Chapter Four – ASTIZA
The language of angels is Enochian, and the language of gods is the stars. I cannot see the sky’s fire from my alchemical laboratory, its vaulted stone ceiling the weight of divine silence. I’ve heard nothing from Ethan in nearly a year. Our son Horus is pale and withdrawn, his hands pitifully wrapped in rags. We are prisoners, and Harry’s unhappiness is my greatest torture. I keep us alive by agreeing to do Satan’s work, mixing brews that promise gold and immortality for my captors. Penelope held off her suitors until her husband Odysseus’ return by asking them to wait until she completed her weaving, and then unspooled her progress each evening. I delay by skittering globules of silver mercury and glints of copper to conjure a miracle, and then concoct slag at midnight to convince them of another failure. They cannot kill me until I succeed. Yet each experimental mistake makes them surly. Our cell stinks of fumes, our eyes strain from inadequate candlelight, and our joints ache from damp.
Alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley received revelation from the angels in the language of the patriarch Enoch, grandfather of Noah. Enoch learned it when he was lifted up to tour heaven. There are books in my prison written with the angelic script, such as Mystic Sevenfold Rulership, The 48 Angelic Keys, and the Book of Earthly Knowledge, Help and Victory. Their meaning, alas, remains a riddle to all but the angels. I’m ensnared in webs of mystery, my only hope that pursuit of the rose will lead me through its labyrinth of petals to truth at the bud. I’m devising an escape, but need the help of my husband. Ethan, where are you?
Has my quest for understanding led me to earthly damnation? Or was it merely my impatience to flee Napoleon’s coronation at Notre Dame without waiting for my mate, thinking I could discover a bargaining chip that would protect us all? He doesn’t know that when searching the bedroom of Catherine Marceau in Paris I found a cache of her romance novels, that I brought three in my bag to the coronation at Notre Dame, and that they made a fine weapon to sling against the head of the giant policeman Pasques in order to escape. It was the first useful service Catherine did for my family. The blow gave Horus and I time to run from the cathedral with the letters of recommendation that Talleyrand had given me. The French minister wanted us to search for the fabled Brazen Head.
Now I kneel on flagstones, palms on the rock, to feel the goddess mother. But the womb of the earth is only half of what sustains us. I’m buried from the sky, and thus robbed of male power. All things are dual, and burial keeps me half a priestess.
My jailers know this. I beg for a tower. They fear me too much to allow one. If I don’t cooperate I’ll be tied to a stake and burned. Or so they threaten. And then the dwarf eyes my son…
My name is Astiza of Alexandria, priestess of Isis and Athena, devotee of the white Madonna and the black, seeker of Astarte, Artemis, Cybele, Ishtar, Mary, Sophia, and Freya. My husband is Pan and Vulcan, Mercury and Mars, as dissatisfied as Siddhartha and as redeemable as Augustine. I despair for his soul, and yet miss him desperately. I’m the white rose, he the red. All these deities are but a hundred shades of The One Truth. I believe I exist to seek, but which revelation? Ambition, vanity, and curiosity are the curses visited upon our family, and lost secrets are fuel to our fire. Wisdom, wisdom! How I wish I could truly achieve it.
A monster I nearly loved has imprisoned us in a mine of Bohemia: Punishment for my desires. I’ve sought foreknowledge and dangerous companionship, and now I pay the price.
Because I’ve promised my captors alchemical magic to spare my son, I have magic books in abundance. In the margins of The Picatrix, The Lemegeton, The Key of Solomon, and Dragon Rouge, I retain my sanity by writing this account of how I came to be here. In remembering my husband, perhaps I can conjure him like the necromancer I’m supposed to be. He strides to save us, knight in armor! This is my fantasy. The reality is that he may be oceans away, or have no idea where we are, or has been seduced. He’s a good man, but imperfect. Like me.
I’m convinced Ethan lives. I’d know in my heart if he died. But I no longer know if he seeks us. I shouldn’t doubt him but he has an eye for other women. I think about this because I’ve strayed with my soul.
What really torments us is our own conscience.
Ethan and I were separated when my son and I fled the treachery of the Comtesse Catherine Marceau, who had shared our apartment in Paris. My husband had just promised us not to part, but then Talleyrand wanted consultation, and Catherine promised Ethan would quickly return, and the brute policeman Pasques towered like Goliath. Instead of trusting my instincts I was foolish enough to agree. Time dragged on. Harry and I were pulled deeper into the shadows of the cathedral. More police materialized. As the crowd murmured like a heaving sea at the appearance of Napoleon and Josephine, I realized we’d been betrayed and my husband was about to be arrested. I decided to flee east, which French authorities would least expect, and count on Ethan to make his own escape.
We’d learned that the scholar Albertus Magnus had built a mechanical man, or ‘android,’ in the 13th Century to foretell the future. In desperation I decided I’d find this machine by myself and use its power to protect my family. Or at least use its value to bargain! Hubris.
I remember the smoke of censors rising in the winter sunbeams in Notre Dame, and the thud of celebratory cannon, when I finally realized that while we thought Catherine was an English spy, she was actually a French one. She had fooled us from the beginning, helping to betray royalist conspiracies to Napoleon, and wanting my husband for herself. Ethan, and the Brazen Head.
