Jacques is telling it…

I awake to the sound of howling wind. On opening my eyes I find myself in the abbot’s Camera, lying in his oaken bed. The dawn sun pours through the windows, blinding my eyes. I flinch and duck beneath the covers:

‘The drapes! Close the drapes!’

My father says softly:

‘Welcome to the land of the living.’

‘The drapes! Please father! My eyes!’

‘Fear the light no more. The sun is not your enemy. Come out Lazarus. I have something wonderful to tell you…’

Curious, I poke out my head and wave my hand in a sunbeam. The ray is soft and gentle on my skin; and what is more, it does not burn. Astonished, I sit up and examine my arms. The flesh has lost its pallor with not a single blister in sight. My father twinkles with joy:

‘Yes Lazarus. Yes!’

I gasp in astonishment:

‘Can it be true?’

The abbot chuckles:

‘We did not fail entirely. A cure for photophobia: Is that not a miracle in itself! Wait, there’s more… Much more!’

He scurries excitedly to his desk and brings a small polished mirror:

‘Look Lazarus! Look into the glass!’

Trembling, I take the mirror and peer into its mottled surface. But the saturnine reflection looks just the same; my horns are big as ever, and my heavy jaw is still covered in whiskers. Yet I am looking at a stranger, an alien from beyond, who stares back as if through layers of ice. Then I spot the change. A sudden heat swells within my breast. My God! I have been given new eyes. New eyes! The pupils, which were once demonic red, have turned bright blue. They glisten like grottos, with flecks of emerald green. I am overcome with joy at such a miraculous transformation. I turn to my father, tears rolling down my face:

‘Merci papa! Merci!’

Instinctively, I slip my hand beneath coverlet and feel below. Still there. The abbot squints and says:

‘Tell me my son, do you remember what happened in the rite?’

‘No father.’

‘You do not recall what the Essence did to your body?’

‘All I remember is the Light. A cavern of crystal wands. I cannot recall exactly. It seems like a foolish dream.’

‘’Twas no dream my son. But if you prefer to remember it that way, you do me no insult. Your faith has been rewarded. With the grace of God and some further work, we might instigate a total cure…’

‘A total cure? Is it possible?’

‘Why certainly!’

‘Forgive me for doubting you, father.’

‘You can hardly be blamed for that.’

‘How shall I ever repay you?’

‘Nullum a vobis præmium postulo præterquam hujus diei memoriam scmpiternam. [I ask you no reward besides the eternal remembrance of this day]. How do you feel?’

‘A little faint. A little muddled.’

‘Well, that is hardly surprising. You’ve been asleep for three whole days?’

‘Three days?’ I ask, studying my reflection.

‘Aye. Three days. Today is The Feast of Holy Innocents.’

‘But how did I get here? Was I transported through the air?’

‘Transported through the air? Mon Dieu! I should be so lucky. No, I carried you myself, all the way through the ossuary. My poor back. You are much heavier than you look…’

‘Is the Essence still at work inside me?’

‘Hard to tell. The substratum of terrestrial flesh is a rebellious and stubborn substance. The body is slow to change. ’Tis possible that you may see further improvements, but these will be minor…’

When the abbot turns away, I spy Lilith grinning on the back of his head. Her face looks bigger. Much bigger. Her clumpy head, which was once the size of my fist, has developed new features; her squashed little nose is more defined with broader nostrils; and her black eyes bulge in their sockets like swollen plums. She whispers in my mind:

‘Poor Jacqueline. On your head was once written the word Aemaeth [Truth; God]. But your father rubbed out the first letter, and all that remains is Maeth [He is dead]. Sluck! Enjoy your second sight whilst it lasts. For soon you will wither and dissolve into dust…’

The abbot goes to the lancet and peers at the frozen hills:

‘A thaw is on the way: I smell it in the air. I have a nose for Spring and this one comes early.’

