The_Externalist

Court Transcript

JACQUES. I kept a low profile and continued with my writing in the Day Room, copying verses from the exemplar of Genesis. Occasionally the brethren would gather round to marvel at my script, or sit by the fire and discuss the plight of the abbey. They all had haunting tales of tipping tables, flying cups and phantom hands.

But the many explanations furnished by Alfred did nothing to convince Ricon, who was less concerned with the demon, and more interested in disrupting my studies. Not content with poisoning my gruel, he took great pleasure in destroying my work…

Jacques is telling it…

As Ricon passes my desk he kicks the legs and upsets the inkwell:

‘Oh brother Lazarus—you clumsy clot! Look what you’ve done. The page is ruined. Now you will have to write out the Paternoster all over again. Such a pity, when you have given so many hours and the cunning of your hands to painting such beautiful butterflies!’

He grins with glee as he screws up the page and tosses it in the fire:

‘Poor Odo will be so dismayed when he finds that you have wasted yet another piece of parchment. What excuse shall you give this time? Perhaps the demon did it? Or a ghost from the crypt? Hmm?

He chuckles and turns to the brethren who huddle round the hearth:

‘Brethren, did you see anything? Surely, ’twas not I who spoilt his parchment. I fear the goblin is about.’

The brethren scowl in silence. Wind moans down the chimney and the fire splutters and pops. Just then the door bursts open and brother Anselm shuffles down the aisle:

‘God save us all! The spirit has ransacked my kitchen! It throws everything about and keeps a noise all day. How I am supposed to cook, when my pans are tipped sideways? The fire shovel dances round the table, and the stool is placed upside down on the stove! This very morn, when I was warming my back on the chimney, something shot out from behind the door like a white rabbit…’

‘A white rabbit?’ scoffs Ricon. ‘How very devilish.’

‘Well it looked like rabbit,’ says Anslem, ‘– but as for its true shape and size, I cannot be sure. I saw a hairy body with two red eyes. The demon puts stones in the bread and cinders in the gruel…’

‘Cinders?’ chirps Ricon, ‘No wonder the gruel tastes like ashes and bread is so coarse it cracks my teeth!’

‘Fool!’ scorns Anselm. ‘You think this a joke? Cooking for you lot is hard enough without any arms. Could you make sauces with naught but two withered hands sprouting from your shoulders? Or chop carrots? Or stuff a goose? Well? No, I thought not. But you still see fit to insult my cuisine. There’s a goblin about, I tell you!’

‘Then give me a hundred sous, and I will rid the house of all disturbance.’

‘Why do you mock me so?’ asks Anselm.

‘Because I cannot accept such absurd claims. A goblin? The assertion is not only false, ’tis perfectly ridiculous. I’ll wager your white rabbit was nothing but a wisp of smoke—you’re always burning something.’

Anselm stamps his foot:

‘’Twas not smoke, you dunce! It makes such a racket with my cupboards: the doors fling open and shut all day long! Oh! I cannot stand it!’

The cook is on the verge of tears and his withered hands quiver with ire. Then the door creaks open and prior Odo looms on the threshold:

‘What’s the meaning of all this? What are you shouting about? You flout the rule of silence with impunity!’

‘Forgive us father prior,’ fawns Anselm. ‘But I was just telling Ricon about the goblin.’

‘Indeed, he was prior. But I refuse to believe a word of it. I think Anselm’s goblin is naught but an excuse for his poor culinary art.’

‘How dare you!’ snaps Anselm, growing red in the face.

The prior shakes his head in disdain:

‘Brother Ricon, why do you doubt the witness of your brethren? Why do you deny what others see and hear? Are you so closed to the realm of spirit that you must deny the evidence of your own senses? You think we are deceived, or worse, are deceiving ourselves? If this is the case, then why do you insist that your perceptions remain true and incorruptible? Are you so pure and holy that you are immune to these deceptions of the devil? Why do you deny the haunting outright? The evidence is all around, but you remain closed even to the possibility. I put it to you that this devil is deceiving you far more than you are willing to admit. In fact, I would go as far to say, that the only one deceived here is you.’

