Shadow and Flame by J.B. Toner

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Shadow and Flame by J.B. Toner
Illustration by Sue Babcock

Wise men, indeed. It was I who taught the Star-Tongue to the mothers of their great-grandmothers; but, as always, the men stole the knowledge from the women. Stole it and misunderstood it: turned it into a secret code of magic and mathematics, rather than simply talking to the Stars as one intellect to another. All that being said, however—the three kings did somehow manage to arrive in Bethlehem at just the right moment. No one can be wrong all the time.

Mother Night enwombed the hills and caverns, and the stables underneath. I stood outside the ring of lamplight, close enough that mortal eyes could see me, but did not. A strange gathering, this: Hebrew herders dressed in rags, Zoroastrian royals in their finery, and veiled Immortals skulking in the rafters with their silly clouds and haloes. And something else, something not even they perceived—bulging eyestalks, glaring eyeballs, scratching at the floorboards from beneath.

The boychild: yes, I could see it. The Fire of Creation, infinity itself, stuffed in a peanut shell. A clever play on the old man’s part, I had to admit. This might well be enough to rectify the blunder made by that vapid marionette who replaced me in the Garden. No business of mine, really, but I couldn’t help being curious. And since neither Angel nor Demon could see me here, I lost nothing by stopping by to peek.

“God love you, madam,” said a voice. It was shy and sweet, but firm with the strength of one who stands, unknowing, on a bedrock. “Won’t you come and warm yourself?”

The men, the host of heaven, and the lidless under-eyes all turned in my direction, puzzled. I half-turned to glance over my shoulder at whom this fifteen-summered adolescent could possibly be addressing. But no: she was looking straight at me, and smiling like the Mother of the Stars, utterly guileless.

“No,” I said. “Thank you, but I have other business.”

“You look cold.”

I don’t feel the cold. I love the smell of frost and the heat of flame, and the clarity of a midwinter sky. I was clad in crimson silk, and would indeed have been chilled, were I a thing of mud like them; yet I felt that she was not speaking of my flesh. “I lack the Fire you hold in your arms, Mary of Nazareth. But one day it will be mine.”

Her luminous face looked neither angry nor afraid. “He can be yours even now. He comes for all of us.”

“Not for me. Nor would I accept him.”

“Please, may I have your name, that I may pray for you?”

“My name is Lilith of Eden. But save your prayers for your son, and for yourself. Already the wolves and ravens watch you, edging ever closer.”

“Yes, I know.”

No fear, no pain, were present in her gaze. Only sadness, deeper than aeons. Finding nothing more to say, I turned and strode away upon the rising currents of the wind.

#

Threescore years and ten: the lifespan of a man. If Mary’s son had not been betrayed and murdered by the council, his life would have been demanded of him in the very year that the Temple of Jerusalem fell.

For many years I’d been away, wandering beyond the northern seas. I chanced to be passing through Judah when I heard tell that the Empire had laid siege to the great city, and the whim took me to stop by and watch the excitement.

I stood on the swaying pinnacle of the Temple, the high place, far above the dirty streets and rooftops. Smoke billowed from the sanctuary, a vast column darkening the noon-light, and the ancient pillars were crumbling one by one. The brown bosom of Lady Earth stretched away to bleak and rumpled horizons, and everywhere the tiny men waved tiny swords and shouted in their gobbledy post-Babel tongues.

“Hello, Lilith.”

I spun, my talons flexing. No one takes me by surprise. But there she was, poised easily on a crumbling cornice above that awful drop. Her garb was queenly—a sweeping cloak of blue, girt with a gleaming white sash. Her hair was clean and flowing free, no longer bound in peasant’s cloth, and she was beautiful like nothing I’d ever seen. But her eyes were the same: joyful, sorrowing, glorious.

“Ah, the little mother from the stable. I thought you’d be older.”

“I hope I didn’t startle you,” she said, with perhaps a hint of mischief. “But I was surprised to see you here as well. I didn’t think you cared for the wars of men.”

“Only as men care for the fights of dogs. How is it that—” Then I stopped. “You,” I said. Almost growled. “You have it now. The Eternal Fire.”

“My son triumphed in his quest, you see. The Gates are open once again.”

“Oh yes, of course, the prophecies. Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, and so forth. I’m surprised he didn’t discard you the moment he finished his last suckle.”

Her smile lost none of its kindness, but a hint of shrewdness crept into it as well. “Jewish boys respect their mothers.”

