Nine vignettes asking the questions: Who really enjoys 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 the long, dark gossamer tendrils of a celestial man-of-war descending through ether, through the high, indiscernible stone ceiling, through scream-filled air, there to melt into wrists and ankles, chest and hair, and now silently to shift in the poor light, savoring the pain.
There are other, coarser strands, though they are 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, he would say anything if only he could, but he no longer owns a tongue. He would sign, he 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 torturer 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 again-and-again-and-again confessed Marrano. And while he screams he can see those fine strands in the air above him—to him they appear like so many dark 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 with new air he 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, to the torturer this is just another job. He is very good at his job. He is long since inured to screams. The torturer plies his trade at the behest of the third man, a man who does not quite smile while regarding 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. Still, this man 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 man, 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 evil.
Arnaud de Tierra was born to Jewish parents and was—as was the custom among Spanish Jews at the time—circumcised shortly after birth, forever to bear witness to his heritage, forever unable to hide this heritage.
His father, a prudent bookkeeper, afforded young Arnaud a good education in the art of numbers, which eventually led to his employment, at age twenty-four, with the Holy Church. His charge was to keep the books, the real books, those not shown the emissaries of the Pope. And this he did. Skillfully and discreetly. Arnaud de Tierra, no so long ago, knew many Holy Church secrets. Now he knows only pain and hopes only for death, though if truth be told he is beyond hoping.