Jacques is telling it…
Directly after Sext, I hurry along the south alley towards the abbot’s lodging. But just as I enter the mossy passage, I find brother Hique blocking my way with his massive bulk:
‘Hello Lazarus. And where are you off to?’
‘Nowhere? You are in an awful hurry to be going nowhere.’
‘Please, get out of my way. I’m late.’
‘Late for nowhere. Where is nowhere, when this passage leads directly to the abbot’s lodging? Has he summoned you to his private camera.’
‘Then what is your business here?’
‘My daily task.’
‘And what would that be?’
‘To shovel snow from the abbot’s door; and to clear his path before the feast.’
‘Who assigned this task? Certainly not Odo.’
‘Father abbot asked me.’
‘When? I haven’t seen him all morning. Ooo! You are a devious devil up to no good! Clear the path? I think not! Your forked tongue is trying to decieve me!’
‘Nay brother. I came here to shovel snow.’
‘Shovel snow? Then what of your flesh? The winter sun will surely burn you…’
‘Not if I keep to the shadows.’
‘You are always skulking in the shadows. Now be honest: what are you up to?’
‘Nothing. Let me pass.’
‘But you must!’
‘Why? What is so urgent about shovelling snow?’
‘The Janus will be angry if his path is not cleared.’
The fat man shrugs:
‘I’m not afraid of that two-faced monster. As for “our material father”, I’d like to stick him with my knife… Clear his path of snow? I don’t believe a word of it. Ooo! You crafty fox. What are you about? Tell me. Why has father abbot summoned you to his camera?’
‘You can’t pull the wool over my eyes. Clear his path indeed. By Jupiter, I’ve never heard such rot. Well, you can forget about shovelling snow. With a bit of luck, the abbot will slip and break his miserable neck. Clear his path? Pah! I would rather pour goose fat and lardons all over it!’
I struggle to pass, squeezing between the wall and his hips:
‘Get out of my way!’
‘No. I have a little task for you…’
He grabs my ear and pulls me off:
‘Come with me Lazarus. You can help in the frater…’
‘Let go! You’re hurting me!’
‘Don’t be so soft, you fuzzy little firkin. What a pussy cat you are! You frightened me at first, with your big horns and red eyes, but you’re just a measly milksop, aren’t you?’
‘Listen to me: I’m very angry with you! Let me go, or you’ll regret it. By Satan, I’ll do you great mischief!’
He twists my ear until it burns:
‘So, you plan to do me a mischief, eh? Just what do you propose to do?’
‘I’ll gouge you with my horns!’
‘Gouge me with your horns? Your horns affright me not, you accursed devil. Curst cows have curt horns, or as we say in Latin: Dat Deus immiti cornua curta bovi.’
I stumble along, bumping into his wide girth as he yanks me down the alley. The stench of his body makes me want to gag; he smells like a rotten slug, drowned in ale, ten days old.
‘Hique, let me go! You don’t understand! I have to be somewhere.’
‘Somewhere or nowhere? What gibberish you speak. If you must be somewhere, how can you be nowhere? – Which is where you said you were going in the first place!’
‘Father abbot summoned me. Let – me – go!’
‘You drunken lard arse! Release me!’
‘Lard arse? Ha, ha. That’s funny, coming from a goat head like you. I may be fat, but at least I wasn’t born in the image of the devil!’
‘Let me go or be dammed! I swear, if you don’t release me, you’ll come back as a mongrel bitch, a rabbit or a mare.(i) Maybe a filthy rat or even an ox.’
‘You filthy cur! How dare you insult me so! You’ve been up to no good ever since you arrived. Now get in there you red-eyed monster!’
He opens the frater door and throws me inside.
The spartan chamber has been transformed into a nobleman’s hall. Tapestries hang from the walls and the floor is strewn with rushes, verbena and sage. The space is re-arranged to accommodate both lay and choir brethren alike. Tables from the lay frater stand by the serving hatch, whilst the choir tables form a semi-circle around the dais at the far end. Everything is bright and gay with the gleam of pewter jugs and candlesticks.
‘Right,’ says Hique, ‘Like I said, I have a little job for you…’
‘But I can’t brother!’
‘Ah yes, I forgot: you have to be “nowhere”. Well, before you go “nowhere”, you can stay with me and set the tables. You will find cups and platters in the cupboard—off you go…’
Hique stands by the door, his bulk forming an impossible impasse. There’s no way out. I cannot believe this twist of fate: the Titan awaits my blood and I have been sidelined into setting tables! I run to the cupboard in panic, skidding on the rushes. Hique chuckles at my plight:
‘Slow down Lazarus, slow down. More care less haste. We don’t want you falling over do we? You might break a leg and end up in the infirmary again… But I shall not pity your case. I did not pity your case when you were half-frozen. Much less so when you were you half-roasted. Especially when your greedy gullet was robbing me of all kinds of succulent meats. Yet how you have withered since: you’re all skin and bone. But the lighter the better in your case; then you might fly away like a feather on the wind. I should like to see the back of you…’
‘Then let me go.’
