A 'once upon a time' story, with deeply personal characters and classic story elements.
|The sound was faint, and it was all but overwhelmed by the steady splatter of rainwater dripping off the facade above the belfry window. “Eeep,” came a feeble, and yet persistent cry from the shadows of this small, damp space. The last light of day was fading, and the chill of night had begun to creep in. By all reason, I should have worn more than a tunic, but my departure from the novice cloister had been rather abrupt. “Eeep.” I could endure the cold for a little while though, and it was preferable to the torment I received, from the high-born novices back at the cloister. “Eeep,” the sound was weaker this time, more desperate. At least my self-imposed exile in this cramped space would be temporary, Master Tucker should be back soon, and he would restore order. “Eeep.” What poor, sad creature, was making that noise? I didn’t want to know the answer to that question, but I went in search of it anyway.
There was just enough light in the room to make out the silhouette of the bell and the gaping chasm beneath it. The upper part of the belfry was open to the elements, it was wet, breezy, and cold enough, that I began to shiver. In the darkened corners of the room the walls and floor were coated with a sticky, foul-smelling substance, a nasty mix of mildew and droppings from the swallows that nested in the eaves. “Eeep.” It was among this foul mess that I found an abandoned baby bird and I coaxed it into my hand. I held it up to the fading light to have a look. It was a mess of pale gray feathers, with a broad, thin yellow bill that opened impossibly wide and let out pitiful squeaks. It appeared uninjured, so my first instinct was to put it back into its home.
I followed the wall up from the spot where I had found the fledgling and located what looked like a mud sconce in the eave just beyond the window. I couldn’t see into to the nest but I could hear movement. Then without warning a sudden flurry of feathers arrived at the nest and it erupted into a chorus of ‘eeeps’. The bird in my hand stirred as well and I nearly dropped it. I watched as the dutiful parent fed each of the hapless chick’s siblings before flying off again in a flash. It would have rid myself of the bird then and there, but alas, when I made the attempt, the nest was just out of my reach.
I looked about for something to stand on but it wasn’t all that simple of a proposition. The only way to reach the nest, would require that I stand on the wet, narrow window ledge. I looked out the window, and in the gathering darkness, I could scarcely see the livestock barns that lay just beyond the entrance to the Abbey. I could hear the occasional bleat, and it seemed so far away. I wondered if a fall from this height be immediately fatal, or instead, result in a lingering, horrifically painful death. The little bird writhed in my hand and I thought about crushing it, that would be the humane thing to do. I didn’t know if I could do it though, kill a helpless living thing, even if it was doomed. I also knew I didn’t have the courage to stand on that precarious window ledge, and risk my own life to save it. “Eeep.”
I wished that Robert was here. He alone among the novices was both kind and incredibly brave. I knew that he would have climbed out on the ledge without a moment’s hesitation. “Every choice, no matter how small, is a test of our faith,” he would say, “as our fate is predetermined. There is a plan for us, and we must accept that plan in order to receive our reward.” This was my test, but my natural instinct was to do nothing, to let the darkness swallow up the bird, and slink back to my bunk in the novice cloister. That is what I always did, and many a night I would lay awake in my bunk, my thoughts filled with dreams, schemes, and regrets for all the things I lacked the courage to accomplish. “Eeep.”
I could descend the belfry and look for something to stand upon. I would need to be quick though, as the belfry would soon be engulfed in total darkness. Did I have enough time? There were five flights of stairs to navigate, and I had no clue where a suitable object might be found. Looking back at the nest, I could see that no matter what I found to stand on, I would need to lean out quite far, was that even a wise course of action? “Eeep.”
I climbed up onto the ledge. The breeze was stronger here, and it was much colder, but my heart was racing so fast that I didn’t notice. With my free hand I tried gripping the wall, but it was slick with some foul substance, and I was unable to get a firm hold. Slowly and carefully I raised my arm above my head and tried to reach the nest, but I could only scrape the bottom of it. I hugged the wall closer and while on the tips of my toes I opened my hand and tried to nudge the bird upward with my thumb. I could feel the bird on the tips of my fingers, I could also feel my toes going numb with cold, and hear the bleats of those distant goats.
I closed my eyes tight and prayed that the little bird would make that one last hop back into his nest, and soon, as I couldn’t hold on a moment longer. Then I felt nothing. I lowered my arm and, in an act of disbelief, I looked at my hand to see that indeed the little bird was gone. Then, without warning, there was a ruckus at the nest as one of the adult swallows returned. It broke my concentration and I lost my balance, falling awkwardly back into the belfry and into the chasm beneath the bell.
