Unus_Mundus_Snowflakes_Montage

Jacques is telling it…

I

I am out of the body, drifting amid flakes of purest snow, weightless, one of them, the extent of my entire being lost in crystals of indescribable beauty. Silently, tenderly, I float in a space that is not a space, but another reality altogether. I have no material eyes, yet observe a lustrous light that permeates all things. And so perfect is this peace, that I dare not disturb it with a single thought. I fall eternally, tossed in endless flurries: up, down, north, east, south and west. I peer into vitreous seeds of ever new forms, that grow like limpid glass with fragile spines and fantastic corrugations. All at once I am consumed by a diaphanous flake, surrounded in hexpartite cells that glint with radiant rainbows. I seem to float for an illimitable time. Then I hear the most wondrous unearthly voice:

‘You did well Jacques…’

’Tis the fairy from the meadow.

‘Grazide! Where are you?’

‘I am all around you.’

‘Am I dead?’

‘You are lost in the abyss of Divine Life; in the midst of a hidden world no mortal has ever seen; a place where reason cannot follow, beyond the little minds of men.’

‘Come out Grazide. Let me see your face.’

‘My face is hidden from you.’

‘But I saw you in the flowers.’

‘I have many aspects. Do you like my snowflakes? Such infinite variation and multiplicity! All are of one substance, yet each is unique.’

‘I am lost. I fear what you truly are. ’Tis hard to know if I am mad, or a soul who suffers diabolic temptations.’

‘You must pray.’

‘I don’t know how to pray. I am nothing. I feel dirty. Unworthy. I am a miser. I have impure thoughts. I don’t understand. I don’t understand anything…’

‘You have asked for many graces. Shall you glimpse my secretum secretorum [secret of secrets]? I manifest in sacred ways of which the world has no understanding. I am the reality behind the veil. Look to me and none other. The more inward your life, the closer we become. My body is your body…’

‘Draw near blessed Lady!’

‘Alas, you are not ready. If I approached, you would not endure it.’

She fades away as the snowflakes melt and vanish one by one.

A sense of materialisation—of embodiment and incarnation—like amber suffusing my soul, seeping into my bones. That pristine realm of tumbling flakes has gone and I flounder in a mire of deformity – the fluxes of flesh – with all its ebbs and flows, humours and secretions. ’Tis then I behold the most vile, ugly and repugnant sight I have ever seen: the foliate face on the infirmary vault. It amused me when I first saw it all those weeks ago. But having come from that perfect place, it offends my sight and makes me want to vomit. The notion that I must spend a life in this monstrous body fills me with grief. Then something cold and slimy licks my cheek. My heart leaps in fear.

Be still boy.

The infirmarer looks stern as he dabs my face with a sponge:

‘A terrible business. You’re a choir monk for barely a day, and you bring disaster into the cloister. No sooner have I cured your frostbite, than I must tend your burns. You are truly an enfant terrible. You have lost much skin. My aloe jelly will sooth and protect. Do not attempt to wipe it off, however much it itches…’

‘Is Symon really dead?’

‘All that remains of him are ashes; a few bones of his skull and the balls of his femurs. He was put in an urn and buried at dawn. In urna perpetuum ver. [In the urn, perpetual springtime].’

‘Ashes? But I don’t understand. I pulled him from the fire. He was lying in the snow.’

‘And so he was. But the life came back into him. The dead will often move – I have seen it myself many times – they twitch as rigour-mortis subsides, or groan as the diaphragm slackens beneath the lungs. But I have never seen the likes of what Symon did, nor do I wish to see it again. ’Twas most unnatural. It upset us all.’

‘What happened?’

‘He was lying where you left him, dead as a doornail – or so we thought – when all of a sudden he sprung to his feet. Then to our utmost horror, he let out an infernal scream and ran back into flames. But if he was alive by some perverse resurrection of the flesh, I shall never know. Either way, he was utterly consumed. ’Twas a terrible end for such a kind and loving soul.’

‘My god. Poor Symon. I tried to save him, truly I did. ’Twas an accident…’

‘Accident?’ snaps Jean. ‘By what accident did you manage to kill a man and burn down the entire warming house?’

