TWILIGHT IN PARIS
By the April of this year Anno Domini 937 it has already been a long season of drought unpromising to the village of Paris. The Seine River has disavowed the Island of the Village, which is the archaic appellation of the Île de la Cité, and now it travels furtively past in veins of sandy banks.
Twilight has come for this day. Sister Alyssa emerges from the Couvent du Vaisseau Saint convent, crossing from that tomb of angels on toward the tumult of men. The nascent evening cooking fires are redeeming the pungent exhale of the village. Sister Alyssa walks carefully and gently as if balancing herself traversing that village of Paris and then she passes on down toward the desolation of the Seine River.
She touches the crucifix of lead suspended upon the hide strip around her neck. Sister Alyssa wears the habit of un-dyed lamb’s wool. She carries a small sack woven of rough cloth. Turning in the twilight she looks back toward the convent. Seeing no one, Sister Alyssa removes her coif to free her roughly shorn hair and then turns her face from the convent once again. She now steps with intent toward the block of marble uncovered by the receding Seine near the edge of one small channel.
This block of marble is the remains of a Roman altar, as she has deduced during the previous evening pursuant the few archaic Latin figures exposed and eroding, “Romulus et Remus.” She seats herself upon those pagan remains and gazes upstream toward the forests of the Langres plateau, the dark womb of the Seine River.
Sister Alyssa is petite but her mind is grande. Flowing back to her youthful decision to become a nun, she remembers the suppliant men. She could never have given her mind in slavery to any such rough husband. But by that inability she was then left with only one other destiny in her humble and poor life: she married the Church to have protection and some solace. But the Church has proven to be a rough husband. Within the convent is the hierarchy ruled by women from the wealthy families. And the knowledge provided is carefully sieved by the Church hierarchy. It has become a distasteful diet to Sister Alyssa.
She places the rough cloth sack upon her lap and unfolds it. Thereupon are a small loaf of bread and a portion of roasted lamb tongue. It is because of the drought that the villagers are sacrificing their starving livestock in an ongoing pyrrhic festival and donating portions to the convent.
Sister Alyssa pinches a piece of the bread and purses her mouth and thinks without thinking, “Take, eat; this is My body.” She peals a strip of lamb tongue, “For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue."
Chewing the lamb tongue, Sister Alyssa finally thinks, “I thirst”. She arises, turning to set her repast upon the ruined altar. She then approaches the water. She lowers herself to both knees and bows onto her hands, closing her eyes for to sip, thinking, “The living water,” as her dangling crucifix dips unnoticed into the gentle vortex.
Still on her hands and knees she slowly opens her eyes and contentedly raises her head, when suddenly she utters, “But what is that?”, having spied a four-legged silhouette far up the sandy shore. She thinks without thinking, “A dog joins me.”
Out of the approaching silhouette now emerge two liquid yellow eyes that fix upon her. Sister Alyssa sits back stricken by a bolt of fear and clutches her damp dangling crucifix.
It is a black wolf.
Sister Alyssa’s mind observes through a frost of fear that the black wolf is thin and its coat is disheveled with hunger and thirst. It has followed the river down from the forest in desperation.
The relentless stare of those yellow eyes is suddenly averted and the wolf turns toward the water and bows to lap greedily at the water. His long fangs gleam under his curling lip. Sister Alyssa thaws her fear enough to rise cautiously and she steps backwards toward the exposed ruins of the pagan altar. She realizes now that she is clutching her dangling crucifix with one hand and a river stone with the other and her lips are fluttering in prayer.
The wolf has slaked the thirst but not the hunger and he lifts his head back toward Sister Alyssa. His lutescent gaze presses into her eyes as he approaches. She believes that she actually can feel his animal desires. With another jolt of fear she has the sensation of, of…surrender! Her mind is crying out for panic but she stands. She releases the river stone and then feels behind herself for the roasted lamb tongue. Touching upon the lamb’s tongue her fingers embrace it and her arm casts it toward the black wolf.
The wolf reacts with a frighteningly sanguinary skill and captures the lamb’s tongue in its jaws. With three chomps he has swallowed the offering. Sister Alyssa imagines that she can feel that carnivorous lust, hot, wet and like a dagger penetrating her own flesh. She wanes faint.
But the wolf abruptly turns back to the darkness up the river and departs. Sister Alyssa cannot see the motion of his silhouette any longer when suddenly the candles of those two yellow eyes alight back toward her one last time. After that she can no longer feel his presence at all. She closes her eyes as her fear shudders away.
Sister Alyssa replaces her coif and returns through the living darkness, proceeding up the bank toward her convent. A man’s voice calls to her and she turns. It is the young Reynard, on sentry duty for the Paris marshalcy. Sister Alyssa sees him as lofty and sinewy for a moment before she sacrifices forbidden perceptions.
