A mon seul Désir
A woman wants to see me.
She is waiting at the gates of the city.
A pale woman says the monk who announces her.
Who comes from afar as do I. Has reached Basel from the East with a train of women a luminous weariness. As if she had been exposed to a grave danger a hidden one. Happiness. And her fine tenuous gestures seem about to say what has never been said. All love’s intonations seen from the beloved’s perspective. The inventor of her dream they say who then discards all images in discord with her memory of it. Who knows the answer to questions of desire. The riddles we cast into the abyss that inhabits us.
I seat myself on a wooden pallet covered with sheepskins and order them to bring her into the crypt. Alone.
When she entered evening was declining. Next to me a chessboard. A lit taper in a candelabra. I wanted to see if her gaze would console. I had bread and a pitcher of goat’s milk. Offered them to her. A slight smile and I saw a scar on her cheek. Yellowing. It had begun to rain.
“What do the women see through me?” I asked to test her. Not the masculine prayer she says those violent chants against Satanic armies, but a prayer that is a listening. Your interminable procession, Ursula, toward the end of night and fear. Those women follow you, as if wrenched from turbulence. They snare hearts and draw them toward the unattainable. Ah to leave home, parents, the huddled village. To walk for months, years. The journey disconcerts, destroys, purifies. Awaiting the greatest unknowing: the revelation of what we were, before memory.
Her words echoed against the vacant walls of the crypt. For a moment I sensed the presence of another.
“Who are you?”
Elizabeth of Schönau she says. And kneels to kiss my hand.
A woman with tiny breasts who speaks in trance. Wrapped in a linen cloak. Face marked by traces of forgotten things. Silhouetted against the ravishing multiplicity of the ogives she seems still more conjectural more beautiful. I bless her with a holy sprinkling Our Lady of the Coming Century I say and draw a symbol on her forehead. Afterwards brimming with her yearning gaze I hear her say.
I too come from afar. I emigrated like you. Crossed frontiers. I followed the route of birds, deciphered wind-borne images. I passed crusades, hermits, sickly Templars, straggling warriors, famished bands. Passed death and walls. I too search for the Distant One, the Hidden One in his Perfect City. I repeat words that are presentiments: arrow and rose, lamb and laurel, stained glass. In Schönau I studied astrology and canon law, grammar and music, the enraptured intellect of Plotinus. There I learned to commemorate the symbolism of light, the crown of thorns, the concept of a possible death. I like to observe the reality of things and then transfigure them in works, as if I myself were time and things a whirlwind of masterless perceptions, a mere pretext for the glory of the ephemeral. I know the future. One day I will tell your story, Ursula. I will be born once more and I will tell your story, the hazardous pathways of your soul.
“And when will all this take place?” I ventured.
Soon. When the famous Eckbert pronounces his Sermon against the Cathars. Men will hurl themselves into the devastation of the steppes in search of the navel of the world: the queenly city whose name is irrelevant because ever the same. (Men are always searching without knowing what they search for, without wanting to know). There will be floating hospitals on the rivers, to care for the sick. And children sold as slaves in Barbary, like the friends of Etienne de Cloyes, and Teutonic warriors as well invading the Oder territories, where the archbishop of Bremen will meet his death after sowing hunger and rifts over booty. There will be kings drawn to war ersatz of love and others who will die on the dunes of Carthage. Infinite occurrences will saturate the books calligraphed in monasteries. Anna Commena’s invectives will be translated, and the Venerable Bede’s Hymn to Virgins, along with Basilides’ theories, those that inculcate a loathing for the world and its works and oppose the propagation of the species, which is, as they avow, the gravest sin of all. And there will be a Secret Book whose pages repeat the revelations of Iranaeus and the sect of Adepts of the Mother, provoking loss of memory. And the art of illumination will be splendorous, particularly in the Grimorios. Men will believe they are living their last journey and their sense of truth will be erratic and precarious. All virtually the same as now, you see….
If this chapel were not hidden underground. If there were an embrasure in the wall to look through. To measure the moment that magnificent moment in which things have not disappeared they have not yet begun. I left Cornwallis some time ago. If I could return to seize the hatred that impelled me then that now eludes me. An abstract blue the figure of the woman who is speaking. It is cold. I think of the young women who came with her. Installed on the banks of the river high as palisades. Ecstatic between the wall and exhaustion. As if amassing a whole gallery of dreams in order then image by image to ascend the height of perfection the completion of themselves.
My thought and the force emanating from this woman. The Bishop of Basel is a cultured man. He knows Latin Saxon Icelandic. Has translated the Encomiums of Egil and the Voyage of Brendan that abbot of Ardfert who eluding magnetic mountains and islands of mice crossed the abyss in precarious vessels and reached the Isle of Promises. I tell Brictola to talk to him. And ask him in my name to let them in.
I walked Elizabeth to the gate. Outside it was snowing.
Snow is a category of light she murmured in parting.
It seemed to me that light caressed her.
The Bishop was proof against entreaty he denied me instantly. It could incite other women if we take these in; as if we didn’t have enough vagabonds in the fields exposing themselves to a host of perils and threatening the fragile pacts between earthly rulers and the papacy. We cannot be responsible for protecting them, feeding them, sheltering them, Ursula…and besides, who says that Elizabeth of Schönau isn’t crazy? Reverendissimus Dominus, Patriarcha Noster, Miserere mei, etcetera.
But the women do not move. Each night when the day is blotted out they begin an almost imperceptible chant a barely audible requiem and their voices lightly noted by a drum by the regular tolling of bells resemble the doleful murmur of the river. No one within or without the city of Basel can sleep. Neither the woodcutters nor the divers in the depths nor those anglers who fish in the water that surrounds our wooden houses. And afterwards during the day the rumors expand. People say they have seen the young women in black inspired by a chant that is a stairway of silences from one sky to another. A vertical thought in search of a crucial dream. And they say that night and grief and death are not the opposite of bliss and life. That this is the secret the women are seeking. That they themselves have sensed it in the phraseless murmur the chronic and perversely beautiful lament the women chant. In its persistence staffed by bells and rising piously infinitely until the Bishop has no recourse but to let them in.