KREW. As all men were lost in Adam, so all men by will of salvation, are saved in the Passion of Jesus Christ. But men are troubled by their visions and dreams, and the burdens of flesh are many. As the Janus was troubled by his hideous deformity, so Jacques was troubled by his inner state. For the visions that troubled him in sleep, fore-showed his inner self – an affliction invisible to the outer world, and apparent only to the workings of his soul. Dreams lift up fools, and a man that gives heed to lying visions, is like to him that grasps shadows, or follows after the wind.(i) But the visions of dreams are also the resemblance of one thing to another: as when a man’s likeness is before the face of a man.(ii)
LORD SCALES. Or when a woman’s likeness is before the face of a woman… The accused has sworn to reveal himself at all times. And nowhere is a soul more naked than in the world of dreams. I recall two instructive cases. The first was a high priest of ancient Egypt who dreamt he was a fool that spent his days drunk in a ditch by the Nile. The second was a Essene nun, distinguished for her spiritual verse, who dreamt she was a heathen who whored in a desert cave. Yet when it came to their trials, both refused to accept that they had dreamt of themselves. But in every way, they were no better than their drunken brother in the ditch, or their whoring sister in the cave.(iii) And both made the familiar mistake of measuring their spiritual progress by the number of years spent in prayer. No one comes to know God through twisted opinions of the truth. So let us pit one against t’other: the man awake and the fool asleep. For they think differently, feel differently, see differently and want quite different things. I ask the jury: who is Jacques Vallin? What is he? Do you suppose him the pale abstraction of a long dead woman, or a man of flesh and blood with an incurable disease? Or both? Jacques, you must tell the court of your nocturnal dreams, for these are allegories of your soul’s incarnate state. If we accept that the spirit goes abroad in sleep, then we must also accept that ’tis at once dis-incarnate from the flesh. Ergo, ventures into the netherworld of sleep can be taken as a good indication of the soul’s place in the afterlife… Yet there are many scandals and stones for stumbling upon, especially for those poor unlucid souls who cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming – for likewise they never know when Death has taken the body. As for those Gnostics who deplore their incarnate state, they fare no better in Death than they did in life. For they wander in spirit as they did in earthly dreams, subject to all the unfettered cravings and impulses of the flesh. And their long life of earthly denial suddenly overwhelms them in great waves of repressed desires. To imagine that a miracle will be wrought at death, making perfect every one whom it is His will to include among His elect, is utterly opposed to every presumption that can be adduced from the light of Nature.(iv) The soul is not simply incarnated as the outward man, but becomes more and more, that inner man who alone persists, and who is renewed day by day, even though the outward man corrupteth.(v) Truly, only those souls who have advanced in Life are worthy of His blessing in Death. Such souls are always given their rightful place in The Garden of Demonic Delights.(vi) As for Jacques Vallin, methinks he is no such soul – for he has lived more in dreams than in the world itself. And where there are many dreams, there are also many vanities, and hopes without number. With this in mind, I ask the accused to give the court fifteen dreams. Fifteen dreams that prove there is no resting place on earth. Fifteen dreams that reveal his penitential wandering. Fifteen dreams that we might grant him spiritual favours…
Jacques is telling it…
’Tis not customary for the Lord to grant spiritual favours except to those with great purity of conscience. As for my dreams, they reveal a tainted mind. Dreams have sustained and tormented me in equal measure – both the phantoms of night, and the visions of day. Those infusions of spirit which cured countless others, were always denied me by Nature. Jacques denied Jacqueline, and Jacqueline denied Jacques, so that any normal existence was quite impossible. But my dreams were also portents of future things…
An exiled soul hungers for its proper state. For he that is hungry dreameth and eateth; but when he wakes, his soul is empty. And he that is thirsty dreameth and drinketh; but after he wakes, is still faint with thirst and his soul empty…(vii) And so it was with me. As the days passed and advent drew to a close, my soul grew anxious with expectation. For I knew that if transformation was possible, ’twas also forbidden. Lucifer whispered from the rood and Christ from the altar. But despite my petitions and prayers, I always returned from Nocturnes flushed with shame and self-loathing. At times, I longed to flee the abbey altogether. Oft’ the opposition of body and soul was so great, that I would get “locked in” and remain immobile for hours on end. There was no telling when this might occur: in the cloister, on the night-stair, or even sitting at my desk. I would stare at the blank parchment as if it were a mirror of my earthly state – without form, void, voiceless, vacant and unbegotten. I felt a total inner collapse was at hand. I fled from self-will as though it were the Devil. Such was my perilous oscillation: I lacked the conviction to remain as I was, yet scarcely deemed any cure possible. I longed for the coming Christ at dawn, then hungered for the Titan rite at dusk. And so I found myself falling head over heels, night after night. You have asked for fifteen dreams, which might be fifteen books. Pray, forgive my brevity…
I am a monk who exists between worlds, not spirit, not flesh, but a phantom who dwells where the living cannot see. I reside at the abbey but my bed has been moved to a gloomy landing on the night stair: a wasteland between dorter and choir, where no one comes. Such is my penitential wandering from dream to dream…
Whenever I ascend the night stair, I always take a wrong turn and end up in the ossuary. For many hours I stray alone in the subterranean dark, calling for Maria. Then her voice echoes in the depths: a distant plea that sounds irretrievably lost:
‘Jacques! Jacques! Come quick!’
