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American Atheist: #12

by  Nelly

Posted: Friday, July 1, 2005
Word Count: 4459

“Wake up Unita.”

Unita stirred, not wanting to break the warm comfortable feeling that flooded her bones and kept her under. “Just a minute Mamma, just one minute more,” she murmured.

A gentle hand shook her shoulder and a pleasant voice said, “I’m not your Mamma, and if I was, then it would be a true miracle, if slightly odd.”

Unita opened her eyes to see Dekel standing there, smiling down at her. She yawned and stretched feeling cramped muscles ache.

“Must have fallen asleep,” she murmured.

“Only for half the hour. Besides I think you needed it.” He gave her an appraising look, “That and a bath.”

Unita stood up and eased out the last of the cramp, “So I’m allowed in?”

“Yes. It wasn’t easy.” His smile faded. “My family didn’t want to know, they’d have kicked you out onto the streets and have nothing further to do with you.”

“But you convinced them otherwise.”

He beamed, “I only had to remind them, if we weren’t going to help you, then we’d be no better than the Church. The moral high ground is important to my family.” He started to climb back up the stairs. “Expect a lot of questions, especially from my Nanna. It’s just her way and you’re something of a rarity.”

“Do they all speak English then?”

“Yes. Before he died my Grandfather worked on a frigate and one of his crewmates was an American. He taught him the language, and my grandfather taught us it. The church has outlawed English, punishable by death. It is the voice of the godless.” Dekel gave a small chuckle.” It also helps with border runs. A number of the French families descended from Africa, and we use English as a medium when we trade for food.”

He stopped at a painted green door, which had the number forty-two, in big gold letters, nailed into its side.

“Ready?” Dekel asked.

Unita gave a small nod of agreement.

Dekel opened the door to reveal a large well-furnished room, which smelled of pipe tobacco. Inside, a group of people turned to face her. They had obviously been in the midst of a heated debate. Faces were still red as if from shouting and the uncharacteristic silence of a room full of people -especially family- was further proof.

A small lady, with curled hair and wide face, stepped forward and smiled politely. In English heavy with the Roman accent, she said. “Welcome to my house. I’m Behira, Dekel’s mother. We may not have much, but we’ve all decided to have you as our guest.” She cast a warning glance at the assembled family. “Or if you need to stay longer, then that would be fine as well.”

“Thank you, but I only need somewhere until the sun sets.”

“Of course.” Behira placed her hand on the small of Unita’s back and ushered her into the room. “This is the rest of the family. Over there is my husband, Tal.” She pointed to a bundle of jumpers that moved. Unita had to focus before she realised a man was within. He was sat in an old sofa which had done a good job of swallowing him, so just balding head, black pipe and jumpers were visible.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance. Don’t worry about the jumpers, I tend to feel the cold more than most.” He took the pipe from his mouth and nodded.

Behira hurried Unita on. “These are Dekel’s brothers, Zeev, Harel and Idan. The three older ones are out working, wont be back until tonight. Zeev, take your feet off that table.”

The three brothers looked identical to Dekel, except they were all younger and smaller in size. Zeev took his boots off the table as asked, then scowled at his mother. She threw him a furious glance and he paled. “Yes mother,” he whispered.

Behira now pointed Unita to the far corner of the room, where the last member of the family waited. An elderly lady, with snow white hair and soft brown skin. A shawl had been thrown over her shoulders and she watched Unita intently. In her hands she rolled tobacco onto thin black paper.

“This is my mother, Zohar.” Behira walked Unita to a spare chair next to the old woman. “I’ll allow you to get aquatinted, while I see what I can cook up.” She moved back to the brothers and said, “Some help in the kitchen.”

Zeev looked doubtful. “What, all of us?” Which earned him a cuff around the head from Behira. “Yes,” she said through clenched teeth. “All of us.” She looked back to Dekel, who hovered still in the doorway, “And that includes you as well.” Dekel allowed himself to be led away, his gaze lingering on Unita, until he left the room.

Tal mumured something incomprehensible and sank further into the sofa.

Unita found she was alone in the room -somehow Tal didn’t count- with a strange old lady. She resisted the urge to smile, instead she said. “They obviously think a lot of you.”

