Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we cover Christopher Caldwell’s “The Calcified Heart of Saint Ignace Battiste,” first published in the January/February 2022 issue of Uncanny Magazine. Spoilers ahead, but go ahead and read this one yourself!
“The Mother arrives on foot. She is small and slight, and hidden beneath her veils, mantles, and gowns of black byssus—the art of their construction lost when fabled Seabride was swallowed by the sea.”
In the second holiest city of the Lightcarrier, the Mother of Makhesthaines is anathema except during a rare astrological conjugation. On that night in Harvestmonth when the moon rises round and bronze as a betrothal promise watch, she enters the Grand Cathedral of Saint Ignace Battiste. She, the murderer’s patron, comes hidden beneath veils and robes of black byssus, stepping lightly, her trains stirring up no dust. Her brides accompany her: black-haired La’acroix in emerald brocade, smiling, hips swaying, a gilded dagger on her throat; muscular and bare-breasted Kravat dressed in hempen trousers, bearing a makhaira sword. Only those who have accepted Lightcarrier oaths may watch them into the basilica, where linkboys conduct them to a chapel. There the Mother unlocks the monstrance containing Saint Ignace’s calcified heart. Flanked by her brides, she will carry the heart to the Necropolis that crowns the city.
What happens there is unknown, until the unnamed narrator breaks the ancient covenant and follows the three.
Like every child, xhe knows how the soul-drinking Mother tried to corrupt the city, and how the martyr-patron Ignace defied her. Undaunted, he withstood her and her brides’ assaults until in vanquished vexation the Mother set his body aflame. But golden-throated swallows beat away the ashes with their wings to reveal the Saint’s unburnt heart and bronze watch, which are the promise of his continued protection. Thus are the heart and swallows and watch the symbols of the order.
Narrator is one of the acolytes assigned to escort the trio to the Necropolis gate. They then retire to watch the moon’s descent while contemplating their vows. Narrator, however, is more given to curiosity than contemplation. Before joining the order, xhe was a slipthief; xhe uses those old skills to creep undiscovered after the Mother’s party. They ascend through a forest lit by the lapis emanations of bioluminescent worms. The branches are heavy with roosting swallows and starlings. As the trees thin, Narrator hides behind tombstones and crypts until at last Mother and companions reach the summit rotunda and its pinnacle-statue of Ignace. There they approach a weathered plinth in the rotunda’s shadow. Now Narrator will see what torments they mean to inflict on the saint’s relic!
Instead xhe watches them gently lay the heart on the plinth. The Mother shrugs off veils and robes to reveal a youthful face and eyes the color of the winter sea. She unfastens a bronze promise watch, the replica of Ignace’s, and sets it beside his stony heart. As the moon dispels the rotunda shadow, the heart beats in time with the Mother’s watch. Swallows fly low and mass into the shape of a man. Their feathers rain down and then the figure is a man, seated naked on the plinth, unmistakably the saint himself, no more beautiful than the narrator or any other dark-skinned city crafter. The worried look on his face turns to tenderness when he sees the Mother.
Narrator eavesdrops on their conversation. And you return to me once more? asks the Mother. He will always return to her, always, always, Ignace responds. To the saint’s stern assertion that she should have razed “their” works, the Mother says that for vengeance’s sake she could bathe in “their” blood. Yet while “their” enchantment lasts, she and Ignace can reunite for one night every 23 years, when the moon renews their promise. A fleeting reunion, yes, but one night begins a life, and she’ll have a lifetime of them.
Shock sickens narrator as the bedrock of his faith is shattered, the fable of Ignace’s “violation, the sacrifice serene, the city’s salvation” rendered false. He creeps away unmolested. Next morning, he watches the prioress wipe from Ignace’s watch a single spot of verdigris, such as a tear might have left.
Narrator doesn’t leave his Order or declaim its lies, for he loves his city as much as “vengeful witch ever loved wronged saint.” And what will happen to the city when the enchantment fails? Though knowing them hollow, he keeps his oaths and rises through the ranks.
He lives to see the Mother and brides return. The second time, he wonders whether dust beneath the monstrance means Ignace’s heart begins “to crumble under the impossible weight it carried.”
