Shakespeare's Dark Lady
Willobie his Avisa, Canto XXXIV
A web covered with dew catches the sunlight and glistens like gemstones on a string. The gossamer filaments soft-focus and then come back sharp against the background of a whitewashed ceiling. You grope for your last memories, but nothing comes. Your head is a lump of lead.
You take in the source of light, a small glassless window with two crossed iron bars that throw their shadow on a floor no more than twelve foot square. The only sound a cicada's burr. A suggestion of some sweet-smelling plant hangs in the air. The floor is stone.
With an effort you move your head, then summon the energy to push yourself to a sitting position. You lift a hand to your eyes and rub. The gesture makes you yawn and a pain shoots up the side of your face.
The cell is featureless except for a dark hole in the floor. You call out "hello," quietly at first, then louder. "Hello!" No reply comes. You flex your arm muscles, wince and stretch your legs before rising and shuffling to the window, where you grasp the mullion.
Sunny hills spread into the distance, covered with vines sprouting tendrils. An olive grove fills the foreground. At the black hole in the floor you look down. A wooden ladder disappears into darkness. Your shirt is torn and the left sleeve is missing. You touch your face and find stubble. The hole in the floor seems to invite exploration, so you put a foot on the first rung. A minute later the only light is a pale square.
When you reach bottom you go down on your knees and feel around in solid darkness. Underneath and to either side is stone. You stand and move away from the steps. With outstretched arms you can touch both walls at once: rough, like the floor sloping downhill.
Your foot comes into contact with a slick surface and you fall, sliding several yards before the floor levels off and you come to a halt. The only sound is the tympany of your heart. You grabble and find the walls trickling with a slimy growth. When you roll over and try to stand, you slip again and land awkwardly on your side, banging your head. When you come to, a bluish light dances in the blackness overhead. You shut your eyes and the light is still there, but when you open them again it vanishes. When you begin to inch forward on hands and knees, the ground slithers between your fingers.
Finally the floor slopes gently upward, dry again. You sink onto your back, then struggle to your feet and go on. There is a glimmer of light ahead, the tremor of fire. You make out a rounded ceiling. Features emerge: hieroglyphic graffiti painted on walls cut from limestone.
You look through an archway to your left and find an oil lamp sputtering on the wall in an iron sconce. The chamber is small, its only furniture a stone sarcophagus with a wooden lid that fills most of the floor. When you lift the lid it shrieks and violates the stillness.
The sarcophagus is empty.
An amber stone set in the wall beneath the lamp catches your eye. There is something carved on it. You have to lean over the empty grave, supporting yourself with both hands, to make out the head of a dog. You pull away, but not before you have taken the lamp from its bracket.
With this light held aloft you forge ahead. The passageway slopes downhill again before leveling out at the top of a flight of steps. You descend to find water lapping at the bottom. A rowboat is moored to a spike. You lose your footing on the algae?covered step, crashing into the side of the boat and sliding with the lamp into the water, which snuffs out the fire. Your feet kick in the depths as you cling to the gunwales. With an effort you heave yourself up and roll over the side into the boat.
The samson post is broken, the warp gone. You lie shivering on your back, abandoned to the mercy of the waters. Above you pinprick lights illumine the vault of a glowworm ceiling where polyps of green hang like flaccid gargoyles. From one moment to the next the lights are gone. The boat moves quickly with an unseen current. You hear the sound of rushing water and feel the boat tilt and hurtle downward. It hits flat water and sends spray flying, then emerges into a subterranean lake. Light emanates from dozens of oil lamps around the wall of a natural vault over a hundred feet high.
The current fades away. Around the edge is a strip of sand with a limestone ledge beyond. There are archways in the wall of the grotto, their shape irregular, but they appear to be evenly spaced around the lake's circumference. The one opposite you is much larger than the rest. There is no sound except water plashing.
The boat bumps to a stop on the far side from the tunnel mouth. You climb out, puddle the last few feet through the squelching water and step onto the ledge in front of the great opening. Without hesitation you enter.
