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Authors: Jessica Cornwell

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BOOK: The Serpent Papers
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Light rims the cracks of the door, a seam of gold stitched from the dark, pouring out onto her toes. It has been left slightly ajar. She feels a breeze, she worries – a window open somewhere?

’ she asks. ‘Are you alright?’

But he is not there when the door opens.

The stains are brown, spilt paint on light bamboo. She registers the drops as iridescent patterns, a hacking cough louder in her ears than any drums, explosions of gunpowder dying into a dull thud, the throbbing of her heart as marks of brown turn to a swamp of gore; smeared against the mirrors of the work-room she sees the refractions of carnage. A stale smell,
rotten fish and urine
, she stands above the moaning creature, the girl’s breasts barely formed; stains ooze across her skin like the juice of a pomegranate, following the strained veins along her neck, leaking from her mouth to the crevice of her ear. She moans and chokes and gurgles, but cannot speak; her body goes through the motion of sound, though her mind has left her. She has fallen, trying to cover her face, and rests there, hands desperate to hide her nakedness, eyes closed, tears sliding down her cheeks. The woman drops to her knees by the girl’s body. She pushes the girl onto her side so that she does not choke on the blood, pulling her face forward, and holds her there as the girl whimpers, body too limp to fight, blood streaming from her mouth onto the polished bamboo floor, reflected in the four surrounding mirrors of the workroom. She pulls the hair from the girl’s face, trying to clear the blood, but the damage is endless. A chunk of flesh, severed at the base, then scattered to the side. Clarity comes with a heaving wave of nausea.
The monster has cut out her tongue.
She hears movement behind her. Can feel his eyes resting on her.

‘Call an ambulance,’ she demands. Without turning round.


‘Call an ambulance now.’

‘I wanted to show you,’ he says from the door, drying his hands on a dish towel. ‘What I do. It is an art form, my darling. It is an art.’

Book the First




O Phoebus! O Pythian King! How Philomela howled and raged! O! She cried! O! O! When she heard the rapture of the Swallow caught in the beams of the palace roof and knew the hardness in her beak. O! O! He has shut me up! But as she hung suspended in the sky, Apollo showed pity, saying: ‘Once-Virgin Bird, write your tears in the oak leaves at the edge of the forest. Seek out the ones called Sibyl for they know of darkness and they know of light and nothing that has gone before and nothing that goes hence shall be unknown to them.’ And for this the Nightingale is said to nest near certain caves, and the Sibyl is said to know the song of such Birds.


Rex Illuminatus,

The Alchemical History of Things



In the sorting room at the far end of the cloister the librarian punches in a security code. He bustles past a filing cabinet made of ruby teak, drawers the size of a single card, then slows respectfully through the public reading room. There is the black marble statue of an old man holding his book, arranged beside the Virgin and a pewter urn. Oak shelves lined with broken spines from floor to ceiling. An upper balcony reached by a series of rickety stairs and then climbed higher with a ladder set against the volumes. Behind this a second door, leading to an inner sanctum. The padlocked cellar where they keep the medieval manuscripts of the Abbey
He halts abruptly at the cleansing station.

‘You must wash your hands,’ the librarian says. ‘The book is very fragile.’

I do as I am told.

The librarian’s eyes damp-rimmed and glassy beneath long doe-like lashes. His cheeks are creased and his hair smoothed against his scalp. On his wedding finger a simple gold band. On the other hand the mark of a good family, obsidian crest against the tweed and the lined blue shirt. When I am finished he places his hands under the scalding water.
A constant ritual
. I smell him, the incense and fresh soap, the dust. He has not suffered for wealth
I admire the line of his shoulder as he leads me; how strong he must have been in youth, when he built this place, as he first told me, when they pushed the animals out from these medieval quarters, relocated the donkey and the lamb, and the squatters, and rebuilt the Abbey; yes, of his life this man is proud as he shares his secret with me.

The cellar is not broad or lofty. It is uncomfortable, and dank, and not unlike an interrogation chamber. The wrong temperature for keeping books, I sigh, but at least there is no invasive light. A dehumidifier hums loudly at the entrance, a vain attempt to address the moisture in the air. Harsh, electric bulbs cast a sickly pall over the mortuary of nonsensical memories, the Abbey’s personal collection of the antiquarian and mundane. Complaints and petty criminals. Ledgers of expenses and inventories of wheat. Some bigger than an atlas. Others smaller than a pocket dictionary. The volume I examined last week – with some annoyance – had consisted of purchases for the holiday pageants from 1468 to 1532.
1487 . . . Bought two trumpets and a rattle, twelve reales.
All labelled with numbers. Binary pairs a centimetre apart.
12 15 34. 76 85 19
. Above this an older form of notation, faded into skin. Not in the best condition, any of these, but they are not my responsibility. I will tell the librarian time and time again, vellum is an organic material, made of animal hide, and when it is stretched and dried for production, it is pulled along the lines of the animal’s body. The skin never forgets the shape of its muscles, the location of its legs and heart and head, and as a result parchment cockles. The natural tension of the hide defines the tension in each page, so that when parchment becomes too hot or cold or damp or dry,
it moves
. The books are, in this sense, very much
We restore them by applying heat and gentle pressure, relaxing the hides, allowing them to let go of traumatic memories.
They need to be treated like breathing creatures, not stacked like the skulls in ossuaries. You hurt them by exposing them to the elements.
The dehumidifier is a compromise, but it is not enough.