So while Catherine moved forward to watch Ethan’s arrest, I silently took Harry’s hand and backed into the alcove chapel of St. Michael at Notre Dame, having learned in my studies that a secret spiral stair behind its altar led to a crypt below. There’s no exit from this room of tombs, but our disappearance caused momentary confusion. When men scattered to find us we managed to creep up, battle past Pasques, slip out a rearward door, climb the wall of the archbishop’s garden, cross the Pont, dash to the eastern end of the Ile St. Louis, and drop unseen onto a barge laboring up the Seine. At midnight, using light snow as a cloak, we slipped ashore at Neuilly sur Marne and hid shivering in a convent graveyard.
For the next three days Harry and I walked east, watchful for patrols. We finally had the opportunity to join a traveling circus of acrobats and clowns, a migratory example of the ring shows that Philip Astley has organized across Europe. We could hide amid its peculiar circle of characters and animals. I told its leaders that I was a sorceress who could cast fortunes, and because I was pretty, starving, and Egyptian – since Napoleon’s expedition, the world is mad for all things Egyptian – they took me on. We played Christmas carnivals at Strasbourg and then, on the third day of January 1805, slipped across the Rhine.
What had become of Ethan, I’d no idea.
I feel the need in this crabbed journal to explain my affection for my husband. Ethan Gage is a man of action, a traveler, dreamer, and, in his own words, a climber, drawn to people of power or notoriety. He has the restlessness of men. I am reclusive, scholarly, and judicious, with a mother’s caution and a woman’s need for home. I also know, in ways he does not, how alike we are.
My husband resolves to find rest for us, but that’s not really what we seek. I, too, enjoy new places. The only difference is that I savor the journey as much as the destination, while he imagines an ending. There are no endings, only steps.
Both of us are curious. He was my liberator in Egypt, and the first and only man I truly loved. Ethan can be rash and shallow, but also greathearted and thrilling, even dangerous, a frightening hero when unleashed. His strong hands make me shiver, and his odd insights make me laugh. We’re the light and the dark of the moon, two sides of the same coin, Jupiter and Venus. I reform him; he inspires me.
Harry and I left the circus in February. My inquiries in Germany took me to castles, crypts, Town Hall records, and the scriptoriums of monasteries. I studied books such as Comenius’ Labyrinth of the World. As I journeyed east, I felt I was falling back in time and deeper into mystery. The turreted castles became craggier and ill repaired, blank windows looking over a wintry landscape with blind eyes. Broken towers reached like scrabbling fingers. The season was dim, night early, shadows long, snow spotting the fields, and the rush-and-tallow lights of rude cottages were faint as misted stars. Bohemia seemed older yet, a land of forest magic and cave revelations, its rude carts creaking ominously as they crept on miserable tracks. Ravens wintered on the branches. Wolves bayed in the woods. Harry clung to me like an infant. He misses his father. He needs a father.
The stem that I followed was the rose. A dried rose led me to our informant Palatine in Paris, rose windows dominate Notre Dame, the spy Rose befriended Ethan, and the sacred symbology of the rose guided the mystic Christian Rosenkreutz. At the Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov, looped by a river and protected by a castle growing out of a cliff, the symbol of the ruling families is the five-petal rose. This is the symbol of the five wounds of Christ and the five elements that make up the universe: earth, air, fire, water, and the Fifth Element, the life force itself. In geometric terms it is synonymous with the five-sided pentagram. The flower was everywhere embossed on walls and ceilings.
I took this as a sign.
In a world in which many cannot read and write, symbols are how scholars communicate with the illiterate. Every church is a picture book, its story told with stained glass windows, saintly sculptures, and paintings. Every coat of arms tells a patriotic story. Addresses in Bohemia are pictures, so one resides at the House of the Boar or the House of the Golden Stag or the House of the Three Hearts, its sign painted over the door. No symbol is more potent than the rose.
A rose bush sprang from the blood of Adonis, and another from the drip of wounds where Jesus died. In the unfolding petals is the expanding cosmos. The six-petal rose stands for love, seven for inclusion and perfection, and eight for rebirth. The thorns are life’s obstacles on the way to grace. Every culture reveres this flower, and every lover presents it as adoration. Rose is the first name of the French empress, although Napoleon prefers Josephine. Cleopatra carpeted her bedchamber ankle deep with petals for the Roman conqueror Antony. The flower’s quick withering is symbolic of the fleetness of time, and so a Roman rosalia was a feast of the dead. The labyrinth of petals was a sign of secrecy, and so a confidential Roman meeting was marked by a rose over the door, the confidences said to be sub rosa.
Christian Rosenkreutz combined the rose with the cross, meaning he combined knowledge with faith, and beauty with the inevitability of decay. In Paris we stole the crown of thorns, and now I seek an alchemical marriage in my prison. Chemists believe uniting light and dark, thorn and flower, will bring unity and perfection. So I felt that the carved rosettes set in the castle of Cesky Krumlov, coat of arms of the House of Vitek, were a sign of Rosenkreutz.
The Viteks who built Krumlov Castle were succeeded by the Rosenburg family in the 16th Century, their name meaning “Mountain of Roses.” Surely this was no coincidence. Now the rambling edifice is inhabited by the Schwarzenbergs, and they had heard of my fortunetelling in Germany and sent an invitation. I presented myself as a seer and expert on the Tarot, suspecting that like many aristocrats, the Schwarzenbergs are bored and seek distraction. I made my way with Harry up the cobbled town street to the rambling castle, courtyard succeeding courtyard. Duke and Duchess Josef and Paulina Schwarzenberg are patrons of the arts, alarmed but intrigued by the rise of Napoleon, and fascinated by modern reports of new inventions and curiosities.
They waited for me to tell them what I wanted to know myself.