Jacques is telling it…
All the brethren have vanished. I am left alone with the gargoyles and the moaning wind. The day is clear, with only wisps of cloud tearing on the distant peaks. Despite the sun, winter still holds the land in its icy grip and fresh falls of snow cover the precinct. How I yearn to see the green swards thrusting through the earth! I should go and meet the steward, but I am reluctant to put myself back in his service. What injustice, that I should be demoted, and end up under his thumb, chained to the sods like a churl. The lay-brethren are cheering in the stables – a rowdy mob of drunken dogs, singing to Bacchus, their lofty deity:
I chop and drink; I plough and drink;
I delve and drink; I sow and drink;
I reap and drink; I eat and drink;
I fuck and drink; I sleep and drink;
I drink and drink, and drink and drink!
I cannot imagine joining their company. What an insult—to be torn from my books, and end up shovelling marl. I’m in good mind to abscond. But I sit on the collation bench and procrastinate all morn. The clapping tabula echoes from the parlour as Odo summons the monks for their daily tasks; the brethren come and go, but no one draws near nor offers me solace. The skeleton key awaits in my scrip: I fondle the bit with its complex comb, and ponder what secrets it will reveal. Then a gargoyle croaks:
‘Carpe diem quam minime credula postero. [Sieze upon today, trusting as little as possible in the morrow].’ (i)
He’s right of course. Why should I wait for the thaw to visit Devil’s Tower? There’s no hope of taking leave for such a task whilst under the stewards rule. I must strike whilst the iron is hot. ’Tis now or never. All I need is my father’s horse…
The stables are situated beyond the outer parlour, where a large wooden gate leads down into a long vaulted cellar. Originally part of the cellarium, this wing is walled-off for the animals, and lies no more than six feet below ground – enough to provide shelter from the elements whilst still admitting sufficient daylight.
I creep round the outer wall and peer through a shutter. The pungent stench of dung and cider wafts through the slats. The steward sways on his feet picking straw from his beard. He scowls and scratches his ribs. Then he starts groping madly inside his shirt and removes a mouse which dangles by its tail. He belches:
He tosses the mouse over his head and guzzles from his jug. His brethren are sleeping it off in the manger; they look like they’ve been there all night, sprawled in the filth and tangled in a heap; their flanks are smeared with mud, and all about them lie other beasts of the field, huddled together for warmth. I spot six idle pigs, three dreaming cows, two snoozing hounds, three oxen, an ass, a lone rooster and six pigeons perched on a wormy beam. The only beast to keep its dignity is a white mare munching hay in the far corner.
Opening the gates, I descend the earthen slope, wary of how they will greet me. Fortunately, I am still in possession of my white cowl, which gives me some authority, even with the steward, for unlike choir monks, the lay brethren wear only grey vestments.
‘Greetings steward. I have come for abbot’s horse.’
He turns on his feet and slurs:
‘And who are you?’
‘Why, I’m Jacques Vallin. Do you not remember?’
He studies me intently and scratches his head:
‘By the pope’s whiskers! What? You? Sharp-tongued Jacques? Oh no, you are not he. That goblin has red eyes.’
‘What do you mean by calling me goblin? Shall you not call me brother?’
‘Oxhorns! You are not my brother. I’ve never seen you before.’
‘’Tis I, Jacques. The boy who fixed the hen house. Do you not remember? You told me then, I would be better off in a cowl than a sack.’
‘Did I indeed? And was I right?’
‘To be honest, I’m beginning to have my doubts.’
He narrows his gaze, burps, staggers round a sow, then steadies himself on a post.
‘I confess I do not know you. But if you are indeed Jacques Vallin, then give me your new name. The one they gave you when you became a novitiate.’
‘Why, I am brother Lazarus of course. We talked at the feast. Remember?’
He knits his brows and shakes his head:
‘Nay, you are not he. Brother Lazarus is a creature of night and only comes out with the bats. And I am sure that if he were standing there, as you are now, he’d go up in a puff of smoke.’
‘Look closer. You know me well. You were the man who encouraged me to cloister. You told me the Last Judgement was at hand.’
