March Madness Flash Fiction: GOD PROVIDES by John Oakes
TODAY’S BREW: Starbuck’s Autumn Roast and it was on clearance.
John Oakes makes my world a better place. That was before I had to gouge my eyes out following reading this story. Jesus, he is a brilliant author. Good LORD, this is disturbing and stunning and John promises me Constanza will get what’s coming to him in the sequel to DEATH POPE. (Buy DEATH POPE for a damn buck. http://t.co/IvrMyQW3lg) Go find Oakesy on Twitter and watch us be horrible to each other. https://twitter.com/JohnTOakes
“When Julie asked if I wanted to write some flash fiction for her “March Madness,” one particular madman came to mind, one of the villains in my forthcoming novel, DEATH POPE: Black Flame, the sequel to DEATH POPE, book 1. It’s pretty dark, but dark villains are all that much more fun to do bad things to, right? So, without further ado…Ahem.”
by John Oakes
Constanza muttered curses at the smoky candle flame before him on the table. He leaned his heavy frame on his elbows and swayed on his bench, drunk on wine he was sipping straight from the bottle. He drank often, so it had taken three bottles of the most perfect Chianti to get him in this state, gifts from his wealthy benefactor, the man in Umbria who paid for his righteous work. God always provided to his most loyal servants, that much Constanza knew.
He passed his fingers over the flame, willing it to burn him, but his fingers moved too fast. The fire was his servant, not the other way around. Had it always been that way? No. In his youth, the flames had beguiled at him. He had to burn in order to feel alive. He had to feel his skin blister and smell his hair burning in order to climax when he touched himself. He wanted women, but wanted the burning more. He was never a dashing lad, and the few women who would consider lying beneath his fat, sweaty body did not like the burning one bit. They called him names. They spread rumors.
The Church was the only way to fix that. Celibacy was a fine trade for a little respect.
He brought the squat bottle to his wet lips and took a hearty pull. He set the bottle down and muttered at the candle, “But those bitches learned, didn’t they? When they burned?”
Women had a unique way of disrespecting order. It was why they were such easy targets of Satan. You had to make them respect order. You had to punish those who actively worked against God’s order, who spread discord with sorcery. You had to make examples out of them, bright and public, so that all who witnessed their end would know to turn away from the Devil.
That was why God gifted Friar Benicio Constanza with cases of fine wine, with money to pay his men.
Because he did the work.
Eugenio appeared at the doorway, rapped a knuckle on the wood. “This one’s ready. Painted up. Ready to confess.”
Constanza inhaled through his nose and stood carefully from his table. He picked up a heavy ledger bound in canvas with sturdy pages that would last an age. Here he made his notes, kept his records. Here was where he decided if a witch had been hatched, or if a suspect was merely eccentric or rebellious, only in need of firm correction. He carried it under and arm, out of the room, down the stone passageway, following Eugenio to the exit of the monastery, out into the cold night air of Orvieto. His six men all wore half helms and leather armor, all finely made, purchased by Constanza. Their clothing was otherwise poor and tattered. These were despised men, not seen worthy to even serve as mercenaries. But he’d found them, one by one, and reformed them, taught them the way of things, taught them to do this shadowy work.
Constanza stepped into the carriage and sat beside Leonardo, a rangy man with a patchy scruff of beard and a look of pure blackness in his eyes. But they’d turned that blackness toward holier pursuits now. He nodded silently to Constanza, but said nothing. There was nothing to say, only to do.
Two men rode on the driver’s bench, one on the rear runner, and two more with the horse cart behind them. In train, they made their way in this strange but charming town to a central plaza. Barkers had done their work, and word of the spectacle had brought out the masses despite the temperature. Constanza rubbed at his arms. It rarely ever got this cold in Rome. He looked forward to returning south when his assignment was completed. Never worry, Constanza consoled himself, this night would warm up soon enough.
The man on the runner and Eugenio on the driver’s bench hopped down and helped to clear a path through the crowd. They arrived at the center of the square, near a hastily but well-built structure. Constanza alighted from the carriage and examined it. The base was firm, the logs well painted with pitch, the stacks of kindling beneath built to take fire immediately. The central post of the pyre stood silent sentinel over every witness in the plaza.
The roar of the crowd in its fervor pleased him. Not all the crowds were this enthusiastic. These were the most fertile grounds to sew the fear of God.
His men worked with the small contingent of Orvieto constables to keep the press at bay, while Leonardo and Pico took the girl from the cart. Her soft moans were drowned out by the crowd. Rotten fruit and vegetables flew in from all sides, abusing his men more than the witch between them.
They took her up the steps and lashed her to the pyre, and when they removed the hood from her head, the crowd gasped. Indeed, her face was a mask of horror. Blackened eyes, broken nose, blood pouring from cheek and mouth, her face hanging between sweat and tear-soaked hanks of curly black hair. The look of agony on her face did little to improve her looks.
She was plump, Constanza noticed. That was good. The plump ones burned brighter.
“They did her good!”
“Beat the devil out of her!”
“Burn the witch!”
“Light it before she can hex us!”
Constanza held his ledger aloft and turned about slowly, until the crowd quieted in outward ripples.
He called out in his booming voice the case against her. Her bundles of strange herbs and pickings from the forest. The fact that two children had gone missing in the village near her home. Then to annunciate the final evidence, he stepped up on the pyre and tore a rent in her dirty woolen shift, exposing her midriff and the pagan symbols painted on.
“The devil’s mark!” he boomed. “She bears his seed!”
The crowd’s shock only intensified their fervor.
Now was the time. No further preaching was needed to agitate this crowd.
He stepped down and took the torch from the constable.
“Now confess your crimes!”
The witch coughed and sobbed and began mumbling.
“Louder,” he demanded.
“I confess that I have bedded the Devil, that I practice dark magics. I ask to be burned to…”
“…to purify myself.”
Constanza held the torch aloft and turned amidst the crowd, taking in their enraptured faces, before lowering it and lighting the pyre.
He stood back with his men, as the fire took hold in earnest. The scent of burning pitch sent a shiver up his spine. The screaming stiffened him, so that he had to hold his ledger before his waist. The scent of burning skin and hair mingled with the rush and roar of the flames, forced his eyes shut in ecstasy. Waves of pleasure flowed through him until he exploded with a grunt and a hunching of his shoulders.
He sighed, and sweat beaded on his forehead, as the relief flooded his body. He looked up at the bright bonfire and narrowed his eyes at the light which had replaced her darkness. One more vile soul had been cleansed, and he could leave this cold town. He knew not where his duties would lead him next, but he knew one thing.
God would provide.