ascent

Jacques is telling it…

Divested of faculty and sense, I am lost in a chasm of utter desolation. I recall flashes of crystal wands but cannot guess their purpose. Do I lie beneath them still? I feel disentangled from some glorious spiritual substance. And this severance fills my soul with bitterness. A corrupt affliction weighs heavy on my heart. Surely, I have been delivered from the Light into a sepulchre of Death. I call for my father but no sound comes forth: the souterraine steals every breath and I flounder in a delirium of total terror.

’Tis then I perceive movement in the grainy dark – vague flashes of gold and silver: a million twinkling stars whirling in the void like sparks. Something cold and pulpy smothers my face. The blackness swallows me whole. I sense a lurching to and fro – as if I am hung in the lofty boughs of a windswept oak. I cannot explain this mysterious transit, yet I am surely upside down, swinging like a pendulum, my arms dangling in space. My head feels fit to burst, and with each oscillation, my face rubs upon a leathery hide: the skin is clammy and cold, encrusted with burs and barbs. With great effort, I summon the strength to turn my head. ’Tis then I behold my father beside me, flung over the withers of some lumbering beast. There’s no doubt about it: we are being carried, slowly but surely, though pits of illimitable dark…

Margot’s voice echoes in the depths:

‘You are damned. Satan is taking you to hell…’

Grim dreams begin to impress my fevered mind: memories of the abbot’s camera – whorls of horns and spiral shells; his copper astrolabe revolving in gyres; the Serpent on his bedstead, coiling round Eve; the Tree of Life adorned with golden fruit; the trap door by the fire, with its ominous hole, where the tail of some hideous reptile slinks into darkness… Once again, I open my eyes to dispel these wild imaginings, but the vision does not leave me. I mutter an Ave, my words garbled and confused. After much effort, I cry out, hoarse in the sulphurous fumes:

‘Father!’

No answer. Gradually I become aware of an omnipresent light, for the entire abyss now glows with a sickly green luminescence. An image of Satan flashes through my mind, and I ask myself: “the withers of what?”

Looking down, I behold the spine of some gargantuan beast, and far below, I glimpse two monstrous legs trudging in the void. My heart bolts as I spy cloven fetlocks climbing titanic steps: a spiral staircase, hewn from solid rock. And with each lunging stride, I glimpse the span of mighty reptilian hands, clawing the crystal walls. I estimate the giant to be at least fifty feet tall, and big enough to crush me in its fist. I am slung over its shoulder, my waist lashed around a saggy neck. My father hangs likewise on the far scapular, his body lifeless and limp. I reach for his hand but he is quite beyond my grasp. His face is changed and mottled with black veins. Oh Christ! What has he done? His head rolls to one side as Lilith opens one eye and whispers:

‘Golem…’

I cannot relate the horror on hearing this word. My very soul plummets like a stone.

Soon I shall fall into another dream.

Lilith chuckles:

‘This is no dream.’

Her obsidian gaze exerts a dark pull and sucks on my brains like a leech. She has the eyes of a cockatrice, limpid, wet and dark. Each consecutive thought obliterates the last. Sentience itself becomes a great effort of will. I remain insusceptible to all other impressions, incapable of reason. I have been absorbed in her lunacy, lost in a labyrinth of phantoms and depraved imaginings. What were the causal chain of events that led to this insanity?

‘The flesh is flawed,’ whispers Lilith.

I drift in and out of consciousness, half recalling my perfected state. And all the while I perceive the endless lurching to and fro. Whilst in this insensible trance, I have visions of sunlight streaming through the Chapter window; and there is brother Albert, tapping his stick, his wispy hair fringed with silver rays:

‘…The golem a soulless creature made from virgin soil where no man has ever dug. From such loam and blood, the Jewish sorcerer makes a doll of clay: a homunculus, created by the magical invocation of names…’ (i)

But need I tell you, that ‘Golem’ is also a Yiddish expression for “clumsy fool”. ’Tis an accurate description, for this colossus is so unsure on its feet, that it keeps tripping and stumbling on the edge. Many times I fear we will tumble into the abyss. Yet somehow the brute always recovers his footing, and we continue to climb inexorably upward. He snorts like a trudging ox, ploughing earth and heaven all at once.