‘The Last Judgement? Hiq! Did I tell you that? Perhaps I did. Hiq! I don’t recall. Er, when did I tell you this?’
‘Three years past.’
‘Pah! Three years? That’s a long time. Hiq! You could be anyone: an imposter for all I know. I’ve never seen your face before.’
‘What about my horns?’
‘What about them? Half of the monks of Belloc have horns. Hiq! No, no, no, you cannot be Jacques Vallin. I’d know that boy anywhere. He was ugly and pale as milk. And his horns were bigger. Like a mountain goat. You can’t pull the wool over my eyes! Hiq! So what’s your business here?’
‘I was wondering why the Apocalypse has not yet come.’
‘Are you mocking me boy?’
‘No Monsieur. I have lived modestly and industriously all my life. I have been waiting and praying most diligently for Christ’s return. But he remains absent. When shall he come?’
He looks muddled:
‘How should I know? Hiq! The ways of god are a mystery to me.’
‘We should remain sober and watch. Wickedness runs riot and the gospel is trodden underfoot.’
‘That is true boy, Very true. You are a prophet in the making. Hiq!’
He screws up his face and sways from side to side.
‘Tell me steward, do you sit up by the fire these long winter nights?’
‘Sit up by the fire? Here? In the cloister? Are you mad? What do you take me for? A fool? Hiq! Sit up by the fire? Chance would be a fine thing! What a peevish jest. Sit up by the fire. Why ask me that?’
‘Because that can lead to eating and drinking. Do you understand me? You would be better off in bed, giving that food to your cow. Cattle are hard to fatten. And tallow is four times the price of meat. ’Tis a sin to waste good food, sitting up by the fire – when you can break your fast at dawn and start work early…’
A vague recollection sweeps across his face. Then he slaps his forehead with his palm:
‘Jacques Vallin! The midwife’s son! You brazen knave! Reciting me verbatim!’
‘Ah! You remember now.’
‘I think I do. That is to say, if you are not a phantom of my cup. Hiq!’
‘I see you are sober and watching still.’
‘I’ve told you before: that tongue will get you into trouble. Hiq! Besides, I have good reason to drown my sorrows. A contagion of heresy sweeps across this land. The Holy Inquisition is burning every shepherd in the hills. ’Tis enough to make anyone turn to drink. Six Cathars were put to the stake this week alone.’
He raises his jug and cries:
‘Death to the heretics! … Anyway, what happened to your eyes? And to your face for that matter?’
‘I was touched by an angel.’
‘An angel? You keep high company.’
I glance at his drunken men snoring with the sows:
‘And you too, steward.’
‘You look down on me, now that you have become a choir monk?’
‘Not at all. You know what they say: a ploughman on his feet is taller than a priest on his knees. Tell me, is that the abbot’s horse over there?’
‘What, that white mare? No. The abbot rides Leonard, a black stallion. Hiq! But I keep him separate on account of his bad temper. A viscous brute he is.’
He pulls another mouse from his pocket, pokes his tongue and tosses it in the air:
‘These vermin get everywhere. You can’t get a winks sleep without them crawling up your arse. Hiq!’
‘Pray show me the abbot’s horse. I have important matters to attend.’
‘Important matters? What important matters? Old Leonard is fierce and unruly; he’ll have your fingers if you don’t watch out; or throw you in a ditch and leave you for dead. What do you want with him?’
‘That’s my business. Where is he tethered? Outside?’
‘Old Leonard? No.’
He looks suspicious and scratches his head.
‘You want the abbot’s horse, eh? Well I don’t know about that. Hiq! Perhaps I should check with father Janus first.’
But after his humiliating defeat at Chapter, I fear the Janus might have changed his mind. So I run to the white mare and start untying her:
‘I’ll take this horse instead.’
‘Wait!’ exclaims the steward, sliding in the muck. ‘You can’t take her! That’s my Lucy!’
But before he can say another word, I’ve mounted the withers. With a leap and a bound, I’m off and away, trotting up the slope and through the open doors.
‘Come back!’ cries the steward. ‘Come back you thief! That’s my Lucy!’
