Monastery of Saint Clare, Toulouse. June 21, 1957.
I awoke on the Summer Solstice with an unusual perplexity of mind. As I lay in bed, peering through the window, a flaxen ray announced the rising sun, filling my shack with an ethereal glow. Night soon dispersed, and with it my dreams, fleeting, ephemeral, and beyond recall. Yet when waking from bodily sleep, I was aware of another realm: a world of indescribable peace and contentment. All this happened in the twinkling of an eye. I did not even have time to be conscious of the change. There was no moment when I could say “Now I am dreaming” and “Now I am awake”, or mark the passage from one state to the next. All the conditions of my conscious existence were reversed. That which before was real became unreal, and that which was unreal became real. Things ceased to be thoughts, and thoughts became things. My mind was incapable of comparing one idea with another, or of holding any thought before itself for philosophical examination. Yet I instinctively felt that the living world within was the actual world, and the dead world without was just a dream. In the still moments before consciousness had crystallised, I knew the better part of myself lived in another sphere. I lived my true life at one with the Divine, rooted in eternity, where I had untold powers of perception and transportation. And I asked myself, how could my soul fall into the body, and forget those Elysian fields? What had been revealed was beyond the power of words or conscious thought. And in my forgetfulness, my true self was lost in a dark cloud, as was all knowledge of beyond, and that mysterious world from whence I came. I felt like an abandoned child, locked in a derelict room. As the minutes passed, I was overcome with a profound grief that my former glory was gone. And I knew that even I slept all the days of my life, I would never recover my supernal existence. The only escape was Death.
After Prime, I went about my morning duties, milking goats, feeding hens, and attending my sisters in the infirmary. Mother Superior said the secret to a long life was sunshine and soap. Throughout summer, I was given the task of bed-bathing Sister Alice, an English eccentric who had suffered a stroke. Paralysed from the waist down, she had lost all power of speech. But she could still read and write, communicating with a slate that always set my teeth on edge. She was the image of faded beauty, with sallow eyes and blue veins shining through her waxen face. Alice was not alone in the infirmary: she had two elderly companions: sister Maude from Sussex, and sister Blanche from Bordeaux.
Maude suffered with senile dementia, but was, by all accounts, mad as hatter since a novitiate. She lost her marbles after falling off a ladder in the orchard. It took six weeks for a doctor to be found, by which time concussion had caused permanent brain damage. She was apt to childish behaviour, with long lapses in memory, but could still recite the psalms verbatim.
In total contrast, Blanch was sharp as a pin, despite being in her late seventies. She was very learned, spoke perfect English, and loved reciting Shelly. But she had unnerving bloodshot eyes and a disconcerting pallor – symptoms of chronic oedema, which had ballooned her legs, confining her to a wheel chair.
As I entered the infirmary that morning, Blanche spun on her wheels and said brightly:
‘We had a visitor last night.’
Her news took me by surprise. Not only had she broken her vow of silence, but she was eager to tell me more…
‘A visitor?’ asked I. ‘Who?’
‘He came down the chimney,’ replied Maude. ‘Just like Father Christmas.’
‘But it wasn’t Father Christmas,’ added Blanche. ‘It was a spirit. And there was more than one.’
‘Spirits? What did they look like?’
‘Shadows,’ hissed Maude. ‘Shadows, flying round the chamber!’
‘Perhaps they were bats?’ I quipped.
My obtuse remark went down like a lead balloon.
‘Bats?’ scowled Blanche. ‘You ignorant child. They were not bats! They were spirits. Spirits. I should know a spirit when I see one.’
I poured my kettle into the washing bowl and asked:
‘Were you frightened?’
‘Not in the least,’ said Blanche.
‘What kind of spirits were they?’
Blanche thought deeply for moment then said:
‘My general impression of the whole experience is that we were brought into contact with personal intelligences, apparently unconnected with the material world, but resembling in all other respects vulgar humanity – spirits who claimed to be the souls of departed men and women.’
‘They spoke to you?’ asked I, astonished.
‘Not me!’ flustered Blanche, tutting and sighing. ‘They spoke to Alice. They tell her what to write. Ever since her stroke, Alice has become a fine trance-medium. But don’t say a word, or Mother Superior will confiscate the slate.’