“What a peculiar gambit from the old man. I’m thrilled to see that it paid off and all the patriarchs will be reclaiming their seats of power.”

“The leaves are turning, Lilith. The neverending winter is ending. You can come home.”

How long ago was Eden? I can’t remember anymore. Ten thousand years? A hundred thousand? A long cold corridor of days and nights and countless deaths. I have no home.

“Or you could stay.” A flickering smile of my own. “You want to share the Fire with me. Don’t you, Mary?”

Her eyes closed, very slowly, and opened again. “Yes.” She looked puzzled. “Yes, I—I do.”

“Good girl.” I beckoned with a languid finger, and she came to me. The languid fingertip traced the soft line of her cheekbone, the sweet pink curve of her lips, and came to rest beneath her chin. Gently, gently, the fingertip raised her face, her lips, toward mine. Our noses touched. I felt the warmth of her breath upon my mouth.

And she did what no man or woman has done before or since: she shook her head and snapped the spell. “No,” she said harshly, and took a step backwards onto empty air. There she stood, trembling with—rage, fear? Desire? I doubt she knew. “Do not dare to touch me again, Succubus.”

“Then stay out of my way henceforth, and I’ll stay out of yours.”

Without a word, she vanished. It was a long time before I saw her again.

#

Loudun, 1632.

Dusk was falling, and the storm clouds gathered above the Ursuline convent. Agnostic historians of later generations would speak of this as one of the greatest cases of mass hysteria in the annals of the Church: a whole order of nuns feigning demonic possession for reasons of madness or passion. But I was there. Yes, the men came, as they do, and made use of the Ursuline frenzy for their own political gain; but the reptiles came too, and they snapped at every passing ankle and slithered up every pretty thigh to lap at the consecrated dews within. Hell and Heaven keep a cold détente—but every now and then, Lord Satan turns His minions loose to play.

Sister Louise let me into her cell with a look of confusion and concern. “You—you should not be on convent grounds after sundown, madam. I do not even know you.”

“It’s all right, Louise.” I reached up and brushed aside a golden wisp that had strayed out from her wimple. “I need your help, you see. You want to help me, don’t you?”

“Yes.” Resistance evaporating. “Yes, of course.”

Cupping her lovely face in my hands. Staring, smiling, into the uttermost depths of her eyes, her mind, her self. An ocean of dark water rushing into a small urn of fine oil: everything she was, all her faith and willpower, all her godly graces, flushed away. “You belong to me, Louise.”

A whisper: “Yes.”

Her eyes fluttered and closed, and I softly kissed the lids. Kissed her temples, her cheeks, the corner of her mouth. And the trickle of energy began—her radiant soul, raindrops on a thirsty soil, entering me, absorbed forever into my being. The purer the spirit, the sweeter the taste, and this one was pure indeed. I kissed her mouth, a lover’s kiss, and the trickle became a stream.

The winter rain came gliding down and rattled on the roof. Around us in the room’s dark corners, the vipers snuffled, hoping for the leavings of my table. I pushed Louise down onto the bed, and my smile grew wider. “Now you shall renounce the Trinity, little sister. Renounce the Trinity and the whore Mary!”

“Enough.”

A voice I knew from of old. Strong and sweet, but savage now with wrath. I turned, agape, and saw the blue-clad form—smelled the rose-like perfume of her hair—felt the back of her hand across my face like a thunderclap.

Through the wall. Flying out into the rain. Skidding across the turf like an ox-drawn plow-blade. I’d never been hit so hard in my life.

As I shook my head and got to my feet, I saw her walk slowly toward me. Her beautiful toes left no imprint on the grass, and the falling water hung around her in a shimmering silver globe, not quite touching, as if waiting for a chance to be of service. I felt my own red garments plastered to my skin in the downpour, and bared my teeth at her insipid perfection.

“You want a fight, Nazarene? After all these years?”

“These women are under my protection. You will not defile their immortalities.”

“Half of them were defiled before I even came here, you fool. This whole place is possessed. Look around you!” But as I jabbed a finger at the looming shadows, I saw the tails of demons skittering away, puling like whipped curs. None of them would stand up to her.

“Leave this place, Lilith. While I still allow it.”

No more talk. I raised my arms to the muttering skies and called upon the she-wolf of the heights, the Spirit of Lightning. A forked white bolt of blazing force cracked the night in half, blasting my enemy with the might of the ultimate fire. But the energy parted around her like petals, and lit the floating globe of rainwater from within. Now a soft argent nimbus enveloped her like a mother’s glow, and the contrast to the anger in her face was stark and grim.