Turning out the stables, I ride bareback toward the abbey gate. Lucy is swift and responsive between my thighs; her silky mane feels warm in my fists and she seems to know exactly where to go; her thundering hooves pummel the frosty turf as she follows a path through the drifts and takes me along the riverbanks. We fly past the fish ponds and race along the precinct walls. Darting through the orchard, we weave amid the apple trees then gallop away across the wastes. Soon the abbey far behind, and I feel a broad smile coming to my lips. Never have I moved so fast or felt so free. The morning sun beams down in glory, kissing my new flesh with tender rays. And in the thundering hooves, I hear my Master calling:
‘Come to me! Come to me! Come to me!’
Lucy is taking me home, down the fallow fields, past my old haunts, back towards the vill. We pass Mill Bridge and the rotten stump where I hid the communion chalice all those years ago. Much has changed since that fateful day of Maria’s resurrection. The mill looks dark and derelict, with long icicles hanging from its broken shutters. The great wheel is frozen in the race but the stream still gurgles under shelves of ice which creak under the swell.
Turning left through the meadow, I steer Lucy past the druid stone, then head towards the marsh where a riven oak claws the eastern sky. The icy turf splinters like glass as Lucy forges through the reeds. And there is the lightening tree with Margot’s hovel, buried deep in snow. The roof has collapsed and the wattle crumbled away; nothing remains but the oak frame with its two mouldy crucks, all twisted and strangled with ivy. I peer inside at the desolate hearth. Margot’s cures have all but gone and moulder in broken jars. The furniture has been ferreted away, along with her corn dollies, sickles and hoes. I should like a piece of the old place: a keepsake to remember her by; a bit of old iron or a bottle of earth. But all that remains are a pile of snail shells and a rusty trivet. Even the horseshoes that hung above our bed have been thrown to the winds.
Lucy snorts in the cold air and her sweaty flanks steam around my loins. I prod her gently and she ambles toward the pond. I’m eager to find my gold but the aspect has completely changed. The banks have overgrown and swards of rushes encroach from the marsh beyond. The spot where I hid the amphora has vanished – silted up and covered with briars. My mind reels. Three years is along time. Anything might have happened. What if Mengarde found it? Perhaps the whole village has plundered my pot and fled to Toulouse. I’m itching to make a search but the ice is too think. My horde will have to wait ’til the thaw.
An eagle calls above the peaks, its soaring wings glinting in the sun. Without delay, I leave Margot to her snails and head for the mountain pass.
I expect the snows to deepen with the ascent, but after climbing some five hundred feet, I find the way is almost clear. We wend along a treacherous arrêt, a bitter wind gnawing at my face. Lucy treads cautiously amid the rocks, her long lashes welded with frost.
We plod higher and higher, following the shepherd’s pass which zigzags round the mountain. Behind is the Cauldron, with its many secluded hills, all glistening with snow; and I wonder at all the strange, unknown worlds in those far-off valleys beyond. The distance is lost in a mysterious blue haze where remote churches cling to the hills, clustered by ostals that tumble down the slopes. The wooded ravines lie silent, their cataracts frozen like tracks of wax. Neither man nor beast can be seen for miles around, but palls of smoke waft from the woods, and the faint ring of the smith’s hammer echoes amongst the trees.
How glorious to see the sunlit world! And it seems as large and wondrous as my imagination can make it. Soon the hawthorn will be budding into bloom; then the shepherds will return to their mountain pastures, and bleating lambs will litter the verdant slopes.
Never have I travelled so far or high. There’s no grander spot, and from this vantage point, I can survey the entire wilderness: the highlands and lowlands, with their lakes, meadows and marshes; the loamy slopes with their barren trees and fallow fields, all sparkling with a brilliant whiteness. Pools of mist gather in the mountain hollows, and the far flung pines seem to hang amid the clouds. Beyond the distant woods, I can even see the abbey tower gleaming in the far flung plains below.
