alchemy

Jacques is telling it…
As I leave the infirmary my heart leaps with trepidation. Why am I so afraid? Has God not chosen my path in advance? Am I not His docile servant, bound by the tether of my vows? Yet my faith falters at the thought of confronting the Janus.

The cloister is buried in snow and a sluggish mist hangs over the walls. I follow Jean’s instructions and turn down a dank passage that runs beside the latrine. The tunnel is long, dark and uninviting. Filthy cobwebs droop from the vault and slime smothers the stones. The drain is blocked with leaves and rivulets of ice cover the flags. I spot a frog entombed in a glassy sepulchre and think of the pond back home, when the winter mists rolled in from the wastes and hung about the reeds for days on end. Then Margot moans from the grave:

‘Were all my trials for naught? What are you doing here Jacques? Where are you going? Nothing lives within these walls. All is withered and poison. Turn back. Turn back!’

I ignore her plea and proceed down the passage like a clown on a tightrope, my arms spread wide, steadying myself on the slimy walls which seem to respire at my touch.

I emerge in a cloud. The entire precinct is lost in swirling vapours. I creep down a path that cuts through the drifts. Wending between banks of snow, I grope amid the fog, searching for a sign. But I cannot discern a single feature. All is quiet and still, except for the hoarfrost creaking beneath my boots. The damp air steals away my breath; dew settles on my cowl and drips from my horns. Then two crows herald my arrival, squawking in a distant tree. Slowly, the mists roll back and the abbot’s lodging looms into view—a grey block that squats mean and dark under a crooked ash. A woodpile is stacked against the wall, and further up, firelight flickers in the lancets. Smoke puffs from a tall chimney like an infernal censor. I dread the reason for my summons: I might be cruelly punished—flogged, imprisoned, or worse. To think it has come to this: a direct confrontation with my mother’s Nemesis! Lilith will read my mind, I know it!

Margot scorns:

‘Fool! What a ruinous path you take!’

I grow nauseous and weak. Krew has deserted me, and lest the Mal’ak makes me His instrument, I am powerless to protect myself. Yet despite these misgivings, I trudge onward…

Approaching the porch, I find garments scattered in the snow: a pair of woollen stockings; red ribbons; a tattered bodice; a maidens hat; a flimsy silk gown with flouncy sleeves. Then I come to a fortified door studded with iron. The granite lintel is carved with two letters: Λ  Ω. The knocker is a fine bronze serpent, coiled in a figure eight, so that it swallows its tail like an Ouroboros. These mystic currents only add to my fears. But I grab the serpent’s head and knock three times. A gruff voice rumbles within:

‘Enter!’

My palm sticks to the frozen bronze: I flinch as the skin peels off in welts and clings to the Serpent’s tongue. The voice rumbles again, impatient and full of menace:

‘Enter! Enter!’

The door growls open and I venture inside…

I am greeted by a spidery darkness. Before me is a gloomy chamber, stacked with books and scrolls. A broken cupboard stands in the far corner, filled with bottles of wine. In the middle is a dusty desk littered with dirty candle stubs, old tinder and rusty chisels. Then I spot the same little bell I saw at the sabbat. It wasn’t a dream! The abbot was really there, whoring at the henge, chiming his bell at every copulation: “Adam had seven sons, seven sons had Adam. They did not eat, they did not drink. All of them were profligate, and all did as I do…” I spy a human cranium cut into a bowl; a jar of pickled eggs; a mason’s square and an old spade standing in a puddle of thawed snow. Winter moans down the chimney and the cold hearth is strewn with the bones of small animals. Nothing stirs but the spiders whose cobwebs smother all; they scurry about with rampant feet, alerted by my presence. The abbot calls:

‘Behind the curtain!’

A moth-eaten drape embroidered with leaping hares hangs on my left. Beyond is a flight of stairs that leads up to bright chamber. I take a deep breath and start to climb…

I enter a low vaulted room with a long oak table. Fine tapestries hang from the walls, decorated with hills, hunters and hounds. The musty air whiffs of rancid wine. But the Janus is nowhere to be seen. He calls out again:

‘Through the passage!’

His menacing timbre sets my pulse racing. I pass through a low arched door and across a narrow landing. Only then do I enter the abbot’s camera…

He stands at the lancet, master of all he surveys. He looks just as Margot described, stout and powerfully built, with a brooding gnomish face. With his crooked back and large clumsy feet, he looks like a venomous toad. His cowl hangs high on bulky haunches and he squats on bandy legs that turn out at the ankles. His shoulders are broad and square, with thickset arms and clumpy hands. The forehead is deeply furrowed with wiry grey eyebrows that twitch as he looks me up and down. His bulbous nose is pocked with pores and the gaping nostrils teem with hairs. His chapped lips tremble behind a long grey goatee that is waxed to a sharp point. He motions to speak but manages only a whimper.