‘Me? Nay prior. My eyes and ears are wide open. You think me deaf and blind? Common reason advises me that your senses delude you. I know for a fact that my senses have been given to me by Nature for my own preservation and happiness, and not by some malignant demon who is out to deceive me. As for these unaccountable noises and disturbances, I am sure they have a rational explanation. You will forgive me prior, but you use the fallacy of the senses to conceal your own ignorance.’

‘Oh? And just how are we ignorant?’ asks Odo.

‘In every way. Most of all, you are ignorant of the true cause of these disturbances.’

Odo shuts the latch, walks calmly to the hearth, and confronts him face to face:

‘Well brother Ricon, if you’re so clever, how do you account for the pallets flying through the air?’

‘I can’t prior. Though I suspect one or more of us is playing tricks. Perhaps the lay brethren hold a grievance against us. But goblins and white rabbits? Please, do not insult my intelligence. All these things are just deceptions of the senses.’

A wry smile comes to the prior’s lips:

‘Our senses err, but yours do not? Is that what you are trying to say? We are deluded, but you are not? What’s the matter with you? You were locked in the latrine: you did not see what happened. Yet you claim your powers of perception are so much greater than ours! I put it to you, that what you call “deceptions of the senses” are but false conclusions and prejudices, rashly drawn from the evidence of your own senses. Yours is the acquired perception of a sceptic. You are just one amongst many. Why do you doubt the testimony of your brethren? We saw ghosts and demons. Fact. Do you fear what cannot be explained? Or is it that you deny the indwelling of this visible world by an invisible, yet existent world of spirit?’

‘What you describe is impossible,’ declares Ricon. ‘Palettes flying through the air? Ghosts and demons? What utter nonsense. What you call a ghost is only something in the laws of Nature of which you are pitifully ignorant.’

‘Ah! But what of the Holy Ghost?’ asks Bernard.

Albert adds:

‘Ricon cannot stand the idea of ghosts: they make him feel vulnerable. And the thought of eternity frightens him—it makes feel so pitifully small, and what’s worse, it infers a moral order that he prefers to ignore.’

‘You talk too much old man,’ scorns Ricon. ‘You might convince the others with your ghostly tales, but I’ve got both my feet planted firmly on the ground.’

‘Yes, you are altogether earthly,’ replies Albert. ‘And I see little point in taking to a sceptic with a carnal mind.’

‘Yes,’ agrees Poufille. ‘Ricon’s persistent denial of the demon is quite absurd.’

‘Absurd indeed,’ adds Fabien. ‘Ricon, your love of mockery runs into scurrility; you laugh away grave arguments with jests and facetious remarks; profane jokes hover on the tip of your tongue like flies; you pay little regard to the truth of what others say, always convinced of your own self-righteousness.’

‘Oh Fabien!’ jeers Ricon. ‘What gravity and magnificence of mind! … You who spend your whole life praying for miraculous cures!’

‘And what’s wrong with that?’ scowls Fabien.

‘Ricon!’ snaps Odo. ‘You are indeed wicked, to mock brother Fabien in such a cruel and callous manner. Fabien shows great faith to pray for a miracle.’

‘Oh? And do you mean to tell me that his faith will be rewarded? When will Christ cure him? When will Christ cure me? Or brother Bernard? Or any of us for that matter? What are you saying? That our afflictions and sufferings are expedient for our salvation? Miracles? You’ve all gone stark raving mad!’

Odo shakes his head in dismay:

‘If you reject the possibility of miracles, then you negate the very idea of God, who operates outside of Nature. What has become of you brother Ricon? Do you have naught to hope for from God? What of your own afflictions?’

Ricon shrugs nonchalantly:

‘What of them? I’m happy as I am. Instead of wasting my time praying for miracles, I prefer to get on and enjoy life. Fabian can pray for a cure if he wants, but he’s wasting his time; God never answered my prayers, why should He answer his?’

