“Love in the Age of the Inquisition” by Nathan Batchelor
When the people want blood, you give them blood. And that day in the square of La Osa, with the smell of the ocean, spit-cooked pork, and heretic piss wafting over the sunbaked streets of that Spanish portside town, I gave them blood.
I spoke to the crowd from the platform erected for the murderer’s beheading.
“And though the devil has stolen from us a number of our fold,” I said, watching the fearful movements of a peasant boy who clung to his mother’s dress. “We have found the wolf who lay beneath the sheep’s fleece.”
Shouts went up among the hundreds of peasants, merchants in their aprons, carpenters speckled with sawdust, fishermen who smelled of their game:
“Gut the sinner like he did our girls.”
“For God. For Justice.”
I lowered my eyes, then lowered my hand.
Sound of metal hitting bone. Dying scream of the villain cut short by the axe. The head fell into the wicker basket, and the smell of copper, the smell of guilt overpowered everything.
Hamlet, the executioner, stared upon the lifeless body with a childlike wonder, evidence of his pleasure bulging below his enormous, stretchmark-laden belly, pressing against the leather of his pants.
I seemed to be the only one to notice Hamlet’s excitement. Peasants stumbled back to their stations, hovels, jobs, or vegetable carts that split from the La Osa square like roots of a tree. They were momentarily sated by the bloodshed, and I thought for a moment that my job in La Osa was done.
“Does the sight of death make you excited, simpleton?” I asked Hamlet.
He took a step back at the sound of my voice. These lowborns, they are so ready to serve, so ready to receive direction in their pitiful lives.
“I am sorry, Inquisitor,” Hamlet said. “But this man’s wife howled with pleasure every night while her husband was with her, she did. Now she ain’t got no cock for her hen. You know what I mean?”
“And you think you could be that cock?”
Hamlet licked his lips, gums absent of teeth. He removed his hood. His short, upturned nose—pig-like features—turned my stomach.
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe I could show her a time she couldn’t forget.”
“You cannot, filth,” I said, slapping him across his stupid face. “This man, though a drunk and a murderer, was a pickle maker. His wife will marry a man who can take care of her and her children, not a monster with a stupid, malformed face who lives in a sty that reeks of shit.”
Before I could finish scolding the lecherous Hamlet, a peasant pulled upon the arm of my robe, his dirty fingers leaving a sooty splotch upon the Church’s red vestments.
“Inquisitor Urso, my girls still fear for their lives,” he said. “They say they heard a beast howling last night, out in the wood. They believe the killer is still at large, that the wounds upon the dead were not inflicted by any man.”
“Preposterous,” I told him. “God shines upon me the light of knowledge. Show your girls the villain’s head as it lies in this basket and they will sleep like the bears in winter.”
Though I knew the man I had fingered for these murders was not the brute who had been slaughtering the town’s fairest maidens. This drunk was merely a scapegoat chosen by me to ease the tide of fear that had assaulted La Osa.
I turned away from the worried father to Hamlet to resume my sermon, but the executioner had already begun to sulk back to his hut near the edge of the wood across town. He pulled an ornate chain of jewelry from the front of his pants and placed it around his neck. It sparkled in the summer sun.
Strange, I thought. The likes of Hamlet could not afford such jewelry. Where could he get such a treasure? He had no family, and the necklace could not be the gift of some maiden. The nature of his vocation was so vile that no girl whose family could afford such luxuries would ever be seen publicly with the likes of him.
I found the constable in the market district. He had not been present at the execution because he lacked the fortitude for such necessities.
“Constable Piggaron,” I whispered.
Piggaron glared at me, sweating profusely. He was a lean thing of a man, shoulder bones threatening to poke through his tunic. “Inquisitor…I…I… don’t feel good about what we did. Castillo was a good—”
I pressed my finger to his lips. “Don’t speak his name. He was a drunk, dead and better off for it. Besides, I read the records. What did that man ever give to the church besides brine and pickles too sour?”
The constable merely fumbled with the stick of mint that tottered on his lips.
“Nothing. He only took and took and took,” I said. “I’m going out tonight to further investigate the murders. It seems our executioner has in his possession some secrets.”
“I’ll rouse the men,” Piggaron said.