‘Take me outside father. Daylight has been denied me too long. I want to see the sun.’

‘You are still weak and your eyes too sensitive.’

‘No father. The sun. I want to see it.’

‘Very well. But do not stare at it directly—or you will surely go blind. Get dressed and wrap up warm. There’s a new cowl on the end of the bed.’

After lacing my boots, the Janus helps me down stairs and leads me out into the precinct. We find a secluded spot beside the dovecote, and sit on a bench overlooking the orchard. My heart swells to see Heaven’s orb blazing over the woods. I squint at the sparkling drifts rolling across the wastes. An eagle calls on high where the white peaks glisten against vaults of blue sky. Soon the apple trees will be clothed with leaves and the woods ringing with the chorus of blithesome birds.

‘I can’t wait ’till spring, father. Now I can walk tall in the noon-day sun.’

‘And so you shall my son. This is a new beginning for us both.’

‘’Tis wondrous to behold the Light…’

It shimmers on the icy ponds; twinkles in the reeds; glints upon the willows; and dazzles on the peaks. Yet my rapture is tempered by an inexplicable sense of remorse—a despair I cannot fathom. How it torments me! Despite the Light, I cannot shake the oppression of darkness. We are worlds apart from that subterranean realm, but it lurks beneath my feet like an ever present shadow.

Lilith whispers in my head:

‘Darkness is all around. You are swallowed by darkness; digested by the all consuming void. This Light is an illusion. Your soul is deprived of warmth and satisfaction. You believe this cure is a spiritual blessing? Fool! You have forgotten yourself. I saw your body floating in the Light Stream! If only you could remember your true glory! A goddess incarnate!’

I turn to my father and ask:

‘What happened down there?’

‘To be honest my son, I know not. The communication between the higher and lower worlds was broken. The spiritual rays of transformation began working in reverse.’

‘What do you mean, reverse?’

‘The renovation of man is an obscure art. The Essence cannot be tamed so easily. A true magician stands between two opposing infinities; he holds them apart like two writhing serpents, black and white. Their only desire is to annihilate the other. This tension creates all life. Alas, the true nature of The Essence is beyond all mortal understanding. That is why we need the angels to help us. By the grace of God, you came out of it well. Think what we achieved on the first attempt: the regeneration of your eyes and skin! With the crystal wands we are invincible! Not even Hippocrates can stand against us! Soon I shall perfect my art. The Essence will drive out all that is opposed to my will. When the seed is once made sound, all else will be perfected.’

We sit in silence, encompassed by snow, watching hares flit across the wastes. My father is lost in reverie; wind tugs at his beard and the winter light reveals his craggy face and dirty pores. At length he sighs and says:

‘Yes, the day is very beautiful. We haven’t had one like it all winter. Generatio nova [a new beginning]. I told you Spring was on the way. Thank god. A happy day. A happy day indeed. When the golem turned on us, I thought we’d seen our last.’

‘How did he get so big?’

‘That was something I did not expect. I set about his creation when you first arrived at the abbey gate. At first he was no bigger than a child’s doll. But he grew fast—nearly an inch a day. After six moons he stood over fifteen feet tall, and was far too big to pass through the trap door. So I kept him in the souterraine and we built the engine together. He was a good worker, despite his clumsiness. But he kept on growing. And an air of menace hung about him. After two years, he was thirty feet tall. Then I realized he was big enough to descend the Titan steps. So I sent him down to the pit, with strict instructions to wait until called upon. It seems curious that during all that time, he never questioned my authority. He must have sat alone in the darkness for many moons. I often wondered what he was thinking, for I never taught him to speak. Yet he understood my every word. Did you hear his cry at the end? He called me father. ABBA. How terrible.’

‘I pitied him.’

‘The Golem lived in a land of shadows, just like the Hades of the ancient Greeks. Although he could act intelligently, do not imagine that he possessed an intelligence of his own. I infused consciousness into him under the guidance of certain elemental spirits. The Golem had an animal nature, like an ox or other beast of burden. As such, he had a very primitive soul, and his awareness was more akin to the world of dreams…’

‘That sounds like purgatory indeed.’

