Not Hell! Purgatory! That’s the price men like me have to pay for keeping the world a sane place!
General Nicola Mas y Redondo THE CRIMSON GODDESS
Permit me to mention a book.
Nothing grand, though. Just a spot of decent reading for a long and lazy summer evening, preferably supported by a pint of red wine, and provided you haven’t anything better to do.
As to its author, I’d like it if we leave him unsung for the moment. This because the criminals who run Europe have a tendency to harass, fetter and muzzle vertical sods like myself, and that simply because we dare to state the undiluted and irrefutable truth. Thus in order not to discomfiture him and his folks in any way, I’ll swear a thousand oaths that we ain’t in any way related, that I’ve never clapped eyes on him, and that he’d most likely refuse to drink a mug of cool beer with me. Whereby the latter makes sense, since he’s rumoured to prefer a Grand Cru if someone pays for it.
Well, you may say, and who gives a damn. Nowadays books are as numerous as grains of sand on a beach, gathered in dull heaps or sparkling singularly until the next tide reclaims them and they slide back into the sea. You can’t read them all.
As to this book, its back flap dispenses with the following hints:
‘I wish to surrender myself with some circumstance…’
These are Gemma’s words when she finally gives in to a tempestuous courtship set against the looming Spanish Civil War, a collective lunacy that nearly smothers the two lovers on the eve of its eruption. The drama has some magical ingredients: a tiny travelling circus, a shaggy big bear, ponies, a quixotic young knight, the aforementioned mysterious and ravishing redhead who dances on a high wire. Plus occasions that reach from the hilarious to the hideous. It is also a chilling reminder of what can happen when two segments of a society refuse to reach out over an ever widening abyss.
The last bit sounds intriguing, since it implies that the tale might be more than just an ordinary love story. Which could give it a touch of welcome actuality. Because, as you and every intelligent person must realize by now, we are drifting dangerously fast towards a confrontation that could end in an even greater cataclysm than the one Spain has suffered nearly a hundred years ago. As to possible contemporary parallels, or our survival in general, I’m fully attuned to the clear-minded and thoughtful comments put forward in this journal and similarly enlightened outlets. Their propensity and scrutiny is of course all that really matters. Yet sometimes I despair of mankind as it presents itself and prefer it if the earnest observations are wrapped into a lyrical overcoat, no matter how flimsy or frayed.
As in this book.
I shall refrain from treading on thin ice by fabricating a highfalutin review. Instead, and just to give you an idea, I copy a few bits and pieces for your pleasure.
Romantic, funny, serious, lyrical, hideous, numinous…
A wide curve, perhaps thirty yards across. The water polished lavender in the mellow light. Brilliant specks where it murmured over a bank of pebbles. A rocky outcrop very close, and there some profundity and the swirling of eddies in a darker hue. A few roughly hewn steps leading down to it.
The trees on the opposite bank stood as finely spun filigrees against the velvet sky.
Two hours till sunset.
Gemma strode onto the rock and undressed with a few deft movements. For a long moment she stood there, facing the sun, resting her weight on one leg while lightly lifting the other in a flawless pose. She moved her shoulders as if they were stiff from long disuse, then stretched torso and arms. Turning towards him, she reached behind her head and tied the hair into a loose bun.
The glorious pageant was a deliberate gambit, as he knew perfectly well, and his gaze could not but wander again and again over every shiny curve or darkened hollow, now delicately contrasted by a softening glow.
He cleared his throat with an effort.
She laughed and dived headlong into the water.
‘Wait!’ he shouted and shed his clothes in a hurry.
She surfaced, puffing and spluttering like a seal.
‘It’s freezing!’ she cried breathlessly.
He jumped, bottom first and rather undignified, and hit the water with a loud splash. The cold made him nearly faint. As he went up again, his head felt like bursting. He broke surface, gasped a few times frantically and uttered a hilarious roar.
She found firm ground and rose half out of the water. Her hair had come loose and fell in thick tangles over shoulders and breasts. A nipple peered through it, rigid from the cold. Drops slid down her body like fading stars, leaving bright trails in their wake. One settled in her navel, gleaming. Her eyes had a cornflower tint.
He paddled close and rose as well.
