OF A HERETIC
And the Sibyl with raving mouth
uttering her unlaughing, unadorned, unincensed words
reaches out over a thousand years with her voice,
through the inspiration of the god in her.
A Fragment from
Chapter I, Section III
Before returning home, Sibylla felt an urgent need to visit the Madonna tal-Ghar. So, when she and Emmanuel got of out the car, he mounted the twisting stone steps to their cave on Mellieha Heights while she descended those same steps into the darkened valley beneath. At the entrance to the village, far below the main church on the hill, stood the gate to the Madonna of the Grotto - an underground sanctuary whose statue of the Madonna had been much venerated by the Maltese for centuries.
Sibylla passed through the iron gate and followed the steps down in total darkness, feeling with her hands along the walls. Under her fingers passed grapevines and olive branches, set among the sharp stones. Knowing from memory the turning in the stairs (as a child she'd knelt and said a rosary on each step), she found the cavernous passage leading further downward. Now, the glass-ensconced candles of the ex-voto dimly illuminated her way. She descended slowly, feeling the unusual transformation that always came upon her as she passed from above to this dark world below.
With head bowed, she entered the small chapel and stood silently at its centre. The odour of dampness and incense, the flickering of the candles, the trickling sound of water - all of these calmed her, stilled her breathing and focussed her attention as she raised her eyes to the Virgin, who stood majestically amid a pool of holy water.
"O Vergni Mbierka, Sultana u Omm taghna..." Sibylla began, reciting the invocation that, without a second thought, gave voice to her devotion: 'O blessed Virgin, Queen and Mother,' she repeated, making out the details in white stone glowing in the candlelight. The Madonna tal-Ghar appeared as a majestic figure: crowned, garlanded, enrobed, bearing the infant Christ high up, almost at her left shoulder. With her right hand she gestured mysteriously, perhaps raising her hand in blessing, perhaps pointing to something hidden in the darkness.
Sibylla began to think of her sisters, of Leonora who was now expecting a child; of Catarina and her noviciate. Not until now had she felt so strongly the strange position she occupied between these two sisters. Like Leonora, she longed to be with child, and experience in her womb the mysterious growth of new love, new life. But, like Catarina, she wished she could also remain ever-virgin, learn of its secrets, its blessings.
The Madonna before her, she knew, united those opposite longings - to give birth but remain virgin. That was the nature of her miracle. But now, Sibylla knew, all of that had changed. Through Emmanuel, she had experienced things, become someone different. Indeed - someone she did not really know.
She looked once more to the Madonna tal-Ghar. As a child, she had prayed here, kneeling on the marble steps, her hands clasped on the rail. She'd prayed without doubt, without fear. Her prayers were simple recitations of the talba, the creed. Now, everytime she prayed she felt fear tearing at her heart. She felt doubt and dire need to uncover who she was and why she was acting like this. Emmanuel was a joy and a torment to her, offering new thresholds in life but also opening passages in her soul that she never before dared enter. She felt torment, fear, even damnation and hell.
What had her Nanna said this evening - that she was Is-Settusibilla? The old woman's words made so little sense, but somehow they always left their mark. 'The most beautiful and the most proud!' she'd said. That was her, that was Sibylla - more beautiful than her sisters, she knew. So they taunted her, saying she was too proud.
And, indeed, she would have no man, no matter how much her father had tried to arrange things. That was, until Emmanuel came, a man she knew she could not have. And, of course, she always wanted the things outside her command.
'...She hoped for the pearl' came again her grandmother's voice. The image seemed so clear to her, though she had no idea what it was, what it meant. And what had her grandmother said after that? She couldn't recall, so disturbing it seemed.
'She only wanted to live in Hell!' came the words at last. Is that what she said? Those syllables, so unexpected, struck Sibylla as horribly true, a dangerous portent.
She looked to the Madonna again. And this time, she did not hesitate. Just as she did when a child, Sibylla knelt here, in this cave under the earth, her eyes fixed upon the Madonna. Her bare knees fell to the marble steps, her clasped hands pressed hard against the iron rail, and a scraping sound echoed through the cavern. There was a movement somewhere in the cave. Sibylla stood up again, frightened.
The Madonna continued to point mysteriously into the darkness. Silence. But she felt someone there inside the darkened chapel, looking at her. Or was it an animal? - that scraping - like the sound of goat's hooves on the floor.
Sibylla never felt so frightened as at this moment. Someone had been here all the time, watching her, waiting, observing her movements. It was a man, she knew. She could feel his eyes on her, dark eyes glowing in the shadows.
Without a second thought she ran - mounting the stairs, up - up! Past the turning, and again, up! She could hear the feet on the stairs echoing behind her. She mounted the final steps and ran out onto the street that led into the village. A car passed, its yellow headlights piercing the darkness. She ran, turning, looking behind her. Then, she slowed her pace and began to walk. The lights from the village became brighter. A restaurant. The Fortuna Bar, with tourists and locals on the terrace, enjoying a drink. She was safe, now, she knew.
