October 15, 2009

The Enemies of Death

The Enemies of Death

The Enemies of Death
by Francisco Nieto Salazar

For centuries the town of Arenas del Rey considered itself the source Spain’s punctuality. From the times of the Reconquest the main lifeblood of the town, as its name suggests, had been sand. And what a fine and lucrative sand it was! Each grain was handpicked by the most delicate men (only guild members with inherited titles), and with their sharp eyes and doll-like fingers they selected grains of the most precise mass, color, and translucency as determined by royal decrees. They were the King's own arenas, his royal sands. Lesser grades were sold in shops and auctions by the sackful, but no matter what grade of sand it was, or even if it may be corrupted by another, more common sand, it still carried the distinction of being from Arenas del Rey.

During the good years the town of Arenas bustled with glassblowers and artisans who sold their sand-clocks to sea captains, convents, traders, cooks, whores, and anyone interested in keeping strict time. Many fortunes were made over the years, and black market even developed for a time, boosting the town's reputation as a source of precious sands. Good luck was said to come to those whose time was kept by the sands of Arenas.

All this began to change as sand ceded its appeal over the years to the mechanical timepieces from Paris and Bern. Clockwork had seduced aristocrats and sovereigns throughout the world, and Spain was no exception. How curiously the little hands of reason seemed to go around and around. God had invented time and man had finally stolen it, entrapping it behind wood, metal, and glass! Sand instead accumulated and went unsold, blew through the town like snow and got into everything.

The decline was gradual but, unlike the hourglass, it was irreversible. Beggars multiplied and peasants were made out of men of title and shop. And floating tenuously at the top were the sand barons of before, who cursed the coils and gears that had brought about their demise. Failure and despair cut so deep that people began to recall with less and less clarity the bountiful memories of a generation before. It was fertile soil for those who would come to betray the promise of death.

The Enemies of Death

A small caravan arrived one winter day, led by a large horse-drawn circus coach, emblazoned with the words Los Enemigos de la Muerte on its side. They parked in front of the church, as if expecting a crowd to gather. Five minutes later the whole congregation had spilled out onto the plaza, released from Sunday mass to face their temptations anew. Immediately the curiosity and excitement of the townsfolk became aroused; everyone was wondering who the visitors might be. They carried themselves with such optimism and aplomb, as if convinced of their own power to seize the attention of the town.

There were four middle aged men and a dark-skinned valet, dressed in fashions from an earlier time. All were in fact a troupe of traveling actors and buffoons, discharged from royal employment, who had banded together during those hard times and had given themselves over to the practice of chicanery. They made their way from town to town, putting on elaborate shows and getting rich on other people’s hopes. For Arenas they had prepared their newest, most elaborate scheme yet. It involved a little espionage, and previous access to the town’s official records. Once the marriage, baptism, birth, and death registries were obtained and carefully examined by the troupe, the real work could begin. (With what means they conducted this villainous research was never learned by the people of Arenas, for the Enemies of Death rarely divulged their secrets, and were never caught.) All what was then needed was a translucent flask, preferably of cut crystal, a red solution, a good story and a credulous crowd.

One man with a red beard stepped forward. He bent down and kissed the ground. Then he climbed on tall platform extending from the back of one of the carts adorned with red and blue pennants. He hushed everyone with a wave of his hand, staring at everyone as if trying to remember their names. Then he began to speak about far-off times:

“Many years ago, during the time of your of your grandfathers’ fathers, during the reign of the Hapsburgs, we called this place home. Yes, good people of Arenas, proud of our sands we were, and still are! My words are as true as my hand is a hand and my foot is a foot. You are not dreaming! Nor are we ghosts! My associates and I lived in these very parts, generations ago—back when this land was not quite so French; when a father took his duties to heart, and his children never took him for an ass; when love was not a fools’ game, and when a man’s word was valued at twice the going rate! Yet I can see that after so many years, the character, the fortitude of our people has not grown thin. Although much has indeed changed with new faces and ideas, the town remains much as we left a century ago. I, Adolfo Pelayo, was friends with old Bruno Canales, I danced with the widow of Don Reginaldo at the baptism of Hipólito Vergara when he was just a boy. Many of you wise old residents surely recall! I was there at the marriage of Sigfrido Polaco with Doña Inés de la Cuesta! Has anyone here heard of these names? And of Father Abel Hojuelas, and the expedition to the Holy Land he commandeered?"