‘My horns frightened him. He knocked a pot of fat into the fire. It went up like a furnace. We didn’t stand a chance.’

‘That may be so. But Hique insists you are a bad omen. He has a poisonous tongue. ’Tis quite ludicrous all the things he calls you.’

‘What things? What does he call me?’

‘A warlock; a counterfeit; a devil-driver; a fire-raiser; a seducer and imposter; a creature born of enchantment. Shall I go on? He claims that your mother was a witch, and that you are deeply keen in the mysteries of devils. Of course, I know all this is nonsense, but Hique has many supporters, and the brethren are easily led.’

‘What will happen to me?’

‘I cannot say. Father Odo wants you to join the conversi.

Conversi? Who are they?’

‘The lay brethren.’

‘Is that so bad?’

‘Bad is an understatement. The conversi are a wild unruly mob. Their pretensions to holiness are but a ploy for sanctuary. They are little more than carnal-minded churls who sally out at night to commit pillage, murder and mischief. They are all brawn and no brain. They are good for naught but ploughing and felling. We do our best to make them Christians, but in most cases we fail. I’m sorry Lazarus, but I fear for your life if you end up with those bawdy brutes…’

The thought makes me dizzy with fear. Jean dips his hands in a bowl and dries them on a towel:

‘I will return after Vespers to change your dressings. But now I must attend the abbot. Lie still and try to get some sleep.’

He exits briskly, leaving me alone with the Green Man who watches on high. The bed is warm and cosy yet I feel intolerably cold and bereft of hope. The fire crackles and spits; wind moans down the chimney; hail rattles the panes; voices echo in the parlour; but no one comes. I shut my eyes in the vain hope that I might return to that pristine world of falling flakes. But all is darkness and desolation. Will Grazide ever return? Already I feel decrepit and abandoned of her love.

I stretch out in bed and lie motionless for about an hour, my eyes wide open, clouds of despair all about me. Then I fall asleep, haunted by Symon and his terrible death. My dreams are full of fire and smoke, and high above my head sails a blood moon, ominous, lurid and grim. What happened in the snow? The memory fails. Did I try to raise his charred remains? I sense my fingers creeping through the ice, reaching out to touch… Then the sneering voice of Lilith coils into my ears:

Fool! You did not have the power to complete so great a task. You drew him from the Light back into his immolated flesh. How he suffered in his second Death!

II

When I awake, I find prior Odo looming at the foot of my bed. He looks frighteningly emaciated and his owlish eyes bulge with rage:

‘I send you to daub boots: a simple task by any standards, but one that was clearly beyond even you. Have you any idea what you’ve done? Not only have you caused considerable damage to the warming house, but you’ve burnt all our boots to a crisp! If it were up to me, I would cast you out. But once again father Janus defies me…’

He throws a new cowl on the bed.

‘Thank you father…’

‘Don’t thank me child,’ he glowers. ‘I’d rather not see you in choir at all.’

He scowls in contempt then adds:

‘Nevertheless, your efforts to save Brother Symon were most commendable. But that does not explain why he ran back into the flames.’

‘He thought I was a devil.’

‘Did he? God rest his soul…’

A raven caws from the precinct. Odo goes to the window and stares at the cemetery beyond. His haggard face is wet with tears. He whispers:

‘’Tis snowing on him. He has gone to earth at last. I will miss him dearly. Brother Symon was a learned man. He tutored me when I was a novitiate. Now he rests with the faithful monks of old: devout men who put their trust in God. For we shall stumble if the Lord does not shield us from the snares of this world. The assaults of Satan never end…’

‘How will you ever forgive me?’

He continues staring at the grave, lost in grief:

‘Perhaps ’tis well with him now. The life of the soul can only be found through death of the body. Brother Symon endured many torments. Some men suffer according to their wickedness.(i) But not Symon. He was gentle and pure of heart.’

‘Yes father.’

‘Alas, he was plagued by many demons.’

‘Demons?’

