I step to the edge of the cliff. Far below, the crushing din of the waves echoes into the fading dusk, leaving behind the briny smell and taste of the sea. Somewhere in the moonless sky the cry of a gull traces a forlorn path through the growing night. Beyond that cry, like the burgeoning eyes of Heaven, the stars begin to shine. Almost, it might seem, as though they had come to bear witness to what would follow . . .
I am six years old when he comes the first time.
I lie awake in my bed listening to the storm. The winds, the rain, they punish our house, threaten to smash the fragile glass of the windows. I pull my blankets up a little higher, telling myself that the shadow of the tree that flits across them truly is only a shadow and not something that steals a childís soul. Across from me, my mother has left my bedroom door open. Through the crack, I can see her door across the hall. It, too, is open. She knows that sometimes I get scared of the dark. When those times come, she says I should pray. I cross myself and close my eyes. When I am finished asking God for deliverance from evil, I open them.
The ghost stands before me.
Terror steals my breath. Though my mouth hangs open, though I long with all my heart to cry out, to run screaming from my room, my blood is ice and I cannot. Unable to speak, unable to move I feel the hair at the nape of my neck bristle, and all I can do is watch as the wraith approaches the side of my bed.
It makes no sound as it moves. The ghost is tall, with skin the grey-white of the birch trees that grow in the forests to the north. Beneath a long grey beard a gold embroidered houppeland, torn and frayed, covers what once would have been a green cotehardie and gold doublet. Dingy green hose end in pointed leather shoes and a green liripipe covers its head, the hoodís trailing ends falling across the ghostís gaunt chest. Though worn and faded, its clothing might have been elegant.
Were it not for the chains.
Bound at wrist and ankle, the two sets of heavy chain are shackled by a third. By the slump of the ghostís shoulders, it is clear the fetters have taken their toll. The ghost is not young. Older than my mother, but not an old man. Its head is tilted and its fey eyes hold a sorrow that makes me want to weep.
Uncertain, almost as though it fears me, the ghost trudges forward another step, the weight of its chains like the weight of the world.
I could scream now. The terror has passed and I could scream for my mother.
I do not. Something in its eyes prevents me.
Something . . .
Instead, I reach out a hand, and so as not to wake my mother, I whisper, "Who are you?"
Still uncertain, still out of reach, the ghost stretches out its shackled hands. I am shocked to see it is crying as it does so. Its eyes, the sorrow in them, I have never seen its like. For reasons I cannot explain, the ghostís tears bring tears to my own eyes.
"Why are you so sad?" I ask.
The ghostís shoulders shake as it falls silently to its knees beside the bed. It is sobbing. "I am afraid," the ghost says between falling tears. Its voice is an autumn wind, a lost child, a thing forgotten and unmourned.
I lean forward. The sadness etched in the lines of its face breaks my heart. I long to touch the spirit, to share its grief. "Afraid of what?"
The ghost turns its vacant eyes upon me. "I am afraid you will hate me, Ansgar."
I recoil as it speaks my name and huddle in the corner of bed. "How, how do you know my name?"
The ghost gathers itself, draws a breath and straightens its bent back. "Because I am your father," it says, "and I have come to ask your forgiveness."
And through eyes blurred with tears, I watch my dead father vanish as though he had never stood beside my bed.
As though he had never spoken my name.
When Ansgar finished dusting the inscription, he blew gently upon the rock. For an instant only, his calloused fingers traced the ancient letters. Then a breath, a single backward step, and he began to read:
ĎThree times have I been born, this I know.
Into a dark leathern bag was I thrown and on a boundless sea cast adrift.
My native country is the region of the summer stars.
I have been in Asia with Noah and have seen the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
All the sciences in the world are collected in my breast,
I know what has been, and what hereafter shall occur.
I am Taliesin, Chief of the Bards.í
When the recitation was complete, a stifled, smothering silence descended upon the small, ancient cave. The red-orange flame of his lantern wavered, brushed by some unfelt wind, granting silent life to the surrounding shadows.
Came then a shift in the darkness, an unholy reordering of the world.
Ansgar spun. In his breast, his heart was a savage storm as his wavering light banished the encroaching gloom.
And revealed the answer to his dreams.