I managed to get one arm tangled up in the rope while the other clung to the edge of the bell. My legs spanned the breadth of the chasm and I was able to arrest my fall, at least temporarily. The bell let out a dull ring, I wasn’t sure if it was audible beyond this little room, and at the moment I didn’t care. I held my breath and balanced there as still as could be.
I heard voices. I was filled with a sudden dread, as I didn’t know what the punishment would be for an accidental ringing of the bell, and if possible, I wanted to avoid finding out. I had a good grip on the rope, enough that I was able to shuffle my feet over to the near side and pull myself up. I listened again for the voices, but they did not sound like they were coming any closer. Oddly enough, one of the voices sounded female, but that of course was not possible, since only men lived at the Abbey. Men who had taken a vow of silence, a rule that was strictly enforced from dawn until dusk. I looked out toward the barns, but the shadows had taken over and I was unable to make anything out. Idle chatter was strictly forbidden, so for brothers to be talking like this, it meant that something important had happened. Unless of course the hushed voices belonged to strangers.
I worked my way down the stairs, the darkness was complete, and the slick grime covered walls made the decent treacherous. I had to feel my way along, the cold stones numbed my fingers and I had to take great care to avoid falling. At last my senses were assaulted by the smell of manure, and I knew I was at the base of the tower. I stood upon the porch of the great abbey, the darkness was complete, and the only sounds were the snorts of beasts and the drip of water off the eaves. I was almost disappointed that the men had moved on, although in reality I should have been grateful in knowing that my partial ringing of the bell had not caused me any grief. Just then I heard a groan off to my right.
I hesitated. While I was emboldened by the successful repatriation of the swallow, my deeply ensconced cowardice was not vanquished entirely. I was wise enough at seventeen to know that the world was filled with countless perils, and that someone as small and inept as myself was safest within the confines of the monastery. That of course would the easiest thing to do, go back to my warm dry bunk and hide. Then again, if my faith was being tested this night, it behooved me to find out the source of all that chatter. Even if it wasn’t someone in need, indeed if those voices belonged to men engaged in nefarious deeds, at the very least I could sound the warning. I turned the corner to investigate.
I didn’t fully commit. I stopped short of announcing my presence, choosing instead to hug the contour of the fence that ran along the north wall of the Abbey. There was a light up ahead, a lantern hung on a peg on a wall next to the Abbott’s house. It illuminated the figure of a man, hunched over and working on something, but little else. The ground was muddy and no matter how cautiously I moved, every step was echoed with a faint splash. The man though was too preoccupied with his task to take notice of my clumsy approach. He was plainly dressed in a gray coat, and appeared to be holding something in his right hand that he was trying to affix to a larger object, propped up by left hand. He appeared angry and was muttering under his breath. When at last he looked up, I recognized him instantly, his name was Eamon. Eamon was one of the many lay persons who worked at the Abbey. While not a full fledged brother, he had been long time resident, when I first arrived on the island, seven years ago, Eamon was already a senior verger.
Just then a second figure passed in front of the light, he was quite large, and appeared to be wearing a dark cloak with the hood up. He waited until Eamon had stopped fussing, then bent down momentarily, and grunted as he stood back up, his arms now burdened with something of considerable bulk. Part of it was draped over his arm, and as it caught the light, I gulped with the sudden realization of what it must be. The faint rattle of iron links confirmed my suspicions. Eamon, and the large cloaked man, were half carrying, and half dragging, the limp body of a third man. A man dressed in metal armour. There was no need for armour at the monastery, or on the Island itself. That was something fighting men wore, and fighting men were a prelude to unspeakable horrors.
I froze in place, my heart was thumping so loudly I was afraid they would hear it. Eamon backed his way through an open doorway, no doubt taking the stricken man to the cloister of the sick. The large cloaked man adjusted his burden, and briefly turned toward the light as he too passed through the door. It was Master Tucker, the Master of Novices, looking more grim than usual, this late night escapade no doubt would make him extra surly tomorrow. Then for a scant moment, I saw the face of the soldier they were dragging away. There was a flash of recognition, but then I quickly dismissed it as impossible. I just started blankly at the now empty doorway, jaw hanging open, haunted by what I had just witnessed, or what I thought I had just witnessed. “It can’t be,” I kept repeating to myself, but there was only one way for me to know for certain. I needed to get a good look at that soldier.