‘You can’t be real’, he muttered, shivering.
‘This moment is real.’
‘I want it to last an eternity’, he whispered, his face now inches from hers. ‘If not longer…’
‘You’d tire of me after a million years. If not before…’
She moved forward and flung her arms around his neck. He lost his footing and they slid back into the cold water. As they went under, she kissed him fiercely and broke free. He rose in time to see her climbing the stairs and shaking herself like a wet dog.
When he stood beside her, she held out her long skirt.
‘Dry me’, she ordered. ‘Furiously!’
The following passage hovers more on the funny side. Laurin O’Leary, the hero, has arrived in Barcelona and is the guest of Harry Boswell, a former classmate and son of the US consul-general.
The alley had a secluded air, with very few windows lit in the ornamental houses and long stretches of dense darkness between widely spaced street lanterns. A big half moon hung behind the budding trees, drowning now and then in a slowly passing cloud.
The cabdriver gave Laurin a knowing wink and handed him a card.
‘Tell Doña Elvira I brought you here.’
When Laurin, who hadn’t the faintest idea who Doña Elvira might be, opened his mouth to say something polite but non-committal, Harry interfered briskly.
‘This place is my second home, really. So don’t be put off if the lady doesn’t oblige.’
‘In that case’, said the cabdriver musingly, ‘you might call me whenever you feel like driving home.’
‘I might at that’, replied Harry pleasantly and opened the door.
‘And I might not insist on a tip either.’
‘Sounds great’, agreed Harry. And to Laurin: ‘Come on, move!’
‘We might also discuss a reduction of the fare.’
‘On top of that,’ said the cabby, now with an edge to his voice, ‘I might come and sing an aria under your bathroom window while you’re having a shower.’
Harry’s smile faded. He frowned and said gravely: ‘Better not. My friend here is rather jealous. He might draw the wrong conclusions.’
The cabby shot Laurin a suspicious glance and demanded rudely: ‘So what the hell is he doing here then?!’
‘You better ask him that yourself.’
Harry nodded encouragingly and closed the door behind him. While Laurin struggled out at the other side, the cabby growled under his breath: ‘Well, I’ve seen some sick people around here, believe me. But you two beat them all!’
Laurin watched the lights of the car until they disappeared around a corner.
Pensively he said: ‘You know, Harry, there are moments when I haven’t the faintest idea what on earth you’re talking about.’
‘Really?’ cried Harry. ‘How glad I am. And I thought I was the only one!’
On the broad stairs that led to the second floor, Laurin tried his luck for a last time.
‘I don’t want to bore you with trivialities. But can you tell me where we are going?’
‘Valhalla’, whispered Harry excitedly. ‘A rose-scented Valhalla where you die in the sweetest of all battles and start anew as soon as your… well, you know!’
‘No’, said Laurin, now deeply suspicious. ‘I don’t know!’
‘You’ll know now!’ muttered Harry and knocked on a heavy door. It sounded like a secret signal. The door opened almost immediately and he shook hands with a lean fellow in a white dinner jacket.
‘Don Harold’, murmured the fellow deferentially and cast a hooded glance at Laurin and his humble wardrobe. ‘So glad to see you. Elvira will be delighted….’
Before Harry could introduce his friend, another door flew open and a mountainous woman in a frilled black dress rolled towards them while screeching with joyous surprise. Laurin saw part of a salon with armchairs and a small bar. He heard voices and laughter, the sound of a piano and the excited scream of a young woman.
Elvira cried approvingly: ‘Santa Maria and Josef! Look what a lovely big strapper you’ve brought me today, ‘Arry! The girls will go crazy!’
Laurin stared at her, and finally the nature of the place dawned on him.
As they followed Elvira into the salon, he took Harry’s elbow and hissed: ‘You! This is a brothel, right? You’ve taken me to a damn cathouse without even asking me!’
Harry held in and looked his friend over. For once there lingered no jest, no insolence in his bright blue stare. Very calmly he said: ‘Now listen to me, Laurin O’Leary. You’re twenty-one years old and still a virgin. That is a most serious deficiency! It badly affects your glands and in consequence your common sense. So therefore the time has come to do something about it, and I as your friend have humbly taken it upon me to give you a helping hand.’ He chuckled noisily. ‘Not literally speaking, of course!’