At this, Alice held up her slate to reveal a spidery scrawl:
‘What does it mean?’ asked I.
‘Someone’s initials,’ said Blanche. ‘Someone who was born or died in 1376.’
‘Did you find out who? Did they give a name?’
‘Oh we tried,’ said Blanche. ‘But the shadows got in the way. Dark shadows are not to be trusted. Base spirits, with base impulses, who possess the living to satisfy their lusts. Most are no better than swine, gorging on offals in a sewer. The shadows are carnally dead and morally blind.’
I couldn’t believe my ears. Here were three Carmelite nuns, all devout spiritualists, who flouted the gospel and communed with the dead! Shadows or not, my curiosity once aroused, could not be allayed:
‘We should check the graveyard. Perhaps there’s a matching inscription on one of the headstones…’
‘What an excellent idea!’ beamed Blanche, clasping her hands in joy. ‘Will you do it Maria? Oh! You must do it, you simply must! And as soon as possible! Oh! What an inscrutable mystery! If only you could have seen the apparition! It was standing right there–’
She pointed to the hearth:
‘–a great big thing it was, hovering two feet off the ground! We must reciprocate, or the spirit will leave us and find another medium…’
Alice nodded gravely.
‘Very well,’ I said, ‘I will search the graveyard this afternoon.’
‘How wonderful!’ exclaimed Blanche, and she bit into an apple.
I set about bathing Alice, peeling back the sheets to reveal her limpid body. Her legs had the semblance of greasy sausage, with two knocked knees, swollen like gourds. It was customary to start with the face and finish with the feet. But Alice always insisted on doing things in reverse. Dipping my sponge in soapy water, I cleaned gently between her toes, then up her calves, behind her knees, between her thighs and over her groin. She smiled lovingly throughout, her blue eyes watering in the sun. She seemed content to lie there naked, exposing herself to all and sundry, and showed not a hint of shame, despite my persistent attempts to preserve her dignity. On the contrary, she found her bath most edifying, and posed like a queen, attended by her maid in waiting. She especially enjoyed me sponging her nipples, which would always stiffen with arousal, and make her leer at my bashfulness. Alice was a very queer fish indeed. With her withered paps and dropsy face, she looked hardly human at all, but resembled some faery who had been banished to the mortal world, and left to wither away, denied her elixir of youth.
When I was done, I patted Alice dry and put on her robes, dressing her like a dolly, guiding her arms through the sleeves.
‘You look good as new,’ I said.
She took her slate and wrote:
“We live amongst the dead.”
True to my word, I left cloister after None and climbed the path of my ruin, back to the church of Saint Laud’s. Mother Nature had long reclaimed the graveyard, her rampant fingers choking the dead with ivy, moss and weeds. Undaunted, I went amid the grasses, pulling back the creepers, unearthing tombs with weathered capstones—a maze of marriages and deaths, stretching back in Time to the fifth and sixth generations. And I pondered my own mortality, that final hour of agony, when I would pay my debt to Nature, and be numbered amongst them – the anonymous sinners and saints, whose vices and virtues had mouldered into dust.
I spend a good hour scouring round the nave, fighting with brambles and snaring my robes. Finding nothing, I widened my search behind the apse. A mound of skeletal remains lay littered in the mulch: a plague pit of infant graves, ravaged by foxes and vermin. The hours passed slowly as I surveyed every inch of the plot, toiling in the midsummer sun, my legs smarting with nettle rash, my arms cut to ribbons by briars. But my search for “J.V. 1376” was in vain.
At six ‘o’ clock I heard the bell for Vespers chiming in the valley below. I was about to return, when I spotted a raven on the lychgate. The bird cawed thrice then flew into the boughs of a mighty yew. And far beneath, in the umbrageous shadows, stood a tomb, half-buried in the needles. On seeing this, I was seized with foreboding. For the grave was on unhallowed ground, beyond the churchyard railings.
