Jacques is telling it…
Leaving the kitchen, I pass the frater and turn right through a low arched door. A blast of warm air rushes up my cowl. Before me is a cosy vaulted chamber with a great fire roaring in the centre; the mighty hearth is surrounded by four pillars which support huge lintels and a hooded chimney smeared with soot. Arched passages flank the fire on all sides, where an old hunchback sits alone, huddled by the grate.
‘Who comes?’ he croaks.
‘’Tis I, brother Lazarus.’
My horns disturb him. He bites his lip then asks:
‘Who? What’s your name again?’
‘Ah yes, I remember – the novitiate! Well, I’m brother Symon.’
‘Pleased to meet you brother.’
‘Come in child and close the door – you’re letting all the heat out.’
Clutching my pot of fat, I shut the latch and descend three steps onto a fine floor of terracotta tiles inset with white oak leaves.
‘I see the prior has you hard at work already. Have you come to daub boots?’
‘Well you had better get used to it. As novitiate, you will be given all sorts of menial tasks – anything we older monks deplore. I must admit, I used to quite like greasing boots. But now age and infirmity force me to resign official tasks. The boots are over there…’
He nods to the far wall where a wooden rack is crammed high with crumpled shoes.
‘All those!’ I gasp. ‘I’ll be here ’till doomsday!’
‘– Yes, that’s a lot of boots, isn’t it? Some of us keep more than one pair. But at least you can work by the fire. Would you like to sit with me? I’ve heard so much about you.’
‘You have? From who?’
‘Sagrit? Which monk is he? Was he in Chapter?’
‘Oh no, Brother Sagrit does not attend Chapter.’
He glances nervously at the door then adds:
‘Er, keep your voice down. We’re not allowed to talk except in the parlour, but I have many questions, and if we speak softly, we can spend the whole day in conversation. It would suit me to get into a merrier mood. My heart is sore. Last night I was overcome with grief. I’m eighty-two, you know.’
‘That’s wise old age.’
‘Ah, not so wise I fear. But I know what the abbot’s about…’
‘And what is that exactly?’
‘Him and his – you know…’ He taps the back of his head. ‘–Twin. Have you spoken with it?’
‘No. Have you?’
He pats the bench:
‘Come and sit beside me; nothing on earth could have a more positive effect on my melancholy than to speak with you. I usually sit with brother Albert – but he’s having his blood let in the infirmary. Most oft’ they do it here, beside the fire. But I sent them away. I don’t like letting blood. Leeches! Ugh! I can’t stand the sight of them. Filthy despicable things. Parasites. They start off thin as worms, but when they’ve had their fill, they’re fat as bladders. Ugh! What fiendish beasts! But according to brother Jean, they are saintly creatures. Saintly. His infirmary is a kingdom of leeches – a leechdom, I call it. Have you seen them writhing in their jars? They can’t wait to get their little teeth into you. He has names for them all. As if he could tell them apart. What folly! Leeches are his cure-all. Nothing, he swears, cannot be remedied by leeches. He has leeches for toothache, leeches for spotty skin, leeches for runny bowels, sore lips, black eyes, blocked ears, and rheumy noses – and all infirmities of the head; leeches for broken toes, severed shanks and drooping cocks; leaches for pox, pustules, piles – and every other plague man might suffer! Vile bloodsuckers. But if leeches are such good physicians, why am I so decrepit? I ask you! His cures are foul and perverse. I am covered in bed sores, which, he insists, can only be cured by leeches. Well they’ve been sucking me dry for fifty years and I’m none the better for it! And when I refuse to let his beloved leeches imbibe my precious blood, he smears my sores with goat turd and honey. Goat turd and honey! I ask you! No wonder I stink like the devil…’
‘Leeches saved my fingers from frostbite.’
‘That may be so boy, but I hate them all the same; I find the purging of blood quite absurd and always feel the worse for it. I’m sure leeches are responsible for my demise… Lately I have been seeing all kinds of questionable spirits. But the infirmarer assures me they are figments of the brains. Figments? How do you like that? What he really means is that I’m going senile. Look at me: hunched, crippled and good for naught. I can’t even hold a pen. Like an old nag, they have put me out to grass… I’m not boring you am I? Prior Odo says I can talk the hind legs off a donkey. The hind legs off a donkey! What a thing to say to an old man!’
