Aphelion Issue 254, Volume 24
September 2020
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Brother Thomas's Night

by Francis-Marie de Chatillon

Anno Domini 1349 and a cold early evening winter's sleet dashes against the monastery of St. Michael and St. Denis high on the montagne de salut in the mountainous Luberon in France. Borne of a bitter wind, rain buffets the granite building like so many vengeful demons trying to flood in; young Br. Thomas stands like stone against it at the small glassless window of his cell. He stares into the growing darkness with an increasing sense of dread. Dread but not despair: no, never despair; for therein lies the way of damnation, the path to the Evil One, he "Who roams around like a raging lion seeking whom he may devour." Thomas mutters this to himself, remembering the reading in the Office of Compline. Compline: the Night Office, the completion of the day--but the start of the night and its dark processes.

Throwing his head back, oblivious to the harsh gust through the window, he thinks of just a few years before and he let out a slow moan of grief. Was it only just two years ago that she died? Time seemed to have passed so slowly. Suddenly, he shivers and pulls his thick white Cistercian habit around him and shoves his hands into the opposing sleeves. Br. Thomas bows his head and mutters a short prayer for her; after all that's why he's here.

The monastery is as bleak as the weather. High on a mountain promontory it seems to brood over its surroundings. The only way to it a rocky winding track, it seems more fortress, more fastness than religious house. Its tall central tower a keep and its surrounding walls defensive ramparts. Stranger still, for a Cistercian house, it has none of the usual agriculture for commerce: no pasture surrounds it, no fast-flowing water powers a mill. No animals are stocked for fattening and trade, no wine made for sale. It is not so much a place of retreat from the world as a place of hiding far from it. Oddly, the monastery has a distant and rather ambiguous relationship with the peasants who live below. Mostly they are suspicious. Although alms and food are given freely however, few make the journey up the steep track to avail themselves of the charity.

To a casual observer, Br. Thomas is a shattered soul flickering in the dim candlelight of his cell. He leaves the window now and walks across his small cell to the straw covered pallet that is his bed. He lays upon it and covers his face with his hands remembering. Gone now are the days of wealth and warmth at the castle of Bonnieux. Gone is the eating and drinking, the dancing and laughter; gone his father, mother and sister--his beloved twin sister Ancelma. “Do not despair. Never despair.” He mutters. He had watched the dark swellings form in his father's oxters, and smelt the putridity when the most vicious of these strange bodily eruptions bust forth in his groin. He witnessed the agonising death that befell all his family over the short weeks. Mercifully, his mother was quick in death, pustules forming at Lauds one day and the Pestilence taking her by the following. His beautiful sister, tall and strong reduced to.... He couldn't bear the image and another deep moan escaped him.

Unable to rest, he gets up and sits at his small table. He stares at the skull and the hourglass—momento mori--positioned either side of the large crucifix. Pasted on the wall under one of the horizontals of the cross is a coloured woodcut of the Virgin. Thomas smiles remembering how his sister was to join one of the most prestigious nunneries in all France. She had even chosen the serving women and maids she would take with her; but that was all gone now and it seemed to him like another strange and menacing landscape had suddenly appeared before them all.

According to reports, the Great Pestilence had moved quickly across France and had now reached England; the danse macabre was moving north quickly. In the Luberon and surrounding areas people died in extraordinary numbers; bodies went unburied for days and days. No one seemed to be spared and if not taken themselves, then family members were almost wholesale. There seemed no exceptions--well, one only. His Holiness Pope Clemens VI had succumbed but miraculously recovered, he then granted the remission of sins to all who died of the Pestilence.

A bell tolls, its deep tone calling the brothers to Matins just after midnight. Br. Thomas is not unaware of the irony of this: Matins, the first office of the day, a thanksgiving, said in the dead of night and whilst evil is still stalking its prey. He stands listening to the slow controlled shuffle of feet outside his cell; he leaves joining the line of cowled figures in the dimness as they file to chapel.