The librarian approaches nervously. At the centre of a small working table, a desk lamp dangles over two wooden triangles supporting the covers of an open manuscript, fat and bloated with water. I take off my coat and leave it on the chair pushed up against the wall. Pull my hair back from my face with pins. Catching my expression, the librarian’s shoulders droop.

‘The first gatherings are part of a Book of Hours,’ he says. ‘But the style shifts abruptly here.’

‘It’s been frozen.’
Look at the water pooling.

‘They found it in the snow.’ He worries his cufflinks apologetically.

‘And you didn’t think to send it directly to the conservation department? Javier, you should not have called me to come here.’

A rattling bursts from his lips.

Mea culpa!
He prostrates himself. ‘I am guilty of obfuscating aid . . . upon receipt of this manuscript I was paralysed by tragedy! I could not think clearly, the blow struck so deep into my heart. I prayed for an hour before I could act – I was so disturbed by what I have found . . .’

He flinches beneath the tweed.

‘We are the first witnesses . . .’ The librarian reaches forward and turns the pages of the book.

His gnarled finger glides to the far corner. ‘The book has been violated! Very cruel!’ the librarian laments. ‘They were very cruel! Come, look, where they cut, the quire is of a different parchment . . .’ The librarian squints at the book, bringing his nose close to the manuscript. ‘They have taken all but a single leaf!’

Folios excised in a hurry, using modern tools. Cuts clean.
We are left with carnage. One golden page, the others ripped free.
A rigid, brutal stump down the heart of the manuscript.

‘Am I wrong?’ The librarian breathless. ‘Is there Greek? Hiding there, beneath the gold? Perhaps I have imagined the letters? My eyes . . . my sight plays tricks on me . . . Can you . . . Can you tell me what you see?’

A ghost. Barely visible on the page.

I peer closer.

Is that an Alpha? An Omega? Light smudges of recognizable bookhand? Beneath a Latin blackletter?
My eyes read hungrily, my mouth hanging open, I can feel my tongue grow heavy, treading over the letters.
Blink and look again. And then I catch it. The ultimate proof:
Rex Illuminatus.
A name I first saw written into the marginalia of an alchemical book discovered in London in 1872 through a private estate sale in Kensington. The book itself published in Leipzig, a re-edition of the German alchemist Basil Valentine’s
Of the Great Stones of the Ancients
accompanied by allegorical illustrations titled ‘The Twelve Keys’
Across the eleventh key an enthusiast of the subject has scribbled ‘
And such was the transmutation achieved by the immortal Rex Illuminatus
’, with an arrow pointing to Valentine’s maxim: ‘
If you will but remove the veil of ignorance from your eyes, you will behold that which many have sought and few found
.’ On the page before me, standing beside the Abbey Librarian, I witness his
signature in gold leaf painted over the ghosts of Greek letters
. Remnants of an Illuminatus palimpsest
. One hand written over another. Red tracks of deer left in damp clay. Old words, milky and half forgotten, burial mound shrouded in gold.

‘You are quite pale,’ the librarian says. Pulling a chair towards me.

Roll up your sleeves. Adjust the light overhead.

‘We need to stabilize the parchment.’ I curse the shaking in my voice, the dryness. I unsheathe the camera from my bag.
No flash. Just capture what is there. Record everything.
‘Picatrix will come and take the book to the conservation department at the University of the Balearic Islands. It will need to be dried properly; we have the facilities there.’ Fans of purple mould gobble up the golden margins of the book, spreading like pestilence into the heart of the letters. A single illumination, small, text underneath, light scoring on the page beneath the lettering . . . Mallorcan flourishes, made locally on the island.
Writing fading. Friable verdigris pigments, lifting in some areas coupled with
recent exposure to water
my heart sinks.
Wet, quite critical, the ice has melted easily.

‘There will be paperwork – permissions, legal formalities. I will stay here with the manuscript until we have the appropriate means of transportation. Once we have taken it to our department you will have continuous access during the conservation period, and we will call on you for help documenting where and how this book was found. You will not have to say goodbye to it today, even if it leaves this place. When we have finished with it, they will return the book to you.’

BOOK: The Serpent Papers
10.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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