I smile politely and put my pot by the grate. Symon’s glare makes me uneasy as he follows my every move with suspicious scrutiny:
‘Er boy, don’t put that fat too close to the fire. You’re not frying eggs; you only want to soften the lardons, not melt them entirely.’
I pull the pot away.
‘Yes, that will do, just there,’ bids Symon.
A desolate wind howls down the chimney and the flames splutter. Then Symon says:
‘You look tired my child. You have shadows under your eyes. You find the night office taxing?’
‘I couldn’t stay wake.’
‘You’ll soon get used to it. Until then, you can count on brother Belon to keep you in line. There’s nothing Belon likes more than shoving his lamp in your face. Belon is a monk with pretensions. If you ask me, he loves The Rule too much. Especially the bell…’
He sucks the air through his teeth, as if inflicted by a sudden pain:
‘Campanarum pulsator! [Ringer of bells]. I hate that bloody bell! I should like to lie in bed a little longer these winter nights. But Belon is a fastidious time-keeper.’
He draws the air through his teeth again:
‘You can always tell when Belon’s on duty; he tolls like a maniac – never measured or stately – but always fast, as if he were sounding the toscin. He’s in love with that curséd clapper. I wonder why they don’t get wed. Bell duty gives him an inflated sense of his own importance; deciding when we rise and sleep; when we pray and eat. The pompous fool thinks he controls Time itself. But he doesn’t, of course. None of us do. We all get old… and die…’
He looks vacant for a moment, then he darkens as a thought strikes him. He whispers:
‘’Tis the Devil’s work—to be conjoined with a fiend like that. No wonder the abbot is mad. Some say he was begotten of a wolf and witch. That’s why he is so ill-shapen. Deformis. Horridus. Distortus. They say his evil twin keeps him from rest by spiteful whispers: it never sleeps, but talks to him forever of such things as they only speak of in Hell… Brother Jean has conversed with it. A terrible thing he says, with a poisonous cunning mind. I should like a candle by my bed with that thing about. The precentor has his lamp, but we have naught to comfort us during the long dark hours…’
He squirms in his seat and his toes curl up in his shoes. Then his face goes entirely blank. He sits with folded arms and gazes at the flames. His clumpy brows hang like icicles over deep set eyes, and his long beard flows down his chest like a frozen waterfall. He blinks twice, then rubs his warty nose and says:
‘Do you know, I once met an anchorite who could make his eyes pop out. Not completely, but far enough to make me feel quite sick…’
He mutters a curse, whistles, then taps the back of his head again:
‘Oh, I wish I’d never seen it—that thing. It curdles the blood. It has such a wicked little voice. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but ever since Saint Clement’s Day, it has been whispering in my ear. Such terrible, terrible things. It spoke to me last night. Oh!’
‘What did it say?’
The old man bursts into tears and pules:
‘Hang yourself! Oh! Oh!’
I take his hand in sympathy:
‘You must not listen to it. Try to block it out.’
‘I’ve tried, believe me. Like a vain fool, I thought my inner castle was strong, built by so many years of devotion and prayer. But my mental fortress is no match for that evil fiend; it knows my weakness and mocks my faith.’
‘Tell me, was it you I heard, sobbing after Nocturns?’
‘Oh! I fear it was! Forgive me brother!’
‘I thought you were vexed by the abbot’s whittling.’
‘Oh no, that’s sweet music compared to Lilith’s demon voice.’
‘That’s her name.’
‘Aye. Brother Jean told me.’
‘But I don’t understand. The abbot calls it: “Our Material Father.”
‘That may be so, but his conjoined twin is in fact female. A she devil. Do you know, Lilith was the first wife of Adam? But she was such a strix that Adam couldn’t live with her. So she wed the Devil instead…’
I start trembling and pull my hand away. He wipes his nose on his sleeve then adds:
‘Material Father indeed. ’Tis heresy enough it reads the lesson; yet what would the brethren say if they knew it was a woman? The abbot wants Lilith excised. Well wouldn’t you? He has asked Jean to perform the operation many times. But Jean refuses his request. No wonder—the procedure would be fatal. She takes control of him you know. She gets the upper hand. I have spied her on the prowl, the abbot walking backwards as she led him through the wastes. Lilith leading Adam. That unnatural beast should have been smothered at birth.’