The chapel is large and was built for far more brothers than the fourteen now taking their places. Many candles burn, points of light in a dark world of many woes. Br. Thomas feels the slight warmth and is gladdened. In front of him, slightly to his right, is the large wooden statue of the Virgin and Child adorned in the finest azure and gold; gemstones wink and sparkle in her crown and behind it, arcing her head, the twelve stars seen in St. John’s apocalyptic vision of her. Surrounded by votive lights their flickering make her seem to dance and gyrate. To his left are St. Michael and St. Denis; one standing in military might but both to remind the brothers of the ongoing fight against the very realness of evil. ‘O Lord thou shalt open my lips and my mouth shall declare thy praise’ the first words of Matins begin and the day’s liturgy starts.

After Matins the brothers retire again to their cells until daybreak when Lauds will be chanted and the working day will begin. Some will pray a little more and some will sleep again. Br. Thomas lays restlessly upon his cot awaiting the beginning of his particular work in the scriptorium. The work at the moment is the copying of the great 37 volume Naturalist Historia by Pliny; in particular that volume covering the ‘Monstrous Races’. Br. Thomas is writing carefully the gloss in tightly compressed Gothic script. It is demanding work. It will be accompanied by many illustrations of the ‘Races’: the Hippopodes or horse-footed men; Himantopodes or backward-footed men; Blemmyae or headless men with their faces on their chests; the Sciapods or one-legged men who hop about at lightning speed and shade themselves with their great foot; the frightening Arimaspi that clubbed people to death and ate their flesh; the Cynocephali or dog-headed men that communicated by barking. Later, each page will be decorated with marginalia: very small images of monkeys shitting on a priest’s head or turd bowling or devils menacing high ecclesiastics, or composite animals.

For Br. Thomas, these ‘races’ prompted great theological questions: are these monsters truly monstrous at all? He pondered that in the fifth century, Saint Augustine discussed the so-called ‘Monstrous Races’, such as the dog-headed cynocephali, in book 8 of his City of God. The Saint pondered how they might fit into the purposes of God. Are they descendants of Adam? If so, they are human beings despite their frightening appearance. They would then have souls, and might even be converted to Christianity. Br. Thomas pondered this also: would not ‘wondrous’ be a better adjective as used in The Wonders of the East, an Old English document from around AD 1000 that describes many of the same creatures found in the classical geographers.

It was while Br. Thomas thought long and hard on these weighty matters that he thought he heard a small voice just outside his window; a faint whisper that was there and yet wasn’t. He couldn’t make out the words; perhaps it was some small trick of the wind. This small voice-like sound continued for some time and eventually Br. Thomas was driven to go to the window and peer out into the bleak darkness, but he could see nothing and the sound didn’t become any clearer.

Walking across to his desk he sat and prayed silently to the Virgin for protection against evil—a very real evil—that he now felt about him; that sensation of something coming from afar and then watching his every move. Suddenly, the voice became clearer.

“Thomas, Oh Thomas! It is me Ancelma. You still remember me, don’t you Thomas?”

Br. Thomas jumped up in a start and stared wide-eyed at the window. He stepped back against the cell door in alarm, his body ridged with fear. The voice was insistent and continued to ask him if he remembered her still, or had he put all thoughts of her from his mind now that he had joined a religious order. Br. Thomas remembered the priest’s warning from long ago when he was but a child that a Christian was never to converse with spirits unless they were angels sent from God, and so he stared silent and trembling.

“Thomas, I’m so cold out here. So very cold! Please bid me come enter. I’m Ancelma, your beloved sister. Oh, Thomas. Oh Thomas!” The voice was soft and familiar. Tempting. Br. Thomas fearful for his soul but not despairing, whispered the St. Michael’s prayer. He prayed fervently over and over, his back pushed hard against the cell door.

“St Michael, Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Evil One. May God rebuke him we humbly pray and do thou Oh prince of the Heavenly Host by the power of God thrust Satan into Hell and all evil spirits who wander the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

But what should he do? If this was truly the soul of his sister—and the voice was certainly hers--was she not but of God. She was devout in life and surely must be from heaven.

“Oh Thomas, to reject me now. Now that I have come to find you! What evil has suddenly possessed you to reject me Thomas?”

Br. Thomas let out a long low moan of indecision. His heart was pounding and he felt it breaking for love of her. “You came to do me no harm spirit?” He tried to make this sound imposing but failed.

“I’m your sister and would do nothing ever to injure you, my Thomas.”

“Then yes! Yes, for le petit corps du Christ come to me Ancelma! I bid you enter.”