My mother has told me many times that I am never to speak of my father. I know nothing of him; he died before I was born. Her words have never kept me from wondering, from imagining his face, his voice.
"Mother says you are the most wicked man who ever lived and that I am to never seek your name."
It has been days since last I saw him. I had feared he would not return, that I would not have the chance to learn the truth.
My dead father stares down at me from beside my bed. The look of hopelessness in his black gaze threatens to suffocate me.
"Your mother speaks true," he says, turning from me, ashamed.
"I . . . donít understand."
"I know, my son. I know you donít."
Something in his words, the grief that underlies them draws me on. "But I want to. I want to understand." This time it is I who turns away, afraid of the question that my heart demands I ask, afraid of his answer. Afraid of where both of them, question and answer, shall lead. But I need to know, need to learn the truth for myself. So I ask, "Will you tell me?"
My father says nothing. When I turn to him, he is staring at me. Tears well at the corners of his eyes. And through the tears, he is smiling.
"Yes," he says, falling to his knees and laying his head upon the side of my bed. "Oh, Ansgar, yes." Struggling against the unrelenting burden of the chains, he rises to his full height. The tears no longer fall.
"I am Johannes Faustus," he says, and even the chains of the damned cannot keep the pride from his voice. "In life I was a sorcerer, some say the mightiest in the world. But my might did not come without a cost.
"Driven by my need for power, by my unquenchable thirst for knowledge, I turned my back upon blessed God and Church, upon my friends and colleagues, and committed the darkest sin."
My father pauses. For an instant his eyes drop and I wonder if he can go on. In my breast my heart is a wild animal, clawing and pounding for freedom.
When my father raises his eyes they are as black iron forged in the flames of grief, tempered in the waters of reconciled fate. I am humbled by the strength of his will.
He says: "In exchange for twenty-four years of his servitude, in blood and ash I bound my soul to the Devil Mephistopheles; forever."
I gasp at his words but stifle it quickly, lest I wake my mother. I cross myself as he continues: "Yes, my son. Shield yourself with God, pray that He protects you. And hear me now, as I recount the many dark things I did with the Devilís power . . ."
"Lord, protect me," Ansgar whispered. "The legends . . ."
With his quavering right hand, Ansgar fashioned the sign of the cross. Beneath the crackle-snap of the torch, he stared at the impossible passageway that lay before him, beckoning. The passageway that, just moments before, had been nothing more than a wall of rock.
Ansgar shook his head. "To an ending, then," he whispered.
A silent prayer to God and a firm grip on his lantern were his sole companions as Dr. Ansgar Faustus entered the abysmal passage that even sorcerers and devils feared to tread.
His tale is three years in the telling and for each word he utters, I weep.
"The most wicked man to ever live." My motherís words.
I know she is right.
Many nights, as my father tells his tale, I long to cover my head, to wish him away and pretend he could never have been so evil. I believe I no longer want the truth, no longer want to understand. But I continue to listen. With a word, I can banish him, cast him back to the flames and forget him. I do not. Always there is that sorrow in his gaze, that longing to be understood.
To be forgiven. But he will not ask. Not since that first night. He is leaving the decision to me; he is placing his soul in my hands.
"Why do you tell me these terrible things when you know I cannot forgive them?" I ask one winterís night. The light of the moon streaks through my window, bathes my father in its argent glow. Outside, the wind howls past my window and even through my blankets I can feel the chill.
My father stares at me through the hollow pits of his eyes and speaks as though I have not asked him a question. "It was not until very near the end of my time that I began to understand what my pride had fashioned. I had become a monster. I had squandered my might, squandered my years in endless sin and debauchery. Despite my power, I was nothing, had gained nothing. Suddenly, realizing how foolish I had been, I wanted nothing more than to live, to be afforded the chance to make right my mistakes. Of course, there were none who would listen. I was reviled and deserved nothing less. Mephistopheles laughed at my efforts to put things right. He laughed while I wept. But I did not give up. And it was only a short time later that I heard Taliesinís name for the first time, spoken as a curse by a witch in the heart of a dead forest. Taliesin, who changed everything . . ."
The passageway was short. Roughhewn and narrow, gossamer thin webs and cloying dust gave testament to its inviolate secrecy. The corridor ended in a small chamber.