An icy wind blows under the door and eddies of dust whirl across the tiles. I step away, reeling in remembrance of Margot’s first delivery. There comes a jangle of iron and I turn to the grate where the fire-irons swing on a hook. Symon looks wide-eyed and whispers:
‘Beware Lazarus. This abbey was once an abode of light. But since the Janus came, our house has been darkened with a horrid evil. It lives… These moulding walls hide a terrible secret: it pervades every stone and corbel. She comes to you in dreams. You cannot escape her…’
Symon flinches and his right leg jerks upright. Then he grimaces in torment and claws furiously at his groin:
‘I’m itching again! Ugh! My bed is infested with fleas!’
I point to the rack of shoes:
‘There’s much to do: I had better start work or the prior will be angry…’
‘What? Oh yes, the boots. You will find some rags in the corner…’
I set about my task with Symon beside me, chomping on his tongue like a cow chewing cud. We sit in silence whilst the fire crackles and the fat melts in the pot. I diligently daub the boots, rubbing lard into every stitch and crease. After greasing ten pairs, Symon nudges me and says:
‘Do you know, I once met an anchorite who could make his eyes pop out?’
‘Yes bother, you told me all about it.’
‘Did I? Oh. He was a sage, they said. But he was most unclean and smelt of rotten eggs. I ask you, what kind of a sage is that? They said he could levitate and make himself invisible. Well, I believe such things are possible—to a saint perhaps. But then again, the gifts of divine graces are identical with diabolic possession. So perhaps he was just a rotten egg after all. For if he could work miracles, why did he resort to the crude trick of extruding his eyeballs?’
‘Perhaps he was trying to tell you something…’
‘Oh? And what would that be exactly?’
‘’Tis not for me to say.’
‘Oh please! Please! Do tell me Lazarus! I’m dying to know. What?’
‘…That the senses are obstacles to reality.’
He scowls and snaps:
‘What boy? Don’t teach your elders to suck eggs! I have spent my whole life in contemplation—trying to purge selfish desires and rid myself of the noxious cloud that surrounds us day and night. But my feet never left the floor, nor did I become invisible…’
‘Perhaps your intellect stopped you.’
‘The intellect is an impediment to God’s grace.’
‘You impudent churl! If there’s one thing I detest, ’tis arrogance in the young. You think yourself wise? Do they call you Aquinas?’
I bow my head in shame:
‘No brother, I am ignorant and stained with sin.’
‘Indeed. All Adam’s children are stained with sin.’ He beats his chest in earnest. ‘But I pray, that even with my many imperfections, I am acceptable before Christ…’
His anger passes in the blink of an eye and his face beams with love:
‘You are quite right my child. Of course you are. The knowledge of the world is paltry compared to the sweet meats of Holy Scripture. I tell you: God’s truth is like a rainbow—it recedes as fast as the intellect moves to grasp it. The ineffable is beyond the intelligible; the ineffable cannot be grasped by the intellect, but only by the illuminated heart… After my long years of study, I am sure of only one thing: what is wanted is not intelligence at all, but another attitude of mind altogether—spiritual intuition. How else could Thomas Aquinas, that dumb ox of Sicily, have become so great a theologian? But spiritual intuition can not be taught; it comes by God’s grace alone, and no amount of prayer, fasting or study, makes the slightest bit of difference…’
He falls mute and looks stark raving mad, opening and shutting his eyes, as if to dispel some troublesome sight. His blue-grey irises are ringed with milky bands and cloudy plaques drift across the pupils. Then he declares:
‘There was a certain Abbess of Schonau who would remain motionless and breathless for hours at a time. Whilst in this state she was given revelations from blessed spirits, and when revived would commence a divine discourse, sometimes in German, her native tongue, but sometimes in Latin – although she had no knowledge of that language. No one ever doubted her sincerity, and not a single scholar could refute her arguments.’(i)
He ruminates whilst picking his nose, then adds:
‘Long ago I made pilgrimage to the North. And I heard of a sorceress who by means of a magic potion changed a young Bergundian into a beast.(ii) A beast, I tell you. He had the teeth and claws of a bear, with brown fur on his back.’
‘Is such a thing possible?’
‘Of course. Man is a duality of spirit and flesh, and may become anything at all.’
‘Well I met a shepherd who once lived as a horse; and in the life before that, he was an ox.’
‘Ah! You speak of the transmigration of souls – a great heresy of the hills – but that is not what I mean. I refer to the flesh and its essence. The essence of flesh is a great mystery. By virtue of this essence, Adam and the Patriarchs lived to an extreme age. The elixir of Life can make the old young and revive those at the gates of death. Now the Adamic flesh is earth, and cannot enter heaven, but must return to dust, from whence it came. Only the elixir of life can make the flesh immortal. Yet by dark forces, the same elixir can transform one creature into another. They say a spirit cannot appear except in a body suitable to its nature. But a witch can turn you into anything she chooses. Transmogrification is a power granted by demons…’
‘You know much about magic.’
