In August 1592, a bailiff and his two aides arrive at the Discalced Carmelite monastery at Úbeda, with the secret task of transferring the body of Saint John of the Cross, the great mystic poet who died the previous year, to Segovia, where one of his most ardent admirers awaits. Luis Felipe Fabre’s Recital of the Dark Verses follows these three hapless thieves as they try not to lose too many pieces of the saint’s body to his frenzied disciples along the way. It is the (true) story of a heist, a road novel, a coming-of-age tale, and a raunchy slapstick comedy told in careening, charismatic prose. It is also a witty and wise commentary on the verse of one of Spain’s most important poets, woven from the lines for which he is best known. (The poem “On a Pitch-Dark Night” is reproduced at the end of the selection for reference.)
In this following selection, after a bit of a false start the trio has finally secured the body of the saint, which they have hidden in a modest leather trunk. They set out into the dark stillness of the night, only to be accosted by what seems to be the Devil himself. But things are not always what they seem.
VIII. Wherein, still sheltered by the night of the first verse, having not yet left it behind but with entry swift becoming exit, expounded are its last two lines, which read, “I slipped out unminded /for my house had gone quiet,” and—dogged task—an attempt is made to commentate the abyssal silence that rifts this verse from the next.
On a pitch-dark night, at the most secret hour and the minute most still, when astral bodies spin not in the heavens nor do the clouds that cloak them advance, when in the depths of the well is the moon’s light extinguished and silent falls the cricket, when nary a floorboard creaks nor an ember crackles nor does any lamp sputter its last, when water ventures not a droplet nor the wind a rustling leaf nor the tree a fallen fruit, when lovers entwined remain but form two separate slumbers as distant one to the other as to a stranger asleep, when the near-born calf is not and the newborn child cries not and the near-dead man neither dies nor stirs nor coughs nor recovers yet finds momentary quarter in that moment when even Death labors not, when both flea and mosquito halt their torment of the unsleeping and, swollen with blood, rest contented beside a bare ceded back, between one verse and the next, between one moment and the next, when time is suspension and by the hand of the clock does one second become a minute and one shaftment a league, at that hour most secret, from the monastery of San Miguel at Úbeda, before the blank stare of the porter, with the body of Fray Juan de la Cruz hidden in a trunk and lighting neither torch nor candle nor lantern to better travel dressed as shadows in the shadow of night, in stealth and silence and in great haste did depart— or in great haste did depart not but rather were departing, or rather in their extended departing did they stand stupefied as if something had detained them in the fixity of that instant—the bailiff, Ferrán, and Diego for a different night or a verse darker still.
Wherein the verses of the “Night” unfurl segments of a narrow solitary road which great labors and fatigue and darkness do promise, but also, the bailiff and Ferrán and Diego wish to believe, many honors and daybreaks and great fortune, and thusly is expounded the tenebrous fourth line of the poem’s third verse, which reads “nor any light to guide me.”
They departed. With the body of Fray Juan disguised as luggage. From the Discalced monastery of San Miguel they departed. From the city of Úbeda they departed. And in darkness and in secret did they take to the road.
Up front rode the bailiff on his mule, followed by another mule bearing the trunk, and following that mule were Ferrán and Diego, also mule-borne.
The solemnity of their silence, the gravity of their countenance, the rigor of their darkness: in tempting to hide the deceased did they ever more announce him. All who saw them would glean in those shadowy travelers a funeral procession whose paschal candle had burnt its last.
But how alive they were. How crisp the air in their nostrils. How jolly their fear.
Behind its inky facade, the road did content them and spurred their impatience for the adventures it promised. Ready as their blades they rode.
Alert as beasts through the barren night they rode.
In silence they rode.
“Ferrán,” whispered Diego, tempting to evade the bailiff’s ear.
But Ferrán preferred to ignore him. He was keen not on words but on combat and clanging irons and flesh wounds. If the bailiff had ordered them silent, it was not merely to avoid giving signal to possible pursuers, but also that they might hear their foes from afar whenever they might approach. And with intent and expectant ear did Ferrán hear them arrive not.
“Ferrán,” Diego insisted.
Such a vex. Such a vex, that Diego, and such a vex the tardiness of that promised foe who arrived not, who complied not, who appeared not for the appointment announced months prior by that charlatan porter.
And their pursuers did not that night beset them, nor did they the following night appear. Mayhap because the bailiff, in caution and to better foil their foe, had elected to abandon the camino real to Madrid and detour instead toward Jaén and Martos, or thus ran Ferrán’s justifications upon passing Jaén. Would they come? The next night? Because this night, considering the distance traveled, could offer but a few moments more of darkness, from which the bailiff seemed intent on wringing every advantage ere the light of dawn forced them to seek refuge. The dawn, as ever near and ever promised as the enemy, and like the enemy seeming ever more distant and unlikely, for the darkness along this detour did ever thicker and denser grow.
