Sunhill Asylum, August 15, 1957.
Selena sits by my cot and whispers:
‘Look at my hair.’
She fingers her locks, pressing the blonde tresses against her bosom:
‘Look baby. Look at my hair.’
A round pendant hangs in her cleavage: a filigree of silver wound in a tree. The Tree of Life. She rakes the branches with her painted nails and they tinkle like glass:
‘Look here. My pendant. A tree. The roots go deep. So deep. They stretch for miles, deep in the earth. Look at the branches. So many branches. How beautiful they are. Once upon a time, you lived in a tree like this. A big oak in the middle of a dark forest. Do you remember? Poor baby. Baby has forgotten everything. Shall I tell you? I know all about your ancestors. They go back centuries. Every cell in your body is the product of countless generations; their sexual drive and struggle for existence, their triumphs and failures, loves and hates, toils and strife. An unbroken line of humanity, stretching back to the primordial germ of Creation. I ask but one question. Who are you? Your identification is very complex: it comprises not only your genetic inheritance but your physical feelings, your sensations and emotions, your perception of the environment, your body image and sexuality. Yet these are only superficial factors. To answer the real question we must go deeper. Much deeper. So let us recall your inter-uterine development: of life before birth, and yet other lives before that. Why are you here? Why did you return? Your task is great. For you shall separate earth from fire, the subtle from the gross, smoothly and with great cleverness. Your mind will penetrate every solid. Within you is the ultimate force of the Universe: the mystery of Creation and the Void; the secret of being and non-being; the essence of the Cosmic Self; the Unus Mundus; the Universal Mind. Thus you were created: a fusion of spirit and flesh. The psychic correlates are many. What is life but a lucid dream? When dreaming you believe that you’re awake. Even so, there is nothing subjective about your visions and experiences: they have the quality of objective reality. You see the dead with clear consciousness. But tell me, how do you know if you’re awake or asleep? Ponder this mystery. Ponder it for eternity. Clinical psychologists believe that human culture is a function of the corpus callosum – that every structure in the brain plays a role in human behaviour. But these fools only know the husks of things. We are wiser than that. We know that true knowledge only comes from the spiritual treasure-house of mysticism. To understand by supernatural faith is far more than to know things in a natural way. They scoff and call us mad; we the reclusive, the nervous and fastidious, who ponder the world by sacramental methods, fasting on germs of spiritual enlightenment, whilst the herd exists by a singular inferior mentality. The herd is unconscious. The herd is asleep but believes itself woke. The herd is mentally and physically retarded; an hysterical mob, teeming with barbarians and pseudo-intellectuals, all preoccupied with politics, sex, social justice and revolution; apostles of Marxism and moral chaos; learned atheists, who profess great understanding of the world, but who have very instinctive and destructive tendencies. The herd reacts but cannot think. The herd cares nothing for the Supernatural. This is a battle for the mind. To control the masses. That is why they locked you in a lunatic asylum. But these walls cannot hold you. You know all this but have difficulty remembering the details. You jumped from the train to escape. To escape the herd. To escape the New World. To escape your body. Who is that girl in the pretty dress? She is pregnant with the four elements. The transfigured alchemist appears as a full breasted woman. Anima of the first conjunction. Eve in the Garden of Paradise. Pure uncontaminated love. Female perfection. Transcending sex and Eros. Weightless in a body of light. Who are you? Your sire is the Sun, your mother the Moon, and the Earth is your nurse. Within the sun’s shadow is the secret of your birth; it lies beyond your social mask and wordly persona. What is the purpose of your incarnation? The soul returns a homunculus of clay in order to quicken the spirit. The lunar life terminates as it ascends toward heaven. Within your chrysalis are many periods of psychobiological change; dark sufferings of mortification and putrefaction. To become a butterfly you must return to the Old World. Reach out and touch. Time does not exist. Time is a human construct. The Old World is now: it lives and breathes all around us. Reincarnation is a circle. The circulation of spirit implies past to future, future to past; likewise inside to outside, lower to upper; they meet in one sphere; you no longer know what is in or out; what is up or down; for all is complete in one vessel. This is the true philosophical Pelican. The Christ. None other is to be sought in the whole Universe. You have been assigned many doctors of the mind, but all are steeped in darkest ignorance. Yet I have studied your soul with utmost diligence. You may not like what is happening. For you are starting to remember the Truth: the connection with sunlight and birth; with moon and womb. A spectre haunts your days and nights. Reach out and touch. Your delivery is more wondrous than a fairy tale. Let Margot tell it…
Margot is telling it…
Twenty years passed and my youth vanished like a May snowdrift. I had amassed a small fortune but dared not spend a single sous. The very sight of all that gold made me sick to the core. So I kept it buried and lived like a lowly spinster. I never knew the joys of motherhood; the Janus had stolen that flower, and I turned from maid to crone, like Spring to Autumn, without Summer between.
