Bright still, p.1
© Copyright D.Z.C. 2013
Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace,
Yet grace must still look so.
- Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 3
1. The Opportunists
2. As You’re Pretty, So Be Wise
3. The Legend of Good Women
4. Gwai Gusi
5. A Siamese Ghost Story
The Bit at the End
People Like Us, Chapter One
1. The Opportunists
“You are Professor David Rosati, professor of theology at Christ Church College, Oxford, England?” Rosati winced slightly at the phrasing. Also, one of the lightbulbs in the interrogation suite was flickering gently, at a rate apparently calculated to induce a migraine.
“I suppose that’s one one way of putting it,” he admitted. “But then I already knew that. More to the point, so did you. That nice boy just spent nigh on half an hour confirming the fact.” She ignored this.
“I am Sub-Inspector Vanlian of the Safed Police. With my colleague, Corporal Sadeh, I am going to conduct your interview relating to the events at the Chorazin architectural site earlier today. You are not under arrest and are free to leave at any time. If you have any questions, you may ask either myself or Corporal Sadeh, do I make myself clear?”
“Vanlian. That’s an Armenian name, isn’t it?” he asked, somewhat irrelevantly.
“Quite possibly.” He glanced up, interrupting his scrutiny of the desk and looking directly at Vanlian for the first time. There was a brief silence.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally, sincerely. “I expect that you get that sort of thing all the time. I didn’t mean to pry. I’m just interested in demographics.” She seemed unmoved by his contrition.
“Could you please explain for the tape what brought you to Israel?”
“Oh, certainly. Of course. We came on holiday. We wanted to come this summer but Kate - my wife - wasn’t up to travelling. Actually, it turned out rather well. There was a conference dealing with Gnostic epigraphy that I wanted to attend in Tel Aviv last Thursday, so we went to that and then sort of ambled northwards, seeing the countryside. We arrived in Tiberias yesterday. We’d booked to go on a guided tour of local biblical sites.”
“This tour was led by Ms. Rosalie Drake?” Vanlian asked. Rosati gave a slight moue of distaste.
“Or ‘In the Footsteps of the Divine’ as she called herself on her publicity materials,” he said, adding a satirical portentousness to the words and making little quote marks with his fingers. “An Australian undergraduate recommended her to me. I have to say that had I known her to be an evangelical monomaniac beforehand I would never have reserved with her… My wife seemed to quite like her, though,” he added, with an air of scrupulous fairness.
“Forgive me, Professor, but I thought that you were yourself an expert on the biblical period. Why did you need a guide?”
“I am an expert on - as you put it - the biblical period. If you want to know about changing liturgical patterns in Roman-occupied Samaria, I’m your man. On the other hand, I can’t tell an archeological dig from a hole in the ground.” He shrugged. “I thought it might be interesting.”
“And this tour involved..?”
“Can we turn that light off?” Vanlian nodded at Sadeh, who did the honours.
“Thank you. We were visiting the so-called cursed cities - Chorazin, Bethsaida and Caphernaum. Actually, it turns out that Chorazin and Bethsaida are quite grotty little villages. Caphernaum is alright, I suppose,” he acknowledged grudgingly.
“ουαι σοι χωραζιν,” Rosati began, his tone sonorous and his eyes dreamy. For a second Sadeh smelled invisible plumes of incense on the air. “ουαι σοι βηθσαιδα οτι ει εν τυρω και σιδωνι-” Vanlian raised an eyebrow. Rosati shook himself out of his fugue state.
“Sorry. Forgetting you’re not an undergraduate. Although to be perfectly honest the number of them that come to me with any Koiné at all is negligible these… Well, where was I?” From the gloomy narthex of an Orthodox Cathedral, the imaginative Sadeh was immediately transported to an Oxonian lecture theatre. “Ah yes, Luke 10. Jesus felt that his miracles were being under-appreciated by the local hicks, you see: ‘Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell.’ One of history’s more noteworthy hissy fits.” Vanlian appeared entirely unmoved by Rosati’s passion for his subject.
“And who else took part in the tour?”
“Well, us, of course. The Hoffmans - a nice Jewish couple from the Midwest - and a chap called Fanthorpe who was an M.R. James fan.” Vanlian looked blank, but Sadeh smiled broadly, and Rosati nodded in confirmation, as if the Corporal were a particularly bright student.
“He wasn’t a very talkative sort, but apparently he’d been visiting friends on a kibbutz somewhere further South. I dare say he wanted to try his own, ah…”
“…Perigrinatio nigra…” Sadeh completed joyfully, slapping the table.
“I’m glad that you two have found some common ground,” said Sub-Inspector Vanlian. “Now if someone would care to explain..?”
“M.R. James was an English professor who wrote ghost stories," Sadeh began eagerly. "He made up this bit of sham black magic that you had to travel to Chorazin to do, I know it's in Count Magnus, but it's been a long time since I read it. Er...” He faltered and Rosati took over.
“You see, according to the Byzantine tradition, the Antichrist will be born into the Tribe of Dan, and this is to happen somewhere around Galilee. The text isn’t particularly clear, but according to the Syriac Pseudo-Methodius, the Son of Perdition will either be born in Chorazin and raised in Bethsaida, or conceived in Chorazin and born in Bethsaida.
"The problem with this, is that the tradition also clearly states that his appearance should coincide with that of the last Roman Emperor, in which case he can now be safely assumed to be running fashionably late... And you’re looking at both of us as if we were completely bonkers, Sub-Inspector Vanlian, but I assure you this is entirely relevant...”
“Please continue,” said Vanlian politely, retaining her air of scepticism. Rosati did so.
“In any case, when M.R. James wrote his short story Count Magnus, he borrowed from this tradition to invent a wonderfully enduring bit of hokum, known ever since as ‘the Black Pilgrimage’. According to the story, ‘If any man desires to obtain a long life, if he would obtain a faithful messenger and see the blood of his enemies, it is necessary that he should first go into the city of Chorazin, and there salute the prince of the air.’ For some reason the concept seems to have gained currency in English ghost lore ever since. Several other authors have borrowed it, I know. One of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema idiots even made some sort of silly ritual out of the idea. I dare say that since M.R. James was a serious academic and an authority on the apocrypha, they assumed that he must have been referring to a genuine ritual. In fact he made it all up himself.”
“Ah?” Vanlian was beginning to look interested, and Rosati backtracked hurriedly.
“Oh I’m not saying that Fanthorpe was a dedicated Satanist or anything. He just liked ghost stories. Though I dare say he was showing greater dedication to the cause than Crowley’s moronic band; they only
“You know, there’s a bit in one of Saki’s stories where he talks about people who make up imaginary worlds to compensate for the dullness of this one. If I have the quote correctly, he says, ‘Children do that sort of thing successfully, but children are content to convince themselves, and do not vulgarise their beliefs by trying to convince other people.’ I always thought it was a rather penetrative remark.” Vanlian glanced up, an ironic expression on her face.
“And you, in your capacity as a professor of theology, share this opinion?” Rosati, who had been aware from the start of the conversation that he was dealing with someone far too intelligent to be suited to the job of Sub-Inspector in a small, provincial police station, inclined his head ruefully.
“Touché. A palpable hit. However, all of the great religions have been based on one important truth: namely, that a feeling of mystery - of not knowing - is always a more compelling thing than a smug answer: 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' You see?”
“Possibly.” He tried again.
"If it comes to that, a similar sentiment underpins M.R. James' stories, and indeed the whole of the Romantic Movement. From Goethe to the Victorian penny dreadfuls. The thread that connects them all is the idea that the absence of certainty gives the imagination free reign; silence can work more
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