My father has the face of a corpse, but I know that he still lives, for his lips mutter spells that echo round the curved walls. Surely, he is lost in trance, pronouncing miraculous shemhamphoras. There’s no doubt in my mind: he is directing his abominable creation. The golem, his faithful servant, is delivering us from the pit. We are climbing the Titan well.

The essential character of things and their fate resides in their names.(ii) But what are the magical words that change inanimate clay into living breathing flesh? To know the name of a man is to exercise power over him alone; but to know the name of a supernatural being is to dominate the entire province over which that being resides.(iii) What is this sphere of animate dust, whose flesh has all the semblance of a ghost? Does my father weaken in his magic? For one moment the golem is solid, and the next it wavers before my eyes like a vaporous mist.

How long it takes to ascend that antediluvian well I cannot tell; it might be hours or days. But when we finally arrive at the funnel rim, all the torches are spent, save one flickering light which stands by the engine wheel. Imagine my astonishment when the golem takes us in his claws, and puts us down with all the tender care of a lioness laying down her cubs. ’Tis then I see the monster in entirety; but to discern his true shape is nigh impossible, for he stands so tall that much is lost in shadow. Yet this is what I apprehend of the phantom: he towers on cloven fetlocks, with rippling thighs covered in scales; his torso is that of a gecko, with a long distended belly, all pallid and soft; he has the head of a turtle with three great horns, whilst his mouth is covered in horny burrs. How typical of my father to fashion a mythical chimera instead of a man.

We lie motionless for some time, like shipwrecked fools washed up on foreign shores. I seem to float on the verge of madness as the golem trudges away and sits in the shadows. He slumps with head in hands, as if pondering his infernal existence. ’Tis then I imagine his ivory horns bedewed with my blood.

Soon I shall awake into another dream…

Have I escaped the pit or ascended into Purgatory? I close my eyes in the vain hope of spiritual rescue. But I only plummet into yet more terrors. I find myself buried alive, my body devoured by a swarms of chattering insects; then outcast with Adam at the gates of Eden, foraging for grubs under the gaze of shining cherubims.

By original sin, Adam and his progeny lost sanctifying grace, together with its blessings and prerogatives. What is the secret of the Light? All flesh is flawed, corrupt and subject to decay. Shall I not transmogrify? Did Christ not say: Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you? (iv) I have asked; I have sought; and I have knocked. Yet I remain outcast. Do I ask amiss? Shall I never be free of suffering and pain? Is my concupiscence so offensive to His sight? Have I not been planted together in the likeness of His death?(v) The body is the principal source of mental sorrow. Such is the infirmity of the flesh. Yet I am told that the Garden of Paradise is a garden of pleasure. Paradisus voluptatis. How shall I redeem myself in the garden of Earthly Delights? And even if I was blessed with a state of integrity, how should I preserve it indefinitely without divine assistance and the grace of God? Is not immortality of the body the heritage of Paradise? All of this is hazardous speculation. Tell me Lord, who is that man, old, bloodless and blind, who sits alone in his chamber, his gaunt face lit by a candle, whilst all about him twinkle treasures of silver and gold?

When I awake, Lilith is speaking:

‘The rite has failed! Sluck! All the wonders you wrought in the deep have come to naught. Ruined by your corrupt sense of beauty! Sluck! As if you could wield the Essence of the self begotten Perfect One, and turn the course of Nature without destroying her designs!’

‘Be silent,’ croaks Adam. ‘I acted in good faith. I did what any loving father would do. How could I go through with it? How could I let my son change into that? Count your blessings that we live and breathe: we have been delivered from the pit.’

He reaches out and clasps my hand:

‘Lazarus, are you all right my son?’

I say nothing, but stare at the dim vault where countless stalactites lurch in the torchlight. My mind still reels from the ascent. I cannot recall what happened in the pit; yet I am haunted by the sense that my body was altered; for my naked flesh is covered in a sticky blue slime. I pinch a clump from my chest and hold it to my nose: it smells of myrrh.

Then Lilith chirps:

‘If not for the golem, you would both be dead. Dead. You can thank me for that.’

