Jacques is telling it…

Leaving the church by the south transept, Jean leads me down the East alley toward the Chapter house. The frosty arcades sparkle in the winter sun, and gargoyles grin from the gutters with icy teeth. The abbot’s carvings are a riot of invention. Cresting waves froth around the pillars, where mermen ride monstrous fish with bulbous eyes. A bizarre multitude of spirits romp along the corbels: lycanthropes, sylphs, fauns, bears, donkeys and skeletons – all leaping in a macabre dance. A harpy peers down and squawks:

‘Pætus et cornutus! [Pink-eyed and horned!]’

The Chapter house door, which was marvellous in moonlight, looks even more splendid by day. A serpent coils around its three clustered arches, slithers down five circular steps, then flattens out and winds across the threshold…

Inside is a magnificent regal chamber, broken by eight octagonal columns that support a rib-vaulted roof, decorated with stars. The serpent motif tessellates the tiles, then gyres to life, winding up and down the columns – which divide the room into bays – three across its width, and five along its length. The room is lit by a series of tall windows in the eastern bay, with three sets of triple openings along the far wall. A stone bench surrounds the entire chamber but for the eastern bay, where there stands an oaken throne, carved with satyrs and boxing hares.

I enter awestruck, spinning on my toes and gazing at the vault. Jean beams:

‘Father Janus is a fine mason, is he not?’

‘Yes brother, very fine!’

We sit on a bench in the southern bay where a frieze of angels adorns the wall. Beneath them is a flaking bishop with long beard who holds an open missal in his left hand and a lamb in his right. The lower part of his body burns in the flames of Purgatory, but the look of resignation on his face shows that he bears his torture bravely. A castellated edifice looms in the background, and the whole scene is bordered by a scalloped arabesque of devils and grapes.

Beyond the throne I spot two stained glass windows, radiant with ruby, golden-yellow and blue. One is occupied by a figure of Saint Laurence holding his emblems—a palm branch and a gridiron; he wears plum-coloured robes and has a most animated expression. A banderole is inscribed, “Ave Maria Gratia Plana”. The other depicts Saint Pierre, crucified upside down.

I watch the door intently as the brethren file in one by one…

The first to enter is Brother Anselm, the cook. He is very scruffy and rotund, with withered arms and a greasy moon face. His hands flap like flippers at the shoulders, the upper arms being entirely absent.

‘Brother Anselm is a phocomelus,’ confides Jean. ‘The word is derived from Greek meaning “seal” and “limb”. Fortunately, only his arms are affected…’

Anselm lumbers with a bovine gait, his tight cowl split about his hips and chest. He sits opposite and smiles, waving his hands in friendship.

Next comes the precentor, brother Belon, who glides with a pompous air; his tonsure is meticulously groomed, his head cocked back in delusions of grandeur. He takes his place beside Anselm but then scowls and shuffles away, pinching his nose is disgust.

Belon is followed by brother Symon, a senile hunchback with a wart-clustered nose. He dodders with a trembling stick, chomping on his tongue, his mottled neck hanging down in pleats. When seated, he stares fixedly at the tiles as if scrying their geometry.

Symon is followed by Albert – another cripple with wheezy lungs who shuffles on unsteady feet. His head is wrinkled like an old prune, with wisps of gossamer hair. He sits beside Symon and pats his knee in kinship.

Albert is followed by the succentor, Brother Feliz, who is terribly afflicted with a bifoliate face and hare-lip. He might be some deity of Apollo, with his cankered flesh and wild green eyes, for he looks more oak than man.

Brother Jean squeezes my hand and chides:

‘Don’t stare brother…’

I look down in shame, guilty of the same crime I so often despised in others. His deformity is worse than mine, and I wonder at such spiritual strength, for when I look up, Feliz is smiling fondly as he nods in acknowledgement.

A sudden disturbance echoes in the cloister. There comes the sound of running feet then a shriek followed by a great thud and a cry of pain:

‘Ouch! Ooo! Ooo! My arse!’

Prior Odo bellows beyond the door:

‘Get up you miserable oaf!’