Onward I run, down twisting tunnels of endless night. But every turn is a wrong turn, and every passage leads back to where I started. Then I spot Grazide shimmering in the abyss. Drawn by her lucent orb, I squeeze through a dim labyrinth, curling, buckling and worming in the bowels of earth. She leads me under gushing falls that plummet down abyssal cliffs. Yet deeper we go, crawling through potholes into Titan halls where fallen angels moulder on basalt thrones. But her light evades my union and only leads me further astray. Then beyond a gulf, I glimpse a light that lustres at the end of a long passage. I proceed down a yawing crevice and spy green vistas under a haze of cerulean blue. Paradise. But when I step forward, the passage collapses in a thunderclap. How far I have fallen. After many wrong turns, I finally emerge back on the night stair. And there is Maria, standing before me. See how brightly she shines, radiant with splendour and beauty – she who is placed at the very centre of my being. Then I know: I’m not living at all – but struggling with the shadow of Death. She smiles and says:
‘I have nowhere to live Jacques. Can I stay in the abbey with you?’
‘Yes my beloved, you can sleep with me on the landing…’
Suddenly we are lying in bed together, racked on my pallet like fish out of water. How awkward is this! For Maria is haunted by my demon face and has to look away:
‘Oh Jacques, I hate it here: there are so many ghosts…’
To put her mind at rest, I suggest pitching my tabernacle in the cloister.
‘Will you sleep there?’ she asks, hopefully.
‘Yes, my beloved, if it makes you happy, I will…’
So I wade through the snow and pitch my rickety tent in the drifts. Then I hear Old Jacob crying:
‘How long Lord? How long before you deliver me to the land of milk and honey?’
No sooner have I crawled inside the tent, than I emerge back on the landing. And there is Maria, in bed with another maid:
‘Oh Jacques, do you mind if Philippa sleeps here? She has nowhere else to go…’
I put my left foot forward and cover them with bearskins. Then I tumble head over heels down the night stair. Maria’s laughter echoes round the alleys as I clamber back in my tabernacle. And as I lie awake on the frozen ground, I hear Philippa whispering feminine secrets – mocking the monks and their vigils:
‘Oh! They are such a miserable lot! We must pray they suffer their exile as best they can!’
‘You must not mock,’ chides Maria. ‘’Tis a great misfortune to see Jacques endure such sorrow; his soul cannot do what it desires because it has so wretched a vessel as that vile body!’
‘Methinks the devil is the cause,’ adds Philippa. ‘But ’tis no good confessing to the priests. They keep whores, and all they desire is to devour the poor, as the wolf devours the sheep.(viii) Thank God our immortal souls are not trapped in such beastly flesh!’
The torment in hearing this is not small. My soul feels withered by a long drought: I am such a disgusting unwholesome fruit. I cringe on the cold hard earth, to know that Maria is so near and yet so far. I see her undress by the light of my tapers, her finely shaped breasts casting shadows on the walls. And there are my horns, leaping in the vault: a superimposition of monstrous implication. For how could I, with all my supernatural ugliness ever cast a shade so wondrous as hers? May it please the Lord that day by day, bone by bone, I may turn into Maria, even though it might cost me all the trials in the world… I fear the night will never end. There I lie, freezing in my tabernacle of ice, whilst Philippa dreams on Maria’s voluptuous bosom. The thought of their heavenly bodies entwined under bear-skins fills me with despair. I whisper a Pater Noster through chattering teeth, but find no comfort or spiritual reward. My useless faith will not allow me rest. Why must I be deprived of my lustre?
I’m lost in the wastes at night when I spy an orb hovering in the meadow: it looks like an upturned pail with a glowing door. A goblin emerges and glides to the ground on two vertical beams of light. He comes toward me, walking with a strange swinging motion.(ix) He has a glass helmet with a great big eye in the middle of his forehead; and he wears silver boots that make triangle footprints in the mud. I am sore afraid, for he holds a blue box that emits sparks of blue fire.(x) Yet I am drawn to his eye, for it twinkles with unearthly colours. His helmet is so bright, it looks like the sun when it sets. As he steps toward me, the ground opens up, and I tumble into a black void…
I have crept into the abbot’s camera with the clear intention of opening his linen chest. For within this oaken coffer is Jezebel’s dress – a beautiful gown that shines with silken ribbons. It shames me to speak of vanities when I am compelled to put it on. I cannot imagine why she leaves it here. Perhaps she has little enthusiasm for feminine things. No doubt she would laugh if she saw me in her clothes: a body so poor and without merit as mine, adorned in the vestments of a goddess. I must admit I’ve never set eyes on Jezebel. But I can tell from her dress that she’s very pretty. And I like to think that one so favoured by God would share her gifts lavishly. Such is my sinful reasoning. I have come here many times before. The dress is never the same; sometimes ’tis yellow, sometimes red or duck-egg blue. The bodice is exquisitely made but too small for my torso. Yet the silky skirts are deliriously soft about my legs. Oft’ I try to smuggle it away but I’m always caught in the cloister:
‘What have you there, brother Lazarus?’
