Jacques is telling it…

We fly through the souterraine, my sense of flight an ecstasy I cannot fathom. There are lights ahead – hundred of lights – shimmering in the catacombs like elfin fires. The dreaming dead are watching, awaiting their glorious resurrection; bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh; all the forgotten martyrs of corruption, listening for the Word—that incomprehensible breath of God that reanimates all Dust.

Lilith swoops through the tunnels like a bat, shrieking with delight as she steers amid the stalactites:

‘Funera plango! Fulgura frango! Sabbata pango! Excito lentos! Dissipo ventos! Paco cruentos! [I bewail deaths! I disperse lightnings! I announce the Sabbath! I arouse the slow! I dispel the winds! I appease the blood-thirsty!] (i) I have unlocked the secrets of the pit! Shall we be cured forever? Shall we drink from the fountain of external youth? Yes!’

We orbit the titan skull three times, her cackle cleaving the darkness. Then she grips her broom and bids:

‘To the depths!’

We bolt down caverns of creamy flowstone, flecked with bloody rheums. Fluted pillars arise from the chasm and tower into vaulted domes where dancing orbs illume shards of crystal light. Giant stalactites glisten in the darkness, hanging like frozen waterfalls. And all the while I hear the babbling Dead – a thousand spells, cast in a fathomless fosse. We come upon a vast stalagmite whose girth is wider than the nave; it rises from unseen depths where the light cannot reach, then fuses with the dome above, branching like a cauliflower in ruby spangled florets.

The cave narrows into an oblate passage that glimmers with ghostly light. I spy an egress far ahead – a dazzling portal of ethereal blue fire. I recognise the Light at once: Grazide, the faery orb. My soul burns with longing as we approach her luminescent body. Darting across a limestone pavement, we fly out o’er the Bridge of Chaos. And there She floats, her resplendent body pulsing in the gloom.

We dismount beside the broken engine that lies in splinters by the funnel mouth. I thought we might fly like witches, back down the shaft, into the chamber of crystal wands. But no, Lilith has other plans. For hovering in the flume is a disc of polished stone; it fills the shaft completely—a titanic platform with no visible means of support. The entire disc is beset with hexagonal tiles. I recall the pattern at once: ’tis the same stone I alighted in the pit after my first descent. But now it has mysteriously arisen, and hangs suspended in the air, its basalt bulk lighter than a feather.

Lilith leers with triumph:

‘My magic is real magic. Abbot Adam was a Rabbinical failure. Despite his high astrology, all his knowledge was earthly, and he gleaned naught but the feeble spells of Jewish alchemists. But I am instructed by the Gods…’

She points on high where Grazide shimmers like quicksilver:

‘The orb holds the secret of Life and Death. She alone can mend thy flesh, for she operates above the laws of Nature, and beyond the Gates of Time. She is mistress of the Wouivre, serpent of Telluric depths, who snakes through Earth, conjoining Heaven and Hell. She alone commands the Light of the Great Invisibles; the Holy power of subterranean streams; the fertile currents of manifestation, that give birth to all things…’

Grazide swells with efflorescence, and I am seized with feverish longing, as if I have just awoken from a starving sleep that consumed all my years.

‘Hark!’ cries Lilith. ‘She speaks!’

A great rush of sound fills the chamber like ocean waves breaking on single shores. Grazide flickers as her words ring out:

‘Flesh and blood cannot possess the kingdom of God: neither shall corruption possess incorruption. Truly, I tell you a mystery: you shall indeed rise again; in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, you shall rise again incorruptible. And you shall be changed…’ (ii)

Then her light dims and a profound silence fills the void.

‘Do you believe it?’ whispers Lilith. ‘That we shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye?’

‘I want to believe it…’

We stand in awe, bathed in lambent fire, and it seems as if we have stepped outside the little world of men. Yet I am reluctant to continue with my restitution. Just how shall I be changed if I follow Lilith to the depths? She smiles:

‘Still you hesitate. Why guard yourself against my craft? Did I not save you from the inquisitor’s wrath?’

‘Aye mother, you did. But not before he branded me with his irons…’

‘Alas, you lack my precognition. Had I arrived a moment sooner, we would have died in his clutches. I foresaw it all, weeks ago: the stroke of each sword, the flight of every spear. I plotted each evasive blow, and planned my flight through every alcove. Have you never played chess? You must anticipate your opponent to conquer the game. Do you still doubt my prophetic powers? I warned what would happen if you went to the grotto; and now your miracles have caused your own demise. Do not waste another moment. Follow me to the pit, or Mother Church will kill you under the pretext of preserving the public good. After all, you make a fine Christ…’

‘Let me speak with father.’

‘Forget him. We have work below. You have come to dead end. There is nowhere left to run. You must transform or die. Why deny yourself? Trust in me, and you will be rid of your curse, once and for all. My magic is superior to anything Adam could conjure. He shall not ruin things again – ’

She scowls momentarily, slaps the back of her head, then says:

‘Adam is angry but my power forbids him to speak. He shall not interfere with my sovereign rule. The abbacy is mine and there is naught he can do about it. Do not pity him. He has the mind of a selfish ape: his only desire is to forestall, obstruct, and impede your transformation. It has taken many years to control and censure his folly. Whilst he went about his mad business, he deprived me of all action, and many times I had to correct his mistakes with my good sense. Now he must atone for his faults, and stand at helm behind me, lest my ship is thrown upon the rocks. Do you understand?’