Laurin felt his face redden and his heartbeat accelerating. Every instinct told him to bolt, but a force stronger than all his misgivings made him move on. With lowered eyes he followed Harry to the little bar, sat down on a stool and risked a glance at the scenery.
What he saw made him colour even more.
The next bit is slightly more complex. Its ruminations are an overture to the hero’s slow but relentless conversion from a pleasant and naive appeaser into a man who, towards the end, has seen it all.
He woke slowly. Dew clung to his forehead and he mistook it for cold sweat. The last vestiges of a troubled dream echoed through his mind, but faded when he tried to pin them down.
The jackdaws had already left for their far-flung forays. He made a mental note to drop them some crumbs.
He stretched and went to relieve himself.
The world had put on a misty veil as if to hide from a huge cumulus cloud that hovered above her like an awesome suitor. The fog, low on the ground but endless in every direction, blended seamlessly into a pale sky. No horizon impeded the view, no boundary obstructed the mind. The planet had reduced itself to a small island, silent and lonely.
As he looked slowly about him, he thought that the mood of the morning concurred perfectly with his own.
Ever since the incident on Plaza S. Felipe Neri he felt a growing emptiness, a draining not of life’s sap, but his essential beliefs and the power to sustain them. He tried to stem the tide, argued time-honoured positions to explain the unexplainable, and failed. With every passing hour the void increased and stifled his faith into a munificent Creation. He wondered if the three corpses had triggered a mental cataclysm that might unhinge him in the end, but soon dismissed the idea. His mind was intact. Only the finely woven cocoon that protected it had been torn to shreds.
Next he asked himself if he had carried the seed of doubt already like a hidden disease, and that it only needed a fracas like the one experienced to unlock it.
He searched the immediate past for hints, or unheeded warnings, but soon decided that it didn’t matter anymore. The benevolent God of his youth had abdicated on a chilly morning two days ago, to be replaced by a heathen deity that permitted unspeakable barbarities in the name of Free Choice. Whatever the Man from Nazareth had dreamt up during his brief wanderings was a house of cards that collapsed already during his lifetime, leaving him dangling from a cross as an atonement for his dangerous solecisms. Love and compassion produced lambs in a country of wolves, and only a fool would choose anything but the premium chance for survival.
The unconcern of a hawk striking a mouse confirmed its supremacy, its divine right to be.
And with near despair he began to understand the true extent of his dilemma. The assassins had not only killed three innocent people, but also undercut his raison d’être. It dimly occurred to him that his recent sexual humiliations might play an obscure part in his new loathing of the meek and the gentle, but he refused resolutely to dwell on the possibility.
As he stood there on the little hill, motionless and lost in thought, a cold flame sprung up in the deeper recesses of his heart. He turned his gaze inwards and watched it grow, and realized with another shudder that his revulsion for the faceless murderers was as lethal as theirs.
And while he tried to come to grips with his inner turmoil, he felt suddenly how an emotional counter current set in that seemed to impede his decent into a region whose rational and spiritual implications were impossible to fathom. His recent sojourn in Munich came to his mind, and an episode that had been its extraordinary and deeply disturbing conclusion.
Uneasy tidings, and to mellow them a little, you could cast a quick glance into the Alhambra of Granada. Because there Laurin roams about during a moonlit night, accompanied by a handicapped girl who has bribed the castle’s custodian and so made their visit possible.
Pale moonlight filtered through high windows into a star-shaped ceiling. It shed indistinct rays onto an ever widening fan of glinting, most delicate forms and ornaments, all cascading downwards step by receding step, slowly loosing contour in the deepening shadows, but still overwhelming in their ghostly splendour.
He sat on the low sill of a double-arched window and absorbed the magnificence of the “Hall of the Two Sisters” with a jubilant heart. Barbara’s words had triggered an avalanche, a catharsis that abruptly and gloriously cleared his mind. His sullen confusion, his superstitions, his undefined fear of a sinister entanglement had vanished like a haze. Harry’s “Crimson Goddess” was nothing but a romantic imagination that had somehow triggered his vision in the Club Republicaine. Which he now perceived as a beautiful presentiment, inexplicable most certainly, but marvellous nevertheless.
