The Serpent's Head (complete)

July 3, 2011
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.” I figured he must have meant “Joseph.”
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, living alone in this clay home. 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. “How long have you been lost?” he asked with clear concern.
I gripped a clay bowl of water in my hands, sipping. “Not long—no, not long, only since the storm hit.” Unsure of what to say, I took another drink, struggling to make sense of this boy who had rescued me. I studied his appearance; he was short for his age, with bright hazel eyes that matched the desert sands. He was very thin, but not deathly so. His cheeks were slightly sunken, and the bones of his jaw were visible, but he seemed otherwise healthy. So if he was not a leper, what was he?

Yusuf laughed. It was a merry sound, one that reminded me of the birds back in France. “You look as though you’ve spent months wandering.”
Once I realized that he had a sense of humor, my shoulders relaxed and I felt much more at ease. Peering into my bowl of water, I found my reflection. Yusuf had been correct in his observation. My hair was wild and askew like the feathers of a dead raven, and my fair skin was painted dark with layers of dust. With everything else tinged yellow from the sandstorm, my blue eyes must have been the only objects of vibrant color for miles. An anxious laugh found its way past my lips.

“Wandering for months? Not yet,” I replied with humor in return. “I’ve been on my way home, you see, before those sands became Hell.” As conversation grew between us, Yusuf and I found ourselves becoming something like friends. Eventually he helped me find my way back to Jerusalem.

I had decided to not speak of the incident. I would have been ashamed to admit to the Templars that I would have failed my master’s assignment had it not been for some young, sandy child on the outskirts of civilization.
From the gates, I had been received by my master and a rowdy bunch of knights and taken to the church to describe my adventure. The room in which we conversed was a small corner of the church. The dull rumble of civilization vibrated through the heavy stone walls, and a smooth, matching floor sprawled beneath us. Above hung a chandelier of candles that cast a heavy yellow glow upon each of us. Occasional gobs of wax would slap down onto the notched, wooden table.

“The sand—why I felt as though it were flaying me alive—but I walked right through the storm. Good Lord, never thought I had it in me.”
I told this lie to a table of Templars. Each of them were garbed in the famous white cloaks of the order, branded with a fierce red cross that drew attention away from their grizzled faces and muscular limbs. Even a Holy Man of the Church sat beside me, eager to hear what I had done in God’s name. He wore a long black robe that trailed past his legs and formed a pool of darkness at his feet.

“Good man!” said my master, patting me upon the back with a strong hand. “This sort of climate really makes you miss France, eh?”

I nodded, “Yeah.” The words felt forced.

Praises were given to me from all around the table, and my heart swelled with false pride. My master led a cheer to honor me. Beneath my smile I burned with shame.

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.

“Ah, Bernard,” he said upon seeing me in his flock. He parted from the crowd, ushering me into the busy streets. Everyone was sad to see him go.
“Sir?” I replied in a humble tone. The street was colored with the fabric of vendor stalls, housing sweaty hagglers in the late August heat. It was the rule of King Baldwin III, where the good people of Christ roamed between the dusty walls with a growing fear of the Saracen threat.

“You’re so young,” Sir Hugh said admiringly, “a special consideration, two years behind the normal age of a squire.”

I nodded as we walked past a smoky tavern. The scent of rare spices burned my nose. “And I’m honored,” I replied earnestly, wondering what my master was getting at. It was unlike Sir Hugh to pass out compliments.

“You’re making uncanny progress,” he continued. “Not the brightest squire, but you dance with a blade, you truly do. And so I need a promise from you.”

He stopped me and put a hand on my shoulder. I looked into his rugged, fleshy face. A swath of stubble was encroaching upon his lower jaw. For a moment it was just us, stationary among the tides of gossip and bodies.

“I’m going off to fight at Damascus soon. And if I am slain, I wish to know that my piety can live through you— promise me that you’ll do your best to keep Jerusalem out of heathen hands. God wills it, aye?”

