Andrea’s eyes were wide with terror. His heart raced so that every breath was a labor. He was suddenly cold and shivered nearly uncontrollably. As Salah shrieked at him, the smell of garlic and curry on his breath was overwhelming and his powerful voice, a voice that had reached its limit, cracked with rage like that of an adolescent boy.
“What kind of man are you?” Andrea stuttered.
Salah was overcome with fury at Andrea’s ignorance and his willing arrogance. His friend was dead, murdered and no one seemed to care, least of all the authorities and this Italian dog! If he were blind, Salah would not make him see. If he were ignorant, Salah would not make him know! If he could not understand that beyond the color of skin, they were both men, then Salah would show him that both of them had blood that was red and flowed when released to anger! He pulled a small very sharp knife from his robe. The flat of the blade was laid across Andrea’s cheek as he continued to rave.
“And only now that you fear for the spilling of your blood, am I to be called a man? And even so, to have that likeness questioned? Do you think that I will not kill you? Are you so sure that I would not take your miserable life, here, face to face, that you would speak to me so?
Andrea’s breath came in spasms and he could not close his eyes though he desperately wished that he could. He was going to be murdered here in the court of the Church of Pity, him, Andrea Morucchio, a man on a mission of compassion, of pity to be murdered even as he tried to save a life.
“You, you would not kill me in the house of God?” He gasped.
There was an ephemeral refractive glint that flashed across the gloom as Salah turned the blade and slipped it under Andrea’s chin. A small thin line of blood began to run the length of the blade as it scored the supple flesh near his collarbone.
“Whose God?” Salah screamed. “Whose God? And wasn’t Masu’ud murdered in the house of God? Does God care only for you then, and not Masu’ud? Does your God care only for you, for Italians and not for the Marocchini? What kind of selfish God do you worship?”
From the knotted circle of men standing around Salah and Andrea, a tall impossibly thin man with fine chiseled features stepped forward. He put a lean delicate hand on Salah’s shoulder and though he barely spoke above a whisper, his resonant baritone voice fairly boomed through the night.
“Salah… and would you become like him now?”
Andrea did not understand the language they spoke.
Salah jerked his head left and glared at the man for daring to interrupt.
“Do not become involved in this, Haji. I am the Capo here.” He snarled.
“And would I let you take the life of this man, here, in a place where Allah is worshipped?”
“Allah? Allah!” Salah howled. “Here is not the place of Allah!”
“Here is the place where God is worshipped, no matter the name that is visited. Allah is known by many names, Salah, and we have made ready to call him for the Surah, the Morning Prayer. Would you invoke His name having killed a man; with blood on your hands and in your heart? Would you go to stand before Allah and beg mercy when you have shown none? The man who would beg for mercy must first be merciful, Salah!” The Haji chided gently.
“I do not beg this dog for mercy!” Salah answered furiously.
“You beg him to understand you, to understand us; is that not a cry for mercy?” The Haji asked. He is ignorant, yes. He is unenlightened, ‘tis true, and for this, shall he pay with his life? Does not Allah offer him the same opportunity for grace?”
Salah released his grip on Andrea and stood facing the Haji, a man of pilgrimage to Mecca, his knife still clutched dangerously in his hand. “Haji…” he cautioned.
“No.” The Haji continued to speak gently, “You will spare him and after you have prayed to Allah, after you have begged forgiveness for the murder in your heart, you will tell him all you know. He is a dead man for coming anyway. Would you deny him the truth, a truth that will cost him his life?”
Salah closed his eyes and dropped his hands to his side, his anger soothed but the pain still evident in his face and voice as he spoke, “And what of Masu’ud?” He pleaded, “Who will pay?”
“Masu’ud has care enough; care for which you and I yearn for he is with Allah. Do not worry for him. Go and begin. I will instruct the Italian to wait.”
Salah moved from the small halo of firelight to the edges of the darkness to make ready for his prayers.
“Signor,” the Haji began as he turned to Andrea, “The time of our prayers is nearly come. Wait, no harm will visit you while you are here. We will speak when the Surah is finished. Stay near the fire. You will be given a cloak to keep you warm.”
The Haji spoke softly to one of the men in the circle. The man disappeared for a few seconds and then returned with a wool blanket that he draped over Andrea’s shoulders. He then pointed to the fire and simply said, “Aspetta, wait.”
As the world had waited for centuries while men of faith prayed to their Gods, Andrea took his place near the fire and breathed into his hands to keep them warm like the Disciples had done at the trial of Christ.
