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Francis-Marie de Châtillon

The June Editor's Pick Writer is Francis-Marie de Châtillon

Please feel free to email Francis-Marie at: fdcdelalupe@gmail.com

francis marie

by Francis-Marie de Châtillon

“He's in there.”

“Yes; he’s standing and looking, but he can’t see us, can he?”

“No, he can’t see us.”

“He’s just standing and looking, isn’t he?

“Yes. Just standing and looking.”

The strange voices sounded almost like an exchange between the congenitally weak-minded with their constant reconfirmation one to the other; but the voices seemed to ooze some menace he could only guess at. Walking to his desk, he sat and prayed silently to the Virgin for protection against evil—a very real evil—that he now felt about him. The voices continued.


In Anno Domini in the Year of Our Lord 1349, a cold early evening winter’s sleet dashes against the monastery of St. Michael and St. Denis high on the montagne de salut in the mountainous Luberon in France. Borne of a bitter wind, rain buffets the brooding granite building like so many vengeful demons trying to gain entry; young Brother Thomas stands like an immoveable stone against it at the small glassless window of his cell.

He stares into the growing darkness with an increasing sense of dread. Dread but not despair: no, never despair; for therein lies the way of damnation, the path to the Evil One, he “Who roams around like a raging lion seeking whom he may devour.”

Thomas mutters this to himself, remembering the reading in the Office of Compline for Sunday. Compline: the Night Office, the completion of the day—but the start of the night and its dark processes.

Throwing his head back, oblivious to the harsh, cold gust through the window, he thinks of before and he lets out a slow moan of grief. Was it only just two years ago that she died? Yes, in 1347 when God’s anger raged and the Pestilence raced through France as a result.

Time seemed to have stretched, to have passed so slowly, so miserably. Suddenly, he shivers and returns to the present. He pulls his thick white Cistercian habit around him and shoves his hands into the opposing sleeves. Thomas bows his head and mutters a short prayer for her—after all, that’s why he’s here.

The monastery is as bleak as the weather. High on a mountain promontory it seems to brood over its surroundings. The only way to reach it a rocky winding track; it seems more fortress, more fastness than religious house. Its tall central tower a keep and its surrounding walls defensive ramparts. Stranger still, for a Cistercian house, it has none of the usual agriculture for commerce: no pasture surrounds it, no fast-flowing water powers a mill. No animals are stocked for fattening and trade, no wine made for sale. It is not so much a place of retreat from the world as a place of hiding far from it. To a casual observer, Thomas is a shattered soul flickering in the dim candlelight of his cell.

Oddly, the monastery has a distant and rather ambiguous relationship with the peasants who live below. Mostly they are suspicious. Although alms and food are given freely however, few make the journey up the steep track to avail themselves of the charity.  

From his window, Thomas can look out over thick forest in the distance; a forest where those driven from the surrounding villagers took refuge and all sorts of strange creatures were thought to roam. He leaves the window now and walks across his small cell to the straw-covered pallet that is his bed. He lies upon it and covers his face with his hands, again involuntarily remembering.

Gone now are the days of wealth and warmth at the castle of Bonnieux. Gone is the eating and drinking, the dancing and laughter; gone his father and mother, gone his sister—his beloved twin sister Ancelma.

“Do not despair. Never despair,” he mutters, quoting her.

He had watched the dark swellings form in his father's oxters, and smelt the putridity when the most vicious of these strange bodily eruptions bust forth in his groin. He witnessed the agonizing death that befell all his family over the short weeks. 

Mercifully, his mother was quick in death, pustules forming at Lauds one day and the Pestilence taking her by the following. His beautiful sister, tall and strong, reduced to…

He stifles a choking sob—he couldn't bear the image in his mind’s eye—and another deep moan escaped him.

Cold and unable to rest, he gets up and sits at his small table. He stares blankly, flatly at the skull and the hourglass both momento mori positioned either side of the large crucifix. Pasted on the wall under one of the horizontals of the cross is a colored woodcut of the Virgin holding the infant Christ on her left arm and holding up in her right hand the pear of redemption. 

Thomas smiles as he remembers how his sister was to join one of the most prestigious nunneries in all France. She had even chosen the serving women and maids she would take with her; but that was all past, now changed forever; and it seems to him like another strange and menacing landscape had suddenly appeared before him.   

According to reports, the Great Pestilence left France and now reached England; the danse macabre was moving north quickly. In the Luberon and surrounding areas, people died in extraordinary numbers; bodies went unburied for days and days. No one seemed to be spared and if not taken themselves, then their family members were almost wholesale. There seemed no exceptions—well, one only. His Holiness Pope Clemens VI had succumbed but miraculously recovered, he then granted the remission of sins to all who died of the Pestilence.

