The Irresistible Charm of Insanity
Ricardo Kelmer – Novel – Miragem Editorial 2019
Translation: Luciano Espírito Santo
Luca is a musician who likes to have control of everything in his life. He becomes involved with Isadora, a Taoist wanderer who believes he is the reincarnation of her master and lover from the 16th century. He will embark on a strange and adventurous journey that blurs the boundaries of sanity and madness, dream and reality, only to find that he has to figure out his true identity before he deserves the woman he loves.
In this unusual love story that takes place simultaneously in Spain in the 16th century and Brazil in the 21st century, flashes of déjà-vu (the feeling that you have witnessed or experienced a situation previously) are time portals through which we come in contact with past lives.
Blues, sex and double shots of whiskey. Dreams, mystical experiences, and secret societies. Funny and exciting, The Irresistible Charm of Insanity explores the intriguing possibilities of time, space, life and whatever it is that we may call “self.”
> In portuguese – blog
> In spanish – blog (soon)
Papalégua was almost closing. All the chairs were piled upside down on the tables and the last survivors of the night were paying their tabs. Junior Rível received the two glasses of whiskey from the barman and put one of them on the counter, in front of his buddy. Then he gave him a pat on the back.
“This one’s on me. Have a drink, man.”
Luca grabbed the glass and stirred the ice for a long time, with a blank, opaque stare.
“You’ve been looking like a mourner for two weeks. I’ve never seen you in that state over a woman.”
Luca took a sip and put the glass back on the counter. He looked weary and bleak.
“You really like the Taoist girl, don’t you?”
“I thought you’d said she was a nut case.”
“Are you sure you can’t get in touch with her?”
“She doesn’t have a mobile phone. She doesn’t access the Internet either.”
“And where is she now?”
“I don’t know. Some beach somewhere.”
“Maybe it was better that way, Luca. Think about it, it was a doomed relationship from the get-go, with you guys living so far away from each other…”
“I invited her to move in with me, but she didn’t want to.”
“Of course not, she has a life of her own in São Paulo.”
“No, that wasn’t the reason.”
“What was it then?”
Luca had another swill and felt the alcohol scratching his throat, the ice cold pain reverberating at the bottom of his soul…
“It was because of some fucking stupid abyss.”
“I don’t know either.”
“I don’t. In fact, that’s the problem, man, I don’t know a fucking thing anymore. I feel like I’m standing in a dark forest and have no clue where I am.”
Junior looked at his friend and laughed.
“Ah, so that is your problem, is it? Then you need not worry, cause some hot chick will find you in no time.”
“I don’t want any hot chick. I want Isadora.”
“But you let her go! You didn’t even drive the poor girl to the bus station. Which, by the way, really wasn’t nice on your part.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. I don’t know who I am anymore. I’m no longer the guy I used to think I was. This whole affair with Isadora has made me jealous, insecure. Suddenly, I was being rude and aggressive, I couldn’t get ahold of myself, fucking shit.”
“Yeah, you’ve been acting cranky lately.”
“That’s right. You can tell I haven’t been my usual self. I mean, I always thought I wasn’t like that. But maybe I am and I’ve just become aware of it.”
“You’re a cool guy. Always been.”
“No, I’m not. A cool guy wouldn’t do what I did, wouldn’t treat a woman the way I did, especially when I like her. I’m not so sure I can still believe what I used to believe about myself anymore. Everything is out of place, man, everything.”
He looked inside his glass and for a second he felt that he was spinning along with the ice cubes, round and round, always coming back to the same spot, continuously…
“I think I’ve gone astray from myself.”
“It’s just a phase, you’ll get over it. Try to focus on your own life and everything will sort itself out soon.”
“My own life? I don’t know what life is about anymore, Junior. I used to know, didn’t I? I’ve always been the poet in the band, the guy who could convey everything through poetry. I had all the answers, didn’t I? But I don’t have them anymore. I don’t know jack shit anymore.”
Luca knocked back the rest of his whiskey and asked the barman to give him a full bottle to take home, and to charge it from his fee for the next gig.
“Don’t do that, man. You’re on the hook for two gigs already.”
“Another one won’t hurt.”
Luca took the bottle from the barman’s hands and signed the acknowledgement.
“I’m taking off, man”, he said, shaking his friend’s hand. “Thank you for your support.”
“We have a rehearsal tomorrow. Don’t miss it again.”
“And stay away from windows, ok?”
Luca laughed ironically.
“Also knives, box cutters and stuff like that.”
“I’m too coward to kill myself. Now, that is one thing I still know, that I’m a coward.”
Back home, he lay down on the couch with the bottle of whiskey next to him. He poured down a glass, proceeded to pluck the guitar gently while looking for random, melancholic melodies, and fell asleep without even finishing the glass.
Open your bedroom window
Out there on the street a sign is shining bright
The sign of our love glows red
So feel it, expand your mind, and fly with this tune
This is a neon light blues song
I wrote especially for you
* * *
One week later, Luca was told that Bebel had received a postcard from Isadora. He begged to see it and Bebel showed it to him. He read it voraciously, as if hungry to consume the words. Isadora had written that she was in Icaraí de Amontada, a beach on the westward coast, half way to Jericoacoara. She also said the trip had been uneventful and the beaches in that area were even more beautiful. She also hoped Bebel was fine. “Kisses, I loved meeting you, I miss you.” And that was it. Nothing else.
Luca read it again and again. There was nothing about him, not a word, nothing at all. It had been written as if he didn’t exist. As if he had never existed.
“You wish she were here, don’t you?”, Bebel asked, taking notice of his angst.
