This Green Hell
Sample of This Green Hell
Northeast Paraguay River, 1617
Father Juan de Castillo looked up from his journal, his eyes drawn once again to the small church being erected in the clearing. Only months ago the local Indians had cut the land from the jungle, and already the building’s foundations were laid. A deep and solid basement had been sunk into the black loamy soil and now the workers were dragging heavy stones into place from one of the few quarries on the banks of the Rio de Paraguay. At this rate the church would be finished in a matter of weeks – days even.
Father Castillo smiled as a small girl ran up to drop an exotic flower on his table, scampering off before he could thank her. She stopped at the edge of the clearing and stood on one leg just under an enormous fern frond, watching the young Jesuit with large chocolate-colored eyes. The priest picked up the flower and twirled it between his thumb and forefinger – it looked like a large blue star with a triple stamen of the brightest vermilion.
‘Bello – beautiful,’ he said, loud enough so she’d hear.
He lifted the flower to his nose and recoiled with disgust; it smelled like rotting flesh. The girl giggled, clapped her stubby little brown fingers and disappeared into the deep green of the jungle behind her.
The Jesuit went back to his notes, describing the flower, its odor and characteristics, and then drew the face of the girl, spending considerable time shading in her large dark eyes as best he could with his charcoals and ink. He used a sleeve to wipe his face, which was covered in insect bites. It was only midmorning and already his body was slick with perspiration beneath the heavy black cloth of his robes.
He squinted through the rising morning steam to the clearing where his traveling companion, Father Alonso González, was on his knees polishing the huge bronze bell that awaited its home in a church tower that, so far, existed only in the Jesuits’ imaginations. Father González was in his sixties but still tall and vigorous, the only sign of his age visible in his thick, square beard, which had a swathe of gray at his jawline.
Castillo slid his eyes from the senior Jesuit to a small group of elderly men sitting half-hidden in the shade. One sat like a stone and stared back at him through rheumy, smoke-damaged eyes. If not for an occasional tic in his left eye, the shrunken, teak-brown body would have been invisible among the jungle’s dark shadows. It seemed that not all the Guarani Indians were happy to see the Jesuits – Nezu had arrived a few weeks back – a powerful medicine man from the upper Paraguay River. He locked eyes with the Jesuit and lifted a small gourd with the plumage of a dozen different colorful feathers tied to one end and shook it twice, making a rattling sound, before pointing it at Father Castillo.
‘And God bless you too,’ said Castillo softly. He closed his journal, put two fingers to his lips and then touched them to the ornate gilt crucifix pressed into the cover of the leather-bound book.
He looked up with a smile when he heard a small boy trying to speak in Spanish to his older friend.
‘Com … uhhh, como bello … flor de oro, padre.’
‘Si, una flor de oro gigante,’ Father González responded.
Castillo nodded; the boy was right: the bell the older Jesuit was polishing did look a bit like a flower – a giant golden flower waiting to bloom high in a holy tree, he thought.
He wrinkled his brow and turned his head slightly – there was a faint noise, a whistling, little more than a whisper, just audible above the sounds of the surrounding jungle.
‘Allá! Mire, padre.’ One of the children with Father González was pointing a small finger up at the sky.
Castillo craned his neck to see beyond the foliage that was shading his table. Cutting across the heavens were flaming orange streaks, like long lines of fire, all heading down towards the jungle. More appeared, until eventually they filled the entire sky.
The faint whistling had become a scream. The young Jesuit stood and walked a few paces out into the middle of the clearing; he placed one hand over his brow and squinted upwards. Children were laughing and hopping around him in excitement at the strange spectacle, but many of the adults were shouting in alarm, and mothers ran to gather their babies into their arms.
Castillo could hear the grating voice of Nezu as he rattled his gourd at the sky; he was yelling something about the fingers of Tau reaching down for them. The priest knew that Tau was the local people’s word for the Devil.
Just as Father Castillo was about to call out to his older colleague for advice, the gleaming bell rang with a loud, deep bong. Everyone froze and looked towards the golden dome.
Castillo was wondering how the bell could have tolled by itself when the high-pitched whistling ended and something thudded into the ground. Another crash came from one of the huts, a hole appearing in its roof. Seconds later, it burst into flames. A further object smashed into a tree trunk at the edge of the clearing.
‘It’s raining stones!’ Castillo yelled to Father González.
More whistling, this time at a volume that startled birds from the green maze all around them. He saw Father González look up at the noise – in time to catch one of the speeding projectiles in his left eye.