In a twinkling, I was a barren woman of sixty-five, a midwife to all but myself. Still the abbot sowed his evil seed and threatened me with fire. The burden of each birth was with me: whether the child would live or die, be sound or sick. ’Twas a nightmare without end. I hardly slept. Dark circles grew round my eyes. I dreamt only of the tower soaring from its craggy peak, with all those poor women kept like chattel in its lofty chamber. Many times they begged me for a cup of death. But all I offered was a philtre for sleep. Perdition seized me. All the precious cures my mother taught me were corrupted by this evil. The Janus had broken my heart.
’Tis Nature that feeds the spirit: the glades of the green wood; sunlight on a babbling brook; to hark the piping birds and see the pretty bluebells in the Spring. These earthly things once made me glad but now they left me cold. I longed for an end and grew wretched with despair. And all the while, I feared the haunting would return. Yet I clung to life tooth and nail. Oft I paced the wilds, picking herbs to hang from the rafters. But no sprig of lavender could purify my soul. I longed to flee but the Janus had spies who watched the land like hawks. For he never missed a chance to take a tithe, and many a churl was flogged for stealing so much as a nut. But on midwinter’s eve, I knew his spies were feasting. So I planned my escape. I gathered my gold and ventured forth into the thickets. Winter had sharpened the wolf’s hunger and manifold perils stood in my way. But my greatest foe was the cold. So I kept low in the deer runs, weaving up and down, through the briar, mid the holly, and down the Devil’s ditch. I got as far as the henge, only to find the Janus waiting on his steed. ’Twas the turbot who saw me first. I couldn’t stand the sight of that plaguesome beast, all wizened and leering in the moonlight, and with such black eyes, they set my heart a thumping.
‘Hello witch,’ says he. ‘And where are you going so late?’
‘I’m looking for snowdrops,’ said I.
‘Or meeting with Satan?’
‘No sire! Snowdrops. They help me dream more clearly.’ [i]
The head swivelled like an owl and the abbot said:
‘You have come to the right place but at the wrong time. ’Twill avail you naught to try and escape. Go back to your hovel and keep our pact, or my twin will light your pyre.’
The turbot seethed and gnashed his little teeth:
‘Yes, I’ll burn you alive! So take your snowdrops and dream on that!’
I had seen the horror of the stake: tongues of Holy fire that melted men like wax – the candles of Mother Church who interprets Christ to man. Terror made a slave of me:
‘Le grand malheur! I will keep our bargain and say an Ave every night!’
‘Be sure to,’ replied the abbot, ‘or I will pay you in faggots, not gold.’
I ran back home and locked the door. That night I cursed myself and wept: better that I was whore to the whole world than midwife to the Janus.
Weeks passed and the moon slowly filled her horns with light. When she was full, I prayed for the end, for ’twas long since I was living. Despite my prayers, heaven eluded me. The next morn I decided to do away with myself. So I prepared a potion of henbane and belladonna. But just as I was about to drink, a knock came at the door. Then a little voice cried:
‘Come quick! Come quick!’
I opened the latch and beheld a fat little little monk with a warty nose. He was in a dreadul state and fearful to see me:
‘You are wanted by the abbot,’ says he.
‘I am done with the abbot. Tell him so.’
‘Tell him? I dare not! Do you value your life?’
‘No. Be off with you.’
‘But woman, have care! The abbot’s wife is in labour!’
‘I care not for his wife, and even less for him.’
‘But you must come. You must!’
‘Can’t you leave an old woman to die in peace?’
‘Die? What are you saying?’
‘Are you deaf as well as stupid? Unless you’d like to sup with me?’
‘Mon Dieu! What’s in that cup?’
‘The opposite of Life.’
‘The Lord will punish you for drinking that.’
‘What would you know of the Lord? Nothing. Be gone. Leave me in peace.’
‘Midwife, you shall have no peace if you take that cup. What if the child dies? Or the mother? Their blood will be on your hands.’