He didn’t answer. He just handed the postcard back to her and left.
Back home, at night, he kept rolling in bed and could not sleep. He only cared about seeing Isadora again. He needed to tell her how stupid he had been and that he was sorry for his attitude. That his heart was burning from her absence. That she was the woman of his life. That he couldn’t live without her. And that he needed to see her again, nothing else.
Very late in the night, he made up his mind: he would leave on Saturday morning. He would try to find her in Icaraí de Amontada, maybe she would still be there. There was no guarantee that such a gamble would pay off, but it had worked in Uruaú, why wouldn’t it work again?
“Have a little trust in life”, he reassured himself. “You would say so yourself, Isadora.”
On Saturday, he got up before dawn and was soon driving at high speed on the road to the westward coast, very eager to arrive. After some time, he noticed something wrong: the car was swerving to one side. He pulled over and saw what the problem was: he had a flat tire. He opened the trunk and found that the spare tire was flat, too. Shit, shit, holy shit, he cursed in anger at the two deflated tires.
He tried to remain calm and optimistic. Have trust in life. So he put Led Zeppelin to play on the car sound system, stood a few feet ahead of the car and kept his eyes on the road. He suddenly realized what an absurd situation he had put himself in, trying to hitchhike on a desert road so he could get to the nearest gas station to fix a tire, then return to the car and continue his trip to a beach where Isadora might not be anymore. Maybe that’s what they call the blues.
He spent a lot of time taking care of the flat tire and didn’t reach Icaraí de Amontada until after sunset. It took him three attempts to find the hostel where Isadora had had a few meals, but the manager informed him that she wasn’t there anymore; she had left for Jericoacoara five days prior. Luca felt the weight of discouragement on his shoulders. What should he do now? He thought for a while and told the manager he would stay and leave early in the morning.
“Love is a dangerous thing, Ma’am. A very dangerous thing.”
He took a shower, ate something and got cozy in a hammock in the hostel porch. The starry sky above reminded him of Tibau do Sul. The sound of the ocean nearby was relaxing, but it also made him feel lonely and vulnerable. When he thought he couldn’t stand Isadora’s absence any longer, he got up and went for a walk on the desert beach, and did not return until the first sunrays of Sunday were visible in the sky.
On Sunday morning, he left the old beetle in Jijoca and rode the back of a pickup truck that took tourists for a one-hour tour over the dunes and lakes along the way to Jericoacoara. It was a breathtaking landscape, untouched by progress, but Luca wasn’t paying any attention: as the vehicle made its way, he kept wringing his hands anxiously, hoping that Isadora would still be there. She had to be there. Ten minutes would be absolutely worth it.
He finally reached Jericoacoara and visited every hostel in search of Isadora. He also looked for her in the camping grounds and found nothing, not a single information about her. Walking on the streets and alleys, he felt like she would pop up in front of him any second, but it was never her. He searched the beach, the lake, the rock with a hole, the dunes, and found… nothing.
It was Sunday night and Luca refused to accept the outcome. He hadn’t even had a chance to swim in the ocean. He ate something, but didn’t really enjoy it. He felt weary and defeated. Suddenly, he snapped out of it all and realized how ridiculous he had been: Isadora was no longer interested in him; she had left him. Yes, that was it. He already knew it actually, but he had been acting as if he didn’t. No matter how hard he tried to find her, it was useless. She probably was with someone else right now, telling her weird stories about past lives and sharing her tent… He was making an ass of himself – that’s what he was doing.
He returned to Fortaleza totally consumed by frustration and anger. He arrived home on Monday morning, feeling exhausted and bringing a terrible cold that by next morning had turned into a major flu, forcing him to miss work for the next couple of days. Not only that, he had to cancel a gig.
Trust life. Yeah, right.
* * *
Luca returned to his old lifestyle: the endless nights in bars packed with women. If Isadora didn’t want him anymore, why should he put his life aside? Why keep his hopes high? Futile. Just as pointless as that mindless trip from beach to beach in search of a delusion.
The nightlife and its pubs and concerts could make someone dizzy with so much going on at the same time, but it was safe. His job as a print shop manager was boring and mind numbing, but it was safe. And going through a string of casual relationships could actually make him feel lonelier… but it was safer than risking serious commitments which, in the end, would bring nothing but disappointment and heartache.
He often went to the diner where Bebel worked as a waitress, to bitch and moan about his problems. They would talk and he would give her a ride home. One night, they were in his car, they kissed and Luca remembered… the future as foretold by Isadora! He interrupted the kiss and Bebel laid her head on his chest while he remembered what Isadora had predicted: he would be a pair with Bebel after Isadora went away. On the one hand, he actually wanted to be with Bebel because she made him feel good, but he would be fulfilling the prediction and that sounded like a defeat. He wouldn’t want to confirm Isadora’s prognosis. On the other hand, going against his own will and avoiding Bebel just to negate Isadora’s prediction would be… absurd. Maybe Isadora wanted to cause just that, the little rascal. Now what? What would his way be out of this dilemma?
Yeah, right, he thought while making up his mind: he would stick with Bebel. And Isadora could just go to hell along with her future.
“Luca, have you always been this tense?”, Bebel asked one night, right before they fell asleep.
“You fight with the weapons you have”, he answered bluntly, trying to sleep, trying not to think.
The last few days, he had been feeling like something was about to come out from within like a caged angry beast. He remembered a scene from Aliens, the movie in which the creature breaks out from the guts of an astronaut…
Fortunately, he had the band, it had a real manager now, and the gigs had been selling better and better. The night was always there, along with the next song and the next booze. And the women desired him, not a reincarnation from the past.