Zohar reached out and grabbed Unita’s hand, she had a surprisingly strong grip and Unita could feel the older woman’s fingernails digging into her palm. “You’re hurting me,” Unita said, shocked.

“And this is just a taster of the pain, if you’ve been lying to my family.”

“I haven’t, all I’ve said so far is the truth.”

“Or,” Zohar continued, “if you’ve brought trouble to my door.”

Unita prized her hand away, and rubbed at the red marks left. She felt her temper rise. “Don’t touch me again,” she snapped.

Zohar’s eyes glittered. “I’ll do worse than that girl, mark my words.”

Zohar settled back in her chair, placed the thin cigarette to her lips and lit a match in one smooth practised move. “Now tell me exactly how you came to be here, and don’t leave anything out, I’ll know if you’re lying.”

Unita swallowed hard. How could she tell the story without endangering Zohar’s family? She should never have come here.

Unita made to stand up, but Zohar’s voice froze her in place.

“Stay where you are. Don’t be so foolish girl, you won’t last five more minutes out there and I won’t have them trace anything to do with you, back to us.”

Unita sank back down. Zohar exhaled a cloud of blue smoke from both her mouth and nose. It hovered between them, with a faint cherry like smell.

“Now your tale, all of it, and if you're lucky a shot of gin, to help ease those nerves.” Zohar reached over to a desk and produced a bottle.

“I’m not allowed to drink,” Unita said automatically. It produced a dry crackling laugh from Zohar, who proceeded to pour them both a tumbler full.

“When in Rome dear child, when in Rome…”

Zohar handed her the drink, presented her own to Unita and swallowed it whole. Unita did the same and coughed as the burning liquid poured down her throat, setting fire to her guts.

“There,” Zohar said, “that should settle your nerves.”

Once Unita got over the shock of the foul liquid, she felt a warming sensation sweep through her bones. She started to relax. “Where should I begin?” She asked.

“Where else, but at the beginning.”


Unita found the telling to be easier than she first imagined. She assumed the story would be an emotional roller coaster -as it had been to live it- but this was simply not the case. Instead she felt curiously detached, as if it wasn’t her memories. Like watching an old film many times over, a familiarity with the scenes, but nothing more. Another person, wearing her clothes and looking through her eyes had lived these moments, not her, not little Unita, who had school in the morning.

Only once did the bubble break and a crack appeared in her new shining armour.

When she talked of Bobby’s death, she felt as if someone inside had turned on a floodgate of emotion. A single tear had risen unbidden to her eye, the harbinger of a well of torment. But Unita bravely ignored it, even asking Zohar for another sherry. After the burning taste dissolved the emotion, her new armour returned, and nothing -even Angelo’s death- could penetrate it.

Throughout the telling Zohar listened with great interest, her eyes widening as she talked about America and its principles of Atheism. When Unita spoke of the great lies, Zohar merely nodded and gave a small sad smile. “As expected,” She said, but refused to comment further, insisting Unita finish her story first. What really concerned Zohar, was the account she gave of the Cardinal and the fight which followed on the plane. Zohar leant in closer, scrutinising Unita’s face for any hidden meaning or sign. Finding nothing however, she sat back and let out a long low sigh, when Unita stopped talking, unsure of whether to carry on, she motioned for Unita to continue and poured them both another drink.

Eventually Unita stopped. The tale had reached its conclusion and she felt curiously lifted, as if a great burden had been taken from her shoulders and she now felt free. Or at least, happier than she had been.

“Feel better?” Zohar asked.

“Yes, actually I do.”

“Good. It’s bad for someone so young, to carry so much doubt and worries. It’s good to let go and you’ve started on the long road to recovery.” This time she placed her hand gently over Unita’s. ”It’s not your fault, you know. You’re not to blame for any of this. You, my dear girl, have been swept up in the eye of a hurricane and you haven’t landed yet. I dare say there’s more too come, before this storm blows itself out.” Zohar had smoked her way through three more cigarettes and she was fast rolling her fourth. “Behind you,” she said casually, “is a bookcase, could you be a darling and pass me the large red one. I would get it myself but these limbs ache too much.”

