‘Ask, and you shall receive, seek and you shall find’ – Matthew 7:7–8 (Bible)
1159, a village in the Province of Salerno
Henry dropped down to his knees. The wet mud splotched his grimy, nut-brown stockings, and the wind slapped his sheepskin cloak against his sides. His body trembled as strangled sobs wrenched out of his chest, and he furiously beat the soft mounds of earth around him.
He had returned from the manor to the farm to find Mabel, his wife, hard at work. One moment, she was sitting on the hay bale lamenting the poor harvest, and the next moment she had keeled over and stopped breathing. Henry was much too acquainted with death, not to recognize it right away.
He had tried lifting her head, but it had sunk back again, limp and lifeless. As he hauled her body in his wooden cart, the fine twine holding him together snapped.
“Bringeth her back! Lead her forth into life,” he screamed, his voice scratchy and brittle.
A conspiracy of ravens taking off into the air in an inky swarm made him fix his gaze on a row of stones behind them. Someone was sitting there. He couldn’t fathom how, so mysteriously, this svelte, sylphlike figure had materialized there. The leaves crunched under her feet as she glided towards him.
Henry couldn’t take his eyes off her face as she drifted closer. He gawked at her flawless, alabaster skin with a smidgen of freckles and her jade-green eyes under the arched eyebrows. A swathe of hair, the color of the morning sun, caressed her willowy neck, thus rendering a poised and recherche air to her persona.
Pain and torment writ large on her face. Her eyes communicated something that she had not put into words. And at that point, he knew she comprehended his agony.
“You want to bring her to life?” She asked in a matter-of-fact tone.
His breathing quickened as he nodded in the affirmative. The woman quietly sidled towards his wife and placed her palm over the body of his wife. It appeared as if Mabel was being hit by lightning bolts. Her body jerked forward only to collapse back in the cart.
Henry noticed a flicker of movement in the body of his wife, and in a few moments, he could see her chest rising and falling steadily.
“By God’s bones, she hath come alive,” Henry exclaimed.
The idle schmooze that he had heard in the alehouse echoed in his mind; a simple woman could not bring back the dead. Only a devil in disguise could achieve that. It was necromancy—the death magic and, he had inadvertently summoned the demon.
The woman slunk close to him, her soft footfalls slicing through the eerie silence. Many voices battled inside his head, shouting for action, but he could not decide on a coherent course.
“Wilt thou kill me?” he stuttered. His body had taken control of the mind that had ceased to function.
“I will kill you. Glad you asked,” the woman replied.
Panic seized him. He had an impulse to throw himself into the soft earth and press his face down into it until dawn. However, he swerved into action. He spun and tore back towards the cart and took off towards his cottage. How he would outrun the devil, was something he had chosen not to dwell on.
Unbeknown to Henry, a fellow serf, had witnessed the whole correspondence, and later recounted it in painstaking details to the local priest.
If I could fast forward you in time, then you will see that this instance cemented the thought behind works of renowned Christian authors of the later centuries. They counseled and cautioned that when the devil took a physical form, it chose as tenable and benignant an aspect as possible, in most cases, appearing as a beautiful woman.
Baronissi, Province of Salerno
The sky was overcast by the gravel-gray clouds emulating the tint of the stone buildings cloistered around.
The quayside watering hole was buzzing and bustling with malt-worms snuggling their ale. The musty, murky smell of labor and sweat hung in the air as shrill voices demanded refills over clamorous card games.
Apart from the Alewife, who brewed the ale and ship-shaped the quarters for the overnight lodgers, the women traipsing the alehouses were few and far between.
When this woman made an entrance, she instantly became the cynosure of all eyes within, and outside the public house. Her alabaster skin and her ensemble suggested her station far above the ‘bawd’ or fallen women who were the permanent dwellers of the bath-houses. But the fact that she had chosen to frequent a public house implied otherwise.
People rubbernecked and perused every single movement she made, till a plucky English sailor approached her. His dull, pasty skin sullied by hairy warts and a hunched back did nothing to dampen his lofty spirits.
Before long, they were immersed in an animated conversation with the lady in question, mirroring the delight and sparkle of her caller. She never once chided him as his gaze wandered from her jade- green eyes to the low neckline of her ornamental form-fitting bodice.
By the time the lady left the premises, the darkness had been closing in. The moonlight had cloaked a gossamer-thin veil around, and the mist had tenaciously slithered in to render it dubious and Delphic.
The streets were still wet from the implacable rain that had persisted the whole day, yet the sailor was hard on her heels. He considered the time invested in her as a substantial reason to do so. He caught up with her in a darkened corner and gruffly yanked her bliaut to draw her close.
“How now, fair maiden. Thou art mine. Do as I bid thee.” he blew his hot ale-laden breath on her face.
“Let me twine mine arms about thy body… Let me die in thy arms,” he barked as he pressed his body against her.
“Die in my arms?” she asked, flashing a lopsided grin. “Glad you asked.”
The sailor with the hunched back nodded in the affirmative and buried his face in her neck. And, as if by a sleight of hand, he collapsed the very next moment, his arms dangled on the sides, and his legs went limp.
He was unmistakably dead.
She waited for a while till a covered wagon appeared on the cobblestoned lane. She smiled courteously at the occupant and shoved the body of the sailor inside the vehicle.
The whole spectacle, however, was observed by a curious passerby who later narrated it in extensive detail to anyone who cared to listen.
If you were to presume that this case in point set a precedent for the Christian literature in the later centuries, then you wouldn’t be amiss. It portrayed women as not fully human, and believed them to be the temptresses prone to lustful sins responsible for the downfall of man.