Albert taps his stick on the tiles and says:

‘I fear Ricon has revealed his true colours: he is naught but an atheist who believes in the absolute independence of nature. In place of God’s providence he supplants a materialist fatalism. His prayers are mere pretences, as empty as snail shells; they have no substance and so accomplish naught; they are not forged within the fiery heart of faith but upon cold blasphemous lips which decry God for not answering. Why should Ricon care? He is done with all that; he has no recourse to the supreme being of the Cosmos. No wonder he lives life without any moral responsibility, whoring at his pleasure, and blurring the distinction between good and evil.’

‘Do not lecture me on how to live! You randy old goat! You two-faced hypocrite!’

‘How dare you! I have been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem!’

‘Yes, and we all know about your “holy” quest: drinking in taverns and lifting your frock whenever the fancy took you!’

‘Liar! I’m devout Christian who witnessed miracles at the pool of Jastheba!’

‘Miracles? You are no apostle; you have not born witness to the signs and wonders of Christ. I have prayed for miracles as hard as any man. Why should I be any less deserving of God’s grace than you? I have seen the most unworthy people living out their lives in states of grace: murderous thieves, atheist priests and heathen whores. And you say my prayers are empty! What of the other brethren? Are their prayers as empty and vapid as mine? I mean to say, if their prayers are forged in fires of faith, then why has God refused them? You want a miracle? Well you can pray ’till doomsday. Wake up you old fool! The miracles of the gospels are naught but tales penned by devious scribes.’

Albert shakes his fist and seethes:

‘Apostate! Do you deny the miracles of our own Saint Bernard, the reality of which was witnessed by multitudes throughout Germany, France and Italy? Do you deny the testimony of kings, prelates and priests, who witnessed his supernatural powers, when he brought instantaneous cures on the lame, the halt and the blind? If you deny such miracles then you are not worthy of the cowl, and you bring great shame upon Mother Church and the triumph of the faith.’

Ricon rolls his eyes in derision:

‘What would you know of such miracles? You weren’t even born! They might be true—but who can say? You scorn me for refuting your demon by the powers of reason, and exposing it as folly. But you cannot deny the possibility that miracles are nothing more than deceitful inventions to gather the faithful. Fabien might entertain the possibility of miracles because they give him hope—but they are false hopes as far as I’m concerned. You can believe what you like, but in all honesty, I cannot entertain the idea of these absurdities for a moment longer.’

And with that, Ricon steps toward the door.

‘Halt!’ cries Odo. ‘I did not give you permission to leave. This is not over yet.’

‘Oh, I think it is prior,’ retorts Ricon. ‘I’m sick to the back teeth of that simpering old fool. As if miracles could cure our flesh. Just look at us!—Never was there a band of men more deformed, freakish or forsaken!’

‘Enough!’ bades Odo. ‘Sit down. We were discussing the plight of the house. Unless you have more important business to attend to?’

Reluctantly, Ricon slumps on a stool and grouses:

‘The plight of the house… I’m well aware my plight. I’ve got holes in my breeches, rheumy bowels and constant pangs of hunger. But as for brother Anselm and his absurd demon—I’ve never heard such rot. Fire-shovels dancing round tables? Brother Anselm, I think you were drunk!’

‘I was not drunk!’ bawls Anselm, shaking a fist. ‘The demon is not absurd. You are!’

A wry smile comes to Albert’s lips. He taps his stick again, and when he is sure he has everyone’s attention, he says:

‘Man lives at the juncture of two worlds: the Natural and the Supernatural. As Plutarch wisely said: “Is it not absurd that there should be no mean between the two extremes of an immortal and a mortal being—that there cannot be in nature so vast a flaw, without some intermedial kind of life, partaking of them both? As, therefore, we find the intercourse between the soul and body to be made by the animal spirits, so between divinity and humanity there is a species of dæmons, who, having first been men, and followed the strict rules of virtue, have purged off the grossness and feculency of their earthly being, are exalted into genii. From thence they are either raised higher into an ethereal life, (if they still continue virtuous), or they tumble down again into mortal bodies, and sink back into flesh after they have lost that purity which constitutes their glorious being.”(i) Or as Empedocles himself once put it: “I well remember the time before I was Empedocles, that I once was a boy, then a girl, a plant, a glittering fish, a bird that cut the air…” ’

‘Brother Albert!’ gasps Odo. ‘Do you mean to tell me that you believe in the transmigration of souls? You sound like Cathar!’