As a third reunion approaches, the aged narrator observes ill omens. An envoy comes from afar, his attendant reeking of foul magic. Sorcerers fail in their glamour-casting, the queen is ill at ease, the air smells of smoke and blood. Will Mother and Brides make their pilgrimage to the Necropolis? Narrator searches a darkening sky for swallows or at least starlings, but his eyes are old.
Will Ignace come? “What means always to the dead?”
What’s Cyclopean: Some lovely alliteration this week: the callow youth given more to curiosity than calm contemplation, slipping skyclad through the window-slit into starless night.
The Lightcarrier offices also play with language, from the city’s “criators” down to the “linkboys.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Caldwell plays with Catholic terms and trappings in a less-than-perfectly-Catholic setting, and talks about his own religious experiences in an interview following the story.
Weirdbuilding: Our narrator makes wry reference to the sorts of things that might happen in a more traditional Weird story: gasping in horror at an unwelcome revelation, scrambling from the sight of that revelation pursued by “limbless horrors.”
Libronomicon: We learn little about the sacred texts of the order, other than what they don’t say: they don’t include the agreement that lets the Mother into the city once every 23 years.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Everyone appears sane, though our narrator seems increasingly anxious after 23 years serving and protecting a lie.
When the world of “getting and spending” was too much with him, William Wordsworth wrote:
Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
So say we all, or at least, so say a lot of us. We all live in the Real World, but we don’t have to set all our stories, spoken or written, heard or read, secular or sacred, in the realm of what actually is, what actually happened, what actually is bothering us or at least making us wonder. Storytellers can invent worlds of their own, for us to devour or spit out if they don’t suit our taste–if they don’t somehow, to whatever extent, ring true to our Real World. Or, too often perniciously, to the Real World we want to believe in, evidence be damned.
Christopher Caldwell’s “Ignace Battiste” reminded me of Lord Dunsany’s Pegana and Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. More obliquely, because of the French-based names, it reminded me of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series. Then again, the people of her Terre d’Ange live by the rule Love as thou wilt. Which, as it turns out, is just what Ignace Battiste and the Mother of Makhesthaines don’t get to do.
In the Uncanny Magazine interview accompanying his story, Caldwell names his influences as “the rhythms of Shakespeare, the visionary, ecstatic terror of William Blake, and the sort of delirious feel of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe stories, where something secret is revealed.” He also names Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly, a collection of folk tales from the African diaspora retold “with a distinctive authorial voice,” which reminded me of Amos Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard, from which we enjoyed the simultaneously whimsical and unsettling “Complete Gentleman.”
“Ignace Battiste” certainly features a distinctive narrative voice, and with it a narrator at the story center, as Dunsany and Lovecraft’s omniscient narrators are generally not. In Pegana or the Dreamlands, Ignace’s story would have been the thing, told from an ironic distance. Caldwell’s thing isn’t what happened to the ill-fated lovers; in fact, we never learn their true history, only that it’s not the one underlying the narrator’s beliefs and those of his fellow citizens, their core shared narrative. Which in this and many cases is another way of saying their religious doctrine.
Caldwell also talks about how “being a queer person means sometimes having a difficult time reconciling what the life of faith says it offers and how people of that faith actually treat you.” It’s an understatement to say the narrator of “Ignace Battiste” has difficulty reconciling the extreme reverence professed by xher society for its self-martyred saint with the implied truth about his “martyrdom.” Every child in narrator’s world knows that the Mother killed Ignace when he by dint of sheer saintly will defeated her attempt to corrupt his city. So sacred was his heart that even she couldn’t burn it to cinders, as she did his body.
In following the Mother and her brides to the Necropolis, narrator expects to witness Ignace’s relic subjected to vengeful tortures–given the accepted story, how could xhe expect otherwise? Instead xhe sees Ignace re-embodied and treated with tenderness; instead xhe overhears the conversation of lovers, not archenemies. Narrator believes xherself undetected – would xhe otherwise escape the Mother’s wrath? Therefore xhe has no reason to think the Mother and Ignace would be telling other than their deepest truths.
What I infer from the pair’s exchange is that Ignace’s fellow citizens killed him, most likely because they’d discovered his highly nonadversarial relationship with the Mother. From his earnest wish that she’d responded by razing the city, his end wasn’t martyrdom but execution. For whatever reason, the story that serves the city authorities’ purposes is that Ignace was a hero rather than a sinner. The “ancient Parents of the Faith” manage to ward off the Mother’s ire by forming a covenant with her, the terms of which go conveniently unrecorded in sacred texts. An enchantment is cast that allows her at long intervals to reunite with her lover while also ensuring the city’s safety–that is the protection Saint Ignace provides, ironically through the strength of his betrothal promise to the “adversary.”