I could not deny it. He looked at me sternly then said:
‘You have planned you death. But what of your rebirth into the world of the living?’
‘You believe such things?’
‘My mother did. She was burnt for heresy.’ He spat at the earth. ‘Even though I don the cowl, I cannot deny that Death must have some power of generation. That is to say, the living come from the dead, just as the dead come from the living. That alone is proof that the souls of the dead must exist in some place out of which they come again. But how shall you come? As a mule? Or an Ox? Look to the east– the sun is rising. ’Tis a day of new beginings. Heed my advice. Get to the abbot and deliver his child. The chance for life is small and fleeting. But there is always time enough for Death.’
‘I will think about it,’ says I.
‘Make haste or be damned,’ says he.
Then off he went, shaking his fist and crying: ‘Save his child! Save his child if you know what’s good for you!’
The monk spoke wisely. Whatever evils the abbot had committed, ’twas my duty to deliver his child. So I threw my cup away, packed my cures, and left for the druid henge.
’Twas bright and clear when I set out that day, with frosty fields and trees like lace. When I got to the henge, I sat on the altar stone and waited. The thing was this: I felt a tingling in the rock. I brushed it off at first, thinking my body shocked with cold. Pins and needles, thought I. So I stamped my feet and walked about a bit. But when I touched the stone, the tingling came again, stronger than before. It set me trembling. There was power there. Now sometimes people wake up, and they wonder what time of day it is, and how long they’ve been asleep. So it was with me. I figured that when all came to, I’d be dead soon enough whatever the abbot did. So I vowed, there and then, to defy him. He soon arrived, cowled like death on his pale horse:
‘Deliver my heir and your work will be done.’
‘You assume too much. The child might be a girl.’
‘Better ’twas stillborn.’
‘My pendulum says girl.’
‘Then prithee you are wrong, witch.’
‘I cannot go again to that cursed tower.’
‘I refuse to deliver another mooncalf.’
The abbot lowered his cowl and the turbot chuckled with malice:
‘What’s the matter? Does your guilt prick you? It well suits a witch to be tinkering with spells and giving her skills to the birth of a devil. Alas, father abbot wants a son in the image of Christ; but the apostolic ass cannot see that Christ was a Janus himself!’
‘Shut your stinking mouth!’ cried the abbot. ‘I’m talking with the witch!’
The turbot rolled his eyes at the sky:
‘When will you come to your senses? Nature did not intend for you to sire. Yet you strive against wind and tide to make yourself a son. Oh what vanity! What pitch of breeding! Such an honourable family!’
‘Hold your tongue, or I’ll stop your mouth with dung!’
The abbot looked confounded, as if he knew not which mouth to stop or from whence his own thoughts came. At length, he said:
‘Nature is fickle. ’Tis just a matter of time… And you witch, will stick to our bargain like wax. So make haste: my bride is in labour. Or must you burn and leave her to suffer her pains alone?’
‘Very well. But I go for her sake, not yours.’
With that, he pulled me to the mount and carried me off, out across the frozen wastes and over the hills. As we wound the mountain paths, the turbot starting singing:
‘A mooncalf for the abbot,
A faggot for the witch,
How many babes,
How many graves,
Down in Devil’s Ditch?’
So the abbot cowled him up again. Still the turbot cried many grievous blasphemies and mocked my fallen state. But my heart was skyward where the eagles soared. For I sensed something unseen gathering in the air: heavenly ranks, riding in the clouds, preparing my way…
The wind blows cold at the edge of the world. Believe me, that tower is damned and so are all who enter it. The old grey stones are soaked in darkness and whispers of the dead echo round the walls. I hated that godforsaken place, and hated what I had become: an unholy instrument in the abbot’s wicked plot.
But when we approached that morn, I felt salvation was at hand. My bones were tingling: the same tingling I felt at the henge. For the first time in years, the dread weight lifted from my heart. A fine wind sifted through my soul, cleansing the cobwebs away. I recalled the freedom of my girlhood, with the wonder of creation all around: the birds, trees and flowers.
As the abbot drew rein, the clouds parted and the tower was bathed in golden rays. Yes, there was Light flooding into the world. And I knew something extraordinary was about to happen. This birth would be special…
When we dismounted the turbot scorned:
‘Let me out! Let me out, you monastic monkey!’
So the abbot lowered his cowl. The little fiend was red with rage:
‘I don’t know why we bother! Sluck! ’Twill be another runt! Sluck! You mark my words!’