The bookcase stood in one corner and was composed of solid black oak, polished to a shine. Inside there were all manners of odd sized books. From large tomes, with thick bold text on the spine, to thin narrow books barely a hundred pages long. Some looked quite new, recent additions that stood proudly out amongst the others. And some books looked ancient, their covers creased and torn, their spines cracked with the relentless march of entropic decay. On the top shelf, a large red volume dominated over the others and Unita pulled it down. She glanced at the cover as she handed it over and it read,

Nergal, the Akkadian lord of the underworld.

Zohar opened the book carefully, taking her time to turn each page. Unita could tell it was old, perhaps older than all the others. The edges of each page were stained black as if from fire, some were missing. Others had been added and glued in so they stood out of place with the rest of the book. It had been hand-written, in a language that was -in the main-symbols and so lost completely on Unita. What little was written with letters, didn’t conform to any language she had ever studied. It wasn’t just the work of one author, but many had lent their hand to it. Adding something through the ages. With one long, sun-hued finger Zohar scanned each page, muttering under her breath. She treated the book with extreme care, and with tenderness usually reserved for holding a newborn child.

Zohar searched the book intently, eventually pausing at an old picture. “This Iron Maiden you describe, did she look anything like this?” Zohar turned the book around and Unita saw a detailed drawing of an armoured woman, gold and silver clad, descending over a lake of fire. In the background were depicted men and woman, linked by their genitals or nipples with chains of fire. A scene from hell. The image of the woman bore a close resemblance to Iron Maiden. It even had six fingers.

“Yes,” she said, “it does look similar.” Then paused, “Why?”

Similar,” Zohar intoned. “Or could it be the same person?”

“Perhaps. But so what. All that means is someone’s took inspiration from Iron Maiden to paint the picture.”

Zohar smiled patiently. “This picture is over two thousand years old and is currently stored in the Vatican amongst other priceless relics. Its very existence kept secret to the general public. The copy you see here was paid for in blood. Do you know why?”

Unita shook her head.

“Because it shows a female Angel.”

“This…”Unita looked back to the spine of the book. “Nergal character is a female Angel?”

“Kind of, the title refers to an ancient God of the Sumerian people. He ruled Hell with his wife. When those cultures were assimilated by the teachings of the prophet Moses, he became Nasargiel, a Fallen Angel who followed Samael to Hell. Moses spoke with him, upon his descent from Heaven and Nasargiel was commanded to act as a guide, through his travels of the lower realms.”

“I don’t get the connection.”

“Throughout popular ideology Nasargiel is portrayed as male. It is said as much in the teachings of Moses and to move against those teachings would upset a great many, powerful, people. But occasionally Nasargiel is portrayed as a woman. Here in this book for example and also just a year ago, word has reached us of stone tablet markings from the Sumerian period. They refer to the Angel, Nasargiel as female. Of course Angels are sexless beings in their true form, but if you look to scripture and the Angels mentioned within, all have a male dominance to their names: Michael, Rafael, Gabriel. In a world dominated by males, this particular female Angel was too much of a risk to be allowed into modern terminology. Her real appearance was discredited and removed from the holy books. Nasargiel became a male and remained so to the present day. But now we know differently and we know this because something of the old world has survived the tampering of the Church.”

“How old is it?” Unita asked, studying again the armoured woman.

“It’s difficult too determine, the painting itself is said to be of the time of Moses. The book's true age is lost in the annals of history, perhaps it’s also of Moses time”

“And Moses is important to Judaism?”

Now it was Zohar’s turn to laugh, open and loud. “That,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes, “is like saying God is important to religion or the book of Mormon, is just a collection of notes.”

Unita found herself blushing. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I don’t know much about your faith.”

Zohar managed to control herself. “That’s quite alright. I don’t expect they would have any need to teach Judaism to the American children. We are no threat and we haven’t entered into any secret agreement. We are as nothing. The sooner our history and past are wiped from the human consciousness then the better. “ She sounded twisted and hurriedly lit another cigarette.

She took one deep lung full and visibly relaxed. “No matter,” she said. “What I’m suggesting to you, is the Iron Maiden which you have come to respect, is in fact modelled on a secret painting only the select few know about. Her origins are found in the chambers of the Vatican. And in this, your American hero is not American at all. But rather born from the dark minds of the Church.”