‘Am I late father?’

‘Late? Where have you been? You were absent for Terce.’

‘I’m sick…’

‘Sick? Do you think your pretences at illness have passed me by?’

‘No father.’

‘Have you been drinking?’

‘No father!’

‘Yes you have: I can smell it from here.’

‘That’s my medicine.’

‘Medicine? Do you take me for a fool?’

‘No father!’

‘A half-measure of wine a day is enough for any monk.’

‘Yes father.’

‘You are weak minded. Not a day goes by without you breaking the Rule. Can you not abstain?’

‘I do try father. Alas, God has not given me strength to abstain in all things. I would appreciate your prayers and understanding.’

‘My prayers and understanding? You conniving dog! You’re a disgrace to the cowl! Think of your position: as cellarer of this house, you should be wise, sedate, and sober; instead you are gluttonous, proud and quarrelsome. I don’t know what’s become of you. Medicine indeed. You are only concerned with indulging your appetites. Look at you! That habit is bursting at the seams. There’s soup on your scrip – and pooh! – you stink like a pig! Where have you been? Scoffing with swine?’

‘Yes father, I mean no father. But I fell in the pigsty, father. I was feeding Odette a carrot and she knocked me over.’

‘You numbskull! You look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. Now get in there, before I put the rod to your back!’

A stout man of gargantuan proportions waddles through the door. He has the face of an ape with close set eyes, a wide flat nose, and a greasy black fringe plastered to a clammy brow. He shuffles down the aisle, sniffing, mewling and gasping:

‘Oh! Bless my soul! Good morning brethren, one and all! Forgive me for missing mass, but I was so tired and wretched, I nodded off in the warming house…’

His tonsure is matted with straw and his cowl stained with wine and gravy. He slumps beside Anselm then leers with a hiccup.

‘That,’ whispers Jean, ‘is Brother Hique. He looks after our victuals and oversees the granges. But he is far too fond of the cup…’

Hique is followed by the sacristan, brother Bernard, who has a deformed head covered in pulpy tumours. He is stern and grey but powerfully built with broad shoulders. He sits beside Belon and starts twirling his goatee between his fingers. ’Tis then I notice his numerous digits, for he has at least eight fingers on each hand…

Then comes the cantor, brother Fabien, who leads us in song. He suffers a most peculiar elongation of the cranium; his eyes are set a fist apart so that he resembles a strange fish with pursed lips and scaly skin. He is closely followed by Poufille who suffers the same condition, except for a giant left hand which droops from his wrist like a swollen starfish(i); the fingers have the semblance of parsnips and almost reach the floor. The weight of this appendage has bent his hip so that his right foot drags along the tiles. The two monks sit together, but apart from the rest.

They are followed by three identical dwarves, Henri, Lucas and Nicaise, who scuttle along as if joined by a long piece of string. They have dark earthy faces, all furrowed with pride, and neatly cut tonsures of brown curly hair which hang in ringlets about their ears and neck. They all suffer from chronic curvature of the spine, yet despite this affliction they move with great rapidity. They make a bee line for some wooden steps propped against the bench, then clamber up like ducks and sit in silence, their arms folded beneath their scapulars.

A shadow falls across the threshold as a giant steps into the chamber. He stands over seven feet and stoops amid the vault, his saturnine face riven with a deep cleft. His left arm is severed at the elbow, its sleeve pinned neatly across his chest. But for his wounds, he is moulded like a god with striking blue eyes and silver hair.

‘That is brother Guillaume,’ mutters Jean. ‘He was hurt in a brawl when he was ten.’

To my astonishment, Guillaume carries a large basket in his right hand, wherein a noble face peers over the rim.

‘Who’s in the basket?’ ask I.

‘That is brother Joseph,’ replies Jean, ‘– an ectromelus – he was born with an entire absence of limbs.’

The man is prodigiously small, just like a babe; but despite his terrible affliction, his face has a broad happy aspect. A tonsure of blonde hair frames his head, and his cowl is sown like woollen sock.