But, more disturbing still, she knew that she'd been wrong. There was never anyone down there; she'd been alone all along. It was all her imagination, her fear; she knew that - now.
When Sibylla returned home, she found the main cave that they shared empty and in darkness. Meanwhile, in the smaller cave which Emmanuel used as his study, a light was burning.
She lifted the purtiera, the bamboo forehang over the entrance, and went into Emmanuel's study. He was lying on his narrow mattress, apparently reading, though the small leather-bound book in his hands seemed far from his thoughts.
He smiled uncertainly as Sibylla entered his austere quarters and began removing her clothing. Within moments, she was lying beside him on the straw mattress, caressing the back of his head with her hand and placing her head on his chest.
He too began stroking her hair, lifting away the long tresses which fell over her brow. Their eyes engaged and their hands clasped as if in silent prayer. Moving their faces close, they pressed their cheek and brows into one another. And through this tacit act, the couple expressed in gestures what neither wished to speak: to be close - so close as to lose themselves in one another.
Rolling over on top of him, Sibylla grasped Emmanuel's shoulders and her breasts fell forward, pressed together by her extended arms. He kissed the fullness offered him while her hands slid down his back and the two began to rock back and forth.
He felt blessed by her caresses. This sudden approach; this sudden need of him. Kissing now her neck, then her earlobes, and finally her cheek and lips, he tasted the saltiness of fresh tears streaming down her face. Sibylla gazed at him darkly, deeply, and with fierce determination continued her oceanic motion over his hard body. The straw in the mattress shifted beneath them, hallowing to the contours of their bodies. Then, closing her eyes, Sibylla began to whisper certain words, like lines from a long forgotten litany: "Black is the root, the flower as white as milk."
Emmanuel buried his face in her shoulder, his fingers tensed and dug into her back as his body seized and he muffled his cries in the cleft of her left shoulder. They remained frozen in this gesture of passion for a few extended moments, then gradually released themselves from their locked embrace.
Looking once more into each other eyes, Emmanuel could not help but wonder at the expression on Sibylla's face. She was looking, not at him, but beyond him, as if some mystery she could not comprehend had just appeared behind his shoulder.
He lay back, resting against the pillow, and she nestled her head once more into the hollow of his arm and chest, her tears and hot forehead pressed hard against his cheek. He could do nothing more than hold her to him, brush her soft hair and caress her brow and temples.
Finally, they turned onto their sides, Emmanuel passing a hand under his long hair to support his head. The lamp near the bed cast its warmth and light upon their mirrored faces.
"What is it?" he asked, at last."Why these tears?"
"I don't know," she said. "I don't know why we are here, at this moment. Why I come to you, like this. Why we make love."
He looked for words to answer her, but found none.
"Emmanuel, why do you remain with me?" she pleaded.
"Sibylla no. Please stop. Listen: I believe in you - in us. I believe we'll find this secret you are keeping from yourself, and why you feel so tormented by it."
But, at that moment, he barely believed his own words, and felt utterly powerless to help her. Even passing his knuckles gently over her temples brought forth more tears. He wanted to offer comfort but instead he was provoking feelings that plunged further inward - more infinitely inward, he knew, than he could ever fathom in himself.
She too had wanted nothing more than this: to be close, to wordlessly experience the sharing they felt when so engaged. But, a thought unknown to her always uprose, and tormented her whenever they were so embraced. Then, pleasure became, for her, an invocation of greater pain. Emmanuel would watch as the expressions of ecstasy and bliss which the lantern illuminated in her features painfully transformed to anguish and agony. Why did this happen? Sibylla had no notion, and Emmanuel prodded her endlessly with questions to which she could not respond.
She turned to face him once more with a visage pleading release from her sufferings. And then she began:
"This evening, I followed the stairs down to the Madonna tal-Ghar. Alone in the cave where the statue of her stands, I prayed to the Virgin openly. It was the first time I had prayed in so long. You know she stands in a pool of water that flows undisturbed from an underground stream. I prayed that she might step aside and reveal to me the unholy secret that lies hidden in the blackness of the grotto, or submerged in the dark waters of the stream. I wanted to behold the source of these torments."
"And what happened?"
Sibylla did not reply. Instead, she stared at the lantern's flame and, through eyes of tears, became mesmerized by the patterns of light refracted through her wet lashes.
"I don't know," she answered at last. "My thoughts began to wander. In the darkness there, with the sound of the water trickling, I began to hear voices, remember words and the faces that spoke them. I remembered my Nanna and what she was saying - 'Is-Settusibilla! Is-Settusibilla!' What did she mean Emmanuel? What is this 'Is-Settu'?" she pleaded.
