Jacqueline is telling it…
That night I return home to find the hovel exactly as it was in dreams – a dark deserted ruin, open to the elements and overrun with ivy. But the blasted oak still stands, and the cruck frame around its trunk offers shelter from the wind. Wary of wolves, I lead Lucy inside and tie her to a post. Moonbeams glide through the rafters into a scribble of shadows. The cupboard door beckons in the gloom: a portal to the heartwood where Margot lies buried. Does she know I’ve returned?
Joseph stirs in his basket, his sooty face lost in the blackness. He is a burden I could do without. But how could I leave him to die? The monk is a strange comfort. Without limbs, he’s helpless as babe, but the ectromelus is still a man, and the last of Belloc. I wedge his basket in the roots and curl up beside him, the moon on my face. I recall my albino youth within these walls, safe from the glare of the sun. The past seems like mad dream from which I have just awoken. Everything has gone to earth. The bed is overgrown with thistles and briars; puffballs bloom on the daub and saplings sprout in the hearth. But Margot is all about me still. Her cauldron lies rusting amid a final repast of snails; I can hear her crooning as she teases them out of their shells with her long nails. Her trivet stoops like a cripple, its verdigris legs all twisted and bent. The hovel was plundered long ago, but a witch’s cauldron is full of unspeakable spells, and only a fool would take it. What would she say, to see me now, transformed into a girl? Would she spit and curse, or praise in wonder? The mistletoe whispers:
‘Sleep well my pretty…’
But sleep does not come easy, for the dead are wailing on the wind. Belloc is burning still: an amber glow flickers over the wood and the western sky is full of blood-red clouds. ’Twas the Devil’s work, I tell myself. But God allowed it to happen. My presence in this world has always brought disaster and ruin. God, in His infinite wisdom, could have prevented my birth. Why does He permit the deaths of so many innocents? I cannot reflect upon His omnipotence, when His power allows so much suffering. They say the shadow of evil rests upon all men, for without sin, there would be no free-will. But why a just and merciful God permits the Inquisition is beyond all reason. As if the balance of the cosmos requires a fire breathing dragon to consume a superfluous number of souls! God and Satan, working together? ’Tis the creed of a lunatic!
I can still taste the Vulgate in the back of my throat: the tang of burnt velum as Exodus went up in smoke. My holocaust was kindled by the Mal’akh – the destroying angel and shadow of the Lord. Did Jacob the Jew not make it clear? ’Twas the Mal’akh who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. ’Twas the Mal’akh who slaughtered the first-born of Egypt. The Shining One. ’Twas the Mal’akh who appeared as an orb of Light. ’Twas the Mal’akh who took me away, flying through the snows, high above the hills. All fate is settled by the Mal’akh, in this world and the next. ’Twas the Mal’akh who sent Future Jack. ’Twas she, the bene ha-elohim, who changed my sex. I have known her by many names and faces, but the Mal’akh was behind them all. And ’twas the Mal’akh who razed Belloc.
But if my pact is with the Mal’akh, which God do I serve? The good or the bad? I ask you to ponder the question… Factum: all things visible and material are created by the Devil. Factum: the church of Rome is an evil nest of vipers. Factum: the pope is pestiferous and the agent of Anti-Christ. Factum: the sacraments are malignant and baptism is useless. Factum: the Virgin was not a woman of flesh. Factum: Hell is in this world, not the next. Factum: all holy crosses must be broken up and burnt, for the instrument by which Christ was so cruelly tortured and put to death is not worthy of veneration. Factum: ’Tis a mortal sin to torture heretics…
I serve the good God. I remain true to my sect. Even under duress I confessed naught. The inquisition writ my fate in The Book of Sentences. But I writ theirs in The Book of Blood. They cannot fathom my power. I am indestructible; immaterial; invisible. I was formed in the depths, and by the hand of the Mal’akh, was born anew. A woman perfected. But if I had known that the force unleashed in the pit would kill so many innocents, I would have drunk hemlock. I might as well have turned into a wolf.
A fat toad hops through the moonbeams and crawls out the door. Already my mind is turning to gold. The pond is overgrown with reeds and little more than a bog. Yet by my reckoning, the amphora lies just seven yards from the threshold. I would start digging now, but Odo’s plea still burns in my ears:
‘Lazarus! Have mercy! Don’t leave us to die!’
Exhausted, I fall into haunted sleep and dream of Anselm and his precious sauces.
I awake to magpies chattering in the trees. Lucy snorts in the threshold, munching on daisies, her white flanks steaming in the dawn. I peer through the roof at the vaulted heavens. The day is fine and clear, and a soaring lark twitters of new beginnings. Then Joseph rasps from his basket:
‘Who are you? What place is this?’
‘Be still. Your voice must heal.’
‘Is this your home?’
‘Once upon a time. But the sooner we leave, the better.’
‘We? Where are we going?’