Every few yards a lamp burns in a bracket. In the walls are triangle-shaped alcoves with a pilaster at either side. The first holds a statuette of a pelican. On the opposite wall is an effigy of a black swan, followed further along by a whole motherlode of figures: an eagle, a quail and a lion. Then the head of a dove, made of jade, and another dog's head.
One niche displays a concave silver mirror. When you look in it you barely recognize the blowsy-featured face caked in grime. Opposite the mirror is a musical instrument, made of metal, with some kind of clockwork mechanism and a key. You wind it a few times and a silvery toccata erupts carrying all the gaiety of a dirge in double time.
The next recess holds a skull. Traced in black on the forehead like a capital M with an extra flourish is the astrological sign of Virgo. You touch it with one finger: from its maw comes a terrible screech like the cry of a harpie. You pull your hand back and the infernal racket stops. You hurry on to another niche with a showstone perched on a stand of yellowed ivory. You glance into it but all you see is your own tatterdemalion reflection.
In the middle of the passage stands a table like an altar. The top is painted in symbols, some of them faded beyond deciphering. Under a six-point star you read the words:
IGNE NATURA RESURGET INTEGRA
In the center of the table is a pyramid with the point lopped off. The impress of an arcane sigil shows on the top. You pick it up. It is heavy, seemingly made of gold. You put it back in its original position. You trudge on until your way is blocked by massive doors decorated with a network of circles interconnected by lines. In each circle is a pictograph. On a bronze pediment in ancient letters stand the words:
IAM REDIT ET VIRGO
Bronze pillars flank the doors. You strain to make out the inscription on the capital of each. One bears the astrological symbol of Venus. Opposite is the sign of Mercury. On one:
IN VITA MORTE RESURGAMOn the other:
TRES TESTIMONIUM DANT
You look behind. A mist is creeping up the passage. From it comes a baying, like hounds.
You whirl around to face the doors and see a rope hanging to the right. You rush toward it and pull. Behind the right-hand door a bell rings twice, followed by the sound of trudging footsteps. A key turns on the other side and a small door within the larger opens with a groan.
You step over the threshold and the door slams behind you. You swing around and start at the apparition standing there: a figure slightly shorter than yourself, dressed in a floor-length white robe with a red Tau cross woven into the chest. The figure's head is covered in a pointed white hood, held in place by a drawcord around the neck. Two eyes are cut in the fabric and a slit at mouth level.
The figure gestures with one arm and you follow. Here the vault is less dimly lit. It has dozens of niches filled with a grimoire of figurines. At the far end a wall blocks the passageway. The figure leads the way to the wall, takes a staff from two supports and bangs on a door cut in the center. A port slides open and eyes look out. The port closes, a key turns and the door creaks open to reveal a second figure dressed like the first.
The second figure looks you up and down and seems satisfied. A hand withdrawn from the folds of the gown makes a beckoning sign.
At a horseshoe table in a great hall sit nine more figures, similarly garbed. On a dais beyond them is a chair more grandiose than the rest. There, wearing a plain black robe without a hood, sits a young woman with a bump to her nose and tawny blond hair and eyes that could be green. In the lugubrious light there is no way of telling for sure.
With a sphinx-like expression she stares through you. You stand at the open end of the table. There is no place for a twelfth figure. Shadowed eyes watch you watching them. The table supports a delicate phoenix, its wings outstretched. The smell of sandalwood wafts in the air from unseen thuribles. There is incense, too, burning sweetly in censers on top of tripods.
The hall's ancient appearance is accentuated by flickering lamps. Flying buttresses support walls that disappear into darkness. Beyond the woman, steps lead to a raised platform filling the back of the chamber like an apron stage. Here ten seats are ranged against the stanchions of either wall. At the rear of the platform you can make out two shapes, taller than a man, flanking a smaller device between them. The right-hand structure is a wooden Tau, the other an Egyptian cross. The focal point at the top of the central device is a concave dish. Its gleaming surface traps the light. From this dish is suspended something silver shaped like a rose with strangely looping petals, like a child's whirligig but more ornate. The dish and its star are mounted on an upright that rises from a wheeled plinth supporting a lamp.
Your two ushers take their seats and the figure at the apex of the horseshoe rises. You walk back to an empty circle carved in the floor, plant your feet in the center and pivot around. The figure at the table speaks. "Glory be to Netzach. The path of neshamah is long. Such is the trial of the Supreme Master." You sense the question needs no response.
"Blessed are the Lights that are the Sacred Names of God." "I stand for those who will follow as I ascend the Path," you say. "I am ready to follow the Winds of Truth that I may join the Chosen."
The hierophant turns to face the blond woman. She comes down from her dais, ascends the steps behind her chair and crosses the platform. The two ushers walk a respectful distance behind her, followed by the nine remaining figures. Eight split off to the sides and take their seats. The hierophant stands alone in the center.
Meek as the Paschal Lamb you go to take your place with your back to the Tau. The woman sheds her robe beside the Egyptian cross. Underneath she wears only a black loincloth. The ushers strap her wrists to the patibulum of the cross with leather bands. A foot support projects from the stipes and takes her weight. The wooden circle of the cross crowns her head like a giant halo.
When her ankles are firmly secured the ushers turn to you and you step back onto the wooden block protruding from the upright of the Tau. You stretch out your arms. Standing on stools the two figures reach to secure your wrists, but they remain inches short of the cuffs fixed to the crossbeam.
The hierophant removes a broadsword from where it lies on a credence table beside one buttressed wall. A red ribbon flutters from the pommel. Brandishing the weapon in both hands he advances on you, followed by an usher bearing a lance. There is a cry of "Geburah." He raises the sword in his left hand. You launch yourself straight at the hierophant. The weapon glints in the lamplight. You spin sideways and the blade flashes past your groin. You shoot out one hand, seize the sword by the quillon and twist it from your opponent's grasp. Gripping the backpiece with both hands, you swing the weapon and thrust the point straight toward the hierophant's manhood.
With the grace of a t'ai Chi expert the figure steps to one side to avoid the blow, but one arm catches the edge of the blade. It scythes through his sleeve into the flesh of his forearm. He screams. Blood spurts from a severed vein. The sword clatters to the floor. Then oblivion.
You come around in a sitting position in the grip of two adepts. A voice says, "The Chalice of Venus." You drink down a philter in a gold bowl. "In nomine filii."
You see yourself soaring above the earth with arms outstretched. The wind roars past your ears. You are invisible. The vision fades and you are hanging on the cross. They have raised the foot support, but not far enough. You inhale laboriously and strain to support your weight on tip-toe. With a painful effort you turn to look at the woman on her cross. The hierophant stands in front of her, his arms extended to the side. The lower half of his left sleeve is missing. A blood-soaked bandage swathes his forearm. Around his neck he wears a gold chain with a rubicund stone. Behind him the adepts kneel as he intones an invocation.
"Rex Divinissimus, True Redeemer, Who givest the Divine Dew in the Crucible, Who rulest the Ram, We hail Thee in the name of the Holy Conjunction. Aperiatur terra et germinet salvator. Corpus Salutare accipiamus. Fortuna Minor quae Collegium tegit...... Tibi utriusque capaci servimus."
The star gadget has been wheeled in front of the woman. The lamp at the base is burning, its heat directed upward by a glass funnel. There is a flutter of light. The silver rose begins to turn. As the rising heat rotates the petals they catch the light from the flame underneath in their curious angles.
The star whirls faster, the dish reflecting a vorticose light into the woman's eyes. One moment she is staring at its strobe fire, the next she screams. Her body goes into a convulsion, taut against the straps. The veins in her neck stand out.
Saliva dribbles from her mouth, followed by a rivulet of blood when she bites her tongue. The hand you can see on the end of the crossbeam is clenched in a fist. The adepts have risen and gathered around her cross in a semi-circle. The ushers step forward, extinguish the lamp and trundle the whirling device away. When they rejoin the group all except the hierophant prostrate themselves in front of the woman.
Her body twitches. Blood and saliva form a steady trickle down her chin and drip from her breasts to the floor. The hierophant's body stiffens. He moves forward and kneels at the foot of the cross, his head bowed. The woman's head lolls to one side, rocking slightly. Her eyes are closed.
The hierophant stands, takes three paces back and begins to sing. The adepts rise and join with him. The sound is pleasant, recalling a Gregorian chant and you feel drowsy. All pain has gone.