‘You only take credit when things go well,’ sneers Adam.

Lilith shrieks at the top her voice:

‘You scullion monk-fish! Sluck! Things did not go well! They did not go well at all! Sluck! If you had listened to me in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this mess. You useless cowl of dung! Did I not warn you? Did I not make myself clear? I told you time and time again: a mistranslation in the text. But you would not listen. You Hebrew clown! Princes of Old. To think they would cure your smutty seed!’

I can’t believe my ears, let alone my eyes. Here I am, lying naked in the filth, my flesh in disarray, and they are squabbling like children.

‘What happened father?’ ask I.

‘What happened?’ scoffs Lilith. ‘What happened? Adam ruined everything—that’s what happened!’

There follows a long interminable silence. I crawl under a ledge and curl in shame, covering my nakedness with handfuls of silt. A chill wind blows down the funnel and my teeth begin to chatter:

‘I’m cold father.’

The abbot ignores me and rises to his feet. Then he peers down the funnel mouth, shaking his head in remorse:

‘Curses. My cradle is lost in the pit.’

‘No matter,’ says Lilith. ‘I will get the golem to raise it.’

‘He doesn’t obey you. He only listens to me.’

‘He doesn’t like you. Sluck! You treat him too harshly.’

‘Nonsense. He has no feelings at all: he is naught but a soulless slave. I shall treat him as I like.’

‘But he saved your life,’ purrs Lilith. ‘Those sunken spirits would have torn you limb from limb.’

‘That much is true,’ concedes the abbot. ‘I must admit, this servant of clay is very useful; he consumes no victuals and does not require wages; he works unceasingly, and always obeys without answering back…’

The golem seems to understand and makes a low grunt of approval which rumbles in the gloom. His eyes flash momentarily in my direction, black as the darkness beyond.

‘Father, he frightens me. Let’s leave this place.’

‘Do not fear Lazarus, my son. He’s perfectly harmless.’

Lilith clicks her tongue:

‘But very dimwitted. Very, very, oafish. Topsy-turvy, round and round, all the way to the top. Now I’ve got a headache. Henceforth I shall call him Dimwit.’

‘He’s not dimwitted,’ retorts Adam.

‘Can he make porridge and milk?’ asks Lilith.

‘No!’ snaps Adam. ‘Of course he can’t make porridge and milk! What a stupid question! And trust you to think of food at a time like this.’

‘Can he thread a needle?’ teases Lilith. ‘Or sow a sack? Sluck! Or catch a fish? Sluck! Or boil an egg? Sluck! Or bake a loaf of bread?’

‘Silence strix! You know very well, he can do none of those things!’

‘Well, a fat lot of use he is! Sluck! He can’t even boil an egg! Sluck! Even a monkey can do that! I think he’s the most ugly, most oafish, most dimwitted, and repulsive golem that ever was. Sluck! Trust you to create a monstrosity like that! Why could you not make a Hercules or an Aphrodite? Why not an Achilles or a Polyxena? A swan, a bull or a Centaur? Something more pleasing to the eye. Anything but that! Sluck! I myself would prefer a pretty maid, delicate and fair of face, clad in robes of silk, with golden tresses and slender legs. Sluck! But instead you create that calamitous colossus! Even a Cyclops is more pretty! And why did you fashion such terrible horns? Sluck! He could skewer us like a spit-roast! Did you think of that? Your Jewish magic will be the death of us!’

Adam waves her warnings away:

‘I’ve told you before, he’s perfectly harmless. Pray be silent. My head is spinning…’

‘Serves you right for making such a sottish witless beast. Even the dunsical ass is steadier on its feet. Sluck! And what a ridiculous name: Created with GIMP [“Emet” = Truth]. What kind of preposterous name is that?’

‘’Tis a Holy name, that’s what.’

‘Holy? Sluck! What’s so Holy about him? He’s false in every respect! Sluck! His proper name is: Created with GIMP [“E-veel” = Fool]. Just look at him! Sluck! Proteus himself would be ashamed of such a base chimera. I could have made a far superior creature.’

‘Pah! You know nothing of my cabbalistic art. Nor are you permitted to know, ab initio.’

‘Pish! Who initiated you?’