Now, there was also Bebel, who always welcomed him with longing warmth, even if they had been together the night before. She made no claims or demands, she just liked him. More and more frequently, he ran to Bebel’s arms and desperately tried to forget his real identity.
“Does Isadora ever write to you anymore?”, he asked one day, three months after that day he’d read the postcard. He tried to sound like he wasn’t really interested.
“No. Did she write to you?”
“She will never write to me again, Bebel. And that’s for the best.”
“What if she does? Should I tell her about us?”
“I think she should be informed.”
Bebel looked at Luca and he could see the silent question in her eyes: “You still like her a lot, don’t you?”
It was not an aggressive question, on the contrary. It seemed that she was trying to say, silently, in her own sweet way, that she knew what was going on and that she understood it. Or maybe she wasn’t. Maybe he was dreaming up those things and reading too much into Bebel’s eyes.
He was afraid that his eyes alone might be enough to provide an answer to the haunting question, so he looked away and kept staring at the ceiling for a few seconds. When he snapped back, the question wasn’t looming around anymore. Instead, there was the clear look of a woman who accepted him.
“Kiss me, Luca.”
And he did, secretly praying that her lips would make him forget, for a brief moment, that he didn’t deserve her.
* * *
Then came the accidents… First, little mishaps at home, like slipping in the bathroom or getting burned on the stove. Then the accidents became more serious. One day, he didn’t see a pothole on the sidewalk, tripped on it and injured his foot. One night, it got worse: he tried to jump a wall to get into an event without paying for admission, made a wrong move and got his hands pierced by nails. Price paid: two badly injured finger tips, hospital, external and internal stitches, and one month unable to play the guitar.
“Luca, perhaps you’re drinking too much?”
“Come on, Bebel”, he said, angrily. “Save your lecturing for another time!”
“I’m worried about you, all those accidents…”, she said, caressing the scar on his face.
“It’s a witch’s curse. It’ll go away.”
I just wanted you to know
That my nights are so lonely
And my heart gets so old without you
I pour one more drink
I look at the city
From the window only the city knows about me.
That month, Bluz Neon played in a festival in Recife and had good reviews in the media. Newspapers and magazines published articles about the bluesmen from Fortaleza, highlighting their technical quality, their combination of rhythms and ability to interact with the audience. After they performed in a major TV show, they got more invitations for live performances. The band was gradually building a name and acquiring prestige.
A few days later, the manager announced he had arranged a good sponsorship deal and they would start recording their album soon, and this time it would be top-quality recording in a first-class studio. That same night, they left the rehearsal, bought a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and went out to celebrate in an old, abandoned train station downtown. They sat on the tracks, got drunk and played their favorite blues songs, howling excitedly to the moon. Drunk and solemn, they made a toast to those they could remember and greeted the promising future.
Luca, however, was facing a tough dilemma. The doors were opening for the band, but his job would prevent him from traveling for more shows. Three years before that, the band had come to be as random fun on weekends, and now it was getting pretty serious. The time had come for him to make a decision, and he knew that. A future in the music industry laid before his feet, but he would have to be available for trips and other commitments, he would have to be more invested in it. They all had been dreaming about this for some time, and it was finally happening. But quitting his job was too risky. Sure, he didn’t like it, but it was a safe source of income to cover his monthly bills.
He couldn’t make up his mind. He postponed the answer once, twice, and just kept postponing the decision that the rest of the band was anxiously awaiting. Junior encouraged him to choose the band: they would have a great future, they would stick together and the band needed these two things. His mother, Gloria, recommended prudence and cautious evaluation of the situation. He was immersed for days in this dilemma feeling pressured by both sides, and either side had its own pair of sides to be taken into consideration…
First, it was Isadora asking him to give up his comfort zone and follow her. Now, his band demanded that he give up his job security. Stepping out of his comfort zone to live a love affair, quitting his job to live off music… Life seemed to be playing a game pitting him against the worst decisions he could possibly face. And he still couldn’t make up his mind. He didn’t know what he wanted anymore. He didn’t know who he was amidst his multiple contradictions, which had been growing increasingly bothersome to him. He knew nothing anymore.
Then one night, he left a snack bar with Bebel and couldn’t find his Beetle: the car had been stolen. He felt absolutely desperate, it was unbelievable. He filed a report with the police, put an ad on the newspaper, searched junkyards, but found nothing, not even a hint. Sadly, the car had no insurance.
That was a rough blow. Three months earlier, he had almost lost his fingers in a stupid accident. Now, he had just lost his car and couldn’t afford a new one. And there was the constant pressure from the need to make a decision regarding his future in the band. To make matters worse, he had a persistent cold, which put a serious hamper on his live performances.
A few days later, a surprise: Isadora called. Luca answered the phone, heard her voice and didn’t know what to do. He considered hanging up, but sat down on the couch, anxiously.
“Hi, Isadora”, he answered, trying to hide his feelings. Six months had passed since she’d left him. For six months, he had been struggling every day to forget her.
She told him she was in São Paulo and wanted to know how he was doing. He wanted to tell her about all the hardships he had been enduring, but then he realized that she already knew about it somehow.
“Everything here is, erm… under control”, he answered. “What about you?”
“Luca, I just called to say I’m leaving. I’m going on a trip again.”
“I haven’t decided yet. But I’m leaving next week.”
He suspected she was trying to hint at something to him.
“You… Are you inviting me?”, he asked, and suddenly realized he didn’t know what answer he wanted to hear.