There was no way to approach the grave directly, for a perilous ditch bordered the wall. So I tried gaining access from the other side. On leaving the lychgate, the ground fell away sharply, and I took a chalk path to the right, passing between two tall menhirs, all mottled with lichens. Why do I encumber you with these details? Because these pagan stones marked the entrance to a druid barrow where the yew tree stood. Surrounded by a deep ditch, it was an enchanted site, mantled in melancholy, and steeped in dark green needles. Time stood still here, passing imperceptibly as the growth of the yew, which towered overhead, sighing and rustling in the breeze.
After clambering the embankment, I found myself on a bowl-barrow, with direct line of sight to the church. The mound was embraced by roots on all sides, like mighty serpents, guarding an ancient secret. It felt wrong to trespass there. But the gave held me spellbound, and I was seized with an urgent desire to uncover it. Frantic, I fell to my knees and dug around the stone, clawing back the yew-mulch with my bare hands. The surface needles were warm and silky, and laced the air with antiseptic scent, but the mulch beneath was damp and mouldy, and whispered of Death. It didn’t take long to reveal the tomb – a plain sepulchre, with a finely carved rebate on the capstone. Despite the centuries, the inscription was still sharp:
Eureka! But the mystery only deepened. There were now two individuals to consider. No doubt they were related. But why were they buried in a druid mound? The early Christians often supplanted pagan sites with their churches. Evangelisation of the heathen progressed slowly. Possibly the boundary had moved over the years, but I thought this unlikely, as the wall, although in ruins, lay on the same foundation, continuous around the graveyard. Perhaps they were unbaptised? Or thieves and assassins? Or heretics? There could be any number of reasons, especially considering the superstitions of the middle ages. One thing was certain, this was no ordinary grave: J.V. was obviously important enough to rest with pagan kings.
After Vespers, I went straight to the infirmary and told Blanche the good news.
‘A druid barrow?’ she pondered. ‘How very interesting. I wonder what J.V. is trying to tell us? Each barrow was built principally for one person – a king or tribal chief. But the primary interment was often accompanied by other corpses, suggesting human sacrifice. Secondary burials of family members were frequently added in the sides of a barrow. Now we have multiple spirits to consider: the primary and secondary interments of the Neolithic era; and the later burials in the middle ages. Unhallowed ground. A mystery to be sure.’
‘Excommunicates!’ cried Maude, mad as a March hare.
‘I don’t think so,’ mused Blanch. ‘Whilst the church of Rome is always happy to facilitate our damnation, the penalty of unconsecrated burial is distinct from ecclesiastical excommunication.’
‘What’s the difference?’ asked I.
‘Excommunication is imposed upon living sinners to coerce their penance. Whereas unconsecrated burial is prescribed for the unrepentant dead—criminals and apostates, whose sins place them beyond all earthly help. Like suicides and heretics…’
‘Or vampires!’ hissed Maude.
‘That’s silly,’ said I.
‘Why is it silly?’ asked Blanche. ‘After death, the soul is free to act of its own account; a discarnate entity, that remains a living, reasoning force—useful or mischievous, happy or sad, according to its thoughts and deeds whilst in the flesh.’
‘But sucking blood? That’s nonsense.’
‘Vampires don’t suck blood,’ said Blanche, curtly. ‘Blood is only a metaphor. A psychic vampire feeds upon the life-force of the living, making them waste away to skin and bone – just like anorexic girls.’
I puffed out my robes to hide my bony hips:
‘Anorexia isn’t caused by vampires. It’s a mental illness.’
‘That all depends,’ said Blanche. ‘Sometimes the parents are vampires. I have known many anorexic girls in my time, and the father was always at the root of it. What of your father, Maria?’
I found the insinuation offensive:
‘We’re talking about the dead, not the living. And leave my father out of it. He has nothing to do with my anorexia. Nor is he a vampire.’
‘Vampires!’ hissed Maude again, as if hearing the word for the first time. ‘Dig up their graves! Drive nails through their skulls! Cut off their heads! Burn them to ashes!’
She sliced at the air, spitting and seething. But within moments she was quiet again, and sat motionless, drooling like a baby, staring vacantly at the fire.
I lowered my voice:
‘I do not think it wise to talk of such things in front of Maude. Her mind has gone. She lives in a dream world of her own. She’s incapable of knowing what’s real. Oh! Poor Maude! Just look what the Lord has done to her!’
