Long before the twilight of the Winter King, some nine centuries ago in the long night of Germany before it was Germany in a peasant principality located under the crown, scepter and sword of the Catholic Church, a hideous man with bad teeth and unshaven beard was chained to a decaying wooden post beside the hen’s house of the town of Ulm. A dirty, diseased lean-to filled with fowls was his home, destiny and company. A rooster with a scar in his red muff was his only friend, and this friend often pecked at him with little stings harsher than a fencer’s tips. Pinned to a stalk of wood, his face was always stretched to the point of breaking with venomous and indissoluble stress. He found only mud and chicken feathers with his worn fingers no matter how far he grasped, no matter what pleasures he imagined, conceived and reached for, his fingers stuck only the warp and woof of bleeding chicken mane. If he scrounged hard enough, and dug into the dirt with a true fealty to the spirit of Protestant work, perhaps a splinter would dig up under his nails, and that would be his reward for great works. Offered soup, he flailed it away, and lived and rutted as a hog in his own discarded foodstuff, and his piss.
We were in 1225 with our man in Ulm, an age known to moderns as an impossibility, a place akin to the Inferno, though for Dante it was his beloved world, the only one he had ever known. It was a land synonymous with darkness, the light of Luther three-hundred years away, the colder blue light of Voltaire farther still, and of course in such dark ages a man representative of the light would find himself posed against the times. Our man, pinned to a wooden pole sticking from a torn-up ugly stack of sticks in a fowls’ den, burnt bronze beneath unrelenting summer sun in the desolate south of Germany, was a humanist, a rationalist, and a skeptic. He had been a professor, which in those days was synonymous with theologian — but our man was, once more, a man out of time. He believed, in essence, only one thing — that the Holy Trinity was fraud, that this world of the lean-to and the foul feathers was always, and still is, all that there is. Earth, alone, no hand with which to guide it. Today, he is an ordinary man. Yesterday, a terror.
Appalled by his tongue, the friars of the Church gathered together like gossiping women to pluck it out. As a crowd of old ladies preparing to play bridge, the friars took counsel and feigned collapse and great birth pangs at the reality of a man who challenged the faith. One friar grasped his spleen and repeated: “He says the miracles are false, he says the miracles are false.” Another wept great globs of spittle and tears that became one and stained the sullen dirt with a pained liquid not unlike the blood of Christ. The drama of these men was like the drama of great women, powerful impressive women whose motions were each the curve of the Earth and each lifting of the hand signaled a new revelation to twist upon the emotions of the last. As the upstanding men of the Church constitute the harem of the bridegroom of God, all holy men seek nothing less than to become women.
A nun, hopped up on the Holy See, took a long, thin needle from her tourniquet in a fit of wrath one morning and approached the man at the post with innocence, a wrinkled smile on her young face. He turned toward her, hands behind her back, watching her walk toward him in such grace that for an instant he even fooled himself into believing in the holiness of women, of Mary, of Churches. The nun knelt down before him and recited a line of Latin, which I could repeat for you here to no understanding, so I will not even type it, and she jabbed the six-inch needle into the man’s open eyeball, the pupil that craved vision, and spread blood outward in that blind eye until it gushed from his face as an open wound. The nun stood and walked away, leaving the needle embedded in his skull. She was later reprimanded by the parish priest, eighty-eight days in solitude with nothing but the Gospels — a fitting punishment — but the damage was done. The surgery to remove the needle and seal up the eye left our man in Ulm blind in both eyes, somehow, as if the doctor’s little Igor had plucked out the second just to bring balance according to the first.