The Cauldron, with its rim of jagged peaks, has a climate all its own; for the season is warmer on the southern side of the arrêt, where patches of green glimmer on the slopes. ’Tis then I spot a retinue of knights wending through the olive groves; and further behind is a horse-drawn carriage, guarded by soldiers. The carriage is back as coal, with fortified bars on the windows. A terrible dread seizes my heart. Margot whispers:
‘Beware! The devil himself!’
The bishop? No, it cannot be: he’s not due ’til Spring. Besides, what legate would undertake such a treacherous journey in the midst of winter? It makes no sense—unless Mother Church was so horrified at the contents of Odo’s letter, that they sent the bishop early? After all, there is much leverage to be gained by a surprise visit, especially when dealing with heresy…
Not wishing to draw attention to myself, I keep low and ride onward up the pass. Devil’s Tower lies a mile to the west, rising from an outcrop of splintered crags.
A wailing wind whips the arrêts and howls through the gulleys. After climbing another hundred feet, I reach a bleak summit where two vast stones form a narrow portal to the west: Needle Peak. From this point on, the route descends steeply, and the pass vanishes under falls of snow. The pristine track is eerily forbidden. Lucy steps timidly toward the tower, which looms on the horizon like the black phantom of a dream. And all the while the eagles cry above its lofty chamber where so many maidens met their miserable end.
After tethering Lucy to a blasted thorn, I approach the tower on foot, climbing a rocky pavement that wends toward a vast iron door. The granite edifice soars like Pharos into the blue sky, and above the porch is a colossal lintel which bears the inscription:
Mysterium Babylon Magna
Mater Fornicationum et Abominationum Terrae.
[Mystery, Babylon The Great,
The Mother of Harlots and Abominations of The Earth] (ii)
The arch lies in permanent shade, gaping like a leviathan, with icicles for teeth. ’Tis a matter of great wonder that I am standing here after all these years. How oft’ I have stormed this tower in my dreams; torn the door from its hinges and marched in like a hero. But now I fear what lies beyond.
Am I not worthy of my mother’s bones? What would she think of me if I turned back now. Who else can lay her ghost to rest? Taking the skeleton key from my scrip, I flip the escutcheon and insert the comb; but the lock is frozen fast and refuses to turn. Try as I might, the bolt will not shift. The fates have kept me out, and with good reason. ’Twas a fool’s errand from the start. The sins of the father cannot be undone; and no act of grace on my part will erase his crimes, nor bring my mother back. All his wooing, courting and spooning; all his wicked spells and nuptial charms; his hollow vows and beastly plots – but none of these were my doing: and they can only be resolved by God. Why did I come to this unhallowed place? The last thing on earth I want is to visit that infernal chamber…
The sun is low in the west and but two hours of daylight remain. If I leave now, I will back in time for Vespers. I am resolved to return with a clear conscience. But just as I turn to leave, the bolt shifts with a sepulchral “clunk”. The door yawns wide and a great howl of air sucks into the gaping hall. The fates have decided otherwise…
The hall is just as Margo described: darkness reigns and the dank air is permeated by an abyssal despair. I hesitate on the threshold, fearing many a vengeful spirit haunts the gloom. Yet every second of delay seems like an insult to my mother’s memory; so I step inside and shut out the wind. The stairwell coils up into void of darkness. Without a candle to guide me, I strike my flint several times, groping the treads and palming the walls. The tower narrows as I ascend, and after fifty steps, I reach a small landing with a fortified door. A chink of daylight pokes though the vault where an old crow’s nest lies wedged between the stones. As if by Heavenly intent, a golden ray illumes the warded lock. The secret of my birth awaits beyond the door. This is where the old Devil sired his bastard sons. The wheel has come full circle. The seventh son returns. But the sins of the father weigh heavy on my heart. Spirit, receive me in peace, for I come without malice or dissent, nor to disturb your rest, but to bring you to the Light.