Blanche wagged a finger:
‘Whatever the Lord gives us, we are bound to accept—be it riches, penury or sickness—we submit to the ordinance and dispensation of God without question. Maude lost her wits many years ago. I am not a wise woman. How can a nun, who scarcely reads four books a year be reckoned wise? Yet I am always studious. For I study a volume far more edifying than all the books of the world—the volume of the human soul. Spiritualism is a most profitable and agreeable study. It is a faith which finds God everywhere, even in the shadows. Love always evolves truth and purity, even in a world of filth and suffering.’
At this, Alice began scribbling on her slate, her chalk braying like an ass. When she had finished, she held up the slate for all to see:
“Séance after Nocturns.”
‘That’s a very good idea,’ said Blanche. ‘Will you join us Maria? After all, you found the grave. No doubt the spirit has formed an attachment to you. Your presence and vibration will be most beneficial.’
‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea. We might infest the convent with darkness. You said so yourself: shadows are base spirits with base impulses.’
‘But J.V. is not a shadow,’ retorted Blanche.
‘How do you know?’
‘Ever since a child, I have seen dark, undefined shapes, who manifest at night, and always inspire the most unmitigated loathing and terror. But this spirit was different. This spirit is from the Light.’
The thought of a dark séance filled me with dread. I had witnessed enough evils at the convent, not least The Devil’s Advocate. I knew the fickle ways by which spirits changed from hot to cold, from shy to bold, from dark to light, and from love to hate. I could only pour cold water on her enthusiasm:
‘Perhaps you were tricked, sister. Deceived by a false apostle. For even Satan can transform into an angel of light.’
Blanche fell silent and watched as I emptied my bowl in the sink: a whirlpool of dirty sods belched and gurgled down the drains. Then she asked:
‘Why are you so frightened child? Where is your faith? Are you not already saved from the clutches of Satan, mind, body and soul? Do you not want to know who J.V. and M.W. are? Finding their grave was no coincidence. They wanted you to find it.’
‘That’s what worries me. Uncovering that tomb has opened a can of worms. Druids and human sacrifice? Think about it. Who are the shadows around J.V.? They might be vengeful spirits. And we cannot know what J.V. wants of us.’
‘Why, our help of course,’ said Blanche. ‘Is it not our duty to help those in need, whether they be alive or dead? Do we not pray for the salvation of all? For the restoration of this fallen world?’
‘Some spirits are injurious to the health and mental balance. It is unwise to dabble in such things.’
‘Finding that grave has obviously upset you. I do not doubt metaphysical causes of insanity, any less than medical disorders of brain. But if you fear that by attending a dark séance, you will become a hysterical wreck, bereft of intellectual function, then you only demonstrate a complete lack of faith.’
‘Faith has got nothing to do with it!’ I snapped. ‘What if the spirit requests something we cannot give?’
‘I don’t know. A wicked spirit might ask for anything… A crock of gold; a thousand masses; or a pact of blood.’
‘You’ve read too many faery tales,’ said Blanche.
‘Some entities can be most malicious, especially when you refuse them. You may not believe in vampires, but what about La Bête du Gévaudan?’
‘I don’t believe in the beast either,’ said Blanche, flatly.
‘But you believe in shadows. They frighten you.’
‘Yes!’ hissed Blanche, annoyed. ‘They do!’ And her face quivered with consternation.
That was the trouble with Blanche – she never liked to be wrong. Ruffled, she cocked her head and sneered:
‘Anyway, why should we take any notice of you? You’re just a child after all. Unless you have the gift?’
‘I need scarcely remind you that evil spirits are the most loathsome abominations; they can inflict the most senseless mutilations, and perpetrate the most unutterable crimes…’
She raised her eyebrows:
‘You speak as if you have experience of such things. Is there something you want to tell us?’
I kept my silence.
