Chapter 8: Mission Improbable
I cannot for obvious reasons name my companions, save to say there were three of us who scaled the holy mountain that night, bolstered by fool's courage. Our actions weren't strictly speaking 'legal', but then a good magician always knows when to bend the rules. There were too many things wrong with the story, nagging details that refused to add up and like one of the doomed protagonists of Dario's 'giallos', I felt compelled to return to the scene, to keep pulling on those loose ends until I found where they lead to.
The mountain turned out to be harder to find than I thought and we we already behind schedule by the time we pulled into the abandoned lot outside the cable station. Whispering like schoolboys we started up the winding path, following the funicular railway towards the mysterious enclave on the summit identified on the map as the 'Pla de les Tarantules' - The 'Plain of the Tarantulas' or 'Tarantula Square'. The origins of the name was as much of a mystery to me then as the icon herself and the riddle of her ebon skin. Whatever it was had nothing to do with Christianity. What she represented was older than Christ or the Torah, older than recorded history...
In the beginning, according to the Egyptians, there was only the void and the eye in the void, the awareness some call Set. The deity whose image I had purchased unwittingly in New York might have begun her journey as Au-Set - the seat of consciousness, the throne of her male counterpart Au Sar, the eye in the throne. As a woman conceives and begats life so she symbolized the living embodiment of that primal awareness. The Greeks venerated Au-Set, the 'consciousness embodied', as Isis, and her counterpart Au-Sar as Osiris - also called Neb T-Chetta, lord of eternity. Her two daughters were Bast, the cat-faced one, and Neb Tet, the Lady of the Temple. The ancient Europeans knew her as Kubaba, Cybele, Sybil, Diana of the Nine Fires or as Arduina. It is tempting to see 'La Moreneta', the Black Madonna of Montserrat, as another one of those masks - Our Lady of Darkness unveiled as Notre-Dame De Lumiere.
Sadly I would need to write Her name in hieroglyphs for this to make ready sense, but finding a keyboard for the task defeats me. Suffice to say, she was a radiant being and one of the nine original members of the grateful dead. They were not so much gods, these holy nine, but radiant aspects of the one God, for the Egyptian faith is in essence a heliocentric monotheism based around Ra, the sun god, who is the father of the other bright ones. Archeologists have tried to argue that the holy nine are descended from a quasi-mythological memory of a hierarchical dynastic race, who conquered the primitive ancestors of the ancient Egyptians, exerting a civilizing influence over them.
The Moors knew Her homeland by another name - al Khem - the 'Black Land'. It is thought by some to be an allusion to the rich, black, fertile soil of the Nile valley and by others (Malcolm X and Louis Farakhan among 'em!), as direct proof that the Egyptian civilization represented the finest flowering of African art and culture. The science of Egypt, 'alchemy', came by association to be regarded as the 'dark' or 'black art' and those who rationalized it, understood it as 'chemistry', just as the work of the Arab philosopher Geber was thought to be 'gibberish' to uninitiated eyes, whilst only a select few recognized it as the secret language of 'algebra'.
The Arabic language is constructed so that many different meanings can be derived from tri-lateral root words and their variations. The writer and Eastern esoteric scholar Idries Shah Sayed insists that for 'black', we should read 'wise'. This confusion apparently arises from a play on two roots, FHM and FHHM, pronounced 'fecham' and 'facham', meaning 'black' and 'wise', respectively. The FHM root can also mean 'knowledge' or 'understanding', depending on context and pronunciation. Thus the so-called 'black art' is also the 'wise art', just as the 'art of darkness', gothic art, the art 'got' or 'cot' is really the 'art of light'.
All of which sounds reassuring in theory, but the night was dark and the going hard and as we climbed higher up that winding trail we fell silent.
The narrowing path looped back beneath the cableway before disappearing into the shadows of an old railway tunnel, left disused since the introduction of the cable service in 1957. And the way was dark and I couldn't see my hand in front of my face and we were tempted to turn back, but then I dug out my zippo and followed the disused tracks into the gloom. We tried to joke about it, but the way was dark and our jokes fell flat and all the while I think we were quietly hoping those spiders would turn out to be just a metaphor after all...
There have been only a few times in my waking experience I have felt as if I had been transposed into something written by H.P. Lovecraft. This was one of them.
As we came to the end of the line and climbed out of the railway cutting we all came to a halt at once, unable to quite get our heads around what we were seeing.
"My God," breathed one of my companions.