People broke out in chatter, if they were not busy holding their breaths in awe. The question on everybody’s mind was: how did these men, never before seen, come to know so much of their buried secrets and lives? Could they be true Areneños? The names and long-forgotten incidents that were spouting from his mouth and raining on their heads were oddly familiar, and in some cases eerily on the mark. Everyone had heard of Father Hojuelas. His memory had long ago been eaten away by myth and lore. The people of Arenas roared with optimism and excitement. The old, confused and unsure of even their own age, and with rusty memories, found something comforting to cling to in these visitor clowns, and played the part, even though the events and memories the visitors pronounced were long ago erased or reconfigured a hundred times. “Yes! My God, the Pelayos! They were the boot makers!”

The red-bearded man calling himself Adolfo Pelayo nodded, and went on with his seduction: “I, along with my partners, have traversed all of Christendom and beyond as part of our pilgrimage with Father Hojuelos, and have come across during our marvelous adventures something which is far too great to keep for ourselves, and which, if you allow us the pleasure of explaining, is the reason for our presence here today, and today is indeed your lucky day. As lucky a day as anyone has ever had!

“Every one thousand and one years the mercy of our Lord bestows a gift so heavenly upon his favorites, a gift so divine, that it cannot be dispensed without care, nor squandered upon vile populations; that is why we are here, to share this gift with our descendants, as we have done with a half dozen blessed towns already. And what could it be, I hear? Dear descendants, we humbly announce that in our unworthy possession we carry the very secret of immortality. It is a potion of which we have ourselves partaken, and can most thoroughly swear to its efficacy.” He raised the crystal flask to let the beams of the sun make a dancing red pattern on his face. “This flask before you now contains an elixir derived from the very blood of Christ, as it was collected by an astute Roman soldier centuries ago, and preserved in incorruptible perfection. And now, as your fathers and protectors from times long forgotten, we return to our village of birth, our mission fulfilled (even if holy Father Hojuelos could not himself complete it), to share with you, my fellow Areneños, this most magnificent of treasures. Behold! The envy of all mankind and the privilege of the divine: Everlasting Life!"

Then, another man stepped forward, accompanied by the fierce beating of a dull drum. He was shorter, and wore an enviable tricornio, a three-sided hat. Everybody awaited his message.

“In our travels across the giant forests of Voltaria, past the arid sands of the Great Sultan, and through the underground caverns of Agartha we ventured. Many demons and foul beasts met their doom at our hands, dispatched to the hell they came from. After a journey of countless years, we came upon the antidote of death. From the severed hands of the heathen we pried it free. But our glory was short lived, and soon we found ourselves captives, doomed to live out eternity behind the walls of a cell. We spent years in the rankest of prisons amongst the rankest of men, but as the years amounted, we managed to outlive our jailers. We fled, and continue to hide from the wicked, those who wish ever-so-greedily to steal this gift from us. We hide from that wretched Godoy and his generals, who would kill half of Spain to obtain just one drop of this most excellent and divine panacea. We hide from those renegade sansculottists in France, who would, by the aid of this potion, give permanence to their ungodly revolution. Yes, fine people of Arenas, we have braved cannons and sabers to bring this back to our cherished homeland, to share with you, O cherished descendants. If there are still those who doubt, who see us as nothing but charlatans, allow me to give credence to our cause with this: the tower once held a terrible man who was hanged for crimes you have all heard of. Some of you remember the fierce old Dientes Pardos, no? well I, Teófilo Galindo, my dear Areneños, was the magistrate who sentenced him to die so many years ago. And, proud residents, my friend and long time associate of more than a century here, as well as the others, all took part in the formation and erection of the city gates. And look upon that plaque, on the Ayuntamiento's wall… My brother, Federico Galindo Frias, is commemorated there!”