“Of course, Master,” I replied proudly as I went down upon a knee. Twenty-four years later, Jerusalem would fall to the Saracens.

The next time I saw Yusuf—encountering him on return from another assignment—we enjoyed one another’s company. The skies were gray and overcast that day, flawlessly parallel to the expanse of sand that stretched from horizon to horizon. We chased snakes, the creatures of the devil, and threw rocks at their heads to kill them. Yet 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.

“That one would have lopped your arm off!” Yusuf laughed after striking me in the arm with his stick.

“Ha, had I not stabbed you through the back moments ago,” I replied enthusiastically. I was having too much fun neglecting my assignment in the sweltering heat. Waving my stick about like a fierce warrior, I pretended to be Sir Hugh, but Yusuf became angry when I asked him to play as a heathen Saracen. I decided I too would have been angry if someone asked me to emulate a godless fool.

“Yusuf,” I asked eventually, “where is your master? You’re the loneliest person I’ve ever met, living all by yourself with these dunes.”
“Slain years ago,” Yusuf replied sorrowfully, “slumped upon a blade. But I’ve been living alone only one year.”

I felt a pang of sorrow for my friend, but I still didn’t quite understand his situation. With all the fun we were having, I couldn’t say I cared much either. I did, however, consider it proper to invite him back to Jerusalem, where all of God’s children were welcome. Perhaps he could stay in the church with me.

“Yusuf, come home with me today,” I said in an almost begging tone. “You’ll find a place in Jerusalem. Besides, we would be able to see each other much more often, you know, without me neglecting my chores.”
Yusuf’s eyes turned soft and liquid with what could have been envy, his brow creasing into shallow canyons.

“I can’t,” he replied gloomily, eyes studying the sand.
“What do you mean you can’t?” I countered, “You can walk can’t you?”

“Well, yes,” he replied reluctantly.

“It’s dangerous out here. The Muslims could kill you.” The moment I said this, anger flashed across Yusuf’s face, but it was soon replaced by his forgiving smile. I still did not know what kept him from seeking Jerusalem, but neither of us spoke any further into the subject. I found my own way back home.

Hours later, upon being scolded for returning late from my errand, I confessed to Master Hugh that I had been catching snakes with a boy named 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.

I lay before the mouth of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, having been deemed unfit to sleep within the sacred corridors. I gazed up at the steeple, perched in all of its holiness and embalmed in moonlight. Messiah, Messiah— I had wondered if Jesus despised me, if I had condemned myself to Hell for associating with a boy who prayed five times a day and called God’s word a Qur’an.

“Dear Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned,” I whispered, eyes closed and hands woven. “Give me a chance for redemption.”

The words felt acidic on my tongue, as though my spirit were scolding me for begging for something that I did not deserve. Sir Hugh had been so proud of me— he had even trusted me to carry on his legacy, and I had betrayed him.

My nose, which had been broken in the beating but later reset, began to flow freely, dragging a cape of red over my lips. Absolutely crushed, 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 when Sir Hugh had repeatedly threatened to cast me out of the glorious 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. In the distance, the walls of Jerusalem spanned most of the horizon, distorted and animated by heat. 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 and the sting of his accusing words. Now there was nothing but me, Yusuf and a scabby yellow road that seemed to stretch on for eternity.

The sun was harsh that day, its beams unhindered 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’d love to.” The words came out on their own.

Yusuf smiled and began searching for a rock to bash snakes with. “I was starting to fear you weren’t going to return,” he said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” I said perhaps too hastily. He didn’t reply, but I knew what he was thinking. It occurred to me that he had known of our inevitable difference all along. He had known I was Christian and done nothing about it.

“I thought maybe you had gotten into trouble,” Yusuf replied, clearly noticing my aggravation. “You seem hot. Let me get you some water.”

There it was again, his deceitful mask of kindness. I felt sick.

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 sequined with sweat and alight with joy. I lifted my snake-bashing rock and the power of Christ compelled me.

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