Father Bernardo Argenti was about to die.
He was sitting on his heels on open ground with his knees spread wide. His legs were starting to ache from the unaccustomed posture as he was no longer young. His head was bowed, almost touching the ground beneath him. He could feel the blades of grass touching his face, stroking him as if to give comfort. His hands were tied behind his back. There were two men sitting in the same way on his right. He was the first in the line of men. Bernardo was a tall, thin man: gaunt. His skin stretched over his old bones like parchment in an old book. His looks reflected his ascetic life, his simple foods, his lack of excess. It was late June. The weather was hot but not sunny in spite of the hour, just after ten. The sky was white, overcast, almost as if glowering at what was taking place. He was not cold in his simple priest’s robe. A huge crowd had gathered around the three prone figures. There was talking, muttering, rumbling on, occasional shouts. Father Bernardo knew what was about to happen. He was not afraid. He felt calm.
After all, his entire life in the priesthood had been preparing him for this moment: the moment of death. He had always had faith. He could not remember a time when he doubted. He had known instinctively that there was God, that the Christian way was right for him. It was what he was sent to earth for. He had felt this as a child in Italy. His mind drifted to those early idyllic days in Puglia where he had been born. In his memory the sun always shone. They were poor, rural dirt poor but he had felt no lack. They had a garden, almost a smallholding, where his mother grew vegetables and grapes. He remembered squatting under the vines, searching for creatures in the soil, wondering at them. He remembered his mother’s voice, calling him in for dinner. There had been wonderful food: home-made crusty bread, hearty stews and soups, fruits. His mind summoned his mother’s face, lined and kindly, not quite beautiful, but warm. Here was love, not showy, not gleaming but real. Soon he would see her. This thought warmed him. He missed her with a long, dull ache. She had died long ago shortly after he had entered the seminary. He felt peaceful. He prayed simply inside his head.
Dear God, Forgive me my sins.
He prayed this over and over. He had no doubt. Jesus came into Bernardo’s mind just as he always did in times of trouble. He appeared to the priest just as he did in the Italian Renaissance paintings, dressed in a white robe with his arms outstretched. His hair was long and brown and his face was smiling at Bernardo. A feeling of greater peace descended upon the priest and a voice in his head seemed to tell him that everything would be all right. It seemed to come from deep within Bernardo.
Everything would be all right.
He was to be a martyr for the Christian faith. He would have riches in Heaven. He would see God. Bernardo thought of all those who had gone before him, all who had died for their faith over the long centuries. The modern world seemed far away. Here was still the ancient conflict between the Christians and the people of other faiths. Nothing had really changed for centuries. Somewhere in the distance he sensed he could hear birdsong. He was glad about that. He tried to focus on the birdsong and not on the shouts of the men.
One of the rebels stepped forward. He was a Jihadi, originally a Chechen. If you asked him he would say he was fighting for Allah, to see the Caliphate brought into being; an Islamic state stretching across the world. Nobody did ask him. But really he was fighting for himself. He loved the thrill of war, the glory in violence, the power, the primal urge in him to destroy others, to make himself more while making others less. This was what he understood. This was his element. He was born to rage. The Chechen was named Abbas Khasanov, from the northern plains of Chechnya, a rolling land, almost desert: the Nogay Steppe. Dressed in a woollen dark robe he almost looked like a monk himself, yet a wild, debauched monk, grown fat on too much meat and bread. His beard, long, dark, straggling stretched almost to his knees. His narrow eyes glinted with delight at what he was about to do. Indeed, at a glance one would say Abbas had a madness in him, nurtured by too much killing, too much blood. In his hand he held a simple knife with a long blade. It had seen death before, no longer at its sharpest.
Unlike the priest he was about to kill, Abbas did not think about the past. He had always known toughness. As a child he had been a shepherd boy, living in a hut with no running water, no comfort, nothing soft. He didn’t ever think of the rugged terrain of his homeland, of the sheep roaming to look for the rough grass. He didn’t think of his cold mother and his distant father. Abbas had never felt love. As a young man had joined the Georgian army and things had gone well for him for a time. He learned the art of war, how to kill. He learned stealth and he took pleasure in it. Abbas did not know the love of a woman though he had slept with whores. Women had little interest for him. He had been discharged from the army due to tuberculosis which he had miraculously survived. Things fell apart. There was no job for him, no purpose. So he found a way to Syria, to glorious Jihad. He grew his beard long. His reasons for fighting had little to do with Islam, all to do with the thrill of the fight. Before Syria he had rarely thought of Syria or of his Muslim faith. He was good at what he did.
Abbas Khasanov leaned forward quickly and grasped the back of Father Bernardo’s head with one hand while with the other he started to hack at the back of the priest’s neck. At first the blade went in easily, cutting through the soft skin. Then the work became harder as the knife hit bone and cartilage. It was tough going even for a powerful man like Abbas to work through this. He sawed this way and that for several minutes. Bernardo made no sound. The low hum of the crowd began to be louder as they shouted in unison:
“Allah Akhbar! Allah Akhbar!”
Over and over again, the same shout. No sound from Father Bernardo. The sawing continued. The blood pooled around the priest. The head finally came loose from the body and was held up by Abbas for the appreciation of the crowd.
The noise of the crowd swelled:
“Allah Akhbar! Allah Akhbar!”
The men of the crowd, and indeed they were all men, raised their mobile phones and clicked photos of the event. There was whirring, beeping and flashing.
The head was laid on the grass.
The face of the priest stared up unseeingly.
The birds were still singing.