I remain mute, stunned by the opulence. Arabian rugs cover the floor, threaded with silver and gold. A bright fire splutters in a magnificent stone surround, carved with exquisite shells and flowers. A fearsome boar’s head hangs above, its jaws set wide. Stag antlers, horns and tusks adorn the walls, with heraldic shields, pikes and swords. To the left is an oaken bed on a raised dais; the headboard is deftly carved, depicting Adam and Eve by the Tree of Knowledge. The Serpent winds up the trunk then seductively coils round Eve’s waist. Nearby is a large oak table where torchlight glows through parchment stretchers, all soft, veiny and yellow; a silver inkwell wrought with chased skulls; a fine hourglass filled with red sand; a bronze bird with detachable wings; a wooden duck with a cake in its mouth; a metal rule and compass; a crystal ball of star-like brilliance; and a large cedar box with gleaming copper hinges. And most disturbing of all – a glass flask which contains a praying mantis perched on a stick, surrounded by the remains of half-digested insects.

The abbot grins and flashes his rotten teeth:

‘Welcome to my camera. Fear not, I shall keep your material father cowled.’

‘Material father? Don’t you mean mother? There’s no need to hide Lilith from me,’ I declare boldly.’

His looks suddenly ashamed:

‘You know her name. Did Jean tell you?’

‘No, brother Symon. Show her to me.’

‘She’s not a pretty sight.’

‘I want to see.’

‘Very well, as you wish…’

He lowers his cowl and turns away. And there is Lilith, fixed on the back of his head like turbot fish. She glares with glassy black eyes, her misshapen face the very image of corruption. The vicious mouth is stopped by a wad of bloody linen, but her mocking voice still echoes in my head:

‘Hello Jacqueline. How pretty you look today…’

The abbot turns back round, his face haggard with grief. I find his deformity a great source of sorrow, self-disgust and dread—the more so because Lilith knows my heart…

‘That was very brave of you Lazarus. But I can see my bicephalic curse disturbs you as it disturbs everyone else. Craniofacial duplication: an exceedingly rare and terrible defect of birth. Oft’ ’tis only a single facial feature, like an extra nose or ear, but in my case the entire face is duplicated and most devilishly shaped… No doubt the midwife told of me…’

‘Yes father.’

‘Father, yes, indeed. That wicked crone stole you away.’

‘Speak no ill of her; she cut me from the womb and gave me life.’

‘Aye. I remember your dark beginning: ab incunabilis—a child of the noon-day night. A miracle that you survived at all. The treachery of that wormy vixen, Bernadette de Belloc…’

He bites on a knuckle then says:

‘Forgive me. I receive thee poorly. You look older than your age. The prior informs me that you are just twelve years old. Is that true?’

‘Yes father.’

‘Yet by my calculations, you are now fifteen, not twelve.’

‘Fifteen? Then I am missing three years of my life. How time flies when you’re happy as a lark… Or should that be pig in muck?’

‘You have a bone to pick with me. I cannot blame you: there is much ill blood between us. Would you like some wine, my son?’

‘No, father.’

‘Well I am parched, and all the thirstier for meeting thee…’

He trembles as he pours himself a goblet, then gulps it down in one.

‘A pity my mother isn’t here to greet me…’

He gasps, wipes his mouth on his sleeve, then says:

‘Your mother, yes—a terrible business. She was a fine lady when we wed. I loved her dearly and treated her like a queen. She wanted for naught. I gave her fine jewels, Saracen silks and spices. But the midwife corrupted her mind with poison. Bernadette grew to despise me and became capricious as a wild cat. In the end she went completely mad… God knows I loved her…’

‘Loved her? You kept her chained in Devil’s Tower!’

‘Oh!’ he chirps, ‘Is that what you call it? Calm yourself. She was imprisoned there for her own good: the poor wretch kept threatening to kill herself. How could I let her harm my unborn child?’

I stand glowering, fists clenched, vengeance boiling in my veins. A red mist fills the chamber and my ears start ringing.

