DKIST-First-Sunspot

Paris, 31st October 1376

Unspeakable is the pain I suffer at his hands. At every dislocation, he signs me with the cross. That indelible icon stains my sight – like a blot that grows from glancing at the sun, it drifts across mine eye, superimposed, with every blink, on water, earth and fire.

Loosen me a little, that I may remember what to say!

The monster has an abysmal mind: it teems with lurid crimes. Under duress, I confess to them all; yet nothing I say can sate his salacious appetite. I am his abominable fiend, the devil of his darkest desire. And as I lie torn, gnawing on my tongue, he recites the Ave. The verse makes me puke. Great Satan, curse that black Dominican dog!

‘Where is the Book of Death?’

Oh Monsieur! Wherever you say it is!

‘Did you burn it, perhaps?’

Yes! That’s it! I burnt it!

The interrogation plunges new depths. He pulls my teeth with pliers and probes the sockets with irons. I cry the names of accomplices unknown: a witch from Rouen; a sorcerer from Sens. I spin satanic tales to sooth his sore ears. I try to fool him by weaving falsehood with fact:

‘I can fly through the air like bat!’

‘Might you escape through the bars?’

‘No. Christ forbids it.’

‘You freely admit that Christ has more power than the Devil?’

‘Yes!’

‘Yet you were powerful once.’

‘Oh yes! I was, yes! Very powerful indeed!’

‘This is the deepest dungeon in France. It contains sixty-four cells, each with an iron door; the walls are ten feet thick, and the river Siene runs high above. Aside the bowels of hell, ’tis the deepest darkest pit in all the world. But some say you can escape this terrible hole…’

‘Impossible! Unthinkable!’

‘Yet you escaped the dungeons of Toulouse. How?’

‘Magic!’

‘They say you have cast many malicious spells and maledictions…’

Thousands!

‘And you were oft’ rapt in diabolical ecstasies.’

Rapt, I was! Rapt with the Devil!

‘Who is your spirit attendant?’

‘Monsieur, I am ignorant of these things. Explain them to me, that I may know what to say…’

‘By spirit attendant, I mean your familiar – that creature by which the Devil gives you power. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, my familiar. Of course. I understand. We have been through this before.’

‘Indeed we have. So tell me, what is this wicked creature? An imp?’

‘Possibly… It could be…’

‘Or a sprite?’

‘Imp or sprite. Whatever you say!’

‘A goblin perhaps?’

‘Yes. A goblin.’

‘Just tell the truth.’

‘Give me the truth, and I will tell it!’

‘But I am asking you. What is the truth?’

‘That, Monsieur, is the great question of the Platonists.’

‘Fool! You like to mock me?’

‘No Monsieur. But I fear your understanding is not capable of knowing the truth.’

‘How dare you!’

‘Forgive me Monsieur. I cannot hold my tongue: it has a mind of its own.’

‘So, you are Platonist. Is that it?’

‘No Monsieur. Truly, the Platonists were fools.’

‘Yet they were the most fervent defenders of magic. And you are a black magician.’

‘Me? A magician? No Monsieur.’

‘You have been charged with high sorcery. What are you, if not a magician?’

‘Verily, I am more of a mystic.’

‘Oh? How so?’

‘When a man contemplates the divine perfection in himself, all logical distinctions vanish in a haze of ecstasy.’

‘Only a madman would philosophize in your position.’

‘They don’t call me The Mad Abbot for nothing…’

‘Your blasphemous tongue is never idle. I am tired of your irreverent snubs; your futile quips; your profane insults and affronts.’

‘Be patient with me Monsieur.’

He turns to the bench and says:

‘Let it be known that I am indeed a patient man… And my only desire is only to bring the accused back into the fold.’

‘Slacken the ropes, I beg you.’

To my relief, Pontius waves his hand and the tension abates. I lie breathless on the horse, delirious with pain. Pontius smiles and asks politely:

‘Are you comfortable?’

‘Water.’

‘All in good time. Pain is a strict mistress. Too much pain makes a man insensible; too little makes him impatient; but there is a certain threshold of pain, where a man becomes lucid, and his eyes shine with a glittering brightness. Tremulo fulgore micantes oculi. I know where that threshold lies; how to sharpen your mind; make you remember things long forgotten… Do you see the Light, Jacques Vallin?’

