original caves. Over eons, the monastery had adorned the resting places of its monks. Having fallen asleep in the Lord, His faithful servants lay entombed among colorful mosaics depicting saintly deeds, the Master’s life and death among men, and the expected joys of reunion with Him in the next life. Many nobles had taken vows and renounced the world. They and their families had gifted large sums and sent craftsmen to abet the monks’ own efforts. Above ground St. Peregrine’s was a model of austere, practical simplicity. Below ground, at least to Michael’s eyes, it was a work of wonder.

Finally, Michael reached a point where the sea had pierced the side of the mountain. A tiny crevice had opened enough to allow a trickle of water to erode the cavern floor. But the mountain had shifted. All that remained were salt crystals along a rut in the stone floor. He followed the rut to its point of origin, and a pitiful sight: the gleaming, salt-encrusted skeleton of a long-ago novice who had tried to dig through to the sea. Tired, Michael sank down next to the remains and soon nodded off. His candle burned all the while and died in a pool of wax.

 

Michael awoke to a weight upon his chest, claws at his throat, and a rumbling in his ears. “Saints preserve me!” he cried, leaping up and making the Sign of the Cross. Standing in darkness relieved only by a faint phosphorescence, he stared into glowing eyes. Was my long-dead brother about to feed on me? No, too small…

The furry cause of his incarceration, and, he had to admit, also his life saver, sat blinking up at him.

Carissima must have leapt through my rag barrier to escape the fire…after whatever rodents preceded her here. Michael felt for his bread. It was gone. Yes, Carissima’s prey had paid him a visit while he slept.

“So…my old nemesis was looking for a place to nap,” said Michael. He paused and added, “I am sorry about the prank earlier, but did you have to let the mice eat my last piece of bread?”

“Mraow?” It seemed Carissima was indifferent to his prank and to his plight. She permitted him to stroke her fur and ask, “Perhaps, since we are friends again, you can show me a way out of this mountain?”

By God’s grace, the cat jumped up and did as she was bid, trotting to a small tunnel he had bypassed earlier.

 

Meanwhile, Miskwatomek, the leader of the raiders who called themselves the True People, was allowing his party a much-deserved rest from their bloody handiwork. Many warriors were disappointed that the tonsured monks had provided no trophies, although several fine samples had been taken from the valley population.

“Wash your prizes well. We don’t want to carry diseases home with us,” warned the Seer, fifteen and full of pride that his hands never touched weapons, or women. “This unclean place must draw demons and curses to it.”

The raiding party soaking in the hot springs, however, proceeded to drown out their prim Seer with explicit chants that boasted of great deeds. Their beaded-and-feathered leather regalia left draped on rocks for later use, couples paired off for a night of celebration. They did not worry about their brightly-painted war vessels lying secure on a narrow beach below the mountain; tonight they sought to purge themselves of Death with the acts of life.

The leader beamed approval as he chewed on a strip of smoked salmon, but his thoughts were sad. He bitterly recalled his lost son, set adrift with his mother so many years ago. The beauty he had claimed from the Frozen Lands had taught their golden-skinned son her beliefs. The Seer of the True People, uncle to the present one, along with the majority of the tribe, had decided their fate for having behaved according to those beliefs…

 

From a hidden niche within the waterfall cavern, Michael watched two of the slayers of his brethren, a male and a female. Perched on a ledge just below the one Carissima had chosen for a nap, they were tall and shapely. Their skin, darker than his, reminded him of polished bronze.

Their clicking speech sounded oddly familiar. He began to make out a word here and there, despite the noisy falls. He admired their hair, long and slick and black. The monks had kept his own head shaven since the day of his rescue; he had no idea of his hair’s color or texture.

Do I look more like my father? Are these his people? The novice could not recall most details of his mother’s face, or whether she had told him her home was under or across the Wide Water. With eyes the color of the sea, she swam like a fish and was almost as pale as the monks.

His musing was interrupted by Carissima’s twitching tail. But she wasn’t watching cave swallows. In the next instant her furry white body hurtled through the air to the ledge below. The cat’s claws latched onto the woman’s head, and she became entangled in the thick raven hair.

The young woman screamed. When the man tried to help her they both tumbled from the ledge to land on the sharp rocks next to the water. Howling, Carissima tore free, only to flop into the upper pond beneath the falls. Blood spread out from the woman, whose head had split open. Her body had cushioned the man. On his back, he looked up…and saw the boy! He limped from the cave in obvious pain, crying over and over in the tongue of the True People the word that had doomed Michael and his mother to a watery exile: “DEMON!”

What would my Savior do? Michael climbed down from his hiding place. He needed to act on what he’d been taught. Taking the dead woman’s hand, he thought of his mother and of the Holy Mother. He washed the blood off the beautiful black hair and then, placing his hands on her head, prayed the most sincere prayer of his life.

 

Looking up toward the waterfall, Miskwatomek was astounded to see his lost son emerge alive through the curtain of water and rainbow mist. Equally surprising was the woman beside him (just reported dead by her husband), Miskwatomek’s baby sister and his favorite.

“Pax vobiscum!” called Michael, smiling, hand raised in the sign of peace the True People used. He stood straight and proud, as if invincible, unashamed of his ragged brown tunic, emaciation, and shaven head. With him was Carissima. Safely out of the water, the wet cat shook herself, rolled, and rubbed against her friend’s legs.

Warriors started to go for their weapons, and the Seer stepped forward to speak. Miskwatomek raised a hand to stop them, and beckoned his sister to climb down and join him. He watched her reluctantly withdraw her hand from Michael’s grasp.

“Were you dead?” he asked her in a low voice, once she stood facing him.

“I was dead, but now I live,” she replied loudly enough for all to hear, “so gather our people and let us depart. As you can see, the powerful Pax Vobiscum can raise the dead and even tame white ghosts who kill.” The young woman pointed to the boy and his cat with a trembling finger, but gave her big brother a sly wink.

“You’re right,” agreed Miskwatomek equally loudly. “This demon is so mighty, he can make himself look like my lost son. Who knows what other tricks he may have at his disposal? He may use them simply because he can.”

Disappointed and relieved at the same time, Michael watched his father and the True People leave. They abandoned regalia, trophy scalps, and weapons in their haste. They backed, then walked, and finally, ran to jump into their canoes and cross the sea to their own land (but, mid-trip, were forced to eat the haughty Seer).

 

St. Peregrine’s is not featured in guide books. Pilgrims who visit and make it safely home without incident say that they hear the voices of monks chanting in the ruins. Usually, they blame the wind. The lucky few who visit on the Feast Day of the Holy Angels swear they also hear a youth calling, “Carissima!” And fewer still hear her high-pitched answer in the ancient language of believers,

 

Pax Vobiscum!

[Peace be with you!]

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