The Devil’s Advocate mocked in my ear:
‘You have the gift but fear it. What shall I ask of you? That tickles me. A crock of gold? I have gold enough. You think I would get comfort from a thousand masses? Or gain salvation from your corrupt blood? Foolish child. I am already saved. But The Horned Man is in deepest peril…’
I tried blocking him out, humming timidly as I dried the bowl. But he hectored me with a diatribe of spiritualistic waffle:
‘As all matter is formed by spiritual force, so each man’s body is formed by his soul. This makes you wonder who The Horned Man is, and from where he comes… There are many creatures of the dark skulking in the shadows of the world. Ghosts and hobgoblins, spirit-rapping faeries and table-turning ghouls. You are wise to fear such manifestations. My presence is indispensable for your protection. Why shut me out? Open your heart. As a lowly chrysalis, by force of His mysterious power, transmutes into a glorious butterfly, so the humble man, by force of spiritual prayer, is transfigured into a being of Light. Just as the spiritual man commands his own body, so he transforms all lower forms of life, and the miraculous becomes his normal condition. Do you not recall your transformation? Your regeneration from the Dead? Spiritual regeneration of soul and body is a rare and exceptional event, unattainable, except by the chosen few. Little do you know, I was at the Transfiguration, when Christ shone as the sun and his raiment became Light. I watched with my Cyclopean eye, as Peter, James and John fell in the dust before Him…’
‘Silence!’ I muttered.’
‘Do not bid me silence,’ he purred. ‘I was about to talk of Christ. Something miraculous happens when you are hidden in the Light. But that might not come for long time. As God created man in his own image, so the Christ-born man, as a son of God, is supreme over all forms and forces lower than himself. The spiritual man is the true image of God, a being both divine and miraculous. The spiritual man is lord over Nature, capable of transforming his vile earthly body into the glorified body of his angelic associates. The Christ-like man is the worker of miracles, the converter of water into wine, the giver of sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and health to the sick. He can raise the dead and cast out devils. I have inspired many ascendant souls during my earthly sojourn. Not least, Plato, Mozart and Newton. You might ask how this comes about. It is a subtle and complex affair, and I feign to explain it to mortal minds. But under certain conditions of the human organism, as during dreams, or when the will is surrendered, my occult intelligence possesses the cerebral mechanism. Then I inspire thoughts and feelings which appear to be your own, yet come from my diamonic source. Cortical asymmetries must always be taken into account, as male brains which are exposed to testosterone, have high lateralization; I myself prefer female brains, as they are less lateralized, and consequently more intuitive. Alas, sister Alice is a slow learner who suffers acute receptive aphasia. What appears on her slate is often garbled and incorrect. She makes a very poor medium indeed. But you are a diamond in the rough – a natural clairaudient. Why do you spurn me? Before you despatch me to the realm of lawless fancy, or the limbo of mental disease, remember what jewels you sensed in the solstice sun! The better part of yourself dwells in another sphere. Your true life is at one with the Divine, rooted in eternity, where you have untold powers of perception and transportation. What is this Earth, but a fallen temporal kingdom? Your true abode is beyond the grave. Spiritual reality assures the certainty of future life!’
‘Be silent devil!’ I hissed.
‘What are devils but unknown agents? You cannot comprehend my being. But even as a child, you sensed my presence. Your spiritual evolution depends on my instruction. ’Twas I who called you to cloister. But soon you will leave this place, to join the riot and hubbub of the world. Maria, your fate was writ many centuries ago. I have so much to teach you… Don’t be a coward. Attend the dark séance, and you shall have communion with the angels of Paradise…’
‘Shut-up!’ I stammered. ‘Leave me be!’
Blanche overheard my plea and rolled toward me, her wicker wheelchair creaking on the flags:
‘Are you all right child?’ she asked, frowning with concern.
‘Yes, perfectly, thank you.’
She took my hand and squeezed it gently:
‘You seem very troubled. Do you want to talk about it?’
‘I’m just not comfortable with a dark séance, that’s all.’
On hearing this, Alice scribbled on her slate:
“No good without you.”
‘I quite agree,’ said Blanche. ‘What could possibly go wrong? We have the Light of the Christ to protect us. As it says in the scriptures: He commands the winds and seas; and unto to Him, every tongue shall confess, and every knee shall bow. Even Satan.’
Despite my misgivings, I could not deny her words. And deep in my heart, The Horned Man was calling…
‘Very well,’ said I. ‘Count me in.’