‘Yes, I see it.’

‘I’m glad to hear it. Do you know, the best conversations I ever had were not with scholars in the universities, nor with philosophers in the taverns, but with heretics on the horse. No doubt we shall have many long and rewarding conversations. I have much to learn from you, and you from me. Don’t you agree?’

‘Yes Monsieur.’

‘You like talking with me?’

‘Monsieur, you have broken my knees. Oh Christ!

‘Save your tears. I want your full confession. How do you pry into the future? By what means? Desecration of the host?’

‘No Monsieur. I have visions.’

‘How do you see these visions? In a crystal ball?’

‘No. In dreams.’

‘How long have you had prophetic dreams?’

‘They began when I was four.’

‘Interesting. I once tried a witch who had the gift of seeing what was ordinarily hidden from others. She predicted the day of my death: Ember Friday, 1355. But that was over twenty years ago…’

‘Congratulations. You cheated the Grim Reaper.’

‘That may be so. Yet your prophecies never fail to come true. I have a list of names, as long as my arm, of men who died exactly as you predicted. Nobles, prelates, princes, and many priests of Christ. Some believe that you killed them yourself.’

‘No Monsieur.’

‘You can foretell any man’s death?’

‘Any. Even yours.’

‘Speak not of my death.’

‘Why? Aren’t you curious?’

‘I don’t want to know of your infernal divinations.’

‘Fear not. You live to a ripe old age. And you die peacefully in your sleep, drunk in the arms of a lusty whore.’

‘Really? Is that true?’

‘’Tis written.’

‘Methinks you have a serpent’s tongue.’

‘Was the Serpent not subtle and wise?’

‘’Tis said you can vacate the body, and appear in two places at once. Speak.

‘Such things are impossible, except to Christ, who walked on water, and appeared in many diverse places after His resurrection.’

‘You liken yourself to Christ?’

‘No Monsieur.’

He ponders the matter, pacing round the horse, his eyes fixed on mine:

‘’Tis a curious thing, this bilocation of the body – that the soul can leave the flesh at will, and wander about, according to its pleasure. Yet you claim this is quite impossible?’

‘Certainly.’

‘Methinks not. In former times, these ghosts were supposed to be ethereal bodies. My own father saw his double on the stair; a phantom who appeared as real flesh and blood. They were exactly alike, right down to their vestments and the cut of their hair. Like astral twins. Do you believe it?’

‘Yes Monsieur, I believe it.’

‘’Twas a bad omen. For my father died the following day. The Germans have a word for these mysterious ghosts. Doppelgängers. Which means double-goers. What of you, Jacques Vallin? Do you have a doppelgänger?’

‘No Monsieur. But if I did, he would surely walk in through that door and stick you with a knife.’

‘Despite your pains, you have kept your sense of humour. I like that. Tell me how you heal the sick.’

‘A power flows through me.’

‘What power?’

‘The Lightstream.’

‘Lightstream? Where is it from?’

‘It comes from on high.’

‘To whom does this power belong?’

‘I know not.’

‘Then I shall tell you. The power belongs to Asmodeus, the Devil’s first lieutenant, and the prince of his dominions. Is that not so?’

‘I fear to speak at all.’

‘All men confess the truth in the end.’

‘Whose truth?’

‘The insinuation is heretical.’

‘Look what you have done to me! Is this not wicked?’

‘You will trust Mother Church to do what’s right.’

‘Are you so righteous Monsieur?’

‘Do not question my authority: ’twas given by Almighty God.’

‘The god of Love?’

‘The god of fire and brimstone. The god of Sodom and Gomorrah. The god of justice.’

‘Justice? Where is the justice in this? The bishop stole my gold! And sequestered my property!’

‘The bishop is a holy man. But you Jacques Vallin, are a heretic of the blackest dye! A warlock! A necromancer! And servant of the Devil!’

‘You put words in my mouth and accuse me falsely.’

‘Accuse you falsely? I have before me your previous confession, obtained by Inquisitor Bor at the Abbey of Belloc… Do you remember what you told him?’