‘Not until you have set the tables.’
‘Father Janus will be very angry with you…’
‘You should be flayed like rye for consorting with that devil… I knew you were plotting something in choir.’
‘You said the Pater Noster with your eyes wide open. You can’t deny it. My good angel inspired my to peep. And there you were, gawping like a mule with sore eyes… I thought to myself: “What is he doing here?” I mean, you cannot be happy. You don’t fit in. You never did and you never will. Now that Ricon has left us, I shall make it my mission to continue his work. Gall is bitter and black. But I know far better ways to spoil your gruel. Invisible, poisonous ways…’
‘I already have poison in my veins.’
‘Indeed you do. Methinks you are consumed by a secret flame. I have no doubt that you are wiser than your years. You may be gifted with the Roman tongue but I am an expert in poisons. All kinds of poisons. Think yourself wise? Not even Socrates could stomach hemlock.’
‘You show consummate ignorance to threaten me. You kick against the spur. The Janus will have you expelled.’
‘The Janus is living on borrowed time.’
The sound of crashing pans echoes beyond the serving hatch. Hique leers:
‘Brother Anselm is busy with his sauces. Do you like his cooking? Be careful what you eat. Five years past, a monk who crossed me died after eating pancakes. He lay in agony for hours. His lips turned blue; blood oozed from his eyes and ears. His back arched and his limbs splayed out in all directions. He pleaded for mercy but brother Jean could do naught to ease his pains. He gave up the ghost the following day, with green foam frothing at his lips. Yet who poisoned him is a complete mystery… Consummate ignorance? Nay, ’tis you who kick against the spur. Do not defy me brother Lazarus. Forget your business with father abbot.’
‘Let me go, or I will put a spell on you.’
‘You silly child. You do not frighten me. You shall eat the feast with the rest of us.’
‘I’m not hungry.’
His belly grumbles and he rubs his chest:
‘You cannot deny the food smells good.’
‘The smell of roast flesh makes me want to vomit.’
‘And why is that I wonder? Was your mother burnt as a witch? Oh yes indeed, the feast does smell good. Brother Anselm has been hard at work stuffing bustards, bitterns and partridges. His copper pans are bubbling with sauces. He makes a very fine sauce, does brother Anselm; and his fiery kitchen is hanging with all manner of game; I counted fifteen pheasants, ten woodcocks, twelve hares and sixteen pigeons. All six spits are turning with hog roast. Oh yes, a very fine feast this will be. A very fine feast indeed…’
‘And will you be eating it all by yourself?’
‘What?’ snarls Hique. ‘I’ll cut your measly tongue!’
The fat man pulls his knife, waves it in the air, and barks:
‘Pugnus in mala hærebit! [I will dash you in the face with my fist].’
But just then Odo enters:
‘Hique! Quid hoc rei est? [What is the meaning of this?]’
‘Oh, er, hello father. I was just instructing Lazarus on the finer points of table setting. But he’s good for nothing and not worth having. He is such a poor monk that I am ashamed to even look at him. There is great evil in his eyes. I knew he was bad the moment I found him in the snow. Believe me prior, the Janus has a plot with him. The devil take me if I tell a lie.’
‘Silence!’ snaps Odo. ‘What do you mean by threatening him with a knife?’
‘I don’t trust him. And I’m right not to trust him. His coming was a bad omen. Malum signum [a bad sign]. He sows fire and death. Why do you defend him? By god, he wants to change me into a rabbit!’
‘An ox!’ I glower. ‘You’ll come back as an ox!’
‘Prior, can you not see he’s in league with the devil? I’ve been watching this slugabed ever since he arrived. Do you know he was on his way to the abbot’s lodging. To clear the path, he said. But I don’t believe a word of it. He’s up to no good, I tell you! Sine dubio! [Without doubt!]’
‘That’s enough!’ snaps Odo. ‘Put that knife away at once. You should know better than to threaten a mere novitiate, whose head is still full of pagan superstitions. Hique! Must I tell you again? Put that knife away or take six strokes of the rod. It’s up to you. Which is it to be?’
Reluctantly, Hique puts his knife away. He scowls at the prior and adds:
‘Do you know he called me lard arse? That’s very disrespectful!’
Odo holds up his hand:
‘Hique, I don’t want to hear it. Do you know the brethren are queuing in cloister?’
‘No father. Well are we ready or not?’
Hique flusters and looks about the tables:
‘Er… Are we ready? Now let me see… Yes father, I think so… The tables are set, the jugs are full, and there’s a cup at each platter. Yes, I am happy to say we are ready. You can send them in. No! No! Wait! The candles! I forgot to light the candles!’
‘Candles?’ gasps Odo. ‘It seems a profligate waste to light candles at noon.’
‘Oh yes prior, it does indeed. But candles remind us of the Light that the good Lord brought into the world… And just think how pretty our frater will look, with so many twinkling flames. And there’s another good reason for lighting candles—they calm the nerves and soothe the stomach. But why this is so, I cannot say, for the stomach is blind. Yet the guts seem to know so many things. I shouldn’t wonder if my belly button is a secret eye.’
