The stairwell ends in a gloomy pit. We stand before a gaping tunnel that twists into an abyss. Stalactites hang like canines and the walls glisten with slime. An icy wind fingers my hair. The gaoler looks uneasy and thrusts his torch into the void:

‘I lit this way an hour ago.’

‘The devil has blown out your lamps.’

He crosses himself and spits:

‘They call this place “The Hell Mouth”. Come, I’ll show you why…’

He leads me down the tunnel like a dog. I stumble after, wheezing at the choking chain. Water trickles overhead: it seeps between the keystones and swells in foetid pools. He steps in a puddle and curses:

‘That cutpurse cobbler! My boots are like sieves. A week’s wage it cost to get them re-soled. “As good as new”, he said. “Water off a duck’s back”, he said. Now I’ve got shit between my toes.’

He glares with cheated eyes. I grin and rasp:

‘Better shit between your toes than shit between your ears.’

‘I’m not the one in chains. So, who’s got shit for brains, eh?’

Onward we go, deep into Stygian night. Mad voices float on vents of wind. The torch splutters; our shadows flee; darkness presses from behind and in front. I crouch low, suffocating in my helmet as it scrapes upon the vault. What dire fate is prepared in my name? My mind bursts with unspeakable horrors.  Who shall aid me when they break my bones? Not even the spirits of the dead. Breathless, I stop and gasp:

‘Unlock my helmet. I cannot breathe.’

‘Unlock your helmet? Are you mad? Your fiendish features will curdle my blood. They say you have the face of Beelzebub and the body of a leper.’

‘They do not lie. But my mother thought me pretty.’

‘Pretty as a gorgon, I’ll wager. Besides, I cannot unlock your helmet: I do not have the key. Thank God for small graces.’

‘No matter, I shall soon be rid of my body…’

‘You are mistaken Mad Jacques. You shall find no peace in death. Your curséd spirit shall rise from the grave, to form such semblance of flesh as it had in life. There’s no escape from the body. How else shall Satan torture you in Hell?’

‘You are an authority on the matter?’

‘I know more about the dead than you. These are the halls of the dead, and I am their keeper. Follow and you shall see…’

The way descends into a mire of black water; it stirs in an oily slick, an evil primary substance, full of latent menace. I spy my reflection, lurching like an automaton. Who is that grim spectre? Does it possess a soul? If so, is it a soul illumined by divinity? ’Tis truly absurd that my reflection looks sentient, with desires and pains of its own; yet it watches me, as if it has made contact with the intelligible. I should like to change places with it, and vanish in the darkness. Surely I have suffered a deflection of the wings. How did I fall into such abominable flesh? Why did my immortal soul choose such a base abode? How many transmigrations must I undergo, with all their dire repercussions and repentances? What folly, to end up in the body of a man! The mirror gives back the image it receives. ’Tis a perverse and grievous sight. My terrestrial nature disgusts me. A deviation from the truth. But when did I deviate? When did I err? If I am deceived and in error, then when was I deceived? Did I walk in truth, prior to my deception? I doubt it. I must have been deceived for all eternity; for if I was not in error, I would not be here. What are you saying? Have you forgotten what the intelligible world contains? Matter. This is a fallen world of corruptions. Lord, did I not serve you faithfully all the days of my life? Must I endure such a terrible end? John the Baptist was beheaded in chains, because he reproved iniquity. If only you would grant me such a swift and painless death! ’Tis written that the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of the father.[i] But the merit and justice of Christ does not extend to the kingdom of Earth. Who will destroy this forsaken world? Even Christ himself defers its destruction. Yet men do not repent. I have been questioned by many exhorters; they plead at great length that I ought to abjure; but how can I abjure, without breaking my vows? They argue that a man who submits himself to Mother Church wins merit when he confesses his guilt. But to submit to the Pope is to embrace the Devil. Why should I deliver myself into the hands of demons? Truly, this world was produced by an evil condition. Behold the black mire: it heaves with many molestations. How now! My reflection speaks:

‘Wake up fool! Remember where you are: this is Plato’s cave… These objects of sense are only shadows. Do not mistake the semblance of forms for the forms themselves. Why do you fear? Have you forgotten your credo? The inquisitor cannot harm you. Even though you are bound by the body, your immortal essence is immune to all pains. I command your courage…’

The image fractures into ripples as the gaoler wades ahead, cursing:

‘The fates are cruel taskmasters. I was once a man of prospects. Now look at me. I tell you, I wasn’t born to spend my life trudging through this stinking hole. No wonder I’m half-blind; and all for a pittance.’

‘You should take up philosophy.’

‘And end up mad, like you?’

‘Long live knowledge.’

‘Knowledge, pottage. Put that into the mouth of Socrates. There’s no fortune in philosophy I can’t even afford a new pair of boots. That’s what you get when you marry a cow.’

‘The greatest hardship of poverty is that it makes a man ridiculous.[ii] But the philosophers have discovered a short cut to riches…’

‘Which is?’

‘Add not to your riches, but subtract from your desires.[iii] Compendiaria ad divitias Philosophorum via est, quae monstrat non addendum divitiis, sed cupiditatibus detrahendum.

‘Pah! Do you know how stupid you look, up to your knees in shit, quoting Latin inside that monstrous helmet? Besides, why should I listen to you? You’re not fit to lecture rats! What a proud doctor of philosophy you are. But the inquisition bears away with all things – even the powers of the mind. I have seen many vain scholars meet their doom in the Hell Mouth; enough to know that all books lead men to madness – especially when they swallow more than they can digest! You cannot deny it, can you Mad Jacques?’