“No,” I said firmly. “As the sun sets, I will question him on my own. Let the townspeople savor the justice we carried out today before we steal it from their mouths. You will meet me at midnight at Hamlet’s hovel. If he is guilty of some crime, we will take him in as the cock crows.”
The murders had begun at the onset of summer, with the daughter of Julius, a landowner who was one of the Church’s largest donors in this region. I arrived in La Osa shortly after. When questioned, Julius said he had discovered the body of his daughter in the common room of his house, split from chest to sex, blood splattered upon the walls and ceiling. Though Julius spoke of demons and devils as the perpetrators, I knew better. I have seen the vileness of humanity. The only monsters in this world are those that walk upon two feet and cheat the church of its tithes.
The streets were busy that evening as I set out to Hamlet’s abode with my bag of confession tools. The smell of the deceased still lingered over the melon carts and market stalls. Light and laughter escaped from the town tavern where Godless men and women carried out song and debauchery.
As I neared Hamlet’s hovel in the shadow of the dark wood, the flicker of a candle escaped from his lone window. A silhouette, his I presumed, bobbed rhythmically from within. The strange man was dancing, nude and excited, to his hums of a church hymnal. The notes off-key, and the song sounded more a dirge for the devil.
What I spied gave me such a jolt that I stopped and hunkered beneath the dirty, primitive window. The thump of my heart sounded above the murmur of insects, the sound of the waves crashing upon the shore.
Hamlet had donned the skin of a wolf, the head of the beast fitted snuggly upon his own, his simple eyes taking on a new brightness behind the visage of the predator. Had these furs imbued him with the ferocity to commit murder? I wondered. Perhaps in a mind as simple as his, they had.
There would be time for an interrogation later, I told myself. Seeing his sexuality in full display made my lips quiver, made me rise and brush against the interior of my robe. I splayed open my bag of confession tools and in the light of the moon donned my own bestial garment, the furs of the bear. I burst through Hamlet’s door. Startled, he stopped his gyration, and turned to me.
“Inquisitor Urso?” he said, cocking his head to the side, gazing upon my own attire.
“All men have desires,” I said, crossing the soiled, dirty floor. “It seems yours and mine have aligned.”
His eyes shrunk behind his mask as I approached, as he saw the bear skin that enveloped me, that hid my features behind the pelt of a greater, more wonderful beast than his wolf.
I fingered the jewelry Hamlet had cast upon a straw and hide mannequin. A mannequin with a hole cratered out of it below the torso, a hole lubed with the fat of pork, the proper size for a small deformed man’s small deformed parts.
“How did you acquire such things?” I asked him, holding the chain above the candlelight, my shadow engulfing Hamlet. He was small, perhaps the smallest man I’d ever showed my true nature to.
“Were you there with the girls who were slain?” I asked.
“Inquisitor, I…I…” he mumbled.
I edged close to him and bent him over his own bed, a mess of shit-stained straw, his own and that of the animals he’d taken the straw from.
“Did you take this from one of the girls? Must I make you confess?” I asked, pulling the few strands of hair balled at the back of his head, making his back arch as I slipped inside of him. In the throes of lust and power, I ripped fur from his wolf’s hide. His nails sunk deep into my own flesh out of fear, out of submission. “The beast, my lord, the beast did the things to those girls,” he cried.
“Do not hide behind the animal, my son,” I said. “We all must answer for our sins.”
He turned to look in my eyes, sunk deep behind my ursine mask. He began to cry and babble.
“This is your confession,” I said. “In the morning, we will come for you. Tonight, the constable will keep watch over your hovel.”
He limped bowlegged to his bucket of water, drops of blood marking his trail upon the straw floor. He drank and cleaned himself like an animal.
“I trust you will behave tonight,” I said, and left the sinner to his painful moans.
After packing my bear skin away, I stayed outside Hamlet’s hovel until Piggaron arrived, twirl of mint between his teeth.
“Is…Is he guilty of what you suspected?” the constable asked.
“Hamlet has confessed to the murders of the maidens,” I said.
“But he seemed so…so…”
“Dumb? Innocent? Those descriptors are the masks under which sinners hide,” I said. “I trust you can remain here till morning, without letting him slip away?”
Piggaron’s eyes darted away from me. In hindsight, I should have known he was not trustworthy. “Yes…Yes, of course,” he said.