The door creaks open…
A sigh of wind, cold as the tomb, caresses my face. The grim chamber is festooned with cobwebs which hang like macabre drapes, obscuring the lancet and walls. The dust of decades lies thick upon the floor, and dead ravens litter the table which is set for the ravenous dead. Silver goblets, plates and bowls lie scattered in disarray, and an old barrel stands in the corner. The once opulent bed, with its coverlets and cushions, is but a mound of faded rags, all torn and soiled with guano. But most telling of all, is the freeze of copulating nymphs that encircles the chamber. The mad carvings of concupiscence are rotten with decay: the shattered illusions of my father’s satyric youth, now impotent with age and regret.
I creep inside and tiptoe round the bed where two iron manacles hang from the wall. An ominous mound beckons beyond the footboard. Drawing near, I find two bony feet poking from the shadows.
There she lies, the Lady of Belloc, moulding in the dust, her silken skirts eaten away like cabbage leaves.
I fall to my knees and weep.
Her slender corpse has tight-drawn skin, all pocked with wormy holes. The sallow face is painted with an earthy shade, with sunken eyes and cheeks. Wisps of silver hair cling to her skull, whilst her bony hands claw beneath her ribs. And there is the shard of mirror that cut me from her womb, still daubed with her blood. I rub my finger down the grimy glass to reveal my own reflection. This is no transient eclipse. Forget my natal fable. I did not come down with rain, and I wasn’t found in well. Beátus ventur qui te portávit et úbera quæ suxísti. [Blessed is the womb that bore thee and the paps that gave thee suck].(iii)
My Nocturne prayers have finally been answered. I have found my mother. How many Paternosters did I utter that his trespasses might be forgiven? How many nights did I pace about this decrepit chamber and search for her body in vain? How many times did I awake in the dead of night, whisper her name, and wait in silence for some word of consolation? But now that I am here, kneeling beside her corpse, she feels strangely familiar. Bending low, I kiss her grimy brow. I sit beside her bones, watching the clouds drift past the lancet, as she must have done during her long confinement. ’Tis then I spot a small wooden box hidden under the bed. The box is crudely made and smells of cinnamon. But on opening the lid I find the spice has all but gone. Inside is a folded parchment, sealed with wax, and stamped with the emblem of a pelican. I go to the lancet and stand in the light to read…
Before I leave this wretched world and meet with eternity, I think it necessary to say a few words. I have seen many wonders in my short life – dark forests, crystal lakes, and majestic mountains; I have travelled far and wide, through foreign lands and beautiful cities; I have seen the glory of Venice rising from the sea at the dawn; watched the blood moon set over Temple Mount; and heard the bells of Paris chime on Easter Day…
For once I was rich and beautiful, with an estate and husband to love me. But all that I owned, and all that I loved, was stolen by the abbot of Belloc. Now I despise this world with all its wonders and pomps. For all is vanity and elusive as a mirage.
These past six days I have put myself into that abstinence which the heretics call endura, in which I have remained without meat and drink. For on the morrow I will voluntarily take my own bodily life, and inflict death upon my unborn child.
They will call me a witch and a murderer. But do not defame my name with grievous falsehoods. My conscience is clear; for I would rather my babe die with me, than suffer under the yolk of a devil. As god is my witness, I would trade all the joys of heaven, to see my babe suckling at my breast.
Shall I hasten to eternal damnation? Pray for me, for I die without the consolamentum of a goodman. What shall your priests say of me? That I am a servant of diabolical error; that I am a cathar with superstitions and false inventions, who perverts the meaning of the Holy Scriptures; that I am a vixen who destroys the true vine; that I will burn in hell for my pestiferous teaching. But I am not in error. Truly, there is no salvation in the Roman church. For as “the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness overcame it not,” so the Christ could not enter a human body, except in appearance; and so I deny a human body to Him. Jesus Christ was innascibilis, because the human body is the seat of sin.