Ansgar closed his eyes and laid a trembling hand upon the stony frame of the open doorway.
Thirty years to reach this point. A lifetime and all it entailed. A wife. A child. A career.
Sacrifices. All part of the price. Only he understood, only he had ever believed. The thought gave him comfort.
Faith. It had carried him this far. It would see him through to the end.
After a long, steadying breath, Ansgar stood tall. And entered the place that his life and destiny had brought him to.
"Called the Voice of God, and Goldensoul, legends say that among enchanters, Taliesin was the most skilled with words." As my father speaks one night near the end of his tale, a glimmer of wonder flickers to life in the pits of his dead eyes. "In a different time, words were more than they are now. They were said to give order to things, to shape reality itself. To know the Name of a thing was to master it. To Name a thing was to summon it into being so that the thing existed in the words for it. Then, by altering the Name, by manipulating it, one might change the thing.
"Or destroy it."
I watch the pits of my fatherís eyes harden to flint as he speaks this last. For a moment, I am afraid again. Then his gaze softens and he continues.
"Little is known of Taliesin beyond his mythic skill. It was the work of months to find him, nearly the last of my time. But find him I did, in the haunted wood of Broceliande. Carefully, hidden from Mephistophelesís prying eyes, I approached Taliesin and confessed my sins. Drowning in the tears of my shame, I spoke of my Pact, of my pride. Then, before the forest and Almighty God, I begged Taliesinís forgiveness.
"And he granted it." My fatherís eyes fall like stars, but not before I can see the light, the life, that his memory lends them. He shakes his head as though still unable to believe his own tale. "But there was more, Ansgar." My father raises his head slowly, his gaze fixes upon me: "That night in Broceliande, Taliesin claimed he could free my soul."
I lean forward, wrapt in the tale. I whisper, "How?"
"ĎThe Devilís Name,í Taliesin told me in the heart of that most holy wood, Ďlies buried within the sacred pages of Tal Entwym.í Tal Entwym, Ansgar, the Book of Secrets! Writ within its pages in letters only the Just can read, is said to be all the knowledge in the world. And since the worldís beginning, it has remained hidden at the heart of Taliesinís sanctum sanctorum, Caer Myrrthryll. Do you see, Ansgar? I had only to follow him to his sanctum to retrieve the Name. Then we might work together, Taliesin and I, to undo the Pact and free my soul!"
The light in my fatherís dead eyes goes out, replaced by a loathing that is frightening to behold.
"But I am not so clever as I thought," he spits, "not so well hidden. At the enchanterís words, Mephistopheles appeared. And from behind, a smile adorning his jesterís face, the Devil struck the enchanter down."
Ansgar found the book resting atop a pedestal of rose granite, beyond a dome of glass at the center of the chamber. No dust obscured the bookís covering, and a light shone down upon it though no flame was about. The chamber out of which the pedestal arose was small, cluttered with tomes and parchments. The walls were hewn stone, lined with scores of shelves.
Ansgar took a step forward and dropped to his knees.
How often had he dreamed of this place? How many prayers, uttered upon knees, whispered through tears of despair, had Ansgar offered to God that He might see him through to this day? Always his lifeís goal had driven him, had burned in him like an all-consuming blaze. And now he was here. The realization was staggering in its scope.
But he was not done.
Slowly, gathering his courage to himself as the dawn gathered light, Ansgar stood.
To an ending.
And Ansgar advanced toward the Tome.
Three steps and he was close, close enough to see illuminated gold glittering upon the cover. Another step, one more, and he could read the words emblazoned there.
"Tal Entwym," he whispered. His breath caught as his lungs filled with pitch. He turned quickly, lighting the torches stationed throughout the study, the surrounding darkness of a sudden less forgiving. With the chamber fully lit, Ansgar again approached the Tome.
Carefully, he moved to lift the glass. At his touch its perfectly round surface vanished, changed into shimmering dust.
"Lord, I pray You are near and hear me well. Guide my hand, and keep me safe."
Then Ansgar Faustus opened sacred Tal Entwym, for love, and in salvationís name.