‘Why, the spirit of Solomon himself, that’s who.’

‘Solomon?’ shrieks Lilith. ‘Solomon? You pompous misguided clot! Sluck! You are just a monk of mishap. You do not have the insight, providence or knowledge to be initiated by a man like Solomon. You think yourself wise? You are naught but a cabbage head! Sluck! A cabbage head!’

‘I am sick to the back teeth of your pestilentious tongue! You two faced duplicitous hag! ’Twas I who gave life to this creature of clay. You’re just jealous.’

‘Jealous? Me? Of that odious homunculus?’

‘Yes, jealous. Go on, admit it Lilith: you’re pea-green with envy. That’s the truth of the matter. You cannot stand the fact that I created life. Aye! Created life from inanimate dust – without you!’

‘You miscreant apostate! Sluck! Don’t be such a fool! You didn’t create life. The golem is just a soulless helper, and nothing more. Sluck! Listen to me you wormy weasel. Your golem has grown too big. Far too big. You think your magic incantations will work forever? Your shemhamphoras will soon be worthless dung. Sluck! A golem always disobeys his creator in the end. He will rebel against you. Then your obedient slave will become an unruly monster. What happens if he escapes? He will tear down the whole abbey! Sluck! He will slay the brethren for sport and steal your gold. Sluck! He will run riot over the whole of Christendom!’

Adam looks wild with consternation. We sit in silence and watch as the golem shuffles about on the far side of the cavern, licking his eyes with a long, glistening tongue. At length, Adam sighs in his beard:

‘Alas, I fear you are right Lilith. That beast has outgrown his usefulness. His size has become a great liability. We cannot leave him here. He must return to dust…’

At this the golem lets out a mighty roar. Livid with rage, he rears up on his fetlocks, his barbed tail cracking like whip. He makes dreadful bellowings as he whets his horns on the rocks, beating the walls with his fists and scattering stones with his raking hooves. Then limb by limb, he strides round the funnel mouth, tearing down the stalactites and hurling them like spears. I crawl deep under the ledge as the Janus tries to subdue his creation with Hebrew incantations. And all the while Lilith cries like a screech-owl:

‘Erase the name! The holy name! Strike it out! Quick! Quick! Quick!’

I know that to undo the magic, the first letter of the word “Emet” , Created with GIMP, which means “Truth”, must be erased from the golem’s forehead. This leaves the word “Met”, Created with GIMP, which means “Death”. But how to reach the crown? For the golem stands over sixty feet tall. Then my father cries:

‘Lazarus! The rope! You must lash its feet!’

I’m in mind to stay put and let the golem run riot. However did I get drawn into this subterranean madness? Krew was right: Father Janus is a moonstruck fool. Look at him, scurrying about like a hop-toad as the stalactites fall about us. Surely his magic is useless. He knows nothing of the Light Stream, nor the mysteries of the ineffable.

I must confess that I too have lost touch with reality. I’m not even sure if I am human, or one of my father’s hideous chimeras. The blue slime that obscures my flesh might be hiding untold horrors: the scales of a snake or the fur of a wolf. Why did I succumb to the Devil’s iniquities? He promised to restore my true semblance, but my affliction remains. A soul which rejects God can only know His wrath. I might as well be crucified in the mud with a stake through my heart.

Again my father calls:

‘The rope Lazarus! The Rope!’

But his voice is faint and distant. When did I enter this curséd souterraine? It might have been last week, last month, last century—or in some future incarnation. Time has no meaning in this enchanted hole. The tortured ’oft go mad. ’Tis entirely possible that I am racked – or broken on the wheel. Has the Inquisitor stabbed my brain with needles? An ordeal by fire or water? ’Twould not surprise me if I were dead, consigned to oblivion, doomed to wander this realm of shadows for eternity.

The golem roars and my bones tremble with the sound. Why should I be afraid? ’Tis just a phantom conjured up by the blackness. My senses err. What is real but the inner realm of the mind? Did I swallow a pill or drink a magic philter? Or has Lilith has bewitched me? Her magic runs rampant in these dark unhallowed halls. Why did I gaze into her evil eyes? Surely I am lost in her wormy head. What is this winding labyrinth, but the gyres of her moonstruck mind?