‘Does it matter? You’re alive aren’t you? Wait here. I have work to do.’
‘You’re leaving me?’
‘I’m not going far – just into the bulrushes. You can watch me through the door. See?’
‘I should like to go into the bulrushes.
‘No. You must wait inside.’
‘But I can’t… I can’t wait…’
He looks ashamed and his green eyes roll about the rafters. Then he mutters:
‘No, I mean, I can’t wait. I need… I need a piss.’
Without further ado, I ferry him out and raise his cowl.
‘Go on,’ I chirp. ‘I won’t look.’
‘Curses! I have never pissed in front of a woman before. Ugh! Now it won’t come!’
‘’Tis all right. Take your time.’
He grunts and strains then explodes in a diatribe of curses and threats, to which I pay not the slightest attention. A moment later a trickle of urine drums upon the earth.
‘Finished?’ ask I.
‘Finished,’ says he.
‘That wasn’t so bad was it?’
‘Not for you maybe.’
‘Well, we’re just going to have to get used to each other, aren’t we?’
He looks vexed and the veins bulge on his temples. After putting him back in his basket, he snaps:
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m your guardian angel, and don’t you forget it. Stay here. I have work to do.’
‘Stay here? Well, I can’t exactly get up and run away, can I? … How do you know my name?’
‘I know many things.’
‘I would like to know your name.’
‘You saved me from the fire?’
‘They lowered you from the belfry on a rope. I found you in the grass. Remember?’
‘And the brethren?’
I know not what to say, but mutter with fear and shame:
‘The brethren are gone.’
‘Dead. All dead.’
His bottom lip begins to tremble. Then he pules:
‘Oh! My poor brethren! Burnt to cinders! Father Odo! Brother Jean! Fabien and Guillaume! Oh, God in Heaven! Why? Why?’
He sobs into his cowl, his little body writhing with grief. At length, he turns to me and weeps:
‘None go to Paradise but the crippled, halt and lame; they who are down on their knees, night and day, praying before the altars! Oh! My poor brethren! All dead!’
‘They were trapped in the tower. There was naught I could do. The flames were too fierce. ’Twas a raging pyre.’
‘My poor brethren, burnt like wicked heretics!’
‘I pray their end was quick.’
‘Quick? You fool! There’s naught quick about burning to death! They might as well have suffered an eternity in hellfire! Why have you brought me here? Take me back to Belloc.’
‘The abbey is in ruins. There’s naught left for you there. We must find a new life.’
‘We? And why would I go with a witch?’
‘You think me a witch?’
‘Do you take me for a fool?’
‘The only witch in these parts is Lilith. And she is lost in the pit. Be still Joseph. God willing, when this day is done, we’ll be rich…’
Fetching my spade, I stride into the bog. The earth heaves beneath my feet, and I stumble thrice before finding a firm footing. My spade plunges deep, slicing through the rush roots, digging back the years. I delve until noon, making an ever widening hole that fills with inky water. But the amphora is lost. I’m about to give up hope of ever finding it when the spade hits something hard.
‘What?’ cries Joseph. ‘What have you found?’
Trembling with expectation, I grope amid the mire and chance upon the pot. The slender neck is just within my grasp. I tug at the handles but they snap in my hands. Each time I pull on the neck, the slough sucks harder, and the pot sinks deeper.
‘What a dimwitted woman!’ croaks Joseph. ‘You will sink without trace! Tether a rope to your horse.’
‘I dare not; if the pot breaks, all will be lost.’
‘What pot? What is it? Tell me!’
‘Hush! Do not raise your voice! Do you want the whole world to know of our whereabouts? The inquisition roams these parts!’
I double my efforts, straddling the pot and pulling with all my strength. But the bog is reluctant to release her hoard. Then the leaves whisper Aesop:
‘Where force fails, gentleness often succeeds…’
I start digging round the girth, scooping handfuls of mud and hurling them at the banks. An hour later, I’m up to my waist in filth, with half the pot exposed to the air. The amphora is Roman by design, with wide shoulders and a long pointed foot. But without handles, ’tis heavy and unwieldy. Stooping low, I jiggle the pot from side to side, taking great care not to break the fragile foot. There comes a great “squelch” as the bog loosens her grip and the waters rush into the void. The pot is free! The gold is mine! How I yearn to see inside! Slipping and sliding, I heave the amphora up the muddy banks and into the hovel. Mercifully the vessel is still intact and stopped with a giant cork.
‘Pooh!’ cries Joseph. ‘It stinks to high-hell. What’s in it?’
‘Our future?’ sneers Joseph. ‘Who said anything about our future?’
‘Are you going lie in that basket being miserable for the rest of you life?’
‘Take me back to Belloc.’
‘Belloc has fallen. I’ve told you before. There’s naught left. Don’t you understand? You must look to the future.’