Guillaume carries him to the bench and sits beside Hique, putting the basket between them. But Joseph scowls and snorts:

‘What an ungodly stink!’

‘Have I trodden in something?’ asks Hique, bemused.

Guillaume shuffles away in disgust and puts the basket on his lap. Whereupon Joseph sits upright and looks me in the eye. But I find his gaze unsettling and turn toward the door.

Presently, another monk enters with no arms or hands; yet he is immaculately dressed with a pristine scapular and finely trimmed beard. He goes barefoot, without boots or sandals, and I wonder why his feet don’t freeze in the cold. He sits on the bench, gives me a nod, and then lifts his feet and unbuckles his scrip with his toes! His right foot wiggles inside and removes a leaded glass, whilst the left foot removes a comb. Then, using his feet as hands, he checks his appearance in the glass, combing his fringe this way and that. Jean chuckles:

‘Brother Remy has very nimble feet. He uses them for everything: he sews, writes, plays cards and dice, with as much dexterity as you or I…’

Then the wheel of fate comes full circle. For who should enter next but the self-same monk I spied in the gorge, all those years ago: Margot’s supplicant – the oxen brute with horns like mine!

‘That is brother Ricon,’ whispers Jean. ‘The abbot’s sixth son.’

Once more I see his face lit by the tempest and hear his cries purling in the depths. But Ricon sits oblivious, his red hair flaming in the sun that pours loving rays onto such heresies of flesh.

We all stand as Father Odo enters the room. He strides imperiously to the lectern, his demeanour grave and austere. His sharp features show all the wear of an extreme aesthetic who has endured the rigours of abstinence in all things. He raises a hand and says:

‘Brethren, our abbot is absent, and once again ’tis I, your loving prior, who must preside over Chapter. Let us begin by reciting De Profundis…’

After the Amen, Odo sits like a lord in the abbot’s throne and bids:

‘Be seated brethren.’

We wait with baited breath as he looks each one of us in the eye. Then he shakes his head in sorrow and declares:

‘When I look amongst you, I see many tired and forsaken faces. Believe me brethren, I feel the pain of your heavy hearts. ’Twas many moons ago, in this very hall, on the Feast of Saint John, that I implored you to share your troubles. Indeed, I took it as a sign of your deep affection towards me, to share your burdens and pains, however hard it was to make a display of them in front of one so weak as I. For I foolishly thought that sharing your fears would lighten my heart and make my own grievances less. But now winter has come, I have a confession to make. Your burdens have left me feeling more weak and weighed down than ever before. For I fear that a great evil is upon us. We see our old enemy the Serpent, coiling about us in this very chamber. Father Janus insists ’twas carved to caution the unwary. But we all know to be vigilant; we all know that the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.(ii) Yet when I behold these snaring coils, and think of the hands that carved them, I fear that devil is much closer than we like to admit. For the heretical abbot cares neither for our spiritual welfare, nor our temporal comforts. We sleep on prickly pallets of straw, but he has a feather bed. Mark my words brethren: Non est ad astra mollis e terra via! [None go to heaven on a feather bed!] Not only that, he wastes the revenue of this house on pagan vanities. How long has he pilfered our coffers to pay his merry band of masons? Look around you. The entire abbey is infested with his evil art. Not content with defacing the cloister, he now defiles the choir with an abominable rood which he carves all night long. His infernal whittling has put shadows under our eyes and stolen our peace. That rood is an offence to God, the Blessed Virgin and the Heavenly hosts! Oh, I know every one of you is secretly longing to see it. Well, I forbid you to go near it! Any monk found peering beneath the scaffold will be flogged. There is great heresy there. Let me assure you, that as soon as I have authority, I will break it up and burn it for our pots… Our house is too remote for the Visitor General: a fact that abbot Adam exploits for his own wicked ends; for he knows too well that he is sheltered from the laws and punishments of the General Chapter. Over the years his abuses have crept into cloister like pagan weeds. He cares naught for the fame or credit of this abbey. He lives like a heathen king, feasting, drinking and whoring. His riotous and luxurious living deprives us of all necessities. There was a time when six lamps burned from dusk till dawn; but now there are none, our nights are dark and without comfort. The dorter roof is full of holes: we sleep like lowly churls, with the wind on our backs, and the frost gnawing at our toes. How it pains me to hear the cry “abscond!” Shall we flee into the wilderness, bearing staves in hand? What a scandal, that we should become vagrants, beggars and wanderers. No. We must remain steadfast and faithful to God who tests us now, just as he tested Job. Selfishness is a base and inhuman quality, but in cloister ’tis an even greater crime, especially in an abbot who flouts the Rule with such flagrant disregard for his fellow men. Father Janus plays his usual self-seeking game; if he is not in the clutches of Satan, then he is most assuredly mad. When I was young, his affliction disturbed me; yet as the years passed, I grew to pity him; but now I fear his conjoined monster has possessed him entirely. There are some amongst us who are now faced with a terrible dilemma. I speak of those with whom the abbot shares a bond of blood. I cannot know the true seed of your afflictions, or what line of disease has plagued this house. Whatever the truth of the matter, father Janus is unfit for office and neglects his sheep, whether they be kin or not. Mark my words: his crimes and excesses will bring us all to ruin! Absurdum est ut alios regat, qui seipsum regere nescit. [It is absurd that he should govern others who knows not how to govern himself]. Many times I have sought his deprivation, and many times I have failed. Twice I tried to depose him by election, but he defied the verdict with his hard and callous heart. Two years ago, on Ember Friday, I wrote to the General Chapter, informing them of my grievances. Alas the hills are treacherous and full of thieves; I cannot say what happened to my messenger, but he never returned and my letter remains unanswered. Therefore, I am resolved to make a present of my liberties to the episcopal authority. As soon as the snows begin to thaw, I will send word of our plight to the bishop. Rest assured that the abbot’s wicked reign will be coming to an end. Meanwhile, all I ask, is for your patience and support.’

