Tìbald dreamed. That device again. At least to be alive. Or do we dream when dead? Must Conscience afford a body? Ugo and Fulk in the form of great rats gnawing on his fingers; Rainald all black with a horn on his head; Aile leading him to a cliff---
He awoke, entangled in a blanket with his fevered brow prickling. In this life or next? The room misty and his eyes dirty casements. Might Death take him still? Or had it and he now a spirit while his body lay cold?
A wince to move the legs. A wince to breathe. This life. The pain confirmed it. This life for sure.
He rose gingerly in stops and starts, bandages ‘round his arms, legs, and neck. They had left him in the chapel. In his ravings, he demanded it. With what strength he had, he had taken the relic, a patinaed old tooth of St Apollonia yanked out in her martyrdom, and had touched it to every wound, then collapsed. The priest had administered the Last Unction and led the house in prayer; he’d done the same for Ivo after they had brought him in. Such a night – the pelting snow, the yowling wind, and wolves singing in the distance . . . Aile now snoozed in the corner on a rush seat chair, exhausted, the chapel too, weary in shadows save for a single hoary beam of light revealing the unseen matter breathed in and out . . .
The poison creeped.
Tìbald shuffled to the window – Saint Cecilia all cheery in a snowy mantel. How pretty – smoke twisting from the houses’ roof holes. And la Forêt beyond draped in white. The hounds, the destrier all in white. The dead wolves . . . He looked to the sky. “Cast me not out from Your presence,” his whisper, Tìbald the Norman, Killer of Men.
Alpha and Omega had burned down.
Over his shoulder, Aile with a stiff rise from the chair. “Ysobel,” she called. Tìbald limped in agitated circles. “I should have never let you sleep here,” her voice impatient. “Ysobel!”
A timid peep through the chapel doorway. “Ma’am?”
“The fire’s out.” Aile clipped. “And bring cloth, hot water, vinegar and soap.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She was as young as Aile and could have been taken for her sister.
Aile put him on the chair and swabbed his neck with clinched teeth. The punctures oozed and their patterns clear, like a story. Story indeed and Tìbald lost in its pages. “I’m trying not to hurt you,” she said, but nary a flinch. “I said, I’m trying not to hurt you.”
“You’re not hurting me.” Moments ago, he could hardly rise.
How hateful the wounds. She felt them and closed her eyes. Worse to see than to have. To ‘have’ has a chance at healing with the remnant of a scar. But to ‘see’ makes enduring creatures. A man dies but once, but in the witness’s eye, his death is never ceasing – in a word, in a glance, the cursory thought. Over and over, he dies in a shifting narrative. Horrors behind a door . . .
“I should have never let you sleep here.”
He did not move.
“I’m trying not to hurt you,” she said, reading his thoughts. She wrapped the final bandage tight. “You must rest. Take the day in bed.”
He touched the dressing at his neck. “I cannot.”
“You must and you shall.”
“I said, I cannot.”
She cocked her head. “Tìbald fil DeGoselin, you will do it. Gamble with your own life, but not with mine for I’m cinched to you. Whatever demise God intended, He withdrew it. For all I know, you, yourself might have brought it on. You always seem to bring things on. Tempt Him not and take the rest in gratitude. Now you should pray. Death came for thee.”
He trembled – the poison still in him. “It did.” He took her hand. “It was pulling my soul out the top of my head.”
A pall over them.
“Then I saw it---”
He strangled her fingers.
She braced. “Tell me.”
He beat, dumb, with his mouth open.
“Nothing.” All he could say.
“You saw nothing?”
Her brow knit. “No.”
“I saw nothing,” he shuddered. “Thick, black emptiness.”
“No,” she corrected and pulled loose her hand. “You mean like sleep.” He’s always mistaken. “No,” her voice pressured. “It’s the Devil playing on your terror . . . We’ve heard of such things. Why, my grandmother once told me---” Now the lecture. “---about a man from Chalons-sur-Marne who fell asleep in the fields one afternoon and dreamed a swam of bees had magically entered his body. They stung his insides over and over, then rushed out his mouth in a roar. The man jumped up, thinking God gave him a revelation: he declared to his wife their marriage was at an end; that we need not tithe; that the Scriptures are filled with false and silly things. He rushed into the church and ripped the crucifix off the wall and danced on it. His friends listened with great wonder; he made such sense. But when the bishop questioned him, his confusion was brought to light. Everyone could see his madness. They abandoned him. He then fell into despair and threw himself down a well and drowned.”
Tìbald with a thousand-yard stare.
“It was a dream,” she pronounced, much to herself. “That’s the trick – to believe in the dream.”
Dream? – he nearly cried. The Void! He dared not speak it – the struggle for breath where there is no breath. Unfathomable. Immeasurable. Swallowing all – light and God. Satan too, his smirking face frozen in triumph . . .
She cupped his face with her common hands. “A false vision. God has not abandoned you. You are here. You are alive. Take comfort, as in most things, you are wrong.”
Such a comfort.
“They were shape-shifters.”
She froze, her hands still on him.
“Werwolves,” he said.
Her spine prickled. O’ darkness. Who is safe? “No.” she denied though knowing better. Evil is a changing form, first one thing then another. How tempers can suddenly turn. Calm then storm, calm then storm. And we don’t want life so much as verisimilitude.
She shivered and bent to peck his lips. Her bosom brushed his hand. The two of them in the hoary light, Alpha and Omega spent and the nails in Jesu’s hands. She kissed him again. Then another that lingered. Something of life. His fingers to her breast. Then a rush; the bite wounds numbed.