JACQUES. As soon as it had pleased the Virgin by her grace to slay the Satanic prejudices of my heart, in favour of that Catholic church to which I had been transported, and to inspire me with a resolution to embrace the Roman religion, I began to have terrible doubts. My doubts were aggravated both by the dire circumstances in the abbey and a thirst for vengeance that would not leave me… Even when granted God’s grace, I feared myself so corrupted by Adam’s fall, that I was entirely incapable of achieving any likeness to Christ…
Jacques is telling it…
My first night as a choir monk is not happy one. I fully expected a luxurious bed, with sheets of finest flax, a feather pillow and a mattress of straw. But I have no sheets at all; I sleep on a hurdle of willow, with nothing but a moth-eaten blanket for comfort. Winter screams through a hole in the roof and flurries of snow dust the floor. My bed is at the gable end of a long vaulted hall; some twenty palettes line the aisle, some partitioned by low screens. But this modicum of privacy does naught to muffle the noise; for the gloom echoes with restless groans, hoarse coughs and chattering teeth. The high round windows, which rattle in the wind, admit a ghostly moon, and prior Odo, whose pallet is adjacent, unnerves me with owlish glares, peering through the moonbeams as if I’m a tasty vole.
I curl beneath my blanket and start counting sheep. But then a loud noise echoes beyond the door:
Tap! Tap! Tap!
I turn over and peer down the aisle of mattresses; blurred shapes heave in the darkness; someone groans; another curses. Then Odo seethes:
‘He’s at it again! He’s driving me insane!’
‘Why must he carve at night?’ asks one.
‘Because he sleeps all day,’ grumbles another.
A crackly old voice declares:
‘If he doesn’t stop, I’ll abscond from this wretched place.’
At this, Odo throws back his blanket and springs up like beanpole:
‘Who said that?’
No one answers.
Already in his habit, Odo strides to the door, flings it open, and shouts down the night stair:
‘Father abbot, your whittling is driving us mad!’
The tapping stops and the abbot snaps:
‘Leave me in peace!’
‘That’s rich coming from you! For twelve moons you’ve deprived us of sleep! The brethren are threatening to abscond!’
The word “abscond” echoes in the darkness.
‘Abscond?’ scoffs the abbot. ‘In the middle of winter?’
‘You cannot go on treating us like this!’
‘Another few weeks and I’ll be finished…’
‘You said that last Easter! I shall tell the bishop of this! I will! I’ll tell him all about it!’
‘The bishop? He has no authority here. Now get back to bed, you unruly little puppy – or I’ll confiscate your vestments!’
Odo slams the door and seethes:
‘Confiscate my vestments? How dare he! The wicked little woodpecker!’
He storms back to bed and sweeps his palm across the mattress:
‘Curses! Stone cold – and just when I was getting warm…’
He gropes about the floor, raking the hay that has fallen from his hosen; then he curses again as he stuffs it down his groin and shirt. He looks like a scarecrow, bereft in the moonlight, with straw poking from his cuffs and ankles. He mutters: “Unruly little puppy…”, then clams tight under his blanket, teeth chattering. A moment later he sits up again and declares:
‘Brethren, remember your vows. This is a house of bondage. Unhappy is the man who absconds from God. He shall die in great anguish of mind. Do you hear me?’
We all reply in unison:
‘Yes father Odo.’
The prior snuggles back down, snorting as he brushes the hay from his nose. Silence. Wind whips along the ramparts and whistles down the aisle. Then:
Tap! tap! Tap!
A monk starts sobbing in the darkness. I shiver under my blanket and ponder how I ended up in such dire circumstance. Even Old Jacob, in his tent of skins, slept more soundly than this. Blessed Jew! Covet not the cloister: you are better off a hermit!
I lie for a considerable time, staring at the moon, whose glorious orb hangs above my bed. As her lambent rays bathe my face, I devise a fantastical plan to abscond from the abbey and go in search of Maria. For the maiden remains as fresh in my mind as the moment I first set eyes on her; and ever since that hour, the pangs of my love have only grown stronger. I can find no rest nor peace without her, and become convinced that we are destined to wed. But instead of imputing this to interference by the Devil, I attribute it to the will of God. All this I know is scarcely rational, yet I cannot shake my conviction that we will meet again, not as friends but lovers. Have I fallen under a spell of utter madness? She dwells in a convent five leagues beyond the hills. How can she forget my horns and monstrous visage? I sigh at my own foolish supposition. I survey the aisle of sleeping brethren and wonder how I fell into such bearded company. What was I doing in this cloister of men? It seems all my senses are in disarray, and when a vision of Maria appears before my eyes, I believe, for one brief moment, that my flesh has transformed.
I fall into a haunted sleep. But then:
Ding dong! Ding dong! Ding dong!
Odo makes a dismal groan and clasps his head in anguish. There is much heaving, coughing and mumbling. A light flickers under the door; it creaks open and there appears a wizened little monk holding a lamp:
‘Time for Vigils father Odo.’
‘I can hear the bell well enough,’ grouses Odo. ‘Do you think I’m deaf?’
Odo stumbles to his feet, draws his cowl about his waist then paces down the aisle:
‘Up! Up! Up! And quick about it… The Lord demands your attention.’
He looms at the foot of my palette and says:
‘You are to meet with God in the choir. Join the queue and follow the precentor.’
‘Which one is that?’ ask I.
‘The one with the lamp, you numbskull: brother Belon. Who else?’