As he wandered through hall after hall, patio after patio, he saw Gemma moving lightly by his side, her white skin shimmering in the gentle moonlight, her eyes dark-blue lakes, her red mane a flaming torch that even the night could not extinguish. He had a powerful feeling as if sharing the Alhambra with her, and it made his joy almost unbearable.
On his silent round he cast a glance into Charles V palace and dismissed it as an architecture that had lost all sense of proportion. What he saw was the bombast of the Bramantes, cold and heartless in its monumentality, built to impress the gullible masses and to enhance their overlord’s craving ego.
But not a place to dwell in.
Suddenly he understood the secret of the Alhambra.
Here the splendour had been adapted to human dimensions. It didn’t outgrow nature, but tallied with God’s blueprint of Creation. The beautiful buildings and gardens lived in harmony with the inviolable size of a flower, a tree, a drop of falling water. Here a man could still feel like a man, and not like an ant.
With the exception of the lions, so much reduced in size. He smiled as he gazed at the lovely beasts, their mellow demeanour, their age-old concord to sprout water instead of drinking blood.
The thought brought him back to earth. He tried to summon the ghosts of the past, to see the Moorish rulers and their palace as an undivided whole that somehow could reconcile beauty with barbarity. But his mind refused to think the unthinkable. Instead he decided that the nameless Christian artisans who had designed the place with such unearthly skill were solely responsible for its magnificence, and that they had been good men at heart.
Which was an acceptable reason why the Alhambra, like every enchanted place, gave such substance to a beholder’s dreams.
A small sound ended his reverie.
The farther side of the hall opened into the Court of Lions. He could see the fountain clearly, because the moon stood still high enough to dip it into silvery light. Next to it his companion of the night danced a ghostly flamenco. Arms raised high, she turned her body in slow but measured pirouettes while tapping the heels lightly on the tiles. Her eyes were closed and a dreamy smile played on the white face. The tapping was uneven, but the clicking of her fingers evoked a rhythm that went straight under the skin.
As his gaze travelled through the elaborate doorways, past delicate pillars and perfect arcs into the brightly illuminated court and its lonely dancer, the whole place became hauntingly alive. Time touched lightly upon eternity. The night, his night, merged with ages long gone by and ceased to have a past or future.
She could not see him, sitting there in the dark. He lifted his hands and gave her a soundless applause. She was happy, it was obvious, and he knew that her happiness added to his own joy and deepened it even more.
Early morning finds the two lovers still by the river.
Time consumed during the flick of an eyelid.
One tenth of a second… or a lifespan?
He stared at the shadowy tree on the opposite bank and wondered if the bird would return. Then he saw that the night had almost passed, because a faint glow in the east heralded Aurora and her rose-fingered hosts.
Incomparable Homer, he thought, his mind still adrift.
His dream, the most vivid ever dreamt, reclaimed him with frightful intensity. As the memory of its grandiose panorama unfolded before his inner eye, he perceived two realities, and for a moment failed to understand which one was the more authentic. But slowly, very slowly, his mind began to clear. The phantoms of the night receded accordingly, and he ascribed his deeply disturbing impressions to an aftermath of Grandma Lor’s tonic.
Finally he took heart and turned around.
Gemma, half covered by the red blanket, was still asleep. He bent down and watched how the lovely face unveiled itself in the slowly gathering light. And with an immense relief that made his pulse throb high in the throat, he knew that it needed only a kiss to wake her up.
When the sun rose above the land, they swam again.
As he began to dress, he saw her kneeling by the river and rinsing the blanket. She was still naked. Strangely touched, he asked if he could help.
She looked up at him with a shy smile and murmured: ‘Just a few drops of blood. They come off easily…’
This chapter spells serious trouble for the hero.
He felt like a mollusc that had risen from the depths of an infinite ocean into an unfamiliar world where the light was painful and every sound distorted.
His mouth tasted as if a horde of baboons had used it for summer holidays.
The pain in his armpits was agonizing.
His ankles were shackled with iron bilboes. His wrists, tied behind the back, had been pulled up and lashed to the bodega’s heavy beam. He knelt awkwardly in the dust, the torso bent forward, unable to move an inch.
