Chapter 5 – The Cult

Taking advantage of the fact that I was spending the Christmas holidays with my wife and daughter at my grandparents’ house in Viana do Castelo, I decided to explore another of the diary entries I had found.

This time, my curiosity focused on an important place of my childhood. Since I was a little boy, I heard my father and grandfather tell stories about the ruins of the San Francisco convent. Among them, was an old rumor that the place was used for strange rituals popularly known as Macumba. I had never found any evidence of it, until, reading the diary, I came upon an entry about a cult that met in the convent.

As usual, the timidity of my predecessor hadn’t allowed him to watch the whole ritual, and he only saw a small part through the gate rails.

Using again the excuse that I was going to visit an old friend, on the night of the first Monday after Christmas, the day of the week in which the diary said the cult gathered, I went up to the convent. When I was a kid, it was situated in the middle of a forested hill, and it took a long walk to get there, so I was surprised to see that now there were urbanizations almost to the first gate.

I parked behind one of these new houses, turned on my lantern, and headed for the forest. After passing a muddy area, certainly a remnant of the construction of the urbanization, I arrived at the gate that, long ago, protected the road that went up to the convent. Of it, only part of the portal remained, for one of the columns had fallen or been knocked over.

As soon as I crossed it, I found myself surrounded by eucalyptus, acacias, and the occasional pine tree. The forest now started there.

I began to climb the path. The rough paving, made up of large, irregular stones, was not easy to walk on, even with the help of the flashlight. I stumbled several times. Luckily, it hadn’t rained for some time, or the smooth stones would be impossibly slippery.

Halfway up, just before a tight turn, I found an old Calvary. It showed signs of ashes and smoke. If these were due to the cult that I was there to investigate or to a more mundane cause, I can’t say.

Finally, after the turn, I reached the final slope. Shortly after, my flashlight illuminated the main gate of the convent. An arch supporting the statues of three saints housed it, and a wall more than two meters high branched from it. To a casual visitor, there would seem to be no way to get in, because a lock and chain kept the gate shut, but I wasn’t a casual visitor.

Beside the gate was a very steep, almost vertical, climb where someone had heaped stones and excavated steps. I climbed it without great difficulty and entered a narrow path that penetrated the dense vegetation. I advanced for a few tens of meters, the wall of the convent on my right. Here and there, there were minor gaps, but none big enough for me to enter.

Finally, I arrived at the place I was looking for; a second entrance opened to a staircase that led down to the convent’s yard. Long ago, there must have been a gate there, but it preceded my first visits.

I entered and finally was in the convent itself. With my lantern, I swept the buildings around. Embedded in the wall that separated the yard from the raised terrain and the path, were two small chapels. They had no doors and were empty except for creepers and weeds. Their stone roofs were broken and full of holes. On the opposite side stood the ruins of the main buildings: the church and the housing and working areas.

But I didn’t go in right away. First, I went to the base of a cavalry in the center of the yard. The cross itself was no longer there, but the vaguely pyramidal base formed by four layers of stone was. According to my predecessor, it was there that the cult performed its rituals. In fact, the signs were everywhere. There were dark red spots all over. Here and there, I saw feathers, certainly belonging to chickens used in sacrifices.

With such clear evidence that something was really happening there, I entered the ruins of the buildings in search of a place to hide and wait for the appearance of the cultists. According to the diary, they only showed up after one in the morning, so there was still plenty of time. I used it to visit the site and see what had changed since my previous visit, more than twenty years before.

The first thing that struck me was that the remnants of the upstairs floor, which I had still seen as a child, had completely rotted away. In fact, the only sign that there ever was an upper floor was the stairs that led to nowhere and the partially ruined but abnormally high for a ground-floor building walls.

After visiting the old kitchen, with its huge fireplace and decorated limestone sink, I went to the church. It had long ago lost its roof, though the rusty chandelier, attached to the walls by equally corroded metal cables, still held its place. There was nothing left of the altar or of any other decorative element. I had a hard time crossing to the main entrance. The tomb slabs that, when I was a kid, covered the ground had been torn away, leaving huge holes difficult to cross.

When I arrived at the small dirt churchyard, I found the slabs heaped in a corner, some whole, others broken, in which the buried’s names and dates of death and birth could still be seen.