Atop the Mosé, in the early morning chill, Mirko Cofau spoke to Bruno, “Instruct him.”
The bells of the Church of Pity peeled the call to matins and in the cloisters, the Priests, well into their mass, began their Liturgy of the Eucharist, “From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made…”
Bruno stepped deftly to one side and drove his left elbow into the bridge of Martin’s nose. Martin’s knees buckled under him and he heard the awful sickening crunch of cartilage as it crumpled under the weight of the blow.
The Marocchini stood in the seminal darkness facing east, facing Mecca and in unison knelt to their faces and began, “Bismillah Ar-rahman ar-raheem, In the name of God the most beneficent, the most merciful…”
Martin’s head snapped violently back and he heard the joints of his neck compress as his lips were smashed against Bruno’s hardened knuckles.
From minarets in towns and villages throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the world, the mellifluous voices of righteous criers called the faithful to the holy scriptures of the Qur’an, to pray and give thanks to Allah.
His left ear was torn and his eye filled with blood as his cheek ruptured.
Sitting in the firelight, the smell of curry, ginger and incense hanging in the darkness; the fragrance of spice, of sweat and ardor permeating the wool that rubbed against his bloodied neck, Andrea felt his eyes glaze over as if the very breath of God had swept across them and the mantra of the men in prayer filled his ears and the perfumed night air.
“On the night he was betrayed… he broke the bread.” The Priests murmured, and in the gloom and celibate dust of the sacristy, loaves were torn. As the marble eyes of the saints that did not see stared on, the Priests intoned their liturgy with animate fire as the oil lamps flickered in the obscure malaise of the sanctuary, “This my body which will be given up for you…”
Martin staggered toward the railing, his soiled overcoat flapping in the strident wind like a cape and hung onto the steel bars for life. Bruno grabbed him by the neck and dragged him away from the precipice, raining blows on him from all directions.
“All the praises and thanks be to Allah, the Lord of all mankind…” The Marocchini chanted in a consonant hypnotic unison.
Somewhere in the vast city of water, a Gregorian Cantorum seeped into the stolid listless gloom; Monks, in their heavy robes, lifting the fragile timbre of their voices from under their hoods to the ears of God, even as Allah listened to the supplication of his faithful; even as Martin crawled across the steel deck plates of the Mosé, blood and water oozing from the wounds on his face. A sanguine copper pungency filled his mouth. He was pulled sideways and then down as his arm was snapped at the elbow across Bruno’s knee. He was vaguely aware of his own screams as he collapsed to the metal deck.
As the guileless soprano voices of young boys embraced the monastic ears of the astral sky above the cupolas of the ancient city, the Cantorum began to swim over on itself in a circular round of euphonic Latin congruence and mercy, forgiveness and reprieve were petitioned in the hearts of each individual man for the multitude of sins, of which we are all guilty.
“The only owner of the day of recompense, You alone we worship…” The Marocchini whispered, and then stood and then knelt again, kissing their prayer books before burying their faces in their hands.
Another savage blow to his ribs and he could no longer breathe.
“This is the cup of my blood, take this and drink…”
A bestial kick and then another was delivered to his fetal form as it curled on the steel.
“Guide us in the straight way… the way of those on whom you have bestowed your grace…” the resonant voices of the Marocchini chanted, “not the way of those who earned your anger… of those who went astray…”
“Do this in memory of me.” The Priests murmured.
Martin writhed on the deck high atop the Mosé, begging, crying, and bleeding.
“Please,” he sobbed, “I’ll tell you anything. Please…”
A reverenced intimate hush fell across the diffused stars as all of creation waited with breathless apprehension while prayers were murmured in the hearts of all that knelt in shame before God, begging forgiveness, and in that silent endless moment, the world stood quavering with doubt and loathing as He looked upon all he had created and, as a father with an errant son, took pity.
There was a stirring, a rustling of clothing as the Marocchini finished their prayers and then stood. Two more very small fires were lit with brands from the one where Andrea sat, as the men began their morning ablutions in silence.
When the Eucharist was complete, the lamps in the sanctuary were snuffed out and the bread that was torn in rite as the body of Christ was kept for the pigeons. As the Priests made ready for their duties, all that was left in the sacristy was a thin blue vale of smoke and the echoes of devotion squirming in the dark corners.
Andrea wondered at what he had witnessed. Men of faith in prayer… “Men.” He thought to himself.
When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson.
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