And with this, a great round of applause fills the chamber and the sombre faces lighten at the prospect of better times. As if to remove any shade of doubt, Brother Belon stands and declares:

‘Our illustrious prior excels by his virtue and piety! I know I speak for every monk here when I say that the sooner he is made lord abbot, the better for us all!’

Another round of applause. There is much political head nodding and chin wagging. Then Symon stands and crackles:

‘Throughout my long years in cloister, I have never heard so great or rousing a speech. Thank God in heaven that we have father prior to care for our salvation!’

‘Aye!’ cries Bernard. ‘Cheer up your hearts brethren! Father prior will recompense us for our miseries! The bishop will give the abbot his due: a great big kick up the arse! For that is his miserable lot!’

The monks stand and cheer, whistling like base churls. The dwarves jump and dance on the bench, grunting and punching the air. I am at a loss to reconcile these bawdy cries with the melodious chants I heard in choir just hours ago. Margot was right: they are wolves in sheepskins; for beneath their white woollen cowls, I glimpse sheathed daggers strapped to dirty shanks…

Odo beams and settles the ruckus with his hand:

‘Thank you brethren; you lift my spirits with your kind and loving devotion. I have no doubt that within a year, we will have won a great victory, not only for God, but the future security of our house… Videbus omnia hæc quæ turbuta fluerunt, pace et otio residĕre. [You will see all these things that were in confusion, quietly and peaceably settled].’

Then Albert taps his stick on the tiles and says:

‘The abbot is absent yet again. Everyone suspects that he is up to no good. But none of you know where he goes…’

‘Where does he go?’ asks Odo. ‘If you have knowledge, then speak out…’

Albert grins:

‘One of the lay-brethren followed him.’

‘Who?’ asks Odo.

‘Brother Gélis.’

‘Right,’ says Odo, ‘Fetch brother Gélis, at once. Voca eum verbis meis! [Tell him I would speak with him!]’

‘I’ll go father!’ says Belon, putting up his hand.

‘Very well,’ says Odo. ‘Make haste.’

Belon exits and we wait in anxious silence; a while later he returns with brother Gélis – a scrawny looking fellow with furtive eyes and fumbling fingers. Belon leads Gélis to the lectern then retakes his seat. Odo looks him over then says:

‘Well brother Gélis, I believe you know something of our abbot’s whereabouts. Can you tell us where he goes?’