‘Oh stop warbling!’ snaps Odo. ‘We haven’t got time for your nonsense.’
‘But don’t you ever get gut feelings prior? My gut tells me that Lazarus is not for the cloister. And my gut also knows that candles soothe the nerves…’
‘Yes, yes, all right, all right. Light the candles if you must. But be quick about it or we’ll have a riot on our hands. The lay brethren are waiting in the cold; they have few redeeming qualities and patience isn’t one of them.’
The fat man waddles to the pulpit and lights a taper from a lamp. Then he wheezes round the tables lighting the candles in turn. He takes an inordinately long time, so I follow suit, lighting another taper and darting round the dais.
‘That’s very good Lazarus,’ beams Odo. ‘I like a boy who thinks on his feet.’
When all is lit, Hique beams with pride and pats his belly with anticipation:
‘Ah! Such pretty lights. My nerves are calmed already. Very well father prior, you can send them in now…’
Odo gives the nod and the lay brethren flock through the door like sheep through a gunnel. I have never seen such burly brutes! Great hulks of men with heads like shovelled sods, their eyes set fists apart. But as soon as they spy the twinkling lights, they pause dumbstruck and wander to the tables in silence. And there they stand, mouths watering at the smell of hog roast which wafts through the serving hatch. I move toward the door but Hique grabs my arm and whispers:
‘Not so fast Lazarus. You shall sit with me: where I can keep a close eye on you…’
‘I’m not hungry. I feel sick. Let me go or I’ll wretch on the tables…’
To Odo’s dismay, the musicians starts tuning their instruments and the hurdy-gurdy begins to drone:
‘Er, I didn’t say to play,’ he flusters.
But the lutenist just grins in defiance and cajoles his consort on. Odo throws up his hands in despair and walks out the door. The brethren start mumbling and the rule of silence is flouted in all quarters. Jokes and jests echo in the vault and merry laughter rings off the walls.
Hique leers in delight and drags me to the dais. He shoves me along a bench where brother Bernard is already seated at one end:
‘What’s the meaning of this?’ asks Bernard. ‘What are you doing here Lazarus? This is not your table… Hique! Why have you brought him here?’
‘Lazarus will be joining us today. I hope you don’t mind brother Bernard, but I want to keep an eye on him.’
‘Well I don’t. I want to keep my eyes off him. The very sight of him turns my stomach. The ugly monster. Must he sit between us?’
‘Absolutely. He must.’
Bernard screws up his face and bares his rotten teeth:
‘Oh very well, if you insist… Though why I should sit next to a devil on Christmas Day is a mystery only Christ can fathom. Oh Lazarus! be still would you please! Stop waving those horns about!’
‘I can’t help it.’
He clouts my head and snaps:
‘Fool! You’re a pain in the arse!’
‘And you smell like a wet dog! Do you think I like sitting next to you?’
‘What?’ exclaims Bernard. ‘Show me some respect!’
‘Yes!’ seethes Hique. ‘Show us some respect!’
There’s no escape: I’m trapped against the wall, with Bernard on my right and Hique on my left. Presently, Jean and the three dwarves sit down on the other side of the table.
‘Hello Lazarus!’ beams Jean. What a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting to see you at our table…’ Then he turns to Bernard and adds: ‘I’ve just seen a band of gypsies at the gate.’
‘Gypsies? And what did they want on our Lord’s birthday?’
‘The wanted to see the miracle man.’
‘Miracle man?’ asks Hique, bemused. ‘What mircale man?’
‘Well, that’s what I said,’ replies Jean.
‘Perhaps they meant our blessed Lord,’ suggests Bernard. ‘Those gypsies are woefully ignorant. I hope you told them where to go: to hell and the devil. Last year they pilfered all our trout.’
‘They did,’ grouses Hique. ‘Like a plague of locusts, they trampled the precinct and overran the grange; they bore down all before them, including the orchard. Those cursed gypsies; every year they trespass against our abbey…’
‘I am particularly fond of trout,’ adds Bernard. ‘Trout is a very fine fish, a very fine fish indeed—especially stewed in perry. Alas, thanks to the gypsies, we shall not be having trout this season. Our ponds are empty and all we have are minnows.’
Belon buts in:
‘Do you know, I once caught a gypsy in the garth? She was thieving herbs, so I chased her off with a rake. But was she afraid? Not a bit. She just parted her flaps and pissed in the parsley!’
‘I do not envy their wandering life,’ says Jean. ‘They look so frail and hungry.’
‘Do not pity them,’ grumbles Hique. ‘Gypsies are no better than rats. Their intention is our destruction. The women raise storms and darken the sky with clouds. All their wares are worthless, and their remedies laced with poison.’