Once again, tears flow from my fatherís dead eyes. His despair is like a vast, inescapable sinkhole that threatens to bury me alive. "Mephistopheles took me away then, and his laughter filled the air. Not long after, I met your mother, Siguna. She was a tavern girl in a place where I had chosen to drink away my memories of Taliesin, and the hope he granted me. She was so beautiful. She knew not who I was, knew nothing of my black, cursed soul. And for a single night, she granted me solace, a haven from despair.
"But Mephistopheles would not allow me even this small peace. In the morning he came to her, told her who and what I was. He laughed as she cursed and hated me. But what even he could not know was that night I fashioned my chance at salvation. If only Siguna would let the child grow, I would have my chance to return, to tell that child my tale. To beg his forgiveness, as I begged Taliesinís."
My fatherís gaze falls upon me and I feel its weight in my soul.
"You are that child, Ansgar, and I have told my story. Caer Myrrthryll is out there still, and Mephistophelesís Name. If you can find them it is not too late. You could free me from my shackles, set my soul at peace. Or, with a word, you can banish me to the depths and never think of me again. It would be no less than I deserve.
"What say you?"
I am nine years old and asked to decide the fate of my fatherís soul for all eternity.
I turn to him, meet the manifest hope in the pits of his eyes.
And do the only thing a son can do: I nod my head and whisper, "I forgive you, father."
And for thirty years I search out Taliesinís holy sanctum, his ĎFortress of Words.í Where Tal Entwym, the enchanterís sacred Book of Secrets, is hidden.
That I might learn the Name of a devil, and free the soul of my father.
The Tome was everything his father claimed it was and more.
Hour after hour Ansgar read. Of things passed and yet to be, of continents lost and worlds undiscovered. Most of the Tomeís entries were in the form of Triads, simple three line poems. But, though simple in their form, each sentence, every word, revealed a depth of genius unmatched in all the worldís history. As Ansgar shaped the words in his mind, he felt the world around him change. Torches blazed and dimmed; walls and shadows shifted. He dared not voice the words aloud for fear of shattering those precious illusions men named Sanity and Reality.
So he read on in silence, until the yellow-white vellum beneath his fingers gave way at the last to sheerest jet.
A score of midnight leaves occupied a small portion of the Tome. The letters that filled the pages were of deepest scarlet, and Ansgar dared not imagine at what cost that profane knowledge was gleaned. The blood-red words were formed not in sacred Triads, but chaotic verse. As he continued to read, the shadows that danced beyond the torchesí light grew bolder, reached forth spindly fingers toward the invader of their realm.
Ansgar was undaunted. Minutes or hours later, his heart threatening to explode from his chest, Ansgar read these final words:
And there he stood among the flames of Archeron,
The schemer clad so gay;
Hellís jester, the black murderer of Day.
But mighty Mephistopheles, his mirth and cackle gone,
Trembled as the gnat doth tremble Ďfore the crow,
For upon the winds of fiery brimstone,
A demonís death was sown.
And mighty Mephistopheles to Azaroth must bow.
Closing the Tome, thrusting aside fear and doubt, Ansgar steeled himself against the encroaching night. Then, with all the force of a tormented child, with all the strength of a man who has lost everything in an effort to gain the thing that matters most, he raged: "Come, wicked Azaroth, harken to your master!"
The world exploded in mephitic fury as reality was rent by a Devilís wrath.
And Azaroth, called Mephistopheles, appeared.
No longer in command, its mortal guise stripped and torn and cast aside, the true form of the enraged devil was vast, a universe of shadow and appalling menace. Behind a shifting, all-encompassing darkness that not all the light in the world could dispel, its left eye gleamed incarnadine.
For an instant that stretched into infinityís shadowy depths, man met demonís gaze and stillness reigned, fear paralyzing one, rage the other.
Then, clutching his rage, his heaving breath a winter gale in his ears, Ansgar said: "Your Name, demon, your Name is mine!"
The demon spat rancor. "Command me, mortal," Azaroth rasped from behind its armor of night, its serpentine tongue choking its guttural words, its breath acrid brimstone.
Ansgar trembled. "I would free my fatherís soul."
The demonís single, livid eye burned with unquenchable malice. Then, adder-quick, the shadows shifted and a smile split its hideous visage. "I regret your fatherís soul is no longer mine to give."
Ansgar spoke the Name again, twisting it.
Before him the great devil, the Prince, birthed before time with might enough to crush the world, howled in anguish.