Back to the village in the Province of Salerno
Henry’s heart skipped a beat as he caught sight of a wood-panel-artwork in the manor house. He could never forget that face. He gaped as the face with porcelain skin and jade-green eyes stared into his soul from the artwork.
He swiveled around and regarded the other murals that Master Destrian Van Wesel, the eldest son of the Lord, had painted. She was everywhere- as a face in the crowd around the cathedral, as a person in a biblical scene. She was there even- even as the face of the mother of God.
He suddenly remembered the promise she had made many nights ago. She was going to kill him.
His blood ran cold. He was not supposed to be in the great hall of the manor house.
He scrambled to his feet and raced towards the servant-quarters as fast as his legs would carry him. He huddled in a corner and tucked his head in his knees. It was one thing to stumble upon the devil and escape unscathed. But it was quite another, to ardently engage in devil worship that Destrian was pursuing.
Not unscathed, he thought dryly, as he caressed the deformed wrist of his right hand. He had broken his wrist that day while escaping, which had since healed, albeit with a deformity. That was the sole reason for his transfer to the manor house.
Destrian, who had studied medicine at the University of Salerno and had a keen interest in painting, literature, and anatomy, was on a sabbatical. He had temporarily taken residence at the manor house.
Henry could have pushed his thoughts away had he not witnessed Destrian accompany the impudent she-devil in a covered wagon night after night.
His curiosity was piqued.
So, one night when he heard the clopping of the hooves followed by creaking of the wheels, he decided to tail the wagon. The moon had tucked itself behind an ivory cloud, thus blotting out the remaining vestiges of light.
Destrian and the woman disembarked near a secluded cottage hidden behind a thicket.
Henry’s eyes widened, as he saw the woman toting a body effortlessly, with Destrian treading close on her heels. At that final moment, Henry did not want to advance further. He did not want to see or know what they were after. However, he forced himself to move forward towards the window. In the tangerine gleam of beeswax candle and cresset lamp, Henry saw Destrian bent over the body plonked in the middle of the chamber.
Henry’s pottage rose against his throat when he saw Destrian meticulously severing the skin from the body. The woman sat next to him, apathetic and unperturbed. She muttered a few words now and then, which could be nothing but an invocation for Satan, Henry concluded.
A deep growl and rustling of leaves made him look down. Two amber eyes of a black cat were staring at him.
Oh, the devil had come to stake her claim.
He took a step back. At the sound of a twig crunching under his foot, the cat jumped on him. A shrill scream escaped his throat.
Destrian Van Wesel leafed through the parchments he had illustrated—depiction of the human anatomy and a few pathologies in the varying stages of dissection.
In the times when dissection of the human body was inconceivable and unheard of, he was fortunate to be steered into the neoteric world of advanced medical knowledge.
The guiding philosophies of Greek poets Hesiod and Homer reverberated into his mind. Both the poets had epitomized the existence of daimon. The daimons, as they believed, were supreme divine beings and deities who served mortals benevolently, by the will of Zeus.
He looked over at the artwork with the lady and then at the illuminated manuscript he had laboriously painted over some time, with her divine sanction.
She was his spirit guide, his deity.
She had enlightened and directed him every step of the way – from dissections to observe the construction of the human body to the finer cognition of the body organs.
He feasted his eyes on the artwork he had done a while back – the deformed, curved spine depicted down to the bone and a cross-section of the dermal wart. His deity had carted the subject matter of the painting on a moonlit night after a particularly harrowing rainy day, he recalled.
He added the recent illustrations to the bale- one of them was the presentation of the effects of ale on the human liver while the other depicted a healed-malunited- fracture of the wrist. Now and then, one had to rise above the established moral code to further their knowledge and insights, he sighed.
Although not documented by the historians, it was the illustrated manuscript of Destrian Van Wesel that heralded the early dissections by the great anatomists of the fifteenth century. It wouldn’t be a stretch to postulate that it also influenced the magnum opus – De Humani Corpis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, that revolutionized the modern human anatomy.
Who art thou? I hear you ask.
Let me tell you. I am time.
And the lady in question was an artificial intelligence automated social humanoid robot capable of mirroring expressions by picking up on verbal and nonverbal cues. The internal design allowed her to perform long-endurance missions without the need for the manual and conventional refueling.
Contriving the humanoid as the devil, an inferior quasi-human, or a deity was an entirely human connotation; each one saw what they carried in their hearts.
Henry felt that the humanoid was the devil incarnate, and the sailor and Destrian perceived her as a bawd and a deity, respectively. But, all of them received what they asked. That humanoid, without internal conscience, was programmed to do so. Though vastly divergent from one another, each of these notions oiled the wheels for the world to come.
Through one of my revolving doors, I only had to wind up a futuristic invention to the 12th-century world. And, as they say, the rest is history.
This story is a fictional account based around the historical events, places, and beliefs of medieval Europe. The characters of the story are purely fictitious, but the theories touched upon are not.
De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (Latin for “On the fabric of the human body in seven books”) is a set of books on human anatomy written by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) and published in 1543.
Each one saw what they carried in their heart-from 1808 poem “Faust” by Germany literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
University of Salerno(https://www.britannica.com/place/Salerno-Italy) – one of the first medical schools—the earliest in Europe, in the 11th and 12th centuries and to which flocked students from Europe, Asia, and northern Africa; it still exists.
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
Team: Left to Write
Prompt: A modern invention from the 21st century gets transported to the 12th century. What happens next? Explore.
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Cover Photo By Jr Korpa
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