‘There was a time when I knew many forbidden things, but alas, I have forgotten them… Oft’ I awake and don’t know where I am. I can’t even recall my own name. I find myself amid strangers. But when I behold the crucifix shining on the altar, the world comes back to me. Only Christ can clear these cobwebs from my mind. Friends come, friends go, and all of them are fickle. Desires and passions wane; memories fade and die; nothing stays the same. I sometimes think I have left the world behind – or it has passed me by. Either way, I shall be glad to see the back of it. Oft’ my yearning for God is so great, that I cannot eat…’
Symon stares, disconcerted and bemused:
‘Er, who are you boy? What’s your name again?’
‘Are yes. Brother Lazarus. The abbot’s seventh son, who returned from the dead…’
‘So they say.’
‘Tell me, what happened when you died in the snow?’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘You can’t remember?’
‘What? Nothing at all?’
‘Nothing. It’s a complete blank.’
‘Well that is most unfortunate. Do you know, I died when I was seven?’
‘You did? How?’
‘I fell from a tree and split my head on a stone. I lay paralysed in bed for a whole week. I couldn’t speak nor open my eyes. Yet throughout this time I saw and heard everything. I had left my body and was floating in the rafters. Don’t you believe me?’
‘Of course I do brother.’
‘’Tis hard to believe such things, I know. But I speak the truth. Do you think I’m mad?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Then you are the single minority. The other brethren think I’m a raving lunatic.’
‘How long were you dead?’
‘I’m not exactly sure: it must have been at least thirteen hours. On the ninth day, I stopped breathing altogether. They were about to bury me when I opened my eyes.’
‘But how did you return to your body?’
‘An angel sent me back, you see.’
‘What was he like?’
‘Oh, he was very tall and beautiful, with long silver hair and a gleaming white robe. He said I was not ready to enter the Light. I was very cross with him. I did not want to return to earth. Not at all. This earthly realm is cold and dark compared to the majesty of the Light.’
‘Did you see heaven?’
‘No. All I saw was the Light. I cannot describe it in words. I was in a place that was no place. Yet there was this Light—shining before me like an orb. I spent a long time watching it. And I marvelled at its beauty and purity. ’Twas more radiant than the sun yet gentle as a candle flame. Then I started moving toward it, floating like a feather, until I was completely engulfed by it. I was dissolved in the Light. Dissolved. Do you follow?
‘Were you not afraid?’
‘Not at all my child. Entering the Light was like going home. It knew me. I was part of it. You are part of it. The Light embodies everything. There is no separation in the Light. The Light is the source of all things. But the Light is not a thing in itself. The Light is unchanging, eternal, uncreated. ’Tis an inward Light. Do you follow?’
‘You mean God?’
‘You might call it God, but I did not see an old man with a beard. I only saw an orb.’
‘You saw nothing else?’
‘Like what for example? You obviously have something in mind. What are you suggesting?’
He scowls and knits his brows:
‘Faeries? No boy, I am happy to say, the Light was quite devoid of faeries. You would do well to forget such childish tales. I saw only an orb shining like the sun. But as I said, the ineffable cannot be grasped by the intellect. Perhaps the Light appeared as an orb because I needed something to define it by. ’Tis a great mystery.’
‘What happened next?’
‘I felt myself gliding down a long tunnel. I was returning to my heavenly home. Oh, I was so happy. There was so much love in that holy place: I could feel it pulling me onward. Up! Up! Up! The Light was getting brighter and brighter. At the end of the tunnel I came to a threshold of dazzling gold. There were two pearly gates, taller than the nave. The floor was made of luminescent jewels – too wondrous to describe. I longed to enter the gates but for some reason I hesitated and looked back. Then I saw the world I left behind, twinkling like a vision in a crystal ball. I saw the mountain ostal in which I was born, with its little chimney puffing smoke, and my poor mother weeping at my bedside. My earthly life seemed quite insubstantial—like a piece of flimsy parchment with no substance at all. And no sooner had I looked back, than the angel appeared. He said I could not enter Paradise for ’twas not my appointed time. I was so angry. I argued with him for what seemed like days. But he just smiled all the while and nodded his head. Then finally he said that if I entered the gates, my mother would die from grief. I felt very guilty for leaving her behind. In that instant, I was back in my body, wide awake, with my mother kissing my face.’