‘Oh, just some old rags…’
I kneel at the altar and pray for transformation. But it seems that such a request is illicit for one who is determined not to offend God. A woman shall not be clothed with man’s apparel, neither shall a man use woman’s apparel: for he that doth these things is abominable before God.(xi) Yet night after night, dream after dream, I return to this chest in hope of transformation. A monk does whatever he can to avoid becoming attached to earthly things. But here I am, in love with a dress, and there is naught on earth I want more than to wear it and become Jezebel. What an infernal torment this is! My heart pounds with the fear of being caught. I lock the latch, check the lancets and close the curtains. Then I sculpt two breasts from loaves of bread. But just as I’m about to button the bodice, the bell clangs or a knock comes at the door. To which I cry:
‘Go away. I’m busy. You can’t come in…’
Sometimes I open the chest to find the dress has vanished, and I awake utterly desolate. But not this time. This time I slip it on and fasten the buttons without interruption. I feel a sense of power rising up from my own depths. The inner has become outer. Fleeing the cloister, I dart across the garth and mount a white horse by the abbey gate. Then I gallop away across the wastes, along shores of sparkling waves.
I’m half asleep when Lucifer whispers:
‘The more you serve Him, the more you become indebted to me. Why are you rotting here? ’Tis Saturday night. You should be abroad with the other Dead.(xii) Leave this unhallowed place. Your mother is waiting at home…’
Over the haunted hills I fly, past the crooked wood, into the land of croaking toads where the reeds grow lush and tall. And there is my old hovel, just as it used to be, with smoke puffing from the thatch. Margot is waiting in the threshold. But this is not the crone I once knew, for she has turned into a beautiful young woman.
‘Moma!’ I exclaim, ‘You look so young! Is that really you?’
There is something of the faeries about her, and I suspect she has returned from the realm of leaping hares. So I ask her boldly:
‘How old are you Moma?’
She fixes me with a long hard stare and says:
‘I am six thousand, four hundred and twenty three years old. I am older than the hills; older than the sky and older than the rolling sea…’
‘Yes, I believe you Moma, really I do. But where were you born?’
‘I was not born but made – made from the Essence with ten thousand of His holy ones; and His shining Light was my holy habitation. But I fell through a hole in heaven. Head over heels I fell – all the way down to this forbidden wasteland…’
‘But who made the hole?’
Whereupon I shrink in size and become a child again. I wrap my arms about her hips as she towers above me:
‘I fell too Moma – into these horrible hosen…’
I bury my face in her tummy and hold her for a long time, swaying in the threshold, never wanting to part. But then the abbey bell tolls at the edge of the world; and with each clang of the clapper she fades away, until she is naught but mist slipping through my fingers. Gone.
Sparkling sunlight through green leaves. The sound of clopping hooves. I find myself riding a cart beside a beautiful maiden who drives a white mare through dappled glades. She is svelte and regal, dressed in a green gown and silken skirts. I cannot see her face – just the curve of her breast and swan-like neck. Yet I am content to travel with her in silence, for the sun is gentle on my skin and no longer burns my eyes. She flicks the reigns and the horse begins to canter. The woods look strangely familiar but with outcrops of rock I haven’t seen before. Then I spy the gorge looming in the ferns.
‘Slow down,’ say I, ‘Or we’ll go over the edge.’
But she remains oblivious to the danger and drives the horse even faster. A sudden bump as the wheels mount a fallen log. The heavens lurch. In the blink of an eye, the cart topples down a ravine. We tumble many times, head over heels, colliding with rocks, stumps and saplings. I think to myself: “Relax, stay limp, and you might survive…” Finally we come to a stop. The world darkens and I plummet into blackness.
When I awake, my mouth is full of moulding leaves. I lie upside-down on a steep incline, staring at the blue sky. I have no recollection of who I am or where I live. But I recall praying in church, asking God for spiritual delights. Then I spy the maiden sitting nearby amid the roots of an old oak. She looks dazed and confused, with grazes on her face. Her skirts are soiled and torn about her thighs. I wonder who she is. Did we fall together? What’s her name? I feel unclean in her sight. For some reason I imagine her to be a saint who might obtain my pardon. The leaf-mould is bitter in my mouth yet I cannot spit it out. I long to cleanse my body and drink. But I remain quite paralysed.
