Heathens
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Young women, almost teenagers, with old men. Young men, almost boys, together with older women. In each couple that formed part of the circle, this contrast was observed, as if they were trying to highlight the fact that they were in the extremes of life. It had been hours since the hullabaloo, the banquet and the drink, the shouts and the songs, the offerings and the dance had passed around the great bonfire. Silence is now dominant, interrupted only by the sound of naked bodies intertwined on the grass, moving almost in unison, and the occasional moans of pleasure during climax.

The deer merely observed in silence, as it did every night of the spring equinox, just as it had been time immemorial.

-o-

As the economic crisis and the drought associated with climate change hit the villages around and on the peninsula, Fontana di Cervi seemed immune to external disasters. Their fields and vineyards produced year after year in abundance, their farm animals and cattle were strong and healthy, and their vigorous inhabitants not rarely reached the centenary, despite the difficult conditions in which they subsisted. The happiness of its inhabitants would have been greater if more children had been born - it was a subject of recurrent conversation of the nonnas when they were in the market or when they left the church, dedicating themselves to openly criticizing the younger women for their lack of offspring - but it seemed that the prodigious fertility of their cows and goats could not reach the people. They knew that they were better off than most of the villages in Cerdeña, but they did not lose sight of the fact that many of them were getting old and that, although unlike other places young people did not leave the place where they were born, they would soon be forced to accept strangers, first as workers and then as inhabitants, which would disturb the tranquility and their way of life.

-o-

It was a series of apparently unrelated events that led to the Confraternity of Saint George’s Knights to take action. First, the father Giovanni, who had served in the small church of Di Santa Purezza for more than six decades, and who, afflicted by early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease had agreed to retire, had died while sleeping a few days before moving to the capital. Sometime later, his replacement, Father Valentino Pellegrino, had asked to leave the priesthood after occupying his position for only one year to dedicate himself to being a farmer in the region. And while in the capital they were pondering to send a deacon to take charge of that orphan sacristy, the church had been seriously damaged as a result of a fire, losing all its roof and part of its structure.

For this reason, Piero Moretti was driving to Fontana di Cervi on that cold January afternoon. He hoped that his Fiat Punto would not attract too much attention and that unless asked directly he would only be taken by a tourist who had decided to bring his holidays forward. Because Di Santa Purezza was not only a church about 500 years old but also the place where a relic of Saint Martha the Shepherdess was kept, being its duty as a representative of the Confraternity to find out the destiny of the holy object and to try to recover it.

-o-

After staying overnight in a rustic inn, the only place in town with lodging for tourists, Moretti began his inquiries early in the day. Fontana di Cervi was the typical agricultural village like so many others that abound on the peninsula, places in many respects abandoned by progress, and whose lifestyle seemed to have not changed in centuries. At that time there were few inhabitants, mainly women and the elderly, as most of its inhabitants were working in the surrounding fields. He walked to the town hall, a rustic building of wood and stone, to ask about Di Santa Purezza.

According to his previous research, the inhabitants of that region came from the Sardinians, a proud people who had occupied the region since time immemorial. Although they had received cultural influences from the Phoenicians, the Romans, and the Byzantines, and had later embraced Christianity, they struggled to maintain their legacy, preserving and restoring structures such as the nuraga1 that he had seen in the boundaries of the village, in addition to preserving archaeological pieces found in the fields and forests for their own use, rarely giving them to museums in other regions.

Lost in thought, he found himself in the lobby of the city hall with a black stone statue, about fifty centimeters high on a wooden support. The statue had a humanoid body, with sexual characteristics both female and male, being, in general, an unrealistic conventional representation that tended to voluptuousness, although the feature that most caught his attention was his head, which represented a deer's head. The whole caused him a certain discomfort and sensation of modesty, confusing when experienced together.

- Beautiful, isn't it? - said a voice behind his back.

- It is curious, it reminds me of the Venus of Willendorf. What have the archaeologists said? - Moretti asked.

The man next to him smiled and introduced himself as Filippo Abis, mayor of Fontana di Cervi.

- Archaeologists have not seen it, although I must suppose that in every village on the island there must be an equal one, Italy has always been rich in archaeological objects. You come as a tourist, don't you? I hope you do not come to hunt deer, there have been few this year and we do not want them to disappear.

- No, my interest is the history. Magnificent nuraga they have, I have seen many others but none so well preserved. Although my main interest is for the church Di Santa Purezza - replied Moretti.

With a sad expression and shaking his head Abis said:

- If you were interested in knowing it, I regret to inform you that it was destroyed a couple of months ago by a fire and that we still cannot begin its reconstruction. We have waited for resources to be sent to us from Rome, but our request has not been answered. Now we can only meet on Sundays in the square to read the scriptures. If Father Giovanni were alive…

- I think your prayers have been heard - replied Moretti with a smile. - I' m a representant of an insurance company in Rome, and I need to visit Di Santa Purezza to make an assessment of the damage and a budget for its repair. I give you my word that I will do everything I can to ensure that the building can be repaired soon.

-o-

After warmly thanking his companion for his good disposition, Moretti waved him goodbye, as he needed tranquility for what he was about to do. After taking notes and photographs of both the inside and outside of the church for half an hour, and making sure no one was watching, he went inside. The building had been badly damaged by the fire, losing all the roof and many of its benches and other wooden objects, but the stone walls had withstood well. Following the instructions given to him in Rome, he began to feel the lower part of the altar until part of a slab sank, after which he pushed it diagonally, displacing it. With a flashlight he illuminated the inside of the small niche, probing again until a stone moved. Using the blade of his Swiss Army knife as a lever, he moved the rock, finding a bundle wrapped in an ancient burlap cloth, which after a quick check, confirmed that it corresponded to the object of his search.

-o-

Due to the state of the roads and the few hours of light remained, he decided to tolerate the discomfort of the inn he was staying in for another night. He did so partly to avoid raising suspicions (who would travel hundreds of kilometers from the capital to a town in the middle of nowhere to leave the next day?) and partly out of curiosity. Because, in spite of its rusticity and poverty, the place had caught his attention. Although the inhabitants were not particularly friendly and it was noticeable that they did not like strangers very much, especially the older ones, they were not openly hostile and so far had not been issued insults or rude comments.

The next morning he drove around in his car. In addition to the nuraga he had seen near the entrance to the village, he found three other nuragas of lesser height, causing him discomfort at the sight of scratches on their walls, mainly representations with the greater or lesser talent of deer, as well as on several walls of the village houses. There were also burned areas of the ground nearby, as if they had made bonfires, not knowing how to explain the inhabitants of the surroundings the causes of these marks. He walked through the woods, enjoying the beauty of its ancient trees and the tranquility of the place. After returning to the village and having lunch, he said goodbye to Abis, thanking him for his hospitality and good disposition, before embarking on his return journey to the capital.

-o-

After returning to Rome, Moretti delivered the recovered object, which corresponded to three phalanges and part of a wheat spigot, to his superiors. This relic was later classified as R8942-CSSG and stored in Sector 5 of the Vatican archives. After a couple of days of rest, Moretti returned to his usual work, while waiting for the next assignment from the Confraternity.

-o-

That spring equinox the dances and prayers were both in thanksgiving for the blessings received and to ask for forgiveness for not being able to openly show their faith. Among the dancers of that year was Piero Moretti, who with his heart filled with desire for Mother Deer sang praises to the only goddess he could adore.

-o-

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