He steps toward me and pleads:

‘Oh! Do not hate me my son! I love you! You, my own flesh and blood. I always hoped that by some miracle you were still alive. It has been a torture to me all these years, thinking how you might have suffered in the womb; my unborn child, stabbed by a shard of glass! ’Tis a miracle you live and breath. Why do you hate me so? Have I shown you any malice? Have I raised my voice to you even once? I care not about brother Symon; he was old and mad with two feet in the grave already. All I care about is you. Thank god that you are safe and well. Christ! If I had known you were still alive, I would have saved you from that life of churlish misery. Will you not even look at me? Do not detest me! You cannot hate me for wanting a son. Oh! I would move heaven and earth to make you love me—yet all would be in vain if you did not love me out of your own free will… Do not let the past come between us. I admit my sin is great, but truly, I am not the callous brute I was in my youth. Age has mellowed me; by the grace of god, I have seen the error of my ways. Accept my contrition and do not refuse me your presence. What? Will you say nothing? You are still beautiful in my eyes. Speak child. What? Has father Odo turned you against me so soon? He does not know the pains of living with this monster!’

He breaks down and buries his face in his hands:

‘Oh! That wicked Lilith; no one else is more worthy of hell! I am maddened with her; she torments me night and day. She curses me, even now! Oh!’

He weeps, hunched over the mantelpiece as Lilith snorts and seethes, milky spittle foaming round her gag. I soon forget my rage, for that tragic misbegotten face, slimy, wrinkled and teeming with hairs, stirs my soul with pity. Lilith whispers in my head:

‘He’s naught but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He doesn’t love you, not one bit! He wants your blood, numbskull!’

The abbot turns, his wet eyes floating in deathly sockets, his tortured brow gleaming in the firelight. But my heart is cold as stone:

‘I would pity you father. But I can’t forget my poor mother whom you kept like a churl in irons. If she was your corpse present, then what am I?’

‘Oh Lazarus! If only you knew! You are more precious to me than life itself!’

‘What of your other sons?’

‘The prior has turned them all against me. Besides, they are not special like you… For you are my seventh son; as I am a seventh son. The seventh son of a seventh son. Which means you have certain qualities…’

‘What qualities?’

‘Oh, you may not know it , but they will blossom with age. There are powers of prophecy that lie dormant within you. And much more besides…I can help you unlock them.’

‘I do not want your help. If you have said all you wish to say, then I must return to my tasks. Or do you intend to punish me?’

‘Punish you? Alas, you judge me too harshly. What deceitful tales has the prior been telling? Do not listen to him; he wants to depose me… Tell me, what has been saying?’

‘That you neglect your sheep.’

‘Nonsense: I love my brethren.’

‘But they have no love for you.’

He shakes a fist and growls:

‘Enough! They are fickle and easily turned.’

‘They hold your absence against you. Especially during the night office.’

‘I have good reason for my absence. Lilith never sleeps. She is more active during the hours of darkness. The burden of silencing her is hard enough during the day. Even now she tries to spit out her gag and pour curses in your ears. But I hear her inside. Her poisonous lips gibber without ceasing. ’Tis not an easy yoke to bear. And these past few years she has lapsed into heresy. I am the victim of her spiritual tyranny. My devil twin talks of such things as they only speak of in hell. No imagination can conceive the dreadful temptations she sets before me.(i) How do you suppose the brethren would react, to hear her poisonous mouth, extolling Satan over Christ? … Besides, I have more important things to do than repeat paternosters at every clang of that cursed bell.’

‘Is that all, father? I must return to my duties…’

‘Duties? Pah! You fool! Why do you believe in so many vain and useless ceremonies? You think you have found here a haven of quietness? You think you will find the spiritual peace you seek? How long before your daily chores and the bitter cold wear away your bones? How long before that cowl pricks at your skin and covers you in boils? How long before the long night office becomes a torment, so that day by day, year by year, you grow weary and long for death? You have yet to eat gruel: a bland and sticky dish that clogs the guts like glue. A few months of that, and you’ll be longing to taste the pleasures of the world… Lazarus! Accept me as your father. I shall lighten your burden – help me and you will want for naught.’

‘That sounds like a pact with the devil.’

