The Alternate History Fiction of Lou Antonelli

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Damascus Interrupted

"Damascus Interrupted" was originally published in Phantasmororium, Sept. 2012.


Singh knocked on the door of the bedchamber of the High Priestess’s daughter.  “My honored Miss, we need to get underway.”
Mariam White finished combing her long blond hair.  She took a step back and looked at herself in the mirror. In a month she would be celebrating her 16th birthday; her presentation in the temple would be one of the year’s highlights in the small town.
She cinched the strap around her books, spun around and was out the door. Her personal valet, Mahendra Singh, had already stepped back and caught the door as it swung violently open. He had been a retainer of the family for 20 years and the personal attendant of the heiress for 15--he knew her habits well.
Mariam settled in her seat as the Sikh assumed his place behind the wheel and drove around the circular driveway and towards the nearby highway that led into Dallas.
Mariam waved to her mother, who stood with a cup of tea and waved back with one hand from the verandah.  As the SUV drove out of sight, the High Priestess of Cedar Valley walked back to the dining room, where her consort was reading the *Dallas Times-Herald* and enjoying an old-fashioned clove-scented cigarette.
"Well, she's off again," said Marguerite White.  "I hate it they have to leave so early each morning."
"Well, dearest," Reymond replied, "we are fortunate we can afford such a good school."
"I know.  I just hate that she goes so far away each day."
"Better to stay out of Cedar Valley, sometimes, if you know what I mean."
Marguerite did know what Reymond meant.  When she just a little older than Mariam, she nearly died when another family attempted to depose her mother and usurp the succession.  The dart only grazed her cheek, but she was bedridden for two weeks.  The servant who took the dart in the neck died instantly.
Marguerite felt the almost-invisible scar on her cheek and worried about her daughter.  "You don't think there is any serious danger right now, do you dear?"  She sat down across the dining room table from Reymond, who folded his paper and looked at her seriously.
"With the growth the city is having, our share of the offerings grows every day.  I'm sure someone's thinking of a strike against us.  That’s why we are always on our guard."
"The Wilsons have been trying to gain position ever since they moved here from the city," said Marguerite. "You know Marta Wilson wants to be High Priestess."
"Well, look at it from their perspective.  Their community changed and their temple lost its adherents.  This is a free country.  You can't tell people where to live."
"But why did she pick Cedar Valley?"
"Marta is a clever woman.  She probably realized the city was growing and holds the potential for great prosperity."
"Now you're sounding like a priest of Mammon," Marguerite snorted.
"Just being realistic.  Your mother suffered two coups, the second essentially successful.  And we have only one daughter."
She looked at him with concern as he continued.  "Don't worry, with my extensive network of stooges and spies, and the reliable servants we have in the household, I don't think we have anything to worry about."
"My mother didn't see it coming," Marguerite said with a frown.
"Your mother was the High Priestess in a tiny Tejas town of only 300 people.  She thought she knew everybody, and she was careless.  You need to thank Magna Mater in your shrine every night that she survived that second attempt until you came of age and assumed the mantle and robes.  You came within seven days of losing the succession."
Reymond rose and picked up his briefcase from beside the dining room table.  "These last few years we have seen a big improvement in security and surveillance technology."  He made a reassuring gesture as he turned to head out the door.  "Don't worry, we have a good position, and I don't intend to lose it.”
Marguerite rose to give him a kiss and straighten his lapel.  "You're a smart man. That's why we were matched."
"Flattery will get you somewhere.  We'll decide where tonight," he said with a smile.
Reymond's driver, an elderly Karaite, waited outside in a plum-colored Buick.  Marguerite shook her head as she closed the door and thought, "I'll never get used to that color."

