Jacques is telling it…
Suddenly I am hurtling down a dark tunnel towards a bright orb. The moon!
I am carried aloft and fly at great speed through the air, drawn by the Light which pulls me ever onward. Up, up, I go, over the mighty oaks and elms, past wooded ravines of beech and yew. With owl I swoop, over the gorge, beyond the blasted heath, toward the druid henge. Amid the titan stones I see a raging pyre: a crackling, sparkling blaze that licks the distant stars…
I am delivered to a coven of witches who take the form of cats, dogs and hares, all blackened and disguised. Bacchus reigns. They guzzle wine from goatskins and leap round the roaring fire. Who they are I cannot tell but I recognise the voices. The feudal world is upside down. A maid has Guillot harnessed like a mule; he trots and brays, goaded by his own rod. Othon crawls in a sack, pleading for mercy as a hail of turnips fly from the trees. The steward is a sheep and the cuckold of wives, who kick and mock, pulling his tail and hurling clods of dung.
Is that Margot I see, riding an oinking monk?
And as I watch these phantoms dart before my eyes, I feel an omnipresent force that saturates the stones and trees.
There comes a pale horse, ridden by a black dog who blows a silver horn. The revellers drop like flies and crawl to the fire, chanting:
‘Our Great Master, help us!’
Here are Christ’s lost sheep, the lowly and the damned, with sunken faces and crippled limbs, who live in bondage and die in yolk, maltreated, bruised and torn. I feel the smarts of their wounds, the anguish of their pains; the distress of widows and orphaned waifs, the pining want of the poor; and I see all who are young and blooming, fated for a life of sickness, misery and toil. Oh! That I might tender them through this vale of sorrows! They hail the pyre, waving their arms, rising and falling, lolling back and forth, like seaweed in the cosmic tide.
I must be dead.
The fire roars into new life. As I behold the primal blaze, I hear sacred flames babbling ancient tongues; they sing to barren boughs and whisper to withered leaves, of germinal spells and moon-tide swells; of rising sap and bursting buds; of blossom, fruit and seed. And this Holy fire is Alpha and Omega – the omphalos of the world.
Then in the crucible there forms a foetal spectre; it shimmers in the heat, blooming like a charcoal rose. The coven hails this dark gestation, fitting and frothing at the mouth. Some scuttle like crabs, belly up, twisted in spasms; others flee, shrieking into the trees. The apparition grows, engorged on blood and fire, swelling like a phallus, until it towers above the monoliths.
Satan has escaped from Church.
His tempera visage, once figment in the artist’s mind, is now full formed and throbbing with life. An emaciated hag cries out:
‘Oh master, you alone have the power! And every other power in heaven and earth is derived from You!’
This angel knows all human want. His horns rake the moon as He stamps his glossy hoofs.
A plume of swirling sparks.
A rolling wave of blue fire.
I must be dead.
The black dog dismounts and stands beside the altar stone. He calls each witch by name and shakes her by the hand; she kneels and drinks his cup of blood, his cure of souls, and partakes his black rye sacrament. Then they dance back to back, until he rings a little bell and says:
‘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…’
She kneels upon the altar as he takes her from behind. But beneath his cloak I spy high riding boots. This dog is a man of substance.
Then I hear a rasping little voice:
‘Let me see! I want to see! You always cowl me up!’
I flee to the trees only to find the apparition of myself. For standing beneath an oak is an uncanny man, dressed in a white smock and shackled boots. He looks much older, with shaven head and wild blue eyes. Most peculiar of all, he has no horns.
‘Who are you?’ ask I.
‘I am Future Jack,’ says he.
‘Who chained your boots?’ ask I.
He points to a man who weeps amid the ferns; he wears strange vestments and peers through small glass panes that rest upon his nose.
‘Who is that?’ ask I.
‘That is doctor Hardy.’
‘Doctor of what?’
‘A physician? Why, are you sick in the head?’
‘No. But he thinks I’m moonstruck.’
‘Is that why he fettered your feet?’
‘I am fettered for many things. Not least my second sight and gift of prophesy.’
‘So I am cursed in this life and the next.’
‘If you would change the future, you must leave this place and never return.’
‘Why? What happens here?’
‘You fall in love.’
‘Is that so bad?’
‘For you, yes.’
‘But I’m already in love – with Maria the milkmaid. We are to wed.’
‘That is foolish.’
‘Not as foolish as Future Jack. Maria can sing like a lark, play the flute, and right well work the needle. What can you do? You’re so moonstruck, you can’t even put one foot in front of the other.’
‘You speak the truth, I don’t deny it. But if you remain here, the Inquisition will put you to the stake. You will end your days in shame, disavowing all your deeds.’
‘Satan shall preserve me.’
‘He shall not.’
‘Shall a priest? I would fortify myself against death by the holy sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. But the blood is rancid wine and the Host a wormy wafer. Whenever the priest raises it up, it makes me want to laugh. The people would be better off with vinegar and salted pork. Why have you come if you cannot save my soul?’
‘To show your future state.’
‘Hornless with blue eyes. That part I like. But if you are me, then who is doctor Hardy?’
‘He is Othon, the miller.’
‘Does he still deny the Virgin?’
‘Othon said all that passes through the body comes to a vile end. Which could not happen to the Host if Christ were in it… Does Hardy still believe that?’
‘Yes, he does.’
‘Does he still think the Devil has more power than God?’
‘He does not believe in God or the Devil.’