With Belon leading the way, we file out the dorter, down the night stair and into the choir. Fresh wood-shavings litter the tiles. I am curious to see the new carvings but the rood is veiled by sheets and the scaffold lost in darkness. We wait in the stalls, eyes down, wary of the abbot’s arrival. But the Janus never comes. Odo sighs, shakes his head in dismay, and says:
‘Once again, father abbot is absent, and once again ’tis left to me, your loving prior, to take the nightly office…’
He starts reciting at length. His grave and solemn tone is absurdly soporific, and I soon find myself nodding off in the stalls. I awake with a start as a lamp is thrust in my face – and there is brother Belon, his crinkly eyes glaring in the candle light. He hisses:
‘Wake up! Wake up! God demands your attention!’
He watches me like a hawk, and if my head droops or I sway on my feet, he instantly appears, lamp blazing, and slaps me on the cheek:
‘Wake up! God demands your attention!’
God certainly does. And the Lord repeats himself ad infinitum… Shall I tell of what I must endure in the dead of night? An opening versicle: “Lord open my lips; and my mouth shall proclaim your praise”, followed by psalm ninety-five with an antiphon, a hymn, three more psalms, five readings, the Te Deum, a closing prayer, and the closing Versicle: “Thanks be to God!”
When the office is over, Belon leads us out of the choir, under the cross arch, past the font, and back up the night stair. His lamp casts demon shades that leap in the cavernous vault: a man with lobster claws; three bow-legged dwarves; a cripple bent like a blasted thorn; another with a tumorous head that wobbles with pulpy growths; and I with my saturnine face and cankered horns. Does Christ see these shades that climb to dream of finer flesh?
On returning to bed I find my blanket soaking wet. Pellets of hail skit across the floor and collect in the corners. I lie awake thinking of Claude in his mountain cave, sleeping beside a roaring fire, snug in bear skins, with a pot of goat’s milk piping on the coals.
The wilderness howls. But soon the dorter is quiet as a tomb, with only the panes rattling in the wind. I stare at the moonlit walls and recall my pact with Lucifer. He scoffs:
‘Silly fool! What are you doing in this filthy cloister? You’ll get lice here. Burn it. Burn it all… Will you not speak? Have you forgotten our pact? If you stay a monk, I shall think of a hundred different ways to torment you. There is naught for you here but sorrow. Besides, Maria pines for you over the mountain.’
I cannot shake my feelings of perplexity and self-disgust. For despite my vows, my mind is still subject to the vile propensity of perverse delusions. Maria comes and goes, as visions of her body flicker in the moonbeams. What is the flesh but an abominable scheme of devil? Such a transformation is beyond the craft of Prometheus himself. The truth is, we shall never met again, not even as friends. Besides, I have barely started my new vocation. Why should I abscond? I do not belong in the outside world. ’Tis full of untold dangers and temptations. How long before I was swept away by that deviant passion which I am completely unable to resist? Had I not submitted my soul to a higher power? Am I not wholly subservient unto God?
Sleep does not come easy, as one insane idea follows the next, until I am tossing and turning, cursing my birth and destiny. I think of Devil’s Tower where my mother’s corpse lies mouldering. Could she still be there after all these years, interred in that lofty chamber? Can you hear me Bernadette – I, your dark moon child, who calls from my father’s house? I am no longer thrall, but vengeance still stirs in my heart… I will ferry your bones to the moon; for the treasures of the moon are human pains: unanswered prayers, broken vows and broken hearts. What a crowded place the moon must be…
’Tis then I hear Grazide, the faery orb who left me in the snows. Her melodious voice chimes like icicles:
‘Fear not Lazarus. If you keep my commandments, it shall be well with you…’
I tumble into darkness and dream of cheese.
‘What is the sense, I ask myself, in rising again so soon? For it seems barely a minute since I tasted cheese, than the bell is tolling and the brethren stirring. I open one eye and peer into the grainy dark; Odo is pacing the aisle like a soldier:
‘Up! Up! Up! The Lord demands your attention!’
So once again I stagger from my pallet and sleepwalk down the night stair. Once again, the Janus is absent; once again Odo declares his love and self-sacrifice in taking office; and once again brother Belon slaps me in the face and blinds me with his lamp.
With Matins over, I stumble back to bed only to find a mound of snow covering my pallet. So I sleep on the floorboards, curled beside Odo in a scanty heap of straw. I am sure I have never spent such a wretched night in my whole life; and feel I have misled myself into taking up the cowl, either for temporal or spiritual comforts, let alone for the vengeance of Lucifer. Yet still the words echo in my head:
‘Fear not Lazarus. If you keep my commandments, it shall be well with you.’
But my nightmare doesn’t end; two more offices follow: Prime and Terce, both of which play out exactly as before – except Terce includes a Mass which bolsters my spirits with fine singing. My brethren are talented choristers and their harmonies echo round the nave, enveloping me in waves of sonorous devotion. Have you ever seen demons singing Mass, with horny heads and pink hare-lips, piping praises to The Christ? And I, the most devilish of them all, standing proud in those same vestments of popery that I once abhorred…
The rising sun beams through the Eastern window, flooding the church with light, revealing for the first time the true majesty of this sparkling edifice. Rays punch through the Pulpitum and flare up gilded screens, illuming ball-flowers, griffins and bestiaries of all description. The abbot’s rood looks most mysterious, hidden under its scaffold, with silhouettes leaping on the sheets: I spy two dryads dancing in oaken wreathes, and I wonder what pagan sylphs await beyond the veil.
With the Virgin’s halo twinkling in my eyes, I feel much cheered, and soon forget my sleepless night—for I am now looking forward to Chapter…