‘A Cathar? Me? Er, no prior, of course not. I am merely trying to illustrate a point.’

‘Yes, yes, I see,’ flusters Odo. ‘That’s all very well, but you needn’t quote Empedocles or Plutarch. Need I remind you, Plutarch was a pagan priest of Apollo?’

‘Brother Albert is a heretic at heart,’ sneers Ricon. ‘’Tis no secret that he once wore a yellow cross on his back. His heresy still smoulders inside him, like an ember that refuses to die. He might have changed his garb, but a leopard cannot change its spots. When he is not lecturing us on the magic of the Jews, he is delivering Platonic sermons. Witches, genii and golems? What a load of Rabbinical rubbish. He would be better off amongst the ignorant rustics, who all believe in faeries.’

The old man shakes his head:

‘Alas, brother Ricon only understands things of the flesh; the mysteries of spirit are foolish things to him. But the wisdom of the flesh is an enemy to God.’ (ii)

‘You sanctimonious ass!’ seethes Ricon. ‘I’ll have you know that I’m as good a monk as any here. Mind your tongue. Need I remind you, that I am the abbot’s sixth son?’

‘Oh, we’re all perfectly aware of who you are,’ tuts Bernard. ‘Why are you so vexed? Could it be that Albert has insulted your vanity? Admit it brother Ricon—you’re afraid, just like the rest of us.’

‘No, I’m not.’

Albert turns to the others and says:

‘Brethren, heed what I have to say. Ricon is afraid of the demon, just as he is afraid of God. But his denial of God contradicts his own nature. For his soul burns secretly within his breast, without knowing who started the fire or whence it came, or how to flee the heat. That’s why he prefers to ignore that holy flame, and live as an animal—whoring at the henge!’

Ricon jumps to his feet and shakes his fists in rage:

‘Hold your tongue, you senile old fool! I’ve had just about enough of your stupid tales…’

‘Animal!’ snarls Albert – and he whips the air with his stick. ‘We are at war with the devil, but this low-brow beast refuses to accept the evidence!’

‘Call me a beast, if it makes you feel any better, but at least I’m not so foolish as to assume that immortality is part of earthly life…’

‘Well, if you do not believe in eternity and the world of spirits, then what are you doing here?’ scoffs Albert. ‘How can you call yourself a man of God? You are nothing but an epicurean, who holds pleasure as the highest good. You do not believe you will rise from the dead, so you live like the impious and wicked, who have no belief in the resurrection. Adeone es ignarus, ut hæc nescias? [Are you such a fool that you do not know these things?]’

Odo holds up a hand and bawls:

‘Enough! … The arrival of this demon has perplexed and frightened us all. The invisible enemy seeks our destruction; and if we fight amongst ourselves we play directly into its hands. We must stand fast and remain vigilant to our own weakness. For this demon is crafty and has set pestilential nets to ensnare us. Like a general of Hell, his perfidious aim is to divide our ranks and spread his deadly poison. His coming has cowled us in doubt and made us question many things. For when we look into our hearts, we realise that we live neither as animals, who know naught of eternity, nor as angels, who are indifferent to death. Such is the anguish of being human. But you can be sure, that whatever the cause of this haunting, God is aware of our plight. All things are in His power, both the angels in Heaven and the demons under the earth. ’Tis entirely possible that this evil spirit was sent by God to test our faith…’

‘Pah!’ scoffs Ricon, poking the fire, ‘My faith is strong enough. Give me some gold and I’ll pay the devil off…’

Albert tuts and sighs and shakes his head:

‘Alas brethren, nothing we say can convince Ricon of the truth. He is forsaken and lost. And no wonder, when he is but a simple externalist…’

‘Externalist?’ scoffs Ricon. ‘And what, pray tell, is that?’