By learning the truth, narrator breaks the covenant. Is this why years later, as the Mother’s advent approaches, sorcerers fail in their glamour-casting and ominous omens proliferate? Narrator has chosen all xher clerical life to support the lie behind the city’s foundation-story. Xhe did this out of love–xhe didn’t want xher people to share xher own painful disillusionment. Better, xhe thought, for them to go on believing what they wanted to believe.
Was it better, or will it at last prove deadly? Narrator’s ultimate question is “What means always to the dead?” Xhe refers, in particular, to dead Ignace and Ignace’s declaration he’ll always return to the Mother. She counters that always means for as long as their enchantment (the city’s covenant) lasts. Even the Mother speaks of having a “lifetime” rather than immortality, and one of the city’s emblems is a watch. A watch is also its token of betrothal, of promise. A watch, not a ring.
Here in one of poetry’s greatest opening lines is what Henry Vaughan means by always:
“I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light”
A ring, by its nature, has no beginning and no end. A watch marks out time in finite units, which suggests that time itself is finite. So aren’t they finite too, the life-expectancy of a watch, and of lovers’ reunions, and of a city’s endurance? Happily ever afters are therefore the province of fiction, and it’s grievous that Caldwell’s narrator has lost xher story and found the truth no adequate replacement.
I sometimes describe the core question of horror as “What should we be afraid of, and what should we do about our fear?” But the Weird venns strangely (maybe even non-Euclideanly) with horror, and raises new questions. In much of the Weird, the answer to horror’s question is “knowing how the universe really works.” Because if you correlate all those contents, you just might learn that You Were Wrong. That everything you hold dear is based on a lie, ready to pop like a soap bubble when the truth is revealed.
Which still doesn’t address the second half of the question: what should you do when you learn that Everything You Know is Wrong? Lovecraft, for the most part, stopped at the breakthrough moment of undeniable realization. Which moment takes a lot for his protagonists, who harbor great skill at denial and are generally unwilling to believe in anything that isn’t actively biting them. Or, as this week’s protagonist would have it, chasing them naked down a hillside with fresh-conjured limbless horrors.
Death, insanity, or tenure are all possible sequellae to such a realization. Other unfortunate protagonists might attempt to share their revelations, switch to the winning side, descend into nihilism, or create a new order that leverages the truth rather than holding it as a deadly enemy. Some might even take a moderate approach, accepting the inevitability of being wrong and acknowledging their new understanding while attempting to live sanely and kindly in an uncaring universe. (This never happens.)
This week’s protagonist takes a surprisingly Lovecraftian view, while managing not to feel the least bit Lovecraftian. Maybe it’s the moderate calm with which xhe considers the discovery that xher order has been lying about everything. Maybe it’s the way xhe decides that if civilization is built on monstrous lies, and ready to pop like a soap bubble when the truth is revealed… well, a whole city of people who aren’t in on the lie still deserve to live in peace and safety. It’s a much more humane view of civilization, and thus of any illusions that might be propping it up.
While it’s understandable that the story doesn’t delve into details—since our protagonist fails entirely to explore xher order’s sub-basements in a frantic effort to dredge them up—I really, really wanna know the actual details of the truth. What kind of polycule produces the obviously-complicated relationship between the Mother of Makhesthaines, her butch and femme brides, and her only-mostly-dead fiancé? Were they all immortal beforehand? If Ignace wasn’t actually fighting the Mother, who did, and how did they win? And how did the Heart end up revered as a relic rather than flaunted as the trophy of a defeated enemy?
Should “Lightcarrier” be translated as “Lightbringer”?
And then, horror on horror, another aspect of the uncaring universe: nothing lasts forever. Even an illusion that you’ve sacrificed the truth to maintain. Little smudges of rust, a scattering of dust: these are deniable, until they’re not.
Next week, we finish up P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout with Chapter 9 and the Epilogue. In which, we hope, many monsters get punched.
Ruthanna Emrys’ A Half-Built Garden comes out in July 2022. She is also the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic, multi-species household outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.