‘Perhaps it was. At first I thought it made no difference under what conditions he lived or died, because he could not realise his own existence. Yet even at the end, he clung to his animal nature with great intensity of desire. His consciousness had grown and developed a momentum of its own—like a wheel, which once set in motion, continues to turn even after the exterior motive force is exhausted… I was not expecting such a transformation of mind.’

There follows an unbridgeable silence as clouds obscure the sun. I shiver in a chill breeze that whips atop the drifts. Dark shadows creep over the woods and the crows fall silent. The tangled trees, with their barren branches, look like a legion of skeletons, storming across the wastes.

‘I’m cold father. Can we go back inside?’

‘That’s a good idea Lazarus. We can talk by the fire…’

We trudge back to his lodgings under darkening skies. Returning to the camera, we sit by the hearth and warm our hands by the grate. The wind begins to scream round the ramparts, rattling the panes. We remain silent, lost to the world, watching tongues of flame dart amongst the logs. The chamber is still a mad mess, with platters moulding round the bed; bottles and bones litter the floor, and the cushions stink of incontinence. My father stares into my eyes, his own sallow, sunken and smeared with darkness. He looks almost green with envy.

‘Father, what shall I tell the others?’


‘The brethren. What shall I tell them?’

‘You need not tell them anything.’

‘But what about my eyes?’

‘Tell them the truth, pain and simple: that you spent Christmastide with me, praying for a miracle; and that The Blessed Virgin took pity on your condition and sent an angel to cure your albinism.’

‘An angel? They won’t believe that!’

‘You forget the benefits of the Catholic faith: ’tis full of miracles and revelations. To denounce the work of God is heresy. They will have to believe it.’

‘But an angel sounds too far fetched.’

‘Nevertheless, it has a semblance of the truth, does it not?’

‘The truth is heresy. No good will come of it.’

‘Then what about a holy well? Tell them I took you to a sacred spring, you drank of the waters and were cured.’

‘That sounds a little more believable. Oh! This is hopeless. Whatever I say, they won’t believe me. They hate me enough as it is.’

‘Fear not. Henceforth you shall live with me in my lodgings.’

He goes to his desk and riffles through his plans. Then he flashes with excitement and says:

‘Listen, we must begin work on a new engine at once. Within a year, the stars will be favourable for another attempt. You must confine yourself wholly to the study of my books.’

But the thought of sleeping under the same roof as Lilith makes me nervous:

‘If it’s all the same with you father, I would rather return to the dorter.’

My father looks deeply wounded:

‘Return to the dorter? But why, when you can sleep in comfort here?’

‘If I sleep here, ’twill only stir up more resentment. The brethren despise me; they know I’m your favourite.’

‘Exactly. And if you go back to live amongst them, you might awake at Nocturnes with a knife in your back. Is that what you want?’

‘I can fend for myself. Considering all that has happened, I think it best that we keep a safe distance. Until the thaw at least.’

He thinks for moment and paces round the hearth, fondling his beard. At length he says:

‘Yes, a safe distance, perhaps that is wise. You speak good sense Lazarus, my son. The brethren are still vexed by the haunting. God knows what they heard when the golem died. Curses! Why did that witless giant have to smash my engine? A great loss is that. The only consolation is that my rope is still lashed to the stalagmite. Five thousand feet! By the horns of Satan! A whole year it took to weave that rope! Spun mostly during night hours. The cost of all that hemp! We must retrieve it as soon as possible. Though we will need several new pulleys, not to mention fresh timber. Only the finest oak will do; tall and straight with close grain. We shall find the trees together. The truss beam must be exceedingly strong: strong enough to support the weight of all that rope, plus you, me, and the cradle besides. You will help me, won’t you Lazarus?’