‘An externalist is one who reasons only from the plane of sensual perceptions. Like you. An externalist is farthest from knowledge of the truth, because he mistakes the illusions of the senses for reality. Like you. An externalist is an arrogant fool, who blindly refuses the revelations of spirit, simply because his own limited powers of reasoning cannot allow for the existence of a preternatural world. Like you. As if the visible world is not proof enough! Indeed, I might say: Humana autem anima rationalis est, quæ mortalibus peccati pœna tenebatur, ad hoc diminutionis redacta ut per conjecturas rerum visibilium ad intelligenda invisibilia niteretur. Or, in the vulgar tongue: “The human soul is still rational, but in such a manner that, being by the punishment of sin detained in the bonds of death, ’tis so far reduced that it can only endeavour to arrive at the knowledge of things invisible through the visible.”(iii) Yet even these visible things the externalist denies—as he denies all revelations of spirit…’

‘Revelations?’ mocks Ricon. ‘Re-vel-ations? Oh brother, methinks you are mistaken. By your own reasoning, you are the externalist. For you mistake the external facts of Nature for your own wild imaginings; hence you misconstrue the hoot-owl for goblins, and the moaning wind for witches… As for these revelations of spirit, I am of Saint Augustine’s opinion, that “’tis better to lean towards doubt than assurance in things hard to prove and dangerous to believe.”

Albert throws up his hands in despair:

‘Alas brother Ricon, you are not Saint Augustine. And your attitude towards this demon is not one of doubt or even hesitation, but rather one of absolute, derisive, and unexamining incredulity. You are the worst kind of hypocrite: you don the cowl but are far from being Christian. You are an atheist with an irrational abhorrence of Spirits. Like Lucretius, you dote upon matter, and devoutly worship it, as if it were a God…’

‘You’re completely mad, old man. Go back to your golems and witches…’

Guillaume jumps in at the old man’s defence:

‘Brother Ricon, you would do well to listen to your elders. Why do you persist in such foolish denials?’

‘Because they are irrational.’

‘No Ricon,’ replies Guillaume. ‘You are irrational. ’Tis irrational to ignore the evidence simply because it conflicts with your preconceptions.’

‘We are going round in circles,’ sighs Odo.

‘Owls and rats!’ persists Ricon. ‘Your demons are naught but owls and rats. You have mistaken the natural for the supernatural.’

Albert chuckles to himself:

‘I must confess, I see no distinction between them.’

‘Then I rest my case,’ replies Ricon.

‘’Tis very sad –’ rejoins Albert, shaking his head, ‘…that there are monks who make it a point of honour to deny Christ and the supernatural.’

‘Very sad,’ affirms Anselm. ‘Ricon should come to the kitchens and see for himself. The demon does everything in contraries; he pilfers my pans, tips the tables, and leaves the spits in great confusion. Many diverse things are thrown about: a copper serving dish, several times, with which I got a cruel blow on the nose; a trout from a tub in the midst of the room; a firebrand, flung twice at my feet. Last week my best carving knife was carried up the chimney; moments later it shot down again with its point stuck in a ham; then a dark cloud flew out the window like a swarm of flies! I hear the demon nightly, smashing about the ovens… Oft’ it starts as a dismal whistle—or a deep lamentable groan that curdles the blood. Then all that is iron rings out like clanging bells. I cannot sleep, for my ears are aglow with the sound! Why do you smirk Ricon? You still doubt my word? Surely you have heard this ringing devil?’

‘No brother. I think your devil is simply the result of too much wine.’

‘How dare you!’ cries Anselm.

The cook is visibly distraught; his bottom lip begins to tremble and flecks of spittle gather between his teeth.

‘Calm yourself,’ grins Ricon. ‘You are confused. The explanation is quite simple: whilst sleeping, you mistook the Nocturn bell for your ringing devil.’