‘Monsieur, that was many years ago. I was but a young novitiate, and ignorant in the ways of the world…’

‘And look at you now.’

‘Yes, I am a senile old fool.’

‘Yet not so foolish as you like to make out. What happened at the Abbey of Belloc?’

‘My memory is poor. I recall little of Belloc.’

‘Then let me remind you. You were found guilty of performing many prodigal works of Satan. Not least, counterfeit miracles and cures of high sorcery. Do you deny it?’

‘Who accused me of these crimes?’

‘A woman of Toulouse.’

‘That woman is a figment of your office.’

‘No. You were seen at the sabbat, taking a meal furnished by the Devil: a diabolical sacrament of roast turnip. The wine you served was clotted blood, putrid and black, poured from the filthy vessel of a Parfait’s skull. Your acolytes drank it with relish as they trampled the host and swore death to Mother Church. This abominable blasphemy was committed by many witches, whose names were writ in The Book of Death…

‘A tapestry of lies.’

‘Methinks not. By what black art did you escape the clutches of the Inquisition?’

‘Escape? I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Liar! What of Monsieur Bor and his retinue of soldiers?’

‘What of them?’

‘They simply vanished from the face of the earth!’

‘The Abbey of Belloc hid many terrible secrets.’

‘Secrets?’

‘What happened there is a mystery best left to God. I wouldn’t go digging around there if I were you. ’Tis unhallowed ground and steeped in evil.’

‘By your magic, you brought about the fall of Belloc!’

‘No Monsieur. Truly, I loved my brethren. I wouldn’t harm a hair on their heads.’

‘Liar! You killed them all! You summoned a demon hag and flew off on a broomstick!’

‘Monsieur, that is perfectly ridiculous.’

‘Then how did you escape?’

‘I didn’t. I was found innocent, and released without charge.’

‘Innocent? You lie! If you were innocent, then why did you flee into the hills?’

‘To preserve my life. As for what happened to Bor and his men, I cannot say. But need I tell you, that confession is a forgery.’

‘You think you can deceive me? Why do you persist in denying these crimes?’

‘Because I’m no witch.’

‘Oh but you are a witch – just like your mother before you. Her confession is notorious amongst the friars. A most pestilent hag if ever there was one. Innumerable sorceries were proved against her.’

‘No. She was a good woman.’

‘Good woman? An unholy metaphor, no doubt.’

‘Metaphor?’

‘Lest you forget, she was a Cathar.’

‘What of it?’

‘Good women and good men are all the same. Their Gnostic heresy festers in every corner of the land. Like the Simonians, they interpret the Creation as a symbolic gestation of the foetus!’

‘My mother believed no such thing. The friars who tried her were bloodthirsty dogs who followed the wrong scent. All their claims were groundless and devoid of truth. Like all Schoolmen, the villainous friars are lost to virtue and sunk in error. Mala mens, malus animus. [An evil mind, an evil meaning].’

‘No. We friars are holy men, who pray for heretics and schismatics alike.’

‘Do you pray for devils like me?’

‘Naturally.’

‘What do you pray?’

‘That our Lord God shall be pleased to rescue you from error; and recall you to our holy mother, the Catholic and Apostolic Church.’

‘Do you pray for Pagans too?’

‘Yes, pagans especially.’

‘The Saracens, the Berbers and the Moors?’

‘Of course. We friars pray for all lost sheep.’

‘I marvel at the magnanimity of the Mother Church, in praying so publicly and solemnly, whilst She pilfers from the Jews, in order to lift the curse that they brought upon themselves by crucifying Christ.’

‘Enough!’

‘But I have to ask: is it ecumenical and just to pray for Jews? Monsieur, I advise you to proceed with prudence and caution in this matter, lest you preserve their secret rituals. Or even worse, hasten Apocalypse, by electing a Rabbi to the seat of Rome.’

‘Enough, I say!’

