JACQUELINE. So where does the right end begin? That’s a very good question, and one I have been pondering for a long time. The court will be eager to know what happened when I first arrived at Paris, and the many crimes I perpetrated against the body of Mother Church. But before I tell of my despicable career, I must pause to relate yet another shameful event in my life.
What do you think I did after fleeing the abbey of Belloc? Do you think that monastic gruel had subdued all my gross appetites and carnal attachments? Was Odo’s instruction ever present in my ear, chastising my wicked heart, warning of the Devil who was forever at my heels? Not at all. In fact, I was so enamoured with my new body, that I had forgotten his religious instruction altogether. Our memory is poorest when it suits us best. And it suited me to forget Belloc. I am ashamed to say, that after travelling a mere ten leagues, the cloisters of Belloc were all but sunk in oblivion. And when I awoke in the middle of the night, plagued with guilt over so many fiery deaths, I convinced myself ’twas all for the greater good and the betterment of my sect. The brethren became little more than grim spectres, hovering on the borderlands sleep, where the ruins of Belloc brooded in the shadows of estranged hills. Like a bad dream that dissolves in the sun, Belloc faded away in the dawn mists, and with each new mile, my sense of amnesty increased.
By and by, the reality of Jacques no longer existed. The past was naught but spectral moonshine. I was a butterfly emerging from its purse. Solve et coagula. All the memories and impressions which defined my consciousness until that point were like visions of another life: a dim existence that I longed to forget. Day by day, old acquaintances faded from view and the tracks of youth became deserted paths, never to be trod again. Yet the great oak of childhood was ever present in my heart, tossing its golden boughs in sighing winds, whispering of miracles and forbidden transformations. The elegance of Maria, in whose body I had always longed to dwell, was now a dream come true; and this union of body and soul imparted the world with a heavenly radiance and splendour that was beyond my wildest imaginings. A divine spark flashed within my eyes and illumed everything I saw. All the forbidden pleasures of womankind, that were only permitted to the distaff side, were now allowed to me. Except childbirth.
Yes, amid this conflagration of rebirth, ascension and identity, I was haunted by one bodily imperfection. Although I had begun my menses, I knew instinctively that I had no womb. Lilith was right: childbirth was forbidden to creatures like us. Yet what need had I for a child? Indeed, the thought struck me as quite ridiculous. For I had Joseph to attend – a limbless homunculus – who demanded my constant attention. I was happy to be barren if could remain beautiful.
Alas, the dead were not so far behind as I had hoped. For one morn as I lay upon the brink of sleep, I heard Odo whisper in my ear:
‘That body you possess is just an infernal illusion. You shall awake one morn in pangs of grief and find it gone. Like Æneas, who tried to embrace the infelix simulacrum of his lost Creusa, you shall clasp the empty air; but your flesh shall be unsubstantial as the breeze and vanish like a ghost…’
I awoke with a start and jumped, heart pounding in my chest. I began to panic and checked myself in the twilight, fumbling my loins and hair. Reassured by the fullness of my breasts, I crawled back to bed and watched Lucifer twinkling in the East. As the dawn chorus filled the wood with merry song, I knew my master would never break his pact.
The journey to Paris was fraught with danger. Disguised as a hermit in humble garb, I forged north-west to Toulouse – the lion’s den of the Holy Inquisition. So fearful was I of those Dominican devils, that I dared not enter the city gates. I kept to the outskirts where peasants toiled the fields, and admired the Capitole from a distance. Never had I seen so many houses crammed so close and arranged so higgledy piggledy! Yet even from the banks of the Garrone, ’twas a wondrous site. There was the great church of Saint Sernin, the Daurade basilica and the mighty cathedral of Saint Étienne, all built from gleaming red stone. Wherever I looked, troubadours were singing – in the squares, on street corners, and all along the mighty bridge that ran from Saint-Cyprien to the heart of town. How I longed to wander those gleaming streets!
But I dared not let curiosity get the better of me, lest by some ghastly plot I was strung up on the rack. So I kept to the thickets and travelled further north, over the hills and through many a provincial town, boarding at flea infested inns and leaving at dawn. Along the way, I managed to accrue a large collection of ladies apparel which I purchased at markets and fairs. When I was sure that the past was far behind, I threw off my motley and put on my skirts. Then I ventured out in broad daylight, just like other women. But one day, as I sat down to admire my reflection in a pond, I was suddenly struck by an obvious contradiction. How could I enrol at university as a girl? How could I possibly pass as a boy, dressed in naught but an over-tunic, toga or a hood? Whilst pondering this problem, I heard an old man ask:
‘Are you lost my lady?’
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2014