Marguerite smoked a cigarette from the pack Reymond had left behind as she thought.  The suburban development in Cedar Valley was not an accident; Reymond was an imaginative real estate developer. He set it up so Mammon Mart built across the highway from the Magna Mater Temple Courtyard Mall.  And with Reymond at work and Mariam at school today, Marguerite was going to go shopping.
Her driver, Michael, was a Christian; like many of the temple leaders in the Cult of Magna Mater, the White Family used members of the small so-called "ethical" sects as household servants.
     They drove by the Christian eglesia on the way to the Temple Mall that morning.  Reymond's real estate skills had been extended even to the smaller sects when he helped bring in this Temple Court development, and he enticed them--Sikhs, Christians, and Karaites--to locate along the same stretch of frontage road.
From what she knew of the Christians, their leader had been an executed political prisoner.  But their symbol--and the statue that graced the lawn of their small colonnaded temple--was of a shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders.
At the corner of the service road entrance to the mall, a statue of a bare-breasted woman in tight orange shorts held up a platter of barbecued chicken wings in one hand and a large foaming mug of beer in the other.  A bit unseemly, through Marguerite, but Harlott’s Hot Wings was one of Reymond's more creative joint ventures--to get the cults of Epicurus, Dionysus and Isis under one roof; food, drink and sex all served up together.  Something for everybody.
They pulled into the parking lot.  "I have a lot of shopping to do today, Michael, so I will be a while.  If you would like, you can go over to your 'eglesia' and I'll call you.”
"Thank you, ma'am."  The burly man smiled and touched his cap.
Although small by Dallas standards, the Cedar Valley Temple Courtyard Mall had two long wings bisected by a pool. She entered Penelope's Odyssey, the fashion store that anchored one of the wings.
It was two hours later when, laden with bags and boxes, she emerged and walked past the fountain in the center of the mall.  A small ceremonial Temple of Mammon sat in the center of the fountain.  As at most Temple Courts, there was no priest on duty, but an acolyte sat with his small rake and bucket and collected the coins occasionally.  Marguerite tossed a large silver thaler directly into the boy’s bucket.  He nodded appreciatively.
She realized how large and clumsy her load was when she reached outside, and she reached into her handbag for her cell phone to call Michael.  She cursed when she realized there were two inside. Michael didn’t have his own phone and she had forgotten to give him one before he left
She called the office of the eglesia, but there was no answer, which didn't surprise her.  A small sect such as the Christians couldn't afford a full-time staff.
A security monk came up and asked if she needed help.  "It's no trouble at all ma'am.  We can get someone to take you to the eglesia in a golf cart."
"I’m very grateful," said Marguerite.
The monk smiled graciously. "Just consider it a small courtesy from Mammon to Magna Mater.”
A novice monk helped load up the shopping and drove Marguerite across the parking to the back of the eglesia.  After a few knocks a handsome young man, who said he was the sexton, answered and then helped carry her bags and packages inside.  Yes, he knew Michael, he said; Michael was praying in the sanctuary.
The young man apologized for there being no one to answer the phone, but the office was only staffed sporadically.  "I hope you don't mind if we don't disturb Michael until he's done praying," said the young man.  "I think he's doing the Stations of the Cross."
"I wouldn't think of it.  Just let him know I'm here when he finishes."  And indeed, she was happy to sit down in a plush chair in the foyer, out of the hot Texas summer sun.
     Good breeding decreed she would not disturb anyone at prayer--even a member of such an insignificant sect as the Christians.
She flipped through a small brochure she found on the table beside her; one of those slick little trifolds that pass for mass media in such small groups.
She was always confused how the Christians considered themselves worshippers of only one God when the sect's founder, Yeshua ben Jossi, claimed to be the Son of God.  "Doesn't that make at least two gods?" she wondered.
The main scenes of Yeshua's life were depicted in the brochure, including his ignominious death as a Roman prisoner. The Christians took their name from an old Greek word meaning "The Anointed One," because they felt Yeshua was anointed to redeem humanity.
Marguerite was nonplussed to read that the Christians claimed Yeshua rose from the dead, and he would return again.  That was almost 2,000 years ago.
     “And still no Yeshua,” she thought.  "He is certainly in no rush."
For five generations, the White Family had borne the honor of yielding the incense to Magna Mater at the Temple of the Earth Mother Goddess in Cedar Valley, ever since the first European settlers had come to Tejas.
Marguerite almost felt a pang of pity at the thought of a good but simple man such as Michael being misled by such unworldly mumbo-jumbo.
The brochure depicted the later history of the cult itself, after Yeshua "rose into heaven" on a cloud.  Marguerite read this part carefully because she knew nothing about how they had survived to the modern day.
She knew 2,000 years ago there had been a time of great religious agitation in the Roman Empire, but she didn't realize how confused it had been.  The Gnostics, the Essenes, the Samaritans, the Karaites, the followers of John the Baptist and the Christians all splintered from the ancient Hebrew religion as the Romans suppressed the Hebrews while consolidating their hold on the Middle East.
The Hebrews were finally eradicated as part of the general housecleaning the Romans undertook when they smashed the Mohammedan heresy hundreds of years later.  A handful of Karaites, Baptists and Samaritans remained, along with the Christians, just happy to be alive.