‘That is a surely miracle.’
‘Yes, but I was full of melancholy. Because all I wanted was to be with the Light. You do believe me, don’t you, boy?’
‘Yes brother, most certainly I do.’
I long to tell Symon of my own death – but since my sojourn was to infernal realms, I decide to keep silent. Besides, why should I incriminate myself? Some crimes are too grievous to confess. As for the rapine priest I bludgeoned to death, he can stay in hell where he belongs. And what of the minorite I burnt in the church of Monselle? That pedlar of false relics got his just deserts. His ashes cannot speak.
Symon grins and adds:
‘Not long after my resurrection, I decided to become a monk. But when the Devil saw that I had given myself to God he became very vexed. For the Devil hates nothing more than to see a bodily soul gain spiritual knowledge and the favour of Christ. At first the Devil tried to tempt me by open sinning—for like brother Hique, I was very partial to meat and all sweetness of the senses. Yet when I resisted temptation, the archfiend swelled my heart with pride. I was such a fool. By taking up the cowl, I sought to be nearer God; but with all my cloistered pleasures, I was closer to the hellmouth. One day when I was picking peas, the Devil appeared as an enormous hound, which transformed into a blazing fire and made a noise like burning gorse. He came again on All Saint’s Eve – as a beautiful girl who tempted me on the night stair. That’s how the Devil tricks us, so that we might fall into heresies, fantasies and other bodily mischiefs… I have been in cloister for fifty-two years. That’s a long time to be fighting the Devil. Yet when I recall the Light, it seems like only yesterday… I used to enjoy life in the abbey. But now the days are tiresome, the nights too short, and both are full of trouble… Senility is a terrible curse. I have pains in my joints, gout in my feet, and rheum in my head. I’m mostly blind and deaf. Look at my crippled hands: I can hardly dress or cut my meat. Enjoy youth whilst you can my child. There’s nothing more maddening or humiliating than old age…’
The fire glows with a blood-red lustre which flickers on the walls, illuming his face with a merry glow. Symon perks up and declares brightly:
‘Oh I do enjoy having someone to talk with. I’m not boring you am I? Nobody heeds a word of what I say nowadays. I repeat myself. Prior Odo says I can talk the hind legs off a donkey. The hind legs off a donkey! What a thing to say to an old man.’
‘You may be old, but you’re wiser than most.’
‘You flatter me child—as the Delphic oracle flattered Socrates, when she pronounced him the wisest man of Greece. Do you know what Socrates replied? He modestly made answer: “If I am wise, ’tis because I alone of all the Greeks know that I know nothing.”’
‘But you know more than the priests.’
‘My mind is not as sharp as it used to be. But I still enjoy reading. Do you know, I have read every book in the armarium at least twice. My favourite author is Cicero. Oh, he was a great political speaker. “If the end that befell Gaius Caesar does not persuade you that ’tis better to inspire affection than terror, then no words anyone can utter will have the slightest effect or success…” (iii) How true. Now, Father Odo is as fine an orator as Cicero, if not better. He speaks the truth plainly, however terrible it may be; yet he always tempers our fears with affection and spiritual insight. Take Chapter, for example: yes, that was a fine speech indeed. There is nothing squalid or mean in the prior’s character at all – unlike the abbot who spurns his sheep and neglects his duties. He rarely attends Chapter or the night office. He obeys the voice of Lilith, not god…’
‘Tell me, do you believe what Gélis said about the pagan temple?’
‘I have no reason to disbelieve him. Why should he lie? He has naught to gain by it.’
‘I wonder what the abbot found there? Bright Light. What can it mean?’
‘I dare not think. A cold blood might stir about my heart. Whatever it was, ’tis best left alone.’
‘It sounds most mysterious brother…’
‘Mysterious, yes. For there is a world of soul within this world of matter; the two are fused as one, but both are caused by the world of spirit. Yet within these worlds are other numinous realms, visible and invisible… Bright Light—it could mean so many things. The abbot is obsessed with Cabbalistic mysteries… ’Tis perilous to concern yourself with such things. Remember what I said at Chapter: all diviners and seers of visions shall be confounded.’
‘But are you not just a little curious?’