I didn’t want to stumble into Eamon and Master Tucker so I took an alternate route to the cloister of the sick. Fumbling around in the darkness, I slipped up near the latrines on the far side of the Abbott's house and splattered my tunic with muck. I took greater care after that and arrived at the cloister of the sick without further incident. I hid next to the grim building where the gruesome business of bloodletting was done. It was on the far side of the cloister and they would need to pass this way to get to either the physicians house or to the infirmary. All was silent at the moment, a welcome relief as I did not wish to share in the misery sustained by those who resided within. There was no sign of Eamon and Master Tucker, and I grew impatient, as my teeth were chattering, and the dampness which had succeeded in permeating my boots, was making my toes grow numb. I crept toward the doorway they had passed through, the glow from the lantern was still visible but little else. I heard a flurry of of footsteps coming from the other direction and I quickly shrank back into the shadows. It was Eamon, still muttering to himself, but alone, and walking with purpose. He walk right past me without taking notice, paused to retrieve the lantern, and then disappeared into the night..
I was plunged into total darkness and had to feel my way along the wall. Eamon had come the direction of the kitchen, an unlikely resting place the soldier. However just beyond the kitchen was a small chapel, a sign that the man they carried there was beyond the skills of a physician. The thought that the man was dead had crossed my mind, indeed that seemed like the most likely scenario. It was also most plausible that the man was a stranger, and the fact that he was dead would matter not. Up ahead I could see a faint light emanating from the chapel, the answer to that particular mystery would soon be at hand.
This small chapel was very plain as it was used primarily by those who were ill, and thus dissuaded from attending the main church. On the altar there were a number of small candles lit by hopeful petitioners, as well as larger ones mounted on tall brass candlesticks. I didn’t see the body of the man right away, and while searching the benches, I knocked over a tall candlestick sending it clattering across the stone floor. I held my breath, silently cursing my dreaded clumsiness. Once the echoes faded away, I allowed myself to exhale and then put the candlestick back in its place. I picked up the still burning candle, and explored a dark alcove at the back of the chapel.. There I found an enormous man, both in height and girth, dressed head to toe in black. His leather booths were worn and muddy, his tunic torn and stained, the armour that I first saw gleaming in the lantern light, was rusty and did not look like it had been oiled in quite some time. He had a full head of black hair and a long shaggy beard, I guessed his age to be around forty. I could make out an abundance of old scars on his face, but nothing recent, and there was no sign of blood anywhere on his person. Why he had passed on was not readily evident.
That of course only compounded the enigma that this man had become. Even in death the resemblance was uncanny, as the man I remembered had been a silent, smoldering giant, rarely seen, and seldom ever heard. Getting a closer look had done nothing to dispel my hypothesis and had only triggered more foggy childhood memories. As a small boy I could taste the fear I felt as a small boy, so intense that I would hide if I knew he was in town. The last time I saw him I was ten years old. I was in my bed, feigning sleep, when he came in and knelt down beside me. I never opened my eyes, but I remember a sadness about him as if he knew something dreadful was about to happen. He let out a deep sigh then muttered what I took to be a prayer under his breath. The next day I was on a ship, bound for this faraway island, and I have been at this monastery ever since.
Suddenly I felt a sharp pain as a stream of hot wax ran down my arm. I let out an awkward yelp and dropped the candle. Much to my horror it bounced of the corpse leaving behind a glob of wax in his beard and rolled out into the nave. I picked the dried wax off my forearm, and crawled under the benches looking for the lost candle. As I was groping around on the floor, I heard the sound of someone approaching from outside. From my vantage beneath a bench, I could only make out the hem of their garment The slow gait and heavy footsteps suggested Master Tucker, the stout, irritable, Master of Novices, but I wasn't about to reveal myself to confirm my suspicion. I cringed thinking that he would see my wet footprints and then notice my accidental act of desecration. He paused for a moment as he neared the body, but continued onward to the Novice Cloister at his typically unhurried pace.
I sat up, having abandoned my quest for the lost candle. I could only see the man in silhouette now, the broad forehead, the wide, flat nose, the square chin, the features I remember so clearly as being so dissimilar to mine. I’m sure the world was filled with other men as large as the man I knew as Big Ed, Ed the Giant, Ednourmous, and a host of other names. In my world though, there had only been one such man, the one who had given me the name Garrett, the man I was told was my father.