“I’m just telling you that I’m going on a trip. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
He remembered that night at the party: “We are together…” He felt the importance of the moment in the air, the tension that floats around a decision. Quit everything and follow Isadora… In the awkward silence, he tried to remember every detail that was involved in such a decision: his job at the printing shop, the band making progress, recording the album, Bebel…
“How are you going to make ends meet?”, he asked, but he knew what the answer would be:
“There’s always a way, isn’t there?”
He wanted to ask if she had saved enough money, but that would have been another stupid question. It was as though he wanted to discourage her because he lacked the same courage. Why wouldn’t he just say “yes” to her? He remembered the night when Soninha came into the dressing room after the show in her iconic black boots. He had the exact same feeling now, his entire future hinging on his very next choice, his entire life depending on his next decision…
“Good luck, Isadora.”
Why wouldn’t he say yes?
“How is Bebel?”
He didn’t expect that question. Did she know they were a couple? Or she was just probing?
“Bebel. Is she alright?”
Maybe that question was intended to establish that she approved of his relationship with Bebel, that she accepted it and wasn’t upset about it. That could be her way of locking up that door and throwing away the key. For good.
“She is fine.”
“Tell her I sent her a kiss.”
He felt his heart ache… He might be losing the love of his life forever and ever right there, at that exact moment. Why wouldn’t he react? Why wouldn’t he push past the inertia and finally say yes, he would give up his comfort zone and leave with her to live the craziness of that love to the fullest?
He closed his eyes as if he could see better in the dark. But he was overcome with the unsettling feeling that he was falling, and falling… He opened his eyes and held on to the couch. No, he couldn’t leave everything behind.
He heard the sound of her phone hanging up and gulped. He stayed there, sitting on the couch with the phone still held to his ear, his voice still echoing like a scream fading into an abyss.
I can’t… I can’t…
She got up early and split
Went after a bigger dream
Left me a longing kiss
And this city around me
* * *
It was a rehearsal night. Luca changed his clothes, looked at the cracked mirror in the bathroom and saw his reflected image with a swollen face, tired look, sunken eyes… He felt like punching the mirror. He had been feeling irritated very often. He needed to calm down. He went to the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of whiskey and poured a glass. He drank it all in one swill, grabbed his backpack and left for the recording studio. On the way to the bus stop, he stopped by the drugstore to buy some medication for the acute headache that had been torturing him for the last few days.
After the rehearsal, Bebel paid a surprise visit. She was anxious to talk to him. He said good-bye to his friends and left with her, to a small park nearby. They sat on a bench and she immediately broke the bad news: she was pregnant.
“I’m so sorry, Luca…” She stuttered nervously. “I don’t know how it happened, I was careful, I swear…”
He couldn’t believe what he had just heard.
“This can’t be true, Bebel.”
That couldn’t be happening. Bebel expecting his child. It couldn’t be true. She said the test had been positive and she had been pregnant for more than two months…
He got up, pulled Bebel by her arm and took her to a more secluded area. He put her up against a tree and stuck his finger to her face while telling her that he was not sure he was the baby’s father, and if he really was the father, it was her fault for not taking precautions. And she was on her own because he had nothing to do with her reckless behavior and he had too many problems to mind already.
Bebel tried to explain that he had been her only partner over the last few months, but she quickly broke into tears and could not say anything anymore. She tried to hug him, but Luca pushed her away, turned around and left, towards the bus stop on another street.
He got home and couldn’t sleep. Life had definitely been pulling dirty tricks on him. He felt like he was riding a boat that had new holes in the hull all the time and he didn’t have enough hands to plug them all. He had been under pressure from his buddies and the manager to make a decision for one month, and he still couldn’t make up his mind. His car had been stolen so he’d suddenly found himself out of the only asset he had. He couldn’t focus on his work and had been severely reprimanded by his boss. The woman he loved had left and now Bebel was expecting his child. His child. That didn’t seem real. Life had turned into a nightmare and he couldn’t manage to wake up.
He met Bebel at the snack bar the following night. He waited until she got off work and took her to his apartment. He apologized for his behavior. He was remorseful. Bebel hugged him and cried in his arms.
“About this pregnancy… We are going to interrupt it, right?”, he asked.
She kept crying with her arms around his neck.
“Bebel, we can’t afford to raise this child!” He was losing his patience, and she started to cry again. He took deep breaths. “Bebel, listen, please. It was an accident, do you understand? This child is not welcome.”
“It is welcome for me, you can be sure of that!”
Now, that was really bad news. She wanted the child.
“Bebel, there is no way I can raise a child now.” He put effort into not losing control of his speech. He wanted to yell at her, to beat her up… To kill her.
“I’ll raise the baby on my own, don’t worry about that.”
It was definitely a nightmare, and a very scary one. The whole world was crumbling inside and outside of him and he couldn’t wake up in spite of his desperation. He tried to get a hold of himself. He offered her his most reasonable arguments. He would get a loan and pay for the abortion.
“I know you still love Isadora. But I don’t care. I want this baby.”
Luca sighed, feeling defeated. What would Isadora think? Would she think that the child was his ultimate move, some sort of comeback to her decision to leave, a counteroffensive? Had she predicted that child, too?
Bebel slept next to him while he scratched the scar on his face and thought about what options he still had. If reincarnation was a real thing and he had actually been Enrique… then he still ought to know how to operate some magic and take care of that problem in no time. But no, those things only existed in the troubled minds of loons such as Isadora. Reality was different, it was cruel and insensitive.
He fell asleep, wishing with all his might that something would happen, anything that would rid him of that bizarre nightmare. Anything. Before he went completely insane.
