Eight vignettes, eight episodes of evil. Who really enjoys the pain? Who gains by it? Are we capable of such deeds, or are we simply puppets, dancing at the end of long, invisible strands that both control and savor? More
The finer strands sway in the warm, dusky air, perceptible only to the dying. No, perhaps not strands; they are more like long, white gossamer inklings of a remote and metaphysical man-of-war falling, reaching down from high above, down through ether, down through the high, indiscernible stone ceiling, down through scream-filled air to melt into wrists and ankles, chest and hair, to silently shift in the poor light, to savor.
There are other, coarser strands, though not strands either, but leather thongs, wet not so long ago, drying now and contracting from the heat of nearby coals, from the heat of red iron, from the heat of straining muscle, and now contracting into skin slippery with blood, bursting now into flesh and muscle, exposing bone and shortening again to stretch arms out of their sockets with soft sucking cracking sounds, inaudible, though, under his screams.
Oh, he would talk now, would say anything, if only he could, but he no longer owns a tongue. He would sign, would sign anything now, if only he could write, but what were once his knuckles are now only fragments within broken and discolored skin, anchoring fingers no longer recognizable, as the thongs, now with the aid of whole and skillful muscle, shorten still, to almost sever hand from arm.
The thing on the rack who screams has a name: Arnaud de Tierra, and, for a long hour now, an over-and-over confessed Marrano. And while he screams he can see those finer strands in the air above him—to him they appear like so many white threads rising for the ceiling—as they reach down and now enter his one remaining eye.
Almost miraculously, Arnaud de Tierra finds his lungs still working and screams again.
There are two other men in this dark place, neither of whom screams.
To the one man with whole and skillful muscle, to the one well-practiced at turning the rollers tighter and tighter at the behest of the third man, this is just another job. He’s good at it. He’s inured to screams. He plies his trade at the behest of the third man, a man who does not quite smile but who regards the Marrano with bright hungry eyes.
The third man is a priest of the Holy Church. His name is Jaques Amilhac. His task is to extract from this screaming thing a confession, though he is now far past succeeding: no more can or will be said by this Marrano, but he does not yet consider his duty done, not as long as the torn body breathes, not as long as it still hides potential pain. This man, this not quite smiling one, does not see, nor does he feel the finer strands, how they find him, too, and how they as eagerly enter through his shoulders and arms, chest and eyes, to savor.