The elixir encased in the old flask held the multitudes enthralled. With times so hard and spirits so low, immortality became a miraculous dream that came to lift them out of their misery. Somehow everybody decided, as if by a reflex, that they too needed to be immortal. They pushed forward, crowded around like baby chicks with gaping mouths, and offered all they had for a few sweet drops. Livestock of all sizes, melancholy heirlooms, even things that had no value appeared before The Enemies of Death. One man offered away his two horse-faced daughters, but found his offers rejected. Pits and holes were undug and made to relinquish their meager treasures. Regidores and men of influence immediately courted the newcomers with offers of hospice and feast. It became a contest amongst them, of who could offer more riches, more local comforts in exchange for just a little extra of the potion, as if ‘forever’ was something one could expand upon. To alleviate the initial confusion and mad scrambling, it was decided that given the finite supply of the potion, all doses were to be rationed out to all those residents who could produce a hundred pesos, or an equal value in-kind. Such a large sum, it was argued, was to pay for one hundred years of travel, and recompense those who braved the jagged edges of the world to obtain this potion of potions.

“Our party has suffered great losses in trying to obtain this magnificent elixir, and many widows were produced in the process. It would be a great dishonor to them, if we were to recklessly dispense it for nothing. But of course, we would not refuse the kindness and graciousness of those who would contribute more.”

Living in grandeur and with daily propositions by residents, the fugitive Sociedad Ilustre de los Enemigos de la Muerte y el Olvido, as was its full name, entrenched itself in the center of the political world of Arenas del Rey. In less than a week, blood was apportioned into the quivering tongues of over one hundred residents, with a minuscule glass dropper that seemed to never exhaust the flask. These newly anointed walked the street as if bulletproof, confident in their newly acquired ability to endure and survive any travesty, never mind that the potion was no protection against a beheading, or a sword through the heart, or a burning at the stake. They drank and reveled like Romans and made a mess of the town in proper Dyonisian fashion. Sand, for the first time in centuries, was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Some monks at the convent of San Juan devised foul plans to make off with the potion, and to encase it at their local chapel, an act which would undoubtedly bring pilgrims and treasure from all of Christendom to their struggling town, but not, they hoped, after taking a bit for themselves to ensure their longevity. When this was suggested, the troupe, who was enjoying everything too much to simply turn it over to the monks for nothing, laughed at the absurdity of the proposition. Besides, they reminded the populace:

“The King, the Pope, and sovereigns from every land are fiendishly trying to acquire this for themselves! We can do with no authorities, nor make deals with them. This is a relic of unbelievable power that cannot fall into the hands of far-off rulers, nor their many agents, because whoever shall consume even a drop of this holiest of secretions shall enjoy eternal life! They already know of its existence in the highest circles. If there are any doubters amongst you, all for the best, there will be others who will clamor for what your pride-filled hearts reject.”

By virtue of their diligence the Enemies found ways to entrench themselves into the most comfortable homes in Arenas del Rey. Their stories withstood anything the Areneños could throw at them, and held up like sea cliffs against the assailments of truth. They had chosen carefully what surnames to employ, and what names to bring up. And that was it. In a matter of days the troupe of performers had seized control of the town. They were mindful of outsiders, and closed the town off to most commerce indefinitely.

It wasn’t long before three agents of the crown, along with several members of their entourage, were detained after their sudden arrival, and held captive in a barn near the edge of town by the blood loyalists. Nobody knew if they were there to investigate the wild rumors, or simply to arrange business with the town as they claimed. They were shackled just the same, until the residents could figure out a way to be rid of them without reprisal.

Few people realized beforehand that everlasting life would be such a calamity—a truffle with a cockroach center. The new Immortals eventually found themselves without any means or direction. It was the promise of perpetuity, and the uncertainty that it awakened which quickly unraveled the delicate balance of their existence. Wives left home, realizing they no longer wished to spend eternity with men they felt nothing but loathing for; marriages fell apart or failed to take place, as ‘until death separates us’ took a whole new meaning. Peasants and laborers, realizing that they would spend eternity eternally dispossessed, dropped their hoes and their tools and turned to vagrancy and game. Refuse and filth accumulated, and even the convent was eventually nearly emptied of its religious, who looked into the endless horizon of the rest of their lives and saw nothing but cloister walls and hymns ad infinitum, and broke away in droves to satisfy their particular desires. Were not all their self-denials and airs of chastity simply part of a big ante in the gamble one makes for a spot in the afterlife? Eternity awaited and it was here on earth! The afterlife, which had kept most people with their shovels and sickles in hand for hundreds of years, had been replaced, or rather erased, before anyone could contemplate its significance. A little bottle filled with watered down goat’s blood and syrup had managed to turn a little sand-mining village into a cauldron of tribulations and uncertainty.