When Bebel was three months into her pregnancy, Luca borrowed a car from a friend and invited her to spend the weekend on a beach. She loved the idea. While on the porch of the beach house, he opened a bottle of rum and they took pictures of the sunset. Once again, Luca tried to convince her to have an abortion. And once again, Bebel didn’t accept his arguments. She looked at him and saw his fiery eyes, his rage ready to explode… Luca threw the glass against the wall, and glass shards spread all over the porch floor.
“This baby is a curse!”, he yelled, while grabbing the bottle and leaving.
He came back later with the bottle almost empty. He stopped in front of the bedroom door, groggily. He saw Bebel sleeping on the bed, under the sheet, in the penumbra. He walked in with a slow step. He kneeled down on the floor next to her and pulled the sheet out carefully, revealing her belly. He held a knife, closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Minutes later, he was crying on the porch. He looked at the moon and begged pardon for being who he was. But the moon did not forgive him. The knife fell from his hand, the metal clatter echoing in the silence of the night. He kneeled down on the floor, powerless. He just wished he could disappear, nothing else, just disappear forever…
“Luca? Luca?” He heard the voice that came from somewhere… “Luca, what happened? What is that knife for? Are you alright?” Her voice like a torture, a knife cutting through the heart, slashing everything inside, tearing up his soul…
Bebel sat next to him, hugged him and they cried together. Then she took him inside and put him on the bed.
“I am a failure, Bebel…”, he babbled before falling asleep. “I don’t deserve you.”
“Sleep, my dear. Tomorrow is another day.”
* * *
On Sunday, he woke up feeling terrible from a major hangover. The last thing he could remember was some argument on the porch and a glass thrown against the wall. What had happened after that? Bebel calmed him down, saying that everything was fine. He apologized.
“You are not a loser, okay?”, she said, cupping his face in her hands. “And we will be very happy. The three of us.”
He hugged her and closed his eyes, trying not to think. But his thoughts had a will of their own. Inside that woman’s belly, his son or daughter was moving. The idea of becoming a father was absurd, but he had run out of the strength to fight it. He was exhausted like a warrior who had been fighting for days, weeks, months and… no longer knew the reason of the fight. What was he fighting, anyway?
Then, all of a sudden, he knew. Hugging Bebel’s belly, he suddenly realized he knew who his enemy was. In fact, he had known all along, just pretending to be fighting a thousand enemies who leaped from the shadows to attack him every day. He had no enemies but one, the one who would ambush him in the broken mirror in his bathroom every day.
How could he defeat the enemy when the enemy was himself, he thought. And how could he defeat himself when he no longer knew who he was? He felt he had come to a dead end. He had exhausted all possibilities, he had nowhere to go. Nothing mattered anymore. It was the end of it.
When it was time to return to Fortaleza, Luca was still drowsy and Bebel thought it was dangerous for him to drive. She demanded to drive, but he refused. She insisted on it and took the car keys:
Bebel started the car. He looked at her fondly and thought about how everything would be different without Isadora. What happened to things that never happened?
As they approached the city limits, Luca was distracted, almost dozing off when he saw a bright light shine suddenly from one side. But it all happened too fast. He just saw the light and felt a very powerful thud. Then he blacked out.
The night would be decisive. The long-awaited initiation. Enrique knew he wouldn’t be admitted into the Order if he failed to reach the gallery and face the sneaky enemy that awaited him among the many shadows. He held his sword tight and advanced towards the dark lake, minding his steps on the damp stones of the cave.
The initiation trial was terribly dangerous. By conquering it, the initiated proved that they were brave enough to withstand the rigors of protecting the Order. It was more than dangerous, it was the supreme trial someone could possibly endure: the fearsome confrontation with the Guardian of the Knowledge. And no one would come out of said confrontation alive and sane – many survived but became irreparably mad – except those who possessed the necessary strength to overcome the most intimate terror that inhabited the darkness of their own soul.
Enrique heard a noise come from the murky waters of the lake and stopped, brandishing his sword. He stood still and waited, with sweat dripping down his face and his heart on the verge of bursting out with fear and expectation. He held his breath. The enemy was very close.
Then he sensed what might happen next, and the most profound panic leaped from the inner chambers of his soul like worms digging through the dirt. His knees trembled and he suddenly realized he was unable to confront what his thoughts were anticipating.
It emerged, and he heard its terrifying hiss… The cobra glided in a slow, slithering motion and stopped right in front of him. It was gigantic. Ihlish, the Guardian – he knew its name as soon as he saw it. Its hiss was hypnotic, and it was also its name: Ihlisssshhhh… It arched its body and reared it slowly and continuously… Enrique saw its huge head hover inches away from his face and its neck swell on the sides. Then the cobra opened its mouth and exposed its lethal fangs…
He fell down on his knees, powerless, paralyzed with terror. He quickly realized how insignificant he was before that animal. He thought he was strong. He thought he knew the forces of life. But now he saw he was nothing, absolutely nothing, nothing at all…
The sword slipped from his hand and fell on the ground, the metallic sound ricocheting on the cave walls. The serpent was his own guardian of the Knowledge, the one he was supposed to defeat if he wanted to remain a member of the Order. But how could he? He was paralyzed.
The serpent pulled its head back and he knew, for a second, that he still could run away. He could withdraw. Yes, he was allowed to give up, like everybody else. He could turn around and return, and avoid that nightmare.
It was too late. The serpent pounced, lightning fast. The next thing he knew, he was being swallowed, screaming and kicking and writhing. First, his head, then his torso and his legs. The contact with the serpent’s entrails was nauseating. He desperately tried to breathe when he heard the sound of his own bones being crushed. There couldn’t be a worse nightmare, but it was really happening.