It helps me to look up at the trees because their pattern reminds me of God. I think to pray, but the fall has impaired my wits and the Pater Noster evades me. And who is that maiden with the torn skirt? Why does she look away in shame? How it pains me to see her so repulsed! Am I dying? If only she would speak. I find her beauty a source of great temptation and confusion. I remain upside down, perplexed with tears, feeling utterly distressed.
The branches rustle in the distance. There comes a swineherd, goading pigs through the wood. With much effort, I make a garbled a cry for help. The man comes running to our aid and helps the maiden up. But when he sees me, he vomits in repulsion and cries:
‘Mon Dieu! What’s that?’
Several churls appear from the glades and gather round, pointing in disgust. I sense warm fluid trickling between my legs, so I crane my neck to look. I behold a blurred landscape of folded leather that stretches out before me like a range of distant mountains.
‘What happened?’ ask I.
‘How now!’ cries the swineherd. ‘Have you no shame? Look closer…’
I squint and peer between my legs: the hosen are ripped at the crotch and my wrinkled “manhood” is visible to all. It looks like a stinkhorn fungus, covered with swarming flies. The churls stumble in the leaves, gagging at the stench. Then I realise that member isn’t mine. When the maiden sees it, she swoons and flees into the gorge. But the swineherd remains rooted to the spot, pale as Death. I ask if he might move me to a more comfortable and less revealing position. When he drags me away, I see that I have been lying in a pile of marl. I wake up.
I am locked in a small cage on wheels. Beyond the bars is a long gloomy corridor with many mysterious doors. Monks mill about the alcoves pushing trolleys of anatomical parts; they cross left and right, baring waxen manikins in various states of disarray – heads with flaxen hair, legs, buttocks, hips and breasts. Then brother Jean approaches my cage and says:
‘’Tis nearly time – you had better say your goodbyes now…’
My vision narrows to a small circle as he wheels me away down a menacing passage. We enter a cold vaulted chamber. Inside is another cage wherein a maiden sits chained to a stool. I am wheeled beside her so that our faces are just inches apart. I begin to weep:
‘I don’t want to leave you. I want to be with you forever; I don’t want to say goodbye…’
All at once, we are surrounded by a turbulent mass of sulphurous smoke. As I gaze into her beauteous face, I feel Death stealing over my body like tingling waves of ice. My limbs go numb and inky clouds envelop my sight. All peripheral vision is lost and I seem to peer through a long reedy tunnel. Then the maiden begins to disintegrate. The manner of this disintegration is most particular and reminds me of burning parchment. As the parchment burns, the maiden’s face fractures into hundreds of charred little crosses. There follows a crackling noise as her cindered body crinkles into dust. I am left alone in a desolate void. Absolute silence. Nothingness. I sense the brink of complete annihilation. I whisper:
‘I believe in Christ. The Christ is Light. The Christ is the son of God…’
But The Christ does not appear. I fall into oblivion then wake with a start, heart thumping in my chest.
I’m too troubled to sleep. Wind rattles the panes and howls about the belfry. I weep when I remember how Moma died alone. And I keep seeing her grisly face in flashes of lightning. Oh forgive me Moma! That I might have been there to comfort you with a sprig of Mistletoe! I reflect on how all things come to an end. Yet I am very certain that days before her death the Lord made it known to her that she was not long for the world. What I would give to see her again! I close my eyes and glimpse the golden bough gleaming in the gloom…
I spy two bright orbs, about half a mile away, lighting up the dusk. One is big and white, the other is much smaller and red. The latter darts backwards and forwards several times, and finally seems to merge within the other; it glows like an orange coal as it wafts above the ground, drifting left and right. It wobbles like a dandelion clock in the wind, and all around is a great aura of blue light. It flares and dims alternately for many minutes. Then in the middle I spy a little black goblin standing tall and straight. Strange sparks shoot out in all directions as it swells into a large luminous body like that of the moon. I hear the voice of chirping crickets:
‘La nature est un livre éloquent, où nous trouvons les preuves les plus irréfragables de la toute- puissance de son auteur.’ [Nature is an eloquent book, in which we find the most irrefragable proofs of the omnipotence of its author].
But this profound message is followed by the most absurd statement:
‘Paris est une grande ville, mais les rues en sont trop étroites.’ [Paris is a fine city, but its streets are too narrow].
The chirping ceases and Satan whispers:
‘Bind me the Book of Death…’
Whilst foraging the woods I find some mushrooms in the shade of a chestnut tree. A dryad appears on a log says:
‘Eat my faerie ring and you shall know your future.’
