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Mysteries of Yesteryear

Joan Perucho

Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem

Joan Perucho (1920-2003) wrote in both Catalan and Spanish and in most every genre—including art criticism and gastronomical writing—but considered himself a poet above all. He saw his apocryphal stories as a way of installing himself in the heart of the past. "The past will reveal to us the nature of the present,” he said. “As for the future, I see no signs that it will be happy.”


It actually wasn’t that hard to invoke spirits around a table. They were everywhere. Right there in Paris, in those years, the ghost of Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Knights Templar, burned alive in 1314, would regularly show up with no need for summoning and brazenly wind his way around the tip of the Vert-Galant, the Place Dauphine, and along the Pont Neuf. The Cluny museum also had its own bloody spirit, who only appeared to ladies, in the room that held the torture instruments, and in the light of day. That’s without taking into account the countless nighttime specters who wandered among the tombs of the Père-Lachaise cemetery reciting their sorrows for all to hear. One of those spirits, a young woman who’d been seduced and abandoned, left a perfumed trail of very fine lace handkerchiefs, sadly soaked with tears.

Things got exciting when Sofia Walder arrived in Paris from Charleston. Following the death of the Luciferian and apostate Abbe Constant, she became the leader of the Freemason occultists. Miss Walder was very beautiful and the favorite disciple of General Albert Pike, creator of the New and Reformed Palladium Rite. She was possessed of a diabolical temper and a glacial gaze and waswell aware of what she was doing. According to Léo Taxil, it was she who came up with the anticlerical version of “La Marseillaise,” whose abominable and celebrated first verses were as follows:

Allons! fils de la République,
Le jour du vote est arrivé!
Contre nous de la noire clique
L’oriflamme ignoble est levée (bis).

Entendez-vous tous ces infâmes
Croasser leurs stupides chants?
Ils voudraient, encore, les brigands,
Salir nos enfants et nos femmes.

Miss Walder forced the devil to show up in the flesh. The first time she did it turned out horribly but did serve to cement her lifelong command over him. Doctor Bataille, a very renowned occultist, explains it in his Le diable au XIXe siècle: “It happened at the home of Madame X., one Saturday evening, the day consecrated to Moloch. The lovely Sofia Walder had not warned anyone of her aims, and she began to say seven times the name of the Antichrist, which is Apollonius Zabah. She then immediately recited the invocation of Moloch, humbly apologizing for summoning him without the proper tools and pleading with him to appear at the gathering without claiming any victims. Suddenly, the table she was using for the spiritist exercises jumped up toward the ceiling and, as it fell, metamorphosed into a hideous crocodile with bat wings. There was general panic, and everyone was nailed to their seat, petrified. But the surprise reached a climax when the crocodile went over to an upright piano in the room, opened it up, sat down on the bench, and began to play a dissonant melody while directing an expressive and passionate gaze at Madame X., the lady of the house, leaving her modesty unsettled and her sentiments alarmed.

“Finally, the winged crocodile disappeared suddenly, leaving—strangely enough—all the liquor bottles on the buffet empty.”

Miss Walder’s success made her enormously famous. Yet around that same time, news came from the lodges in Philadelphia about another young woman gifted in the evil arts. Her name was Diana Vaughan and she was also very beautiful, although hers was a seemingly angelic beauty. Diana, one day, made a request at the Paris lodge, using forced relocation as a pretext, and asked to be admitted there. Sofia had a bad feeling about it and convinced the lodge secretary, a man by the name of Bordone, to present a motion against her admittance. They had gathered up the board of directors when, suddenly, a horrific scream was heard. In that exact moment, wicked Bordone’s head spun round on his shoulders and stopped when it was facing behind him. Every effort to return his head to its rightful place floundered and, finally, Sofia summoned a maleach who told them that the event had been caused by Asmodeus, the protector of Diana Vaughan, and that only she, if she received enough apologies, could bring an end to that highly vexing situation.