‘No, I am not confused, you fool! The demon is real! Christ! I should like to abandon the kitchens altogether!’

‘You can’t do that!’ exclaims Lucas. ‘What about the feast?’

‘What of it?’ replies Anselm. ‘A feast is the last of my worries. I can’t cook in such terrible conditions—not with a contrary spirit meddling with my sauces and turning my entire kitchen upside down!’

‘A contrary spirit?’ quips Ricon. ‘Then might I suggest you leave the kitchen just as you find it? In which case your mischievous sprite will have no choice but to clear it all up again…’

His joke falls flat and the monks smoulder at his obstinate denial.

‘I will attempt another exorcism before Vespers,’ suggests Odo.

‘Another?’ snorts Albert. ‘What use will that do? Clearly, your exorcism has failed. The demon simply withdrew into its hiding hole; but now it has flung back the doors and come out with a vengeance. If you attempt another rite, you will only succeed in making the fiend more angry. The fact is, no human has the power or authority to command a demon to do anything.’

‘But I adjured the spirit in the name of Jesus Christ,’ protests Odo.

‘I know you did,’ replies Albert. ‘But did you have the authority? The power to cast out demons comes not from Christ’s name, but by the authority granted by Him.’

His words are followed by a chill silence. Odo scowls resentfully at the old man, as if suddenly divested of all his office. Then Ricon turns to me and says:

‘Brother Lazarus is very quiet. I wonder what he has to say on the matter? Lazarus?’

‘I am at a loss to explain anything, Ricon.’

‘But you remain fearless.’

‘Fearless? No. I fear the haunting as much as any other monk.’

‘Is that so?’ sneers Hique. ‘Then why, at the sound of the screaming goat, did you venture into the choir alone?’

‘He did indeed,’ frowns Bernard. ‘He showed great metal for one so young. I should like some of his courage.’

‘Courage?’ sneers Ricon. ‘His blood is thinner than water.’

‘Well I thought he was very brave,’ retorts Albert.

‘Brave?’ jeers Ricon. ‘Lazarus is nothing but a coward. He might appear brave. But methinks he’s hiding something…’

‘Just what are you insinuating?’ asks Odo. ‘Leave the boy alone. You’ve had it in for him the moment he arrived.’

I squirm in my seat as Ricon clangs the poker on the hearth:

‘I have a suggestion to make. Since Lazarus is so brazen in the face of such terrible evil, let him help Anselm in the kitchen. I am sure the demon would feign to show itself in the presence of one so faithful.’

Odo ruminates, fondling his beard. At length he asks:

‘Does anyone object? Who else shall volunteer to help Anselm in the kitchen?’

‘Let the lay brethren do it,’ suggests Guillaume.

‘What!’ gasps Anselm. ‘The conversi? Are you mad? One demon is bad enough, without sending in the hordes of Hades! That unregenerate mob will clear my cupboards bare! No, I am sure that Lazarus and I shall get on very well together…’

‘’Tis settled then,’ says Odo. ‘Lazarus will begin in the kitchens tomorrow.’

The brethren glower in distrust. I feel like such a black sheep amongst so many white cowls. Hique leers at my discomfort and purrs:

‘Are you afraid, Lazarus?’

‘No Hique. I am in agreement with brother Ricon: For I am sure there is a rational explanation. Perhaps the kitchen demon is just a badger. Or a weasel come in from the cold…’

Court Transcript

JACQUES. My incredulous suggestion did naught to shift the gloom. For whilst those eerie tones rang through the walls, the demon was ever present in our thoughts. Feliz and Poufille became withdrawn and spent the afternoon shuffling round the cloister muttering prayers, like two weeping fish, walking on their tails.

