A Gothic Cathedral

I am known by the ungodly name of Captain Satan because of my habit of crawling through graveyards at midnight. My followers are grim-faced leather-sheathed alley-scuttlers with daggers stuck in their hats, iconoclasts for the mere love of vandalism. Together we are the strangest of God’s instruments.

I alone who am their leader carry the torch that sanctifies our destruction of graven images. At the head of each war-band God has set a leader who recognizes idols for the spawn of the corrupt imagination. Before crude stone carvings the ignorant burn incense as they once did before the flesh-devouring deities of tree and mountain. Everywhere villagers perform obscene rituals in honour of the Blessed Virgin, who has assumed the whoredom of the Earth Mother worshipped long ago by pagans in caves and glens, before the fields were ploughed and planted or the smoke-choked cities built. Black cats and billygoats are reverenced. We are the smelters of such golden calves.

Most ludicrous of all the Devil’s works are the monsters scrawled over every surface of old churches, the gargoyles and grotesques that leer from crevices, wriggle from buttresses, dribble water from the leads, insinuate themselves into the warp of the very sanctuary carpet. How could the craftsmen, often the saintliest of the congregation, prostitute their talents to the creation of such paragons of deformity? The serpent is subtle, but this crowns all.

Once I saw a painting by a Dutchman, an apocalypse swarming with creatures formed from helmets, knives and fragments from the charnelhouse, the wings and beaks of birds, musical instruments, the tails of fishes. Here and there lolled flaccid human bodies undergoing hideous tortures with expressions of bland serenity. The painting shook me to the very soul, for even as I gazed on those translucent flowers of colour blossoming in darkness, lit by the glare of distant fires, I realized that the fecundity of the painter’s imagination delighted my senses, elevated my inward eye to the pitch of sublimity. Every so often the painting blooms again before my inward eye like a spectral garden. Then because I cannot understand I must destroy.

I am feared by my followers as a ruthless executioner. From church to church I stalk with a hammer in one fist, in the other a chisel, my troupe of reprobates and zanies gamboling in my shadow. Beside my bulk they are evanescent as the shapes in the heart of a fire. They pass over many carvings out of weakness or neglect, awed by the alabaster features of a cherub, roused to laughter by the antics of an ape; but nothing escapes my vigilance. There is a rumour that my jaws hold tusks of stone that grind statues, relics and altarpieces to dust. My face is pitted with gunpowder from a thousand battles, my arms scarred in a crisscross pattern by flying splinters. I walk alone but am never lonely because angels attend my every step.

Yet last night I dreamed a dream that shines like a vein of ore in my daylight brain embedded. Whether I was awake or asleep I cannot tell. I lay in my tent on my campaign bed, swaddled in blankets, preparing as I do each night for oblivion to overwhelm me in a swift dark tide. All at once the night-time noises swelled like the notes of some sacrilegious organ, pressing against the sides of my canvas shelter. For a while I took no notice beyond pulling the blankets over my head, for I know full well that at night things grow large and strange; that is why lovers clutch each other at street corners under the moon, why drunkards toss and turn between the sheets, why sinners mutter incantations before the crucifix under cover of darkness (my God is indifferent to incantations). But instead of ebbing away the fear intensified, tightening its grip on my flesh till my limbs were cold and stiff as the limbs of a corpse. The fear sprang from a cacophony of unrelated sounds, each in itself innocuous: the tap of a sentry’s boots, the crackle of watch-fires, the rustle of leaves, the humming of wind in the rigid guy-ropes; but a horror huger than the sum of its parts took shape and stalked through the night towards my tent. I remained unmoving till the drums that warn of danger pounded away along with the blood-beat in my ears. The hammer lay on a stool beside my bed, underneath my breastplate and my breeches (for contrary to popular belief I remove both before retiring). As I measured the distance between my fist and the hammer’s shaft I felt the fear congeal into one amorphous mass and approach the mouth of the tent with uneven tread. The flap that hung loose across the entrance stirred a little, as if in a breeze, then slowly lifted.