He groaned as events fell back into place.
His first reaction was dull, racking incomprehension. When his mind began to clear again, dread engulfed him and soon became all-encompassing. He understood with terrible clarity that Caldera had been debased into a place of utter darkness. Ethics and common sense as he knew them had succumbed to bizarre superstitions. Whatever shreds of humanness his captors might have once possessed, they were all but forgotten and replaced by the vilest, most barbaric instincts possible.
In a parenthesis clearly triggered by subconscious recognitions long since in place, he despaired not so much of the priest’s outrage and the complicity of his flock, but of the bitter realisation how a tyranny unfettered by basic human morals must work once a people had been ensnared by it. What happened to him right now was happening in many countries, even so-called democracies. Proof had been hard to come by, but rumours abounded and nobody questioned them in earnest. Real or supposed enemies of the state were thrown into prison without trial, tortured if thought to possess dangerous knowledge, and shot. He, or anybody he knew, had shrugged the shoulders and left it at that.
Once again the timeless, terrible dilemma overwhelmed him with force: to close the eyes and survive, or to speak up and perish. How heroic must one get, he wondered as his despair became abysmal, what inordinate amount of self-denial can life demand from a committed appeaser like myself?
His predisposition to blame himself before anybody else got unexpectedly the upper hand, and he thought with a rush of perverse satisfaction that whatever happened to him right now was in fact an atonement for his past indifference.
With an effort he lifted his head.
The square was nearly empty. A few people milled about, looking now and then into his direction, but strangely detached as if observing a truce. The door of the church stood wide open. He could hear voices, but they sounded like a noise under water. Dimly he wondered if the crowd had gone home to fortify itself with a quick dinner for the spectacle of his execution.
The shadows began to grow long. A small, independent part of his mind knew that hours had passed since his arrival in Caldera.
His arms were numb. Pain infested the rest of his body with a low-burning fire. He believed his eyes to be bloodshot, because the world had drowned in a reddish haze. It was therefore without surprise when he saw the slowly returning crowd aglow with rusty halos. They looked like stunted, stubborn demons out of a Bosch Inferno, and when the priest appeared, his cassock glinting purplish at the edges, he seemed a perfect impersonation of the Evil One himself.
His face was flushed with feral excitement, as if he had worked himself up for the occasion.
‘Are you ready to confess now?’ he inquired sweetly and without any preamble.
‘Bloody swine’, croaked Laurin into the dust. ‘Dirty, fucking bugger! Stinking crock! You’ll pay for this. All of you!’
One of the praetorians grabbed his hair, forced the head up and held something under his nose. Uncomprehending, he made out carpenter’s pincers with blunt jaws.
‘We start with your fingernails and then move on to your private parts’, announced the priest with deep satisfaction.
Before Laurin grasped fully what was meant by the words, an excruciating pain soared through his whole body. He screamed and retched uncontrollably as slime blocked nose and throat. Tears shot into his eyes. The scream petered out in a shrieking sob. When the priest giggled excitedly, Laurin knew beyond doubt that he had reached the end of the road, that they would kill him as they had killed the harlot Santana.
But something happened.
He heard the priest’s astonished gasp and a collective hiss that quickly turned into a roar. With a superhuman effort he looked up.
A female voice wailed: ‘The witch has come! Oh aye!’
A frantic rush of bodies and the crowd made a lane.
Gemma stood in the slanting light, her mane flaming, the eyes ablaze as she stared with a shocked, deathly pale face at her much reduced lover. Who stared back and saw finally what really made her supposed witchery so frightfully authentic and infernal.
It was the bear by her side.
His shaggy torso seemed a shadowy bulk with imprecise outlines that made him look larger than life. Clearly aware of the intense enmity, he flung his mighty head from side to side while pulling back his fleeces and revealing the formidable teeth. A ferocious growl rose incessantly from the depths of his chest. His clear brown eyes had a furious gleam.
Suddenly he recognized his friend and guardian and ambled forward.
‘No!’ croaked Laurin.