Then she began again, imitating her grandmother: "'The wisest of the wise, the proudest of the proud, the most beautiful of women!' You heard her! '...She hoped for the pearl! But after the virgin's dream, she wanted only to live in Hell!' I can't forget those words. What do they mean? They mean something terrible, I know - something wicked!"
Emmanuel kissed her to stop her from speaking further. He bit at her lip, withdrew, and then brushed away her tears with his thumb. Sibylla awakened from the trance inspired by the lantern's flame, and engaged him directly with her olive green eyes.
"I should go into the convent in Mdina, like Catarina."
"Why does your sister want to become a nun?"
"Because of Nanna," she said, wiping away the final traces of her tears.
"Yes. My sisters and I are not that close. We each took turns living away from the house - staying with Nanna and taking care of her. Catarina, being the youngest, was naturally the last. So, she was the one living with Nannawhen she turned..."
Sibylla nodded once, with a quick downward movement of the head, implying the words which she could not speak: forgetful, distracted, strange.
"...about two years ago," she continued. "Catarina never told me what happened, or what passed between them. Something strange I imagine - enough to make her enter a convent like St. Benedict's."
"If she takes her final vows, she'll lock herself away forever," Emmanuel said. He shifted his head, and stared upward at the cavern's rounded ceiling.
"Perhaps. Perhaps not," Sibylla said, suggesting something known to them both, but which neither wished to speak of right now. "Omm Alla, I don't know," she said at last, herself staring up into the cavern's darkness.
'Omm Alla' Emmanuel thought to himself: 'Mother of God'. Itlob ghalina midinbin - 'pray for us sinners'. Sibylla and I have fallen so far from all of that,' he mused. 'We refused the fourth sacrament - a marriage sanctified by the church. And I refused the orders of the church - another sacrament defiled. I would now be ordained as a parish priest had not my passion for Sibylla so overcome me that I escaped the Cathedral during the bestowal of Holy Orders. For four years I studied under Nazzareno in the Diocesan Seminary of Malta. And, stranger still, I was thought the most promising in my vocation. Yes, perhaps. Perhaps not.
'Sibylla wasn't the only reason why I left my calling,' he admitted to himself. 'In my studies, I came across the writings of men who,"...deceived by the evil one, became vain in their reasonings, and exchanged the truth of God for a lie" - as the Vatican code expressed it. Yet, in the writings of those heretics, I found a more pious and profound expression of faith than I ever encountered among the ordained. Origen, Abelard, Eckhart - they all followed the Saviour's path away from dogma, creed, and ecclesia. Wasn't Christ himself a heretic? Indeed, "the worst of heretics" - as Dostoyevski had said.
'In my life I've always tried to understand Christ and emulate his ways - Imitatio Christi, Amen. But that aspect of him which I've manifested most clearly is his heretical nature. My love for Sibylla, my desire to behold the countenance of the Unknown God - both of these yearnings could only find their fulfillment outside of the church and its sacraments.'
Sibylla turned to Emmanuel, her face now becalmed of those anxieties which had so wracked her features.
"Unfurrow your brow," she said. "You're too caught up in your own thoughts. We both are. What are you thinking?"
"...The meditations of a heretic," he replied. "Which reminds me, I have to return this book to dun Nazzareno tomorrow. I'll stay the night at his house in Mdina."
"Why do you still see him? I thought you'd left all of that behind."
"I know. He was my finest teacher at the Seminary, my confessor. But now all of that's changed. I don't go there to confess, if that's what you're thinking. But, he knows things, about our faith, which we've forgotten - things which we forget at our own peril..."
"Mela - we should forget certain things," she said, seriously.
"Yes - and no. Do you know of il-hares ta' il ayn? " he asked, looking at her with deep seriousness. "The old widows of Malta, draped in their black dresses and veils while they whisper their rosaries - they still believe in il-hares ta' il ayn - the serpentine spirit that dwells in each cistern or well, guarding the water's source."
Sibylla looked at him quizzically, her pronounced brow rising a notch.
"Maybe it was not theMadonna tal-Ghar, but this hares in the well, that was guarding its secret from you and the source of your anguish," he said, finally.
"You think there's a demon down there?" she asked, not quite believing his words.
"No, I'm speaking of something else..."
"Something - heretical?" she asked teasingly.
Beliefs older than Christianity are not really heretical. Pagan perhaps. Il-hares ta' il ayn isn't something evil, because it comes from a time before good and evil. It is more a 'daimon', a spirit that guards the source of things unknown. If you confront it, and overcome it, it will teach you the secret at its source."
"Basta!" she said. "I don't believe in your 'serpent in the well.'"
"No. But still, you fear it."