A bell tolls in the monastery now, its deep tone calling the brothers to Matins, the Office just after midnight. Thomas is not unaware of the irony of this: Matins, the first office of the day, a form of thanksgiving, said in the dead of night and whilst evil is still stalking its prey. He stands. listening to the slow controlled shuffle of feet outside his cell; he leaves joining the line of cowled figures in the dimness as they file to chapel and he wonders what the day will bring.

A host of candles burn, points of light in a dark world of many woes. Thomas feels the slight warmth they give out and is gladdened. In front of him, and slightly to his right, is the large wooden statue of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven adorned in the finest azure and gold; gemstones wink and sparkle in her crown and behind it, arcing her head, the twelve stars seen in St. John’s apocalyptic vision of her; she is surrounded by blue votive lights, their flickering making her seem to dance and gyrate eerily.

To his left are St. Michael and St. Denis; one standing in military might but both to remind the brothers of the ongoing fight against the very realness of evil. ‘O Lord thou shalt open my lips and my mouth shall declare thy praise’ the first words of Matins begin and the day’s round of liturgy starts.

Thomas lies restlessly upon his cot awaiting the beginning of his particular work in the scriptorium. The work at the moment is the copying of the great 37 volume Naturalis Historia by Pliny; in particular that volume covering the ‘Monstrous Races’.

Thomas has been writing carefully and devotedly the gloss in tightly compressed Gothic script. It is demanding work. It will be accompanied by many illustrations of the ‘Races’: the Hippopodes or horse-footed men; the Himantopodes or backward-footed men; Blemmyae or headless men with their faces on their chests; the Sciapods or one-legged men who hop about at lightning speed and shade themselves with their great foot; the frightening Arimaspi that clubbed people to death and ate their flesh; Cynocephali or dog-headed men that communicated by barking.

So many monsters. The world is filled with monsters.

For Thomas, these ‘races’ prompts great theological questions: are these monsters truly monstrous at all?

He muses that in the fifth century, Saint Augustine discussed the so-called ‘Monstrous Races’, such as the dog-headed cynocephali, in book 8 of his City of God. The Saint pondered how they might fit into the purposes of God. Are they descendants of Adam? If so, they are human beings despite their frightening appearance. They would then have souls, and might even be converted to Christianity.

Thomas considers this also: would not ‘wondrous’ be a better adjective? It was used in The Wonders of the East, an Old English document from around AD 1000 that describes many of the same creatures found in the books of the classical geographers.

It was while he ponders long and hard on these weighty matters that he suddenly hears a small noise just outside his window; a faint whisper-like sound that is there and yet isn’t.

He can’t make out any words as such but there is something; perhaps it is some small trick of the wind that forces his brain to try to make some sense of it.

The small voice-like sound continues for some time and eventually Thomas is driven to go to the window and peer out into the bleak darkness, but he sees nothing and the sound doesn’t become any clearer. He strains his ears even harder and to his alarm he can distinguish two small voices that sound like small children.

“He’ll see what he’s seeking soon, won’t he?”

“Yes he will; I believe so.”

“But for now he’s still looking?”

Knowing he is eavesdropping—a sin, even if it involved only children—Thomas has the strange yet very real sensation of something coming. He physically feels it. What are these unknown children talking about…something looking?

From far away it is moving and he can feel its presence coming closer and watching his every move; yes, it is looking.

Suddenly another voice whispers to him, clearer now. He distinctly hears his name called languorously from outside the window, “Oh Thomas, Thomas! It’s me, Ancelma,” it says. “You still remember me, don’t you Thomas?” 

Thomas jumps up, fully startled, and stares wide-eyed at the window. He steps back against the cell door in alarm, his body ridged with fear. The voice is insistent and continues to ask him if he remembered her still, or had he put all thoughts of her from his mind now that he had joined a religious order. He remembered the priest’s warning from long ago when he was but a child that a Christian was never to converse with spirits unless they were angels sent from God, and so as much as he wanted to call out to his sister, he stared, silent and trembling.

“Thomas, I’m so cold out here,” she calls pitifully. “So very cold! Please bid me come enter. I’m Ancelma, your beloved sister. Oh, Thomas. Oh Thomas!” The voice is soft and familiar. Tempting.    

He is fearful for his soul but not despairing and he prays the St. Michael’s prayer under his breath. He prays fervently over and over, his back pushed hard against the cell door.
“St. Michael, Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Evil One. May God rebuke him we humbly pray and do thou Oh prince of the Heavenly Host by the power of God thrust Satan into Hell and all evil spirits who wander this world seeking the ruin of souls.”

But what should he do? If this is truly the soul of his sister—and the voice was certainly hers—this could not be of God. She was devout in life and surely must be in heaven and so the Lord would not send her back.

“Oh Thomas, to reject me now! Now that I have come to find you! What evil has suddenly possessed you to reject me, my Thomas?”