‘Oh no. I’m not going down there again.’

‘But you must! How else will we cure your cankers? How else will I be rid of Lilith?’

Lilith lets out a shrill chuckle:

‘Rid of me? Never! Soon I will be rid of you! Sluck!’

He slaps the back of his head:

‘Be silent, bitch!’

Uneasy, I jump from the chair and put on my boots:

‘Father, we must leave this business for a while.’

The Janus wrings his hands:

‘Yes, yes, of course, you are right. I forget: you have had a nasty shock. And we have drawn enough attention to ourselves already. Besides, the prior has grown suspicious of me.’

‘And Hique of me.’

‘Then you must return to the dorter as you say. Of course you must. I wasn’t thinking Lazarus. Sometimes my enthusiasm gets the better of me. Your blue eyes have inspired me to accomplish great things. Oh Hippocrates! Think what we might achieve together! But all that must wait, yes… You will return to the dorter—and I will return to my monastic duties. I will keep the holy office and maintain my presence at Chapter. That’s what I’ll do. Yes. I’ll become a paragon of virtue. A stickler for the Rule, that’s what I’ll be. I shall not miss a single matins. The less ammunition Odo has against me the better. After all, the bishop visits in Spring. Hellfire! I do not wish to give him any more reason to have me deposed. You had better leave at once… Oh? I’m sorry, forgive me. Are you hungry? I can order some venison from the infirmary.’

‘No thank you. I’ve lost my appetite.’

‘What about some wine or perry? The cook does an excellent roast chicken with saggillot sauce.’

I smile and shake my head:

‘Really, I must go.’

‘How about a little soup? Hmm? Some barley stewed in bouillon?’

‘No, but thank you all the same.’

‘What about some pine-nuts, raisins or currents? Wait a minute, I know what you’d like: a plate of candied orange peel!’

‘No father. I’m not hungry.’

‘There’s nothing you want at all?’

I think for a moment then say:

‘Well, now you come to mention it, there is one thing…’

‘Name it. What’s mine is yours.’

‘I would like to borrow your horse.’

‘My horse? Whatever for?’

‘I must visit Devil’s Tower.’

He jaw drops:

‘Devil’s tower? What in god’s name…’

His conscience pricks him. He looks away and mutters:

‘ –Your mother… Charity abides well in you Lazarus, but you still haven’t forgiven me. Have I not proved my love? Why do you doubt me? Even after all the wonders I have shown you…’

‘For my second sight, I shall remain forever in your debt; and to wander freely amid the sun is a priceless gift. But I made a promise to myself many years ago: to bury the bones of Bernadette de Belloc.’

He seems to detest the very sound of her name. But he nods grimly and says:

‘Very well. Take my horse if it pleases you to go. But do not think to leave before the thaw. The mountain pass is treacherous this time of year; and if a blizzard blows in, you might not return.’

‘Fear not. I can read the skies and I know the lay of the land.’

‘A wasted errand if you ask me: I fear little of her will remain. ’

‘I must try all the same.’

‘As you wish.’

He lops to the mantelpiece and removes a mysterious key from a long ebony box.

‘If you are going to Devil’s Tower you will need this. A skeleton key: it unlocks the wards of both inner and outer doors.’

The key is cold and heavy in my palm; it has a kidney bow handle with a long octagonal shaft; the tooth-comb is highly ornate with many folds and grooves. I put in my scrip:

‘Thank you father. I will return it when I’m done.’

‘Do you know the way? Ride north up shepherd’s pass; after climbing above the cauldron you will reach a desolate peak, where two great stones stand together like the eye of a needle. Pass on through. Devil’s Tower lies a short distance beyond.’ He wags a finger: ‘But do not venture off the path: the slopes are like glass this time of year.’

