1669 c/o Nicola Belte

He was a man of signs. The day he saw the Blessed Virgin’s face as he collected olives in his grandfather’s grove, he moved to the monastery. He didn’t ask questions.

Never was a brother so pious. His desires, his attachments, his previous life, all friable petals in the gust of his faith. He let language go. Chattering and chirping only pinioned the dove, and his silent devotion set it free; let it swoop across the orchards on the lower slopes of the mountain, bringing signs of God’s grandeur back to his heart.

He was ready, waiting.

Then she called for him.

He’d lie on his hard bed and feel her moving in the distance, growing impatient. He’d wake an hour earlier, and read the scriptures by candlelight late into the night, knowing he couldn’t placate her forever; knowing that she wouldn’t wait; knowing that he’d go to her. She knew his nature. She left him signs. Summer leaves curling up crisp at the edges; singed butterflies falling from the sky like shrivelled black confetti; dead, dehydrated flies coating the stone floor of his cell.

He’d go without breakfast, halve his portion at lunchtime; pulling vegetables from the rich, black earth and plucking fruit in the heat of the afternoon with his head spinning and his stomach cramping, still not tempted to take a bite.

He’d dream of her; feel her burning kisses across his stomach, her lip prints scolding, sticky; molten wax seals upon his skin, closing the deal, branding him “hers”.

He’d awaken feeling trapped; gasping for air, with his lips cracked and his eyelashes scalded away, the smell of burnt flesh heavy in the air.

He’d lift his gown and kneel on broken glass in the courtyard, his head pressed flat to the dusty ground as the sun rose, chanting, to keep out the growing roar of her laughter.

The dreams got worse. Women with frightful black tongues surrounded him, stroking him, their features obscured by thick smoke, permitting him only the odd glimpse of a sunken, lustful eye, or a gaping, blazing mouth. They’d pull him towards them, and he’d feel that he was plunging headfirst into a fiery pit, into bottomless perdition, into an unfathomable, sulphurous abyss where red magma pools glowed fierce in an unyielding blackness, and where he’d die; time and time again. He clawed at them, screaming, begging as he dangled, their skin coming loose in his fingers, peeling away from their charred bones, laughing as they exploded into sparks and ashes, letting him fall.

He woke with blisters on his hands, with embers on his soles, and thirsty, always thirsty. He knew that this was a test. She wanted to see if he was faithful. He stopped drinking altogether. His tongue felt swollen, engorged, alien; his head pounded and his skin crackled as he writhed; his limbs like tinder, impossibly dry.

She taunted him. Sent him dreams of beautiful water nymphs in white Roman gowns; who’d dance around him, wet skin gleaming, splashing him with the droplets that they squeezed from their long, golden hair. He wasn’t a fool; he saw their combustibility, the flames kindling behind their aquamarine eyes, what lay beyond their tranquil smiles. He’d plead to wake up, will his eyes to open, but they’d come for him, holding back his head as he gagged and bucked, pouring jug after jug of water down his throat, until he’d snatch for it, and even knowing what they were, take it from their cold, dead fingers and drink, and drink.

He could barely move from his cell. His face was waxen, gaunt, like a penitential candle left to burn too long. He couldn’t sleep. Nothing now passed his lips. His brothers let him be, let him recede. They knew the ways of God, knew the path of devotion. They didn’t ask questions. They knew the signs too. He lay there, in silent spiritual repose, waiting.

And then she came.

He heard the commotion in the streets, the loading up of carts; the fervent, futile pleas for mercy. He staggered to the window. Black smoke. The mountain streaked with red and orange, the sky seemingly on fire as blackened rocks rained down on the city below. She moved slowly, regally, all of nature bowing down as she passed, jealousy taking back what was hers, clutching it to her core as all fell to cinders around her.

She wanted him. He knew that she was coming for him, and refused to leave. He wouldn’t abandon her.

He watched the sky darken, growing denser with ash, saw her snake towards him in waves of undulating magma, almost hypnotised. She took the fields, the apple trees and the lemon groves, the villages, the homes, the streets, but still he stayed firm, praying for his weak legs to support him, until it was time.

He hobbled out into the deserted streets, feeling his way along the monastery’s wall, blinded by the grit that made his lungs feel as though they were being compressed by wrenching fingers of fire. He could see nothing but her, hear nothing but her, feel nothing but her breath upon his skin, seductively smouldering, drawing him in.

He took off his robe. He wanted to experience her completely, his life was made for this; this was his purpose, his fate. He wanted her to assimilate him, to consume him, to annihilate him, completely. She burst through the gates of the monastery, and he smiled. He thought of the Blessed Virgin’s face that had brought him there, thought of the sun on his face the day he’d arrived, that greeted him like a benediction. He closed his eyes, and waited for her kiss.