“I have other matters to attend,” I said and left him.
I bathed myself in the waters of the river, scrubbing myself of Hamlet’s stink. It was then I realized the desires of the bear still clouded my thoughts. There was a place I knew where such desires could be carried out.
I ventured along the woodland edge until I came to the lonely wooden shack where hunters skinned and hung pelts, where they dressed their game. A few poor-quality pelts were hung up to dry in the open window. The shadow of the hides stretching long across the grass in the moonlight.
The local priests had told me of this spot. Every town along the coast had such a place, where strong men could come at night to satisfy their needs. The scent of the hunting den—stale meat and dried blood—flooded my senses as I once again donned the hide of the bear.
Inside the hut, by the touch of my hand, I discovered a waiting recipient for the bear’s lust. I tasted the salt of the man’s beard as we kissed, as he turned from the strength in my hand and leaned upon the table to receive the gift of the bear.
After that man left, another came. This man was unexperienced, bony hands and hips that I guided in the dark. He began to cry, and I calmed him with whispers in his ear.
A scream went up in the air, not mine nor his, but that of a woman, a young woman. I tore from the man. He fumbled with his pants in the dark and passed me, running out into the night. The scent of mint filled the air.
“Constable?” I cried. “Is that…?”
I saw his face in the moonlight, the unconfident eyes, the man who was too weak for the church, a man who was only a man in age and not deed. Piggaron.
“You were to remain with the simpleton,” I said.
“Inquisitor?” He turned toward me in confusion. “I was just…just—”
Another scream pierced the night.
“It doesn’t matter,” I shouted. “We will discover the fiend in the act, take him tonight to the stake.”
We dashed through the fields of wheat and over the grassy slopes towards the sound, the constable struggling with his pants, my furs still upon me. There was no time to be rid of them. I cursed myself for underestimating Hamlet and for overestimating Piggaron. At least we would be rid of the foul business once and for all.
The screams were coming from a house, that of a wealthy man who I knew had three girls, maidens all. Throwing open the door, I found a disturbing site. Hamlet, nude as a newborn, bent over the common eating table, and behind him, on a step used for reaching the top shelves, a small figure covered in Hamlet’s wolf pelt. I knew it was the same pelt for the patches which I had torn from it just hours ago.
“Inquisitor? Constable?” Hamlet shouted, as the figure continued to thrust behind him. “Go away. Leave us. The beast demands it.”
Was this the way he killed his victims? Letting them have their way with him before he turned the tables upon them, ripping them to shreds.
I stared open mouthed as the figure said in a small voice, “Did I say you could speak, foul creature?”
The voice of a maiden, a girl no more than twenty. She backhanded Hamlet, spit and blood flying from his agape mouth. She wore a belt of sorts and attached was an arm length’s rod—perhaps used to roll dough—that she set again to thrust into the executioner. She rocked him like a weaver’s spindle.
“Sorry, mistress,” Hamlet said.
“Step away from him,” I ordered the girl. “This vile man aims to kill you.”
“Ole Hamlet,” she said. “He couldn’t hurt a fly. We’ve been throwing it too him since I’ve been bleeding between my legs.”
“We?” I asked.
“The girls of the town, Inquisitor, the Wild Wolves we call ourselves. There ain’t a man here that can please our needs, except Ole Hamlet here. He brings the pelt and we do the rest, if you know what I mean. And why, Inquisitor, are you dressed like a bear?”
But if Hamlet was innocent, what beast was it he spoke of? Who was killing the girls? Nothing seemed to add up.
A howl cut through the night, so loud the roof bowed, and some shelves upon the wall fell to the ground.
“Oh, no,” Hamlet cried. “The beast comes. It is the beast.”
A new sensation came into my world. A smell thicker than that of Hamlet’s blood and shit, the foul scent of rancid meat. The hair on my very neck stood up. I followed Hamlet’s eyes to the doorway behind me. And turned. There, some eight-feet tall and wide as a wagon cart, a bipedal beast stood panting. Not in a suit like the girl or I. A living breathing monster with teeth like daggers, saliva foaming like milk cream upon his incisors. Some mix of bear and wolf and man. Covered from head to toe in coarse fur.
“Lord take us,” Piggaron screamed.
The beast swiped a claw in my direction, and if I hadn’t dived behind the table, its claws would have no doubt ended me there.