‘In cloister I had no care for the future. The mind that is anxious about the future is miserable. Calamitosus est animus futuri anxius.[i] Seneca. You wouldn’t understand.’
‘I understand perfectly. Leves homines futuri sunt improvidi.[ii] Light minded men are careless of the future. Tacitus.’
‘What! You speak the Latin tongue? Light minded? Me? How dare you! You filthy stinking witch!’
‘Hold your tongue. There’s gold in this pot. Let us open it together.’
‘No!’ he snaps. ‘Take me back to Belloc.’
‘You really are the most obstinate and foolish little man that I’ve ever met.’
‘Return me to Belloc, or I’ll scream blue murder.’
‘Go ahead and scream. There’s none to whom you can appeal but myself. If you call for help, you will only bring a mob of vengeful churls. Oh, they’d love to get their mucky paws on you, believe me. Or worse, your cries will summon the inquisition.’
‘Good. I will tell them you burnt down the abbey.’
‘And I will tell them you asked me to do it.’
‘They won’t believe a witch over a monk.’
‘Those Dominican dogs? Don’t count on it. They’ll believe whatever they like. Now will you shut up and let me open it?’
‘They will try you for sorcery. ’
‘And incriminate you for the very same. Think about it. You are the only monk to survive the flames. Is that not suspicious? How did you escape unscathed when you have no limbs? Perhaps you were ferried through the air by demons. What of your dealings with the Devil? God alone knows your innocence. But they won’t believe a word without pulling your teeth, or burning the soles of your feet. And when they’ve harrowed your soul and racked your bones, you’ll confess to anything. Do you trust your fate to their boundless justice, wisdom and benevolence?’
He ponders the matter, scowling with discontent. At length he says:
‘You’re a witch. Any fool can see that. You made a pact with the Devil. The brethren died by your magic, and your reward is that stinking pot!’
‘I need no magic. I could kill you here and now, if I so wished.’
‘Do it then. My body is a great calamity of nature. I am the epitome of human misery. My brethren are dead. There’s naught left to live for.’
‘You have a future with me. There’s a king’s ransom in this pot. Half is yours.’
‘Mine? For why? To buy my silence? They say you can persuade a man anything with a bribe of gold. But not me. Gold won’t bring back the brethren. Gold and silver are naught compared to them. You cannot buy my friendship.’
‘No Joseph, you’re right, I can’t. ’Twas foolish to think we might share a future together. You shall return to Belloc, just as you wish. I have spent my whole life waiting for this day. I did not expect ’twould bring such sorrow. ’Tis true that money cannot buy happiness, but poverty is the greatest cause of misery. You can do naught when scarce of money. What of your share?’
‘Keep it. I would only be robbed.’
‘But how shall you live? What shall you do?’
‘I will do what I’ve always done: put my trust in God. Wealth vanishes. Money melts away. Abite nummi, ego vos mergam, ne mergar a vobis. [Away with you, money; I will sink you, that I may not be sunk by you].’
‘’Tis good that you esteem virtue more than riches; sic transit gloria mundi. But fortune has seen fit to bestow us with gold.’
‘Methinks you will never have enough gold ’till your mouth be full of worms.’
‘I would be happy to leave this gold behind, if you would come away with me. Perhaps God brought us together for a reason. Have you thought of that? You have spent your whole life in cloister. Shall you not see the world before you die?’
‘You would show me the world?’
‘A pilgrimage, aye. I too would like to follow in the footsteps of the Christ. We have gold enough for anything.’
‘Er, just how much gold, exactly?’
‘Enough to make you a prince.’
‘A prince? Me? With my own castle?’
‘Aye, and servants to boot.’
‘Little Joseph? A prince with a castle? Mon Dieu! Well don’t just stand there woman! Open it! Let me see inside!’
Krew is telling it…
It flies o’er the wood, skimming the trees with whirring wings, a monstrous unholy thing, born of the depths where Titan’s sleep. It conjures the firmament and stirs the clouds, shrieking like a demon of the air. Death and darkness follow in its wake; herds scatter on the hills, and flocks tumble from the skies…
Jacqueline is telling it…
The cork is stuck fast and caked in mud. I stab at the rim, forcing my blade down the slender neck. Joseph can contain himself no longer:
‘Jerusalem! I will see the Temple Mount before I die! Bathe in the Pool of Bethesda! Sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane! Show me my gold! Show me!’
The cork squeals at the gouging blade.
‘That’s it!’ cries Joseph. ‘It’s coming. You have it! A little more… Go round the other side…’
‘Will you be silent a moment? I can’t hear myself think! It’s stuck fast.’
‘You’ll never open it like that. Smash it with your spade. Go on! Give it a belt!’
‘And loose all our gold in the leaves?’
‘That cork’s so mouldy it will never come out.’
‘Patience is a virtue brother.’
Slowly but surely, I work around the rim, prizing the cork inch by inch. My efforts are soon rewarded by a loud pop as the cork flips in the air.