‘The phantoms of a senile mind, they said. But he swore his demons were real. He would speak with them at night, or wander under the moon, calling their names. God knows why he suffered these things. His mind and body were weakened by years of sharp abstinence. His only comfort was the spiritual food of the Host and the promised joys of life eternal. I pray he is at peace…’

‘Don’t be sad father. He has gone to the Light.’

The Light?’ snaps Odo. ‘And what would you know?’

‘Symon told me. He died as a boy. He had a vision of the Infinite. He called it the Unchanging Light; the Uncreated Light; the Inward Light; the Absolute…

He sighs deeply, his mind lost in the falling flakes:

‘Alas, we cannot perceive such things without knowing darkness. Our pilgrimage towards the transcendent God is a hard and rocky road. How it pains me to watch my friends die one by one. So many dead men. How long before I join them? A man is soon forgotten when he passes. But not by me. I remember them all so clearly. I’m father of the dead as well as the living: the last guardian of a dying age. Look at them all, sleeping in the sods. The illustrious dead, and all their graves unmarked…’

‘Unmarked? But why?’

He wipes the misty pane and croaks:

‘All flesh is grass,(ii) brother Lazarus. A man cannot pretend to devotion without great humility and renunciation of the world. And when a man has renounced the world, why should he care to have a name over his bones? The holy man has a horror of the world and a deep revulsion for society. But in death we look forward to heavenly joys.’

‘You despise earthly joys?’

His eyes remain fixed on the cemetry:

‘You will find there is a great difference between spiritual and corporeal pleasures; bodily pleasures are always followed by self-disgust once the desire is spent. But spiritual pleasures are still desired, even when we have them… Desires of the flesh degrade men to the level of beasts – with which we share common tendencies and powerful passions. The animal man seeks corporeal pleasures alone; but the spiritual man only desires the presence of God in his heart – ’

He turns to face me and adds:

‘…That is why father Janus is surely going to hell. For sin is sweet to his flesh and he is loathed to leave it. But be thankful he holds a torch for you. Otherwise you’d be playing knuckle-bones with the conversi on t’other side of the cloister…’

I sigh with relief and sink back in the pillow. He strides to my bed and fixes me with an icy glare:

‘Er, brother Lazarus, do not get too comfortable there. As soon as you are recovered, you will return to your palette in the dorter. I have given strict instructions to limit your intake of meat; so do not be tempted to ask for more than is given. Is that clear?’

‘Yes father, crystal. Mors per Hevam, vita per Mariam. [Death through Eve, life through Mary].’

He raises an eyebrow:

‘I see the water did not extinguish your flame for Latin.’

‘No father. But that’s the only Latin I know. Apart from: Dóminus vobíscum [The Lord be with you], Et cum spíritu tuo [And with thy spirit], Sursum corda [Lift up your hearts], Habémus ad Dóminum [We have lifted them up to the Lord], Grátias agámus Dómino Deo nostro [Let us give thanks to the Lord our Go], and… Dignum et justum est [It is meet and right so to do]…’

He looks utterly astonished:

‘Who taught you that?’

‘No one father. I just heard it and understood.’

He furrows his brow in consternation:

‘You understood without any learning at all?’

‘Yes father.’

‘How is that possible?’

‘I don’t know father.’

‘Perhaps you knew Latin before you came here?’

‘No father. My mother was a lowly churl. The only Latin I ever heard was Pig’s Latin spoken by the priests: Omni patri vestri, quasi vobi tuam, nosi nostrum, quack quam quo, et plebus pax vobiscum.

‘That’s not Latin boy, it’s gibberish.’

‘I know. Like a said, Pig’s Latin.

‘Yes, well, do not blame the priests; these hills are remote and they are poorly instructed.’

‘But they make it up as they go along father. They don’t even know the Ave.’

‘And do you?’

Ave, Maria, grátia plena, Dóminus tecum; benedicta tu in muliéribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatóribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostræ. Amen. [Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen].

He gawps in astonishment.

‘I heard it at mass, father. From your own lips.’

Indeed! Your diction is perfect. Well now!

‘But I don’t understand the words. Not exactly. Will you teach me father, as Symon taught you?’