The girl began to scream. This time from fear not pleasure. Hamlet dashed away, nude, pale, and malformed. The vision of him reminded me of a large baby who has sucked too much from the teat.
The beast crossed the room in a single leap, ignoring everything but the pelt upon the girl, its claw swipes like lightning across the girl’s chest. Blood exploded from her. Showering everything crimson.
Hamlet’s eyes met mine. He was crying, struggling to his feet. He grabbed a knife from the kitchen. “Nothing can stop the beast. Nothing but Ole Hamlet.”
“No,” I cried as Hamlet leapt for the monster.
The monster had already finished with the girl, bits of intestine hanging from its mouth. It snatched Hamlet from the air and squeezed him between its hands until Hamlet’s insides erupted from his mouth.
If I remained motionless, perhaps it would not see me, I thought. But it must have smelled me, must have been attracted to my bear pelt the way it had been the wolf pelt of the girl. That was it, I realized. It must have been the smell of sex and of the pelt that drove the beast to madness. The dead maidens were all members of the Wild Wolves who had donned Hamlet’s pelt. Hamlet had only been an unwitting fool with a sick fetish.
The beast lifted me from the floor, its breath hot and wet as it sniffed me, as my head scraped the ceiling of the hut. I awaited my death. Then the beast let out a howl and dropped me into the gore of Hamlet and the girl. The smell of burning fur filled the air. When the beast turned, there was a flaming arrow protruding from his back.
With a torch from the wall, Piggaron lit fire to another arrow of a crossbow he’d grabbed from the mantle above the fireplace.
The beast yelped as a second arrow hit it. This time square in the chest. Then it bounded through the door, ripping away part of the wall, out into the night. The constable gave a moment’s chase, then turned to me with tears in his eyes.
“Piggaron, you are as poor a shot as you are a lover,” I said, removing my furs. “You’ve allowed another murder.”
The constable rushed to me and pressed his lips against mine. I pushed him backwards knocking him to the floor. He looked at me as though I had killed his mother.
“I…I saved you. We can be together now,” he said.
“Fool, boy. A fuck in the night is not love, any more than a flank of pork is a full meal.”
I got to my feet, ribs stinging in pain, and went to the doorway to look for the creature. The forest line was peaceful, and nothing stirred from the wilds, but from the city came a glow. A mob had gathered with torches and swords, marching toward the farmhouse.
This was the end of it at least, I thought. I had overstayed my welcome in La Osa anyway. The constable knew my secret, and soon more would as whispers spread across town.
“They will want blood,” Piggaron said from the floor. “You…you’ve said as much.”
“Yes. We will rally them and turn to the woods and destroy the godless creature once and for all.”
“No. We wo…won’t.”
“Do you know to whom you speak?” I said. “I have the authority of the church behind me.”
“Look at you,” Piggaron said with an eerie calm. “You are covered in blood, wearing the fur of a beast. And you know my secret and rejected my love.”
He smiled at his own words, a smile that will haunt me to my grave.
“The mob will want blood, and I will give it to them,” he said.
“You can’t be suggesting…” I said.
But his smile had already told the story. “We will burn the fur and the beast within it. You, Inquisitor.”
I was out of options. I rushed to kiss him, just as the first of the mob appeared in the doorway. Perhaps loving him would save me.
“Help,” the constable cried, then pushed me away. “The inquisitor was the monster all along. The man we trusted most.”
I tried to plead with them, I tried to beg. But they tied my hands, spat in my face as they led me to the town square, as the sun rose across the woods and the cock crowed. They built a pyre, stripped me of my fur, and dressed me in the ritual yellow garments of an auto-da-fé.
When the people want blood, you give them blood. I can smell the pelt as it burns and see the flesh of my own feet peeling and blackening. The people have tied me to the stake and lit the fire at my feet. They shout and scream like beasts themselves.
Constable Piggaron is watching with tear-stained eyes. I think I can hear a howling, more bestial than anything I have ever heard. It is the sound of my own screams as the fire consumes me.
Nathan’s short fiction appears in Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths, Vol II, The Colored Lens, and COLP – Sky’s The Limit. He has a degree in biology from Ohio State University. He grew up in rural Alabama and now lives in Columbus, Ohio.