An aureole envelops the woman. The assembled figures fade. Your body is charged with a warm current, then a voice is crying, "By the power of the sword am I stronger and mightier than those who are mighty." You float over the scene and watch yourself hanging on the cross below.
As you drift back into your body you hear a solemn canticle that slowly turns to a wailing pitch. The adepts quake and sway until their orisons ebb and rapture subsides. The hierophant addresses the woman in a stentorian voice. "Lift up our bodies and rejoice in our seed. Bring down the Spirit of Light into our hearts like a rain from the Firmament. In the name of Hod and Netzach show us the Supernal Triangle. In the chariots of Tiphereth the shinanim will lead us. Geburah is mighty."
She responds in a haunting voice. "Give me the Cross of Life, but if thy seed be barren there will be no increase. I shall come with Diana's jackal and the horse of Mars. Geburah wilt thou hold in dread."
The hierophant plunges both hands into a pocket in the front of his habit. "From here I give thee my seed which is mighty as the Tree of Life is mighty." He holds a silver T-cross in the flat of his right hand, the left hand raising it like a host of the Eucharist.
A cry goes up from the assembly: "Ecce salutiferum signum Thau nobile lignum." From the hierophant comes the response. "Ve Hod, Ve Netzach." At the name of each sephirah he raises the cross in the air. "I embrace thee with my body," she intones. "Enter me and fill me with thy longing." The hierophant steps forward, kneels and places the Tau on a silver paten at the foot of her cross. From the stipes he detaches a Caduceus some eighteen inches long. Around it are entwined two hooded serpents. The adept picks up the T-cross and clips it into the end of the silver rod, upside down, the crossbar held between the mouths of the serpents. An usher comes forward bearing an earthenware cruse and the Tau is dipped in a warm chrism.
The hierophant holds the Caduceus and passes the upturned cross under the front of the woman's modest garment. She strains against the stipes to separate her thighs and receive the sign of fertility into her comb. Her body shudders for several minutes before she gives a long-drawn sigh. The hierophant's chest swells as he breathes deeply to absorb her aroma.
With a cry of "Asherah" he withdraws the Tau and touches it to his mouth slit before placing the Caduceus across the paten. He rises, steps back and extends his arms out front, thumbs and index fingers joined to form a triangle, the apex at the top. You hear the words "stella rorata." The eleven figures now gather in front of your cross.
A voice wells up inside you like a rhapsody: "Seed of thy Father's seed, out of the Third cometh the One as the Fourth; out of Death cometh new Life." The hierophant turns and extends his arms from his sides to form a cross. An adept steps up to him and raises a silver ankh to the mouth-slit of his hood. The other adepts cry "Shekinah" in unison.
Two ushers come forward. One kneels at the base of your cross and lowers the footrest until your arms take all your weight and your feet flail to find support. Your ribs crush your lungs and you cannot inhale. Pain racks your shoulders.
With a wax taper the second adept has relit the lamp under the stella and trundles the contraption around. The eleven figures prostrate themselves in front of you. The twisted petals stab your sight. You turn your head in the woman's direction. Where her face should be, you see the face of your mother--through a fog of incense, carrying a look of desperate appeal. As you watch, her breasts swell up larger and larger. Your voice is drowned in tears and the blood rushing in your temples.
You feel many eyes as you see into the distance to the circle beyond the empty horseshoe table. A form is rising there in blue-white penumbra. When you shut your eyes it is still there . . . growing taller. You are moving toward it.
It is faceless and featureless. Too tall to be a man, tall enough to be a god. For a moment you are two . . . then one. You are ten feet tall. You are thrice-great Mercury.
You open your eyes and confront the starfire. Its rhythmic pulse matches your heartbeat. You grow conscious of breathing so deep one breath will last for an age. Your thoughts turn elastic.
The voice of your mother calls you. The light becomes the sun. In the middle is a black point. It swells and turns into a man on a cross, upside down. Yourself. Choking.
When the scream comes you bite your tongue. Your blood tastes sweet. Beyond the wind you hear harmonies like a spinet's notes.
And the veil lifts.