The mountain looked different from this angle and the unexpected change in altitude and perspective accounted for some of the initial disorientation. The basilica on the plateau far below seemed as insignificant as a sandcastle and despite the hour I could see a light still blazing in the window of the library attached to the Benedictine abbey, some scholar working late on his translation, I supposed. The clouds had parted, the night was chill and the wild white cliffs rose and rose, dwarfing the buildings and the icon they contained, the lights of Barcelona strewn out like an ineffectual handful of glitter dust along the far horizon. According to the guidebook, the jagged rock formations are the result of a freak sedimentary deposit but seeing the face of those stone giants by starlight the same thought hit all of us at once.
"They sure look like Gods," I muttered.
"Don't be too sure, dude. Maybe they are."
A statue of Dominic de Guzman (later Saint Dominic), the scourge of the Albigensians and founder of the black order who administered the system of terror known as the 'Spanish Inquisition', stood to the left of the disused railway station, ushering us upwards towards the 'Place of the Tarantula', past a winding calvary known as the path of Saint Michael, composed of fifteen evenly spaced groups of life-sized statues vividly illustrating the sufferings of Christ.
And I thought of Ignatius's 'Rainbow Serpent' and that old saw from the Book of Revelations:
"And there was a war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and the dragon fought and his angels and prevailed not, nor was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan, which decieveth the world was cast out into the earth and his angels were cast out with him..." 20:2
Thankfully it was too dark to see the expressions on those stone faces. Otherwise we might have turned back for although the way was dark, the light we glimpsed up ahead was all the more intimidating. A faint guttering light, what might have been the flicker of votive candles, fell from the windows of a 17th century hermitage attached to a tiny domed chapel that seemed to have been organically extruded from the living rock. Later I was to learn the chapel contained a replica of the icon enshrined in the basilica below but on that first night the apprehension we felt on seeing the glimmer from within prevented us from getting closer. Not that we were particularly superstitious, mind you, but we had careers to keep on track and none of us wanted to run foul of some elderly Catalonian prelate caught in the act of ritual sacrifice or whatever the hell it was they did up there at three in the morning. Instead my attention was caught by a shadow at the base of the rock wall, a deeper patch of darkness that failed to dissipate as I approached.
Realizing I was standing at the mouth of a cave, I recalled how the icon had been discovered by shepherd children after seeing a great light fall from the sky just after dusk on a summery Saturday evening the year of our Lord 880 AD and I started to wonder if this wasn't the actual grotto in which She had been found. Not for the first time that night I wished we had been together enough to bring a flashlight. Clambering over the low metal railing I reached for my zippo...
It was a few degrees warmer inside the cave and there was a faint, sweet, half-familiar smell in the air. Like incense or stale icing sugar...
"How far does it go ?"
"I dunno. Goes in a way..."
I took another step into the gloom as my actor friend climbed over the fence to join me. I raised the flame a little higher glimpsing what looked like markings on the wall, water damage or some kind of graffiti. Amongst them at least one shape that seemed disturbingly familiar.
"Looks like writing... damn..."
The zippo slipped from my fingers, too hot to hold and for a moment we scuffled in the dark to try and locate it.
"This place is weird, dude."
"I thought I saw something. On the wall.."
The only light came from the display on my malfunctioning eighties wristwatch, casting a dim green glow across the cave floor. At just after 3.21 my fingers closed on the still warm metal of my fallen lighter and I began to turn, spinning the flint. At 3.22 the flame caught and a single loud gunshot echoed flatly off the face of the cliff followed by the sound of a dog barking in the valley far below.
"The f***k !?!"
"Sounded like it came from the monastery..."
The third member of our posse, a young Spaniard, was circling nervously on the path, staring down at the lighted window .
"The hell happened?"
"Maybe someone was cleaning their gun and it went off by mistake."
"Why would anyone be cleaning their gun in the Benedictine library reading room at three in the f*****g morning?!"
I glanced back, taking a last look at the grotto.
"It makes a difference?"
"Tell it to the judge. Could be crucial. I dunno..."
There were definitely words scrawled on the rock, thick black lettering and what looked like geometric markings.
"Maybe it was suicide. Maybe one of the monks just couldn't take it any more and shot himself..."
"Why would they do that?"
"Stress. Working too late. Bad vibes. Perhaps they started seeing things like Saint Ignatius..."
I paused, focusing on what I had glimpsed for only a split second before. This time I held the flame steady.
"There it is."