His whole body slipped down the serpent’s throat and he felt the contractions push him further inside. He gradually lost control of his body. Eventually, he could not breathe anymore. His organs had stopped functioning. He exhaled for the last time.
When he woke up, he was lying down naked on a rocky surface by the lake. The cave was in complete silence and didn’t seem so dark and mysterious anymore. He stood up and noticed that his body was in one piece and had no wounds. He was alive! A little tired, sure, but still alive.
He understood he that had won, he had passed the great test. It was so unbelievable it didn’t seem real. But it was real indeed, and now, out there, a new world was waiting for him, a world that no longer could thwart him because he possessed… the Knowledge.
Then a word came to his mind: Vehdvar. The name had a magical ring to it, it was utterly numinous, as if it had always existed. It was his name, he had always been Vehdvar, and he finally realized it. And he knew that only the strongest were worthy of carrying the Guardian’s sacred name along with their own. For that reason, his name was henceforth Ihlish Vehdvar, a name he would never remember outside the cave, but which belonged to him exclusively and no one except Ihlish and himself knew and could pronounce.
Aware of the graveness of the moment, Enrique turned to the dark lake where the serpent slept in the bottom, he kneeled down, bowed until his head touched the ground and uttered in full reverence:
“Naja Hannah, King Cobra…”
At this moment, the lake water rippled. He prepared himself for the return of the serpent, but what he saw on the surface was the image of a… woman. The image was diffuse so he could not discern anything more than the features of a face, of a woman he didn’t recognize… But he understood it immediately. He was to find that woman wherever she was and turn her into his disciple. That was his next mission.
* * *
In that morning, the Valencia fair was crowded as usual. Local merchants and merchants from other cities had their products on display and were intent on the possibility of going back home with many coins tinkling in their purses. On the north side of the fair, young fellows performed on the stage, brandishing wooden swords and telling the story of how El Cid had been ambushed and fought bravely against seven moors who wanted to slain him, regularly shared the spoils of his battles with his vassals so they would share his wealth, and deceived the Jews when he pretended to pay the loan he had taken to assemble an army during his exile with a chest he claimed to be full of silver and gold, but, in reality, contained only sand…
Enrique laughed. El Cid was indeed a hero to these folks and they never got tired of praising his deeds. However, he wished they would rather chronicle the less discreet deeds of Philip’s sister, Margaret, a woman so luscious she ended up killing her husband, Prince John. Or how Joanna was so jealous of Philip she would pull her hair out and lose her mind, and eventually became Joanna, the Mad. Every inside story of the royal palace was more interesting than the bellicose antics of the legendary El Cid…
The next day, he would return to Barcelona and board a ship to Goa, in India, with other Jesuits. He had been in Valencia on a secret mission, offering his support to his Castilian Jewish friends who planned to leave Spain and go to Greece, home to many Jewish families that had been expelled from the country after the rendition of Granada. Once there, they would be able to practice their religion freely and uphold the traditions of Castile, land of their ancestors. In Spain, fearing the Inquisition, they were still forced to pass for Christian converts, always apprehensive about the Christians, who saw them as ambushed traitors and, sooner or later, would come up with an excuse to accuse them.
He bid farewell to his friends, leaving them under the care of a German missionary who would regularly manage Jewish escapes. The Spanish seas were infested with Turks and plenty of caution was advised. They would sail to Greece, where they could practice their religion freely, Dios os mantenga. In retribution for his favors, he had been given an ancient, precious cabalistic manuscript, which he had been after for a long time, but had to be very well hidden on account of rampant mistrust over the relationship between Jesuits and Jews. Feeling satisfied with the success of the plan, he decided to relax and enjoy the fair a little.
What about the Spaniards? Oh, well, they were quite disheartened over the defeat of their Invincible Armada to England! They no longer displayed the arrogance they used to when they claimed to be the saviors of Catholicism against the Protestant Reformation. “Serves them right!”, he thought, feeling avenged. Maybe that would put a damper on the arrogance of those people who ruled over his beloved Portugal and thought of themselves as owners of the world…
But, anyway, he shouldn’t wish any ill upon his Spanish neighbors. He had many friends there, and Portugal would certainly know to resume its course to independence and glory in the right time.
Just when he was having fun listening to the tale of how the Jews had kidnapped a little child and, aiming to improve the touch of realism in staging the Passion of the Lord, they nailed Him to a cross, Enrique sensed a presence… A tingling sensation overwhelmed his thoughts. And he saw her on the other side of the fair. There she was.
He walked towards her slowly while the lively, carefree young woman was buying Indian silk. It had to be her, the woman whose face Ihlish had revealed to him in the cave years ago. The woman who was destined to become his disciple and help him keep the secret knowledge of the Order. It had to be her.
He watched her intently. Her youthful beauty, her neat hair combed in modern fashion, her wandering eyes, her contrived manners of aristocratic pretense… Enrique smiled. Going by the images of her that Ihlish had shown him in the cave, he’d never guess she was so… so interesting as she was in person.
He moved closer and could almost touch her. The scent of her hair made him feel light… And her skin was not too pale. Maybe she was of Moorish ancestry? Her clothes and her manners were visibly aristocratic, no doubt, but her hands evidenced that she might have been subjected to rural labor. He noticed she was married. And she eyed certain young men just long enough so she wouldn’t get caught. A lot like many other ladies did… but it seemed obvious to him that she wasn’t very satisfied with her marriage.
She watched the troubadours absentmindedly when she sensed something and turned around. And her glance met his. And time stood still for an instant, long enough for the past, present and future to align in the precise rhythm of their heartbeats.