Gélis nods.

‘Well go on then. You may speak freely. The Chapter is all ears.’

But Gélis is too nervous to utter a word.

‘Tell them Gélis,’ cajoles Albert. ‘Tell them where abbot Adam goes. Fear not: you’re not in trouble. Father prior just wants to know what you saw. Tell him what you told me. Tell of the abbot’s secret…’

Gélis licks his lips then draws a muddy finger across his nose:

‘Well father prior, ’twas last Easter – that’s when I spied him from the lancet, heading into the wastes at dawn. He had a spade on his back and a rod of hazel. It made me wonder. I mean to say, I knew he was searching for something. He went the same way again the following morn, just as the matins bell was peeling. Forgive me father, but curiosity got the better of me. So the next day, I decided to follow him. I crept into the precinct at cockcrow, and hid behind the beehives where the grass is long. Sure enough, as the sun was rising, he came skulking by like a cat. I kept my distance and followed him beyond the abbey wall and into the thickets… I tracked his footprints along the river banks for a mile. The trail lead over Mill Bridge and into the woods on t’other side. I was afraid to follow, for ’tis dark there, even in daylight. But follow him I did, all the way down Devil’s Dyke. His stick was was leading him, sure enough! He went past a druid barrow then vanished in a cleft. I climbed after and came upon a clearing, crowned by mighty oaks. And there he was — divining the pagan temple…’

‘The druid henge?’ asks Odo, perplexed. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Aye father. I thought that place ’twas just a myth ’til I saw it with my own eyes. Never have I seen such monstrous stones — all gnarled and pitted like the bones of a giant. Truly, only a giant could have put them there, so great are the lintels. Abbot Adam was amongst them, his forked stick twitching like a serpent’s tongue.’

‘Virgula furcata!’ seethes Odo. ‘The little water witch: he loves that curséd hazel more than the holy sceptre!’

‘There was magic in it!’ exclaims Gélis. ‘It flickered in his hands, wood and flesh as one. He gabbled like a mad goose as it lead him round the stones; first he’d chirp like a girl, then he’d cackle like a crone…’

Gasps of dread echo round the chamber. Symon wags a finger and warns:

‘Geomancy! Divinatio ex terra. All diviners and seers of visions shall be confounded.(iii) Night shall be to them instead of vision, and darkness instead of divination. And the sun shall go down on them, and the day darkened over them; and they shall cover their faces, because they find no answer of God. And so shall it be for all soothsayers, wizards, and astrologers of the stars.’

Odo rolls his eyes in despair:

‘Yes, all right, thank you brother Symon. That’s enough if you please.’

‘For what was he searching?’ asks Lucas.

‘The gates to hell,’ replies Nicaise.

‘Or a crock of faery gold,’ adds Henri.

Gélis shakes his head:

‘If ’twas gold, then ’tis much too deep to delve. Much, much too deep…’

‘How do you know?’ asks Odo.

‘Because the stick told him,’ replies Gélis.

‘The stick spoke?’ gasps Fabien.

‘Nay,’ says Gélis. ‘It twitched five times and the abbot cried: “Five thousand feet!”

‘Five thousand feet?’ exclaims Poufille. ‘That’s a long way down! What man could venture so deep? Abdita terræ! [The bowels of the earth!].’

‘Only demons with fire shovels could dig that deep,’ adds Hique.

‘These hills hide secrets,’ says Gélis.

‘Then let the abbot keep them,’ shudders Anselm.

‘He’s a warlock,’ declares Belon. ‘He holds the key to the bottomless pit.’

‘Tartarus,’ adds Albert.

‘Tartarus?’ quizzes Lucas. ‘What on earth is that?’