‘Not at all. I would rather be torn by horses than contemplate the abbot’s business. Deceitful divinations, lying omens, and the dreams of evildoers are vanity.(iv)’
He withdraws in his cowl like a snail, retracting his hands up his sleeves. Then he muses wistfully:
‘Yes, father Odo is a fine orator indeed… How great were the monks of old… Men of Christ, widespread in their temporal powers. United in brotherhood, they built this great abbey. My father was an abbot of this house. Did you know that? Oh, my father was a great man; he had spiritual sway over the hearts and minds of many. His monks were noble souls, gifted with wisdom, sanctity and eloquence. Leaders of the people, honoured in their generation and by the glory of their works. But our abbot’s evil seed has done away with all that. Oh, the Janus is a great builder, I will give you that, but his heretical art infests this house with evil. The monks of old were buried in honour. But now they must be turning in their graves…’
He looks lost again and relapses into silence, chomping on his tongue. At length, he mutters:
‘Five thousand feet. That’s a long way down. No wonder the Janus is busy weaving rope…’
‘Aye, he’s at it night and day.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I saw him with my own eyes.’
‘I can’t remember when. ’Twas many moons ago. I ventured into the nave after Nocturns. And there he was, twisting rope with a wheel. He had cords of hemp stretched up and down the aisle – several hundred feet at least.’
‘But why didn’t you say something?’
‘The brethren are disturbed enough. Demons with fire shovels. Besides, the abbot would only deny it. And who can prove what rope is for? Oh, he’s always planning one mad scheme or another: a dovecote here; a bell tower there; a private camera. All these things need rope. I can hear him now: “By a pulley-rope, stone is lifted to the ramparts; by a pulley rope, grain is let down into the cellar. By a pulley-rope, timber is raised to the rood loft. What is heretical about pulley-rope?” Oh yes, he is very crafty. He has an excuse for everything. But mark my words: no good will come of it…’
He scowls and falls silent again. Then he chirps:
‘– Do you know, I once met an anchorite who could make his eyes pop out? He must have strained very hard—like holding a sneeze or forcing the bowels. I cannot think why he would want to do such a thing. ’Twas such a grisly sight: his eyeballs poking out like bloodshot orbs. Perhaps he didn’t intend it at all; perhaps ’twas just an affliction—like a nervous twitch? What do you think?’
‘An affliction, yes, most certainly.’
‘Hmm… He gave me an elf-arrow head, being in fact made of flint, and used for arrows in ancient times. But what became of it I wonder?… Ah yes! I remember! Father abbot took it. I should like it back. Confiscated… He confiscates everything. He keeps all our belongings. We’re not allowed them. Not even a pebble. I had a lock of my mother’s hair but he stole it away. How cruel is that? I mean, what could he possibly want with my mother’s hair? Do you know, he entertains women in his lodgings? Whores from the dark wood. They hold wild orgies there. Orgies. They make ruck all night long.’
The day passes slowly whilst Symon repeats himself ad-infinitum. But I’m happy in my work and by Sext have daubed over thirty pairs of boots. Symon grabs my arm and beams:
‘Oh, I do enjoy talking with you brother! No one speaks with me any more. I bore them all to death with my senile tales. Do you know, when I was a boy, there was a witch who lived in the dark wood. The devil’s daughter, they said. She committed many abominations with demons of all kinds.’
‘Do you believe it?’ ask I, stirring the fat with a stick.
‘Of course. She killed my poor father.’
He falters, half-choked with tears:
But then his grief turns to rage and he snarls:
‘I hope the Devil has dragged her, body and soul, to hell!’
‘What ever did she do?’
‘She cursed this house, that’s what. ’Twas many years ago, when I was just a boy. My father was abbot – and like all lords, he loved to hunt. One morn when he was riding in the fields, he came upon some churls tilling the soil. They all bowed before him—except this witch who refused to kneel. When my father commanded fealty she cursed him instead. ’Twas terrible to behold: she went completely mad, as if possessed by Satan himself; she scratched her face and mangled her hair; she ran pins into her flesh, and by such strange means brought about my fathers end. For shortly after, he was bitten by a black cat and died from the wound—a mere pinprick, but lethal all the same. Now this whole house lives under her curse…’
I stop and stare him in the eye. His tale has all the sting of a scorpion. For who was that witch but Margot’s mother! She who defied the abbot in the furrows! She who led the peasants to revolt! She who was flayed with stirrups and hung from the gallows tree! Oh Satan, what fate you weave!
‘That woman was no witch,’ say I.