Lucas nudges Jean and winks:
‘I once knew a gypsy who used to give medicine for sick eyes. There came to her a blind baron who said: “Give me my sight, and I’ll give you my gold.” So the gypsy fetched a cat’s eyes and put them for his. Well, the baron saw much better than before. But after a week, he returned to the gypsy, and said: “Do me a favour: give me my old eyes, and take the cat’s eyes back.” “But why?” asked the gypsy. “Have you gone blind again?” The baron shook his head and said: “No. My sight is perfect. But I fear from seeing so many mice that I cannot sleep!” ’
‘Oh!’ cries Jean. ‘That is funny! Cat’s eyes! Yes! Yes! Very good!’
But Bernard just grumbles:
‘Curséd gypsies. All their cures are hexes.’
More monks file in.
Guillaume sides up to the table with a smile and sits beside Jean. Poufille follows after, dragging his giant hand, and sits beside Guillaume. Soon the hall is crammed and every place is full. The clatter of pans sound from the kitchen and all eyes fall on the serving hatch. Just then Odo reappears in the doorway with bell in hand. He rings it furiously and the music stops. When the brethren have stooped mumbling, he asks:
‘Is father abbot here?’
‘No! Cries Hique. ‘He is not. Why? Are you expecting him?’
A great cry of laughter goes up.
Odo waits, rapping his fingers on the table. Bernard grows impatient and cries:
‘Prior! Is father abbot coming or not? Must we wait in vain on the Lord’s birthday? Shall you let that wicked Janus spoil everything? The feast will go cold!’
There is much foot stomping as the lay brethren begin to jeer. Odo strides to the pulpit, climbs the steps, then raises his hand and says:
‘Be still brethren, be still. I fear father Janus is unwell and will not be joining us this happy day. I know you are all eager to give yourselves up to feasting and making merry. But before the wine flows in abundance, and we raise out cups to health and good fortune, let us remember why we are here…’
Lucas groans under his breath:
‘Not another bloody sermon.’
Henri elbows him in the ribs and seethes:
‘Hold your tongue, or you’ll get us thrown out.’
The crowd settles and all eyes fall on the pulpit. Odo says:
‘This Christmas Day, we contemplate the eternal generation of the Word. For we celebrate the temporal birth of the humanity of Jesus, and the spiritual birth of the mystical Body of Christ. “God,” says Saint Paul, “inhabiteth light inaccessible.”(ii) “No one knoweth the Son but the Father: neither doth any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal Him.”(iii) It was to make God known to man that Christ came to earth, incarnating The Word in visible form. And that union of the divine and human nature in the Person of the Son of God must correspond to our own divinization. Our union with the Word by that sanctifying grace and supernatural charity which affirms we are One with Christ, and that Mother Church is His spouse on Earth. He is the head and we are the members. Through the coming of Christ we are born again into eternal life, for the birth of the head is at the same time the birth of the body. So that in Him we may be made a new creature and a new work. Let us strip ourselves of the old man with his deeds,(iv) and having been admitted to share in the divinity of Christ, let us cast off the works of the flesh. As you feast this day, ever remind yourself of the Head and the Body to which you belong, and never forget that Christ delivered you from the powers of darkness… On this blessed day, we remember that we must abound in good works, and all our activities must be consumed with nothing but the radiance of the Word which fills our hearts. So let us pray the Creed together…’
‘Again?’ whispers Lucas. ‘We said it just an hour ago.’
A solemn murmur floats into the vault:
Credo in unum Deum: Patrem omnipoténtem, factórem cæli at terræ, visibílium ómnium at invisibílium.
Et in unum Dóminum Jesum Christum, Fílium Dei unigénitum. Et ex Patre natum ante ómnia sæcula. Deum de Deo, lumen de lúmine, Deum verum de Deo vero. Génitum, non factum; consubstantiálem Patri; per quem ómnia facta sunt. Qui propter nos hómines, et propter nostram salútem descéndit de cælis. Et inacrnatus est de Spiritu Sancto, ex Maria Virgine; et homo factus est. Crucifíxus étam pro nobis; sub Póntio Piláto passus et sepúltus est. Est resurréxit tértia die secúndum Scriptúras. Et ascéndit in cælum, sedet ad déxteram Patris. Et íterum ventúrus est, cum glória, judicáre vivos et mórtuos; cujus regninon erit finis.
Et in Spíritum Sanctum, Dóminum et vivificántem, qui ex Patre Filió que procédit; qui cum Patre et Fílio simul adorátur et conglorificátur; qui locútus est per Prophétas.
Et unam, sanctam cathólicam et apostólicam Ecclésiam. Confíteor unum baptísma in remissiónem peccatórum. Et exspécto resurrectiónem mortuórum. Et vitam ventúri sæculi. Amen.
[I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; born of the Father before all ages; God of God, light of light, true God of true God; begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made. Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven. And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary; and was made man. He was crucified also for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate, and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures. And ascended into heaven, He sitteth at the right hand of the Father. And He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead; of whose kingdom there shall be no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver or life. Who proceedeth from the father and the Son; who together with the father and the Son is adored and glorified; who was spoke by the Prophets.
And in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the resurrection of the dead. And the life of the world to come. Amen].