What shall I leave this wretched world, if not the babe that kicks inside me? I remember a tale told by my mother, who wore a yellow cross upon her back. For she too followed the goodmen, whom others call heretics, and was tried by the ordeal of the hot iron. She affirmed that the body of Christ was not in the consecrated host, and that the Devil, who is prince of this world, made all things that are corruptible. She told this story so oft’, that I know the words by heart…
“There is a bird called the pelican whose feathers shine like the sun. And its vocation is to follow the sun. One day, the pelican had some young, and left them in the nest, so it could follow the sun more freely. But during its absence, a wild beast found the nest and tore off the nestlings’ wings. After this had happened several times, the pelican decided to conceal its radiance and hide amongst its young, so as to surprise and kill the beast when it came into the nest. And this the pelican did. The beast was conquered and the little pelicans were delivered. In the same way Christ hid his radiance when he was incarnated within the Virgin Mary; thus he was able to take the bad God prisoner and shut him up in the darkness of Hell. And so the bad god ceased to destroy the creatures of the good god…” (iv)
They say that men should never swear on Heaven, because they cannot cause a star to be large or small. But I swear by the heavens above, that should my child outlive me, all hell will fall on Mother Church. For the brood of my womb is a Pelican, born to destroy the creatures of the bad god…
Bernadette de Belloc
I let out a long sonorous cry which echoes round the ramparts and rings off the hills. Look at her! The poor wretched woman! How she lived and how she died! How she must have called on God, that he might deliver her, body and soul, from the wickedness of this world. But her prayers were all in vain, and she died in bitter agony of mind, forsaken, bereft of hope. Her precious world of blooms and song became a bloody snare of suicide and pain. Raped and despoiled, she endured a pregnancy of grief and despair. What a damnable disgrace to Heaven! So much for the fortune and promises of eternal life. I do not think I can utter another Psalm or Paternoster. In fact, I would like to wipe the Holy Book from the face of the earth!
To think I was hatched from the cloisters of such a heretical womb. But what of her blessed corpse? ’Twas folly to think I might carry it off in my arms. The barrel in the corner would make a fine urn, if she would deign to curl inside…
Fetching the keg, I stamp in the lid. Yet I hesitate to disturb her bones lest I offend her spirit. Why am I so afraid? Were not the corpses of saints dismembered as holy relics? I kneel beside her and ask for permission, taking her hand in mine; but the fingers come away in my palm, and her withered skin tears in plumes of dust. One thing is certain: I cannot leave her to crumble in this haunted tower of vermin and death.
Starting with the feet, I pull tentatively at the bones, then place them in the barrel with the remains of her dress. I work slowly, taking care not to miss a single carpel. How small and dainty she is: she feels lighter than a bird, with slender shins and fine femurs. The rite takes more than hour, and amongst her bones fall many hot tears. With her skull tucked safely in the barrel, I wedge on the lid and tuck her letter in my scrip. Her corpse has left a stain on the floorboards; like an ominous shade from beyond, it looks as though it might rise up and walk. I take a handful of dust, the powders of her blood, and tie in a purse around my neck. Then Margot seethes:
‘Burn this place!’
A good idea. I kneel at bedside and strike my tinder on the coverlet. A glowing ember creeps along the lace then bursts into roaring flames. Smoke billows in the vault and the cobwebs teem with rampant feet. The dryads and satyrs leap about the freeze, their painted faces blistering in the heat. A nymph in a holly crown turns to me and smiles:
‘My heart offers thee a spiritual kiss. Now run you fool!’
I leave the chamber in haste with the barrel on my back. Down, down I go, in a whirling descent, my heart pounding like a drum. The fire roars overhead and crackling timbers echo round the walls. The inferno draws quickly, sucking air from the hall, so that I struggle against a fierce wind that drones up the stairwell.
By the time I reach the outer ward, the whole tower is trembling with the din of fire. But just as I open the door, I feel a hand upon my shoulder. Slowly, I turn around—and there is Margot standing beside a lady in a blue dress. They are smiling fondly. I am moved to speak, but in the blink of an eye they vanish into thin air.
The tower groans and rumbles as I flee along the desolate pavement. A golden sun is sinking in the west and Venus twinkles over the far horizon. Lucy waits patiently beside by the blasted thorn, her withers trembling in a bitter wind; tying the barrel to my shoulder, I lead her back up the hill toward Needle Peak. On reaching the summit, I stop to take one last look. Devil’s Tower is a roaring pillar of fire, its lofty chamber all aglow, shrieking like a mandrake, as a thick black pall wends toward southern hills. I have the distinct impression of spirits in the smoke, leaping skyward as they pass into the great beyond; all those wretched surrogates who were nothing but chattel for the abbot’s seed; and I pray that their starved and solitary souls are met by loving angels, sent forth to minister their salvation. Let them be quickened not to sleep, but to a vivid conscious life.