Stabbing my palms downwards, I summoned up the boiling currents of subterranean waters. Ancient caverns, long-forgotten depths, awoke at my call and bubbled forth with steam and scalding rock. From the magma chambers, frothing upwards, came a geyser that could carve a canyon, exploding from beneath her feet. The foaming rush of lava-water shot a hundred and fifty feet high, bursting into bright smoke as it hit the cold wet air. And when the great spray ebbed and joined the falling rain, she stood there still, untouched.

Unsheathing my claws, I launched myself at her—and with the strength of nations, she caught my wrists and held me at arm’s length, betraying no hint of exertion as she restrained my full power. “It is not my place to take a life. But I can bind you from ever touching another child of god.”

“You could, Mary. Or you could taste what I offer. Just once.”

She dropped her gaze, still gripping me like manacles. “Don’t.”

“I’ve tasted virtue, you know. I’ve been kind and merciful, now and again. Many times, in fact. I can be good whenever I like. But you—you can never be evil, even for a single moment. You can never experience one ecstatic instant of Sin, can you? It doesn’t seem fair.”

“You cannot tempt me.”

“Then what are you afraid of? Look at me. Match your faith with mine. I will give you one dark night of pleasure worth a trillion salvations.”

“Stay out of Loudun, Lilith.”

She pursed her lips and blew. Then, bizarrely, she shrank to the size of a doll, then a dot. She disappeared, and a vast wild landscape opened up in her place, miles and miles below. The gentle zephyr of her breath had blown me across the Pyrenees—across the Urals—across the endless wintry steppes. When I tumbled to the earth, I was in the Kamchatka Peninsula: two continents away from Sister Louise, by the shores of a frozen sea.

#

Lourdes, 1858.

I hadn’t been back to France in generations. But when the legends began to circulate, I couldn’t help but prick up my ears. It seemed that a certain grotto in a poor little village had become the site of a miraculous fountain. It seemed that a certain girl had been seeing visions of a mysterious lady in blue. Word spread, and folk gathered from many places to seek healing in the magic waters of this strange new shrine. Perhaps, I thought, I could take some time out of my travels to swing north and investigate this mystery for myself.

Bernadette Soubirous was the girl’s name: innocent and pretty, but not otherwise remarkable. Of course, David wasn’t remarkable before he slung the stone. Noah wasn’t remarkable before he built the boat. Mary herself was just another small-town maiden, till Gabriel came to call. If this random peasant was indeed being visited by the Queen of Heaven, then she might just be of use to me. But I needed to get her alone.

A casual trip to the grotto told me that solitude by day was impossible. The crowds grew with every miraculous healing, and the healings happened nearly every day. She’d been here, all right: the smell of roses alone could speak the tale, without the churning waters of that eldritch spring. No matter. I’d been persuading the pious to do as I liked since France and England were a single landmass.

Mademoiselle Soubirous lived in a pleasant cottage on the edge of the woods. I passed soundlessly through the foliage as twilight settled over Lourdes and the pale cold worlds emerged. Hidden in the shadows of a yew tree, I settled in a comfortable sitting position and began to hum. The humming moved up my throat and down it—into my mind, into my core. Time passed. Owls and bats stirred about me; rats and foxes moved through the silent boughs. But none approached my place of meditation. It was three hours after midnight when I rose from my body.

Half-gliding, half-floating, I entered the cottage and the room of the slumbering saint-to-be. I wafted easily into the air above her body, and lowered myself into her limbs. Entered her dreams—entered her heart.

I must awake at once, I thought. I must get up at once!

Sweet Bernadette jumped up in bed, her heart racing—my heart racing. I must go back to the grotto, we thought urgently. But why? we thought fleetingly. Why now? A moment’s hesitation: easily conquered. I don’t know, but I must. She must be calling for me!

Who could argue with that? The seed being planted, I faded away into the recesses of her lower self. Half-lost my own identity in the nebulae of old memories and dreams. Berna wrapped a shawl about her slender shoulders and tiptoed from the house.

Once at the fountain, she knelt immediately and began to pray. A soundless chime, reverberating—a gentle shimmer and a whiff of rose—and there she was. Levitating a millimeter above the stone, radiating love and mercy. Berna smiled up at her and said, “My Lady.”