The Saint Jacques Triangle, which was the name of the Parisian lodge, sent a telegram ipso facto to Philadelphia with the most flattering compliments. Upon seeing it, Diana announced her immediate departure for Paris, and Bordone remained impatiently awaiting her during the twenty days it took her to cross the Atlantic. The poor wretch lost his appetite and quite a bit of weight, he didn’t leave the house, he covered his head with enormous scarves, and anyone asking to see him was told he was away on a trip. When Diana finally arrived, Bordone fell at her feet, begging forgiveness. Diana, who despite everything was good-natured, conceded his wish and, taking his head in her hands, gently returned it to its natural position.

Following those unparalleled occurrences, Sofia Walder’s star began to fade. Jealousy ate away at her heart. Diana was constantly gaining ground at the expense of Sofia, her mortal enemy, and replacing her everywhere. Once, Sofia Walder summoned the spirit of Ramon Sibiude, who answered her in Latin, leaving her with some written jottings that read: “Omnes qui eidem Adamo participavimus atque a serpente in fraudem inducti sumus, per peccatum mortui, ac per coelestem Adamo [um] saluti restituti atque ad vitae lignum…, etc.” In the text he twice used the word Adamo when, really, the second time he should have written Adamum. Was it possible that Sibiude could make a grammatical error in his Latin? Of course not, Diana triumphantly declared. That was the final straw that irrevocably sunk Sofia Walder.

Diana glimmered with power and beauty, and her reign lasted many years. In the end she converted to Catholicism, repented for her mistakes and, before her death, published a memoir that told all about the Masonic lodges. This “memoir” sold out quickly yet, inexplicably and despite all the time that’s passed, has never been reprinted.

No one knows what fate befell Sofia Walder, and her persona was plunged into the very darkest shadows. Some years later, it was said that a group of magicians in Lisbon had cut off her hands, which would gesticulate in response to any questions posed them. Many people searched for these bewitched hands and were willing to offer their weight in gold to obtain them, but they were never found. As the French say, it’s a story to make you sleep standing up. Nevertheless, I know of enthusiasts with cold, pallid skin, who still look for them in taxidermy shops, in antique stores and at the ragman’s, in museums, and even on the outskirts of large cities, in those empty lots where children play soccer beside construction sites, amid rubble and refuse, the sorts of places where it’s possible to find anything and everything: Sofia Walder’s hands, the crumpled gray flower of misery, or that one marvelous word that would shatter the world into fifty thousand shards.


When casting spells, warlocks rely on magical circles to protect them when the devils they summon appear. It seems there is nothing at all pleasant about the spectacle, and if they drop their guard even slightly, they get a terrific thrashing, as happened to our compatriot, the magician Belarmino de Arriaza, who was left with a twisted spine as a result of a spell gone wrong. Devils are particularly peeved when they are forced to appear, which is why The Sworn Book of Honorius gives detailed instructions on how to draw the circles, adding that one can never safely summon demons without being inside a protective circle, since the first thing they’ll do is seize hold of and pummel you.

However, in some cases the demons show up entirely uninvited. One of those cases—perhaps the most peculiar—is that of Monsieur Alexis-Vicent-Charles Berbiguier, who lived at number 54 rue Mazarine in Paris from 1813 to 1817, and suffered indescribably from the devils and imps that followed him everywhere. He would encounter them in his house, on the street, crossing the Pont Neuf and the Pont au Change, and even beneath the portico of the Église Saint-Roch or when visiting at friends’ homes. Berbiguier sharpened his ability to see hellish things to such an extent that he was able to discover the devils’ representatives here in our world. For example: Moreau, Beelzebub’s representative in Paris; Nicolas, a doctor from Avignon and the representative of Moloch; Prieur, a drug merchant and representative of Lilith, etc.

The occultist Émile Grillot de Givry tells us, in his Le musée des sorciers, mages et alchimistes, that Vincent-Charles Berbiguier had a nemesis, the warlock M. Pinel, who lived at number 12 rue des Postes. One day, evil Pinel arrived at Berbiguier’s house through the chimney, maliciously intent on tormenting him. That was clear proof that Pinel was a warlock or, even worse, a true devil or farfadet, as Berbiguier liked to call the beings from hell. The farfadets and farfadettes—he also called the female imps parafarquines—were so insolent they once tumultuously followed him home from the Grand Penitentiary of Notre-Dame with great scorn and derision. The First Restoration and les Cent-Jours scarcely intimidated the furies of the netherworld, who refused to let up their bedeviling of good Berbiguier.