She was silent, and refused to pursue the course of this conversation any further. Emmanuel stopped prodding her with his questions, knowing he was stepping into dangerous territory. Her fiery temper and strange faith. Sibylla possessed the same peculiar faith as her grandmother - unusual in its childlike innocence and unstinting belief in things unseen, unheard.
Yet, he couldn't help but see in her something she was not quite conscious of: a pagan quality from Malta's Phoenician past. Before St. Paul's shipwreck here and the conversion of the Maltese to Christianity, serpents and fertility goddesses were worshipped on the isle. In Sibylla's attitude and gestures, in her proud bearing and sometimes mocking laughter, he could sense their Phoenician forebears.
Emmanuel gazed down, and traced a path with his hand along the contours of her body. Her physique, he thought, had that pagan quality: a certain roundedness and fullness so unique to the Maltese. Though her shoulders were narrow, her breasts were bounteous, and her thin waist was rounded by generous hips. Her skin was smooth, brown as a dark olive, and dried by the salty Mediterranean winds. Sibylla moved with a slow, natural grace on delicately small feet, and she assumed postures strangely reminiscent of the women portrayed in Leonardo's paintings.
He traced a passage back through her soft flesh, then grazed her lips with the tips of his knuckles, which she kissed as they passed over mouth. Her hair was black as the bottom of the sea, but bleached auburn in places by the sun. The tips of her hair, so fair, fell about her shoulders and over her breasts in loose curls. Like most Maltese women, her eyebrows were dark and well-defined. She engaged people directly with her eyes, or else cast her glance downward, but never permitted herself a sideglance.
"I had a dream last night," Sibylla began.
"You dream a lot these days."
"I know. They're always so strange. Each time different and each time the same."
"What did you dream?"
"That we were at the village festa - you, me, your brother and Leonora. I think even Catarina was there - I don't know. And - that's so strange. In the dream Leonora was pregnant, even though I didn't know she was expecting until this evening..."
"I didn't expect that at all."
"I know. But I'm so happy for them - aren't you?"
"Of course, it must be wonderful," he said.
They looked at each other, wondering what the other was really thinking, but both kept their feelings hidden, even from themselves. This was something between them that they had never discussed.
"We were in a crowd," she continued "looking up at the sky, because there were so many fireworks - but beautiful, like waterfalls, sparkling. The fireworks and the stars, they were making shapes, like constellations. Then I looked to the left, and I could see that some men were pulling these shapes across the sky on a metal line. It was all a kind of fakery and illusion."
"Do you remember them, the shapes?"
"No, but they weren't really important. What mattered is that, there was someone behind me in the crowd, poking at me from behind. A little boy. I wanted him to stop, but he kept poking at me. So I turned around, but there was no one there."
"Strange. Is that all?"
"Yes. - Or no. No, there was more. It was horrible. Then I looked down, and on the rocks in front of us there was something, something terrible. Something was happening to the child, something cruel, like a torture from Hell - it was unbearably cruel."
"What was it? What was happening?"
"I don't know! I can't remember - I can't see what it was! But it was terrible!"
She began crying again, giving release to the feelings now which, in the dream, she could not express: the shock, the horror.
"Sibylla, you can't go on like this. Something is wrong. You have to confront it."
"I told you that you should leave me! I'm wretched, I know. I'm making life for the two of us here unbearable. Leave me, please!"
She turned away from him, but he held her shoulders and turned her to face him.
"You are seeking to understand things you've never encountered before, by coming to live here in this cave. We both are. It's been painful, but we're also learning. We can't just turn away from it - from what we've created with each other, and through each other. Persevere."
"How, when all that we've done is seek shelter from our families and from the world, in each other? You fled from the church, and sought sanctuary in me. I've come to this cave to escape that ugly, ostentatious villa of my parents, but I may as well have gone to a convent. We are both hiding in each other!"
She pushed his hands away and turned around, pulling her knees up to her chin and rocking back and forth slightly. As her back was to him, Emmanuel had no choice but to place his arms around her and hold her close from behind. He felt the warmth of her flesh, the sweat on her back, the unique smell of her body. He wanted to hold on to this, to somehow contain it all in his embrace - her torments, her secrets - but he knew it was useless.
He released her. She stood up and, without a word, gathered up her clothes.
"I need sleep. I need to go to sleep. I'm going to bed," she said, meaning the bed that they shared in the main cave. She noticed Emmanuel did not move from his place. "You're staying here?" she asked, knowing already what he'd say.
"Yes. I'll sleep here tonight. Tonight and every night for the next while. I don't want to torment you any longer. I love you too much."
"Emmanuel, I'm sorry. I'll try to confront these things - confront thishares that you spoke of, and learn its secret. But it is better that we sleep apart. I still love you."
She looked back at him, then turned, and left the study to sleep in the neighbouring cave.