The heavenly Creed wafts from our lips like a potent spell; it rises high into the eaves and arches overhead, spreading out like a protecting veil, before falling again like manna. I want to rise with it, high into the Heavens, and float amid the flurries that tumble past the windows. Yes, I long to strip off the old man with his useless deeds, and cast off the works of the flesh. But my terrestrial mind is fixed on the Titan below. For I cannot contemplate the mystery of the Man-God without recourse to the Essence and what the Janus told of the Monads. Wind rattles the windows and Lucifer whispers:
‘Lazarus! Make haste to meet me! You shall be born again this day; I shall make thee new flesh and new blood! By the power of my inaccessible light, you shall reincarnate…’
I am startled by a loud bang as the serving hatch opens in a cloud of steam. Brother Anselm appears in the vapours, his bulbous head bright as berry. He grins and cries:
‘Merry Christmas brethren!’
A great cheer goes up as six trays of roast boar are carried to the tables. The brethren fall from the Creed in ravenous desire, dividing their portions of flesh in Orphic orgy. Wine flows in abundance, glugging from flagons into overflowing cups. Soon the great hall is resounding with music, for three troubadours sing by the door, strumming lutes and harps. Amongst this happy throng, I spot the Steward from the vill, feasting with his lay brethren. He catches my eye and raises his cup with a sly twinkle.
The riotous feast goes on about me like a delirious dream. All I see are greasy mouths slurping on offals, crunching on trotters, and sucking on bones. I’m glad for their revels, but ’tis precious little comfort to see these affable wolves so happy when I am so anxious for Death. The Titanic rite is imminent and my new incarnation is slipping away. How can I escape without being seen? I decide there is nothing left to do but simply get up and leave. So I stand and declare:
‘Forgive me, but I’m feeling sick. I must retire to bed.’
‘No. You are staying put!’ snaps Hique, tugging my cowl.
Jean scowls at the fat man:
‘Er, Hique, if Lazarus is unwell, why not let him rest in the infirmary?’
‘Lazarus isn’t going anywhere,’ replies Hique. ‘He’s up to no good.’
Just then, a fire-eater spews a fountain of flame over our heads. Jean forgets my defence at once:
‘How splendid!’ he cries.
A round of applause fills the chamber as three tumblers somersault down the aisle. I grow giddy at the leaping flames and try plotting my escape. But I’m stuck fast—for Hique has gathered my cowl and pinned it under his vast behind.
Torchlight sparkles on the windows, and through the clouds I spy the pale disc of the sun eaten away at its lower limb. The transit of the moon! O Lucifer, do something!
Bernard picks some gristle from his teeth and grouses:
‘If the abbot thinks I can be bought with fire-eaters and tumblers, he is gravely mistaken.’
‘You misjudge him,’ replies Jean. ‘You cannot know how he suffers. His twin is a great burden to him.’
‘Pah!’ scoffs Bernard. ‘’Tis a burden to us all. Thank god it’s not here. Every time I see it I loose my appetite.’
‘Consider yourself lucky,’ scorns Jean. ‘Father Janus has stopped eating altogether.’
‘Why, is he trying to kill himself?’ jests Bernard.
‘No,’ replies Jean. ‘The abbot also suffers from an iliac passion—passio iliaca—which is a chronic obstruction of the intestines. I have tried administering a clyster but to no avail. The condition is acutely painful, and causes faecal vomiting. On top of which, he suffers from burning urine due to an enlarged kidney stone and laceration of the bladder. Not to mention an infestation of worms, which refuse to vacate his bowels, despite repeated enematas of scammony and salt…’
‘Do you mind?’ winces Lucas. ‘I am trying to enjoy my platter!’
‘Yes, enough of the abbot’s diabolic maledictions,’ slurps Bernard. ‘Why do you defend him?’
‘I am merely trying to point out, that until you have walked in another man’s shoes, you are not fit to judge,’ states Jean.
‘Pigs ears!’ sneers Bernard. ‘The Lord shall judge him, subject to his evils. Why do you think so many filthy worms cleave to his flesh? According to Odo, the Janus is a warlock… The last I heard he was sleeping in the ossuary.’
‘The ossuary?’ puzzles Jean. ‘Whatever for?’
‘He is a necromancer,’ declares Hique.
‘Who told you that?’ asks Jean.
‘I overheard him arguing with Odo,’ confides Hique. ‘They had very fierce words.’
‘What Hique really means to say, is that he was listening at the door,’ grins Lucas.
‘What if I was listening? As cellarer I have a vested interest in the fortunes of this house.’
‘Whatever you heard, I would forget it,’ says Jean, knocking back his wine. ‘’Tis well known that Odo and Adam have long shared a mutual hatred.’
‘Necromancer?’ ponders Poufille. ‘Are you sure?’
Hique nods, chomping on his trotters:
‘Yes, necromancer. Absolutely. That’s what Odo said. I heard him. No doubt about it.’
‘But to call up the spirits of the dead is sacrilegious!’ exclaims Poufille. ‘I cannot believe father abbot is a necromancer.’
‘Well nothing would surprise me as far as that Janus is concerned,’ sighs Bernard. ‘His devotion is wholly unrestrained in every direction. Like a pagan, he worships many gods according to the season. His lewd carvings are testament to his heathen heart.’