The old priest fell flat on his back, blood and jellied optical fluid spraying the children who stood nearby. Castillo ran to his friend, gagging as he saw smoke curling from the ragged hole in his face. Father González gasped in agony as steaming fluid pulsed out of the wound and oozed down his cheek; then, thankfully, he shuddered and lay still.
The fiery streaks across the sky seemed to evaporate, and the strange whistling ceased. All that remained was the sweet smell of burnt meat filling the air.
Father Castillo sat next to his colleague, watching a girl fan the old man’s face with a large, broad leaf. The slow strokes were almost hypnotic in their pace and tenderness. It had been two weeks and, though Father González continued to draw ragged breaths, he hadn’t woken from his death-like sleep. His once-robust frame had fallen in on itself and his gray face and shrunken cheeks looked incongruous among the bright piles of sweet-smelling flowers heaped around him. The Indians replaced the blossoms daily, but Father Castillo knew they weren’t delivered just as a sign of respect for the old man. From his position next to the bed he could smell the strange odor coming from Father González’s open mouth – raw and rancid. It disgusted him.
He turned his head at the sound of breaking pottery. The Guarani had been sun-curing the hundreds of flat clay plates that would be used as roof tiles on the church. They were only days away from having a completed structure ready for furnishing and blessing. The massive stone altar had been carved and hauled into position, a task that had taken a full day. A previous block of granite sat discarded – a shallow face, perhaps of Jesu Christi had been started on the stone, but the block had proven far too hard and heavy for the stonemason’s tools so it had been abandoned. It would take nearly every man in the village to remove it. Other priorities now, he thought.
Castillo flinched as the girl touched his arm, then placed a pile of clean cloths and a bowl of water on the table beside the bed. It was time to change the dressing over the old priest’s eye. It was strange how he thought of González as an old man now – a few weeks ago he had seemed anything but – however, the damage to his head had seemed to absorb his life force and left him a foul-smelling skeleton.
He carefully unwrapped the damp, discolored bandage from around the patient’s head. In the noon light, Father González’s tight, gray skin looked almost reptilian. Up close, the vile odor wafting from his open lips was stomach-turning, even for a Jesuit who had endured more hardships than many men had seen in a dozen lifetimes. Father Castillo pulled back the old priest’s top lip – the gums were black and also seemed to be shrinking. His teeth looked strange … longer perhaps, and the tongue behind them lay like a fat, dead worm in the back of his mouth. He couldn’t help secretly wishing that the Lord would take González and free him from his rotting bonds.
He soaked one of the clean rags in the water and wiped away the sticky fluid that was still leaking from around González’s eye socket. The ruined eye seemed lumpy and uneven behind its closed lid. He gently bathed the mucus-smeared lashes, then reached with his thumb to pull back the lid to check for further infection. As he lifted the delicate skin, he felt a movement behind it. He leapt back, landing on his rump and sending the small clay water bowl flying. He grabbed for it, too late, and managed to cut the skin between his thumb and forefinger on the broken shards.
There was something in there. Something small and gray that had wriggled and shifted from the light as he lifted the eyelid. Perhaps some strange parasitic vermin had managed to worm its way into the wound. Bile rose in the young man’s throat.
After a few seconds he gathered himself and approached Father González again. His heart hammered and his hand shook as he lifted the eyelid once more, steeling himself to make a grab for whatever creature had invaded his mentor and friend. There was nothing. He leaned forward over the wound, peering closer; still nothing. Perhaps it had just been the light, or his fatigue and anxiety for the old man had made him see something that wasn’t there.
He was about to gently probe the empty socket for anything foreign in the wound when the old priest dragged in a large breath and slowly opened his other eye. Its once clear brown iris was now indistinct, as though a layer of slime had grown across it. The muddy orb fixed on Father Castillo, then on the bleeding cut on his hand. The nostrils in the cadaverous face flared as the older priest inhaled again, and his lips turned up slightly in a brush of a smile. Then the expression vanished and the eye closed again.
Father Castillo should have been elated at this sign of consciousness from his holy colleague. Instead, he felt a terrible coldness spread from his stomach through his entire body. He hadn’t recognized the man who had stared up at him.
The church was finished, but there were no celebrations.
The previous night, all the animals in the village had been slaughtered. Their bodies had been found shredded, as though whatever had attacked them had rent them to pieces in search of their precious fluids. Some of the animals had been taken while tethered close to the villagers’ huts – yet no one had heard a thing. It worried Father Castillo that whatever had attacked the animals so viciously had crept silently among them while they slept – and was clever enough to untie knots.