* * *
From afar and up high he spotted the walls and the towers: Munich emerged ahead while the Isar River at the eastern side flowed silently under the darkness of the night. As he came nearer, he could see the pair of moats that surrounded the city and the twin towers of the church of Our Lady, then the winding roads and their wine cellars and breweries that hosted the razzle-dazzle of the heavy-drinking crowd. And, finally, the dwelling he had been looking for.
It was a two-story house with projecting window ledges and shed roof. Like the others, it sat squeezed among the other units. She was there, he knew it. As he came nearer, he could feel her presence increasingly stronger and stronger…
“My Enrique…”, she whispered asleep in her bed.
“Right on time, my Catarina…”, he answered, taking his hat off in chivalrous fashion. Then he sang: “Lo que valen son tus brazos cuando de noche me abrazan…”
He told her he would like to show her a place. “What place”, she wanted to know. “A paradise”, he answered. And he asked her to close her eyes. She did, and when she opened them again, she saw what her eyes had never seen before. An amazing landscape laid out in front of her: a forest with velvety water rivers flowing like a sweet melody among blue trees, surrounded by shining, crystalline lakes and waterfalls releasing translucent bubbly butterflies. Catarina was taken by surprise with the butterflies fluttering around her, all half-human and playful. When she touched one of them, it burst like a bubble.
“I thought they were alive…”, she whispered, surprised.
“But they are.” He laughed. “They are playing with you.”
She laid down in the soft bluish grass and he laid down on top of her. And she felt like the most blessed woman in the whole world for being there with that man who knew how to guide her in the most stunning and pleasant dreams that could ever exist.
* * *
Years before, when he landed in Goa for the first time after sailing for ten months and put his left foot first on land according to Catalan sailors’ tradition, the July monsoons were blowing hard, which made the strong Indian heat more tolerable. Enrique took a deep breath of the air in that strange place and had a feeling that something very important had brought him there, something still unknown, and that joining the Society had been a good move indeed after all.
The Society of Jesus sent its evangelists around the world, ad majorem Dei gloriam, and Goa, on the west coast of India, had become a major center for Jesuitical studies. With missionaries from so many countries, it was not difficult for one to get acquainted and learn many other things in addition to the official studies of the Society.
That was how he met those who initiated him in the Order of the Guardian, an occultist fraternity of men and women from multiple creeds and nationalities that maintained a secret information network spread throughout various countries and exerted influence on political and religious decisions. Its members employed altered states of consciousness to achieve visions and control dreams.
The Order’s origins dated back to the ancient beliefs of northern Italy peasants, who claimed that their spirits could leave their bodies to hunt witches at night. Since it always happened early in the seasons while the peasants were fasting for three days, they eventually understood it was fasting that gave them such lucid dreams, so the practice was introduced to the meditation rites of the Order. In a more advanced stage, the meditation would lead to the cave where the confrontation with the Guardian of the Knowledge took place, and it manifested itself in different ways according to each individual’s most intimate fear. The Guardian would then bestow special powers upon those who came out victorious so they could search even further into the mysteries. Little by little, the Order of the Guardian got a foothold among practitioners of many religions and it was in India, in Goa specifically, that it crept into the Society founded by Ignatius Loyola and enticed a number of Jesuits.
It was in Goa that Enrique had the vision of the dreadful Battle of Alcácer Quibir and saw the mighty allied Turkish army in Algiers. There, he saw Don Sebastian, king of Portugal, with his foolish delusions of predestination, marching gloriously to his tragic defeat. He even tried to intervene, for he knew that would be the end of the dream of the great Portuguese empire, but to no avail. Don Sebastian was a fool who wouldn’t pay heed to the advice of his fellow countrymen even in his dreams. His sad fate was sealed.
Sure enough, the king’s death left the Portuguese throne vacant and Philip II of Spain was sworn in. Henceforth, Portugal would submit to Spanish rule thanks to the megalomaniacal king. Although it’s true that Don Sebastian had supporters who advocated a Portuguese empire in Africa, closer and cheaper than India, Enrique knew from his visions that warfare in Africa would be fruitless. But they wouldn’t listen to him. Now, absurd rumors were spreading everywhere that Don Sebastian was alive, miraculously alive, and would be back anytime to reorganize his army and lead bravely the Lusitanian vocation to glory… Baloney!
It was the end of the century and it was still profitable for the Portuguese trade elite to maintain their partnership with Spain, so many agreed with their subjection to the Spanish throne.
“Greedy bastards!” He was incensed. “Putting themselves first and above their own country!”
The Guardian of the Knowledge awaited all the members of the Order in its dark cave. Those defeated in their match with the Guardian returned in a deranged state and were invariably sent to asylums. The initiated counted on that to protect their secret, but some of those who had been defeated would emerge from the depths of their madness and misery from time to time, screaming things that made no sense to doctors but raised suspicion among religious authorities. For this reason, the initiated engaged in the practice of slaying anyone who failed to return from the cave with their sanity intact.
Executions, however, were risky, especially when the targets held prominent positions or were members of the Church. Also, secret connections of the European members with Jews, Arabs and pagans began to surface. The Order was threatened. The merciless Inquisition had been tightening the siege.
* * *
She arrived and scurried into the carriage. Enrique greeted her with a long kiss.
“Go!”, he ordered the coachman. Then he turned to her: “Take off your clothes, Catarina, and put these on.”
She complied and changed into a black hooded cloak. The carriage rode into the dark of the desert road for a long time before it stopped. He told the coachman that they would proceed on foot and instructed him to wait for them, they would be back before dawn. He took her by the hand and told her not to say another word until it was all over. They climbed the hillside cautiously. From the top, they could see the beach shrouded in the darkness of the moonless night.