‘Tartarus is beneath the earth: ’tis the deepest gloomy hell – deeper even than Hades; it lies as far beneath Hades as Hades lies beneath your feet; ’tis a place so deep, that ’twould take a falling anvil nine days to reach its bottom. Tartarus is where Zeus confined the Titans…’

Odo knits his brows:

‘That’s enough brother Albert. Your talk is frightening the brethren. I have no doubt the abbot holds keys to many profane doors. But he meddles in things best left alone. Whatever he found, we shall speak of it no more.’

‘But prior,’ frets Hique. ‘What if it was gold? ’Twould clear all our debts.’

‘Oh no, ’twas not gold,’ insists Gélis. ‘He was troubled by it. The more the stick twitched, the more worried he became. Well, he asked that stick many things – muttering, babbling and chirping like bird…’

Odo looks concerned:

‘What things? What did he ask?’

‘Well, I cannot say exactly prior, for his words were lost on the wind. He might have been talking in tongues – or even to the dead. The dead are all around us – my mother said. The life of the living is better than the dead. That is why we must eat and drink as much as we can now…’(iv)

Hique sniggers with appreciation. Odo shakes his head in dismay:

‘Yes, yes, very well, thank you brother Gélis. You may go now.’

‘Er, is Hique laughing at my mother?’ asks Gélis.

‘No brother,’ replies Hique. ‘But the dead lie six feet under. They do not walk amongst us. Only at the last judgement shall they rise up again…’

‘Oh no brother, you are gravely mistaken,’ retorts Gélis. ‘The dead are all around us, even as we speak. That is why, when walking, you must never throw your arms about, but keep your elbows in – or you might bump into a ghost.(v) Oh yes, we live amongst a multitude of dead – they are invisible to everyone but the messengers of souls.’

‘The messengers of souls?’ frowns Odo. ‘And who are they exactly? What is this heresy? You speak like a Cathar.’

‘Me? A Cathar? Oh no father, I’m a true Christian,’ replies Gélis, wiping his nose, and crossing himself twice.

Odo waves him off:

‘Very well Gélis. Thank you for telling us what you saw. Now please return to you work…’

‘But prior!’ exclaims Gélis. ‘You haven’t heard the worst of it!’

‘Yes, tell them!’ urges Albert.

Odo nods and signals Gélis to speak.

‘Well, I watched the abbot pace about – up and down, round about, hither and thither, wandering amid the stones. Then his stick pulled him to the ground and he cried out: “Bright light!”

‘Bright light?’ puzzles Poufille. ‘What can it mean?’

‘Well,’ says Gélis, ‘I dare not think. For after uttering this, he threw himself upon the altar stone and wept. I was crouched in terror. Whatever he found was evil. Evil.’

Odo looks most perturbed:

‘What else did he ask the stick?’

‘Of forgive me father, but I didn’t stay to find out. I would have been a fool to linger, for the sun was sinking fast. Night falls swiftly in the woods. I dared not stay another moment. I ran back to cloister whilst the way was fresh in my mind. Oh lord! I still have nightmares of that place…’

‘My God!’ exclaims Bernard. ‘To think that he goes there when he should be taking Office, kneeling before the altar of Christ. Instead he kneels at the altar of Pan!’

‘Bright light?’ ponders Belon. ‘I would like to get to the bottom of it. We should follow him together.’

‘No,’ chides Odo. ‘ I expressly forbid it. There is darkness there, ancient as the world. You must stay clear of that place.’

‘The prior is right,’ warns Albert. ‘’Tis wise to avoid the pagan temple. For the old inhabitants of the world are shut up there. Those who went under ground. Penetravit sub terras.’

‘Oh, what nonsense!’ scoffs Jean.

‘’Tis true,’ retorts Albert. ‘For now they dwell in the depths – the fallen ones who worshipped graven images of silver and gold – the heathens of Genesis who conjured impure spirits and demons of the air. Everyone knows the henge is where witches hold their Sabbat.’

‘Oxhorns!’ jeers Ricon, biting his nails. ‘Demons and witches? What a load of nonsense. Absurde dictum, vel factum. The sabbat? That’s nothing but an old wives’ tale!’

Albert taps his stick again:

‘Old wives’ tale? But you know it’s true! You’ve been there yourself. None will deny that! Illud nemo inficias ibit.’