Unita stared hard at the image of the Angel, but couldn’t ignore the similarities. Her shoulders sagged and she put her face in her hands “I just want to go home. I want to see my Mamma, I want to sleep in my own bed, in my own land, and I wish none of this ever happened.”

“As do most people, which history singles out for greatness.”

“I’m not great,” Unita moaned.

“Whether you believe or not is unimportant at this stage. But you do find yourself in a unique position.”


“You can hurt the governments. You can damage Rome, and even topple giants. Think on it for a moment. You have been armed with the certain knowledge the world is based on a lie. For reasons best known to Iron Maiden, she has left you here in Rome. Either to die or to be assimilated into our culture, who can say? But the main thing of it is, she didn’t kill you. She allowed you to live! Your words triggered emotional response and she let you walk away. Unhurt and full of the damming knowledge, if you ever returned to your native land, you could be a dangerous tool indeed.”

“But I may never get back!” Unita exclaimed. “I’ve suspected Iron Maiden mightn’t be there. And if she was then wouldn’t she kill me anyway? Or would she fly me back home? After all, who would believe the word of a fourteen year old.”

Zohar laughed, showing a row of yellow, nicotine stained teeth. “Other fourteen year olds, the people in your school, the friends in your village. Other schools, even those of the city you live nearby, New York.” She squeezed Unita’s hands reassuringly. “Whether by divine purpose or random accident you have been singled out. Now is the time to stop reacting to the world around you and time to start acting. Take the bull by the horns and let’s strike a blow, for what is right.”

Unita wasn’t sure about that or anything about this old woman. “Why are you so interested in striking blows for freedom?” She asked.

“When you get to my age, you have seen a great deal of things. Battles that should never have been fought. Friends and family that shouldn’t even have been on the field, killed for no apparent purpose. And all in the name of God. When you have a faith like mine, it’s like the whole world conspires to keep you in the dark. Others have come to the same conclusions you have been so easily given on a plate. My husband was one of them. We never knew for certain of course, but the bombs would only fall in the rural areas of the city. They would never touch the Vatican or places the Church held of great value. The seeming randomness of battle plans, and the deaths of only the lowly and the poor. Always those lacking in rank and in power, never a Cardinal or a politician. Just us, hiding in these ruined homes, praying the bombs would not find us. And our men could avoid the recruitment centres for another day. We are a distrustful lot, paranoid and with good reason. Its not difficult to foster such feelings when you are an oppressed people.” She stopped talking and let go of Unita’s hands. “But your coming here this day is a sign for me. Change is in the wind. God wants us to know the false prophets will no longer be allowed to continue with the decadent worship of His image. He wants us to know an accounting will be held and many will be found wanting.”

“I don’t believe, “ Unita said sullenly, fed up with repeating those words. “God doesn’t mean anything to me, or the trappings or your religion or anyone else’s.”

“It doesn’t matter. All you have to do is spread the word. Tell your story to as many people as you can, and the work will be done. From your words, the story will gain momentum, and become an avalanche that can destroy the great secrets of the world.” She laughed, “And it can all begin with you, one lone American girl.”

“This is getting out of control,” Unita said trying to earth the conversation. Zohar’s dreams of government toppling were outrageous even to Unita, improbable and most likely impossible. How could the words of one girl topple the superpowers of the last two centuries? It wouldn’t and Zohar was blinded to this fact.

“I just need to stay here for the rest of the day, then I want to go back and see if Iron maiden is still waiting for me.”

Zohar’s eyes narrowed and she asked darkly, “Even though she may kill you.”

“Yes. Even though she may kill me.”

Zohar’s brow furrowed. “But why, what’s the point in putting your life in danger like this, stay with us instead.”

“No I need to go.”


“Because I can’t believe she would betray me as well. She’s important that’s all.” Unita felt her skin blush and adverted her eyes.

Zohar watched her intently, her eyes betraying the slightest flicker of anger. “And all the trappings of a young girl,” she muttered.


“You, girl. You would put your life at risk and the chance to change the world, just so you could continue to play a fantasy out in your mind.”

“I don’t have any fantasy’s concerning Iron Maiden. She means the pinnacle of truth to me. I need to know if she is on my side or not.”

“Rubbish, you desire her and that’s what this boils down too.”

