Pan de Oro
by J. Stern
I held the two aloft, the lily and the rose, and my attendant poured the metals by portions into the mold to cast the rod. The smoke obscured most of what was happening; the heat seared my face. I cried out, releasing the flowering stalk from my left hand, letting it fall in silent failure to the ground. It was cold beyond the doorway in the frosty darkness of the Pyrenees. Alexander knelt, scrabbling in the corner for dust, for particles of what we had threshed underfoot these many hours; ash, soil, slate, or grain, anything with which to make bread.
We were hungry, and the goat whose precious milk had enriched our sustenance was gone. Bought at the friar’s market, she had cost us dearly, but we were desperate then and willing to try anything. We were the strong-willed ones, even as boys, craving knowledge, glory, strength … we had always been reaching for things just beyond our reach, and consequently doing the dance of the desperate, pursuing, clutching, grasping, robbing, the way of the thief or of the initiate. We wanted more and had made the deal for this animal whose red eyes flashed with some mysterious inner fire, who nurtured when it suited her, and then disappeared into the oven of fate.
Bones and broken wine bottles were strewn across the laboratory floor, but we were no feasters. Our eyes were hard and bright, our actions swift, our bodies lean and sinewy. We were the questers, ever searching for that greater summit, the higher principle. We had entered an abandoned coven room where the witches had killed the small things whose lifeless forms lay on the floor around my feet. I took care not to make false steps. The room was a minefield.
I heard the voice of one such bruixa in my head, with whom we had bartered in some evil way station in the south of France where mediums plied their trades brazenly and the civil guards walked quickly, looking down, feigning ignorance to save their souls.
“Beware the hand,” this one had cackled, “its aged power cured by time, fermented by the three fates. You may use it sparingly for such rituals as you see fit, but to hold it while idle brings about its wrath. You must be quick, young romancer, as quick as rabbits!” And here her awful voice had broken into such high-pitched squeals of decadent, orgasmic delight that I had blanched and run, with the thing tucked under my belt, careful not to touch it, my eyes already turning toward the blessed snow that fell silently and softly on the rooftops of the outer market.
Alex was cursing in his provincial language, words outlawed by kings, blaspheming vitriol as he scraped his fingers on the floorboards. We were missing just the simplest of elements, and while the candles burned, while the five points budded to make way for the Prince, while the portal groaned its way to half-existence, the minutes were marching on, and without the last bit, the thing would collapse on itself, bringing the sacred fire on our heads. I ran my eyes wildly over the tables of chemical compounds concocted by my own hand. I was looking for providence.
The last year had been a grueling contest; not enough had come in. We had squandered the last of our stores in a wretched gamble for the ultimate prize, thinking of our failure as a theory, as something to be discarded from the equation. As a result, the manifestation fell on us like an avalanche; we couldn’t see what we were doing. We were like mediums, those demi-magi, those witches, those conjurers who perform wonders in the dark. They fan a fire that they cannot comprehend and thus transgress their natural boundaries, so that no one can find compassion for them when they fall. When their arts fail them, then they are like lepers, marked not with sloughing flesh but with the shadow of the predator falling over their bodies. Qayin had such a mark, he who fathered the nosferat children, and after that, it was borne again in the Adamic line by the brother of the harpist whom the secret societies know. This mark was on us. We were dirty with it, and yet we had the audacity to keep going, like the snowbound crew bereft of supplies who for the sake of human kindness must walk a thousand more lengths before turning on each other.
I took the pen, its sharp-edged nib soaked in bat’s blood, the boli d’sangre, and began to trace the square and then the diamond. The eight points of the Arab had their correspondences, yods and ox-goads and the names of the celestial orders. Alex was placing the seal of Aldebaran over the skin of the spotted ewe. I glanced in that direction and was sent back violently to the place in which the talisman had been consecrated.
“Ecce agnus delicti!”
We stood in a wide flat place, by the foothills near the false priest’s quiet village, among the listing slabs of the cemetery. The crypt of the noble family stood behind us, its door slightly ajar. We had pillaged there to find an item that we had neglected: some part of glory to seal the hero’s deed. Moss grew on the stones of greater men long passed into the vale of souls. We felt their distant discomfort and disapproval as we slouched, lanterns in hand, anxious to complete the bidding of the false priest, who roared as he plunged the assassin’s dagger into the neck of the ewe, which fell as if by an enchantment without a single bleat.
I looked to the sky and all was gray, heavy with the promise of storm, a veil thrown down by the power above to block our progress. The air was thin and cold. Under this dead tableau, the white bone shapes of the rocks waited for their destruction; the grasses crackled with a kind of sentient electricity.
I looked down at the lantern by my foot. A feeble glow shone from its red center, the guttering flame of a single church candle, a golden appeal to divinity. I swept my boot over it, the signal shattered, glass shards spilling down over the skull. It was finished.
And what of my development? I had plumbed the depths of humanity’s thought and scaled its summits. I had begun the way of the citizen, flying by nature into the esoteric enclaves, fleeing through the caves of the occult, rallying back to a jacobin’s flag, and from there into the ambivalence of the master. Seeing as the thing had come full circle, there was only one thing missing. I still could not grasp the trick of the alchemical necessity. I and my attendant were foiled again and again as our need grew, until we had despaired and cursed ourselves.
I thought about the stations of the way we had come: the path of the dogma itself, its various divergences from the principal stream of knowledge that the world inherited from the ancient civilizations. The omnipotent words of the divine have always been copied feebly in the mage’s hand, our acts and modalities attributed to the genius structure of our greater environment, our natures tied to the natures of the planets. And so Jerusalem’s fall gave way to our late-world rivalry where the white and the black consort with each other under various disguises in a furious dance of attrition.