‘The Jews will try, by whatever means, to subvert the Catholic faith. There is naught the Jews love more, than to rob good Christians and corrupt their beliefs. Consider what I say. Put your ear to the ground. See how the wind is blowing… Then ask yourself: would it not be better to annihilate the Jews altogether? A thorny question, I grant you. But I know many justices, magistrates and officials, who fervently believe that all Jews and Jewesses should be banished from the kingdom. Any Jew who does not comply with this edict will incur punishment by death and confiscation of all their belongings. What say you, Christian?

And you, a wicked Proselyte!

‘By the god of Abraham! You had no right! To fleece my gold, and throw me in a dungeon like a common criminal!’

‘The rights of my office are granted by the sovereign pope.’

‘The sovereign pope! That’s funny.’

‘You find this amusing? We have only just begun. We can go on all night. And start again at dawn. Your interrogation might last days, weeks, or even months. Either way, I will secure a confession.’

‘All right then. I confess.’

‘What do you confess?’

‘I confess that the pope is Antichrist, and Mother Church the Whore of Babylon.’

‘I’ve heard it all before, Jacques Vallin. That is not the confession I want. Speak of your spiritual attendant.’

‘I will, if you speak of yours.’

Insolence!

‘Who is it? Beelzebub?’

The horse groans to life, the ratchet clicking as the slack is taken up. Pontius turns to the bench and says:

‘Let it be noted how the accused tries to undermine the dignity of my office…’

‘Your office is corrupt and perverse. The Inquisition into Heretical Wickedness is not moved by zeal for the faith or the salvation of souls, but by a thirst for wealth and power.’

‘What is corrupt and perverse, is that you dress in women’s clothes! What is scandalous and obscene, is that you claim to be a maiden! As if a monster like you might ever become one!’

‘I was fair and pretty once. A true Venus.’

‘How is that even possible? How does a man transform into a woman? Unless he surrenders himself, body and soul, to a demon? Is that not the diabolical excellency of your work? Speak.

‘You ask the wrong questions. All your reckoning is fallacious and wide of the mark.’

‘Do not presume to instruct me. I will happily send you to the pyre. How are the mighty fallen! Your end will be most shameful. Even as we speak, the people of Paris are baying for your blood. You will be carried backwards on an ass, naked through the jeering crowds, and shackled to the stake at dawn.’

‘’Twas foretold by a gypsy that I would die in flames of infamy. If the morrow brings death, then so be it.’

‘Why dost thou glory in malice? Because thou was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did thy mother conceive thee.(i) All day long thy tongue hath conspired injustice: as a sharp razor, it hast wrought deceit. Thou hast loved evil more than goodness: and iniquity more than righteousness.(ii) What say you?

‘You quote the psalms. But Gorgias the Sophist said it better: “What is right but what we prove to be right? And what is true but what we believe to be truth?” That is to say, where does Truth end, and Falsehood begin? Falsa veris finitima sunt. [Falsehood borders upon truth].’

‘You are mightily eloquent for one strung upon the horse. Have you no fear for your pains?’

‘Have you no fear for yours?’

‘Is that a threat?’

‘No Monsieur. But consider your death. That is all I ask.’

‘If I am to die peacefully in my sleep, as you foretell, then I see naught to be afraid of.’

‘But what of your soul?’

‘My soul is in the ward of Christ.’

‘Is it? Then why do you suffer eternally in the lakes of hellfire?’

‘I have heard enough of your forked tongue. I should cut it out.’

‘Then how shall I confess?’

‘Will you confess?’

‘I might. In time. If the Devil does not rescue me first.’

‘Satan has forsaken you, Jacques Vallin. Confess now or later. It makes no odds to me. All witches confess in the end. They falsely believe the Devil will deliver them from death. But as soon as their flesh is laid waste by flame, they scream for the mercy of God.’

‘Not I. When they light my faggots, I will tell the crowd how you sucked my cock and begged me for a kiss.’

Nihil te quidem quidquam pudet. [In truth, you are ashamed of nothing at all].’

Pontius snaps his fingers and another turn is ordered. The horse gibbers as the ropes tug at my ankles, shearing flesh from bone…

Mercy! ’Tis my wicked tongue, not I!’

‘Your attempts to misdirect my office are in vain… Speak of your spiritual attendant.’

Tell me what to say!

‘Who is your familiar? A black cat?’