Soon I shall awake into another dream…

The abbot wails:

‘Help me my son! Before he kills us all! By the horns of Satan, if he escapes the pit, he’ll destroy the whole abbey!’

Despite his dire plea, my heart hardens. I feel cheated and used. Did he not tell me to have faith? Did he not hold my hand and say all would be well?

‘Make haste Lazarus! We’re almost done for; the torch is going out!’

But I dare not move, lest the golem crushes me underfoot.

‘Show courage my son! Do you not want to learn astrology?’

‘Not your astrology! You failed me!’

‘Have faith my son! It takes time for the magic to work. Already the Essence is at work inside you. Another conjunction; another rite; and you shall be cured. Now hurry! The rope!’

I don’t trust him, not one bit. So why, against all my better judgement, do I believe him? I cling to his words with all the fervour and spleen of a fool. And like a clown, I venture out and run toward the engine…

A length of rope remains coiled beside the drive wheel. Without delay, I take the end and dart between the golem’s stomping hooves. The giant stoops low, clawing me at each pass, but his limbs are so unwieldy that I slip between his fingers. After running to and fro, I contrive a snare of several loops around his fetlocks. Then I dart behind a stalagmite and lash the rope fast. The Janus follows after, keeping to the shadows as he crouches down beside me.

‘Don’t say a word,’ he whispers.

The golem seethes with fury and beats his fists upon the flinty cliffs. He searches thither and hither, overturning rocks, poking his fingers in every nook and cranny.

‘Oh!’ sniffles Lilith, ‘if he finds us, he’ll eat us alive!’

The abbot slaps her face and hisses:

‘Silence!’

We huddle in fear as the golem cocks his head and sniffs the air. Then Lilith lets out a feeble whimper. Immediately, the monster turns in our direction and growls with vengeful eyes. The beast lunges forward, roaring like a bear. Immediately the snare tightens round his hooves. He wobbles for moment, waving his arms as he teeters on the brink. Then he topples like a mighty oak. He lands square across the engine, his great bulk smashing the crane to smithereens; timbers fly about the chasm and crack amid the galleries. There comes a purling thunder as the mighty wheel breaks free and rolls around the funnel rim; it moves in ever tighter circles, speeding up as it approaches the gaping throat. Then it plummets in the abyss, bouncing off the sides in a cacophony of echoes:

Boom! Bang! Boom!

The torch splutters out then reignites, its feeble flame almost gobbled by darkness. The golem lies insensible, sprawled on the engine, his body limp, his head drooping to one side. He snorts through bloody lips as my father climbs the rope of the left fetlock.

‘Be quick!’ cries Lilith. ‘Or he’ll bite off our heads!’

Without delay, the abbot scampers up the shin, over the kneecap and along the bovine thigh. Scaling the groin, he crosses the rippling chest which rises and falls like a rolling sea. Then he hops over the clavicle and creeps up the pulsing carotid. My father is surprisingly agile and clears the lobe of left ear with consummate ease: he hoists himself up, flips like a tumbler, then tiptoes onto the temple. His hands are trembling as he crawls out over the riven forehead…

‘Strike!’ shrieks Lilith. ‘Strike!’

But just as Adam draws his dagger the golem opens his eyes. The magical servant lets out a hideous squeal as he spies the gleaming blade. I behold great fear in its ghastly face; and I pity the poor creature, as I pity any sentient beast before the slaughter. My father cries out:

‘Child of my creation! I send thee back to earth and the dust from whence thou came!’

I cower in dread as he stabs at the crown. The holy name splits in two and the golem exhales a heart-rending cry:

‘ABBA!’

In that instant, the phantom shatters like a broken pot – all except the little finger of the left hand, which writhes like a worm and vanishes down a cleft. With the crown beneath him gone, the abbot falls in a cloud of seething dust and lands with thud.

The torch snuffs out.

I fall into another dream…

i. Jewish Magic and Superstition, pp. 84-86 by Joshua Tractenberg.
ii. Ibid. p. 79.
iii. Ibid. pp. 79-80.
iv. Matthew 7:7.
v. Romans 6:5.

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2013.