Enemies of Death

Death became worried that the population of Arenas had indeed become immune to her. This feeling persisted until one of the leading men of Arenas, a jovial drunkard and one of the more enthusiastic amongst the Immortals, fell gravely ill. His liver, tired of the gargantuan appetites it was subjected too, ceased to cooperate. To suffer like that into perpetuity was too much for the poor abused organ to endure. So Elizondo Contreras agonized for days, clinging to his immortality and to his bottle of brandy with unfading zeal, all while the population grew tense and unsettled. It seemed like the wisdom of their decisions hung in the balance with the expiring drunk. An impatient Death eyed her hourglass, waiting for a chance to haul another one of the Areneños away. For the Enemies of Death, however, this development was not unforeseen, and upon his death they gathered the populace in the main plaza and announced:

“Sadly, when one is not, on the whole… clean; when one is so riddled with sin and lacking of even the most basic chastity and temperance, then the effects of the Blood are prevented from taking their natural course, as they would in a normal, God-obeying servant of the Lord. How do you think such a marvel survived in the land of the heathens for so long, you ask? Because it has no effect upon Jews, Calvinists, Mahometans, or Pagans. So fear not, good people of Arenas. Only those whose hearts are blackened with soot; only those with tainted pasts, whose souls have long-ago been damned; only they will find themselves still mortal, and rightfully condemned. Only the wicked amongst you will perish. So hold fast and worry not. For those in the good majority, as promised, life without conclusion awaits! As long as your new blood stays within your body, your only concern should be what to do with all those years!”

Despite this setback, the Immortals held even more steadfastly to their promised permanence; a measure of their own piety. Relatives and friends of Don Elizondo Contreras shunned his mass and burial for fear of being associated with the undeserved. Suspicions flourished, as the Immortals began to speculate who amongst them would be carted off next, and sure it would be the crooked Don Fulgencio, who hoarded grain during times of dearth; or the widow of Don Demetrio, who despite her advanced age managed to deflower half of the town’s muchachos. And of course there were all those bearing surnames associated with the reconverted Jews of centuries before. Anyone who had ever cheated on anything suddenly found themselves wondering if they were still immortal, if the blood that ran through their vessels held anything special at all. There seemed to be just one way to tell, and it was, in all certitude, a final exam.

By then a core of True Immortals, those that could be considered part of an impromptu cofradia, or brotherhood, swore to defend the Blood of bloods from all the jealous undeserved. It was also the cofradia’s job to harass these mortals, first into buying their eternity, offering them access to the Blood in exchange for land and goods, followed by an effort to expunge them if they refused to live forever. They were perplexed to meet such disdain for eternity-- it was easier to believe that the small group of dissenters that swirled disjointed at the outer edges of Arenas kept unholy creeds hidden away somewhere, rather than believe in the possibility that they had been swindled.

They were not many at first, but as powers often do, they nursed the infant creatures that eventually became the subversives by repressing anyone that did not drink the eternal Blood. They were an assortment of ill-matched characters, united in the belief that the town had lost its good sense. These included the perpetual poor, the servants, the idle miners, and simply those who had the sense (or stubbornness) to keep their wealth. They began meeting and passing messages. One member of the troupe remarked, upon catching wind of the brewing opposition, “It’s always the incredulous that ruin a good magic show.”

The campaign to bring justice to Arenas and expose the charlatans was a clumsy affair. They hoped to drag the whole troupe from their beds in the middle of the night and hang them in the square, with a sign that would read, Death has no enemies, only friends she has yet to meet. The conspiracy was discovered because two brothers were overheard bragging about it; how they would do it, and how everyone was going to realize what fools they really were when they saw the Immortals hanging in the plaza, without a shedding drop of blood, dancing the frozen dance of the dead. But it didn’t happen this way.