‘You cannot deny that he is a great mason,’ says Henri. ‘I have no doubt that the abbot sins gravely, but he has also taught me a great many things. Especially of ancient Greece and the tales of Odysseus. And his knowledge of the scriptures is second to none.’
‘Oh yes, grumbles Bernard. ‘He can quote the vulgate at the drop of a hat. But his heretic soul is beyond salvation. He is a total hypocrite. His cowl is a leaden cloak: it presents itself as gleaming white, but it weighs too heavily on his pagan shoulders. And it makes any spiritual improvement quite impossible.’
‘That is most unkind,’ chides Jean. ‘When he suffers with such a terrible condition. Surely his affliction is the most wretched of all—to be fused with Our Material Father…’
‘It shames me to call that conjoined monster Our Material Father,’ replies Bernard. ‘’Tis evil, and nothing you say will convince me otherwise. No wonder he calls it Our Material Father, when he himself is altogether worldly. Not to mention his aimless, drifting lust. As far as I’m concerned, we are better off without him.’
Guillaume, who has been listening intently to all this, chimes his goblet with his knife then says:
‘Disturbances in the deep; our abbot in the ossuary. Does that not strike you as more than just coincidence?’
‘How do you know the haunting comes from the ossuary?’ asks Belon.
‘Oh, the demon came from below, no doubt about it,’ says Lucas.
‘Perhaps it came from the woods,’ suggests Belon.
‘The woods?’ scoffs Guillaume. ‘ How so, when the ground is covered in snow, with not a footprint to be seen for miles around?’
‘Spirits do not make footprints,’ says Belon.
‘Shall we change the subject?’ suggests Jean, brightly.
‘Ugh!’ spits Bernard. ‘This trotter is all gristle…’
‘Then give it to me,’ quips Hique, reaching for the hoof.
‘Get your filthy paws off,’ replies Bernard, slapping his hand.
‘Look at poor Odo,’ whispers Jean. ‘He is sitting all alone. Such a long sour face. He doesn’t look very happy, does he? Perhaps we should ask him to join us.’
‘What?’ winces Lucas. ‘And spoil our merriment? Are you mad? Father Odo is best left to himself. He has a fine gravity about him that shouldn’t be disturbed.’
Presently the steward arrives at our table and says:
‘Greetings brother Jacques. And how are you finding the cloister…’
‘Er, his name is Lazarus now,’ says Nicaise.
‘Oh, I see—a new name for a new life. Well how is it with you brother Lazarus? Are you enjoying the feast?’
‘I’m not hungry. And to be quite honest, I think all these candles are a profligate waste of money—especially when tallow is four times the price of meat.’
The steward’s jaw drops in astonishment. The dwarves are shocked to silence. Then Bernard bursts out laughing:
‘Oh! Well said that man! Tallow four times the price of meat! Very good!’
The steward grins:
‘I see your tongue is as keen as ever Jacques, and so is your memory. Well, I respect your eyes and ears—and would not presume to wound them with unfitting words. But I must say I find the candles most festive.’
‘Do not take Lazarus too seriously,’ says Jean. ‘He meant no offence. He is still young, and newly embarked on his vocation.’
‘Yes, he is a white monk now, and living in the lap of luxury. But I have known Jacques since he was a lowly churl, with neither boots nor friends, making rush-lights for a living. And where he comes from, they still call him “The Goblin”.’
‘Goblin?’ titters Jean. ‘Oh villeins can be so cruel.’
‘Yes,’ leers the steward. ‘The Goblin who works miracles.’
‘Miracles?’ scoffs Jean. ‘Oh, I fear you are pulling my leg. What is this all about? Pray, do tell us Lazarus.’
I remain mute and glare in anger.
‘’Tis nothing,’ says the steward. ‘Just a faery tale.’
‘Yes, a faery tale,’ say I. ‘And naught to be believed. Those simple minded-churls think I came down with the rain.’
Drunken jeers echo round the hall as the lay brethren applause a crude joke. Bernard scowls and says:
‘Steward, I think you should go back to your men: they are getting lusty and rowdy…’
‘Very well,’ nods the steward. ‘Happy Christmas to you all. Farewell brother Lazarus. I will leave you with your new friends; and I hope they quench the rage that still smoulders in your veins… Four times the price of meat. But remember what I told you long ago: that tongue of yours will get you into trouble.’
I watch the steward saunter away, dodging the tumblers as he returns to his table. The lay brethren cheer at his return and ruffle his tonsure in affection.
‘Would you look at that!’ gasps Hique.
‘Look at what?’ asks Henri.
‘The lay brethren—they have twice as much pork as us. How can that be fair?’
‘To be honest,’ says Bernard, ‘I prefer fish. My father was a great fisherman. He once caught a pike three cubits long that nearly took off his hand. My mother steamed it with leeks and garlic; ’twas the tastiest dish I ever had…’
‘You wouldn’t say that if it fell on your head,’ quips Lucas.