‘We’re rich!’ cries Joseph. ‘Give me a piece to bite on!’
But just as I reach inside an ominous cloud obscures the sun. All at once the hovel is thrown into darkness.
Suddenly the spade spins across the floor. A horse shoe flies from the crucks and clangs on the cauldron. The trivet starts jangling and dancing on the hearth; the half-buried chain whips in the air, throwing up leaves as it lurches like a cobra.
‘Magic!’ cries Joseph.
I bid him silence and whisper:
‘Remember that witch you spoke of? Well she’s here. Don’t breath a word!’
Taking his basket, I hide him in the heartwood and shut the cupboard door. Just then a grim shade falls across the threshold.
The gates of hell have been left ajar. For I behold a hideous chimera: half-human, half-insect, it squats like a praying mantis, with terrible claws and a spiny back on which the remnants of a cowl hang in bloody tatters. Lilith. Her eyes have swollen into gleaming black gourds that bulge on the sides of her head; her frothing mouth is full of ferocious teeth; and her abdomen is covered in a mass of creamy white hairs. Her breasts are mottled with corruption and exude a sweet necrotic stench. She sucks the air through her teeth and rasps:
‘Hello Jacqueline. Ego nunc te conspicio libens. [I am pleased to see you].
‘Mother! I thought you were dead.’
‘Dead? What a wicked misconstruction! Do you take me for a fool? You betrayed me. You left me to rot in the pit.’
‘No mother! I saw you die.’
‘Liar! Do not forget child, I can read you like a book.’
She crawls inside and circles the hearth, hissing, seething and chaffing her wings:
‘Oh Jacqueline! What a beauty you are. You shine like the sun, even when daubed in mud! I knew I’d find you here. I foresaw this hour many years ago, when you were but a boy with horns and hairy shanks. Ah look! I see you’ve found my gold!’
She paws the pot, rolling it back and forth under her foot. The coins jangle and she warbles:
‘Gold! Gold! My precious gold!’
‘Your gold? No, that treasure is mine. My step-mother left it to me.’
‘That filthy whore? These are the wages of her sin! The coins of copulation! How many monks did she seduce in the gorge? How many maidens did she drug in Devil’s Tower? She was the midwife of monsters! How many devils did she deliver for a ducat? Your gold? Oh no. Every coin in that pot is from the abbey coffers and belongs to me!’
‘But how shall you spend it mother, looking like you do?’
She mewls in pangs of woe:
‘Oh! I am ruined! A monster! A strix! A chimera more ugly than Medusa! Have pity my daughter. Let us return to the pit. I need your precious blood if I am to be healed.’
‘I am done with that unhallowed place.’
‘You shall never be done! Don’t you know that your body is bound to the Titans? Like them, you have become a preternatural creature of the deep. Your flesh is sustained by the crystal wands. The substance of your soul vibrates in unison with their subterranean song. Listen to what I say. If you leave Belloc, your female traits will be lost forever. Already whiskers are sprouting on your chin…’
Terrified, I swipe a palm across my face:
‘You lie! My skin is smooth and soft!’
‘For now, perhaps. But your beard will soon return, and like a wild boar, your flesh will teem with hairs. To preserve your state, you must visit the pit each full moon. The crystal wands conserve your maidenhood. Without them, your transformation will wane.’
‘You’re trying to trick me.’
‘I speak the truth Jacqueline. Like Persephone, you are obliged to return to the nether world for evermore. Is that so great a price to pay for such a miraculous transformation? You have the body of Venus. Your lips are scarlet as strawberries, your hair golden as flax. But your flesh draws its sustenance from the pit – and only the pit will maintain your primordial essence. You have no hope of life beyond the abbey walls. That glorious form will disintegrate. But that is naught compared to what will become of your mind; it too shall wither and die; your brains will shrink and harden to a gall, and all your imaginative faculties will be lost. You will live a dim unconscious life, ignorant of your sex and all your former glory.’
‘You said I would always be this way! You said I was immortal!’
‘And so you are my daughter. But the eternal part of you is nourished by the dead. You must return to the catacombs. Ad vocem meam mentem tuam admove. [Give heed to what I say]. Come back with me. You must lie once more in the hollow of Adam Kadmon. Let us leave at once. Why do you hesitate? Have I not proved the supremacy of my art?’
‘My state is impermanent? It cannot be!’
‘Alas, you are not a goddess yet.’
‘I should have listened to Odo. Your magic is counterfeit. You tricked me!’
‘You fickle ungrateful child! I saved you from the pyre! Everything which corrupt nature wrought, I conquered and subdued. Shall you reverse into a man? Forget your foolish plans. You will only flee to your destruction. Return with me to Belloc. We must prepare another rite.’