I scoff the mushrooms one by one. But on returning to the abbey I find that I have grown three feet taller. I am too big to pass through choir screen and must crawl on all fours to attend the mass. After reciting the Pater Noster, Odo comes to me and says:
‘I have built you a hermitage facing the altar…’
I squeeze inside but find the chamber too small: I can neither stand nor lie down; so I sit hunched against the lancet with my knees bent double, and my neck crooked in the vault. The cell is icy cold without hay or blankets. I have a stone for a pillow with two crosses and skulls. I remain in prayer for an inordinate time, and when I awake, my habit is covered in snow. What’s more, my body has grown to such an extent that I cannot escape. I undergo great pains as my bones push against the church for weeks. I can hear my skull creaking and cracking as it swells within the vault. Then all of a sudden I burst out in a pile of rubble.
The sun is sinking beyond the hills. The mountains, which once soared to the sky, are now mysteriously small. For I have turned into a Titan and the cloister is but a molehill at my feet. I stride about the precinct, towering over the nave as the monks scatter like ants. I cannot fit within a single building – not even the vast chasm of the crossing. So I wander across the wastes, back to Mill Bridge and my derelict home by the pond. And the riven oak whispers:
‘Welcome to the land of the dead! Behold the golden bough!’
Stooping low, I pick the mistletoe at once. How happy Margot would be to see it! The white berries gleam like pearls in my palm, and I eat one in hope of a cure. Then I declare to the tree:
‘O blessed oak, I have come to pay respects to my poor dead mother.’
The riven tree replies:
‘My daughter is one with me. Her bones lie mouldering in the heartwood. You have partaken of her in the Mistletoe; and now she is one with you.’
‘Pray help me wise oak. I desire to visit her grave but I’m too big to enter the hovel…’
The leaves whisper:
‘You must become spirit first…’
So I turn into vaporous smoke and slip between the shutters. How cold and black our happy hearth! The cauldron has gone to earth and the rafters are daubed with bird droppings; broken jars litter the floor, and the upturned table is encrusted with fungi and dung. I open the cupboard and drift into the heartwood. The sulphur bonnets cry:
‘Maid, Mother, Crone!’
I lay the mistletoe on Margot’s tomb and kiss her wormy skull. A chill wind rustles her ivy crown and she sighs:
‘Beware the bishop.’
That night, I sleep with my head on the pallet and the rest of my nebulous body wafting out the door. I cannot breathe without cracking the wattle or blowing off the thatch. And I wonder how I ended up living such a strange and awkward existence.
I awake to the clang of the Nocturne bell. I have fallen out of bed and lie sprawled in the aisle. Odo looms above:
‘Get up. The Lord demands your attention.’
And Margot whispers:
‘Beware the bishop! The devil himself!’
I am polishing the crucifix on the altar when I find Maria’s plaits hidden behind the reredos. The golden braids rise up like serpents and weave a wig of long blonde hair. Instinctively, I put it on. My reflection shimmers in the copper panel of the annunciation; my horns have vanished and my saturnine cankers have shrunk to beauty spots. My portrait is entirely female, with small delicate shoulders. The serpents hiss:
All at once, the wig cleaves to my scalp and transforms into a head of living hair. Don’t wake up now, for Christ’s sake… Then Maria appears in the vestry door:
‘That’s a strange mirror,’ she says brightly.
When I glance back at my reflection, I find myself fading away. My hair falls out in clumps and the wig sits askew on a tonsured head. Distraught, I curse myself and toss the hairpiece into the choir. I utter an Ave for forgiveness, but my desire for transformation is so great that it hinders my prayer. I confuse my distress for virtue, and am overcome with a great zeal for God. Then a bleating lamb appears on the altar. Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who taketh away the sin of the world.(xiii) But when I glimpse Maria, my false virtue evaporates. Is this how Christ sees me? I curse my Creator for afflicting my soul and obstructing my progress. Then I flee into the cloister and anxiously pace the alleys. Maria follows after, The Lamb trailing on her heels; and she keeps talking nonsense about milking he-goats. I become so confused and frustrated by her words that I awake in fits of rage.
I am alone in the Day Room, illuming the Tree of Knowledge. The leaves begin rustle as Eve comes to life and says:
‘I remember my glory in the Garden! the bright nature of my soul, and the state in which I lived, when I knew neither night nor day; nor the terror of wild beasts; when there was no darkness but only lustrous shadow, and the perfume of flowers, and crystal clear waters! Do you remember Jacqueline? When we were enrolled in the Book of Life?’
A sudden blast howls down the chimney. I jump with fright, spilling ink on the parchment. A tract of black gall creeps over Eden and coils round Eve like a serpent. It hisses:
‘The power in your palms is mine. And if you desire to do my will, you will bind me The Book of Death.’
I do not plan nor consider my reply, but Christ guides my lips and brings me to the proper words:
‘The Lord is not the God of the dead but of the living. Therefore you do greatly err.’(xiv)
‘How so, when the world of the living is mine? They say the spirit quickens and the flesh profiteth nothing.(xv) But those who are in the flesh and the passions of sins, are bound to my laws, and do work in my members; and so they bring forth fruit unto death.”(xvi) There is little point in petitioning the Christ: His kingdom is not of this world.(xvii) If you will turn the course of Nature, you must worship me alone. Do you think the Christ would not have cured you by now? In truth, he despises you for putting your hidden condition above the sufferings of those with unequal limbs and misshapen faces. That is why you must bind me The Book of Death…’
‘For what purpose my Lord?’
