Last Word, Final Sentence
ohans Montefiore, scribe to Louis IX of France, monastic scholar, warrior of the most holy church, and, of late, a London taxi driver, cannot remember a day without the curse burning into his flesh. It is a harsh and twisting thing, that bends his body and blurs his wits. It sends him staggering into the late hours, drunkenly distorted, until he regards the night as a thing that has crept upon him.
With a tremulous hand, he holds a razor to his throat and rasps away his whiskers. The tremor and the stiffness in his fingers make the manipulation feel distant, as if the razor’s handle were held, perhaps, in a farrier’s clenching tongs. So much so, that he fears cutting himself, and lays the blade in the sink with a clatter, and stares into the mirror. His hands are jointed automata, his eyes are red-rimmed, his stubble hangs in shreds.
Around his neck, at his wrists and palms, black script curls from under his shirt like calligraphic ivy, as if in overflow from the borders of a hefty and unreadable Gothic bible. And that is partially true, though the heavy serifs illuminate an unyielding fate that is slowly consuming him; a fate cast up in words in 1241, and a slashing gesture in Echelob’s Garden, where the only flowers to grow were those of a drawn-out death.
It is not a death of honour. Not a death to be proud of. It stinks, it suppurates, it sneaks over the hills and sunken crevasses of his skin, bone and muscle, like a winged shadow. It trips him maliciously in the gutters, reacts badly with food or wine, or even just a happy thought, or some imagined ease, that quickly flits to dis-ease. At times like this, his heart flutters like a wounded bird.
Truly there is no worse curse than being consumed by the word of God.
While the television whines in the flat next door, he thrusts his head through the necklace of charms and talismans, and feels the assorted leather thongs and silver chains clench the skin like a wreath. Then a scarf, wrapped around his old man’s neck like a bandage.
The paper in his hand is folded neatly and placed in his breast pocket. It is a road map to the church; a map he found on the Internet. That printed parchment is to be admired as a miracle, remembering the pains he had once taken to achieve something even half its worth, with goose-quill and mineral ink. His bag of tools – the old gun, shinied through use, the coarse salt, the relics – he leaves on his bedside cabinet. Then out into his last night as a hunter, unless he walks hand-in-hand with a deed so dire, he fears not only for his own immortal soul, but all souls; all after-lives.
The darkness is colder than the fingers of Hell, and the pattern writhes upon him, as if finding new ways to fit him more snugly, like a key in a lock. Let it try, he thinks. This door is not for opening.
A short walk away, a builder’s skip is filled with bathroom trash and the lolling tongue of a double mattress. Next to it, dusted with debris, is Johans’ black cab. He has driven one cab or another for seventeen years, though this one is beginning to reek of oil and diesel. Taxis get you places, though, and there are black tarps and shovels in the boot.
He drives to the church, hauling up in a narrow road a block away. He drags himself out of the driver’s seat and lurches past Georgian façades and iron railings, glimpsing the street sign at the next junction. He reads the word Hope, but doesn’t catch the other words. Hope Road, Road to Hope, Hopeless Road? It could be any of them.
And now, to the Church of St. John, shaking his head, inserting a crowbar into the varnished wood of a small, heavy door leading down to the crypt, while lights flicker in the windows above, and the dull murmur of the Sephaelites comes through the stained and faceted glass, praising the Gods of Equinox, the Sisters of Abbon – the old-fingered maids who wrote their demonic poetry through the substance of things; through the fate of men.
And now on the spiral stair surfacing to the yellow glow of candles, and now a creak upon the balcony stairs, nodding to those other parishioners – children, families – so modern, listening to the litanies that swirl around as for any other religion, but whose ways are written into lost fragments of humanity.
The words are echoes of tragedies, from long ago. In his own time, it had been the blessing of Her Lady, in the garden of black roses, run to seed, while the yeomen had come with pike and swords, and Marguerite Von Helenset had smiled sweetly, hand on his breast, and cut with the first gesture.
Death would have been better, as time itself swirled like soup.
The child next to him plays on a little machine instead of listening to the priestess, below. Good for you, he thinks.
Then another parishioner arrives. Sits beside him. A young girl. Pale skinned. Johans smiles in relief.
“What is it Johans? Why come here of all places?” The same sort of writing crawls at her neck, the black passage growing, the word of the Sephaelites ready to crowd her out. Ahh, Lydia, he thinks. Why did you have to be the last living relation of Von Helenset?
“You promised,” she adds with a trace of irritation.
Johans doesn’t answer. He is trying not to stare at the writing on her hand, which flexes as her tendons flex. One touch, and their stories would, in all probability, merge, scribbling from finger to palm – whipping around like razor wire – to what ungodly part of the scripture, what written fate, he could only guess, perhaps all that would be left was flesh ready to be culled for the living book. But if she were to die… why then, this passage would unwind…
He speaks softly. “I cannot understand this world or the people in it. I thought once, that I had been sent to Hell. A hell, where cars and complexity win, where iron birds fly, where men toil on in ignorance of the Sephaelites. And you and I are bound.”
Lydia nods. His words are well understood. “Sometimes, I wonder if we are merely observing the story or have already been written into it.”
“One follows the other. Chapter and verse.” Johans glances once more at that spiral of words on her wrist. Doubt floods in. Perhaps they would both be killed in a flash of revelation. A cruel fate for a man who had come to kill a witch, so long ago. She had been too clever; he too ignorant of what she intended and what it would mean.
He speaks gently. “These words are too big, too heavy for flesh to bear. We carry a cruel sentence you and I.”
She laughs miserably at his multiplicity of meaning. “You wish to return?”
“Yes, to my own time.”
“At any cost.”
She flinches. “Why?”
“Because,” he says, mindful of the darkness crawling on his back, like a spider with a thousand cursive legs, “I have read how this story ends.”
Lydia stares at him, dumbstruck. “You have?”
“How? By the goddess… what… what does it say?”
Johans utters a hollow laugh. “Fate was never my friend and now it rides me like a thoroughbred.” He pats his own back. “I have it here. Broke a black mirror and read what I could with a shard. Cut my hands to ribbons. I couldn’t understand, initially, what I was looking at. But now I do. I was too close. It was only one word, covering the whole of my back. 15,000 characters or more.”
“I’ve never heard of that. Ever.”
Bitterly, he crumples a handful of his own shirt cotton. “Believe this: read it, or touch it, and you’d be a handful of ash. It’s the last word; the Ohmata.”
Down below, the catechism stumbles; the priestess halts her reading and scowls at the sparse congregation. Johans notes the woman’s orbs flash white; corneal cataracts uselessly flitting around the room. Blind, then – a great blessing for the faithful – the inevitable fate of those who read the words of the Nameless God writ large; a true priestess of the Sephaelites.
After a long and pregnant pause, the woman clears her throat, squats, and once more leans forward. Her fingers reach reverentially for the skin-and-bone-scripture of the man who is naked and dying in front of her; each ‘book’ may only be opened once. She gropes for understanding, reading as the blind must read, while on the balcony, the word at the end of the world awaits, inscribed on an old and stubborn man. So close, she could almost touch it. Unseeing, her voice drones on in the candlelight.
Johans lets out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding.
Lydia looks down at the pew in front of her and mumbles, “We’re all going to Hell.”