Yes! That’s it! A black cat!

‘No. I think not… A cat is far too obvious…’

Mercy Monsieur! My bones!

‘Could it be a dog?’

Yes! An evil beast of dog, to be sure!

‘Are you certain of this dog?’

Certainly, yes!

‘Will you swear to it?’

Yes, I’ll swear! I’ll swear on all that’s holy!

‘Nay. ’Tis not a dog… Admit it.’

Not a dog?

‘No you fool, not a dog.’

Forgive me, Monsieur! I erred. ’Tis not a dog. Not a dog at all!

‘Then what is it? A weasel?’

Yes! That’s it! A weasel! Of course it is!

‘Methinks not.’

Not a weasel? Why not Monsieur? Why not? In the name of god! Why not?

‘It might be a raven…’

A raven? Is it Monsieur? Tell me that it is!

‘Or even a rat…’

A filthy rat! Yes!

‘But a vixen suits you better…’

A cunning vixen! Yes! Yes! That’s what it is!’

‘Is it? Are you sure?’

Oh Christ! Have mercy!

‘Perhaps a vole is more fitting…’

Yes! A vole! A vole from the riverbanks!

‘Where do you keep it? Your purse? Your pocket?’

My pocket.

‘But your pockets were found empty.’

It must have escaped!

‘What? And left you to suffer all alone?’

Mercy Monsieur!

‘I think this vole is a lie. What about a hog? A stag or a frog? A beetle or a goat? Alas, there are so many creatures to choose from. How shall we ever find the right one? Is it a cockerel perhaps?’

Nay! ’Tis not any earthly creature!

‘Oh? Then what devil is it?’

A Cyclops.

‘What? Like Polyphemus?’

‘Yes. Like him!

‘You speak the truth?’

Veritas non simulata! [The naked truth].’

‘Ah! So we are finally getting to the heart of the matter. A Cyclops, no less!’

‘Yes. A Cyclops!’

‘Tell me more of this Cyclops. Is he from that same race of Læstrygones – the cannibal giants who once ruled ancient Sicily?’

‘No Monsieur. He is no cannibal. Nor giant either, for that matter. In fact, he’s smaller than a monkey.’

‘Where do you keep this Cyclops?’

‘Keep him? I do not keep him.’

‘Of course you keep him!’

‘How do I keep him?’

‘In a hollowed ring; a viol; or a casket…’

‘But Monsieur, I do not keep him at all. He comes and goes as he pleases.’

‘Give me his name.’

‘Name? I am forbidden to reveal it.’

‘Refuse, and I will order another turn. Speak.

‘Krew. His name is Krew.’

‘And when did Krew first manifest?’

‘When I was seven.’

‘Did you sell him your soul?’

‘Certainly.’

‘A pact?’

Yes!

‘For what?’

‘The cure to my congenital disease.’

‘What else did you give this Cyclops? Answer!

‘I provided him with meat.’

‘Mutton?’

‘No. The flesh of still-born babes.’

Ah! I knew it! And how did you get this flesh?’

‘I provided a service.’

‘Service? Be specific. What service?’

‘I caused miscarriage in the good women of Paris.’

‘You plucked the wombs of whores?’

‘Yes, I plucked them! Oh! My knees! Oh! Christ! My limbs! My spine! See what a weak old fool I am! Oh! Have mercy Monsieur! I confessed it! The Cyclops made me do it! Loosen the ropes! I am dying!’

Pontius draws near and whispers:

‘These are the pains of God. Now listen to me very carefully. I want you to confess everything in detail, or the cords will be tightened again. Do you understand?’

‘Mercy! If I knew what else to tell, I would tell it! But I don’t know how to tell it! Miserable wretch that I am, I don’t know how to tell it!’

More turns are ordered.

Oh! They are tearing me to pieces!’

‘By what means did you commit this infanticide? Speak.’

‘I made a magic plaster…’

‘Yes, go on…’

‘ – When applied to the womb at night, it induced a violent abortion at dawn.’

‘And what did the Cyclops do with this diabolic evacuation?’

‘…He cooked it in his apparatus.’

‘Did you partake?’

‘Of course! That was the cure!’(iii)

A supremely abominable crime!