‘Whosoever is writ in the The Book of Death shall be cured of their afflictions. Any name writ in blood therein, makes Holy compact with me. Such a soul shall triumph over the flesh and this world of matter. The blind shall see and the lame walk; the leper will be cleansed, and the dead shall rise up and speak…(xviii) So if you will cure others, do my bidding and bind The Book of Death as I instruct…’
‘What must I do my Lord?’
‘Take six goat skins and soak them in water from dawn ’till dusk. Remove them from the tub and wash them ’til the water runs clear. Then prepare a bath of lime and stir into a thick pale cream. Press the hides into this mixture with the fleshy sides upward. Then turn them thrice a day for two weeks, uttering my name at each turning. Pour away the tub and fill it with urine from the latrine. Tan the skins for two days, then take them out and attach them to stretchers in the shade. Scrape away the hairs with a sharp knife, then moisten them again, and rub the fleshy sides with powdered pumice. Tighten the stretcher cords firmly and evenly, then sprinkle the skins with Titan dust, spreading it about with a hare’s foot…’
A sudden terror strikes me – for I remember that I have left a pot of fat bubbling in the abbot’s chamber. Yet ’tis not a pot of fat I see in my mind’s eye, but Margot’s cauldron, simmering on the trivet at home. Visions of the sabbat race through my brains. Then I hear women shrieking outside…
Leaving my desk, I enter the cloister to find the brethren fornicating with pagan statues. For the abbot’s carvings have come to life in a Bacchic orgy of flesh. I cannot tell where man ends and beast begins. A human caterpillar lumbers down the alley: a chain of copulation, girl-on-girl, boy-on-boy, with bodies conjoined in every conceivable way.
A sylph who rides a golden ass, points to the sky and cries:
‘Look! It’s snowing!’
But when I behold the tumbling flakes, I realise the snowflakes are ashes. A plume of smoke billows from the abbot’s lodging and rampant flames lick at the lancets. I cry out:
Yet no sound comes from my lips. It takes great force of will to speak, then I yell at the top of my voice.
I awake to find Odo shaking my arm:
‘Hush Lazarus! You’re having a bad dream. There’s nothing to fear. The fire is out… Forgive me for beating you. Pray, sleep now…’
On falling back to sleep, I find myself transformed into a giant cuckoo. I sit in a crowded nest at the top of the bell tower, crammed with my sleeping brethren. One by one, I grab their heads and toss them over the parapets. My step-mother is a screech owl with Lilith’s face. She flits too and fro from the wood, stuffing fat caterpillars down my greedy gullet…
I lie entombed in a druid barrow, deep in the heart of the woods. The dark earth is warm and soft as velvet. An ancient warrior rests beside me in the gloom, his bronze shield twinkling in the darkness. I sense the Dead sleeping all around, buried in urns and cinder pits. A subliminal space, out of time and body, where the Universe holds me. A wan skull whispers:
‘We are waiting here ’till judgement day. Sleep with us, and leave the world of men behind…’
I awake into another dream…
A cake of cheese; a pail of milk; a basket of eggs. There’s a window to my left, and beyond it the hen-house. I conclude that I’m in Maria’s parlour, lying on my back. But I cannot move, for the ploughman has me pinned to the slate. Maria stands beside him, holding down my legs. I call her name but she doesn’t respond; she has a blank pitiless gaze and looks bewitched. My heart jumps in terror as a menacing shadow stalks across the wall; it holds a sickle and wears a wide brimmed hat. I know that shade: ’tis Henry Vourzay, the reeve who pissed in our cooking pot. He raises his sickle and purrs:
‘Keep still Jacques.’
Then he thrusts the blade deep into my left shoulder; I feel the cold metal slice across my heart as it severs my torso all the way down to the right hip. Henry grins, then slinks back to shadow, and merges with the manger. He is followed by Maria and the ploughman, who release their grip and glide away like ghosts.
I struggle to my feet, holding a large flap of skin against my ribs: I feel the wet weight of it, like a suit that’s half-on, half-off. I wander aimlessly round the vill, quite literally holding myself together. I become aware of other wounds seeping in my groin and knees. I feel an imminent sense of death and an urgent desire for medical attention. I stumble home and knock at the door. To my dismay, Margot is most displeased to see me. I try and explain the severity of my condition. But the cantankerous crone suspects I’m mad and doesn’t take me seriously. So I tell of the hideous wound under my shirt. She offers to look and bids me to lower my arm. But I cry out in anguish:
‘If I remove my hand, I will surely fall apart!’
‘Fool! No mortal soul can cure you. What you need is a miracle. How can you stand to live so strange and long a death? Go kindle yourself a fire and jump into it.’