The story of what the Christians see as the pivotal event in the early history of their group gave Marguerite some insight into why Christians such as Michael were so kindly and cheerful.
     It was a story she was completely unfamiliar with.
In the first decades after the "ascension" of their founder, a man named Saul of Tarsus took it upon himself to exterminate the Christians on behalf of the Hebrew hierarchy.  He roamed the Middle East leaving dead Christians in his wake.  The Christians cried to their god for relief, and one day, while traveling on the road to commit another bloodbath, Saul was whipped from the back of his donkey by a whirlwind.
The great persecutor of the Christian Church died of a broken neck in the dust on the road to Damascus, his latest persecution finally and fatally interrupted.
     Ever since that miraculous deliverance from their tormentor, Christians have been grateful for every new day, Marguerite realized.
     "The power of positive thinking," she noted to herself. "They think they can survive and so they have survived.  Thank the Great Mother we have never had to deal with any such persecution.”
She heard a small cry and looked up from the brochure to see Michael had come through the doors of the sanctuary.  He was startled and puzzled at the same time, and when Marguerite explained, he tried to take the blame: "I should have remembered to ask for the phone."
"Don't be silly," she said. "I told you to leave and you did.  It's not your fault."
After a few more moments of hand wringing, Michael gracefully gave in to her assertions, cheerfully loaded her bags and boxes into the trunk and quickly hugged the neck of the Armenian sexton before they left.
     To avoid traffic, he took a shortcut out the back of the Temple Courtyard Mall, and through a rather shabby street where some of the less desirable temples were located, including the beer and wine temple operated by the Cult of Bacchus, the cheap pornographic video store run by the upstart Cult of Lola Montez, and the medical 'clinic' for the Cult of Moloch.
Marguerite cringed as they passed the 'clinic.'  Human sacrifice had faded away from almost all Old World religions, but followers of Moloch had kept the practice alive.  Their modern version performed abortions and offered the unborn children as sacrifices on their altar.
When they arrived home, she sent Michael ahead to get Singh so the two of them could carry in the bags and boxes themselves.
Michael was gone a good ten minutes before impatience overtook Marguerite.  She got out of the car and started up the steps of the verandah.  She heard a shuffling sound from behind the door as she reached for the knob.  She pushed the door open to go inside, but then realized there was somebody behind it.
She stepped back and was shocked to see the door swing open and Michael stagger out.  His eyes were glazed and he made a gurgling sound as he clutched his throat with bloody fingers.  He wore a dark shirt, but she saw it was damp.  Then she realized it was soaked in blood.
His throat had been slit.  He fell to his knees and then fell over sideways on the porch at her feet. A thin spray of blood flew in a semicircle across the wooden verandah.
She would have screamed but the sound of the trumpet blast froze her in place.  She spun around and thought for a second to run, but the Druids were already in place to prevent her escape.  She heard the music getting louder and louder as cymbals, cornets, tubas and trombones all picked up the beat.
She leaned over to look around the corner of the house where the music was coming from.  The Druids shifted but did not move otherwise; they knew she could never get by them. She just wanted to see.
The procession came into view as they rounded the corner. As it passed behind bushes, she saw a silk parasol bobbing up and down.  Then the first person in that parade came into view around the corner, and she was assured she had been betrayed.
Leading the procession, the Black Magic Voudoun Priest wore a top hat and tails, a sash and a big smile as he sashayed along the gravel driveway.  He was a priest of a cult the Negroes had evolved when they were taken as servants to the New World, a religion that combined elements of their native religion with that of the white man.
     "His demeanor is joyful at the anticipation of your liberation from the toils of this world. He brings death," said the cult's sacred writings.
Cars stopped in the street as the occupants watched the spectacle.  Everyone enjoyed watching a ritual sacrifice.
Behind him, the jazz band played a high-stepping tune, and members of the Temple of Baron Samedi danced with a sprightly step.
She was relieved to see, as the dancers moved forward and parted, a stunned Reymond in silver chains.  He must have put up quite a fight; he was badly bruised, but she knew he had not betrayed her.  Behind Reymond and his captors walked a dark man she didn't recognize until he looked her in the eyes.  He was bareheaded now and shaven; quite a change from the way she last saw him.
It was Singh.
     She knew what was to come and went limp but the Druids on either side grabbed her roughly by the arms and held her up to watch the procession.
She could see dust two Druids holding a golden bowl, a receptacle for the sacrifice of her head and heart.  The High Druid of Dallas, who would perform the sacrifice, held a silver dagger horizontally in front of him.
Behind them was Wilson Family, Marta Wilson in the lead, smug in her seriousness, holding a second golden bowl in which already rested a bloody, blonde-haired scalp, next to Mariam’s still-warm heart.
Marguerite’s scream was literally cut short by a bright sliver flash.


All of Cedar Valley heard of the coup at the Earth Mother Goddess cult by the end of day, including the young Armenian sexton at the eglesia.  He knelt before an icon and prayed for the soul of the faithful Michael--and also for the souls of Marguerite and Mariam White.
"I know you are the one true God and love us, for you sent your son to die for our sins," he prayed as he concluded.  "The pagan Gods make their children die for them."
He put away his mop and broom, and locked the door as the darkness descended and the parking lot lights flickered on at the mall.

No comments:

Post a Comment