A Star Named Wormwood
Auditorium of the Church of The Star Named Wormwood, San Salvador, any day in 2017
The Apostle Pablo Cigarro, a regular in the 90s hardcore scene way before he was known as Pablo Cigarro and much less Apostle, had yet to hear a sound as hideous as the voices of the women of the official choir of the Church of The Star Named Wormwood. The women were now, on this Last Day, shattering the psalm he had written while nursing an indecisive hangover a few days prior, plagiarizing the melody of a song by The Ramones. It went something like this:
Oh, Lord, squish me like a mosquito
who’s always fucking around.
Send me and all these people
straight to hell right now.
The auditorium was packed. A very reluctant child, obviously dragged to the Last Day celebration by his mother, begged her to “please stop doing that,” as she attempted to move herself to the compass of the Spirit and the choir’s singing. Others cried, howling alongside her, as they tried to tear off their clothes. To the Apostle’s surprise, the boy was the only one who shared his bewilderment as they watched the scene unfold.
In the bleachers, the crowd waved banners that praised the Lord for the Final Judgment and asked that he not show them any unwarranted mercy. If he kept on staring at the wild panorama, Pablo would no longer be able contain his laughter and this whole sham of the apocalypse would go to waste. He decided to think about sad things, like spilt beers or the color of sky on the lonely nights he would go to the adult movie theater in downtown San Salvador without a dollar in his pocket, hoping that the buses would soon stop running so he could no longer make it home early. Maybe that was too damn sad. In that moment, he decided to begin his final sermon:
“Damned brothers and sisters!”
An anxious roar from the crowd, burning to be swallowed by the flames of Sheol, nearly pushed the Apostle off his podium.
“All rise to receive the Judicious Word of the Lord in the last few minutes we have left.”
“Ayyyyy-MEN!” squealed the choir, the singers seemingly overjoyed to abuse their microphones.
“From the Book of Revelations, chapter 8, verses 10 to 11… It would have been better to read this all together, no? Too bad time has run out. Praise the Lord!”
He imagined reading the eyes of the first row of parishioners. Street merchants, murderers, bankers, deputies, professors, workingclass men and their families, policemen, transsexuals, discreet alcoholics and professional alcoholics, a boy who looked around as if he were walking through an extraterrestrial zoo, the decent and the despicable, Salvadorans whose eyes glowed bright because they saw eternal condemnation and the end of the world the same as being gifted a newborn kitten.
“Let’s see, it goes like this: Then the third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star burning like a torch fell from heaven and landed on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood.”
His faced hardened as if he were trapped in thought. Projected behind him on the screen of the auditorium burned the symbol of the church: a heptagram enveloped in a halo of bacterial smog, a sick yellow light that emanated with a consistency like syrup. Many of the parishioners tore off their shirts to reveal their starry tattoos. The boy carried his heptagram stamped onto a shirt, which he hated because of its insufferably itchy fabric.
“Brothers, as you already know, today is the day the Word of the Lord will be fulfilled and all of the Earth will bear witness to His power. Today is the day the Star named Wormwood will fall from the sky and annihilate many of our inferior brethren, but we—the damned—it will keep in its bosom without a scratch or stain to be taken before the wrath of God and unto the sulfur of hell! Amen! Brothers, I want you to lift your hands if you know you are a rat. I want to see the rats of the Church of the Star named Wormwood. Brothers, Salvadorans, who are we?
The mother raised the hands of the boy.
“Ac-ci-dents!” the multitude shrieked in chorus, followed by a cheer.
“And if you are all accidents, what are the rest of the pagans who have forsaken the Word?”
“Er-rors!” They gave another cheer.
“And what do we all deserve?”
“The fires of hell!”
“That is right, brothers, we live in sin. We are Salvadorans and we live in sin. Nothing is more abominable before the eyes of the just than our ratty lips and wicked screams. Verily, verily, as San Horacio de Moyet said before being stoned to death by a mob of communist organizers and capitalist pigs: ‘This country only exists for its crimes.’ But if we, the damned, are abominable, then what will be done to the unfaithful?”