Like vultures the Churchmen often gathered around his body in the chickens and the dust and beat him down with their hands, which were frail and bony like beaks, and he took the blows imparted upon him by the kicking and slapping priests, a nail in every nerve ending shooting upward to his brain, telling him to hurt, telling him over and over again, that strange communication of the muscle and the nerve, demanding imminent suffering. The man, in his heart, retained victory — he knew they were nothing but nerves kicking nerves, an imagination of a man, and he cackled as they beat him with the sublime knowledge that they were but apes, and all structure and system to the contrary was an illusion placed atop the jutting forehead of an orangutan. He wore a crown as they stumbled about like beggars after each kick, skeletons moving with momentum, nerves speaking fury, puppets not of the most high but of the squirming brain. He cackled. There was an ultimate victory in his lashings.
Conversation amongst the sisters produced a novel situation. One young nun had heard of the elder who impaled the eye of the heretic with a tourniquet’s needle, and it brought her into sadness for days. If even a nun could be moved to such impulsive hate, then where in the world is God? This question met little answer. The Book of Job showed God as a brute, a pair of knuckles dragging so hard upon the forest floor that they dug canyons in their wake. There was not mercy, only strength, in Yahweh’s response to Job. The nun wept.
Playing the Virgin herself, this young woman had taken pity on our man in the hen’s house in Ulm. On Ash Wednesday she approached the filthy man in earnest. He looked, and could not see her. She was the treasure of her hometown, born Catherine Ziegler, baptized Catherine of the Rose-Cross, wearing the icon of the crucified upon her chest, the androgyne Christ dangling above chaste nipples that would never feed a child’s yearning lips. Catherine of the Rose-Cross smiled. Before him, the sun at her back, she was as an icon, a thing frozen in time, the true believer who dines of the flesh of Christ at communion, and takes wine, and licks blood from her lips without shame.
The man could not see her, or he would have reached for her. Instead he only felt her footsteps, and fearing the whip or the pointed shoe, he feasted on a raw chicken, ripping up the rind of its neck and sitting in the stained mess of blood and wax-feathers he had spread on cracked and dry ground. It had not rained in a month. Gnawing at the neck of a hen, he shook his head. He felt the shadow of her body cast upon him. At last, he screamed:
“I am not your torturer,” replied the holy woman of the Rose-Cross. “I take pity on you in the name of God. I have seen you out here every day on my travels to the orchards. Every single day. I have seen how they beat you. And each time I see you, I feel, in my heart, that you, and not the priest of my parish, is the Christ crucified. It is you who is the martyr, not the patriarchs of the Church. You are the humble, the meek, the broken one…and if I am a true Christian, I am to follow you, not the monsters who have tied you here with this unholy brood of chickens.”
The man’s lower lip curled in response to this Christian speech. Against his greater reason, tears began to form in his bloodied eyes at the speech of a Catholic woman. Against all his aching, solidified over three long years in captivity, he was loved by someone on this Earth. He buried his face in his hands. Like Hephaestus, he began to rock with sobs. He shuddered with memories of home, the mother who had chosen the Church over her own son, and does not see him. The father who had disowned him with eloquence, declaring at the podium the Kingdom of Christ and damning his son to the ice of Cocytus. Catherine of the Rose-Cross fell on her knees in her gown, sullied in the mud, and bursting through those memories, she held him. She lifted him up like a child, a pieta as good as any other. She held him cradled and walked.
“I will free you,” she said, stroking his hair, matted with grease, stuck with flies. “I will free you from the Pilate of the Church.”
“But how?” he asked. “Where will I go?”
“We will go to France, and take you to the Cathars. You are the lamb who has gone astray, more valuable to Him than the flock.”
And so Catherine of Thorns made her promise to the heretic in Ulm, to take his crippled body to the heretics in France, and to leave the cursed soil of the Holy Roman Empire.
Then, she dropped him, and left. Heretics must move in the dead of night, not the broad daylight of holy Thrones. This she said to him, and this he begged her against believing — he begged her to take him away now. She repeated the Our Father as proof of her intention and left.