My mind is thrown into turmoil. The thought of reversal fills me with abject horror:
‘Another rite? To preserve my state, you say? Wait a minute. Let me think. I’m confused. How can I regress? I’m cured, am I not? No! ’Tis a trick! A wicked trick! I dare not lie beneath the wands again. Look what happened to you! You vile unholy thing! You’ve turned into that mantis you kept in a flask!’
She howls in grief, swiping at the air:
‘Woe! The mantis, woe! ’Twas just a pet – an affection of my soul. Be warned! Take counsel! The crystal wands manifest your most inward thoughts. Be pure of heart and mind. Your intention must be true. Every corpuscle must be filled with Light! … You know these things, for your power is great. I look with wonder at that which stands before me: my beautiful miraculous daughter. Pray, do for me what you did for Fabien. Lay your hands on me. Rectify this infernal condition!’
‘Alas, I fear you are a lost cause mother.’
‘That’s why I need your virgin blood.’
She giggles madly, then adds:
‘The secret of transmutation was given to me by the caterpillars. They alone know the Tincture of The Philosophers: the Universal Medicine that consumes all disease! How can Hippocrates stand against me?’
She stops and sniffs the air:
‘No one mother. I came alone. There’s just you and me.’
Her feelers twitch. She sniffs again:
‘You lie child. There’s someone in the cupboard.’
‘Just the midwife, resting in the heartwood. She’s been gone five years, and naught but bones.’
‘Bones? No. There’s life in there. I sense it.’
‘Her spirit watches over me.’
‘What are you hiding Jacqueline?’
‘Nothing. Tell me of the pit, mother.’
‘The pit? Yes, the pit… There are yet deeper regions; inner sanctums of Light that lie far below the souterraine. Tunnels of telluric power that extend across the whole land. See how my flesh putrefies! Make haste! Return with me at once! We have no choice.’
‘Pardon my neglect, but I must leave this place.’
‘Fool! Must I repeat myself? You cannot leave. Your feminine side will wane, and once more you will dwell amongst the swine of men.’
‘If in two moons, I have regressed as you say, then I will return to the pit. But not before. ’Tis not safe for me in these parts. How long before the soldiers bring reinforcements?’
‘Silence! I cannot maintain this diabolic state! You will do as I command. You, who destroyed the abbey! You who immolated my poor brethren! Nevermore will their sweet voices echo round cloister; nevermore will their bright faces lighten the Chapter gloom. The consequences of your actions are utterly beyond your comprehension!’
‘’Twas the Mal’akh who killed them.’
‘The Angel of The Lord? Methinks you will say anything to save your own skin.’
‘All my life I have been in combat with the Devil; but if He could raise the brethren from the ashes of Belloc, I would sell Him my soul and endure the sufferings of Hell. ’Twas an accident mother. A terrible accident.’
‘Accident, of course my child. ’Twas the wicked steward’s fault. He should have let you pass. Despite your re-assignment, he saw you still as Jacques. ’Tis well you threw your lamp at him. He would have slit your lovely throat, and hung you from the gibbet like some freak hermaphrodite. There is none who knows you so well as I. Once more I will bridle the forces of Nature. You shall become a true Aphrodite. No man will ever doubt your sex again.’
‘I am infamous. Unclean.’
‘Quid enim salvis infamia nummis. [What matters infamy so long as the money is safe?] Return with me to Belloc, and we shall put that treasure to good use. We shall rebuild the church and start over. We shall honour the brethren in stone. And future monks shall learn of their great sacrifice. Now give me the gold…’
She scurries forward, eager to snatch the pot in her claws. I try and outwit her, darting left and right, but she anticipates my every move.
‘You forget, my mischievous child, I have foreknowledge of this day. I have foreseen it all! My precognition extends to every step you take. Even now I am prying into the future. I know exactly what’s coming! And this is where I do the Mantis Minuet…’
To my astonishment, she begins a macabre dance, raising her barbed arms and strutting round the hearth. I find myself strangely bewitched as she prances in the mulch. After circling the hearth three times, she stops dead and glares with those terrible eyes. I remain transfixed, unable to move. Her dark gaze draws me in and innumerable rays seem to paralyse my soul.
She strikes in flash.
The barbs rip through my skirt, piercing my thigh. A searing pain shoots up my spine. I fall prostrate as she pins me to earth, hissing with delight.
‘You can’t escape me Jacqueline!’
We skitter round the hearth in a deadly embrace. I crawl on one side, my neck clamped in her claw, my limbs flaying in the leaves. She chuckles:
‘Look! I’ve caught a little fish! And what a slippery little fish thou art!’
I wrest and writhe, prizing back the claw, my fingers flaying on its many barbs and spines.
‘Submit child! Or I will cut of your head!’
The claw tightens, constricting my windpipe.
‘Submit, before I squeeze the life right out of you!’
’Tis not the claw alone I wrest, for her abyssal mind is like the pit itself, full of dark telluric force. She wields untold power, and my very soul seems to flounder in the depths:
‘Release me! I can’t breathe!’