I spend the rest of the dream running round the vill in a most senseless manner, searching for the maid who rules my heart and soul. Only she can cure me. But then I recall the Titan waiting in the depths. Yes…
I have dwelt in cloister for many years. Now I am old and crippled with a stick. One evening, whilst praying before the altar, I hear a blackbird singing in choir. So I turn toward the rood. The oaken boughs have come to life and sway in a gentle breeze. Pan smiles at me and says:
‘You have voyaged on this tempestuous sea for fifty years, and with such evil fallings and risings that your sense of self is completely lost. ’Tis time you left Mother Church and joined my flock…’
I become a vagrant and wander the hills high and low. My moth-eaten garb hangs off my limbs in tatters; my boots are split at the toes and my hosen ripped at the crotch. I feel a draughty hole where my milknuts dangle out like spiky conkers. What an utter disgrace. Where is my shame? Did I not have a pot of gold buried somewhere? Where did I hide it? Think! But for the life of me, I can’t remember…
Whilst climbing a mountain pass, I meet a Dominican friar who says:
‘Stop beggar! When was the last time you confessed to a priest?’
‘Monsieur, only God alone can absolve sins. He knows the sin before it is committed, and only he can absolve it.’
‘Fool! You do not know what you are saying. This whole district is full of heretics.’
‘Heretics? I haven’t met any.’
‘You have no need of confession? Or would you rather burn?’
‘Instead of burning heretics, you should burn the bishop instead.’
‘Are you mad? The bishop is a holy man. Who would dare send him to the faggots?’
‘The people – because he demands a tithe of lambs.’
‘Apostate! Tell me your name.’
‘I have forgotten it.’
‘Forgotten? Do you take me for a fool? Tell me your name, at once!’
‘Sire, I have murrian of the brains. My wits have gone. I can’t remember my name.’
‘Then I shall look you up in the parish scrolls.’
‘I would be grateful. For my identity is a mystery even to me. But in the meantime, you may call me heretic.’
‘If you do not recant, I will report you to the Lord Inquisitor. Then you will confess everything and become his spy. From his judgement there is no appeal, not even from the Pope himself.’
‘I’m not afraid of him.’
‘You should be. He will broil the soles of your feet on a gridiron; and crush your finger-ends with a mallet; then twist a cord about your brows and squeeze your eyes from their sockets. Is that what you want?’
‘No Monsieur! Forgive me! I beg you, do not send me to him!’
‘Very well. There is a church further up the pass. Go there and confess – or you will surely burn in hell. Do not disobey: I know the priest personally and will check with him later…’
I follow his instruction and come across an old wooden church standing on a rocky precipice. Entering, I find a gloomy nave packed with churls. Women chatter in the aisles and mock the priest, whilst their children run down the aisle, playing jests, dropping hot wax and snuffings upon the pates of friars. The priest cries in dismay:
‘You come without any devotion or reverence whatever! Do ye not consider that here we celebrate the glorious body of Christ the Son of God, for your salvation? And that ye should stay quite still, and not say so much as a single word? No more of this! First at the mill, first grind. Take your seats in order as ye come, and let none crowd in before you. And now to my sermon again…’(xix)
I spot three milkmaids standing by the door, so I nestle in beside them. But they shuffle away in disgust, pinching their noses. Then the door creaks open and Claude the shepherd appears. He approaches me directly and whispers in my ear:
‘Jacques, you must slay the bishop, otherwise he will send us all to prison or the stake…’
‘I am an old man and too weak to fight him.’
‘You are far younger in the other world than you are here. But you have been living a dog’s life.’
‘Fight your own battles.’
‘Do you want us to be revealed, denounced and captured? I refuse to give my sheep to the bishop. A shepherd I have been, and a shepherd I shall remain, as long as I live… Look at that priest: he is such a fool. His mass is useless, long and dreary. As for his baptisms and compaternities, they are good for nothing but making friends.(xx) What on earth is he saying? I cannot comprehend it…’
The priest feigns a Latin tongue:
‘Omini Patri, fiddle dee Sanctus, Maria Eternum, quim quack nominee, Jesu Christi, nosy nostrum, spiritu ergo, agam, egot; nobilly nobis. Amen…’
When the priest has finished the Ave, Claude climbs upon the altar and declares:
‘Mary is not the mother of God; she is the vessel of flesh in which Jesus Christ was shadowed forth!’
The priest is so outraged, that he beats Claude with the crucifix and chases him out the door. ’Tis then I spot a golden trinket gleaming in the aisle. I stoop to pick it up, wary that my bum-cheeks are showing. The congregation jeers but I’m too absorbed in my find to care. I retrieve a strange polished stone with two “faces” separated by a vein of gold that runs through the middle. Returning with the gem, I show it to the milkmaids who want it for themselves. I recall the Janus and suspect he has lost it.