The people were very creative in describing the fates of the unfaithful, who that day were surely bored in their homes or their jobs, sweating beneath the afternoon heat of San Salvador.
“For that very reason we will be sent to hell with the punishment we deserve: to become the tormentors of our unfaithful brothers. Their sadness will split us with laughter. They will be dying of thirst and we will kick away water bottles as they crawl towards them. They will leave food in the refrigerator and we will glut ourselves, like pigs, in front of their starving, skeptical little faces. They will want to sleep, to rest, but the sisters of the choir will keep them awake with their song. It will be a horrible place! We will make it horrible. That’s how the Lord wants our eternal life to be! Hosanna! Long live Adonai!
The image on the screens transformed into a photograph of outer space with the NASA logo. There was something suspiciously close to a scribble on the corner, and underneath that, written in what might be White-out, it read: “Wormwood.” The rest of the image was dominated by the murky silhouette of a skull-shaped asteroid, reminiscent of some race of giants extinct on Mars or the dark side of the moon. Its craters were darker than the empty space surrounding it. The faithful cheered.
“Brothers, in a few moments the Star named Wormwood will descend over us and we will be abducted to hell. While it may appear to be a star, a comet, or an asteroid, in reality, it is a spaceship led by the Archangel Michael and his legions of avenging seraphs and cherubs. Do you believe this to be the first time something like this has happened here? Permit me to disabuse you of that notion.”
Behind the scenes, volunteers began to load powdered drinks into bags. Some of the bags had skulls painted on them.
In the first row, the humiliated child and his embarrassing mother began to feel thirsty.
The Mall, the same day
“It’s better than class, that’s for sure.”
“And better than church.”
“You’re a real basic bitch, you know. Has anyone ever told you that before? No sense of adventure. I don’t know how all this end-of-the-world business ain’t freaking you out. Personally, I can’t wait to roast the principal in the darkest dungeons of hell.”
“I’m gonna go to the bathroom. BRB.”
“Look, don’t take too long. I will go in there and drag you out by your hair, if necessary. I’ll be eyeing you from here.”
Jenny took her backpack and walked towards the food court bathrooms. She could not figure out what was making her cry: the cleaning detergent, the ammonic stench of urine, or her apocalyptic anguish. She would have preferred knowing exactly why she was crying. No one was in the bathroom. She washed her face, inhaled deeply, then squeezed the backpack to her chest before fixing her uniform. A deep puff from her inhaler made her scrunch her face. Her left cheek was still swollen. The heptagram tattoo burned like a jellyfish sting inside of her mouth. She and her friend Marcos, waiting outside, had gotten the tats in order to join the Apocalyptic Brigade of the Star Wormwood.
She looked both ways and hid by a corner to inspect the inside of her backpack. It weighed like the remorse of the entire city. She lowered the zipper a millimeter at a time. If the friction provoked the tiniest spark, God’s entire plan would go to shit.
A hand yanked her shoulder, twisting her in one go.
“What are you doing here?” asked a suited man with murderous eyes. He knocked her against the wall with a one arm. If he wanted to, he could have broken her arm against the concrete. Her throat tightened.
“I asked you something, you fucking whore.”
Jenny had let go of the backpack and hid it behind her legs. She didn’t know what to say. Despite his clean-cut appearance, the man had bloodshot eyes and gave off the foul odor of shit and grime. He kept pressing closer to Jenny, as if to crush her.
“Shouldn’t you be in class? I recognize this uniform… You study nearby then? So… What’s going on here? They gave you the day off, so you could come suck dick in the bathrooms? Or are you here to sell weed? I should kill you right here, you lil bitch… Show me what’s in the bag. I’m not telling you again. Show me.”
Jenny thought about those pens you could bend any which way without breaking. Her clavicle ought to have been made from that same substance. With one kick, the man split her legs open next. She could barely breathe. Then, Jenny got mad.
