Excerpted from Unknown Language by Hildegard of Bingen and Huw Lemmey, with Bhanu Kapil and Alice Spawls — 30% off on the occasion of the Feast Day of St Hildegard until Sunday 19 September, 11.59pm BST. ORDER HERE.
I grew up not far from the city walls, but legally speaking, outside them. The culture was markedly different there. We lived in a collection of houses spread across the bottom of a valley, along an ancient road that had run deep into the soil over its centuries of existence. From the road, tracks led up onto the mountainside to small enclaves of farms. We would walk up to visit my mother’s friends and their families in these high farmhouses of a few buildings set around a yard. When the light failed me, these forms I saw and these impressions I felt: The late summer’s final fruits in a mess of thorny bushes. Her hands stained pink and purple from their juices, holding mine as we walked the last few kilometres up the stony tracks. The smell of the pines we stopped under, while she dropped to her knees to pull a splinter from my thumb. And the heat, the heat. I was in the valley with my mother; the sun and sweat of my memories were just as real as the damp and mildew of the tent.
My mother made cheese. That is important, you will remember. She wasn’t just a cheesemaker. She was someone who could transform all the harvests of our dry valley into richness, like most of the men and women who scratched a living from that silty soil. Magicians of everyday life. I didn’t only meet my mother, and taste her fresh cheese again in my prison. I was also taken back to the morning I first saw the Devil.
The Devil finds you alone. I could sense his presence as I walked through the hollow in the shade of the stone bridge. He thrives where there is no light, this wild adversary, who is not sulphurous as much as a rising damp, a black mould that grows within. I felt disturbed, seized by an almost violent urge, which froze me in place. The water beside me slowed, until it too stood still. First clockwise and then anti-clockwise, the water twisted and stirred up the muddy riverbed until it became a stew of molasses, growing blacker and blacker until it was void of all light. The branches of the trees contorted in the wind, old boughs releasing great groans. A painful sensation ascended from my gut, making me feel like I would vomit from my depths. I was stirred into a wildness. If I had had an iron bar I would have smashed everything in my reach. I was panicked, but at the same time, a physical joy buoyed me. From the spitting water he rose, the White Terror, splashing the bridge’s side, evil on high. I saw his face and I was made in his image, and the power and fury that had drawn him from the darkness smelled good to me. I broke free of my torpor, and began to run from the dark knowing it would be useless. He had caught my scent and was on my heels, and from that young morn I would spend my life trying to evade him.
It was months before I told my mother. When she asked why I didn’t tell her before, I replied, ‘I thought you’d think I was lying.’ She kissed me on the forehead. ‘Of course not. I knew he would find you soon enough. I just hoped we’d have a few more years.’ Her eyes were damp, but she didn’t seem sad. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, holding me tight. ‘Keep faith in light and he won’t catch up with you.’
Many years later, even after she sent me away, creating a wound, a distance, between us, I still returned to those words. ‘Keep faith in light,’ I would tell myself each morning when I woke from another night troubled by my lungs and my worries. Some days the Devil crept into the dark corners of my apartment. Some days I could feel him, shadowing me, and his presence was comforting in its familiarity.
In my cold days of imprisonment, as the dampness turned to an ever-icier chill, he appeared more often, and at times I would have let him in. I was certainly tempted: by the promise of restoration to my life in the city, in my office; to my authority and the sense of order and satisfaction I got from my work. I was tempted to abandon my reason, which had guided me thus far. When I held back, I felt the deceiver shooting sharp pains at my liver.
The Devil had in his service my captors. The Tafurs. I heard them talking outside the tent, and recognised them before seeing them, by their words and deeds. They came to me to hang me from iron bars, shouting: ‘Where is your kingdom now?’ They tried to break my will with deprivation and torture — to smash my sanity so I would become one of those possessed by him. But I would not succumb and they punished me for it with countless more days of abyssal solitude, until the next time. Alone again, I would focus on my fingertips, running them across the damp canvas walls and my open scars. My fingers were my connection to the senses and so to my life, destitute as it was. I knew where I was and who I was. There was no one these Tafurs hated more, rude cannibals, than symbols of the old order like me. But what was there left to extract from me?
The state of abjection contains within it the seed of transformation. My new soul would emerge and the Devil hated me for the brilliance of my rebirth. In the darkness, I had my vision.
I woke from fitful sleep, and went to touch my face, to trace its contours. At the front of my head was a throbbing pain, and I pushed the balls of my thumbs into my eyes, pulling down to stretch my lower eyelids and hold them open to the night. A small dot appeared before me: like a firecracker, it spat and sizzled insistently, and exploded into a larger ball of white hot magnesium, a nebula in microcosm, which consumed the darkness and cast my likeness in black on the wall of the tent. From this round galaxy burst forth another flame, which filled the room with a warmth like that of a set of candles offered in tribute at a church. Within this second flame was a third, ever-brighter light. It was the light of dawn, a lost and perfect dawn I remembered from my family’s farmstead, breaking over the far hill one spring morning when I had risen early as a young girl, sleepily drawing back the barn doors to feed our hens. Inside the cell, a burning flame; inside that flame, a brighter flame; and inside that, a veritable dawn, which reflected off the tent floor, which was now bejewelled with topaz.
I pinned my back to the wall, raising my right arm to shield my face from the radiance. I could see my skeleton through my skin, but as I put my arm down I found I could look directly at the centre of the light without burning my eyes. Inside the dawn was a womb, and inside the womb was a person. The person was me: fully formed yet miniature, turning as the sphere contracted and dilated. Vibrations filled the tent, warming me as they travelled along my spine. Finally, the edges of the burning ball touched the sides of the womb and the whole of the fiery light poured itself into the tiny me, through the little skeleton, along the millions of nerves, illuminating the lymphatic system. The flesh appeared tender and supple, fat like the underarms. As it was animated by the energy that filled it, I knew that I would be made strong in its goodness. My nervous system filled with a sensation novel to me; I felt outside of my self — a feeling not unlike how I had felt as a child beneath the bridge as the Devil revealed himself to me. The roaring wind that accompanied his presence whipped around the space, but I did not waver; I stood on the spot in silence, watching myself in the womb. I knew that this time he could haunt me no longer.
But what did it benefit the Devil to be opposed to me? The Devil wished to be very bright and to be elevated above all things. The other proud spirits agreed with the Devil. My divine power with the strength of righteousness cast them out all together.
To know that I was loved and was worthy of love. This did not make the pain much easier to bear, in fact, it made it harder, this final absence, when the only person I had to face in my cell was myself. But the light had provided enough strength to rebuild my soul. For years I carried the regret of the sorrow I must have caused for my mother. Her organ’s appearance revived me like a hot brandy poured into the mouth of a dying soul. It was a strong and honeyed reminder of life, which I had almost lost touch with. My mother’s words, to keep faith in light, tasted as sweet to me as that burnished gold on my lips. With this, I was released from the prison of my own making, which had kept so much pain, so much grief, in my knotted stomach. It was not the cuts and burns to my flesh that dressed my body, but the words of my mother that released from me enough tears to wash my wounds. Then, the light sucked itself back, exiting the tiny body, the sphere, the room, the wind receding with it.
In the remaining time in that cell I realised that my identity was only as strong as those who understood it. Without identity, I had only the light, which sometimes receded to the faintest glimmer. I relearned my relationship to the world through the touch of my fingertips on the damp cage and through the bursts of brightness between the synapses of my brain, and there I found truth. To live is to see afresh, to die is to be held down at the stake of the past.
They would then put down the oldness of ignorance and take up the newness of life.