She chatters with rage:
‘Release you? Why should I? You have caused untold trouble! I showed you all the love a mother could give, but you spurned me! And now you plan to run off with my gold! You, my most beautiful creation! Beauty is potent, but money is omnipotent!’
She cocks her head and her eyes gleam like marbles, veined with green and blue. Within each orb is a small black spec that peers with inscrutable intensity.
‘Have pity mother! Have pity!’
The claw parts slightly – just enough to draw some air into my lungs. Then she purrs:
‘Submit to my plans or die.’
I wheeze in defiance:
‘If you kill me, you will remain a monster forever.’
‘Return with me to the pit.’
‘You think your transformation complete? You are a dazzling beauty yes, but you are far from being a woman.’
‘I am all woman!’
She cackles and mocks:
‘How can you be a womb-man, when you have no womb? You grew up the child of a midwife; how many births did you witness within these walls? How many crowning heads did you spy from the cupboard? How many holy gates burst forth their waters upon this hearth? But your gates are false gates. The act of birth is forbidden to creatures like you!’
‘You lie! I have been remade in my soul’s true image. My own true affection.’
‘Far from it Jacqueline. Without a womb you are barren as the wastes. You shall never never bear fruit. But I can make you fertile. The crystal wands can create your inward parts. Return with me to the pit and complete the work. Within two moons, you will become a womb-man, both inside and out, just like your paragon, Maria.’
‘No! I will not go to that forbidden place!’
‘Refuse, and I will eviscerate your flesh! A little drop of your precious blood is all I need…’
‘My blood must be freely given, remember?’
‘A small detail I am willing to overlook…’
I squirm beneath her stabbing feet which pierce the ground like lances. What happens next is a stroke of great fortune. For as I lie pinned to the hearth, I glimpse Margot’s cauldron half-buried in the mulch. And I recall the gypsy at the grotto, who wore a pan on her head, and her words come back to me:
‘The devil cannot pass through iron.’
In a twinkling, I snatch the cauldron and put it on my crown.
‘What’s this?’ gasps Lilith. ‘I did not foresee this? Wait a moment. No, that’s not right. Not right at all. What are you doing? You silly fool. Take that pot off your head. What a silly game you play. Take it off! Take it off, I say!’
She snaps at my head: snip! snip! snip! but I dodge the claw and scramble to my feet:
‘Now we are equal Lilith.’
‘Equal? Never. You’re no match for me. What is the meaning of this? A pot on your head? Have you gone mad?’
‘Iron hinders all operations of the hidden dominions.[iii] Your telepathic powers cannot pass through iron. Iron is your Achilles heel. You cannot read my mind, and I cannot read yours.’
‘Take that off at once! Just what are you playing at? A cauldron for a hat? Who ever heard of search a thing. Take that silly thing off your head at once, or I’ll…’
‘– What? What will you do? Kill me for my precious blood?’
‘Oh Jacqueline,’ she simpers. ‘I was only trying to teach you a lesson. My pretty one! We’re two of a kind, you and me. I couldn’t harm a hair on your head… ’
I draw my knife…
‘Oh Jacqueline! Pray, put that knife away: you are frightening poor mother!’
‘Mother? You were never mother to me…’
She shuffles back in the mould and trips on the trivet. Rolling over, she scurries away and scales the crucks, high into the rafters. But the rotten beams soon collapse under her weight, and she falls in a heap of timbers, spitting and cursing. Her rage is like a zephyr, yet she cannot breach my wits, nor penetrate the iron. She springs up and backs toward the door:
‘Oh Jacqueline! Have mercy. Did I not cure you? See what a beauty you are. You shall have a womb – and child, to be sure. There are even greater secrets to the pit – mysteries you wouldn’t believe! There’s so much more to teach you. Keep the gold. Have it all: it means naught to me. We shall start over. Put this all behind us. Let us be friends again. Oh! I forgot myself: your cruel father Adam got the better of me. He tortures me still, and speaks of such things that they only speak of in hell…’
‘A vile misshapen thing thou art, deformed in body and soul.’
‘Such cruel words Jacqueline: how they cut me to the quick! You, an immaculate maiden in the springtime of youth, and I, a blighted monster, covered in barbs and spines! Help me restore myself, I beg you! Just a little of your precious blood is all I need. And within nine moons, I will be perfected like thee.’
‘Look mother—you’re standing on the hearth stone.’
‘The hearth stone? What of it?’
‘Why, don’t you know? You misbegotten moon-calf! This is the very spot where you came into the world… You were born here, and you shall die here!’
And with that I lunge at her heart. The blade goes in to the hilt. She lets out a terrible shriek: a cry so fierce and unnatural that a cold blast rips the leaves from the trees. The woods fall silent for miles around as her face frosts like an icy pane. She drops on her haunches, clasping her ribs:
‘Oh! Does it truly end here, on the hearth stone of my birth? Am I done?’