That night, Catherine of Thorns did try the seal of the musted window beside her stone bed and pried it open, weaseling through the cavity like a bird into a bath. She fell upon a low pool of rainwater, and cursed, the name of God escaping her lips. She covered her mouth. She gathered herself from the puddle, and proceeded beneath moonlight and the stench of frogs. Of course, this one night among a thousand, it had chosen to rain.
Empty stone houses stinking of myrrh and small candles in their windowsills were all that separated the rainwater in the streets from the rock of man’s ambitions. The wax had burnt down with the day, no sounds but snores and silence, and the nun alone trod the beaten path toward the heretic. No souls were about, as all were asleep, contained in the empyrean sphere as embryos in vats until morning. As she made it to the edge of the town, the rare persimmons imported from voyages to the East breathed and rustled in the midnight air with their sheathes of wet leaves. He could tell at once by her footsteps it was her, and again he wept.
“You fool,” he said. “You really are a holy fool…”
She knelt down before him as water dripped from all eaves. As she went to work on the cords binding our man’s wrist to the pole, the old professor began to ask:
“Why do you save me? Do you forsake your Christ?”
She did not reply. She loosed a horse on a rope from the stable across from the hens and made a prayer for the mare’s owner. The fine horse trotted across the running watery way, toward the filthy man, and the nun instructed him how to ride. He did not know how. He was a man of minds. Worse, he was too feeble to rise. The nun, looking in each direction, took a desperate act.
She loosed her dress and took out a pale breast, bringing it to the mouth of the man. Greedily, like an insect, he drank. He kneaded on the milk of her body and climbed, then, up the tall body of the beast. The nun, ripping one side of her dress, climbed up after him, and took the reins. She took the cloth from her head and cast it down. White, beautiful hair dangled in the moonlight. With the heretic she rode.
Rain fell like the hate of an army. It drowned out her eyes, it made blinking a chore. The horse trod through sinking Earth as a genuine monsoon seemed to be roaring about German land. The hillsides green were slicked with rivers. A watery pool had formed at the edges of the road, lines of turmoil. Her hair was drenched and her back was freezing. The heretic, swishing from side to side atop the horse’s hind, was drinking it in by the mouthful. The downpour only grew stronger. And as one hour went by, now two, and his strength resumed, the nun began to hear him speak:
“I am from the future,” he said. “I know these days are limited. Soon they will be done.”
She wiped a globlet of moisture from her eye like a tear.
He swayed back and forth, his mouth open, eyes alight with the reflections of moondrenched stars. “I am telling you, sister, that the day will come when Christ is not a King but a curiosity, an odd thing that is impossible, a distant star, as far from men and women as you and I are now from the constellations, a forgotten thing unattainable.”
The nun narrowed her brows. The mare’s hooves stuck in inches of mud, and sucked and popped with every step. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean that Christianity is finished. Your world is done. I know what happens in this very town, this place full of shit you call Ulm. A young man will station here, joined by a garrison. He will make a camp and set himself against the empire of an alchemist. His name is Rene Descartes. He will take Euclid’s machines and he will dream of a golden ball, handed to him by an angel, telling him to divorce the study of nature from the study of God. He will carry forth that revelation forever, into eternity, to separate the world from God. And he will succeed. He will succeed in dethroning you, forever. Your rule will never return. Your Christ will lose his crown, and it will not be given to another prophet, nor any Mohammed, but the crown of thorns will be shattered, and lose all its meaning.”
“You’re a liar.”
“I am not,” he seethed. “A garrison is coming, of men led by a pope who is an atheist. They will encircle the Churches and they will open great coffers of treasure, and men of theology will become men of business, and the laws of the world will not be written by Thomas Aquinas, but by bureaucrats who believe in nothing. Men will look at the stars and see not the Intelligence of the Spheres but a steaming rock, and in the afterlife an abyss. This will become the only truth there is. Heaven and hell do not exist. There are no Powers nor any Thrones above. Only stars, gleaming with fire, material, unholy fire.”
