Read The Serpent Papers Online

Authors: Jessica Cornwell

The Serpent Papers

 

First published in Great Britain in 2015 by

 

Quercus Editions Ltd

55 Baker Street

7th Floor, South Block

London W1U 8EW

 

Copyright © Picatrix, Inc. 2015

 

The moral right of Jessica Cornwell to be

identified as the author of this work has been

asserted in accordance with the Copyright,

Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

 

Excerpt from the Aeneid by Virgil, translated by David West

(Penguin Books 1990, Penguin Classics 1991) © David West 1990. Excerpt

from the Oresteia by Aeschylus, translated by Robert Fagles,

© Robert Fagles, 1966, 1967, 1975, 1977. Reproduced by permission of Sheil

Land Associates Ltd. on behalf of Georges Borchardt, Inc. Excerpt from Doctor Illuminatus: A Ramon Llull Reader, edited and translated

by Anthony Bonner (Princeton University Press, 1993)

© Antony Bonner 1993.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication

may be reproduced or transmitted in any form

or by any means, electronic or mechanical,

including photocopy, recording, or any

information storage and retrieval system,

without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available

from the British Library

 

HB ISBN 9781848666726

TPB ISBN 9781848666733

EBOOK ISBN 9781848666740

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters,

businesses, organizations, places and events are

either the product of the author’s imagination

or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to

actual persons, living or dead, events or

locales is entirely coincidental.

 

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

 

Typeset by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh

For my parents, Stephen and Clarissa,

and my sister Lizzie, whose strength is boundless

Contents

 

 

 

Map

 

Prelude

 

Book the First

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

 

Book the Second

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

 

Book the Third

I

II

 

Epilogue

 

Acknowledgements

Interview with Jessica Cornwell

The Facts Behind The Fiction

 
 

Prelude

Forest

2003

It can happen suddenly that a young woman in the fullness of youth realizes she has gone to bed with the devil. He will mark her deeply. Her mouth will be frozen, unable to speak a word against him, to say his name in any language; he will watch her always and bear witness against her in many guises, that she may never forget he has taken her. You have heard of these occurrences. At times he appears as a dragon, a great scaly brute with steel claws, but there are other moments when he chooses the garb of a goat, a nasty ugly thing with horns and a cleft foot, but more often than not he comes as a man. 

Beauty is his favourite cloth, his most beloved costume.

In the case of this young woman, she hears the sound in her sleep and so she reaches for him, but he is gone. She turns in the bed, body unwilling to wake, but hear it she does – deep within the house, a muffled panting. She stretches for the dressing gown hanging on the corner of the four-poster bed; wriggles bare shoulders into silk that slides across her collarbone, orange koi swimming on her spine. Barefoot she goes to the door of the bedroom, tying the silk sash of the dressing gown around her waist. She can hear music –
music from the ground floor?
He has gone,
though his body has carved his weight into the sheets. He must have moved softly, so as not to wake her,
but still
 – those sounds carry an animal curiosity. She hears a cry, and then a repeated call, like a moaning, and it frightens her.


Macu?
Where are you?’ she asks the black corridor, using the old term of endearment
.
She asks again. ‘
Macu?

There is no answer.

It is his private house, a kind of working studio. They spend the weekends there and in daylight it is very beautiful, shaded by a mass of oaks, with the property divided by a brook and lovely labyrinthine gardens. At night the house takes on a different feel. After dark she does not like to go outside, and asks that he lock the windows. ‘It’s too close to the city,’ she first explained. ‘It doesn’t feel as safe as real countryside.’ To which he laughed and replied: ‘But the woods, the woods are real, surely.’ ‘But not safe.’ So that was that. Every night spent in the house brings a ritual locking of the doors and windows. Now, peering through the corridor, windows covered with tightly drawn curtains, the air warm and still, no, she does not like that he is gone.


Macu?

She walks quickly down the carpeted hallway – panelled teak to either side, alcoves cut for bookshelves, a window seat with cushions – to the stairs. All pristine, to the ground floor, through the stoneware kitchen with its glistening counters. Southern pottery perched brightly on the walls. Blue castles and yellow fields. Thick brush strokes. Dried red peppers tied to the air vents above the stove-top turn the colour of rust. Cured sausages left out in a wicker basket. Fresh heirloom tomatoes, overripe, ready to be sliced through the middle and crushed into the morning’s stale bread. She leans on the wooden countertop at the centre of the kitchen, built as a chopping board.
Listen
. He has left a record playing in the living room, some Harlem jazz, notes thick and purple – but still,
that sound
.

That strange, unearthly sound
.

Again she hears it.
A low muffled sob
. Perhaps it is an animal baying at the night? Or maybe he has fallen?

In the dark, she walks down a corridor leading away from the kitchen. Past the dining hall, the smoking room, to the side of the house that faces the back garden, the rose and azalea bushes. ‘Some of these are fifty years old,’ he told her proudly when he first showed her the grounds; dropping his hand to the small of her back, he propelled her forward, leaning in to bite her ear, and she felt the call of his power, an opiate mingling with the perfume of roses from the garden. She sensed it as a coming wind, the change she had lusted for, there in the topiary and the gardens, the crumbling rock walls, the small fountains, and creeping peonies.

From the living room, the noise grows louder, clearer; her feet make no sounds on the floor, she walks with precision now, senses tingling 
– Where is it? Where is he?
There is a light on in the workroom, the studio space for physical exercise, which he has given her for advancing choreography. ‘I want you to feel free here, to dance. I love to see you dancing.’ He lined the room with four mirrors, and installed wall-mounted bars for her to use when she stays with him.

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