Reynard speaks, “Sister, it is not safe to be down at the river in darkness.”
Alyssa answers, “Yes. You have told me before, jeune homme,” and she smiles.
Reynard smiles briefly and then puts back his professional façade of gravity, sternly saying, “Even a nun is not safe, Alyssa… Sister Alyssa.”
Alyssa juts her chin in mock defiance, “Sinner, do you not believe that the Lord will protect me?”
Reynard responds, “Sister Alyssa, I believe that we must carry Providence upon our own shoulders. But I am not much of a theologian…”
Sister Alyssa laughs involuntarily and touches Reynard’s elbow, “God’s Witness, Ma Dame Berthildis says the same of me.”
Reynard nods, “I shall accompany you to the parvis of Couvent du Vaisseau Saint.”
They walk slower than necessary together and Sister Alyssa thinks of the suppliant young men she once deflected. Arriving at the convent Reynard bows to her and then he continues jauntily on his patrol of the village.
Entering the candlelit parvis Sister Alyssa is startled to encounter Sister Superior Ma Dame Berthildis. Sister Alyssa bows and then trembles with an unrealized guilt.
Ma Dame Berthildis narrows her eyes, “Where have you been this evening, Sister Alyssa? And why are you blushing?”
Sister Alyssa speaks quickly, “Ma Dame Berthildis, I took my supper near the river so that I might pray for an end to this terrible drought. And a walk in the evening air can be invigorating.”
Ma Dame Berthildis says ominously, “Many things out in that sinful world can be invigorating, Sister Alyssa. Do not be concerned with appeasing your flesh. As for this drought, it is certainly God’s judgment upon Paris. Therefore be certain that you pray instead for your Compréhension, my dear, dear Sister Alyssa. And in so doing, ma novice impudent, leave to me and the other Sister Superiors the salvation of Paris. Sister Alyssa, know this also: I have been watching you.”
Sister Alyssa asks defensively, “Ma Dame Berthildis, what do you mean?”
Ma Dame Berthildis replies, “Why should you fear my watching you?”
Sister Alyssa qualifies, “Ma Dame Berthildis, no, it is not that I fear… I mean…”
Ma Dame Berthildis says with finality, “Sister Alyssa, you will not be the first wayward young nun I have cast back to her true desires. Compréhension, my dear, dear Sister Alyssa, Compréhension, yes?”
Sister Alyssa bows very deeply, saying, “Ma Dame Berthildis, I assure you it shall be as you wish, I mean as God wishes … but of course as you wish as well…”
Ma Dame Berthildis says with exasperation, “Good night, Sister Alyssa.”
And yet that same night upon her hard bed Sister Alyssa helplessly makes a vow to go to the pagan altar again upon the very next evening twilight.
And so it comes to be that she does this as if enchanted, retracing her steps and manners, assuring herself that she is unobserved in this profane rendezvous, telling herself again and again that only a fool wishing to dance with death would fain conjure a resurrection of the evening before, you foolish relapsing nun, and yet she does carry her communion of bread and meat.
Sister Alyssa seats herself again upon the ruined pagan altar. She listens for any sound above the furtive river, she impales the darkness with her eyes, and with her fingers shaking she uncovers her bread and roasted tongue of lamb. Thus she begins her twilight communion.
After a while Sister Alyssa whispers to herself, “Nothing good will come of this,” and at that moment she thinks she sees a ripple in the far darkness.
At the crepuscular threshold suddenly two yellow eyes ignite and Sister Alyssa gasps unintentionally. The black wolf is approaching her. She becomes fearful and flushed at the same time with vertiginous bewilderment, moaning softly, “What have I done?” then calling out in the face of the approaching beast, “What have I done!?”
But the black wolf halts instead and sits on his haunches merely a matter of steps away, his gaze unbroken into Sister Alyssa’s eyes. With trembling hands Sister Alyssa tosses the lamb’s tongue toward the beast and again the offering appears drawn into the agile jaws of the black wolf. He chomps three times with clashing teeth and he swallows. Yet the black wolf remains near as he was, with untamed patience.
Sister Alyssa is exhaling rapidly as she breaks the loaf of bread in half and tosses one ragged fragment to the black wolf. He receives it mid-air and gnashes it repeatedly until he takes a final swallow.
Sister Alyssa then holds her breath as she holds out the other half of the bread toward the black wolf. The black wolf slowly arises and takes a few steps, stops, and then stretches out his muzzle to gently grasp the remaining offering from the upheld palm of Sister Alyssa.