The witch had fed the vicar until he was full, and then, adding the final element to his last meal, she made him choke on his own inquisition. While the jolly fat man had not known shame, the collective will shamed him, and he fell on the sword that others had drawn before him. Jovial innocence fell to saturnine wrath, as happens in the books of the watchers. Thus enthroned, she dominated for a while, and we thought that it was safe to come out into the light. But then…. It was the natural way, the way that the individual strands of humanity turn on each other, the caduceus twisting itself tighter into a byzantine sailor’s knot.
The pontiff dressed in grey had made himself invisible to meet the heretic in secret. All knew this story who had been to the trading city, where it was idly told, but few internalized its significance. In this the ancient power play had come full circle, as the magnate of the orthodox had revealed his acknowledgement of mystery. What happened then before the silent martyr had set the course for the rank of men who studied such fables. Then the ringed sinuous one of the church gained sway over the pilgrims by the same sinister use of rites and images. The free pantheon fell, its disorder evident. We had chained ourselves to an inferior premise and had to accept its obeisance to the noble ones or to transgress its circumscribed territory to live on the edges of things. So many of them had chosen the former, so many of my inner circle.
Back in the hovel, I vainly wondered whether the greatest power of all is in humility, in the nod to the abrasive truths that surround the fledgling camps of the living. I thought of this for a brief second, until the metronome chimed and the dust of the belladonna came raining down over my hood. I was coughing and cursing, gripping the air, wrestling with the things that I had created. Alex was rowing, flexing all of his muscle, navigating a path between the chasms that had opened in our haste and negligence.
Red fire bellowed out from below the Styx. I cloaked the ferry-driver and burned the creche, hurdling the danger as it stood. I had the keys of Solomon in my hand; I could prolong my stay in the middle world. Beasts of shadow cavorted around me, but feared to charge my four-post chamber. A dyad radiance emanated from the point where we began, an assault on the ignorance of the natural for the supernal, a portal to a kind of synchronicity. The structure was in place, but we were hungry. We needed the final piece to continue.
And somewhere out on the plains of the Bourgogne there was a kind of Essene camp, where my childhood friends made homage to the living, by rote continuing the work of their ancestors in whatever way they saw fit. I had known them, but they were so far from the cloistered darkness of those old cities where Sion’s betrothed had done the bidding of the ordered law, in service to the ancient covenant. I, there in the midland, knew that the point had been passed, that return to Jovian bliss was no longer possible. There was only the instinctive drive of the ritual, and the promise of a future creation.
What is the artist but a kind of medium? What is his work but a kind of witchery? These things ran through my mind as I assisted Alex in his mad dash. We had the scrolls of alchemical recipes, and we had our prior work, the cool thin shapes like wafers, solid gold, that we hefted in bags along the deserted Saone, gasping for each breath. I tried to take one on my tongue, intoning the language of the consecrator. Nothing worked. The cold hard thing would not dissolve to fill my stomach. I spit it out into the river to make a lucky fisherman. I could do everything but the simplest, most common transubstantiation, because no one would bargain with me, because of the ash mark that showed the legacy of the transgressor, and of the thief.
This little joke was also known among the cognoscenti. It was the story of the futility of struggle. The Eastern ones knew it best, and avoided even the slightest descent toward this kind of slope. We in the west had always been prone to madness. We went along so far, thinking: thus and no further, but in the end, we stepped forward, even though we knew, even though we could see our own demise laid out before us in words as clear as those of our own testimonies.
Toting our golden ballasts grimly along the bank, we felt the strength seeping from our bodies, the necessary fuel burned in fierce expansion. We stopped and gazed into each other’s eyes, trying to divine by what insidious lack of grace we had slipped down to this compromised position.
Finally we performed the last sacrament, a baptism, and as I sank, covered in the flood of clinking lucre, weighted by the deluge of my life’s work, I in my dreams of falling had visions, holy ones I dare say, of manna from heaven, so soft and white and light, like ether at my fingertips, like spun sugar dissolving in my mouth, a kiss of mercy from the most high, a graceful and supernal consecration of my clay, the incarnation of the speech of the ophanim. Is it possible, then, that my quest was pardoned before the throne? This was my last question as I passed away from the world of men, having never achieved the end of what I had found so drastically necessary when young, of what I had spent my burning years in toil after … of what had in the end consigned me to failure and to the next passage. From there it is not the closure of the soul, but the multiplication of alchemical actions into manifold kaleidoscopic dynamisms that men cannot record from their Ptolemaic perch. Thus far can the human spirit freely pass, thus far and no farther.
J. Stern was born in an agrarian pocket of eastern Pennsylvania where he stayed until his migration to southern Appalachia. He has lived for several years in the Shenandoah Valley and has received a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Stern has been writing poetry, fiction and occasional fact for years. His work has been published in Private Galaxy, Recursive Angel, 69 Flavors of Paranoia, Obscure Litmag, and Moving Mountains, among others. Stern was awarded Heartbeat Magazine’s First Prize for Poetry in 1995.
Stern is currently teaching English abroad and expanding his collection of short fiction pieces. One of his newest stories will be included in the debut of the very interesting new print magazine from Kentucky, Jason Sizemore’s Apex Digest of Science Fiction. Up-to-date information can be found on Stern’s website. All questions, comments, proposals etc. are welcome and can be sent to his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish