An excerpt from a longer work entitled The Order of the Beast. This particularly tale was written in honor of Clark Ashton Smith and his tales of haunted Averoigne.
“But tell me, Father,” Chastellain said as Boniface led us through the courtyard and towards the vaulted arches of a shaded alcove. “What is the meaning behind the ruined sculptures and the Corinthian pillars hereabouts? These accoutrements all seem to me to hint more of the pagan than the godly.”
“You are correct, my son,” Boniface replied. “This building and these entire grounds once belonged to a Roman temple, though to what deity they were dedicated I know not.”
As we followed the abbot into the coolness of the church’s interior, I noticed to my surprise that at every turn, there was no representation of the Madonna anywhere to be seen. Mystified by this apparently deliberate omission, I asked Boniface what could be behind this oversight.
Immediately, a darkness clouded the elderly cleric’s visage. “The nature of the circumstances surrounding this particular abbey of late are far from pleasant,” he finally murmured. “Most blasphemously terrible are the events which led to our choosing to confiscate all the sculptures, tapestries, and icons pertaining to the Holy Mother within the environs of this monastery. Yet, as you plan on becoming a novice here, I suppose that it is only right that you should be privy to our darker secrets. Follow me to the library and I shall tell you and your guardian all that is known, though I suspect that afterwards you will wish that I had not.
“It was only several months ago that a young novice much like yourself, Monsieur de Tremblay, by the name of Brother Pierre joined our congregation. Like yourself, he was a devout Christian, eager to join our brotherhood as a chaste and hard-working member. He would pray upon his rosary morning, noon, and night and tend the garden at the back of our church with the utmost diligence. Indeed, if there was any flaw in his character that I could see, it was that he seemed perhaps altogether too guileless, too trusting. The Holy Scriptures instruct us that we ought to be innocent as doves, but also wise as serpents, for it may often lead us into greater sin if we are too ignorant of the evils about us than if we are too knowledgeable in them. I am sure that your guardian Monsieur Chastellain would appreciate this.
“Now it happened that within our garden was a statue of the Madonna, recently sculpted and recently donated to us by the Vicomte Foucquet Lemaule, one of our most generous patrons. It was a singularly beautiful piece: indeed, perhaps the most beautiful and perfect of its kind which I have ever beheld. Carven from a single block of marble, it was a life-size representation of Our Lady, her hands slightly outstretched as though in supplication for some sinner or as a comforting invitation. And that face! A high brow of marble, two eyes with marble lids half closed as though in delicate contemplative prayer, full marble lips smiling with the holy gentleness of the young mother…and all of this framed by an exquisite mass of marble hair flowing down past her slender shoulders. It was indeed a marvelous piece of craftsmanship and I counted our abbey fortunate to have been donated such an object.
“This piece was given to us not too long a time after Brother Pierre joined us and the young man was instantly taken with it, pleading that it be placed within the garden so that he might be close to it whilst he worked there. As I saw no reason against it, I agreed to this and there the sculpture was deposited.
“Throughout the following weeks, I would often spy him praying at the foot of this statue and it was a great comfort to me to see one who was so fervently and devotedly fixed upon the holy and good rather than the idle, as I fear so many of the brothers here too often succumb to. No other voice sang the Psalms with more heartfelt joyousness and I tell you that when he read aloud from the Scriptures, I fancied that I heard the voices of the Prophets themselves beneath his own.
“Yet after a month had passed, I began to notice a change come over our young brother. A certain languor entered all of his formerly vigorous actions: he became drowsy during services and his complexion took on a sickly pallor. I wondered if he was under the influence of some malady.
“Then one misty, moonless night as I wandered out of my cell into the garden, I happened upon the unconscious form of Brother Pierre lying upon the cold earth at the feet of the beautiful statue. Moreover, I found to my horror that his throat was covered with blood as though he had been bitten by some wild animal. I instantly had him sent to the infirmary where, under the ministrations of Brother Ambrose, the young monk regained consciousness enough to speak and tell me of what had happened.
“‘Father,’ he whispered. ‘I fear that I am dying, body and soul. I pray that you hear my last confession, that you might absolve me of the frailty in spirit which has led to my present demise.
“‘As you know, I have wished to devote my life to the pursuit of the holy and the spiritual. That is why I loved the statue of the Madonna in our garden so very much: it seemed to me that in those beautiful, maidenly, yet unearthly features, I caught a glimpse of the perfection which is often so unattainable in this life. And I tell you, Father, it gave me more comfort than any form of worship save the Holy Mass itself to kneel by the feet of that sculpture and pray. In this experience, I felt both an utter solitude from the worldly and a deeper solicitation with another presence, less tangible but somehow more real – which is, of course, the essence of prayer.
“‘Yet such grew my love for this statue that one evening as I knelt in meditation, I began to become aware of a strange wish: that I might feel its cold marble against my lips. Such an impulse struck me as being rather on the verge of the blasphemous in regard to the Holy Mother. Yet as I attempted to return to my prayer, I found that I could no longer fix my thoughts. I became consumed with the idea that I must at least touch the marble once with my lips to be assured of its substance – that if I did not, I should lose my chance at experiencing something wholly in the realm of the otherworldly. At length, I finally succumbed, but chose to kiss her feet alone, deciding that such an act could not be considered indecent but rather one of humble worship. I was surprised at the soft smoothness of the stone feet and marveled at the sculpture’s perfection; but my embarrassment at my act was so profound that I hastily rose and departed from the garden, casting a backwards glance at the statue. It seemed to me that her features contained still more that look of gentle pity and solace and I felt comforted in part at my foolishness.