When the goon bent down to pick up the backpack, Jenny shot her knee up to his face. She heard a crack and the man coughed like a factory. Blood poured from his mouth. His teeth dented her kneecap, but Jenny didn’t waste any time. She jumped on his jaw with both feet. This made her lose her balance and fall on top of the goon, which only pissed her off even more. Without thinking twice, she grabbed her backpack and slammed it against his head. The explosive device had not even touched the crook’s skull before Jenny regretted it. She waited for the burning light to consume her, the mall, the thousands of professional crooks, and the thousands of wannabe crooks that swarmed like mosquitos.
But nothing happened.
The fallen goon stopped moving and instead focused on bleeding.
The Star Named Wormwood burned in Jenny’s mouth.
She tried to straighten out her uniform, cool down the intense red of her face, and flatten her hair out, so she didn’t have to step out with storm clouds crowding her head. She walked to the table hugging her backpack. Marcos had anxiously eaten Jenny’s fries and almost choked when he saw her return.
“One more minute and I was gonna go find you. Did you fall in the toilet or what?”
Jenny dragged him from the table. She had never shown as much strength as she did then, not in the ten years they had known each other from school, not in the six years they had known one another as friends, and not in the couple months they had as apocalyptic brigadiers.
“Let’s take our positions. It’s time.”
They both hugged their explosive-packed backpacks.
“So, I’ll take the gas tanks by the sign in front of the hotel.”
“I thought that was my spot, Marcos.”
“I thought you would punk out.”
“It’s my turn.”
She began to walk toward the gas kiosk. Marcos didn’t even notice when Jenny had taken his backpack. The attendant passed her a lighter and a box of cigarettes. She figured she would have enough time to pretend to smoke before lighting the fuse.
Meanwhile, Marcos called after her. At first, you could barely distinguish his voice from the cacophony of the food court. Then he screamed, and finally, he howled, “Hey, Hey, Hey!” A group of security guards yellow-taped the bathroom and called for backup on their radios. One of them walked towards Marcos and grabbed his shoulder. The kid stopped screaming and jumped back. He felt as if he had suddenly been flattened a foot smaller underneath a wall of concrete.
“What are you doing here? Follow me. We have some questions.”
Marcos couldn’t breathe. The security guard pushed him brusquely towards the cordoned off bathrooms.
Auditorium of the Church of The Star Named Wormwood
“Brothers, it was February of 1986 when The Wormwood Star visited us for the first time. It did not have orders to quash us, only to see what was up. It wanted to count our sins and tell the Lord about our perdition. The unfaithful refused to see the fulfillment of scripture in the coming of Wormwood and called it Halley’s comet.”
“The country is at war. The rotten cadavers of the sons and daughters of God extend across our homeland for miles. Four out of ten Salvadorans dream of worldwide destruction brought about by the collision of a comet with the Earth. On the same night and at the same time, five out of ten dream that the point of impact will be in San Salvador. How many of these Salvadorans, possessed by the Spirit, received this same vision, trembling of cold and hunger and agonizing pain inside Salvador’s clandestine jails? A couple guerilla units saw the angelic spaceship from the heights of Chalatenango, but dumb, deaf, and blind, they thought it was a trick from the gringos to exterminate them. In El Salvador profundo, an entire peasant community commits suicide to go with the star, but the time had not yet come and now they sleep restlessly in Sheol. Others interpret the spacecraft as the ultimate return of the Kingdom of God and the entire community armed itself. They marched to the local delegation of the National Guard and set up camp around it until they broke through the walls and sliced up the soldiers, many of them in the middle of exquisite torture sessions. There they discovered many of the disappeared. The helicopters and special battalions did not hesitate to retaliate. Throughout the country, there spread a tremendous desire to kill or kill oneself. Glory be to God!”
“In the grand beaches of Nejapa, nocturnal animals observed the path of Wormwood crawling between the noon-polished bones and half-rotten cadavers left shredded by vultures. That night, no military truck showed up to deliver the day’s dead.”
“Many were disappointed to be left behind by the Star named Wormwood and its captainship of angels.”
The Apostle Pablo Cigarro no longer wanted to laugh. He propelled through his deranged lesson on national history, barely breathing. The boy in the first row paid more attention now than even his own mother. Without missing a beat, the Apostle noticed out of the corner of his eye the behind-the-scenes volunteers preparing the red drink by the barrel. His spirit ignited. He continued:
“A few months later, an earthquake razed the capital to the ground. It is strange: the first thing people heard was something like an explosion, one of those routine bombings from the war in the 80s, and soon the ground began to shake. The historic center crumbles into ruins and will remain that way until the future decides to annihilate it completely. We witness the same miracles as always: a secretary walks out of the building right before it collapses, the same morning a woman decides not to take her daily train to work at the offices where dozens died buried underground, a group of kindergarteners survives because the Virgin appeared and threw her cloak over them, others discovered their homes were the only ones left standing in the entire neighborhood, others only had three of their sons die. Idolaters! They were forgiven only briefly. Only until the final fire descends upon them!”
“Political prisoners take advantage of the chinks in their dungeons to escape any way they can. The glory of the Coffee Republic smothers the rescuers with dust as they searched for a way to save the poor bastards crushed by the marquee of the Rubén Darío building. The Christ of the Salvador del Mundo falls like a chalk mosquito in the plaza. A man places one of the statue’s fingers into his pocket. Later on, he will sell it to buy a plane ticket to study abroad and become a painter. The hospitals can no longer provide supplies so the patients die without even air-conditioning to ease their pain.
“And later, of course, they rebuild the city, this time a little more cursed. There is a stall in the school bathroom of my alma mater where two bloody handprints appeared every other day. In, let’s call them, the suburbs of Soyapango and San Salvador, the spirits of the dead—both from the earthquake and from the war—throw bones at the soldiers on patrol. Every night you can spot malevolent lights flying over the lake of Ilopango. Flashes of the Wrath of the Lord! Supernovas bursting in the emptiness of Paradise and the Earth! These are merely the sparks of flame that will soon consume us!”
La Esperanza State Penitentiary (AKA La Mariona), the same day
“Who told you that I was a murderer, Star?”
Star shrugged his shoulders. In one hit, the Poet reduced half of his cigar to ash.
“That’s just what some people say. That you killed a few bastards and that’s how you ended up in here.”
“If there is any crime anyone can get away with in this country, it’s murder.”
“Fuck yeah. Well, the thing is you don’t write like a killer.”
“What’s my writing like then?”
Star shrugged his shoulders again. When he shrugged, his namesake star tattoo seemed to contract and expand, contract and expand. That tattoo artist knew what the hell he was doing.
“Like someone sticking their nose somewhere they shouldn’t have and fucking up.”
The Poet took out another cigar and somehow made the air in the carpentry shop even less breathable. The three o’clock sun also made an appearance to hate on the prisoners. The Poet attempted to breathe in its gluey-hot smog. He pointed to a thick bundle of papers with his lips.
“Did you like it?”
“Well, a bit. On the real, I didn’t get it.”
“What didn’t you get?”
“A shit ton of things. It seems like you were trying to confuse people. Like a true poet.”
“It’s not poetry, Star. Don’t come at me with that shit. It’s a novel.”
“And I didn’t get it. I couldn’t even tell if you were talking about a desert or a university.”
“The thing is that’s how it starts: in the desert.”
“Central America has transformed into an enormous desert, you dig? We’re talking about the future, the year 2061. And there’s these two people, you know. A man and a woman talking at night: they’re hungry, they have not caught anything, and suddenly they see this comet in the sky. Halley’s comet. You still with me?”
The prisoner named Star stayed quiet.
“The thing is they start to argue about whether this is a good or bad omen. One of them—who is maybe the more prudent one, says, this is a bad omen, the comets never bring anything good. Although it is also probable that it is impossible for anything good to happen here. So, it’s probably not the fault of the comet. But I digress. The woman, on the other hand, is convinced that it is a good omen because she remembers that when she was in high school, she had a vision of that very moment. She and this other motherfucker were lost in the desert when a comet appeared, a little bit before the restoration.”
“Restoration like in the Acts of the Apostles?”
“Not sure, dipshit, it’s just a saying. Back to the storyline. The chick, Jenny, from the vision, starts to remember her times in college, which is when she had a series of prophetic dreams and mystic visions and premonitions. And that’s where the bit about her high school, where she and her friends find out that her professors have organized a sex trafficking ring with the students they most desire. They engineer it so the students think that they are doing poorly in the subject of their seducer. They begin to get bad grades, and later, they fuck the teachers in order to pass the class. Others are more direct and use tactics that are a little more shameless… what someone usually does when they want to molest someone. Jenny, our protagonist, learns about all this because the alchemy teacher starts hitting on her little sister.”
“It’s like chemistry—only with magic. Something that ain’t been taught for like five hundred years, which ought to make you shit your pants laughing because it’s ridiculous.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“What I am trying to say is that it is an extremely traditional high school. So, this chick and her friends want to report them to the authorities. But they can’t because the predatory teachers also have some compromising information about them. Jenny and her friends sell weed in the bathrooms of the high school. So, both sides had their asses showing. But these kids… The problem with these kids is that they have good hearts, you know? They are outcasts, losers. They are part of the most undesirable class of academic society. They are willing to take on the full weight of the law as long as the alchemy teacher doesn’t fuck the protagonist’s sister. Then, the network of teachers starts sending them death threats and tries to kill them any way possible. There are attacks on the building during recess. They try to run them over when they go out to eat. They poison their water bottles. They even poison a bag of weed, which sends a number of the students to the hospital. But they never succeed in killing them. And the kids get worried. They know their lives are in danger, but they don’t punk out. The opposite happens. They convince themselves time and time again that goodness cannot lose, that—despite everything—evil could never win. And they begin to have apocalyptic visions. Eventually, they graduate and half of the rapey teachers retire and Jenny and her friends forget about the visions until much later in the future when the things they saw in their youth start to happen.”
“Is that all?”
“What you think?”
“Well, when you put it like that, it sounds bad ass. Too bad it’s all crock full of lies.” “What you mean?”
“Do you really think the end of the world would take more than a few minutes?”
It was The Poet’s turn to be confused. A guard walked into the workshop and looked at Star. He made a strange gesture with his lips. The Poet did not see the heptagram tattoo the guard had on his gums. Star did.
“They’re calling you to the Brigade,” the guard said with a sleazy smile. Star assented.
“Poet, you want to join me?”
“I didn’t invite this motherfucker.”
The Poet hid his manuscript under the table.
“Just give me a cigarette,” Star asked. “Second thought, no. This bit will be enough.”
He grabbed the burning cigarette and he left with his imprisoned brother—the guard—to the tunnel they had dug and filled with explosives beneath La Mariona. There, he applied the cigarette’s red and malevolent star to the wick that would ignite everything.
Auditorium of the Church of The Star Named Wormwood, the same day
“Take one and pass it on, but don’t drink it yet. You lose your status as one of the damned if you drink it. Spread the word. Thanks. Take one and pass it, but don’t drink it yet. Spread the word.”
They passed out the paper cups decorated with cakes and clown colors like piñatas. The red drink was so repugnant that the ricin and strychnine actually made it taste better. The people did not notice. The boy in the first row was about to drink the entire glass in a single gulp, but his mother snatched it from his hands. On the podium, the Apostle Pablo Cigarro spoke with such incredible power that he was foaming at the lips.
“Hence came the Great Whore of Babylon to give birth! Hence came the sea monsters to roost! Am I lying when I tell you that during the earthquake of 2001 a serpent the size of the la Cordillera del Bálsamo woke up from its sleep, shed its skin and left the entire countryside destroyed? A serpent fat from gobbling up all the dead from the civil war and from after the Peace Accords! A nasty reptile, the crazed cock of Satan, gorging itself on all the dead we abandoned, ignored, as if they were mangos in the street! The dead shot by the gangs and the police and the soldiers and the clerks and the call center employees and the suicides and our Apocalyptic Brigade that is in the streets right now fulfilling our divine and damning will! Poor fat snake! She thinks she’s going to eat until she bursts and expels us to the moon. Until our small chunks of digested flesh rains over the cracks of the Atacama Desert and over the hoods of murderous Chicanos in Los Angeles and in the domes of the Vatican. But she will also die! The Star named Wormwood will split her in two and scorch her until there is nothing left, not even her ashes. Because not even her ashes will remain in our ashes!”