Unita struggled with the older woman’s words. “I do not! She’s a girl -a superhero- it wouldn’t be right…”

“You have nothing to be ashamed about. From the way you tell it, Iron Maiden is a symbol of power for your people. She has been created and sculpted to appeal directly to the hearts of your nations young. She is designed to inspire and bring forward feelings of this type. You have fallen into nothing more than the cleverly crafted illusion of power, albeit power through your people’s faith in Atheism.”

Unita wouldn’t have it. The idea she wanted Iron Maiden was beyond belief and ridiculous. She wouldn’t have thought such a thing, ever.

“You have to differentiate between the reality and the illusion. You know the real Iron Maiden, the one that killed Angelo and the one that nearly killed you, looks vastly different than the one in your poster. You said as much to me when you recounted your tale.”

Unita struggled with the twisted road this path had taken. Each word dug deep into her heart, evoking emotions she had not considered herself, except in the darkest moments of her life, where sleep and dreams had become a surreal mix of both.

“The real Iron Maiden, looked alien and insect like. She grew things from her armour, it was disgusting.” That was true, the fear of the strip, reared its head again, as she remembered the pain and the humiliation the worm had evoked, by laying barren her mind and her thoughts.

“Remember those moments in which you begged for your life, and she would have killed you as easily as one would kill a fly,” Zohar pressed. “That’s the real Iron Maiden. Steeped in levels of deceit, no doubt she operates on both sides. She doesn’t care about you; at least in the sense you care about her. Those feeling will never be reciprocated. She is the monster in this, and you have to let those feelings go. They are misguided. Mere childish dreams of a world you no longer are part of. And could not return despite your feverish imaginings. You have in the last day or so, gone from being a girl to becoming a woman and there is no going back. Alas your childhood has come to an abrupt halt.”

She poured them both another shot. The daylight reflected off the glass and the dark liquid sparkled a ruby red. “You must do what you have to do, of course. But do so with a clear heart. To you Unita, and the breath of truth you have brought to my house."

Unita picked up the glass and drained its contents. The burning sensation she had felt before lessened considerably. Its warmth lent fuzziness to her head and she wondered if this was what it meant to be drunk.

“I have an alternative for you, if you want to listen.”

Unita nodded, but the room shifted slightly. Mildly concerned she leant onto the table for support.

“Zeev runs the borders for food and if you want, he can take you with him. Smuggle you out of Rome and into more neutral territory, like Spain. From there you should be able to buy passage back to America, either by boat or a transport ship. The journey wont be easy, and you’ll have need of a guide. Dekel speaks several languages and you seem to have formed a bond with him.”

“That will be nice.” Unita slurred the words. She tried to repeat the sentence again but it all came out in a mix, which made even less sense.

“You should think about it while lying down,” the old woman cackled. “Your stamina is not the same as ours.”

Zohar called in the rest of the family and through blurred vision Unita watched Behira approach. “Mother, no!” She said, as she saw Unita. “They don’t drink in the Americas, how could you?”

“The girl needed it, trust me.”

Behira touched Unita’s forehead. “You’re a wicked old lady,” she snapped. But this just made Zohar laugh even more. “Dekel help me to get her into one of the bedrooms, mine will do, she’ll have to sleep this off.”

Dekel appeared by her side and helped Unita stand, her legs felt wobbly and she smiled, dimly aware she should be more concerned about the apparent lack of mobility she was now feeling.

“Don’t worry,” Dekel said as he supported her from the room. “It will only last a few hours, you head will hurt by evening, but that’s all. Thank God you didn’t have one of my Nanna’s special mixes.”

Unita tried to tell Dekel she didn’t believe in God and why did everyone think she did, but the words came out in a meaningless jumble. Unita found this to be extremely funny. She burst out laughing and at the same time her legs gave way. Dekel caught her and carried Unita the remaining distance into the bedroom and laid her out on the bed.

Unita smiled sweetly at him and reached out to stroke his face. “Your very kind,” she murmured. “I don’t really love Iron maiden, it’s more the ideal.” She giggled. “You’re kind of nice as well,” and then passed out.

Dekel watched her for a moment and smiled. “You’re kind of nice as well.” He added, before leaving the room to give Zohar a piece of his mind.