I then entered the cloister. As the wooden upper floor had already disappeared, it was completely uncovered. In its center, the small space reserved for the monks’ garden was now filled with weeds and brambles. Some of the columns that bounded it and that once held the ceiling had fallen, if by the action of the elements or by vandalism, I can not say.

It was then that I saw the perfect place to hide: the old bell tower. From the ruins, there was no way to reach it, since the door was on the second floor, that didn’t exist anymore. I went out to the back of the convent, where there was access to the hill and the fields, some small support buildings and, of course, the base of the tower. After circling the later, I found a small secondary entrance less than one meter high. I almost had to drag myself through the ground, but I managed to get inside.

As had happened to the upper floors, the stairs had disintegrated. Fortunately, the tower was narrow, so by pressing my back, feet, and arms against the walls, I was able to reach the top with just some effort. I now had a privileged view of the entire convent, especially of the yard where the cult was supposed to meet, and I doubted anyone would see me there.

I turned off my flashlight. It wasn’t even midnight yet, but I feared that the cultists would appear sooner than expected or see my light in the distance.

I had been waiting for almost two hours when I began to hear a song coming from the end of the path that had taken me there. A moment later, behind the curve, an orange light appeared. I fixed my gaze there, for I knew I was about to see what I had come for.

From behind the curve came a line of people, all holding lamps. Some also brought cloth bags, inside of which something moved.

I confess I was surprised and even disappointed. Perhaps because of movies and television shows, I expected figures in long black hooded robes. However, these were normal people in everyday clothes.

The cultists went up to the gate and then took the same narrow path I had used to come in. After a short while, they were all in the yard, around the base of the Calvary. Nothing could be heard but the hymns and the clucking of the chickens in the bags.

Suddenly the voices became quiet. One of the cultists, a man with long, disheveled hair, went up to the improvised altar and began to chant a new song, this time at the top of his lungs. After a few minutes, one of the other cultists opened the bag and passed him a chicken. With a small knife that he produced from his belt, he cut the throat of the animal and let the blood drip on the stones.

These steps were repeated for a half hour until all the bags were empty. Then the cultists uttered a cry in unison. The ground started to tremble. Gradually, a crack opened on the floor in front of the makeshift altar. An orange-red glow projected out from it. It was as if it were a passage to Hell itself.

The cultists stared at it as if hypnotized, for a few moments, until a gigantic red fist, larger than a person, came out of it. Under the expectant gaze of the cult, the hand opened, releasing about a dozen strange humanoid beings. These were small, about half a meter high, and covered with a short black fur. Two tiny horns crowned their heads, which also had sharp snouts and pointed teeth.

With great enthusiasm, the cultists ran after these imps, picking them up and stuffing them into the bags where they had brought the chickens. At the same time, the hand disappeared, returning to the abyss, and, as soon as the last imp was caught, the crack closed.

Satisfied, the cultists returned the same way they had come, this time in complete silence. Not even the imps, stuck in their bags, made any noise.

I let the light from the lamps disappear behind the curve and waited about half an hour before descending from my hiding place and going back to my car.

Although it was the first journal entry I investigated involving humans, it was probably the one that left me with more questions. Who was in that cult? What were they going to do with the imps? To whom belong the hand that brought them?

I went home thinking about it and even lost that night’s sleep. The possibilities made me shiver. I would only get the answers much later, but they would surpass everything I could imagine.

Chapter 4 – The King of the Islets

As was tradition, at Christmas time, me, my wife and my daughter spent a week’s vacation at my grandparents’ house in Viana do Castelo. Some of the entries in the diary I had found occurred in or near this town, so I took the opportunity to investigate them.

One evening, after dinner, with the excuse that I was going to see an old friend, I left and headed for the Lima riverbank. That excuse wasn’t even an absolute lie. In the afternoon, I had phoned a childhood friend and asked him to lend me his boat, and when I went to get it, we talked for half an hour before I got on board and started rowing.

I was there to investigate peculiar shadows and silhouettes and strange movements in the reeds that the author of the diary found in the islets near the mouth of the river. As usual, my predecessor hadn’t investigated the matter in depth, hadn’t even left the river bank, but I was determined to find out what was happening.

