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The Serpent's Head
Deception is a sin. Perhaps it is also one of the fastest ways to cast yourself into the pits of hell. So when one misaligned soul deceives an honest heart, should he not expect to be smote beneath the fist of Man or Angel? This is why I will never feel shame for what I did in my childhood. It was a noble act of faith.
Ripe in my twelfth year of life, a Templar named Sir Hugh had taken me on as a squire, an incident deserving of much celebration; however, the tasks I was assigned were grueling. Once during my solitary travels, the hills began to cough great clouds of dust and sand. I was returning from delivering a message to the Templars guarding the northern watering hole when it hit, peppering my black hair and boyish features to a yellowish hue. The sandstorm’s mighty breath pricked my body like thousands of needles piercing my flesh, burning my nose and eyes until I became lost and collapsed. Yet, through the banshee screech of the storm, I felt a hand upon my shoulder; I desperately looked up and saw a face wrapped in coarse white cloth.
As he pulled me to my feet, I thought that surely this was an angel.
“Come,” said the figure in unrefined French. His accent indicated an upbringing in the Levant. I staggered through the sandstorm in his wake and he pulled me into a small clay abode far from the highway.
“Who are you?” I had asked faintly.
The savior seemed to be thinking for a moment, and then replied with tenderness, “I am Yusuf Attamam ibn Rashad.”
I laughed at the absurdity of his name. “I shall call you Yusuf,” I decided aloud, and the young boy smiled and nodded. As he unwrapped the sandy white cloth from his face, beads of sand sprinkled fourth from the folds and danced around my feet. When he was fully revealed I noticed that he too could have passed as merely a twelve year old boy. I still find it curious that he never asked my name.
We spoke of deserts for a while and he offered me some water, which I drank voraciously. Eventually he helped me find my way back to Jerusalem.
Several days later, there was a terrible attack upon a group of Christian pilgrims who had been traveling here to the Holy Land. Men cried out in the streets that the Enemies of God had slaughtered hundreds of Christians, while people gathered like ants marching to a carcass to hear this harrowing news.
The enemies were violently branded as Saracens, a name that dripped like venom from everyone’s mouths, sliding past walls of clenched tombstone teeth. Holy men denounced these “Muslims,” and I listened with excitement as Master Hugh himself spoke against the enemy. He seemed to wear the crowd as a cape; people followed him wherever he tread, beholding the crimson cross stitched across his white breast that designated him as a Knight of the Temple. The people of Jerusalem beheld Sir Hugh as an agent of heaven. I observed him as the perfect man of Christ.
The next time I saw Yusuf—encountering him on return from another assignment—we enjoyed the company of one another.
We chased snakes, the creatures of the devil, and threw rocks at their heads to kill them. Even after death, they writhed and flapped about like severed tongues still possessed by malignant demons. We dueled with sticks so brittle and arid that they shattered into fragments of brown upon the gentlest collision. This was an object of great laughter, but in time I asked Yusuf where his master was.
“Slain three years ago,” he replied sorrowfully, “slumped upon a blade. But I have been living alone for one year.” I felt a pang of sorrow for my friend, but honestly didn’t quite understand his situation. With all the fun we were having I couldn’t say I cared much either. I did, however, invite him back to Jerusalem, where all of God’s children were welcome. His eyes turned soft and liquid with what could have been envy, his brow creasing into shallow canyons. Nevertheless, he declined.
Some days later, upon being scolded for returning late from another errand, I confessed to Master Hugh that I had been catching snakes with Yusuf. His eyes grew solid with fury, and his face turned a deep, bloody red.
“Pauvre con!” he screamed savagely, while beating me in an onslaught of fists and feet, “You’re a sinner, insolent wretch!”
Never in my life had I been so frightened by anyone than I was at that moment. Sir Hugh hit me again, but through the slew of French profanity, only one thing he said registered in my mind. My friend Yusuf was a Muslim.
That night I was unable to sleep. My muscles throbbed with soreness, while my spirit smoldered with existential agony. Had I been entertained all those times by an enemy of God? Did Yusuf truly wear the title that the preachers cursed? He had fooled me, I speculated, his extensions of kindness nothing more than a festival mask to conceal his heathen spirit. My trust had been careless and blind.
My nose, which had been broken in the beating and later reset, began to flow freely, dragging a cape of red over my lips. For whatever reason, I began to cry. From every angle it was difficult for me to believe that my best friend was a creature of the devil. Every time I closed my eyes I saw Yusuf’s gentle, olive complexion smiling back. He had taken me in when I needed shelter. I had cared for him.
I encountered Yusuf again two weeks later on my way to the northern watering hole, after a time where Sir Hugh had repeatedly threatened to cast me out of the Templar order. I grew enervated at the sight of Yusuf as he came to greet me, his feet dispelling small bursts of dust from the earth with each step he took. I was not quite sure what to think. Yusuf had always been good to me.
“Bernard!” he yelled with enthusiasm coloring his voice, hand raised in greeting. “Bernard, want to chase snakes?” I faltered, remembering the pain of my master’s fists.
The sun was harsh that day, its beams unabated by clouds. The sky was nothing but a thirsty expanse of sapphire blue, offering no protection to the golden sands through which I had to travel. Suddenly I felt as though I were aflame.
I decided I was old enough to make my own choices, and so we spent a good amount of time catching snakes after all, crushing the heads of the devil’s creatures with rocks as we had always done. All the while, I felt as though some deep truth was sliding into place behind my eyes. And so, as Yusuf knelt to trap a writhing serpent, I set my eyes upon his head. He looked serene, his visage beaded with sweat and alight with joy. I lifted my large rock, and the power of Christ compelled me.