I have fulfilled my childhood oath. What else could I offer this mysterious maid, from whose womb I sprung to life? An eternal adornment of red roses and a heartfelt thanks for a love unknown. I never felt her warm embrace, nor gazed upon her loving eyes. But she’s with me now, closer than she’s ever been – her flesh and bones upon my back.
I ride unhindered over the high plateau and through the narrow portal of Needle Peak. ’Tis easier for a Pelican to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a priest to enter the gates of Heaven.
As we return along the arrêt, the sun sinks swiftly and the shadows of evening creep up the hills; the lofty peaks glow pink, clasping the fiery orb as it dips below the horizon. Then dusk spreads his wings and the Cauldron is engulfed in gloom; the many folded valleys with their farms and dark forests, are smothered in darkness as titanic shades stride down the slopes and the cliffs take on the appearance of leaping phantoms.
The night peers forth with black eyes as a blizzard blows in from the North. The barren pass is fully exposed to a biting wind which gnaws at my flesh, so I lie low, burying my face in Lucy’s mane. My faithful steed ambles steadily homeward, her hooves crunching on the earth. But the way ahead is soon lost under the dim light of the stars, and we drift aimlessly over immeasurable sheets of ice. Bulwarks of stone, naked and monstrous, jut into the heavens, and seem to crawl along the ridge like grotesque chimeras.
The wind screams like a raging Medusa. Lucy battles onward through flurries of snow which clump in her lashes and smother her flanks. Then, with snorts of disapproval, she makes a sharp left and leaves the ridge for sheltered ground. But to wander from the path is certain death, for hidden perils lurk in the darkness – ruptures and breaches in the earth, where many a deep crevasse has swallowed unwary pilgrims. I remain on high alert, for an unexpected obstacle will throw our entire weight forward; and if her toe digs into the snow before the hoof is firmly placed, the smallest pebble will cause a calamitous fall. But her legs are stout and true, and tread nimbly amid the drifts. A horse with higher shoulders would surely stumble in the scree. Yet Lucy makes light work of the descent, whinnying as she goes, prodding the way with hesitant hooves. I cannot shake my sense of dread, for the night is inky black and wolves are howling in the ravines. I tug on the mane to bring Lucy about, but despite my cajoling, she stubbornly refuses to turn, and walks ever downward, away from the freezing winds.
I am hopelessly lost. The summit of Needle Peak, which once lay directly behind, now lies far above to the east. The track veers right, and we pass through a narrow gulley that rounds the spur of the mountain. To my horror, I find myself twisting along a ghastly precipice. The route is lost in ragged clouds but Lucy seems to know the way, and plods towards the tree line.
With the wind behind us, we enter a forest of pines where the path wends between large boulders capped with snow. Swabs of darkness loom between the trees and I struggle to see the way. Lucy follows a smothered track, her hooves ploughing drifts and thudding on hidden roots. We continue down the slope for some distance, forging through an undergrowth of dead branches.
After a time, the firs cease and an expanse of limestone appears, inclining slightly from the horizontal, and so slippery with ice that I have to dismount and lead Lucy along. The mountain looms above, its towering crags like the Devil’s pulpits. A precipitous drop looms to the left, sheer, black and ominous, where blasts of wind howl in a gaping void. I proceed with great caution, weary that one false step will seal our fate. The ice thickens towards the middle of the promontory, so that I must crawl over narrow undulating rifts. But Lucy treads the sloping slabs with acute precision, her hooves feeling amid the fissures. After proceeding in this manner for some eighty feet, we clear the pavement and reach a low escarpment.