"I would have my fatherís soul!"
"It . . . is not mine to give. I am but a gatherer. For another."
"Then too, shall I find his Name!"
"Though you search for eternity, no Name shall you find. For no Name has He."
"Liar! Deceiver! I shall Ė"
"Stay your maiming tongue, mortal son of a damned man, for all is not lost."
Ansgarís sweat-soaked brow knitted, his gaze thinned. He knew, armed even as he was with the Name, that he was not safe Ė perhaps would never be safe again. The consummate deceiver, the great devil was more than he was, more than any mortal could ever be. But Azarothís deceptions were most dangerous because they so often contained truths. Could the devilís words be true? A drop of stinging sweat dripped into Ansgarís eye. How could he know?
"Yes," the devil urged, its voice a sibilant hiss, "salvation is still within your grasp; for a price."
"Indeed. My Lord has long sought the enchanterís Name. Scour his works, and you shall have it. The enchanterís Name for your fatherís soul."
Eternity passed as Ansgar pondered. Could he do this, truly, barter one fate for another as though the coin were wool and not eternal souls? And who was he that such decisions fell to him? Had he not paid enough? His wife and child. His career. Forty years of his life. When would it be enough? Lord God, when would it be enough?
"Come now," the Devil hissed, "what matters his Name to you? Such a simple thing to gain your fatherís freedom."
Freedom. His lifeís goal. The culmination of all his faith, of all his dreams and sacrifices.
With the resignation of a man who has shouldered a burden too great for any man to bear, Ansgar nodded.
In silence and sorrow, he turned to the Tome.
"What I do now," he whispered as he reached the book, his grief-heavy words not meant for Mephistopheles, "I do for love. May God forgive me."
"Of course He will," the devil whispered. "It is what He does."
Ansgar said nothing as he opened the book. For long hours he scoured the Tome, the devil close, cloaked as ever in its shroud of shadow. Waiting.
Then all at once Ansgar had it.
Slowly, with profoundest regret, Ansgar closed the Tome. As he turned, the devilís waiting smile was an odious, contemptible thing.
"Gwynon Ceridwyn," Ansgar whispered, defeated.
The world exploded a second time, and a tall man, clad in white robes with a small gold cross hanging from his neck, stood before them. Indefinable sadness etched the manís aged face, mixed with something Ansgar could not quite recognize. For a heartbeat, surely no more, his eyes met the eyes of the stranger; then Taliesin vanished in a cloud of brimstone.
As he did, the tomes and parchments of the chamber burned.
Amid the smoke and swirling ash, the great devil laughed.
"My fatherís soul!" Ansgar cried through the smoke and ash, recognizing at last and too late, the pity manifest in the old manís eyes. "Our deal!"
"Would that your wretched fatherís soul were mine Lordís to give," the devil hissed. "But Taliesin redeemed him long ago, fashioned his salvation amid the hated trees of Broceliande where I am forbidden to go. If his soul you would have, seek it beyond hated Gabrielís watch."
No. Not like this. Please, Lord, not like this.
In his rage, Ansgar sought the Name he had known. But with the Tomeís unbinding so too, fell its magicks. And all memory of them.
Ansgar crumpled to the earth.
"Thus is vengeance served for a soul lost. And knowledge never meant for mortals is yours no longer."
Then, in the dream-guise of Johannes Faustus that had, for so long, haunted Ansgarís childhood, the devil vanished.
While upon the cold stone of the chambers floor Ansgar Faustus, devilís fool, wept.
I am forty years old and my heart has withered in my breast, choked by boundless grief. I can no longer stand the thought of what I have done. My life has been a futile, pathetic thing, my days stolen and murdered. As I stare down at the icy blue waters of the sea so far below, I long for nothing more than an ending.
I step from the edge of my rocky perch and the hungry wind rushes to greet me. I am not screaming, am not afraid at all. I wonder though, if a life spent in the pursuit of something truly good, is enough to outweigh a single, grievous wrong. Will the eyes of Heaven recognize a fool?
As the waters of the sea beckon me on, I realize it matters little. It would be nice to see my father, my real father, but there are things I long to say to the enchanter as well. As I strike the water and the world goes black, I cannot decide which I hope for more.
Bio: Scott Clements is a teacher in Windsor, Ontario.
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