‘Fool!’ snaps Symon. ‘What would you know about it? You weren’t even born.’
‘I know more than you think. That woman you call witch was just a poor midwife, without a pullet to her name. And her memory should be honoured.’
‘Honoured?’ sneers Symon. ‘Honoured? Are you mad? What are you saying?’
‘She was a good woman.’
‘Good woman? Hold your tongue! How dare you contradict me! She was a witch. I should know, she killed my poor father!’
He wheezes in distress, slapping his ribs with his fists:
‘Good woman? Good woman? There wasn’t a good bone in her body! She was a witch. A witch I tell you! A wicked witch who got her just deserts! I should know—I was there, you were not. Would I tell a lie? Am I not deserving of your respect?’
His fit subsides, leaving him breathless and flushed. He swallows hard and returns my glare in defiance:
‘A witch, I tell you.’
‘But brother, how could she be a witch, when she couldn’t even do enough magic to raise a loaf of bread?’
He wags a crooked finger:
‘Beware. A witch is full of deceit and will curse any monk at the drop of a hat. We are all damned by the fall of Lucifer and his devils. His invisible legion is about us, even as we speak. Some devils fell in the air, some in fire, some in water, and some in earth: in which elements they still remain. But a witch can conjure them out with Satan’s aid. There’s no protection but in Jesus Christ, our living saviour, who conquered Death and the Devil… You shall never enter the Light if you make pacts with witches. Do you understand Lazarus?’
‘Oh yes brother. I understand perfectly.’
A burning desire for vengeance stirs in my bosom. But once again I hear the Virgin’s instruction:
‘Lazarus, if you keep my commandments, it shall be well with you…’
Yet when I think of Margot and her poor mother, flayed to death by the White Monks, my blood runs cold.
‘Are you sure that witch has gone to hell?’ ask I.
‘I fear you are mistaken. She dwells in the Light.’
‘You stupid ass!’ seethes Symon. ‘The Light? If you believe that, then what are you doing here? Asinus in unguento. [An ass among perfumes]. ‘The Light? How can a witch dwell in the Light?’
‘I have it on good authority that she was not a witch at all. She was a wise woman who worshipped the one true God.’
‘Wise woman? She was a heathen hag! All the gods of the heathen are demons, and don’t you forget it. The Devil is full of ingenious tricks; He is always ready to imitate God, as well as any other thing, which is easy for Him to do; for He is a spirit of Air – like an ignis fatuus, or ball of wild fire; He can transport from one place to another in an instant; and ’tis a simple matter for Him to lure a witch or any other soul, and steal them away…’
He is struck by a hideous thought:
‘Which makes me wonder… how you got here… in such deep snow… without track or trace for miles around…’
Then he screws up his face in utter contempt and snarls:
‘Who – are – you? And how do you know of the witch who killed my father? Where are you from?’
‘I come from her village. But you need not fear: I’m your friend.’
He jumps up and gibbers:
‘Friend? Oh, no, no. You’re no friend of mine. You’re a devil! That’s what you are!’
He dodders round the hearth, ranting and raving:
‘Be gone! Be gone!’
‘Be still brother, I beg you!’
He takes the poker and beats the grate, hissing:
‘Maleficent fiend! You can’t deceive me. You were sent by the Devil!’
‘Hush! Don’t say that! It’s not true!’
‘Dæmon cornutus! [Horned demon].’
‘Brother, you have made a terrible mistake. You condemn me by a false judgement.’
‘I know a devil when I see one. You have come to sow discord and disaster. Be gone, or they will hang you from the gallows tree!’
I snatch the poker and plead for calm but he cowers away, waving his arms and bawling:
‘Devil, devil, devil!’
We scuttle round the hearth as the fat bubbles with excitement. I clasp him from behind and bid:
‘Be still brother! Fight me no more. You are rooted in immeasurable error. I came to cloister in good faith. ’Twas not the Devil who sent me, but the blessed Virgin.’
But he wiggles out, crying:
He struggles with flaying arms, clawing at my face and horns. In the tussle, he falls back against the hearth, knocking the pot of fat which topples in the grate…
A sudden flash.
A torrent of liquid fire.
A great sheet of flame billows round the chimney. Symon shrieks as his cowl ignites, flames leaping up his arms and dancing on his haunch. I beat upon his back but the wool is soaked with fat which sizzles on my palms. The old man is all ablaze, swiping at the air as he totters back and forth.