So, I rowed to the largest of the islets, popularly known as Camalhão, which was situated just over a hundred meters from the anchorage where my friend had his boat.

As soon as I got to the islet, I disembarked, attached the anchor to one of the huge clods, and entered a nearby gully. As the tide was very low, the banks of this gully, plus the long reeds, rose above my head so I couldn’t see anything around me. But having spent a part of my childhood in those islets, I knew that gully would lead me to the heart of the Camalhão more quickly than crossing through the reeds.

Just beyond the first turn, I came upon a bad omen. From a puddle in the almost dry gully, the severed head of a man looked at me. It was swollen and showed signs of putrefaction and animal attacks. In fact, the part still submerged was, at that moment, serving as food for several river prawns.

After the initial shock, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t have any reason to worry. It was not uncommon to find bodies and body parts in the river, victims of shipwrecks brought in and left behind by the tide. That head probably had nothing to do with the silhouettes I had gone there to investigate.

I kept advancing, taking a mental note to later warn the authorities about that head.

I had walked a few tens of meters when a tiny black figure jumped over the gully right in front of me. I immediately climbed the bank. When I reached the top, I couldn’t see the figure, but the movements of the reeds denounced it, and I was able to follow.

I ran after it for several hundred yards, the reeds’ tips piercing my pants and injuring my legs.

Finally, we reached a clearer area, covered only by low grass, located under the so-called New Bridge. It was only then that I saw what I was following: a small humanoid being, a little more than ten centimeters high. He disappeared behind a huge pile of tree branches and plastic containers, flotsam brought by the current and tides.

I kept following him, however, as soon as I reached the trash heap, I heard a low, slow voice coming from a nearby gully.

“Who are you? What are you doing in my kingdom, and why were you chasing one of my subjects?”

I was going to reply, but the creature who had spoken rose and left me speechless. It was a huge being almost twice my size. He couldn’t be called fat, though he was anything but skinny, and in the moonlight, he looked as pale as ivory. He wore a crown made of interwoven reeds, which, coupled with the fact that he had mentioned his subjects seconds before, led me to conclude that he was the king of the creatures whose silhouettes my predecessor had seen.

The huge being came out of the gully and approached the pile of garbage. I stepped aside to give him passage, but I didn’t dare try to run away. To my surprise, he sat on the flotsam, and only then did I realize that it was a rough throne.

“Tell me what you’re doing here,” the creature insisted.

I told him about the silhouettes and how I went there to find out what they were.

“It seems that some of my subjects need to be more careful,” he said at last. “Especially now.

“Why especially now?”

“My subjects are disappearing. We don’t know how or why. Which makes me distrust you. How do I know that you aren’t a kidnapper? I saw you chase one of us.”

I tried to justify my curiosity. I even told him about my trips to the city of the dead and to the fairy bar.

As I spoke, a bizarre creature emerged from the reeds. He walked on all fours, though his body was slender and contorted like a serpent’s, and it had a vaguely human face. He approached the king, stood up on his back legs and whispered something in the king’s ear. Then he disappeared again into the reeds.

The king let me finish my explanation.

“I think I believe you,” he said at last. “If you were responsible for the disappearances, you wouldn’t have let my sentries see you.”

He nodded toward the place where the serpentine creature had disappeared.

Now that I was calmer, it occurred to me that the disappearances in the islets could be related to those of the dead, and I told the King what I had discovered in Gerês.

“Curious,” he replied. “You need to go now. I’m gathering my people here and talk to them.

I didn’t wait for him to tell me a second time. I went into the reeds and headed for my boat. As I traversed the Camalhão, I saw several small shadows in the river, in the space between the islets. After looking more closely, I realized that they were trunks and even small leaves carrying several of the creatures that I now knew to live there.

I saw the first land on the Camalhão but soon resumed the walk back to my boat, fearing that the king of the islets would expel me. Or worse.

I rowed back to shore and, after returning the boat, returned to my grandparents’ house. As I drove, I couldn’t stop thinking about the disappearances. Was there really a collection between those of the islets and those of the dead? I still didn’t know enough about that parallel world to answer those questions, but I would keep to investigating. My curiosity would never let me stop.