A bloody stain swells upon her breast. Then she crumples on the hearth and seems to wither in her skin. The mantis form regresses before my eyes, and the old Janus returns, his gnomish face teeming with whiskers. Delirious, he croaks:
‘My path was long and wrapped in gloom. I have met the Titans of renown; plucked the roses of Eden; drunk waters of the flood… I see it all so clearly now… The unholy compass of my life… What dark demonic dream…’
His occipital twin still gasps for air, pouting like a turbot on a hook. She purses her lips to speak:
‘My beauty! Touch me! Let me live!’
Her eyes are like loadstones tugging at my soul. And as I peer into those obsidian orbs, I’m overcome with remorse.
‘Mercy!’ gasps she. ‘Bring me the Light Stream! Lay your hands upon my curséd flesh!’
Her telepathic powers are even stronger in Death. The rusty iron is no barrier against her penetrating mind. Her thoughts manifest like spectral eels that writhe about my head; their snouts seek ingress and knock upon the cauldron. Then one by one they start burrowing into the iron, teeming in the rusty holes and prizing them apart. The cauldron crumbles away, exposing my crown. An eel slicks in my ear, slimy, wet and cold. My inner castle is breached. Lilith has taken control. Her gorgon gaze lures me ever closer; I meld with her mind, falling deeper and deeper, ’til I’m lost in her spell. The urge for resurrection burns in my soul like fire. At once the Light Stream stirs within my loins; it rises up my spine flooding my arms in tracts of molten fire and my palms burst with an effulgence of Light.
Resistance is futile. Her dark volition is all. I reach out, my hands just inches from her head. But then Margot bawls from the heartwood:
‘Kill it, you fool!’
The spell is broken at once. And there is the Janus, lying in the dirt, a diabolic freak of Nature, the cause of untold miseries and death. Snatching my spade, I chop off the head in one fell swoop. It rolls away, face over face, Adam over Lilith, Lilith over Adam, ’til Lilith is uppermost, her blue tongue poking between her teeth. Her limpid eyes fill with tears and her lips curl curses at the skies. I recoil in horror, dropping the spade as jets of blood spurt from the severed neck. The body jerks like a slaughtered hen, feet kicking the trivet, hands clawing the air. The frenzy lasts an inordinate time. I fear the Janus will never die. Shall his life not ebb away? The carotids judder and spurt, showering my gown with blood. Warm is the blood of my father. Yet how I shudder with cold and revulsion. Blood on my bodice and blood on my boots; blood spotting the nettles and staining the wort; blood streaking the wattle and flooding the hearth in crimson pools. Pulse by pulse, the spasms subside, ’til only the fingers are twitching. Then all is still and the corpse lies lifeless in the leaves. But Lilith still gazes with her large glassy eyes, wherein the vaults of heaven roll eternal.
A lark starts singing.
The Janus is dead. Dead. Lilith and Adam are dead.
I open the cupboard to find Joseph crawling away like a maggot, his face white with fear:
‘Stay away from me, you evil witch! I heard it all. I know who you are: Lazarus, son of the Janus! But you have changed into a woman! Get back!’
‘Fear not brother. I mean you no harm.’
‘Be gone! A curse on you!’
‘Shall you not go to Jerusalem?’
‘With a witch? Are you mad? Be gone I say!’
‘But what shall you do without me?’
‘I’ll… I’ll… I’ll become a hermit.’
‘A hermit? What shall you eat?’
‘What folly. And how shall you pick berries without any arms?’
‘With my teeth, stupid.’
‘And how shall you wander without any legs? Must you crawl about the forest like a worm? And graze for acorns like a hog? You will starve to death. Who shall care for you? Who shall bathe and dress you? What of the rain and snows? How shall you make fire? You cannot rub sticks or strike flint. ’Tis sheer madness! You will end up destitute, shivering and covered in sores. You will die of misery, hunger and want. Believe me brother, you were not born to be a hermit in a mangy old cowl. ’Tis best you be a prince, and come with me.’
‘I would rather die than go with you!’
‘You think you’re safe inside this hollow trunk? How long before the wolves sniff you out? There’s a cunning old grey who stalks this wood; he’s big and powerful; more savage than Cerberus, he ate three children and tore off a man’s leg…’
‘You don’t frighten me.’
‘– Or worse, the rats will find you. A whole plague of rats. They grow fearless and hungry in winter. They will gnaw you to death, morsel by morsel. Is that what you want?’
‘I’ll take my chances.’
‘I can cure you like Fabien.’
‘You pretender Christ. You think if I touch your garment I shall be healed? Be gone! God made me thus: half-formed, half-free. Semiformis, semiliber.’
‘And half-god also: semideus. I can make you whole.’
‘I want no part of your magic. I was hedge-born – terras filius – and I shall die amid the briars.’
‘Very well, stay there if you wish.’