He chuckles:

‘Is that what the prior calls me? … Do you know, that the hour of your birth was rare celestial conjunction? But I was ignorant and thought it a portent of doom. I have since learnt that what came to pass was a natural and even predictable event. Such are the mysteries of the moon…’

He opens the cedar box and removes a copper instrument, the likes of which I have never seen…

‘This, my son, is an astrolabe. It measures the position of the sun and stars; and by these wheels, computes lunations of the moon. I can teach you its secrets. Astrology… I can show you things you cannot possibly imagine… Do you know, that the heavens, which appear to be standing still, are whirling this very moment from east to west, and round to east again, with such irresistible thrust, that we would be destroyed in the twinkling of an eye, but for Him who slows their course by the counter-motion of the seven orbs we call planets?’(ii) The Egyptian priests told Herodotus in the fifth century before Christ, that the sun had not always risen where it rose then. Which implies they kept records of the precession of equinoxes for at least 26,000 years.(iii) The earth is much older than you think. And the history of Mankind entwines with the stars…’

‘I want no part in your astrology. God is my salvation. If I keep His commandments, it shall be well with me…’

‘Spoken like a true Christian… But already you break the sixth: you honour your mother, but dishonour me. Will you not show me fealty?’

‘Never!’

He puts the astrolabe back in its box and purrs:

‘When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he held the tablets of the testimony, but did not know his face was horned from his conversation with the Lord.(iv) Horns of light they say—but they might have been horns just like yours… The Israelites were so afraid, that Moses had to cover his face whenever he spake. Does that sound familiar?’

I remain silent, unsure of his intention. He leers:

‘Horns. I have oft’ wondered… Some believe the Law of Moses was written by the Devil, and that the Fathers of the Old Testament are all damned… Imagine. What if the law of Moses was given by the Prince of Evil Spirits? Then to whom do we cling, Satan or Christ?’

‘Father, I am ignorant of such things.’

‘A politic answer. But you are not so witless methinks. Some say the first Creator was a liar, because he said Man would surely die if he ate of the Tree of Knowledge, but Man did not die; and some say the first Creator was a murderer because he sent the flood.’

‘The Inquisition would burn you for such heresy.’

‘Indeed. For if God allows Satan to exist, He must be part of the Divine plan. Which implies that virtue and sin are alike in God’s eyes. After all, when Satan put Job to the test, ’twas with the consent and authorization of Yahweh that he did so.’

‘You speak like a Jew.’

‘You reckon my church a synagogue?’

‘Is it? You sound like a heathen mystagogue.’

He leers:

‘In any case, Satan is not the Adversary of God, as Christians assume. He is the angel of Yahweh: and he executes God’s wrath.’

‘If you say so, father. But as I said, I am ignorant of such things…’

‘You have no opinion at all? Yet you have grown up in these heretical hills. Did the wise-woman not teach you such things? I must say, I find that hard to believe—for she was a hell-bent witch, if ever there was one. She cursed my seed, just as her mother cursed the abbot before me. Speak plainly. You must know she worshipped at the sabbat? Did she never mention the Devil?’

‘She told me of four devils…’

‘Four?’

‘The first devil is the Pope, who is placed between God and man, lower than God but higher than man, the judge of all men, but who can be judged by none; the King is the second devil, who is placed between the Pope and man, lower than the Pope, but higher than man; the bishop is the third devil, who is placed between the King and man, lower than the King, but still higher than man; and the Inquisitor is the fourth devil, higher than God, yet lower than a dog… As for you, methinks you are the fifth – and a devil of the deepest dye…’

His face broadens with a cheery smile. Then he wheezes with mirth, beating his chest:

‘Oh! Oh! Lazarus, my son! You think me a limb of the devil? That’s funny. The fifth devil! I like that. In which case you are a son of perdition, the first born of Satan, an enemy of the cross, a vessel of heresy, and a store-house of sins. I am sure you have been called worse… After all, you do look the part!’

There comes a loud pop as a wad of bloody linen hits the wall. Then Lilith shrieks:

‘What holy horns! What stock! What stirps! What noble blood!’

The abbot seethes, stamps his foot and cries:

‘Silence fiend!’

He slaps the back of his head three times. There comes the gnashing of teeth and a tirade of blasphemy:

‘Ow! Ooo! Stop that! Sluck! I’ll have your fingers! Sluck! I’ll eat them for breakfast! Sluck! You filthy fornicating hell-bound hog! Sluck! You homicidal harpy! You honey-tongued hymenopterous hob! Sluck! Sluck! You hydro-encephalitic halfwit! Sluck! You hairy hock of ham! Sluck! You hagiographic hound! Sluck! You, you, you… heretical haddock! Sluck, sluck, sluck!’

The abbot falls to his knees and gropes about the floor as Lilith snarls and shrieks, snapping her teeth, her dull eyes rolling round the vault:

‘He doesn’t love you! Sluck! He wants your blood, stupid! Abscond! Sluck! Abscond while you still can!’

