by Thomas M. Ward

She was beautiful and brilliant beyond words, with face, figure, and tricks of speech to delight and bewitch any man, even the ancient hermit who guarded the secret way to the cave of the Fire of Immortality. She had been to the cave before, two thousand years ago, had burned in the fire, and emerged, immune to time. She established her dominion in the tombs of the ruined city, and waited for her lover to return from the dead in the form of his distant descendant. Sixty mortal generations She waited, until one day, he came. 

That is why She had returned to the fire. In the cave She pledged to be faithful to the end and, as his queen consort, to pursue goodness and mercy through all the days of the world. She told him how she had done it, so many years ago: she stood in the rush of flame and let it burn the mortality out. It had neither hurt nor harmed her. She instructed him to do as she had done, but he hesitated. So close to the fire, he already knew it was no ordinary flame: already he felt healthier, more alert; yet he could not direct his body to enter the flames. She was sympathetic, and volunteered to enjoy the fire a second time, to show her husband how to be baptized and prove the baptism would not kill.

Now She stood in the fire, playfully waving her arms, then scooping flame with her hands and drinking it down like water. She was magnified in that glorious light, her smile radiant as the sun and eyes joyful as blue sky. But even as her husband stood there transfixed in awe of his wife’s beauty, She changed. In a few seconds, two thousand years of entropy assailed her. She grew old, parched and shrunken beyond the age of a living woman. She aged until she looked like a shriveled monkey, and then She died.    

This is just a summary, in pastiche, of the climactic scene of H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel, She: A History of Adventure. First with fascination then with horror followed by sadness, I read this scene the other night, sitting on my back patio. As I read, a funny thing happened: switching the book from one hand to the other, my bookmark, which I had stuck randomly between some pages, fell out of the book and landed facedown on the concrete. I turned and looked and saw the words printed on the back of the bookmark: “Hail Mary, Queen of Heaven,” followed in smaller print by a familiar prayer. 

Gripped as I was by that scene in Haggard’s book, I could not let Our Lady lie there on the ground, for in truth the bookmark was really a holy card given to me as a thank you gift a few weeks ago. I put down the book, got out of my chair, and scooped up the card, careful not to scratch her image on the rough ground. Then I looked at her, regarding the image for the first time. Supported by angels she basks in pure golden light, framed by plumes of golden smoke, while one golden-white vertical column of light commands her pious ecstatic gaze. 

I could no longer think of She without comparing her to that upright She who also bathes in immortal fire. She was taken up into heaven and crowned Queen of angels, and obedience to her one imperious command—Do whatever He tells you—is very salvation. It was comforting almost to the point of tears to hold in my imagination the scene of She’s destruction and simultaneously to thank God that the Blessed Virgin Mary will never wither or shrivel or burn. My attention now on Mary, I began to ask myself why I was so moved by, and so sad about, She’s horrific destruction. An immeasurable beauty gone almost at the instant of its full manifestation, a new husband widowed a few minutes after his vow to love her always, to the end of time: these are indeed worth grieving. But there are some details I haven’t told you yet. 

She was almost as wicked a person as can be imagined. Two thousand years before her death she had stood near the Immortal Fire. With her was the man she had determined to make her immortal lover, along with that man’s wife. The man had recoiled from the fire and sought protection in his wife’s arms. In a jealous rage She stabbed him through the heart with a spear. The wife fled in terror, and She bore the man’s body to a secret cave and by her arts preserved it, uttering evil prayers for his return to her, and cursing the woman he had loved. To supply her material needs She ruled over a primitive people by magic and by terror, selectively breeding some to produce physically beautiful but mute domestic servants. She took for her palace a labyrinthine tomb of an ancient people, illuminating its many rooms by burning its embalmed corpses. There the spider waited out the years, veiled head to foot in gauzy bands like a mummy. 

When her reincarnated lover finally returned, he was on a quest to prove the truth of the family tradition that there was a fire of immortality deep in a secret cave. He knew nothing of the intimacy She intended for him. On his long journey he fell in love and was married. So he came again as a married man to She. And again enraged with jealousy, but unwilling to wait another span of centuries, this time she murdered his wife, in cold blood, before his very eyes. She giggled at his outrage and unveiled her face, entrancing him. He hated himself for it, but loved her, kissing her even as his bride lay newly dead on the ground. In her presence over the next several days he forgets his former life, and She, all threats removed, seems to put aside her cruelty and lust for power. She will have only him, and be finally content.

And so it is during this phase of good behavior that She guides her man to the Fire, enters first to show him the way, and meets her end. Knowing all her evil deeds, but forgetting them in the crescendo of her beauty and the passion of her vows, I had begun to root for She. I wanted her to be with the man she had once killed, the same man whose wife She also had killed. I began to feel that the love between man and woman suffices for the remission of sin, substitutes for true virtue, and really is the summum bonum of human life—especially if the beloved is as beautiful as She. Thus, I too had been beguiled by her beauty!

The moment She died, I felt a heaviness in my sadness, the story-world now insufferably dull. And it was at that very moment, in that very mood, that the holy card fell out of my book and onto the ground. There She was, with unveiled face, looking at her Son. The spell was broken. I said a Hail Mary and finished the story with moderate interest.

To read more articles like this one,
subscribe to The Lamp here.