“They are on that side.” He pointed in the direction of a distant bonfire. “They also brought their female disciples to be initiated.”
They went down the slope and walked on the beach sand. There was no wind. The only sound in the air was the gentle rumble of the waves. The rest of the party, eleven in all, was standing around the bonfire. She tightened her grip around his hand, trembling with fear.
“Stay calm”, he whispered, trying to soothe her. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
They approached the group and she noticed that the others were also wearing black hooded cloaks that hid their faces. They all greeted with a slight nod and hung their heads down in concentration.
The chalice was passed around and she took three sips of the bitter concoction, like the others did. The first words of the ritual were then uttered. The wind blew and the bonfire flames rose. The words were chanted continuously like a mantra, feeding the fire and protecting it from the increasingly stronger wind.
Enrique soon noticed that Catarina’s body was swinging back and forth slowly. He saw her come down to her knees silently, bend over and writhe on herself. She stood up suddenly and disrobed. Then she started to dance completely naked, swaying her body slowly and graciously while the flames cast light on her hair and seemed to dance on the surface of her body.
Surprised by the sudden exposure of Catarina’s body, the men and women around her did nothing but watch and admire it. Enrique wanted to stop his disciple’s dance so the ritual could proceed as intended, but he was so awestruck by the sight that he could not move.
The wind blew harder and rain came down. While thunder boomed and lightning bolts crisscrossed the night sky, Catarina spread her arms to receive the first raindrops. Then she turned around and ran away and vanished in the darkness.
After some time, she still hadn’t come back so Enrique decided to go after her. But the beach now was deeply dark and there wasn’t much he could see. The rain became a storm and he struggled to keep his balance in the wind. He called her name at the top of his lungs, but he could barely hear himself over the sound of waves, wind and thunder. During these moments, he had the impression, so clear, so accurate, of having lived that moment before, that same situation, that same sudden fear of losing her… Where had he previously lived the same situation, the same rain, the same desperate chase? In what distant time and place? When? Where?
Finally, he found her. She was spinning naked with opened arms and her body glowed under the flashes of lightning. He felt relieved and hugged her, he kissed her saline mouth and they fell on the sand.
“Come on. We will both catch a cold”, he said, getting up. But she pulled him back closer to her naked body.
“Forget it for one moment that you could get sick.”
* * *
“My husband knows!”, she exclaimed while hugging him, frightened.
“I don’t know! I’m scared, Enrique!”
“Stay calm. I’ll meet him tonight.”
At night, he used the dreams, confirmed everything and realized that they were in serious trouble. A cheated husband was always a danger, but a husband with so much influence and close relations with the ducal council was invincible. Staying in the Jesuit college in Munich was a tremendous risk, so he would have to leave the city immediately. They would go to Barcelona, where they could hide away until they found a safe place.
However… there was a problem. To live with Catarina, he would have to leave the Society. And the Society of Jesus was his perfect disguise, his safe conduct, his greatest safety. It’s what secured him trips, resources, money, women… Power.
He felt caught in a terrible dilemma. It was like standing on the edge of an abyss. Behind him, his troubles pressured him forward; before him, lay the toughest decision of his life.
* * *
The ship sailed away and took the route to Gibraltar cliffs, the gate to the vast oceanic waters. The port of Barcelona was left behind further and further away until Catarina’s figure finally vanished in the mist. He would secretly disembark in Portugal, where he would summon up his best contacts in the Court and, within one month, he would meet her again. Then they would run away to Brazil, the new southern land, where they would be able to live in peace. It was a perfect plan.
But he didn’t disembark in Lisbon. He went straight to Goa, in India. He didn’t return for the meeting. He couldn’t leave the Society for a woman. He couldn’t. Even if it was the woman he loved.
Feelings couldn’t change the world. What really changes the world is action – he had no doubt about it. And the current world events needed the Order so they would be consummated according to plan. The invincible Spanish Armada had been defeated by England. A crazy Polish man called Copernicus had published a book in which he claimed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and other crazy people believed in it. The Lutheran Reformation had been a triumph and the Church had been trying, with Sixtus V, to put some order in the Papal States. The English and the Dutch were taking control of the route to the East, the same seven thousand miles that were so valuable to Portugal. More and more, the world needed him and the Order’s Initiated. And he had to be prepared for the conflicts that lay ahead.
“No, Vehdvar, you proved that you are not”, the Guardian told him one night in the cave, when the ship had already sailed past Cape Bojador. “You failed.”
“Obsession with control is the ultimate danger in the way of the Initiated in the Order. It’s the final trap. The only ones who escape it are, ironically, those who eschew…”
“… the Order.”
Yes, he knew about members who had left the Order. But he always thought that the main reason for that had been fear of getting caught by the Inquisition. Yet, he couldn’t understand it…
“I can’t give up. The world needs us!”
“You are merely postponing the moment, Vehdvar. You are walking in circles, going round and round…”
“And not really going anywhere.”
Yes, not going anywhere. He felt that way.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“You know what.”
Surrender control… He knew it. To jump into the abyss of his own fear. He’d always known that. At this moment, her image appeared on the surface of the lake. Catarina…
“I can’t go back to her now. What about my safe havens?”
He suddenly felt as if he had lived that moment before, those words, the anguish, the hopelessness… When?
While the serpent disappeared into the dark waters of the lake, he fell on his knees and remained there, on the floor, his voice still echoing like a cry fading into the abyss.
“I can’t… I can’t…”