But it was to late. A flock of people, the dense faces distorted with hatred and disgust, closed in on Gemma like birds of prey. She screamed shrilly. Urs held in, swung his massive body around and rushed back with frightening speed. He fell onto the attackers just as one laid hands on her. Laurin, who had only heard him battling the wild boars, watched ecstatically how the powerful animal cut down the humans one by one with lightening blows. To the half-crazed villagers, and better folks than them, he really must have looked like an emissary straight out of hell.
Panic ensued. Now in full flight, people fell over each other while trying frantically to get away. Four men lay motionless, one with his skull smashed in. A few others, among them a woman, crept feebly about like poisoned cockroaches.
The priest yelled: ‘Get the twelve-bores, you idiots!’
Next comes the prelude to the drama’s horrendous climax.
Gonzalo went to sleep in the lorry’s cabin, and Toro did the same on a thin mattress between the crates. When Laurin looked for a last time at the square, he found it empty. Even the blood had disappeared, shovelled over with light brown earth. From the closed church came now and then a long-drawn wail, strangely ululating, and he believed it to be the priest on his long and lonely journey to Hell.
In a backroom Gemma found two rickety old beds with smelly sheets.
They laid down on one while Urs curled himself around a door post, thus effectively blocking the way.
They did not undress and held each other tight.
‘We have been fortunate’, she murmured with a shiver.
‘We have, my dearest heart’, he agreed softly. ‘The Gods were lenient today.’
A long moment passed, and he thought she had gone to sleep.
But she hadn’t.
‘These men who saved our lives’, she mused, now in a whisper. ‘What are their intentions? What is their mission, really? Did the Englishman give you a clue?’
He thought it over and told her, and like her came to the conclusion that the clue had been very vague indeed.
‘Let us return to the monastery at first light’, she proposed with calm but intense urgency.
‘Of course’, he agreed, faintly surprised.
‘Even if Ventura asks you to stay.’
His surprise deepened.
‘Why do you think he might ask me that?’
‘I saw how he watched you speaking English. Perhaps he wants you to translate.’
‘Where? For Toro?’
‘Or others. From what Gonzalo told me, there are many foreigners who have volunteered for the International Brigades. And nearly all do not speak Spanish.’
He remembered the Commandante’s question about the road to the monastery, and again felt a chill in his heart.
But he said evenly: ‘If he does, I can’t refuse. It’s a question of honour, I’m afraid. After all, he has saved our lives. Don’t you agree?’
As she buried her face in his chest, he felt the shudder that run through her whole body.
‘I thought you would say that’, she whispered forlornly.
He held her as tight as he dared and felt the pain returning into his thumb and arms. After a while her breathing became measured and hardly audible, and soon afterwards he lapsed as well into a troubled sleep.
If you have followed me so far, I am grateful. And I believe there’s a chance that you might like the whole thing. To round it off, I’ll give you the last page as well. I do it simply because I like a happy-end, and usually make sure that this is guaranteed in the paperback I’m contemplating to buy while hanging out in one of my favourite bookshops.
The little hill resounded with laughter and well-wishing, more tears were cried, memories exchanged, compliments uttered or received, and slowly the little crowd began to move downhill towards the great banquet.
Gemma asked Laurin to stay behind for a moment. They sat side by side on the blanket, holding hands while cherishing the moment with a happiness that had no room for words. As Laurin looked at the slowly receding congregation, a painting from the Romantic period came to his mind that he had seen in an exhibition while passing through Germany. It showed elegantly robed devotees in a sacred wood, kneeling in front of a simple altar that stood in a meadow overflowing with a thousand flowers. Incense burnt in a silver chalice and the smoke rose slowly into the still air. Through a gap in the trees the sunlit columns of a Greek temple could be seen.
The whole scene radiated, under its patent artificiality, a splendour and serenity that was striking. As he kept gazing at it, strangely stirred and inspired, he caught a glimpse of the painter’s vision, his dream that one day, one day after many a summer, mankind’s final and highest achievement could look like this.
He sighed, deep and contentedly. Stretching himself, he turned and glanced at his incomparable spouse.
‘There is something I always wanted to ask you’, he said softly.
She frowned, unsure of his drift.
He allowed for an artful pause while scanning the sky with narrowed eyes.
‘Do you love me?’
She did not answer. Instead she turned and kissed his ear, so fleetingly, so very gently that no court in the world would have accepted it as evidence.
But the Gods did.