‘Must I cowl you up again? God willing, this child will be sound as roach. But if it looks like you, I will kill it myself.’
‘Pah! And if it looks like you, I will kill it. I’ll take mind of your hands and throttle it! I’ll make you!’
I kept my silence as we trod the rocky path towards the tower. The steps were steep, plastered in bird lime and feathers.
‘Look!’ mocked the turbot, ‘Your bride has consorted with Daedalus and flown away.’
‘Oh, no, no!’ panted the abbot, ‘You can’t trick me. Those quills are from the eagle’s nest.’
Once more we climbed the dank stairwell, so dark that even in day, ’twas lit by torches. The abbot always went first, then I would follow, with the turbot leering down. And every time his frothing mouth would mock:
‘Are your legs tired witch? Are you dizzy? These steps wind so high! Look at us, going round and round, up and up, higher and higher. Sluck! We go so high, it makes me giddy! Round and round, up and up, higher and higher… Are you tired yet? I’m not. Nor are my legs. Because I don’t have legs: he has the legs. But I have the wits. Sluck! He does what I tell him. Don’t you father abbot?’
At this, the abbot would stop to catch his breath and puff:
‘Yes, I do what he tells me…’
The turbot wheezed through his squashed little nose and spittle shot from his slimy mouth. This act was played out every time. Then we’d climb on as before, with the turbot leering, his fat tongue bulging through his pin sharp teeth.
I had not visited the tower for many moons. I fully expected to hear labour pains, for I was rarely summoned except to deliver. But when we neared the top, all I heard were demons of madness: insane cries that echoed in the stairwell like a horde of mewling cats. We approached the door all went deathly quiet. The abbot took out his key and turned it in the lock:
‘Be careful, she bites.’
As the door swung open a swarm of flies escaped in a cloud. The table was full of rotten meat and moulded fruits. And standing in the chamber was the very picture of ruin and despair: that once noble lady, Bernadette de Belloc. She stood in tatters, head bowed, watching us from the corners of her eyes.
‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ said she.
She stood there for a moment, swaying back and forth, cradling her swollen womb. Her torn dress hung on her bones like dirty rags. The floor was wet with her waters. Yet she looked so strong, so resolute. She was the lady still, despite her fallen state.
As the abbot crossed the threshold she cried:
‘Stop! I call to witness this day, heaven and earth, and the God of our fathers, who shall take vengeance upon you according to your sins…’[ii]
And then, to my utter horror, she took a shard of mirror and thrust it deep in her belly.
‘My child shall not be thrall!’ cried she.
The abbot jumped and clasped his head in anguish:
‘My child! Oh! You wormy vixen! You’ve killed my child!’
Then he turned to me and wailed:
But what could I do? The shard had gone in deep. I was sure the babe was dead. Yet Bernadette was smiling – blood was pouring down her legs – but she was smiling. I ran to her aid, tore a sheet from the bed, and pressed it to the wound. Such was my guilt and remorse, I could barely look her in the eye. She held me close and whispered in my ear:
‘Don’t let them have it. Don’t let it be thrall.’
Then she turned to the abbot:
‘Am I not your pretty?’ asked she.
And in the wink of an eye, she slit her own throat.
The abbot fell to his knees, wailing and beating his chest:
‘My child’s precious blood! Oh! What a waste! My heir! My line!’
But the turbot just mocked and spat his venom:
‘Ha! You are a shame to all flesh! Behold your wife and infant, dead before your eyes!’
Bernadette grew limp and slumped in my arms. My knees buckled and we fell to the floor in a tangled heap.
‘See what you’ve done!’ cried I. ‘You two-faced monster! My blackest curse upon you!’
Then as if by magic the chamber darkened and a shadow passed across the wall.
The abbot gasped:
‘What devilry is this? God divided light from darkness but this witch turns dawn to dusk!’ [iii]
He ran to the lancet and cried:
‘Look! The sun is darkened in his rising!’
The turbot started to panic and his glassy eyes rolled about the chamber:
‘That evil witch! What has she done? Stop whimpering you Cistercian bonehead! Show me the lancet! Show me quick!’
The abbot turned and the turbot looked out:
‘The whole world grows dark! The sun! The devil is eating the sun!’
‘Oh!’ cried the abbot, ‘All the evils I did under its gaze! May Christ forgive me! ’Twas not my fault, nay! ’Twas my affliction – my monstrous twin. That fiend made me do it!’
