And since angels and demons are on my mind this year, I'll kick off with an excerpt from The Temptation of Saint Gregory. Medieval Christian hermit Gregory, alone in his desert cell, is suffering from the determined attentions of a succubus ... but luckily he is sustained by visits from an angel.
"Gregory," she murmured in a voice of silk. He crossed himself and crouched before the altar as if defending it with his life's blood - a martyr out of the old days of persecution. His eyes sought the floor, but he could smell her; a warm, musky scent like that of crimson flowers opening under moonlight.
She was sexuality incarnate, everything that Gregory had forsworn and denied himself. She was an ancient goddess come to earth, but a goddess of night and mystery, not some bright Olympian deity. Her skin was copper, her hair copper made molten and poured over jet, coiling in serpentine ropes across her skin so that it concealed her ripe bare breasts, but only just; enough to hide nearly everything but suggest all, the nipples threatening to peek out from behind their curtain at every moment. The full curve of her hips, the firm rounded lines of her legs - all were visible. She wore nothing but a small kilt of bronze pieces that hung at her groin and clashed like the ringing of tiny cymbals at the gate to her sacred temple; that and the gold snakes that spiralled up her forearms and lower legs, their cunningly moulded coils clasping her limbs and striving ever-inward to her core.
She stepped across the room, moving like a dancer or a lioness. Her breasts swayed and bobbed under their own weight, hinting at dark nipples under the clinging fell of her hair. She trailed one hand across the top of the table, the better to emphasise the curves of her arm and her long fingers tipped with carnelian nails. She was a goddess; she was a harlot. Gregory felt his throat dry up and the blood surge to his loins. It was six years since he had lain upon a woman's flesh; almost four since he had seen a female face at all. The demoness clearly knew her business.
"Get out of here," he said in a low growl. "You will not get what you want from me." He had tried exorcising her in the name of Christ upon her first visit, but she had merely smiled enigmatically and ignored the command.
"What I want? It is what you want that concerns me. I know exactly what that is, Gregory. And I am here to give you what you need," she added, looking at his lap.
The folds of his rough robe covered any betraying sign; she could not possibly see what struggled beneath, he thought.
"A thousand nights alone, Gregory, and I can smell your frustration on the wind from here to Alexandria. Your lying awake in the dark, unable to sleep, unable to pray, terrified to touch the serpent flesh in your own bed ... The hardness of the pallet beneath you, the serpent trapped between flesh and stone ... The orphaned memories of slave-girls and palace bedrooms that return to haunt you ... Your seed spilt while you are sleeping. Do you think all these things are secret?"
She rocked her hips. The little skirt of metal pieces clinked and shifted, revealing the flame-coloured fleece beneath. In two steps she was standing over him where he knelt. Gregory shut his eyes as she took his head in her hands and pressed it against her raised thigh, so that his cheek and lips brushed her satiny skin. He did not struggle, but began the recite the Lord's Prayer rapidly under his breath, his lips tickling her soft flesh. The smell of her - perfume and musk, the rich hot scent of wanton woman - slipped down his throat.
"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil..."
She released his head and he raised his face to heaven, eyes still closed, features tight with concentration. She bent over him, her hair brushing his face first and then his shoulders. She bent lower and the ripe globes of her breasts bumped softly against his brow, and trailed down over cheek and nose. Gregory stopped speaking. Her breasts - soft, firm, alive with sensation - were big enough to encompass the whole of his face. His nose had slipped into the warm cleft between them. he could not breathe without inhaling the sweet smell of her skin.
She drew back enough to drag the weight of each rounded breast from side to side across his face, and the stiff point of each puckered nipple across his mouth. "Am I not what you desire above all else?" she murmured.
The Temptation of Saint Gregory appears in my very first short story collection, Cruel Enchantment, from way back in 2000. It was an early attempt to write a tale with a protagonist whose point of view I deeply disagreed with. I was going to draw out at length the deeper themes of self-deception and attitudes to carnality, but to be honest I think it all boils down to "Don't judge a book by its cover."
Poor old Gregory. He gets everything that's coming to him ...
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