‘Yes mother, I understand.’

‘We are alike, you and me. Lilith conquered Adam as Jacqueline shall conquer Jacques. Your restoration will be so perfect and complete, that men will marvel at your radiance. Come, the Light Stream awaits. Let us descend together…’

I pause to behold Grazide whose magnificent orb pulses in the dome. Her Light is full of inscrutable intention. My mind almost convinces me that She is naught but a phantasm, manifested in the delirium of a dream.

‘What are you waiting for?’ asks Lilith. ‘Already the brethren are hot on our heels. At this very moment, the Inquisitor is entering the ossuary. Shall you be cheated of your birthright for a second time? I alone hold the key to your reality. ’

The fine timbre of her voice penetrates my inmost heart, and every word she utters chimes with truth. She sounds so perfect, rational and correct. I behold her as a great mystery: a priestess, sage and sorcerer all in one. A golden halo flits about her crown, and although she stands back to front, her charisma has all the dignity and demeanour of a queen. As her flawless complexion glows with faery fire, I find it impossible to reconcile her beauty with that conjoined monstrosity that once inspired me with so much dread. She cocks a knowing glance and smiles:

‘If the crystal wands can cure a wretch like me, imagine what they can do for you…’

‘Alas, I fear my regeneration is impossible. These bones are set in their ways. Besides, if I return to the pit, I might incur the wrath of God.’

She darkens with rage:

‘Wrath of God? Fool! ’Tis God’s emissary who brings the remedy! Did not the orb deliver you here? Have you no sense? Salvation shall not come by penitent prayer and Paternosters! Must I remind you of what will happen if you refuse my cure? You will spend your entire life incarcerated in the wrong body. The consequences are unthinkable, both in terms of your relationships with other kin and your own self. At best, you will live a diabolical lie, unable to attain anything at all; at worse, you will become totally insane. Look at me—once I was malformed, corrupt and degenerate – a creature who dwelt unseen, under a cowl of maleness. But the Light Stream saved me. Before my transformation, I was an undeveloped thing, not fit for human purpose. Yet how vile and twisted is your own conjoined monstrosity! Think on Jacqueline. If you turn back now, all will be lost. Even if you escape the pyre, yours will be a living Death, trapped in the coffin of your bones. Day by day, your flesh will grow further apart from your soul. I was a middle-aged man when I declared I was a girl. How absurd. How shall you proclaim your true identity? Any attempt to recover yourself will be regarded with suspicion and fraud. When you defend your sex against the oppression of false judgement, your words will stick in your throat like thorns. The dungeon of your flesh will be an all consuming fire. For how shall your character conform, when you are swamped and smothered in a marl of masculinity? Inquisitors will condemn you as a devil, whose mental disturbance is but a symptom of animal sensibilities. And without any provenance of femininity, or gesture well befitted to express your inner self, they will condemn you as a freak; for your testimony will always contradict the evidence of Nature. Thenceforth they will take ownership of your body. Zealots will become the gatekeepers of your soul; and their words shall maintain your confinement, for like all self-righteous fools, they will quote the scriptures against you. Needles to say, competition for dominion of your mind will kindle quarrels of all kinds. For everything you do or say will be judged in the light of your heretical confession. Life will become completely impossible. The very sight of another woman will be a torment. Melancholy will poison your days, until sleep is the only escape. Then one day, life itself shall become too much to endure… That is your future. I have seen it. Come with me now—back to the womb of your mother. The moon is full and the Wouivre stirs. What is there left to fear? You are in the presence of a fellow creature. Did not this miraculous orb bring us together for a reason?’

I ponder her words, watching her face gleam with subterranean fire. Her eyes, which were once so bottomless and black, now sparkle like sapphires. She clasps my hand lovingly and asks:

‘Are you ready Jacqueline?’

I prize the question above all heavenly treasures:

‘Yes, mother. I am ready.’

She leads me to a pedestal of rock that juts from the funnel rim. Taking her staff, she inserts the end in a stony aperture and cries:

‘Tam Marte quam Minerva!’ [As much by Mars as by Minerva!](iii)

We run hand in hand down the funnel mouth, the incline falling away beneath our feet. Then, with a hop, skip and a jump, we land on the disc which quivers momentarily under our weight. There comes a waspish drone as the disc begins to glow; an ethereal mist rises from the tiles as tendrils of lightning flicker round the rim. Within seconds we commence a rapid descent, like fallen angels, surfing on the winds of hell…

i. Medieval inscription on a bell.
ii. Corinthians I, Chapter 15, extracts from 50-57.
iii. That is to say: “As much by courage as by Wisdom”.

Image credit: ‘The Soul Hovering Over the Body’ by William_Blake (an illustration to Robert Blair’s “The_Grave”). Source: WikiMedia.

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2013