All of these things were recounted in the three volumes of his autobiographical work Les farfadets, published in Paris in the year 1821. The edition is richly adorned with eight stupendous lithographs illustrating Berbiguier’s vicissitudes. They are truly captivating. “The first lithograph,” the author comments, “depicts me in the moment in which I decide to adopt the nickname of Fléau (Scourge) des Farfadets. The second portrays the room where Jeanneton Lavalette and la Mançot (witches, no doubt) reveal the Tarot before my eyes. In that moment I was under the influence of a malign planet; in the corners are two devils in the guise of a monkey and a bat. The third lithograph,” continues Berbiguier, “shows an image of Rhotomago, followed by a bedraggled entourage of horned imps, coming to suggest I join their execrable fellowship. I reject them, indignant, as I stare fixedly at the Holy Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The hell sent grow frightened at the sight of my bottle containing several thousand prisoners of their abominable army. In spite of it all, Rhotomago dares not raise his pitchfork against me. The fourth lithograph shows the scene with a firefighter as I was making my preparations to ensure a sunny, cloudless sky for the festival day of our good King (M. Berbiguier had burned sulfur to keep away the charming farfadets and the neighbors had called the fire department thinking there was a conflagration). In the fifth, I am seen preparing my potions with aromatic plants. The sixth depicts me continuing my preparation of the antifarfadéen remedy. I am seated beside my fireplace, at a table covered in pins, herbs, sulfur, salts, etc. There is also a bottle filled with captive demons. I observe my prisoners with a provocative gaze, but they are powerless to respond. Evil Pinel, armed with a pitchfork and accompanied by horrendous invisible beings, sought to terrorize me; but nothing can disrupt the tranquility of my senses. Étienne Prieur (a student of law), transformed into a pig, cannot resist the scent of my anti-infernal plants and he vomits up what he has perhaps ingested at the home of another of his victims. In the seventh lithograph appears a great concourse of demons, with Beelzebub and Rhotomago in the foreground. Among those in attendance are Monsieurs Pinel, Moreau, Chaix, and Étienne Prieur, the latter in pig guise as always and complaining of the pricking of my pins. Lastly, the eighth illustration is a portrait of hell with the infamous Belphegor and a he-goat. Among the crowd we find Jeanneton Lavalette, la Mançot, and la Vendaval. All the symbols around the image are magical symbols.”

This edition of Les farfadets sold out quickly and was never reprinted. A few years ago, during the German occupation of Paris, General Ludwig von Wier found a complete copy of this extremely rare work and, ever since then, communicated with the farfadets, whom he subjected to a very harsh and scientific pro-German military reeducation. The Führer took great interest in this case and maintained lively discussions with Wier. Alas, the general disappeared in the most enigmatic of ways, leaving behind only his dentures.


All morning amid the desert brambles, the blue jay, bird of azure flight, squawked and ran like a lunatic from one rock to the next, crouching in fear for no apparent reason, until Charlie was happily born into the world. The newborn opened his eyes to the light on a squalid ranch and bawled in the arms of his father, the brave Tom Sanders, who very carefully spat out his chewing tobacco and wiped his lips on the back of his hand before picking Charlie up. In the kitchen some steaming beans with pig’s ear were boiling, and out in the corral, as usual, the hens scratched at the ground. Mrs. Sanders, from the bed, told her husband to put the baby down in his crib and go fetch a bucket of water from the pond.

Charlie’s father died in 1820 in the Indian Wars and typhoid fever took his wife three years later. As such, Charlie became an orphan and, at six years old, he was entrusted to the care of an aunt who lived in Boston. She told him very proudly that his father had been a man of great physical resilience who once, at a fair, bought a bottle of hair-growing solution from a charlatan, thinking that it was eau-de-vie, and guzzled it down in one gulp. He’d spent several days on the border between life and death, but finally his strong constitution won out, and he survived. He was left, however, a bit soft in the head.