Ricon blushes and cries:

‘He lying prior! He’s mad!’

‘Oh you might call me mad. But that doesn’t change the truth. You know as much of the henge as any witch. Believe me prior, ’tis there they summon the Devil. But first they orgy amongst themselves, committing all manner of depraved acts which they enjoy without remorse. Then, after pissing on the Host, they have intercourse with Satan, who appears in male or female shape—whatever they desire; but oft’ to sate their lust, they receive him as a bull. Yet I have heard that he may come as a goat, a great black dog, or even a raven… He puts his mark upon their flesh with the nail of his little finger. Yes indeed, there is terrible evil in those woods…’

Odo raises his hand:

‘Enough! Hold your tongue Albert. You have become too accustomed to tales of sorcery; even when taken with a headache, you fancy yourself bewitched.(vi) I will hear no more of it. Lupus in fabulà. [Talk of the devil, and he will appear]. The only evil you need fear is abbot Adam himself. Evil is a weed; it must be rooted out before it strangles the true vine. Aquinas tells us to cut off the decayed flesh, expel the mangy sheep from the fold, lest the whole paste, the whole body, the whole flock, perish, rot and die.(vii) Think of our estate: did we not wrest our fields from the pagan wilderness; clear the serpent briar with our bleeding hands; drain the marsh and plains; throw marl upon the scree to make it fertile? We brought order from chaos and the land bore good fruit. But abbot Adam has undone our holy work and defiled our church with his pagan art. Now the wilderness is invading again; and we have not the numbers nor strength to hack it back. Ivy festoons the arcades, creepers snake across the tiles, and hogweed spouts in the gutters. Nature claws at every stone and corbel. Our whole church is prized apart by Her rampant green fingers. We must wrest it back. Beneath our feet lie the abbots of old – whose faithful bones raised this abbey in the wastes, far from the haunts of men. How different were those noble men from the abbot of today! They counted riches and honour as dung.(viii) With smiting fists, they battered all transient things, renouncing the world and pleasures of the flesh. In food and drink, they ran an even course between the limits of what is fitting and the rule of their conscience – eating only so much as to sustain bodily life, without diminishing the fervour of worship. All things were fixed by weight, measure and number;(ix) and any remnants of a previous meal were always put back on the table. Honour them today in your thoughts and work. We may be weary with disaster and tugged with bad fortune, but let us not be downhearted, for those great men are surely watching us; so remember your vows, and remain of good cheer as you go about your daily tasks…’

He waves us off. The brethren rise and disperse in silence. I am left alone with Odo who sits gravely with head in hands. I approach timidly and ask:

‘Father Odo – what shall I do?’

He wakes as if from a dream:

‘What my child?’

‘My daily task – what must I do?’

‘Ah! I have very important job for you. Go to the kitchen and ask for a pot of fat. You’ll see – off you go…’

His cryptic instruction fills me with excitement. I leave him to his worries and close the door quietly behind me.

On entering the cloister I behold the craggy peaks glistening in the sun, as if they were made from sheets of burnished copper. My spirit soars in the soft dawn light that renders the garth in milky shades, its many drifts like mounds of risen dough. Heaven is still set with the morning star that twinkles above the nave in swarts of crimson fire. I walk in wonder down the frosty alley that sparkles with crystals of many hues. And I ponder on the abbot’s rood – for beneath the frozen fountain are curtains of ice where satyrs peek out with ever staring eyes…

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2002

i. Macrodactyly or “local giantism”.

ii. 1 Peter, 5:8.

iii. Micheas, 3:7.

iv. Fournier Register, i. 135, 545.

v. Ibid., i. 134-5.

vi. Words by Felix Hemmerlin, canon and precentor of Zürich. Appendices: 31, Peasant Civilization. Cited in ‘The Medieval Village’, by G. G. Coulton.

vii. Summa Theologica, Second part of the Second Part, Question 11, Article 3.

viii. Phillipians, 3:8.

ix. Wisdom, 11:21.

Image credit: ‘The Dark Forest’ by Dan Ox on Flikr. Creative Commons license.