The memory of that place has dampened his spirits. He turns away in shame and stares into the fire, chomping on his tongue. The flames splutter and spit as he recalls his terrible sins. His lips tremble, then he says:

‘I hate that curséd place. Hate it. There were once several such towers around these hills. That particular one was built by a former abbot when he acquired a new manor on the far side of the mountain. A signal post for his steward.’

‘I didn’t know that.’

‘I use the term “acquired” loosely. As you know, the whole of the Roman church is a den of thieves. No wonder the Cathars think Mother Church is the “Illa Meretrix” of Apocalypse. The other towers were razed to the ground in an uprising. So much for the suppression of heresy… Well, don’t let me keep you.’

I raise my cowl and take my leave. But just as I open the door, I spy a tear rolling down his cheek. He looks haunted and forlorn. So I turn back and give him a hearty embrace:

‘My soul is fused with yours now father; God help me, your name is writ upon my bones…’

He breaks down in tears of relief:

‘Oh Lazarus! My son! I thought I’d lost you down there!’

‘Lost him?’ purrs Lilith. ‘Lost him you did! Sluck! You couldn’t go through with it, could you Adam? You witless weasel! The rite was done, the cure complete, but you smashed the crystal font!’

My father lowers his eyes and turns away. I smell a rat and shake him by the shoulders:

‘What happened father? What did you do? Tell me!’

‘Why, don’t you remember?’ purrs Lilith.

‘Don’t say a word!’ bawls the abbot. ‘Don’t you dare!’

Lilith lets out a long hideous shriek: a sound so shrill and fierce that it burns my ears like boiling oil. Adam falls to his knees and writhes in pain; he beats his fists on the floor and wails:

‘Oh! Have pity Lilith! You’re hurting me!’

She snarls:

‘Your body is mine! Sluck! This course is not your own! Your ship is mine to steer! Why did you promise what you could not deliver? Sluck! I will finish what you started. Sluck! I will strip off that man who is made of earth, the one who presses me downward to the grave. Sluck! Until that time I will never be cured, never! Not until that part of me which is of the earth has returned to earth! Sluck! Sluck!’

Overcome with fear, I back away toward the door. But just as I turn the latch, the Janus spins like a puppet on his shins. Then Lilith purrs:

‘Where are you going Jacqueline?’

She fixes me with her glassy black eyes and all at once I seem to plummet back into those unhallowed depths. Her voice warbles:

‘Don’t you know what happened in the pit? I saw your glory in the Light Stream, your righteous body, as your soul passed into the heights; such a wondrous transformation! Sluck! I beheld the twelfth mystery, when you departed from that corpse of dark matter, and the Aeons stole you away into their golden sphere… But then abbot Adam lost his nerve! What an ignoramus! What a coward! He couldn’t go through with it. He destroyed you! And now I shall destroy him!’

Adam claws at the rug, his face contorted in agony. He pleads with a whimper:

‘Mercy Lilith! I beg you! Release me!’

She penetrates his mind, probing every gyrus like a psychic worm:

‘Tell Jacqueline what you did. Sluck! You monastic mule! You meddling monkey! You destroyed her beautiful body!’

‘Don’t believe her Lazarus! She’s lying!’

But I know Lilith speaks the truth. Visions of the crystal wands waver before my eyes, their rainbow lights pulsing in the darkness. My lost form floats like an apparition, its blonde locks tumbling in golden waves. Why did father Janus sabotage my passage into Light? Why could I not rise, and ascend to heaven, perfected in that flesh which was not of Adam? Was my female form so repulsive and unclean, that he had to stop my transfiguration at all costs? Why was my maleness, with its cankered horns and sores, more acceptable in his sight? Or did Christ himself forbid it? Why am I so contrary to Nature? The apparition fades. All is lost. Irrevocably lost. The mosaic of my soul scatters into shards and sinks in the infinite deep.

At that moment, I might have fled and wept tears of blood into the snow. But I remained cold and unmoved, watching my father beg on all fours. Then I opened the door and walked calmly away.

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2013.