‘Pity. I thought Othon would come back an ox.’
‘Because he’s a faithless thief. And he betrayed a heretic for a gold coin. The heretic they burned was a goodman. Do you know who the goodmen are? They are holy men who touch neither women nor meat. They say only goodmen can save souls. That is why the priests burn them. There was a time when many people believed in the goodmen. That time is past. The priests have destroyed them and stolen their fortunes. What about the pope?’
‘What about him?’
‘Does he still devour the blood and sweat of the poor?’
‘And the rich too.’
‘Nothing changes then.’
‘The earth has changed. In the New World, this forest is no longer here. All the trees have gone. They were burnt for charcoal and felled for ships. But now even the ships have sunk beneath the waves.’
‘How did you get here?’
‘Krew opened a Portal.’
‘Where is it?’
‘You would have to ask him.’
‘How far is the New World?’
‘Six hundred years hence.’
‘Am I rich in the New World?’
‘No, you are much poorer than you are here.’
‘When do I die? In winter when the snows come? Or in spring when the furrows are sown? Or is it during summer when the hay has been cut?’
‘I cannot say. The future has many threads.’
‘But I am poor in every one? You come here a moonstruck fool with fettered feet. What future thread is that? Margot has gold. Lots of gold. But she won’t give me a sous. When she dies I will by some land. Then I will be rich enough not to work any more. I shall eat goat’s liver every night. I have seen many monks who ride fat mules. No one bothers them because they are rich. But all have dabbled in heresy. They say the soul of a monk and the soul of a pig are one and same. Whatever happens, I shall not return a moonstruck man.’
‘You must leave this place. There is only sorrow for you here. The peasants hate you. How shall you survive their cruelty and slurs; their wicked plots and villainous misdeeds?’
‘I shall bide here for the present, for I still have Maria.’
‘You have nothing. She is a woman: you are just a boy.’
‘But what about my gold?’
‘Forget your gold; it will all be stolen on pain of heresy and treason.’
‘Then take me back with you.’
‘Impossible. Besides, you would not like it.’
‘Is the New World so bad?’
‘Yes. They keep me locked in a cell. My life is made up of terrible days and terrible nights.’
‘Why do they imprison you?’
‘Because I believe that Man was created by the direct agency of God.’
‘Then why not stay here?’
‘I have people to save.’
‘Yes, many moonstruck people. Many faithless moonstruck people.’
I glance across the ferns. Hardy stands transfixed at the Sabbat, tears rolling down his cheeks. I turn to Future Jack and ask:
‘What’s wrong with him? Why does he weep?’
‘He weeps because he cannot extinguish the Devil. Which means God is an inescapable reality.’
‘He looks very pale. I do not think he is long for this world – or any other.’
‘I fear you are right. He has for some time been declining in body and mind. He does not know if he is dead or alive. He will soon be past recovery. His only desire is to make me a Presentist.’
‘Presentist? What is that?’ ask I.
‘Doctor Hardy only believes in the present. The past and future do not exist for him. The past is gone and cannot be reclaimed; the future is open and undefined; only the present the is real. But he cannot determine the context of his present, for the moment he tries, it becomes his past. Hence the past is just a reconstruction, made by his conscious mind. So his present is just an idealistic view of reality, an abstraction of facts, which are completely remote from historical experience.’
‘Margot says Time is a river.’
‘Yes, but a river that flows both ways.’
‘How is that possible? Are you present now? In this instant?’
‘How long is the instantaneous now? A click of my fingers? Two clicks? Three? What if the length of now could be extended indefinitely? Then there would be no past or future. There would only be now. And Time would cease to have any meaning at all.’
‘But if you are here now, why are you ghostly?’
‘Because I vibrate at a higher rate.’
‘I can pass my hand right through you.’
‘Indeed. We are like two spinning wheels; you cannot not see the spokes of my wheel, until my speed matches yours. But if that happened, I would become flesh and blood, and remain trapped in your world forever.’
‘You might be a figment of the potion.’
‘Indeed I might.’
‘In which case, you don’t exist at all.’
‘Do you not talk to crows and commune with spirits? Did you not foretell my arrival?’
‘The faeries have shown me many strange things: habours of stone with mighty ships and cobbled docks; bridges of iron and roads of blazing lights; snorting machines belching smoke and steam. But you, I did not see.’
‘Listen to me Jacques Vallin. Every thing that ever was, or ever could be, past, present or future, exists in entirety, all at once. Every outcome is already accounted for. At this very moment, in another sphere, I am a beautiful lady, sipping wine on a Venetian veranda…’
‘What about me? Will I ever be rid of my horns?’
Future Jack smiles and says:
‘All shall be as God wishes. Now I must take my leave and return to the New World.’
‘Shall I see you again?’
‘I will visit you in dreams. From now on we shall be en rapport.’
‘In dreams? Perhaps we are both moonstruck.’
‘The whole world is moonstruck, my friend.’
‘I shall pray for you.’
‘And me you.’
‘Will you pray for Margot too? I love her, but she is sometimes a devil. She too is moonstruck.’
‘Yes, I will pray for her, if you will pray for doctor Hardy.’
A great shriek rings through the trees as the coven flies skyward. Satan wavers in plumes of blue fire then disperses like windblown seed.
Destitute, Hardy falls to his knees and wails at the stars:
‘Madness! Madness! Madness!’
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2010.
Image montage credit: El aquelarre by Goya 1797-98.