The congregation has gone. I’m alone, curled in a dark corner beside a tomb table. A black shroud is drawn tight over my head so that I’m completely invisible. And I say to myself:
‘The world thinks I’m mad. I do not belong on earth. Perhaps I’m dead. Perhaps I haunt this place…’
I have vague recollections of hidden treasure – an amphora of gold buried in a pond. ’Tis just a foolish dream, but how I long to be rich! Then the Virgin whispers from the altar:
‘With the riches that Satan shall give, you will never be satisfied, however much you possess. He who has, will always want more. And you will have neither pause nor end, for this world is not the realm of stability; and all that is of Satan is only passing and doomed to destruction…’(xxi)
I kneel and plead for Her pardon; and ask that She might accomplish Her will in me. But a mocking devil purrs from the crypt:
‘Vain fool! ’Tis pride to have holy desires and imitate the saints. ’Tis a mortal sin to long for martyrdom. You are but a sinner and condemned in the eyes of God. The deeds of the saints are for your admiration, not your imitation. And what is that trinket you have in your pocket?’
’Tis then I see other gems littering the floor. One is white onyx and shaped like an oyster. When I pick it up the entire church fills with Light. A Lamb appears on the altar, standing as it were slain, having seven horns and seven eyes: which are the seven Spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth.(xxii)
The Virgin says:
‘Only the Lamb which is slain is worthy to receive power and divinity, wisdom and strength, honour, glory and benediction….’(xxiii)
I was put to the question by the Grand Inquisitor of heretical error. He racked my bones, pulled my teeth and branded my flesh with hot irons. But when I awoke, I found that I was lying on a sharp straw that poked through the mattress…
Yet I was still asleep; for I heard a great trumpet resound in the skies. I ran to the window and saw a profound abyss, narrow deep and dark, wherein a mighty stone was thrown down from the heavens, and fell to earth in plumes of golden fire. And the valleys were swallowed up with the hills; and the woods were rent from their roots and hurled into pits of smoke. And I cried out:
‘The Earth is destroyed!’
Whereupon I awoke in bed.
Odo came beside me and asked:
‘My son, why do you weep?’
So I recounted my dream and he said softly:
‘My son, you have witnessed the Apocalypse, and the secret of how the earth shall be razed before the Second Coming of Christ.’
I spy a box of coloured candles. Flickering wicks of turquoise, red and blue. Tracts of molten wax, dripping in a copper bowl. A spatula mixing tallow into a fleshy pink. Then I hear brother Jean say:
‘Both heart and lungs are normal…’
I float to the vault and peer down on the scene. Jean is dissecting a corpse. The body is laid out on a bloody slab of slate, the rib-cage prized wide apart. The face has been flayed to the bone and the neck eviscerated down to the windpipe. Both legs are sawn off above the knees, and the arms amputated at the shoulders. The bowels are hollowed out, and the entrails lie coiled in a pan of scales. Jean probes amid the groin whilst two artisans model the corpse in wax. They work swiftly, creating an exact copy, nerve for nerve, vessel for vessel. Their skill is so great that I cannot tell the difference between the real corpse and its waxen image. I know that body; despite the facial dissection, I recognise the orbits. But the name evades me. Then Jean pulls back a flap of tissue and says:
‘Extraordinary, it even had a womb. Look…’
I scream and fly out the window.
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2010
i. Ecclesiastes, 34:2.
ii. Ecclesiastes, 34:4.
iii. C. G. Jung. ‘The Meaning of Psychology For Modern Man,’ originally published as “Ueber Psychologie,” Neue Schweizer Rundschau (Zurich) I (1933) no. 1, 21-28, and no 2, 98-106.
iv. W. R. Greg, ‘Enigmas of Life,’ ed. 1892, pp. 256, 257, 259. J. S. Mill. ‘Three Essays on Religion,’ ed. 1874, p. 211.
v. 2 Corinthians, 4:16.
vi. In some Occitan texts, the wandering of the dead is presented as equivalent to Pergatory, while the place of rest is equivalent to the Garden of Eden.
vii. Isaias, 29:8.
viii. Fournier’s Register, ii. 38-9.
ix. From an account of a UFO encounter listed in the APRO microfilm # 1.
xi. Deuteronomy, 22:5.
xii. A common Occitan belief was that souls of the dead returned to visit their ostal on Saturday nights, for they still had an interest in the living and the upkeep of their earthly abode.
xiii. John, 1:29.
xiv. Mark, 12:27.
xv. John, 6:64.
xvi. Romans, 7:5.
xvii. John, 18:16.
xix. Berthold of Ratisbon complaing of lay folk taking Mass. Clergy and People’, p.300. ‘From Saint Francis to Dante’ by C.G. Coulton.
xx. Fournier’s Register, iii. 185.
xxi. Fournier’s Register, iii.130-31.
xxii. Apocalypse, 5:6.
xxiii. Apocalypse, 5:12.
Image credit: ‘Dreamers’ by Albert Moore (1882).