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The Texts - John Constable

Benedict

I come in from Twyford Down, blown like a feather on the wind.



I come up over the ridge, and see the City of Winchester laid out before me, with the Cathedral lit up in the autumn sun. I take a deep breath and my lungs fill with light, the songs of larks and the buffeting wind.



And the thought comes to me that I am sent by God to carry this wild energy and life down into His City and His House, to revive and renew. But whence the thought comes - God or the Enemy - I do not know.



All I know is that since I was a child, these visions and voices have come to me and shown and told me things. Some folk say I see things that will come to pass. Like the time the Widow Hamble fell in the brook.



But when I told them how I had seen the French Witch burnt at the stake, and the Bishop in his red hat who had condemned her to burn, then I saw fear in their eyes.



And no-one could say if this was a true foretelling of a Bishop yet to come, or a prophetic sign - like the Great Whore or the Beast of Revelation - and if so, what it might portend. Some say my visions and voices come from the Enemy, to tempt my Pride. They all say I am touched, but by what they cannot say.



So it was decided that I should make this Pilgrimage to St Swithun's bones, that they might heal my affliction. And so I had set out with a company of wise men and fools, and the sick and the lame. Only that first night of the dark moon, in the woods, the whisper passed among them, that I was cursed:

'Benedict he may be, but he'll mar any benediction we might get.'



Then they threw stones, driving me off into the wood, where I lost myself three nights, and so came out on the Down and nearing the place of Pilgrimage alone.



All is good. I need the solitude and silence to see and hear the things that are shown.



Only now, lost in these sad thoughts, and not looking where I'm going, I stumble on a grassy tussock, which sends me spilling and reeling in a little stagger-dance. And skylarks break from their hides in the tufted grass, as if drawn up on shining threads, their wings splashed with gold.



I stop to gather myself, and laugh, and thank God for shaking me out of my dream and bringing me back to myself, else I might have fallen into the ravine. For here the ground dips sharply and is carved by deep channels, like the blades of a fan. I find myself clambering down into one of them, down the spongy turf to the bare white chalk in the cleft. I feel safe here, ensconced in the forgotten journeys of all the drovers who walked this track before me. For I know these grooves were cut, not by some grand design, but by all the sheep who were driven through here, and that these drovers' tracks existed in my grandfather's time, and his father's father's father's. Some say they go back to the old settlement of legend, on Katharine's Mount, before there were Romans or Saxons or Norman invaders.



So now, walking this ancient channel in the earth, this V-shaped valley that resembles nothing so much as that female part of Venus, I feel protected, and connected with all that has been and gone.



A great peal of clanging bells, unlike the bells of the Cathedral or any church in Winchester, and ringing such changes - as if sounding an alarm or a call to arms:

DONGA DONGA DONGA DONGA DONGA?



And now, out of the clashing bells, such sounds as I never heard - such ripping and grinding and crunching and tearing and shredding? And I shiver, knowing that I'm crossing over to that other Vision World, or that It is crossing into me.



I see a tribe of men and women, as distinct, as individual as you or me, though as insubstantial as phantoms. Some are dressed in smocks and cloaks that would pass in our own age; others are half-naked with bushy beards and matted hair like the wild men of legend. There are soldiers with shields and staves, their round helmets gleaming like dark mirrors, clad in blue uniforms I never saw before, even on the men of France. I see a Knight in shiny helmet and tabard, astride a huge iron war-engine, painted bright yellow, and bearing before it what looks like a battering ram or a giant harrow. The wheels are clad in chains and armour. It seems to be drawn by neither man nor beast, suddenly lurching forward of its own volition, shrieking and clattering and spewing out clouds of violet-grey smoke as the great harrow dips to break open the earth, churning it up.



A man holding a child steps into its path.



For a moment the bestial engine seems to falter, stopped in its tracks, shaking and rattling. The man is clad in grey cloth with a thin scarf knotted around his white-collared smock - not a soldier, perhaps a Clerk or a Summoner. The whole world seems suspended. I catch the sound of human voices, roaring and keening, gusting on the wind, and snatches of words that I do not understand. 'NO CHILD ASTHMA... NO EARTH RAPE... '



Then the hellish tableau jerks back to life. The blue soldiers drag the man with the child away. The iron engine ploughs forward, gouging a deep scar in the earth, dinning out the voices.



Then the soldiers, the tribe? they seem to fade before my eyes. Even the infernal engine is gone, and in its wake I see a paved highway, with shining machines hurtling three abreast in both directions. They career by in many shapes and colours, some dragging huge metal carts behind them. There are windows in these carriages, but the glass only reflects the blur of the world flashing by them. I cannot tell if these are the chariots of demons, or whether there are human souls imprisoned within them.



I seem to be suspended above this great river of rushing, roaring, whining metal, reading the pale fading words written in air:

SMASHTHED.O.T.SNEWROADSNOCHILDASTHMAOREARTHRAPEMRMALONE!



I don't understand what they mean, or what this vision is telling me. The din has got inside my head, shaking my brains against the inside of my skull. I see myself bleeding through my nose and ears, grinning like a cadaver with a mouthful of earth. Then the screeching and shrieking and screaming are subsumed in the hiss and swish of a scythe.



Mr Death, slicing through the old drovers' tracks, cutting them off from Katharine's Mount and the City below.

 
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