After Nocturns, I stole from my shack, and crept through the dews of the moonlit precinct. I found Blanche waiting by the infirmary door, chiaroscuro in her lamplight.
‘Were you followed?’ she whispered.
‘No. We’re alone.’
She ushered me in and locked the door.
The chamber was dark, but for a moonbeam that glided through the rose window. Alice was sitting in bed, the slate on her lap. Maude sat on the other side, a bible clasped in her arthritic hands. I took my place at the bedside, where a Bentwood chair was provided for my attendance. Blanche snuffed out her lamp, then wheeled beside me, and we joined hands for the preliminary prayer – psalm 91, which Maude recited verbatim:
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked. Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him. With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.
After a long silence in the dark, we saw the first of many apparitions. Clouds of nebulous light, some falling from above, others rising from below, gathered round the bed; they hovered round the sitters, then slowly dispersed like wisps of smoke, and vanished through the walls.
A ghostly form was seen, streaming from the chimney and into the chamber. The apparition was translucent. I could see the hearth behind, yet its outline was distinct: an amorphous mass of disembodied intelligence, for it circled the bed, as if to study us one by one. This manifestation also dispersed, in the same manner as the first, and we sat in darkness for many minutes.
At length, Alice fell into a deep trance and began wheezing through her throat, head dropped forward, chin upon her chest. Then a luminous, small, beautifully-shaped hand descended from the vault, and superimposed with hers.
At once she began scribbling on the slate. The luminosity around her wrist was most beautiful – a scintillating aura of blue light with a fiery corona of green tendrils.
The writing, consisting of short sentences, was frequent enough; but there was nothing in it of any merit. It was composed of trivial remarks that might well have occurred to Alice herself. Sometimes the spelling was correct, at other times so poor as to suggest mischief rather than ignorance.
The first sentence was: “Three cheers for Mother Superior”. Then the spirits professed their gratitude at our presence with such words as: “Happy to be with you”, “Deo gratias”, “Ave Maria” and “Rainbows of perpetual peace”. There followed some Latin quotations: “Cogito, ergo sum” [I think therefore I am], “Ex vi termini” [To live without end], and “Certum quia impossibile” [It is certain because it is impossible].’
The stylus stopped and the slate was wiped clean.
Then Blanche asked:
‘To whom are we speaking?’
‘Are you J.V. 1376?’ asked Blanche.
A definite “YES” was scrawled in large capitals.
‘What do you want of us?’
There followed a pregnant pause.
‘Tell us what you want,’ repeated Blanche. ‘We come in love. We are here to help you…’
Alice began writing once more. Eager to see the reply, I leant over the bed which at once began to vibrate and tremble. The message was no less cryptic than the first: “M.W. 1380.”
‘Give us your name,’ bid Blanche.
Her request was ignored. The communication was repeated, again and again, as Alice scrawled faster and faster: “M.W. 1380. M.W. 1380. M.W. 1380.”
The spirit seemed angry and distressed. The writing became more frantic, the chalk squealing across the slate at inhuman speed, over and over: “M.W. 1380. M.W. 1380. M.W. 1380. M.W. 1380…”
‘Something’s wrong,’ I muttered. ‘Stop.’
The words were barely out of my mouth when there came a shrill whir, as of wind droning in the drains. Then the slate flew from Alice’s hand and spun down the aisle; it turned mid-air, then darted between the pillars, narrowly missing our heads, until it hit the wall and smashed to smithereens.
Blanche grabbed my hand as loud knocks were heard on the walls, ceiling and floor. The enamel bowl began to rattle and chime, then the door handle shook violently. There came a sudden crash, like falling timbers, and a burst of wailing filled the air. Three crucifixes were pulled from walls, as if by invisible hands, and thrown out the lancet. Then the door flew open as a great gush of wind filled the chamber, howling down the aisle and tugging our robes.
Throughout this supernatural disturbance, Maude was gibbering like a lunatic, her mad eyes fixed on the chimney. A dark shadow was gathering there.
We watched in awe, unable to move as Alice began rising from the bed. Still in trance, she floated some distance toward the hearth, then was gently lowered to the floor.
‘They’re here!’ cried Maude. ‘They’re here! They’re here!’