‘You are right in every respect. A good mind is rarely joined with good fortune. Merit is oft’ an obstacle to success; for merit ever produces two bad effects – envy and fear; envy from those who cannot attain the same, and fear from those whom it may possibly supplant.’[iv] Look at me: I’m a prime example. Mother Church envies my miracles and fears my powers. Why else would I be put to the question?’

‘No one envies you, Mad Jacques. Nor do they give a fig for your opinions.’

‘Perhaps not. But I am right about increasing your fortune: subtract from your desires instead…’

‘Subtract from my desires? What about my needs? I am poorly paid and badly shod.’

‘Go barefoot like me.’

‘My feet would be drier! That miserable cork stitcher. I should stuff his purse with stones for all his wayward shoeing…’

He stops and stands on one leg:

‘Look: when I hold up my foot, like this – water pours out the toes – like this. Terrible!

‘But you make a fine fountain.’


‘They might employ you as a water-clock.’

‘You what?’

‘Just cock a leg each quarter hour: like a dog…’

‘Blagh! I might as well be a dog on my wages.’

‘What can I say? All men are liars and thieves; the world has gone to rack and ruin; and cobblers aren’t what they used to be.’

He kicks the wall:

‘That useless greaser of boots! Saint Anthony’s fire upon him! If I get the foot rot, I’ll toss him in the Sienne with all his cobbled wares. Or better still, give him to you, Mad Jacques. Eh? – You and your coven of witches… What would they do? Mow him down with a turn of their distaffs? Or put a spell on him? That would be better: make him a cripple – all crooked down one side; blind, ugly and worn at the heels. Just look at mine! I’d be better booted by a baker with buns on my feet. This whole dungeon crawls with pestilence. Wherever you step: maggots, piss and dung…’

‘Smear it on your eyes: you might see a little better.’

‘You dare to mock old Claude? I’ll use your helmet for my shit-pot.’

‘Yet Christ with mud and spittle opened the eyes of a blind man. Draw near and let me touch. By the Virgin, your cataracts will clear…’

‘By the marrow of my bones! Keep your dirty paws off! I see well enough without your poxy poultice. Your miracles are counterfeit. One touch from you and I’d go blind as a beetle. You like to play the jester? Eh? Making me a water-clock?’

‘A noble profession. Time and change are the master of all things.’[v]

‘Water-clock, my arse-pipe! I know the time of day, and yours has just run out. Now, make haste you lousy mongrel.’

He yanks my chain and trudges on. A rush of air as the passage narrows. We fork left and the tunnel drones like an organ pipe. As we turn, the curving walls eclipse a distant lune of light: the egress.

Breaking from darkness, we cross a high gallery into yet another dungeon – a vast vault hewn from solid rock. The walls are a honeycomb of men, stacked like lava in some monstrous hive. We wind down wooden gangways that run beside the cells, each one a living tomb. The gaoler stops and peers into vaults of darkness:

‘Here lie the forgotten ones…’

He beats his chest:

‘They long to die; for the lungs to cease their bellows; for the heart to stop beating. But the blood still flows in the veins and the spirit cannot flee…’

I start at a ghoul seething in a hole, his face covered with bursting boils. The gaoler leers:

‘He doesn’t move for days on end, then grunts like a puking hog… A pretty one is he, but there are others that have no face at all – just knots of hair and gnashing teeth. ’Oft I cannot tell the living from the dead – until I poke them with my stick. Blagh! Come, your horse awaits…’

We enter a hexagonal crypt whose overpowering stench cloys the lungs. Six radial drains converge in the centre and pour into an oubliette. Slender fingers claw through the grill and the gaoler stamps them down:

‘Get back you little vixen!’

Beneath our feet is a waif with eyes like sapphires in a mire. Claude crosses himself twice, then says:

‘She was a soothsayer who spoke with the dead: a charmer who consulted pythonic spirits and led the faithful astray. But now she is securely entombed in the dungeon of Mother Church…’

He peers into the pit and purses his lips to spit: a glob of phlegm falls from his mouth and splatters on her crown. He chuckles:

‘Do the dead talk my pretty? What spirits lurk in your obscene hiding hole? Can they foresee your future? By the Devil’s horns, you have none!’

Her insane cries ring in my ears, yet I can only stand helpless, fearful of my fate. I watch in pity as her face turns purple and her veins stand out like cords. She hammers the grill with bloody fists, then slithers into darkness, chattering like a monkey:

‘Why do you pity her?’ asks Claude. ‘She is forgotten. Oubliette.

Forgotten? No. You will never forget her. Even on your deathbed, when you are far from help and succour, you will hear her haunting cries. And when you have breathed your last, she will come for you…’

His lips begin to tremble in fear, then his whole face curls in hate. Once more he tugs my chain, and snarls:

‘Make haste! Your horse awaits!’

He unlocks an iron gate and we scurry with rats down the final conduit. The stench of the whore grows strong: her incense makes me reel and puke. The terror takes hold. I close my eyes and pray: “Lord, protect me from the perils of mind, body and soul.” I start counting the steps. After ninety paces, we enter a warm chamber. My chain is undone. I hear panting bellows and crackling coals. Then a gentle voice says:

‘Open your eyes…’

There appears a pale-faced man of terrifying appearance. Cowled in black, he looks every bit the minister of Hell. He smiles and asks politely:

‘Do you know why you have been brought before me?’

‘Sire, I should like to know from you…’

i. Matthew, 8:43.
ii. Juvenal.
iii. Petrach. Epistolae de Rebus Familiaribus, V11., 10.
iv. An old maxim
v. Marcus Aurelius.

Copyright (c) Nicholas Shea 1992-2016.