My pretence at knowing nothing only aroused further suspicion. But in truth, I was perplexed by the haunting. I knew the Janus had disturbed Titanic realms. But what of the other manifestations? It seemed the abbey had become the focus of many Monads, whose interlocking spheres now encompassed the entire precinct. All dross matter had become imbued with a preternatural power. But the identity of this supernatural agent was still in question, and I could not resolve if it were from Heaven or Hell. Were those disturbed spirits the ranks of disembodied dead, rising from the ossuary to claim their stake of uncorrupted flesh?

The wicked demon continued to play many tricks but never appeared in any visible form. Oft’ it clawed me at night, yet when I took hold of the hairy hand that scratched me, it gave me the slip, and set about beating me with its fists.

Oft’ I saw misshapen phantoms, limping up the night stair and lolloping down the aisle with huge club feet. They shuffled about long after Nocturns, and even though I could not see their faces, I heard them whisper in the shadows: Oh mihi tum quam molliter ossa quiescant!” [Oh may my bones rest sweetly!] (iv). I lay very still and kept my eyes tightly shut, fearing that if I caught sight of one, something terrible would happen. How many nights I hid beneath my blanket, stricken with fear and trembling!

One evening after Vespers there came a heavy fall of snow and I was taken with a sweating fever. I got rigours, followed by a parching thirst, nausea and prickly skin. Had Ricon poisoned my cup? My tongue became swollen and black, and my limbs were crippled with spasms. Acute pains began to throb in my ears which were hot and tender to touch. Then at witching hour my bowels suddenly loosed and I had to dash for the latrine. Without a lamp, the closet was pitch black, so that I had to fumble along the lavatorium. But before I could perch my bum-cheeks, I heard a strange hissing noise. I looked in the corner and saw a thick mist wafting from a crack in the wall; it rose in a cloud and there appeared a hideous he-goat with bloodshot eyes. But what frightened me most was its long shrill bleat that seemed to mock my fallen state.

This apparition filled me with such foreboding that each night I begged Bernard for a candle. But my request was always refused. I fell into a cold delirium; the walls and vault seemed to recede until I was alone in a vast black cavern, full of stalactites and creeping things. And all the while I glimpsed the misshapen men shuffling in the darkness. Oft’ these spirits would vanish about my bed, but one dread night a ghoul slithered inside my habit and snuggled up beside me. His moulding embrace was cold and pulpy, like flanks of jellied pork. He kept me in an icy grip and whispered my name ’til Matins: “Jacqueline, Jacqueline, Jacqueline…” He was foetid as the grave.

Throughout the waning moon I was paralysed by night terrors. Afraid to sleep, I lay awake, watching Selene in the southern window. But I was always bewitched by a spell. One by one, the brethren vanished, and inch by inch, the walls closed in, as if to entomb me in stone. The vault slowly lowered, pressing down on my chest, until I lay crushed, gasping for air. Yet in all this time I remained completely mute, suffocated by fear. Then at the very verge of death, my lungs burst with a haunting wail. Odo would rush to my aid,  shake me by the shoulder, and cry: “Wake up Lazarus! You’re having a bad dream…”

These morbid phantasms always departed at dawn, when the winter sun trickled through the panes, and the cock crowed hoarse with cold. But like the other brethren, I became afraid even during the day. For the abbey was full of shadows where the walls respired in secret—wildernesses of darkness where the sun never shone—gloomy passages and derelict chambers that always felt icy cold, and ever echoed with eerie whispers. The worst of these was the cellarium—a long vaulted hall where the abbey victuals were stored for safe keeping…

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2007

i. Plutarch, ‘Plutarch’s Lives’ (Dryden trans.) vol. 1 [1906].

ii. Romans, 8:7.

iii. ‘The Existence of God’, by François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon. Section II. Moral Proofs of the Existence of God are fitted to every man’s capacity.

iv. Virgil, Bucolics; Ecloga X, line 33.

Image credit: English engraving of the Roman poet Lucretius. Drawn and engraved by Michael Burghers. From the frontispiece to Thomas Creech, T. Lucretius Carus, Of the Nature of Things, second and third editions, Oxford and London 1682–3 Reproduced from the edition by [John Digby], 2 vols., London 1714. (Wikimedia Commons).