‘Fell on my head?’ asks Bernard. ‘What on earth are you talking about? You piscatorial numbskull!’
‘What I’m talking about is raining fish,’ declares Lucas.
‘Raining fish?’ scoffs Bernard.
‘Well, it was more of a storm, actually,’ adds Nicaise. ‘A storm of sprats.’
‘A storm of sprats?’ squints Jean. ‘Do you mean herring?
‘Faery tales,’ sneers Bernard.
‘No it’s not!’ snaps Henri, offended.
‘Then pray, tell us all about it!’ beams Jean.
‘Well,’ begins Henri, ‘when we were boys, the heavens opened and unleashed a storm of sprats all over the vill.’
‘That sounds like one of the seven plagues,’ winks Jean, catching my eye.
‘Impossible,’ grunts Bernard.
‘A miracle, our mother said,’ adds Nicaise. ‘Live fish, falling from the sky. They covered the ground for miles. They got stuck in the trees, the thatch, and even our hair…’
‘Pah!’ grouses Bernard. ‘Herring falling from the sky? The course of Nature is full of miraculous phenomena—but how do you explain it? Are you sure the fish were alive?’
‘Yes!’ exclaims Lucas. ‘They were wriggling all over the place!’
‘Raining fish…’ muses Belon. ‘That’s a very bad omen. A very bad omen indeed.’
‘It sounds like witchcraft,’ adds Hique.
‘So thought our priest,’ says Henri. ‘He feared the vill was under attack by the devil’s agents. We might have feasted on those fish for days but he forbade us to touch a single one. For he knew a heretic clerk who was well versed in the art of sorcery…’
‘Ah!’ quips Bernard. ‘That will be our abbot…’
‘Are you mocking me?’ scowls Henri.
‘No. I thought you were mocking me.’
‘My brother speaks the truth,’ declares Lucas. ‘Our priest was a good and learned man, and a native of our province.’
‘That may be, but you must admit, your fishy tale does sound a little far fetched,’ replies Bernard.
‘You haven’t heard the worst of it,’ leers Lucas.
‘Tell us!’ pleads Hique, pouring more wine. ‘Was the clerk to blame?’
Lucas lowers his voice and confides:
‘Well the priest sought out this clerk, and said to him: “Certain witches in our parish are causing storms of sprats. I ask you to find out from the devil who they are, whence they come, and by what means such miracles are wrought. For ’tis impossible that they should do such wonders through divine inspiration when their teaching is so contrary to God.”’
‘My sentiments exactly,’ replies Hique, taking a swig. ‘And what did the clerk say?’
‘The clerk refused, and said: “My lord, I have long renounced that art.” But the priest told him: “You see clearly in what dire straits I am. I must either acquiesce or be stoned by the people. Therefore I enjoin you, for the remission of your sins, that you obey me in this matter.” Well, the clerk had no choice. So he obeyed the priest and summoned the devil. And when the Arch Fiend asked why He had been called, the clerk replied, “I am sorry that I deserted you; and because I desire to be more obedient to you in future, I ask you to tell me who these witches are, what they teach, and by what means they work such great miracles.” The devil said, “They are mine and sent by me, and they preach what I have placed in their mouths.” The clerk responded, “How is it that they cannot be injured, or sunk in the water, or burned by fire?” The devil replied again, “They have under their arm-pits, sewed between the skin and the flesh, my compacts in which their homage to me is written; and by virtue of these spells they work my miracles and cannot be injured by any one.” Then the clerk asked: “What if these compacts should be taken away from them?” The devil said, “Then they would be as weak as other women.”(v) When the priest heard this, he stripped the women naked but found no compacts. So he stripped the men as well. Then he found the culprit: an hermaphrodite.’
Bernard splutters on his wine.
‘Hermaphrodite?’ puzzles Jean. ‘How very interesting…’
‘What’s an hermaphrodite?’ asks Hique.
‘A two-sexed creature,’ replies Jean. ‘Like Hermaphroditus—the son of Mercury Hermes and Venus Aphrodite, who had the powers of both of father and mother.’
‘Do you mind?’ scowls Bernard. ‘Your two-sexed tale is putting me off my food.’
‘What happened to this hermaphrodite?’ asks Jean. ‘Is it still abroad? I should like to meet it.’
Nicaise shakes his head:
‘That freak is long dead. The poor wretch begged the priest to cut off her cock.’ He swipes at the air with his knife.
‘Cut off her cock?’ scoffs Bernard. ‘God in heaven! What a scandal to God! A woman with a cock!’
‘An enlarged clitoris,’ explains Nicaise, ‘which she said was an intolerable hindrance to her in coitus.’
‘Urg!’ shudders Hique, knocking back his wine. ‘Well I wouldn’t have poked it.’
‘Ah, but you wouldn’t have known,’ adds Henri.
‘Of course I would!’ seethes Hique, slamming down his cup. ‘Are you questioning my virility?’
‘Nay brother,’ says Lucas. ‘But not even her own family could tell. We lived next door and she looked just like any other boy. At fifteen she had the instincts of a man, and lived with a woman lover for six years. But at the age of thirty her sexual desires changed, and she developed well-formed breasts.’