Swiftly I thrust the blankets from my face and raised myself trembling on one elbow. The light of the watchfire filtered through the cloth by my left cheek, no doubt accentuating the chiseled grooves that frame my mouth, the pits and channels that deform my cheeks and forehead. Dread clung in sodden folds to my naked legs. When I spoke, my voice came out with the grating rasp of stone on stone:

‘Who’s there?’

No answer but a ripple in the darkness. As my eyes adjusted, little by little I began to distinguish an awful shape against the canvas. For many minutes I lay pinned to my flimsy bed, studying the aberration as its features emerged from the shadows one by one as if carved by some dreadful sculptor. Then all those features came together, and I leapt from my bed with a shriek of terror. The blankets wrapped themselves about my ankles, I ripped one in my efforts to break free. I forgot the hammer, forgot my brooding daylight immensity, flung myself shrieking at the back of the tent, scrabbling with my nails, burrowing through the coarse cloth into open air. I sensed the creature at my back and bolted wild-eyed into the forest, naked as a newborn, mindless as a beast, leaving my impregnable daytime bulk fast asleep on the mattress. My flesh was of a translucent whiteness: I saw my legs flash whitely beneath me as I leaped between the trees.

What frightened me most, I think – beyond the night, beyond the noises or the apparition – was my helplessness. When I was a child I had no governance over my nightmares; they seized me body and soul and had their will of me, plunging me fathoms deep in unsounded oceans of despair. But as I grew older I learned to wrest my dreams from the grip of the waves, steering each vision like a boat out of the stormy waters of calamity into the calm lagoon of rest. Now once more I was at the whim of those dreadful currents, my boat lost for ever, my body tumbling head over heels through the icy blackness, hands and feet outstretched in a desperate quest to find some purchase in the featureless abyss. When some faint awareness of my whereabouts returned, I found myself barreling through bushes, clumps of brambles, tangled weeds, the gargoyle-creature pounding at my heels. I could not wake myself from this nightmare, any more than I could divert it onto a kindlier trajectory. I could not change the shape of the thing that hurried after me, as I had learned to do with the monsters that had plagued me as a child. I did not try to do so – never so much as turned my head to look behind me, because I knew too well what I would see: a helmet with a knife stuck through the crown, fragments of decomposing limbs, the wing, perhaps the beak of a bird, a kettledrum belly with a fish’s tail, a hammer in one claw, in the other a chisel – the amalgam of cathedral demons, driven by the long-deferred desire to take revenge on their steel-clad torturer. Instead I ran, and felt the shape of my pursuer consolidating itself behind my back with every step.

To my shame I say it: in my fear I forgot to pray.

I cannot tell to what physical fastnesses I fled. The night plucked me from every sanctuary, tossed me from earth to heaven, from heaven to hell in a fine frenzy rolling, the demon snapping first at my head then at my legs. The trees stooped to snatch at my hair, which is as long as Absalom’s and gun-grey. The spiky grasses snagged my ankles, the stones splintered my toenails till my trail was marked with blood. At length when I sobbed with exhaustion I caught sight of the cathedral we had stripped the day before. Between the overhanging houses clustered round her skirts like mourning relatives I ran, my bare feet slapping at the cobbles, praying the west door would be open. Praying, did I say? Exhorting the door itself, I should have said, as a heretic exhorts a wooden idol. Prayer did not come into it; I had no room in my mind to spare for anything outside the compass of my headlong flight. And sure enough, in the studded wood of the great west door a little portal stood ajar. I plunged into God’s mansion with a thousand echoes scampering into the shadows ahead of me. Ranks of soaring pillars marched through the sonorous darkness. Puddles of moonshine gleamed at intervals on the floor. On either side, acres of empty space seemed to throb with the remembered warmth of prayers long past. From every recess peeped the featureless heads of statues we had mutilated. Eyeless and earless they watched me and listened to the echoes scattered by my footsteps.