When he went to check on Father González, he found the old man had color in his face again and his cheeks seemed fuller than they had in weeks, which was amazing as he had been given nothing but water dripped into his open mouth.
Father Castillo peeled back the eyelid of the ruined eye, steeling himself as he remembered his last experience of cleaning the wound. It was a miracle: there was once again an eye in the socket. Still shrunken and a milky gray color, but an eye nonetheless.
Father Castillo leaned closer and placed his hand on the old priest’s cheek but Father González didn’t wake. The younger man noticed the smell from his mouth had changed. Now it was rawly metallic and musky; and unsettling.
Father Castillo felt he had aged a decade in the last few hours. They had woken to find they had been visited again in the night – but this time several children had been taken. The sleeping infants had been silently pulled from their mats and spirited away in the dark.
The villagers had been frightened following the killing of the animals, but now, with the children missing, their fear turned to panic and anger. The children had to be located quickly, and alive.
By midmorning, a single child had been found wandering incoherent through the deep green maze of the jungle. The small boy had turned his red-veined eyes on Father Castillo’s black robes, screamed the Guarani word for devil, and sobbed until bloody tears ran down his face. Father Castillo did what he could but the child had lapsed into a deathly blankness and had never woken again.
Now, the young priest exhaled wearily and looked at the faces surrounding him. Not since he and Father González had first arrived had he seen such mistrust among the Guarani. And now there was something more in their eyes – fear … fear of him.
A dry rattling behind him caught his attention and he turned to see the medicine man, Nezu, shaking his gourd and pointing it at him, his creased lips moving in a chant and his eyes full of hatred. A small crowd had gathered, and this time they listened to his every word.
Father Castillo decided to move Father González into the church. It was cooler within the stone structure, and far more secure. The tribe’s superstition was like a river that ran strongest just beneath the surface, and now that undercurrent was bubbling upwards in a surge of panic. It would not be long before it turned into savage action.
Father González groaned as he was carried across the clearing. Steam seemed to rise from his sweat-damp skin wherever the dappled sunlight touched it. Despite the way the old man’s body shivered, Father Castillo thought it looked fuller, more fleshed out.
The faces of the men carrying the stretcher were twisted in disgust. None of the Guarani wanted to be near the old priest, or even look at him. It was if they believed he was somehow responsible for the turning fortunes of the village.
Garbled words bubbled up from deep inside the man and Castillo leaned close to his lips to hear. ‘La estrella nos quema.’ Castillo frowned: the star burns us – the words didn’t make any sense.
The old man’s mouth hung open behind his damp beard and strange squeaks and half-words continued to tumble out.
‘What is it, Father? I am here.’
Castillo wiped the man’s brow and whispered a silent prayer when he felt how cold his flesh was. He held his hand over González’s face to shield him from the sunlight.
‘Nos libre … Nos alimente …’ Then more soft squeals and liquid-sounding moans.
Free us, feed us. Castillo was confused. ‘Are you hungry, Father?’
Castillo grimaced as the man’s face blistered in the light and he tried to keep his hand over the steaming skin as his body writhed and squirmed.
The old Jesuit’s mouth closed with an audible clack, then slowly opened again like a trap being reset. More words came forth although his lips behind his beard did not seem to move. ‘La piel de este mundo debe estar abrirse para que seamos libres.’
Castillo turned away from the smell emanating from González’s mouth as he tried to decipher his meaning. This world’s skin must be opened for us to be free.
He shook his head. ‘I don’t understand, Father – we are free.’
The men placed the cot at the base of the massive stone altar and Castillo sat on the ground beside it. He should have been thanking God for the miracle that had restored the old priest, but now he wasn’t so sure it was God’s hand at work. González was almost glowing with vitality … which should have been impossible considering he had survived on nothing but water dripped between his flaking lips.
Father Castillo made the sign of the cross over his old friend, closed his eyes and said a silent prayer. As he opened them, a tear ran down his cheek. Placing one hand on the priest’s forehead, he said, ‘What is happening to you, Father? Is it really your soul still in there?’
The screams ripped him from his sleep, leaving him disorientated with a pounding headache. Father Castillo sat silently in the dark, listening for a few seconds, feeling the perspiration running down his face as the night heat of the jungle steamed his skin. His fingers clutched at the damp bedding, hoping the sounds had just been a fever-dream – a dreadful remnant from his exhausted and overworked imagination.