Sister Alyssa exhales, feeling close to tears of relief, when abruptly the black wolf bares his terrible fangs and rumbles his chest with a chilling growl. Sister Alyssa cries out at once, almost tumbling backwards, and then realizes that the black wolf is staring over her shoulder toward the slope of the Island of the Village. She quickly stands, snaps her head around in that direction, sees nothing, and then turns her face back to the black wolf. Sister Alyssa now realizes that she is breathing rapidly through her mouth.
The black wolf blinks several times and licks his fangs but he is calmly returning to his haunches.
Sister Alyssa sits down again upon the ruined altar and dares to extend her bare hand toward the black wolf. The black wolf hesitates, turns his head to one side, and then leans toward Sister Alyssa and miraculously merely licks her hand with a gentle intensity as if she is his pup. Sister Alyssa is suddenly giddy. She gently touches his muzzle and strokes it slowly. It is not unpleasant. The black wolf closes his eyes but there is a soft growl from his belly. Sister Alyssa closes her eyes.
With a shock Sister Alyssa opens her eyes and the black wolf is not to be seen though she scours the darkness. She hurriedly replaces her coif and bustles up the slope back toward the night fires of Paris. Those lights have never seemed so harmonious with the stars above. Yet Sister Alyssa herself burns with a peculiar shame.
Arriving at the top of the slope Sister Alyssa looks up and is startled by the sudden confrontation by Ma Dame Berthildis. Behind Ma Dame Berthildis is a menacing regiment of the Paris marshalcy.
Ma Dame Berthildis cries unto the sudden inability of Sister Alyssa to act, “Capture her! She is a witch! I swear and attest that I have witnessed her sorcery!”
Sister Alyssa is roughly seized and cries, “Ma Dame Berthildis, you have misconstrued me!”
Ma Dame Berthildis cries, “She confesses! So, you damned witch, we have caught you in a perverse consortium with that demon! So much is explained! I knew you were vexing but I did not know that you are evil! So evil! Know this, you foul witch: I shall open the mouth of Hell for you! You are going to burn!”
The deputy leader of the Paris marshalcy says, “Ma Dame Berthildis, I doubted you and would not believe your words and so you must forgive me! I am horrified at what my eyes have seen this night!”
Ma Dame Berthildis cries, “We must put an end to this demonic bargain immediately!”
The surrounding members of the marshalcy shout acquiescence. But Sister Alyssa then descries young Reynard, his eyes wide and his teeth clenched, and she cries, “Help me!”
Ma Dame Berthildis contorts at Sister Alyssa with vicious hatred chanting, “Burn! Burn! BURN!”
Sister Alyssa cries, “I have done nothing but befriend a wild animal! He was weak and starving! Is he too not one of God’s creatures!?”
Ma Dame Berthildis asks in reply, “Witch, do you offer your veiled bestiality as a venal acquittal for blasphemy?!”
Sister Alyssa now hears her Reynard’s voice cry out along with all the surrounding members of the marshalcy, “Burn! Burn! Burn!”
She plunges into despair.
Sister Alyssa’s wrists are then roughly bound together with a hide leash and she is yanked forward by the assigned deputy Reynard himself, who holds the leash over his shoulder, himself sickened by her alleged betrayal and newly fearful for his own alleged soul. Sister Alyssa begins to plead, over and over, louder and louder as this godlessly cruel fate inundates her mind with Compréhension.
Then like a stroke of lightning from dark heavens above the terrifying black wolf pounces upon Reynard, landing onto his shoulders, toppling Reynard forward while tearing out his throat in one mass of gore. The black wolf then leaps backwards in a snarling rage, dancing in a deadly perimeter around Sister Alyssa. The distress sends the marshalcy stumbling hindward, leaving Ma Dame Berthildis exposed, alone and in the grip of the most unholy horror, unable to command her fleeing mind, unable to summon a scream!
The black wolf astonishingly arises onto his hind legs and balances unsteadily, his slavering jaws holding inches from the face of Ma Dame Berthildis. Her mind has gone. The black wolf lunges, taking her entire neck into his mouth and with a violent series of shakes severs her head from her collapsing body. That severed head spews blood and rolls with opened eyes toward the rallying marshalcy. And so the regiment finally collapses as they all whirl about and hurtle away shrieking into the streets of the village of Paris.
The black wolf subsides to four legs and now turns slowly to Sister Alyssa. Blood still drips from his fangs. She has no will. She has only eyes with which to witness.
But the black wolf bows to take the loose end of her hide leash into his mouth tenderly and then he leads Sister Alyssa down the slope of the Island of the Village, into the sandy banks, toward the pagan altar and beyond into the darkness along the river, upstream into the unseen forest.
Comes the sound of distant thunder as the wind swiftly smells of rain.
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