“‘The next night I returned to that garden at the feet of the statue once more to pray. At first, I had no trouble: I gathered my thoughts and concentrated them with ease upon the holy and divine. Half-opening my eyes, I beheld the face of the Madonna seemingly looking down upon me with an ineffable sweetness, the moonlight shining down upon her in a way which caused her marble flesh to take on the silvery quality more akin to that of a phantom than a statue. And then as I continued to look, I began to wish – may God forgive me for my weakness! – that I might kiss not only her feet, but her precious hands as well. They seemed to my tormented fancy to be outstretched not in prayer, but in an inescapable invitation and it was with obedient, guilty lips that I acknowledged this summons. Then, as before, I departed from that place with haste in the extremity of my disquiet at what I had done and the odd circumstances which had prompted me.
“‘So troubled was I with guilt after this, that I vowed not to return to that place any longer but to pray in the safety of my cell. Yet as I knelt by my bed and looked upon the page of Scripture before me, I found that the text seemed to rearrange itself before my eyes in an unknown tongue so that I was unable to understand it as anything more than nonsense. In my despair, I prayed tearfully and earnestly that I might be released from the terrible trap into which I had somehow fallen through my own frailty. And as I knelt there, I felt a cold, kind hand laid upon my shoulder and instantly it seemed to me as though a pall of relief settled upon me and my dulled senses awakened with a renewed awareness. I turned – I found nothing behind me. Somehow, however, as though a voice had instructed me, I knew what I was meant to do.
“‘I returned to that twilit garden and there stood the statue of the Madonna. It seemed to me that her gaze had never been more beauteous and more intense and as I stumbled towards her, I felt that her eyes followed me. Then, with the ease of one bereft of a memory, I melted into the clasp of those rigid, marble arms, my own warm, living mouth pressing with a fearful, helpless avidity against her cold lips.
“‘At first my sensations were those which one might expect under the circumstances. Yet after a time, it began to seem to my mind that the lips beneath my own were not half so cold as they had been before and that there was a curiously pliant quality to them. At the same time, I became convinced that the clasp about me had tightened as though the stone arms had drawn nearer to hold me close. A soft voice seemed to drift over me, reassuring me that I had nothing to fear. And then a gentle darkness descended and I felt strange lips upon my throat and a moving hand in my hair.
“‘When I awoke, I was lying at the feet of the sculpture, cold and shivering. It appeared to my weary eyes much the same as it always had; however, my throat ached with a queer, throbbing pain and upon touching it, I found that my hand came away wet with blood. I guessed that I must have fallen into a swoon and cut myself upon a stone, though I could find no trace of blood anywhere nearby. Dazed and bewildered, I returned to my cell and fell into a deep sleep, empty of dreams.
“‘Ah, Father, what use is it to go on? Night after night repeated itself in the same manner: I, resistless to the unearthly appeal of the sculpture, returning to succumb to the real or imagined embraces which I experienced there and awakening to find a mangled throat as the sole proof of my night’s sojourn. You would laugh at the countless ways in which I tried to explain away the blood upon my throat. I thought at first that it must be bats, but there were only the two tiny fang marks upon my neck and I could not believe that a dumb brute would return to the same place where his teeth had pricked before. I realize now what I was a victim to – and that is why you must destroy that statue, Father. You must destroy it for the sake of my soul.’
“He sank back upon the pillow, his narrative ended. I called for Brother Ambrose and asked him what he thought of the state of the young man’s health. Ambrose responded that though Brother Pierre had suffered an extreme loss of blood, he believed that his state would not remain critical so long as he received proper rest. Relieved, I returned to my own chamber, dismissing the incredible tale that I had just heard as nothing more than a nightmare born out of delirium.
“It was only several hours later that I was awakened from my sleep by the frantic voice of Brother Ambrose, informing me that Brother Pierre had disappeared from the infirmary. I hastily donned my coat, a hideous suspicion already forming within my mind. Heading directly for the garden, the night wind whipping past me as though to hinder my progress, I strained my eyes for a glimpse amid that shadowy grove of the sculpture—
“And may God in his mercy one day blot from my memory what I beheld then. For within the arms of that statue, his head lolling painfully backwards, I saw the limp body of Brother Pierre. Worse even than his pale, lifeless face was the face of the statue itself, for its lips were dabbled in blood and even its expression seemed to me to be one of voluptuous consummation. Shaken, I asked Brother Ambrose to take the young monk down. We found, however, that the stone arms about Brother Pierre’s body were clasped so tightly that we were altogether unable to separate them. We were finally able only to release him by smashing the arms of the statue, but of course once we had him taken to the infirmary, he was quite dead. There was nothing left for us to do but have the sculpture destroyed, bury the body of our young novice, and pray for the peace of his soul.
“They say that God works in mysterious ways. Then be assured, young monsieurs, that Satan doth as well and that though his machinations may be malefic, that does not make them any less potent. Thank the merciful Heavens that the powers of virtue are more mighty than those of evil or mankind would assuredly be lost to all manner of torments and perdition.”
© 2015 by Colin Harker. All rights reserved.