He lets out a long low whimper of indecision. His heart pounds and he feels it breaking for love of her. “You came to do me no harm, spirit?” He tries to make this sound imposing but he fails.

“I’m your sister and would do nothing ever to injure you, my Thomas!” The exclamation sounds heartfelt and honest and Thomas teeters on the edge of indecision. Finally he cries, “Then yes! Yes, for le petit corps du Christ come to me Ancelma! I bid you enter.”

At these words there is a silence of some seconds and Thomas wonders if his sister is still there. Then slowly, through the window, a light-grey mist or smoke enters the room. In deliberate sparkling wisps it comes, gradually forming into a thicker, inchoate shape.

After some minutes it swirls around the cell at ceiling height faster and faster; a frightening tornado of spirit. Thomas watches in stark fascination as it speeds round and round; his legs are trembling despite his now full belief that this is truly the spirit of his sister.

The shape suddenly stops and moves gently to the floor. As he looks on, the mass starts to coalesce like a slowly evolving sculpture. 

The mass becomes form, the form becomes a woman—but the woman is not of his sister! The specter before him is of a young beautiful girl of about eighteen years or so; long, dark, wavy hair framing her wanton face. Voluptuous and full-hipped, she stretchs out her arms to him, letting her breasts stand before her in their ripeness.

Thomas is horrified. His order forbids sexuality. Frozen, like some statue on a cathedral façade, he stars disbelievingly at the apparition before him.

“You said you were my sister! You said you would never harm me!” he cries.

Swiveling his head quickly around him, he notices that the small candles in his cell are flickering madly, casting wicked-looking shadows across the walls.

“He’s looking for you,” comes the seductive yet sinister reply. “When he finds you, I will act.”

Thomas lets out a low moan of despairing fear because another voice is at the window—a deep unassailable voice of authority.

“Where are you, Thomas?” The disembodied male voice is strong and commanding yet soft in its tone. Almost soothing. Almost.

“Thomas, I have found you.” The voice again, strong yet still soothing. “I am sending my demon.”

Screaming now, Thomas runs to the protection of the crucifix and the pasted woodcut of the Virgin. Gradually, the form moves closer to him, slowly transforming.

Gone is the young, seductive eighteen-year-old. Older and older the apparition grows, the face turning into a lined and gaunt vision of evil; gone now the buxom wanton of before, replaced by some boney hag. The eyes of the creature seem alight with malice and they transfix Thomas as surely as Christ was nailed to the cross behind him.

Almost upon him, Thomas fights to keep her off, but she is strong and they struggle furiously like some hideous parody of Jacob and the angel. Thomas is thrown hard across the table he is sent spinning to the floor with a loud crash; in the action a tooth became dislodged and it bounces across the cell into a corner.

The creature pins him and her face is just inches from his; her eyes bore into him as if they could drill into his very brain.

Still conscious, Thomas screams, “Oh God! Have mercy on me. Save the servant who trusts in thee.”

With one frighteningly swift motion she goes down between his legs, tearing his habit wide. She grins momentarily and her mouth—so much wider than any human mouth—closed on him. In one great sucking sound Thomas starts shrinking, folding rapidly in on himself. Shaking violently he shrivels, withering like dried fruit, so the bones of his once powerful body are clearly discernable through his skin.

His cheeks, once so full and rosy, collapses in seconds against his skull and his head falls back with his mouth wide open, shrieking unsightly in silence. Turning yellow, he falls to the floor a spent, crumpled form; an eviscerated paper-dry shell resembling something from a Mesoamerican tomb.

The deep voice tells him, “Oh Thomas, you were supposed to die in the Pestilence like your sister. You got away, and I lost you. I’ve been looking for you ever since.”


The bell tolled for Lauds in the monastery a little later, the tender first rays of dawn showing on the horizon, and the brothers filed slowly to chapel in the dim light. As they shuffled past Brother Thomas’s cell, they looked at the door and crossed themselves.

Fear flashed in their eyes and stabbed at their stomachs, and none would dare enter.

If they had been brave enough to have entered Brother Thomas’s cell that cold and keening morning, looking from the window far down into the courtyard below they would have seen dozens of small imp-like devils dancing frantically. They made no sound but they hopped, cavorted and spun with abandoned glee.

If the Brothers had looked farther into the shadowsm they would have seem that there are Hippopodes, Himantopodes, Arimaspi, and all manner of Blemmyae; and there, slithering down the wall some distance below them, the Brothers would have beheld a beautiful creature: young, voluptuous and oh so best, best-buxom.

One of the Brothers said out loud, “We must enter. God will protect us. Do not despair. Never despair.”

Francis-Marie de Châtillon is a professional art historian and lecturer. He lives in both London and Florence. He is in a long-term domestic partnership with an NHS midwife.