The following day a letter was posted on the convent's door that read:

“Friends, The Enemies of Death have sown great happiness here. We have made many friends and rejoiced over meeting many of our descendants. Our hospitality has always been the pride of Spain. But while we are happy to return to our town, the great village of Arenas del Rey, after such a long and painful absence, we must announce that as of today, we will no longer be residing here. You ask why? What could we have done to scare them off? Were we ungrateful? Well, you need only to talk to the people on the list below. They, and only they, are responsible for our departure. It was them, who at the stroke of midnight made their way into the houses were we have been taking refuge with the intent of ending our lives! These men, if they can be called that, are possessors of diseased souls; they are broken with a thousand jealousies, and would rather end our lives than believe in the joys of eternity. And to you, we leave their fate. We shall return one day, in some better future, but not while they remain here.” Signed: La Sociedad Ilustre de los Enemigos de la Muerte y el Olvido.

The names of the conspirators followed.

Those who had tasted the Blood, from True Immortal to Immortal in Question, held faithfully to their belief that they had purchased for themselves true immortality throughout the upheavals that followed. They were proud of their ‘ancestors’, even if they had relinquished to them the dwindling fortunes of the town. They never questioned the authenticity of their wild claims. The oldest amongst them hardly remembered more than the old names, and took their hatched-up stories as fact. Perhaps it was these folks, the closest to death, who held on to the dream the hardest, as if they knew that to think otherwise would quickly bring about their death. It was they who ordered the purges that followed the departure of The Enemies of Death. They started not long after the conspirators themselves were hanged. And the Illustrious Society of the Sons of the Enemies of Death and Oblivion—their adopted title—swore in secret rites that they would do all they could to maintain their divinely infused blood flowing safely and eternally within their vessels. To achieve this they spared no one.

For a few days that spring, the town of Arenas laid siege to itself, until the issue of death could be sorted out. The prisoners who remained in the barn were hastily killed and their remains tossed into a hole. Signs warning of plague were posted outside, to discourage interference, and allow for a proper bloodletting between mortals and Immortals.

Fear gripped the town, and rightfully so, because after only a few weeks, the town that had prided itself for vanquishing death now found itself a factory of it—a place where grim reapers might gather, like fishermen at a bountiful spot.

And thus, the Areneños came to know of their folly. The mortals did not celebrate their victory, however, because scarcely a single one remained after all the houses were burned and all the graves were dug. All they got for remaining committed mortals all along was an early graduation. The Immortals lived (forever after) alongside Guilt and Remorse, two lethargic and humorless fellows that moved in to the reduced dwellings of the good, gullible people of Arenas del Rey.

And Death, well, she was again happy. Happy to have so many new friends.

* * *


* * *

Francisco Nieto Salazar was born in Mexico City and now lives and writes in Oakland, California. He studied history at UC Berkeley, where he focused mostly on Latin America. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in online journals like SoMa Literary Review, Defenestration, and Burst Fiction. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel about the murder of a cruel missionary in Santa Cruz. He is 33 years-old and the father of two children.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Most of my inspiration comes from research into a novel I've been working on for a couple of years. Archived material, out of print historiography, and memoirs from the period are always rich sources for new ideas. Some stories begin as footnotes and break out of their enclosure at the bottom of the page to demand their rightful place.

"The Enemies of Death" germinated in the archives as a sort of critique on the way many historians practice their craft, by sifting through official records like marriage registries and church documents, and then using these construct an edifice based on conjecture and supposition, which we, with mostly honest aims, then attempt to sell to the rest of society as a version of truth. We reanimate the dead and make them immortal so they will tell their tales, which in many cases may be completely off mark. I find that sort of power seductive in a way even as I try and understand the limitations of it. Arenas Del Rey is also a play on the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas' name, whose absurdist historical fiction has been another one of my inspirations.


Unknown said...

"The Enemies of Death" is a well written short story, Francisco Nieto has a impresive comand of the Language of that period. I enjoyed reading it, Francisco is a very good author, I look forward to reading more from this young writer.
Marulu Kent