“And all things will be decoded, as at their core is not light, but tendon, sinew and bone. And beneath that, ribbons of instruction, written by a mindless mind, authored by no one, and this truth will be incontrovertible, to the end, till the end of all time. And the consequence it will have-” Blue lightning stabbed jagged across the sky. The man from Ulm hesitated, then considering his lot, he laughed. “All men will believe what they wish to believe, and fiction will become reality. All mythology and all religion will be as one, Christ as good as Apollo, Apollo as good as Mithra. And the consequence, dear sister, will be that there is no rule that is agreed to by all, there is no moral law, there is no order to which men and minds submit themselves. No, the mind shall not submit. The mind alone shall rule the world. And the mind will make all decisions, and it will split open the sky with light made by men, not by God, and this man-made light will be indistinguishable from life itself, and all things sacred will become like Socrates, a corpse that hated life, and men will move on from it, and women will become whores, and men will become judges, who abide not by religious law but by courts made by men, and men will rule the world without submission, without authority above, and they will invent truths and those truths will clash with opponents without any crown to unite them. All people will believe a different thing, brothers will live in the same household and gaze down different directions, and brothers will kill each other. Cities will emerge, cities of millions, seething houses of men with nothing in common, who will all invent their own laws, and sow discord, and never again once the sowing begins will it ever stop, never will Christ return. Only ambiguity, and the rolling ball, will follow men forever, and their women will die, their children will be born as in tubes, and flesh and blood and plastic and glass will have the same essence — material, as there is no other substance in this world. And it will begin in Ulm,” he gasped for breath, laughter breaking from his chest. “It will all begin at a garrison in Ulm when the little man has a big dream and he divorces nature from God, and shows how it is so, and no theologian will ever be able to disprove him.”
In darkness, the nun halted her horse. She dismounted it, and walked to the edge of the cold road.
“What has happened?” asked the man, looking frantically in all directions. “Where have you gone?”
The nun said nothing. She waited, waited for his true nature to emerge. Waited for him to grow angry, to grow violent. But nothing changed.
“Come back,” he said. “Please, return.”
She walked back to the horse, her feet in rags sucking in the sullen dirt with every step, and grabbed him by the right thigh.
“Is that true?” she demanded.
“Yes,” he said nobly, nose to the rain.
“And you are part of it?”
“Yes,” he said. “I have been sent here from the distant ahead just to make it happen sooner.”
The nun released his thigh. She turned back. She wandered to the edge of the road again, to the same place, rain boring down on her like a cloud of ashes, pouring death upon her. As she turned again in her cloak of death she set her mind to a decision and grasped the man’s thigh again. This time, she pushed upwards, and unsettled him.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. He was too weak to tilt backward. She pushed him, up, and he tilted far away and over the edge of the horse, at last like a drawbridge he was extended, and fell flat sideways into the mud below, where he groaned in agony as he ate mud, and his ribs smarted.
“Christ is our King,” said the nun, taking the horse and mounting it once more. She doubled-back on the road and trotted away. Her mouth was pregnant with feelings, desirous of more words, but none came. That was all she had said. And she continued to ride her horse back down the road she had come, to the parish.
The man in Ulm cried out in uproarious laughter. Arced blasts of lightning crossed the bow of the world and stained the firmament brightly. He screamed with joy in his mud as he imagined chickens all around him, a house for savages, and he laughed in knowledge that time was on his side, that he had won, no matter what, that the world would be delivered once more as it already had been, to the birds. And he laid there, blind, drowning in water and stinking marsh, a broken road, worn down by the waters, no food for miles, no sight in the world, and he was given over to the elements like a slave, and he died as all men do today, beneath empty skies and moonlight, blind and starving, yearning for a crown. The elements took him. They thought nothing of it. Intelligence was purged from the world. The elements seized him as a scalpel seizes a wound.
That very same nun later went on to pen a rebuttal to the man from Ulm, and all he had said that day. It was discovered by scholars in 1983 and prized as a rare insight into the stupidity of the past.