I back away toward the door…

Finding the wad, the abbot plugs the roachy mouth which seethes with venomous curses. The pin-sharp teeth snap and snarl, biting his cuticles raw. Eventually Lilith falls mute and her bulbous face quivers with rage; she looks fit to burst and her hairy cheeks puff like testicles. Breathless, the abbot heaves himself up and leans breathless against his desk:

‘Abscond if you wish. But you will perish in the wastes. Oh, you might live in the woods if you can find a cave, but even then, what can you forage when the earth is hard as iron? As for your hovel, there is no one there but the wind, and a goose could get it. So I doubt it will be yours when you return. You forget one thing Lazarus: I am still your lord and master… Stay with me and prosper. This abbey could be yours one day.’

‘I do not desire it…’

He sighs and casts a weary eye. Then he staggers to the lancet and peers at the ash where two crows perch in the snowy branches:

‘Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: for the heavenly Father feedeth them. Are you not of much more value than they?(v)’

‘Am I father? You say you love me, but I question your motives.’

He turns to face me:

‘Few of us are so happy as not to be born with some affliction. All men are stained by the curse of Adam, but none more so than our forefathers. As Cistercians, we live far from the haunts of men and the concourse of the world. But with isolation comes inbreeding. These remote hills have festered with incest for centuries. You think I am the root cause of your disease? Our plagued line stretches back through generations. Have you not longed for a cure? To be who you really are on the inside?’

‘I fear my cure is beyond the hands of men.’

‘No! The cure is within my grasp. Lilith speaks the truth: I do want your blood…’

‘If you want my blood, then you will have to kill me for it.’

‘You remind me of myself at your age: courageous but fatuously ignorant and foolishly untaught. My child, I could not harm a hair on your head. Think about it: if ’twas just your blood I wanted, I could have bled your veins whilst you lay sick. But I gave brother Jean strict instructions to save you…’

‘Then what do you want from me?’

‘’Tis not your blood alone I seek. ’Tis my firm belief that you were delivered to this abbey by a supernatural agent.’

‘Agent?’

‘You were found alone, naked in the snow. Beside you was the single footprint of a woman. Apart from that, the drifts were unmarked for miles around. How do you explain it?’

‘I can’t father.’

‘Our meeting is no accident. You were brought here for a very specific purpose.’

‘And what is that, pray tell?’

‘What if I told you that I can purge your congenital disease, and with my chymic art, glorify your body?’

‘I would say that you are mad.’

‘Think. Fate has delivered you, by most mysterious means, right into my hands. Is not God trying to help us both? Heaven has foreseen your plight and brought us together, even after all these years.’

His words set my heart aflame, for they chime with a truth I cannot deny. Oh Blessed Virgin, have I lost my head completely? Can this ever be your will?

‘What say you?’ asks the abbot. ‘I have the power to restore your flesh.’

‘Shall you make a silk purse from a sow’s ear?’

‘Yes my son, and far greater things. The Lord has blessed you with the spirit of discernment. Follow your heart; observe your divinations. What do they tell you? Give yourself to my magic art, and I will change you beyond your wildest dreams. Now will you help me?’

‘If you have this power, then yes, I will help you. But how do you propose to change me?’

‘The knowledge of things past is the key of things to come…’

And with these words he lifts a rug to reveal a large trap door; he stoops to hook his finger round the latch then heaves it open with a grunt. A dank wind howls from the depths; it whirls round the chamber, damping the fire and tossing quills in the air. I creep toward the ominous hole and peer inside. Below is a spiral staircase that gyres into darkness.

‘What’s down there, father?’

He takes two torches from the wall, lights them in the hearth, then hands me one and says:

‘Follow me and find out…’

He vanishes down the stairwell. Already hooked, I follow after with Lilith at my feet. Her obsidian eyes exert an eerie pull, so much so, that I cannot help but peer into those fathomless orbs. And as we descend, her telepathic voice echoes in the depths:

‘We’re going down! Down and down we go! What lost souls are we! Down we go! Back along the vine! Past the patriarchs of Henoch and the iniquity of Cain! Round and round we go! Back to the root and the realm of the Rib! Oh! What miserable sods! What corruptions of flesh! What wretched men of clay!’

Copyright (c) Nicholas Shea 2010

i. Ibid.

ii. Theory of the heavens as given by Issac of Stella in his third sermon for the Feast of The Pentecost.

iii. ‘We Are Not The First’ by Andrew Tomas, p 100. (Sphere Books 1976. First published by Souvenir Press, 1971).

iv. Exodus, 34:29

v. Matthew, 6:26