Verum Faciem Bestia
For years now I’ve been part of the horde, just another cog in the 9-5 machine of salaried peons held in thrall, wondering what manner of beast compelled the many to sacrifice their dreams for those of the few, the latter pushing to pay less for more every single day.
It was after one such long, laborious day, in which my mind had cursed for hours on end that faceless beast, that I happened to be walking back to my meager apartment under the cold November drizzle of a starless night, the waxing crescent moon peeping every now and then through the clouds, ogling at the dejected souls splashing their way underneath big umbrellas, that I felt a compulsion to brave the slippery cobblestones of a dark alley instead of taking my usual route home, itself another monotonous part of humdrum existence.
Halfway into the narrow street, a flickering candle in a semi-basement window on my left caught my eye, the hypnotic dance of its flame around its clipped wick putting a stop to my dejected trudge on the sodden cobbled street. A stone stairwell, black with mold and green with moss, made its decrepit descent to the bookshop, for a shop was what the rotting wood sign swaying back and forth with a languid creak on iron chains purported the semi-basement to be, and books were what the candle’s flame revealed its business to be.
I descended the nine steps, holding onto the oxidized handrail as if my life depended on it, and turned the old Victorian door’s iron handle, expecting some resistance from the heavy mahogany door but finding none, the door instead creaking itself open.
Once inside the musty bookshop, I turned to close the door and jumped out of my skin the moment I turned back to face the shop. In front of me was an old, wheezing man, although I suppose old wasn’t quite the word for him. Ancient would be a more apt description, and there was a fraction of a second where I wondered whether the hunched man with a hooked nose was the great-great-grandfather of Queen Elizabeth.
“Hello, welcome,” he rasped, an ancient brass candlestick shaking in his rheumatic hands. “Apologies for the candles, but the mains fuse died of shock.”
“I hope it gets fixed soon,” I replied, wincing at the horrendous cough that assailed the hoary bookshop owner when he began to cackle at his own joke, his candle’s flame wavering dangerously towards its own death.
“Never mind. It’s been like so for years,” he muttered once his coughing subsided, “ever since I read that passage in Domus Pandaemonium. But that’s a story for a bright, sunny day when one is sitting in fragrant meadows at least half a world away from places such as this; this is neither one nor the other. It is, however, time for me to retire. See what takes your fancy and leave the money on your way out. No need to lock the door. No book lover will steal books and no thief will ever bother with books. A word of caution,” he continued, before disappearing into the doorway leading upstairs. “Beware the occult section. Some books are meant to remain closed.”
With another cackle, a low one this time that failed to trigger his coughing, the old man crept upstairs, the shadow in his wake lengthening with every upward step he took, until it dissolved with the closing of a door. That one, the old man locked twice and chained.
Having whetted my curiosity (as ancient bookshop owners are wont to do to the likes of me), I looked for the occult section, taking a brass candlestick from a table hiding under a thick layer of dust to light my path on a hunt that turned out to be little more than a casual look-around; an imposing oak bookcase with thick cobwebs decorating its top right corner and binding some of the biggest, heaviest tomes I had ever seen together, and with two stone gargoyles looking menacingly down on all who dared to behold the treasure trove they guarded, could be nothing other than a section reserved for those who, like myself, held a morbid fascination for the occult. It was the sixth bookcase out of a row of seven that lined the bookshop’s left wall.
The first tome to catch my eye was the fourth one on the second shelf from the top. It was Domus Pandaemonium, the evil text responsible for the shocking (according to the sole witness) death of the shop’s mains fuse. My first instinct was to reach for the book, curious as to what words could have been written in ages past that had such a devastating effect on things unheard of at the time, but then I saw that the material the tome was bound in had a disconcerting resemblance to human skin. I pulled my hand back.
Then my eyes landed on another tome, the one I could almost hear whisper my name. This one was the sixth book on the sixth shelf, and on its spine, written in tiny calligraphy, was Verum Faciem Bestia.
This hefty tome, circa 16th century unless my bibliophilia failed me, I did reach out for, desperate to gaze upon the horned, bearded face of the black goat itself. It was heavy, even by the standards of its 9½x6-inch size and immense thickness. Bound in tanned leather (not human, I think?) and with bevel-edged plasterboard covers, the tome’s obscure knowledge of the beast’s face was safeguarded by metal clasps and leather straps. Its corners, typical victims to the ruinous onslaught of wear and tear, were protected by metal. On its front cover, underneath the tome’s title, itself etched in the same fine calligraphy as the one on the spine, was an illustration of Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia pentagram, the one where a human body was entwined with its five-pointed geometric form.
Opening the tome revealed parchment pages having a luxurious velvet feel to them; they sighed in a hushed rustle when turned. Age and dirt had yellowed the parchment, and the pages’ corners were crimped and worn. Old ink circled certain words and paragraphs, but I was unsure as to what the reader wanted to highlight or the author sought to convey since sweat-covered fingers had encoded most of the narrow script into undecipherable smudges.
After leafing through the first third of the book, I came across the first (and what would prove to be only) section title, but this was no more than the book’s namesake. With tingling anticipation at the prospect of laying my eyes on the true face of the beast, I tried turning the page, but it appeared to have been glued to the next. That next page was then glued to its subsequent, and so it went on until the tome’s second third was through, at which point the entire section opened like a massive block of parchment, parting ways with the tome’s final third. And there, I finally saw the true countenance of that accursed beast.
And my eyes opened in abject terror.
There, staring at me with eyes as black as night and a flame in the midst of its pupils, was a face that was far from the ugly bovid visage I had expected. There was nothing to identify it as monstrous or abominable; it was but a normal face. A human face. My own face, reflected in the two mirrors buried in the depths of the hollowed-out parchment blocks, one on each side, my dark hazel eyes losing their color in the bookshop’s dim lighting and the flames from the candlestick now resting on an empty shelf in the seventh bookcase aligning perfectly with my own pupils.
There I stayed for a while, held in thrall by my own reflection, cursing my yearn to finally set eyes on the true face of the beasts roaming this hideous world of ours.