“Am I lying when I tell you a horrifying, deformed child was born shortly before the earthquake in 2001? That boy was our Father and that boy was our Son, and that child with a rotten spirit carried our Spirit! The neighbors came to humiliate him and mock him for his ugliness. He had horns. He had red eyes. He had a tail. He had hooves. If all of you stopped bathing for a couple of days, you would look exactly like him. And do you know what the child said when they came to humiliate him? He assured them that what would happen to Santa Tecla would be even uglier. And what happened? In days, the neighborhoods in the hills of Santa Tecla became a quagmire. Skeletons grew there because that’s where we planted bones! That’s where souls go to cry! Over the wretched valley carved by murderers, governed by murderers, populated by murderers, the Star of Wormwood will soon descend. Let’s toast to the Star! Lift your cups and drink to the bottom! Amen! Hallelujah! Amen!”
Tribulation spread through the auditorium. It was impossible to distinguish between those who convulsed by the shaking of the spirit and those who convulsed because of the poison; between those who cried with joy and those who cried because something somewhat comparable to a caustic soda ran through their esophagus. The pastor and the child in the first row were the only ones who were not twisting on the floor.
Pablo Cigarro could not find a way to smother the flaming bush that had lit his soul. Right before he could calm himself and laugh at his joke, a gust of pure energy swept everything: the roof, the stands, the hysteria of the faithful, the surprise of the child, and the last seconds of Pablo Cigarro’s consciousness.
El Salvador was smothered in white.
Motel "hebrews 10:31"; San Salvador, night times, years ago
Pablo Cigarro had left his last victim in an adult movie theater in downtown San Salvador. Per usual, he left without a dollar in his pocket, feeling very lonely, waiting until the buses stopped running so he could no longer return early to his room in the motel. Once he returned, he turned on the TV and impatiently watched the national news stations.
It was his seventh murder and there was still not a single mention of it in the newspapers or the TV. There was no way the police could be so incompetent. How, he wondered, could it be possible to attribute those murders to a few amateur gangbangers? Gangbangers didn’t fill the mouths of their victims with flowers, neither did they make strict efforts to only victimize a particular type of person—long-haired, baby-faced, sunken eyes, similar to the brother he lost in the war—instead of firing a couple shots into any unlucky fuck who happened to step foot into the wrong neighborhood. Neither did they draw heptagrams with blood on their torsos. Pablo Cigarro had even made the effort to always attack on the same street, the one with the adult movie theater, always with the same number of days between his murders.
Once again, a very sad young man lost the opportunity to become the greatest killer in El Salvador. Not a mere war psychopath like those in the American movies, unworthy of being included in criminal encyclopedias. He wanted his fans and critics to send him letters to the penitentiary. He would read them carefully and respond with heartfelt messages.
The television began to vibrate strangely. The colors changed, the images distorted, and all he could hear was white noise. He turned it off and chucked the remote against the wall. It broke. He threw himself on the bed and sighed. He could hear the moans of the couples next door. He could vanish that very instant and nothing in the world would change.
When boredom finally conquered him, he rummaged through his belongings and around the furniture in the room. He found a New Testament, the kind they give away on the buses. He opened it to the final pages and read the Apocalypse. He skipped past the more boring passages and reread the parts that fascinated him. For a moment, he believed that the roof of the room had melted away to reveal the restless and malevolent stars of the Salvadoran night. Soon after, he fell asleep and had a restless dream. A tiny light, like those that hang upon Christmas trees, flickered in his spirit.
The next morning, he left the motel for the final time with only his New Testament in hand and the clothes on his back. He cashed in on a favor from a friend and tattooed a heptagram across his entire back. In the center there was an A: A for Apostle or A for Apocalypse, as he would later explain to his first followers.