I hid by Bernadette as the light faded and the sky grew dark. The orb was a narrowing crescent, but still fiercely bright. The blue sky deepened to violet and a sinister darkness crept from the west.
‘Terrible!’ cried the Turbot. ‘We are smitten with a plague of darkness!’
‘We are cursed!’ wept the abbot. ‘Cursed on this day of infanticide and wrath! Forgive me Lord! ’Tis hard having two minds; wherefore I can never arrive at the right decision! Oh, I am always at loggerheads with myself! I am pious one minute, then invited to do evil the next. Christ, why did you fuse me to such evil?’
The Turbot fumed:
‘Evil? Me? Know thyself abbot!’
The Janus span on the spot, arguing with himself, left and right. The abbot raged:
‘’Twas your plan from the start!’
‘Nay, not mine. Yours. ’Twas your plan to sire a son: to impregnate this maiden with your corrupt seed. Now look what you’ve done! You’ve brought the wrath of God upon us!’
‘The Devil sent you!’
‘The Devil? But I’m your guardian angel!’
‘Guardian? Pah! You monstrous perversity of flesh! A curse from Satan, thou art!’
‘My poor mad twin, I came to save you from yourself, you fickle fool!’
‘You cannot save me from the end! Look now! The Lord is come, to lay the land waste and destroy sinners!’
‘Apocalypse!’ cried the turbot. ‘Back to the abbey!’
And with that, the Janus fled, shrieking down the stairs.
I crept to the lancet and watched. The darkness in the west gathered strength as a mighty black demon rose above the horizon; it swelled like a silent storm, spreading its wings, stealing all colour from the land. Then the whole world sank in a ghostly green twilight. I crouched in fear and clasped the bloody womb, my heart transfixed in terror. But then the belly rippled. A kick within! You were alive!
Instinct took over. I was the midwife of Apocalypse. Bernadette was dead but my barren womb yearned for her unborn as if it were my own. I had seen it done with sheep. So I took a shard and slit the belly open. The crescent sun blazed silver as the ominous dark closed in, faster and faster, engulfing it like a snake. The chamber was almost black, save for the broken mirrors that glinted with eerie light. I groped amid the innards and felt your head, your arms, your shoulders. Yes!
The rim of the sun broke into a ring of brilliant beads. My heart was beating so fierce, I thought my ribs would break. I delved beneath your armpits and pulled you free. Your little body was squirming for breath, all waxen white and bloody. I ran my finger round your gums and you gasped for life. Alive! I held you close as the sun was blotted out; all that remained was a black shield, ringed by a pearly corona. Stars began to twinkle and crazed geese fell from the sky. ’Twas the most mysterious, terrible and wondrous moment of my life. I was so thrilled, so proud, to think that God had given me a son, whilst the rest of the world was sad, howling and black. Never would I let them take you! I held you up in triumph: perfect in every way! And at that moment I had the power over Death and Time. Praise him, O sun and moon: praise him, all stars and light! [iv] Then Heaven blessed you with a sparkling diamond crown.
I held you tight as darkness passed and the dawn chorus began anew. How joyous the world on your first day! I tied the cord and cut you free: now you were really mine.
And that, my precious Jacques, is how you were born: cut from your mother’s womb when the Devil ate the sun.[v]
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1992-2020.
i. Galantimine, the active compound in Snowdrops, has been used since the time of Homer to improve memory and stave off dementia. Modern pharmaceutical companies are now discovering it for themselves to cure Altzeimhers disease.
ii. Judith 7:17.
iii. Genesis 1:4.
iv .Psalm 148:3, Laudate Dominum de caelis.
v. I have timed Jacques’ birth to a total solar eclipse of 31 January 1310. From: Ptolomaei Lucensis Hist. eccles. Quoted in Historical Eclipses and Earth’s Rotation, by F Richard Stephenson, Cambridge University Press, 1997, page 382. Reference from “Eclipse Quotations – Part III”, Compiled by David Le Conte, NASA. “On the last day of January at the 8th hour of the day at Avignon there was an eclipse of the Sun, and it was eclipsed in an extraordinary manner, and was notably sparkling. There appeared as if at nightfall a single star, a second was the opinion of the crowd. Then a remarkable semicircle was seen and it lasted until past the night hour.”
image credit: Eclipse Sun Corona by Andrea Stöckel [www.publicdomainpictures.net]