‘Have pity Monsieur!’

‘Pity? You consumed human flesh, just like the Cyclops cannibal, Polyphemus! And not any human flesh, but the flesh of unborn children!’

‘I was not made like other men. I was cursed to dwell in this unbecoming vessel. Sometimes to cure ourselves, we have to go back to the beginning. The foetus was my genesis…’

Monster! Vile monster! I’ll pull you to pieces! I’ll rip you assunder! I’ll tear you limb from limb! I’ll slit, split and rend you in twain!

My brain explodes in a crucible of searing flame. I sense a terrifying cataclysm of caesuras, fractures, ruptures and luxations, as every joint is cleaved in dislocation. It seems as if my very soul has been whittled to the core, and mangled in the teeth of that ferocious machine:

‘Oh! Sweet Jesus! Have mercy! I have confessed! Monsieur, you are witness that if I knew anything else, I would say it! Stop, I beg you! They are tearing out my soul! Order them to loosen me! I have told you everything! My foul flesh! The unborn child! ’Twas my remedy and restitution!

The ropes slacken and I slump, crippled on a beam. Pontius bows his head and mutters:

‘Evidently, the remedy has failed… Never, in all my years, have I witnessed such human monstrosity, nor heard a confession so black… Jacques Vallin you have been found guilty of the crimes brought before you. The Holy Office of Heretical Error hereby condemns you to death, to be exterminated from this temporal world by fire. May God have mercy on your soul…’

He turns to the bishop and adds:

‘Relax him to the secular tribunal. Let them carry out the sentence of blood which our holy office forbids…’

His dark method has meddled with my mind. Through bloody flame, I see The Infernal Counsel, leaping on the wall. One shade has mighty horns and holds a pair of scales; he beckons with his talons and a goblin jury stands…

Two physicians lift me from the horse and carry me into a dim antechamber. They talk quietly amongst themselves as they busily dress my wounds:

‘He’s lost much blood. He hasn’t got long…’

‘Astonishing. Have you ever seen anything like it?’

‘Forget his deformity. Just stop the bleeding…’

‘He’s torn like a toad ’neath the harrow. Better that he haemorrhage than be healed for the pyre.’

‘Do your job. Hold this while I splint his legs…’

‘Why does he smile?’

‘How should I know. The beast is insane.’

‘Wouldn’t you be—after that?’

As they tend my sores, I fall into surgical shock. My entire body is gripped by a cold, paralysing numbness. The physicians move swiftly, binding the splints with oils and herbs. I watch on mute, witness to some terrible crime perpetrated on my flesh. Is that body really mine? I gaze perplexed at the torn limbs, the dislocated knees, the misshapen shanks. How did this happen? I cannot muse. Images flash like lightning; a court of fools; two dwarves with pincers; an angel scribe with goose quill wings. I gaze into the vault where a foliate face grins from the keystone. A cruciform blot drifts across my sight. I recall a silver censer, twinkling in golden fire; a cowled man with glowing eyes. He harks from hell. I dare not think his business.

With my limbs bandaged, they ferry me back to my cell. I rock in the stretcher like a babe in swaddling. A delicious warmth envelops me. The whole world recedes to a pinprick of light. I’m rising up, out of my body. A silver cord conjoins spirit and flesh; it unravels down the passage and I bob behind, drawn like a kite on a string. Back through the labyrinth I go, into the chamber of bones. And in the winding darkness, I glimpse once more the broken crown and the writing on the wall. Then Satan calls me from the depths, His voice peeling through the dungeon like sunken bells…

Beátus ventur qui te portávit et úbera quæ suxísti! [Blessed is the womb that bore thee and the paps that gave thee suck!] (iv)

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1992-2021. All rights reserved.

i. Psalm 50:7. [Douay Rheims version].

ii. Psalm 51:3. [Douay Rheims version].

iii. Stem cells.

iv. Luke, 11:27. (Daily Missal, Third Sunday in the Season of Lent. p. 298).

Image Credit: The first sunspot image taken on January 28, 2020 by the NSF’s Inouye Solar Telescope’s Wave Front Correction context viewer. Wikimedia Commons.