At these words there was a silence of some seconds. Then slowly through the window a light-grey mist or smoke enters the room. In sparkling wisps it comes, gradually forming into a thicker inchoate shape. And then it swirls around the cell at ceiling height faster and faster, a frightening tornado of spirit. Br. Thomas watches in stark fascination as it speeds round and round, his legs trembling despite his now full belief that this is truly the spirit of his sister. The shape suddenly stops and moves gently to the floor. As he looks on, the mass starts to coalesce like a slowly evolving sculpture, gradually taking the form of a woman.

The mass becomes a form, the form becomes a woman--but the woman was not of his sister!

The spectre before him is of a young beautiful girl of about 18 years or so, long, dark, wavy hair framing her wanton face. Voluptuous and full-hipped she stretches out her arms to him letting her breasts stand before her in their fullness. Thomas is horrified. Frozen, like some statue on a cathedral façade, he stares disbelievingly.

“You said you were my sister. You said you would never harm me!” His speech is shaky, unnerved. He notices that the small candles in his cell are flickering madly casting wicked looking shadows across the walls.

“I lied,” comes the seductive yet sinister reply.

And as Br. Thomas let out a low moan of despairing fear another voice is at the window--a deep unassailable voice of authority, “Where are you now, Thomas?” The disembodied voice is strong yet soft in its tone. Almost soothing. Almost.

Br. Thomas can make no reply for, as he is listening, the vision before him is steadily moving towards him intent on some hideous purpose. And as it does, so it is changing.

“Oh Thomas, Thomas, you are in trouble. Deep, deep trouble..” The voice again strong yet soothing.

Screaming now, Br. Thomas runs to the protection of the crucifix and the pasted woodcut of the Virgin. Gradually the form moves on closer to him transforming slowly. Then, “Come take me Thomas. Fuck me. You know you want to.” The voice is harder; gone is the young tender tones of before. Older and older she grows, the face turning into a lined and gaunt vision of evil; gone is the buxom wanton of before, replaced now by some boney hag. The eyes of the creature seem alight with malice and they transfix Br. Thomas as surely as Christ is nailed to the cross behind him. Almost on him, Br. Thomas fights to keep her off, but she is strong and they struggle furiously like Jacob and the angel. Br. Thomas is thrown hard back across the table, the skull sent spinning to the floor with a loud crash; in the action a tooth has become dislodged and it bounces across the cell into a corner. The creature has him pinned now, her face just inches from his; her eyes are boring into him as if they would drill into his brain. A piercing scream, a howl of anguish, “Oh God have mercy on me. Save the servant who trusts in thee.” Now, with one frighteningly swift motion she is down between his legs, his habit torn wide. She grins momentarily. Her mouth--wider than any human mouth--closes on him, and in one great sucking sound Br. Thomas is shrinking, folding rapidly in on himself. Shaking violently, he shrivels, withering like dried fruit, so the bones of his once powerful body are clearly discernable through his skin. His cheeks so full and rosy are now collapsed against his skull. Br. Thomas’s head has fallen back and his mouth is wide open shrieking unsightly in silence. Turning yellow, he falls to the floor a crumpled form; an eviscerated paper-dry shell resembling something from a Mesoamerican tomb.

“Oh Thomas, you are in trouble. Deep, deep trouble.” Again soft, reassuring. Almost.

The bell tolls for Lauds in the monastery, the tender first light of dawn showing on the horizon. The brothers file slowly to chapel in the dim light. As they shuffle past Br. Thomas’s cell they look to the door and cross themselves, but none will enter. Fear flashes in their eyes and stabs at their stomachs.

If you were to enter and look from Brother Thomas’s window far down into the courtyard below you would see dozens of small imp-like devils dancing frantically. They make no sound but they cavort and spin with abandoned glee. If you look farther into the shadows you would see there are Hippopodes, Himantopodes, Arimaspi, and all manner of Blemmyae; and there, slithering down the wall a short distance below you, is a beautiful creature: young, voluptuous and best, best-buxom. But do not despair. Never despair.


© 2019 Francis-Marie de Chatillon

Bio: Art historian and lecturer. In a long-term domestic partnership with a midwife. Lived in Brazil, Spain, Italy. New to fiction writing.

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