With the expanse safely behind us, we descend for a time through firs, and then again down steep and barren rocks, until we cross a snowy pasture of grass where I try to remount. But my fingers are so cold I can barely grab the mane. My sodden boots are like clumps of ice. After much effort I manage to gain some purchase and heave myself up. Lucy heads immediately for a bank of moaning pines, whose rotten branches are so overgrown with moss, that they have the appearance of stags’ horns covered with velvet. The forest is denser than before, and the trees soon close ranks, blotting out the sky. We press through the gloom until the undergrowth hems us in on all sides. We can proceed no further. Then Lucy stops dead and I wonder if she was lost all along.
A lone wolf howls in the ravine, curdling my blood. ’Twould be a slow and agonising death, torn apart like a toad ’neath the harrow. We’re sitting ducks, trapped in the thickets, with no means of escape. I might dig a snow-hole or climb a tree and wait till dawn, but I’m too frozen and exhausted to move. Lucy snorts the cedar air and motions to go forward but I hold her back, fearful of the dark.
Just then a light gleams though the boughs and I spy the full moon sailing through the clouds. Lambent rays glide between the pines and the rocks glow like alabaster. Lucy nods at a clearing and walks eagerly toward it. The air grows curiously warm; then vaporous mists swirl in the moonbeams and there comes the sound of purling waters. My stalwart companion has found a hot spring! I hug her with affection and kiss her silky mane.
‘Clever girl Lucy! Clever girl!’
Before us is a crystal pool that steams in the moonlight. Winter has no hold here: the rocky banks are green with grass and bejewelled with glassy beads. Throngs of snowdrops bloom around the shores, and yet further out, where the snows encroach, a ring of hart’s tongue fern is beset with glacial flowers and straw coloured orchises.
Lucy ambles to the edge and quenches her thirst in the shallows. I dismount and follow her example, dunking my head in the hot water; the bitter taste draws my mouth, but ’tis curiously sustaining: an elixir of life to cleanse all death and corruption.
Taking off my boots, I sit on a ledge, bathing my feet in the piping spring. My toes tingle back to life and a deep heat rises up my shins, reviving my frozen legs. Lucy stands quivering up to her haunches, eyes shut, her ears bent forward in bliss. How fortunate that I chose her over the abbot’s stallion. She has obviously been here before; she must have smelt the sulphurous vapours when we were exposed on the ridge. I would be dead if not for Lucy. She refused my witless commands, and brought us to sanctuary.
My mother’s ghost stands silent in the pale glint of the moon. Her grisly interment plays over in my mind. And I wonder if past and future exist as one, entwined in some inexorable flow; for it seems that all present actions impinge upon the past, just as the present determines the future. The moon shimmers in the water, beautiful, lustrous and mysterious. The story of my life unfolds in the depths – an entire sequence of events that maps out with perfect purpose. Has not my Creator envisaged all, past present and future, in the blinking of an eye? How thin is the veil between worlds! The dead are breathing still, existing unseen beside our mortal flesh. Her letter presses warm upon my chest. How I long to follow in her steps: to witness the blood-moon over Jerusalem, and hear the bells of Paris on Easter Day. Beloved spirit! I weep in recognition of my unknown progenitrix; for now she has my blessing to find the peace she seeks. As I watch Diana lurching in the pool, I remember the vow I took on my first night at the abbey:
‘I will ferry your bones to the moon, for the treasures of the moon are human pains: misspent time, broken vows, broken hearts, labours in vain and unanswered prayers…’
Shall I drown your sufferings in love? There’s no finer grave than this: a sacred grotto, suffused with the hot blood of mother earth, where Spring is eternal and Death cannot conquer. I launch the barrel and nudge it gently toward the deep; it drifts away, its wormy timbers wheezing as they fill with water. Little by little the keg begins to keel, until it bobs, half-submerged, in the middle of the moon.
She sighs with bliss:
‘Bless you Jacques.’
Then she sinks from sight.
ii. Revelation, 17:5.
iii. Luke, 11:27. (Daily Missal, Third Sunday in the Season of Lent. p. 298)
iv. The story of the Pelican is from Fournier’s tribunal (I. 357, 363), told by a man from the diocese of Palhars to a man from Sabarthès.
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2013.