He ponders the matter, twirling his goatee in his fingers. At length he says:

‘Hmm… Perhaps ’twas foolish of me not to encourage your studies. Clearly you have a great instinct for the Roman tongue. Very well—you can start lessons as soon as you are recovered.’

‘Thank you father!’

And with that, Odo turns and marches out of sight.

The Green Man grins with delight. Perhaps this cloistered life will not be so bad after all. Shall I become as pure as the driven snow? Forget my gold and Lucifer’s palms? Relinquish all pleasures and vanities of the world? Yet such things I have never known. The aloe tingles my skin and I sense the crystal flakes kissing my cheeks and lashes. I close my eyes and think of Maria waiting at Devil’s Spring. She rises from the waters like a Naiad decked in flowers.

III

A gruff voice comes to my ears:

Wake up you little turd!

’Tis the monk from the gorge! Brother Ricon, corrupter of the world: he who rent the temple of youth and smashed its golden altar to reveal a hideous worm. I hate very the sight of him: the image of my future self – horned, broad and hirsute as a hog. The enmity between us is wider than a chasm. I recall his bestial act in the bowels of earth – whoring in the tempest, his head buried in Margot’s loins. He grabs my foot and twist:

‘Brother Lazarus, back from the dead again.

‘’Twas an accident brother! An accident!’

‘I care not about Symon, or the fire – you pathetic little maggot.’

‘Then what? What have I done?’

‘If you think you can needle your way into father abbot’s heart, you are most mistaken.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’ve seen the way he looks at you.’

He twists harder, spraining my ankle and crunching my toes in his fist. A jabbing pain shoots up my leg:

‘Stop! Mercy! You’re hurting me!’

‘You’ve ruined everything. Everything.

‘What? What have I ruined?’

He spits on my new cowl and seethes:

‘You are filth to me. Filth! You might fool prior Odo with your devious ways, but you can’t pull the wool over my eyes. If you remain here, I will make your life hell. Hell. Understand?’

He leers like Judas, his red hair flaming in the sun, his horns throwing shadows on the wall. He twists harder and purrs:

‘Go on, call for help, I dare you. See who they believe – you or me.’

My eyes begin to smart. Rage swells in my breast and I blurt:

‘Let go of my foot, you low-brow beast!’

‘How dare you address me so!’

‘I saw you in the gorge! I did! I saw you with my mother! Little pig! Little dog!

He gasps and drops my foot like a hot iron.

Yes, I saw you. Ricon was such a good little dog: a mongrel bitch, yapping in a shower of piss! What a proud and holy monk!’

The recollection of his sin is more than he can bear; he bites his knuckles then steps back, wincing with shame. I clap my hands and bid like Margot:

Bark like a dog! Go on—bark!

He whimpers and runs off, tail between his legs.

IV

I spend another two weeks in bed, consuming nothing but meat and donkey’s milk. No one visits except brother Jean who changes my dressings twice a day. He rarely breaks his silence, except to inform me of his sleepless nights and the abbot’s infernal whittling. By all accounts, the rood is almost finished. How I yearn to see it! Then one morn, when my burns have healed, I receive a summons. ’Tis Jean who brings the news:

‘Father Janus wants to speak with you in private. You are to leave here and go directly to his lodgings. Make haste brother…’

Without delay I get out of bed, slip into my new cowl and tie my boots.

‘You look good as new,’ beams Jean, brushing down my shoulders. He adjusts my sleeves and peels the dead skin from my hands and face. See how he cares for this low born sod who suffers from ice and fire! The moon-man smiles and his blue eyes twinkle in their cankered sockets.

‘Thank you Jean– thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’d be lost without you…’

‘Worse than that,’ he chuckles, ‘you’d be dead. Now leave at once or the abbot will be angry. Do you know the way? Exit here, go down the steps and straight ahead. Take the first left out of the infirmary cloister. You will find a passage running beside the latrine. The abbot’s lodging is at the end. Just follow the path through the snow. You can’t miss it. Now make haste; the abbot has a filthy temper and hates to be kept waiting…’

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2002

i. Wisdom, 19:2.

ii. 1 Peter, 1:24.