‘Very well formed…’ adds Henri, squeezing the air. ‘Then she attempted coitus as a woman, and with such lusty satisfaction, that she wed a man soon afterwards…
Lucas leers and his eyes gleam with lurid delight. Then he adds:
‘– But the priest could not decide if she was male or female, or if her husband was a witch also. So he burnt them both.’
‘What a tragic tale,’ laments Jean, shaking his head. ‘Poor wretched souls. Herodotus describes a similar disease which frequently affected the Scythians. The disease was this: the men became effeminate in character, put on female garments, did the work of women, and even became effeminate in appearance. If I remember correctly, the cause was preternatural; the Scythians were cursed by Venus for plundering the temple at Ascalon.’
‘That is just a fable,’ remarks Bernard.
‘Oh no,’ retorts Jean. ‘Tis no fable that females may be turned to males or vice versa. Pliny writes of it himself… ’Tis recorded in the Annals, that there was at Cassinum a maid who, under her parents, became a boy: and by the order of the Aruspices he was conveyed to a Desert Island. And Lucinius Mutianus reported, that he saw at Argos a person named Arescon, who had borne the name of Arescusa, and even had been married: but afterwards came to have a beard, and the general properties of a man, and thereupon married a wife.’(vi)
Guillaume bites on a sausage and grins:
‘There are some witches who can work marvels over the male member. Did you know, a witch can steal a man’s cock and keep it alive in a bird’s nest on a diet of oats? I heard of a churl so accursed. When he went to retrieve his manhood, he chose the largest cock in the nest; but the witch admonished him to put it back. “You can’t have that,” said she, “it belongs to the pope!” ’
The monks bellow with raucous laughter but their mirth quickly dies and there follows an uneasy silence. At once they begin tucking into their food. Hique prods his pork and turns up his nose in disgust:
‘My meat is stringy. What’s yours like Nicaise?’
Lucas turns to me and says:
‘Lazarus, you’re very quiet. What’s the matter? You haven’t touched your food.’
‘I’ve told you already: I’m feeling sick.’
‘Leave these parasites.’
I swoon momentarily. Suddenly the entire floor shimmers with writhing fish, as if the nets of Saint Peter have been emptied in the aisle. Sprats, sprats, everywhere: they flit from the windows and splash in the wine; they overflow the pulpit and heave down the aisle in heaving silver waves. Soon the whole frater is smothered in fish. I must be dreaming. The entire assembly stops in time: the tumblers stop tumbling, the minstrels stop playing, and plumes of fire freeze mid-air from the fire-eaters’ mouths. Yet the hurdy-gurdy keeps playing—a slow sonorous drone, that echoes in the vault. I look around in wonder. The brethren are smeared in glittering scales: sprats poke from their lips, nostrils and ears; fish teem in their tonsures and slither in their cowls; they jump from the troubadours’ hats and wiggle in the harp strings. Then the walls blow away like autumn leaves and the frater vanishes, monks and all. Dusk. I am sailing the sea of Galilee, my cedar boat bobbing on the waves. A balmy wind blows me toward the distant hills where Venus twinkles in ashen skies. I helm a creaking tiller, my shins knee deep in silver. For my net is full of landed sprats with gaping mouths and star-struck eyes…
Lucifer drones with the hurdy-gurdy:
‘Come ye after me, and I will make you a fisher of men.’(vii)
The vision fades and my head drops under the weight of my horns.
‘You don’t look at all well,’ remarks Jean.
‘Your hermaphrodite has made him green around the gills,’ quips Bernard, gnashing on some gristle.
‘Please Hique, I need to lie down.’
‘Aren’t you going to eat your meat?’ asks Lucas.
‘No brother, you can have it. Take what you want.’
Lucas stabs my meat with his knife.
‘Ah! Not so hasty,’ says Hique. ‘ I don’t see why you should have it. After all, I need my medicine…’
‘Medicine?’ scoffs Lucas. ‘You greedy oaf! Lazarus said I could have it.’
‘By Jove!’ exclaims Hique, ‘You’ve got twice as much as me already!’
‘That’s because you’ve already scoffed yours,’ adds Bernard.
Lucas snatches my plate:
‘Give me that!’
And they start fighting over my food. Just then Hique rises from the bench and my cowl comes free. Jean gives me the nod. So I slip under the table and skulk out the door.
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2011
i. Fournier’s Register, ii. 35.
ii. 1 Timothy, 6:16.
iii. Matthew, 11:27.
iv. Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians, 3:9.
v. This tale of an infernal compact is adapted from an actual translation. Caesar of Heisterbach, Dist. V, Cap. XVIII. (Vol I, pp. 296, ff.). Refs: University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]. Vol II, No 4, pp. 7-11
vi. From the ‘The Natural History of Pliny’, Book VII, Chapter IV. “Of the Change of the Sex and of Double Births.”
vii. Matthew, 4:19.
Image credit: figure sihouettes; Google image search marked as public domain.