They flew from the chimney, darkening the moonbeams with swarming shadows. They pounced on Alice in a writhing horde, wresting with her soul, pulling giblets of ectoplasm from her mouth and chest. It was nothing less than a psychic disembowelment. And I was sore afraid of the terror by night, and the pestilence that walketh in darkness…
Blanche wailed as her chair jittered round the bed, the axle creaking as it hopped from one wheel to the other. Then it careened down the aisle at full pelt, toppling and throwing her like a rag doll, until she landed sprawled on the tiles. She lay paralysed in fear, blood trickling from her nose. Yet still she whimpered:
‘He shall cover me with his feathers! Under his wings shalt I trust: his truth shall be my shield and buckler!’
I could only gawp at the gathering shadows as they rose up before me in a towering mass, a malevolent phantom, threatening my total extinction. The intense feeling of horror became insupportable and my body was seized by cold shiverings. Then, overcome by a hideous nausea, I fainted and fell to the floor.
When I awoke, I was lying in hospital. A handsome doctor in lab coat approached my bed and smiled:
‘How are we feeling today?’
‘Where am I?
‘Don’t you remember? My name is Dr. Black. We have spokeb before. I am here to ascertain your mental condition. Do you understand?’
‘I think so.’
‘I’d like to continue where we left off yesterday, if that’s all right with you… We were talking about the séance.’
‘Does your belief in spirits apply to your abstract assertion that writing took place upon the slate?’
‘That is what I saw.’
‘Did the writing take place above or underneath the slate?’
‘Do you believe that any mortal could have done it?’
‘I believe that men who deny such things labour under a deception.’
‘The deception being?’
‘Their own ignorance. I cannot deny what I saw, just to please the atheists.’
‘Oh! So you are skilled observer, well versed in stage illusions and slight of hand?’
‘There was no slight of hand. I was watching very closely.’
‘What was the point of this experiment?’
‘To contact the dead.’
‘Who is dead?’
‘J.V. and M.W.’
‘And who are they, precisely?’
‘I don’t know.’
He scratched his head:
‘You see Maria, that adds to my difficulty a great deal.’
‘That’s because you don’t believe.’
‘Would you say the muscular action was indicative of writing? Or was the slate moving of its own accord?’
‘Do you mean to say, that you can pledge the writing was caused by a supernatural force?’
‘When the slate was snatched away, who took it?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What was the last message on the slate?’
‘Do you know that the Dialectical Society has a committee to investigate this phenomena?’
‘I was not aware of that.’
‘They have published a very large number of journals on the subject of slate-writing; and they have publicly certified that long messages often occur in a very short space of time.’
‘—And tricksters often swap one slate for another, to fool the credulous, and so make it appear that messages are writ by supernatural agents.’
‘Is all this going down on my record?’
‘Naturally. It’s part of your case history.’
‘What date is it?’
‘May 14th, 1964.’
‘What hospital is this?’
‘A mental hospital?’
‘May I look out the window?’
‘Please, help yourself.’
I pulled back the sheets, climbed out of bed, and went to the window. But when I drew back the curtain, I was greeted by a terrible void of darkness.
‘What time is it?’ I asked.
Dr. Black checked his watch:
‘It’s ten a.m.’
‘But it’s dark outside.’
‘Come away from there. Come back to bed.’
‘But I don’t understand. Why is it dark? It’s supposed to be morning.’
‘It’s curfew time.’
‘You are aware that in materialist courts, all sorts of scientific matters are inquired into, and the conclusions are constantly illustrated and elucidated by experiment – the exhibition of physical forces, such as electricity, radiation, and so on. Suppose there was a question as to the true nature of Light. One such question was put to the Dialectical Society last year. A certain slate-writer claimed that the Sun is not what appears to be. According to the Dialectical Society, our sun is a main sequence star, and generates its energy by thermonuclear fusion; a process whereby hydrogen nuclei are converted into helium. In its core, the sun fuses 500 million metric tons of hydrogen each second. But according to the heretical slate-writer, the sun is a Logos – a spiritual being – emanating the eternal Love of God. Until the Dialectical Society can determine the true nature of the sun, they have decreed to blot it out.’
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1992-2022. All rights reserved.