What trees were those that lined the road? Trees or rocks were they? And rocks those shadowy forms? A hill, that mass of darkness yon?
“Halt!” thundered a voice from parts where no one stood.
And as if born of supernatural throat did that voice inspire in them great admiration and plentiful dread, and the hairs stood erect on the heads of Diego and Ferrán, and on the head of the bailiff so erect did they stand that they raised the hat from his brow, and the hairs on their bodies, which were many, stood erect and man and beast halted obedient, and immobile did they remain in elongated terror. But fore the following terror they dared, at least, to bare their weapons and scour with their eyes the darkness, though no one did they see. And, not knowing at whom or toward where, the three men surrounded the trunk and aimed in all directions.
“Who goes there?” ventured the bailiff.
“Who lieth there?” replied the formless voice.
“Come forth and show yourself. Who speaks thus?” demanded the bailiff, wresting aplomb from his freight and his age and his faith and his arquebus.
“One who, unlike thou, knoweth who thou art, O villainous grave-robbing sacristan. Whereto takest thou the body of the saint? Leave it whither wast!”
And thusly was the bailiff convinced that he who spoke formless in the dark was the dark itself, the night made flesh, the prince of darkness.
“O Demon, bar not our path but return to the inferno from whence thou hast emerged,” said the bailiff, making the sign of the cross with his weapon as if he planned to discharge a Christ.
“Clotpole! Heed thine own advice and retreat whence thou camest. What knowest thou of night? Of the dark? If for the Devil thou takest me, then to the Devil listen well: know that the night thou seekest to cross two forms of darkness doth sow. The first is bitter and horrific to the senses while the second hath no peer, for it is dreadsome and terrifying to the soul. Retreat. Let not thy resolve to hold fast the flesh of the saint be thine own undoing. Return to Úbeda. Return the body to its tomb. For in proceeding wilt thou enter a darkness wherein will serve neither lantern nor taper nor torch. Only the flame that within thee burns bright may serve thee as guide. Though, as the Devil well knoweth, the light of all stars and fires and flashes combined beguiles not like that emitted by the heart of man. When thou art plunged into that pitch-dark night wilt thou wish to tear out thine own heart and hold it before thine eyes as guide. And tear it out thou shalt, only to discover by its fleeting flare that the footfall thou didst hear, the foe tracking thee in the dark, was naught but thy heart’s own beating. Thou hast been warned. Let it not be said that the Devil offered thee no words of caution in the night, if only to correct the silence of God.”
No sooner was this oration ended but the birds began riotous to announce the dawn.
The first rays of sun displayed the men disheveled and sweatsoaked and ridiculous, still aiming their weapons at they knew not what. They laughed upon seeing themselves so. In relief, in shame, in mockery, in continued befuddlement, they laughed. And they lowered their guard. They had survived the night and triumphed over no one.
“Let us make haste to find haven and shade to protect the body of the saint,” said the bailiff, “lest the sun’s light bring a ruin that the Devil’s darkness could not.”
And astride their mules did they resume their journey, or rather did they make a detour from their journey in the direction of a nearby copse, or rather did they make a detour from their detour in the vicinity of Martos, fleeing from a light more fearsome than the dark.
On a pitch-dark night,
by love’s yearnings kindled
—oh wondrous delight!—
I slipped out unminded
for my house had gone quiet.
In darkness, without fright,
down hidden stair I snuck
—oh wondrous delight!—
in darkness, with fine luck,
for my house had gone quiet.
Out into that wondrous night
I stepped unseen and stealthy,
with not a thing in my sight
nor any light to guide me
but one burning in me bright.
That lone flame did guide me
surer than the midday sun
to a place where awaited he
who could be no other one,
and where no one could I see.
Oh night! You that guided,
night kinder than the dawn!
Oh night! You that united
Beloved with his lover yon;
a lover into her Beloved transformed!
Soft upon my flowering breast,
which I kept for him alone,
his slumbering head he lay to rest,
and as my fingers traced its crown
a breeze did spread the cedar’s zest.
From the turret a zephyr fanned,
as his fine locks I stroked,
when with his ever placid hand
he left a wound upon my throat
and all my senses did he suspend.
With cheek pressed to the Beloved
did I stay, and myself forget;
all ceased and I ceded,
leaving earthly worriment
among the lilies quite unheeded.
From Recital of the Dark Verses by Luis Felipe Fabre, translated by Heather Cleary. Used with permission of the publisher, Deep Vellum Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Luis Felipe Fabre/Heather Cleary.
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