I retreat and shut the cupboard door. Moments later, he begins to sob:
‘Wait! Come back! Don’t leave me!’
I crawl inside the heartwood and pluck him from the mulch. His tonsure is tangled with twigs and worms. I dust him down and tuck him in his basket:
‘No more tears Joseph. We’ll count the gold together.’
He remains mute and scowls as the treasure spills on the ground. There’s more gold than I ever dreamed! How I love to run my fingers through the silky florins, which shimmer like mistletoe! Yet how perverse that each coin is stamped with a figure of Saint John the Baptist wearing a hair shirt! There are other coins too – golden ducats and silver grossi, and an amber crucifix emblazoned with rubies and pearls. At length, Joseph mutters:
‘Dii pedes lanatos habent.’ [The gods are slow but sure paymasters].
‘You’re right brother. The Janus got his just deserts.’
‘I didn’t mean him. I meant you.’
He thinks for a moment then adds:
‘I saw the midwife’s ghost in there…’
‘Oh? And what did she say?’
‘I will make him gnaw his fingers. Faciam ut digitos peredat suos.’
‘You know what they say: Animus conscius se remordet. [A guilty mind gnaws itself]. Besides, Margot hated the white monks. The abbot stole her land, and hung her mother from the gallows tree.’
‘Hanging is too good for women. He should have ploughed her to death.’
‘Hold your tongue and count your blessings. You escaped the fire with your life. You might hate me now, but you shall love me in time. Besides, who else in this world do you have? From this day forward we are family. Brother and sister. And we are rich…’
JACQUES. I buried the Janus beneath the hearth stone. I must confess, ’twas more of a rude hole than a proper grave, for many roots obstructed my spade. Into the grave I placed two gold coins – one for Lilith and one for Adam – enough to pay the ferryman for their passage across the Styx. Irrevocably joined throughout their infernal life, I prayed they would find peace and separation in Death. Mors janua vitae. [Death is the gate of life].
So great was Margot’s horde, that it took two saddle bags to decant the amphora of coins. But Lucy carried them with pride far into the hills. Joseph travelled with me, his little body strapped to my back. We had become a Janus of sorts, me looking forward to the transcendent peaks, and he looking back to the ruins of Belloc.
And so I left the land of my youth, where magic, sex and death were interwoven in a tapestry of dreams. By noon, we were high above the valley, following the goat herds along the arrêts. And my soul was overcome with joy at the wide expanse of the world, and the many opportunities that opened up before us.
By nightfall, we had travelled beyond the desolate crags of Devil’s Tower and descended once again into lush green pastures. Despite Lilith’s dire warning, distance proved no object to my female preservation. I had travelled more than two leagues, and my body showed no sign of corruption. And I prayed that Heaven might keep my dignity, and prevent me waging war against my own flesh ever again.
As the sun sank in the west, and murmuring starlings twisted in the skies, I thought of Bor, lost beneath the hills, wandering blind, without any hope of salvation. He tortured me because I was polluted with an inveterate heresy concerning the body and blood of Christ. He condemned me for rejecting baptism and denying transubstantiation. He denied my many miracles, preferring instead to believe that bread could be changed into the body of the Lord. He charged me with celebrating the sabbat, and participating in a host of degenerate abominations, (yet none so barbarous as the bulls and dictates of the Pope). ’Twas enough for him to claim my transformation as the work of the devil, and to brand my loins for asserting that Christ had no real body at all.
But what of my miraculous body? I have risen from the dead, and ascended from the tomb of my forefathers. Am I not like Christ the Lord, transformed into a higher state? My ghostly transubstantiation is above the realm of matter. All the previous years of my life I teetered on the brink of the grave. I lived with the dead and regarded all others the same. Yet only now do I comprehend the reality of the life unseen. My body is manifest like a heavenly flower. I know not what folly persuades men not to believe their own eyes when such a wondrous change is so manifest as I. Yet how shall men know me, when I am out of the body? What shall they call me in my new garment? Shall they even recognize me?
I am Venus on a white horse. What need have I for a womb, when God never entered into the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary? For the most holy Virgin Mary, who is the mother of our Lord, neither is, nor ever was, a carnal woman.
What of my poor brethren? Shall they be resurrected as they were in life? Shall God reform their bodies and reconstitute their flesh from the ashes of their bones? No. There shall be no resurrection of the dead: I deny the resurrection of human flesh. Although the souls of men shall come to judgement, they shall not come in human bodies, but in ghostly bodies like mine, in which the inward soul will rise. We are bred in the bone but born in the Spirit.
The starlings fall to their roost and the crickets chirp:
“Paris est une grande ville, mais les rues en sont trop étroites.” [Paris is a fine city, but its streets are too narrow].
Yes, I had dreamt this many moons ago. My mind was made up: I was going Paris.
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2007.
iii. The Secret Commonwealth’ by Robert Kirk, (1691). p.31.