A shout and the sound of running came from just outside his hut, and his hope that it had been a dream fell to pieces. He swung his legs out from under the clinging sheet and wiped his face with his hands. The clamour was now rising all over the camp, and he could hear only Guarani words – no one spoke Spanish anymore. In among the shouts of terror and confusion, he could make out that the remaining children had been taken – some from within the arms of their mothers. He went outside and tried to ask some of the Indians questions, but they shrugged him off or just hissed angrily at him.
The village fire was relit and flaming torches spread out quickly through the jungle, looking like flaming birds as they darted from tree to ground to fern and then flew on again.
Father Castillo saw the medicine man, Nezu, standing in the clearing. His was the only face that didn’t contain fear, anger or confusion; instead, he looked triumphant. It was clear he was blaming the Jesuits for the missing children. Castillo groaned as he noticed the harmless gourd in Nezu’s hand had been replaced by a war club – two feet of fire-hardened wood, sharpened on one side so it looked like a cross between an axe and a paddle.
Castillo grabbed a torch and headed quickly for the church. Pushing open the large wooden doors, he crossed himself, then walked to the center of the solid stone room. He felt an immediate sense of dread: Father González was gone.
He held the torch higher and saw that the basement trapdoor was open. He crept lightly towards the black pit. Passing the altar, he snatched up the brass crucifix and clutched it to his chest as he stared down into the stygian darkness. A smell rose from the opening like nothing he had ever encountered before, ranging from sharply metallic to thickly corrupt. He shuddered and gripped the crucifix a little tighter.
‘Father González? Padre … are you down there?’
He crossed himself again, drew in a breath and straightened his back; he would be safe in the house of God. He leaned across and lit one of the lanterns beside the altar, then dropped his burning torch into the pit. Instead of the sound of it hitting dry packed earth at the base of the steps as he expected, it splashed thickly, as though falling into mud, then fizzled and went out.
‘Mierda!’ he cursed, then quickly crossed himself for profaning in a house of God.
‘Father González, are you hurt?’
He paused for a few seconds, looking up towards the altar and the face of the Savior carved above it. He knew he didn’t have a choice.
He licked his lips and spoke softly into the mephitic darkness. ‘I’m coming down, padre.’
Father Castillo descended the rough stone steps on stiff legs, concentrating on his foot placement and breathing through his mouth so he wouldn’t have to taste the fetid air. It was a difficult descent as he refused to relinquish his grasp on the items he carried: in one hand he held up the brass crucifix; in the other, a shaking lantern, grasped so tightly his knuckles stood out like white knobs. He prayed softly, his lips moving rapidly with the words and also because of the trembling of his chin.
His first foot left the steps and he felt himself sink into a soft rubbery wetness that slid from under his feet and oozed up between his toes. He lowered the lantern and looked down; a sob escaped his lips as he beheld the ruination beneath him. He had stepped into a pile of ropy tendons, fat, tissue and fragments of bone.
He put the hand holding the crucifix across his mouth to stifle any sound, but still a combination of strangled gurgle and execration leaked out. He had found the missing children – or what was left of them. He was in a charnel house of humanity: all around him were strewn arms, legs, bodies with their skin rent from their bones, chewed or drained and discarded like leftovers from some mad demon’s banquet.
Among the mutilation, a small lifeless face stood out, its beautiful dark brown eyes still open – little jewels that had flashed with such gaiety and mischief when the child had given him the flower. That moment seemed a lifetime ago.
Above the sound of his frantically beating heart, Father Castillo heard a vile sucking coming from a darkened corner. He lifted the lantern. ‘Ay, Dios mío, Dios mío.’ Bile rose in his mouth and he fell to his knees, holding the cross to his forehead as he prayed with lips cold and wet from fear and the tears that streamed down his face.
A darker shadow loomed over him and he crushed his eyes shut as the crucifix was torn roughly from his fingers. In his head came a voice he recognized: We need you. He opened his eyes one last time and couldn’t hold back the shriek that burst from his lungs to bounce around the small stone-lined basement.
There was a deep grunt, the sound of something moist being roughly torn, and silence for a few seconds – then the vile sucking began again.
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Greig Beck grew up across the road from Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. His early days were spent surfing, sunbaking and reading science fiction on the sand. He then went on to study computer science, immerse himself in the financial software industry and later received an MBA. Today, Greig spends his days writing, but still finds time to surf at his beloved Bondi Beach. He lives in Sydney, with his wife, son and an enormous black German shepherd.Find out more