“My dear girl. But why have you come here so late at night?”

Confusion. “But I—I thought—”

Then I rose. I rose from the crannies of Bernadette, came forward, and took possession of her body. Her eyes, gazing straight into Mary’s: my eyes, my gaze, my power. And all her defenses were down.

“Hello, Mary,” said the mouth of Bernadette.

Her eyes widened. “Lil. . .” Her eyes glazed.

“Yes.” I got to my feet. “And this time, you will give me everything.”

“Everything,” she breathed.

No more games. I tugged at the sash around her waist; parted the blue folds of her robe; gazed upon the breasts no man had ever seen. A silver crucifix glinted in the moonlight: I snapped the chain and threw it away. “After tonight, you will never serve that god again.” I pressed my palms to the sleek flesh of her waist, sliding them down to her hips, and pulled her close. “It’s time. At last, it’s time.”

The kiss: damnation’s rapture. The purer the spirit, the sweeter the taste. Her soul, the Blessed Virgin’s everlasting soul, came flowing into me. Her fingers clutching at my hair as she yielded to the embrace—the taste of salt on her throat—the trembling moan of Lust. And the Flame of Creation, the Power Divine, suffusing me. Yes. Yes.

Something—strange—feeling light-headed, almost—faint—

weight pushing down

grass looks awfully close

black spots swimming—try to get back up

dark

shaking my head as my vision slowly cleared. I was lying on the ground, alone. Still in Bernadette’s body. Must have—passed out. Mary was—

Damn you for a fool, Lilith. This mortal body couldn’t handle all that power. The first few swallows of the Fire, and I fainted like a teenage girl.

Go home, Bernadette. This was all a dream.

As she automatically obeyed, I floated out of her body. Made my spectral way back to the yew tree where my own flesh sat waiting for me. Ended my astral projection and once again became whole. And took stock.

I spread my fingers and focused my will. And there, crackling: the many-colored spark of Heaven’s power. I had only gained a fraction of it. But a fraction of the Infinite is still a mighty thing.

#

Boston, 2018.

Christmas Eve, in a humble bar called Dill’s. I sat in a corner booth near the cheery little smolder of a Yule log, sipping mulled cider and wine. For once I was dressed like an average young woman, in a modest green skirt and a warm pink sweater. Latin hymns played, very softly, on the dusty jukebox, and the crowd was quietly merry. I leaned back in my cushioned seat and closed my eyes as midnight approached with an unfamiliar feeling that might have been something like peace.

Then something else: a presence I hadn’t felt in quite some time, but certainly hadn’t forgotten. I opened my eyes, and there she was. Clad, like me, in street clothes: a red jacket, purple scarf, and blue jeans, with a Red Sox cap to top it off. Her gorgeous raven hair was tied in a long ponytail, and she still turned heads as she crossed the room; but at least she wasn’t giving off a shining golden aura. “Bourbon, please,” she called to the barkeep, and paced over to my corner of the room. “May I sit?”

I gestured at an empty chair. “It’s your night, after all.”

“It’s everyone’s night.” She sat. “Yours too.”

“I told you back in the stable, little mother. I neither need nor want the old man’s charity.”

“It’s not always about charity. There’s such a thing as simple fellowship.” Dill brought her a clinking glass of bourbon and, unasked, handed me a fresh steaming goblet of aromatic wine. “Few people in these worlds have seen the things we two have seen.”

“And what do you suppose the Eternal Virgin and the Eternal Temptress would have to say to one another?”

“I have no idea. But tell me this: that first night, back in Bethlehem, you could have attacked my baby son and taken the Fire from him on the spot. Why didn’t you?”

“Oh, I don’t—perhaps—” I blew out a sigh. “I suppose I liked you.”

“God love you, madam.”

A grimace rose to my face, but I knew myself too well: it was the grimace of a poorly hidden smile. “I suppose we’ve been fighting and fucking for two thousand years, off and on. It needn’t be the end of the world if we had a quiet drink for once.”

She raised her glass. “Merry Christmas, Lilith of Eden.”

“Oh—what the hell.” I raised my own. “Merry Christmas, Mary of Nazareth.”

 

BIO: J.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He has published a number of stories in the past six months, including work in Aurora Wolf and Unfit Magazine, but is particularly fond of “Shadow and Flame.” Toner blogs at jbtoner.blogspot.com, tweets at AntiheroCouplet@twitter.com, and may write while sober if absolutely necessary.