Charlie had a sad, ill-fated childhood. When he left school, he worked successively as an electrician, druggist, dental assistant, messenger, and office employee. In 1842 he made friends with a painter who’d won a gold medal for a Dying Hercules, named Samuel F. B. Morse, but who was now claiming to have invented the telegraph. Charlie was astonished. At once all messages traveled extremely quickly, and he watched them fly fantastically throughout the States of the Union. He was so applied in his learning of the telegraph that Morse named him his assistant, and he made much progress in the field of telecommunications. When Western Union and the American Telegraph Company exploited Morse’s invention, Charlie’s extraordinary knowledge got him named director of the latter, and he invented the telegraph pump and the wireless telegraph. It goes without saying that, before long, Charlie became a rich man.

One day, something truly strange happened to Charlie. He was in his office, immersed in a deep meditation on telegraphic subjects, when all of a sudden he saw a small corner table rise up from the ground, fly through the air at varying speeds, and land gracefully to one side of the door. Then he observed that, in the place where the table had always been, there was a pot with a gilded lily and a bed of ripe strawberries. Charlie rubbed his eyes, not believing what he was seeing. He tasted a strawberry and found it very good and very sweet smelling. That extraordinary occurrence made him ill, and he had to take to his bed for some time.

The events repeated when he returned to work. That altered the course of his life, since as soon as he closed the door to his office, he forgot all about the telegraph and anxiously waited for the show to unfold. He became melancholy. Things got more complicated, and disconcerting objects began to appear, like cavalry trumpets, embroidered pillows adorned with ribbons, bloody axes from the Sioux Wars, repulsive and broken sets of teeth. He wrote to the great spiritist Allan Kardec, asking if meddlesome spirits act out of personal animosity or random, unprovoked malice. His answer was, “Both. Sometimes they are enemies you’ve made, in this life or previous ones, seeking you out, and other times they have no motive whatsoever.”

At the height of his befuddlement, just months later, Charlie was introduced, by Julia Ward Howe, feminist and writer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to the chemist William Crookes, who’d recently arrived from London. Crookes, through the medium Florence Cook, managed to summon a well-known female spirit named Katie King. Miss King appeared swathed in transparent and perfumed white veils and was languid and beautiful. Charlie, upon seeing her, fell head over heels in love. He stopped worrying about the apparitions that haunted him and showed up at Crookes’s sessions with his heart aflutter and a lovely bouquet of red roses, which he invariably and excitedly offered to Miss King. However, suddenly and with no prior warning, Miss King never reappeared again. There were various versions of the affair. Around that time many fake mediums were unmasked, and it was said that, during their materializations, they would expel the ectoplasm they’d cleverly hidden in their mouths, carefully blowing it out into the darkness, and then at the end of the session they’d gather it up ignominiously into their most shameful recesses. This detail triggered a collapse in Charlie, and he had to be admitted to a public sanatorium.

American Telegraph paid for the finest doctors, who performed vigorous and revolutionary procedures. Nevertheless, Charlie continued to deteriorate. One April morning, the nurses walked in on Charlie reciting verbatim the entirety of the commentaries, or apparatus, by the glossator Irnerius on the text of the Pandectae. Seeing as he lacked the adequate legal training and had no knowledge of medieval Latin, that was a truly anomalous occurrence. It was only then, after much reflection, that the doctors declared him insane.

Mara Faye Lethem is an awardwinning translator of contemporary Catalan and Spanish prose, and the author of A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small (Antibookclub). Her recent translations include books by Patricio Pron, Max Besora, Javier Calvo, Marta Orriols, Toni Sala, Alicia Kopf, and Irene Sol. She is currently translating the work of Pere Calders as part of her PhD at the University of St Andrews.


About the author

Joan Perucho (1920-2003) was born in Barcelona. His best-known work, Natural History (Les històries naturals), was included in Harold Bloom’s Western Canon. The stories in this issue are from his Històries apòcrifes (Apocryphal Stories).

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