They left the dining hall by another door and followed Fray Joachim across a paved courtyard and into a chapel. If anything, it was darker within than without, though a single tapered candle guttered in the vestibule. Moving like clumsy puppets, the men shuffled past the friar into the musty darkness of the chapel. They fumbled through layers of heavy sailcloth curtains infested with dry rot and moths; and when they had won through to the lightless cavern, they fumbled blindly for the pews and settled into them.
There was a rustling of heavy wool and a scuffling of leather sandals as the last leaden echoes of the bell dissolved in the air. Fray Joachim’s voice came from the altar, the guttural drone so low and slow that it seemed to take a score of minutes for each syllable to pass his lips.
Hull sat and listened. With only the soreness of his seat to mark the time, his hearing grew ever more acute, though his eyes never adjusted to show him more than pure blackness. Fray Joachim chanted and other monks took up the chant from every corner of the chapel.
By and by, he heard Obregon snoring. The whip cracked. Obregon barked, lurching to his feet, but he sagged back into his seat just as quickly, and soon, Hull heard his dull voice added to the listless chorus.
Far as he could see, the church was always just a place for folks to talk to themselves, and all the games and frippery that went with it just showed how hard it was for them to trust their own gut, without it being some sign from heaven. He knew from bitter experience that there were other ways to get the ear of the secret powers of this world, ways that would bring power at an unthinkable price. He chased his failing brain in circles trying to resist this thing they prayed to, for he knew that it was, unlike the god of the Franciscan missionaries, right here in the room with them, and it eagerly answered any prayer.
Hull felt the darkness close in and thicken. His eyes made phantasms out of the perfect darkness, purple writhing things like huge glowworms swimming in tar. The chapel seemed to grow colder, the shadows to rasp against his hands and face like dead women’s hair, like spiderwebs and scorpion legs, making him itch all over until he thought he would scream and flee, whip or no whip, bell, or no bell. The urgency of it redoubled as the chanting grew louder and quicker, to resolve into words, into a word…
Do not let the darkness into your mouth––
A thunderclap and lightning walked across his back. All his will fell short of lifting him to his feet. He heard the others and slowly, painfully raised his hands to cover his mouth as he added his voice to the chant. The itching became a prickling as if his limbs were starved for blood, the sensation of spiders with needles for feet walking all over him, converging on his mouth and kneading his flesh in their desperation to enter him. But he sat and chanted through his fists until the bell tolled again and the monks rose to their feet to guide them outside.
The moon was still high in the sky when they were led into the courtyard. The space was about a hundred feet on one side and surrounded by the cells on one side, the monks’ cloister, and a rectory on the other, with the chapel in the center. A high adobe wall blocked the fourth side, with a low door set into it that bore a primitive but formidable padlock. The top of the wall was twice a man’s height and studded with obsidian shards.
Fray Joachim ordered them to tear up the cracked clay paving stones around the well and to till the soil. This part they should make haste to finish, he said, for the dawn was coming and the sun would not be so merciful as the Lord.
Fray Joachim and three more monks stood in the corners of the courtyard with their whips at the ready, but the shadow of the bell tower loomed across the courtyard in the moonlight and filled him with dread down to the marrow. A crude flight of stairs climbed a corner of the chapel to the belfry. He saw the misshapen silhouette of Trinculo lurking in the belfry, polishing the bell and waiting.
“This is worse than any jail,” McKeever growled under his breath. “Let’s beat the shit out of these dog-dicks and hop that wall…”
Two whips cracked and split McKeever’s shirt front and back. Blood splashed from the wounds and for a moment, McKeever looked fit to spring on his tormentors, but then he bent over and set to work.
All the rest of the night, they worked feverishly under the whip, prying the stones out of the disintegrated mortar with their bare fingers. The ground underneath was sour, as if the earth itself was saturated with poison. It mercilessly tore their fingers and greedily drank up every drop of blood. The wounds from previous whippings reopened and wept and they seemed to weaken with every lost drop, every fresh wound.
By the time the sun peered over the red-tiled roof of the cloister, they had cleared nearly all the stones. Fray Joachim ordered Hull, Obregon, and the woodcutter to begin tilling the soil and planting seeds, while McKeever would clear the rest of the stones in the portion of the courtyard that lay in the shrinking shadow of the tower.
As Hull worked under the punishing sun, he noticed how the monks retreated into the shadows of the cloister. Though the men flagged in their efforts, they were slower to whip. Hull had seen more than a few men on display in pine boxes, and the brothers’ features spoke of the same sunken vacancy and indifferent mortician’s care. Then again, he’d seen a thing or two that wore the shape of a man but shunned daylight like poison, or burned at its touch. Fray Joachim and the monks seemed to mislike it far more than the men working in it.
But something else alarmed him even more. All about their feet, tender shoots erupted from the bad soil like green flames. They seemed to grow even faster underfoot, where the sweat and blood nourished them. Hull watched in morbid fascination as they sprouted and unfurled tiny leaves in his shadow as if feeding on his essence to grow as fast as he could plant them. By the time he had emptied his bag of corn kernels in the corner where McKeever worked feverishly to take up the last paving stones, the far side of the quadrangle was knee-deep in corn plants, already gravid with ripening ears sheathed in waxy purplish-green husks.
He was almost too numb with the fatigue to think anything of it, and when a monk came round with a dipper to offer him a mouthful of water, he was almost stupid with gratitude to those who were working him to death.
No such mercy was on offer, he knew by now. They would work him until his body failed, but he would go nowhere. In the heat haze of the afternoon, he fancied he saw more than three other workers in the quadrangle. Bronze-skinned men and women in loincloths, conquistadors in doublets and steel bonnets, raving, weeping men in cavalry blues, fortune-hunters who still believed they’d found El Dorado, and were digging for gold. Long after death in this godforsaken place, they still toiled and chanted those terrible syllables, just as he would when he died here.
He would not die here.
His brain boiled in his skull. His tongue swelled to fill his mouth like a toad in a hole. Exhaustion made him swoon against the nearest wall, but he took another sip of water from the dipper when it came and finished his planting.
As the sun dipped behind the bell tower, the monks summoned them to harvest the corn. He could hear them as he picked them, an unwholesome rustling, and the roots squirmed to catch the last drops of sweat from his blistered brow.
Hull did not wonder at any of this, for it would not have surprised him to find he’d worked for days on end, the nights passing in the blink of an eye. Just before sundown, the bell tolled in perfect sync with the pounding in his head. Three of them limped out of the rows of corn. The woodcutter collapsed and begged for water.
Fray Vigil, quickest with the whip and slowest with the water, poured the dipper in the thirsty soil at his feet and smiled as the dying man crawled to suck the mud into his mouth, then with his face pressed to the earth.