I had paused in my flight. Outside the great west door my pursuer paused too; absurdly I imagined it crossing itself. For joyful moments I thought that it could not tread on sacred ground. My legs had begun to tremble with relief, I had started to subside towards the floor, when I heard it move towards the threshold. Another instant and it was inside the building. The sweet scent of decay brushed across the hairs inside my nostrils. Now I wept, ready to hurl myself in submission at its feet, as I used to do when my brothers chased me as a child and I knew I could run no further. I wanted to lie prostrate before it, invite it to dismember me as I had dismembered its offspring, anything to bring this chase to a quick conclusion. But I could not face the creature I’d tormented. Up the nave I reeled, silent organ-music roaring in my ears. A beadsman mumbling orisons in some side-chapel might have glimpsed my flying form as a shred of luminous gossamer chased by a comet, he might have fainted at the beauty of it.

And now above me reared the altarpiece; only twenty yards to go before I reached it, before I could embrace the Lord’s high table and be sure that nothing hellish could do me harm. My breath came in ragged heaves, I stumbled and fell on my hands and knees, jumped up and stumbled on with the icy impress of Portland stone upon my flesh. Is it seven steps, I wonder, from the level of the nave to the high altar? I have never known. I had surmounted two when I raised my eyes to look closer at the altarpiece. From every niche stared down a headless saint. The summit was ornamented with a row of angels, their instruments smashed in their hands, golden hair streaming from the yawning cavities where their faces had been. Darkness pounced on my soul and I turned in my turn to marble.

The cathedral grew very silent. Not in the highest corner of the roof the faintest whimper of a sleeping bat. The gold cross on the high altar glinted dully in a moonbeam. The Prince of Gargoyles waddled up behind me; the stench of its flesh consumed my faculties, its breath froze on the nape of my unprotected neck. But here comes the strangest moment of my nightmare: the smell was no longer repugnant to me. Indeed, if it is not heresy to believe that a sweet perfume attends the dying moments of a saintly man or woman then the scent can be no sweeter than the one that struck my nostrils as it passed.

And when the object of my terrors had gone by without raising its countenance and had knelt on the highest step before the altar, its ugliness bloomed in my heart like a flower. For minutes I gazed on the child of foulness and my soul was stirred with strange affection. At every street corner I had turned disgusted from this creature where it squatted with its begging bowl, dodged past it when it dogged my footsteps in my dreams, smashed its features in every sanctuary where they lay naked to mallet. Yet here it knelt, a thing with a soul on the highest step before the Lord’s high altar. A thing brighter than the angels, a companion that had attended my every stride though rewarded only with repulsion, indifference or fear.

Is it the moonlight that causes the cross to glow, or is Christ even now hallowing the darkest places of the mind? Suddenly the cathedral was filled with heavenly radiance, the shout of trumpets, the roar of voices, bells swinging in a bronze arc from heaven to heaven. The thunder of a million ragged wings ascending towards God’s throne. The light that streamed from the stained glass windows painted the stone robes of the mutilated saints in a million hues. My gargoyle was scrambling up the altar screen towards an empty niche between Saint Anthony and Saint Francis. I rose from the ground and flew along the nave, my naked toes just skimming the cold smooth surface of the flagstones, out of the little portal in the great west door, between the stooping houses, over the woods to the tent that held my slumbering daytime bulk. The cathedral receded into a flaming casket, from which shot a sunbeam that seared the lining of my eyes.

Today on the pretext of inspecting our handiwork I returned to the cathedral. My breastplate gleamed as I strode between the pillars, hat in hand, drawing hostile stares from the worshippers; they know me for what I am. I would have run with as much terror if I had been followed by an angel.

The gargoyle was still squatting in its niche. I could tell its neighbour was Saint Anthony because of the long-nosed pig that rooted at his feet. Come to think of it, my gargoyle’s nose had something swinish about it too. How wonderful that a chisel like mine should be capable of transforming inorganic stone to the likeness of living tissue! How wonderful, indeed, to be alive and breathing inside this living, breathing building, this work of many hands!

The beadsman in his side chapel must have thought I was deep in prayer as I stood unmoving before the altar, lost in amazement.

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