Snatching his cowl, I pull him low and we roll upon the floor, wheezing beneath a layer of noxious brown vapour. Disorientated, I fumble for the wall. Then, grabbing his ankles, I drag him towards the door. There comes a conflagration of sparks that shoot out in all directions. The pot explodes in a fervid shower and jets of fire spurt from the grate. Tongues of flame whirl about the tiles like dancing devils. My cowl begins to smoulder. I’m doomed! For all my good intent, disaster stalks me like a wolf.
Yet how beautiful the fire! I behold a thousand salamanders leaping in the air – flaming reptiles(v) of yellow, red and gold. The elementals hold me rapt. Fire is birth. Fire is Death. Fire is transmutation. I watch, spellbound and bewitched. The vault is a firmament of flame – like some vision of eternity – a majestic dome of fire, rolling in endless coruscations.
The hearth is now a raging crucible and the lintels splinter in the searing heat. I stumble on, gasping in the acrid fumes. With every step, salamanders gather at my feet, licking my shanks with rasping tongues. The chamber churns with inky smoke and the fire becomes an obscure glow, lost in Venusian clouds. Both above and below are phantoms of the past—the burning Minorite, the slaughtered priest, and the witch hanging from the gallows tree.
‘Run for your life!’
I cannot deny it: I long to drop the monk and flee.
‘Yes! He is old, mad, and tired of the world. But you have many golden years ahead. The bounding pulse of youth flows strong in your veins. You are predestined for great exploits. I have many wonders to show you. Would it be so wrong to save your own skin?’
Despite my sinful doubts, I remain steadfast and drag Symon to the door. Yet his cumbersome bulk constantly fights against me. Half-blind, I spy three steps looming on the threshold. A rushing wind howls beneath the sill as the chimney draws air from the alley. Coughing and spluttering, I tug the monk over the first step. But his hump scrapes the riser and his melted flesh peels off in bloody ribbons. He wails in agony, gripping the jambs with his fists.
‘Let go you stupid man! I’m trying to save you!’
I pull harder and we ascend the second step. Somehow he knocks his head and a trickle of blood oozes from his nose. He clasps the jambs tighter and sobs:
How the brethren will suspect me! The devil from the wastes who sows fire and death! I will surely be flogged, defrocked or hung. I curse God for my fate. Were all my vows for naught?
‘Run you fool! Flee to the woods!’
But the Virgin retorts:
‘If you keep my commandments, it shall be well with you.’
In a last ditch attempt, I kick Symon’s hands from the jambs and heave him over the third step. Groping for the latch, I fling the door wide. The fire roars back to life, twice as ravenous, razing and fierce. There comes another explosion and we stagger out in a purling ball of flame.
I lurch into daylight like a demon of Gehenna, my cowl and horns ablaze. To my utter astonishment, I have saved the monk. With Symon still in my grasp, I lumber across the alley we fall in the drifts: a cold and loving embrace.
The bell sounds the toscin as monks dart round the arcades, crying: “Fire! Fire!”
Guillaume comes wading through the drifts, crossing the garth in colossal strides. He kneels beside me and begins smothering my legs with snow. I lie in shock, staring at the sky, my scorched hands steaming in the icy air.
‘What happened?’ asks Guillaume.
‘A pot of fat…’ I rasp. ‘He thought I was the devil.’
I grow faint as the bell tolls my name:
‘Dev-il! – Dev-il! – Dev-il!’
Pails of water are ferried round the alleys and tossed pell-mell into the warming house which hisses with dissent at every splash. Symon lies motionless, his body burnt to a crisp. The side of his face has melted away, revealing a grisly grin and the innards of his nose. His sooty lips, once so eloquent and wise, are now silent and dumb. He stares at the skies in abject terror, his eyeballs bulging like bloodshot orbs. The anchorite’s premonition.
I wail at the heavens:
‘Bring him back! Oh Symon! Please don’t die!’
Guillaume puts an ear to the old man’s chest and listens for a pulse. At length he pulls away and mutters:
‘He has gone to the Father.’
And with these words I expire in the drift…
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2002
i. Cited in ‘The Phantom World’ by Augustin Calmet, 1850. First documented by Abbot Trithemius. The abbess of Schonau died in 1165. She is better known as Saint Elizabeth.
iii. Cicero. The first Philippic against Marcus Antonius.
iv. Ecclesiastes, 34:5.
v. The elemental salamander is not an amphibian, but a reptile.