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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Dictu

Submitted by on November 13, 2006 – 11:44 AMNo Comment

On just like any of a thousand other dawns, Brother Gregory crossed the monastery corner of the estate to the scriptorium at first light, the dew dragging down his robes at the hem, but that day, he felt light, pushed forward — for that day, he planned to finish his illuminated A. A letter months in the planning, the A featured Brother Gregory's best climbing vines, with doves nestled in the foliage that looked nearly real. Everyone said so. Only the edging remained; then the letter would be done.

Brother Gregory had just finished preparing his brushes when the illuminated A peeled itself upright, jumped from the vellum to the podium to Brother Gregory's sleeve to the floor, zipped between Brother Xavier's legs, and made its winking escape into the castle courtyard. Brother Xavier gave chase, but a bellyful of porridge soon tied him up with a cramp, and the A disappeared into the morning dew.

Brother Xavier returned to the scriptorium; Brother Gregory and Brother Matthias stood in the doorway.

"Please," he said between pants for breath, "tell me I did not imagine that."

"If you imagined it, we imagined it the same," Brother Matthias said.

"Perhaps we are all in a dream," Brother Xavier said, "a dream dreamed by God."

"Or Satan," Brother Matthias said, squinting into the shadow of the castle.

Brother Gregory sighed. "I had only the gold edging left to do."

"Satan!" Brother Matthias said, and snapped his fingers. Brother Gregory sighed again.

Brother Galen arrived just then, loaded down with kindling, and commented pointedly that the morning sun certainly could play tricks on the eyes, did the others not agree.

"If you imagined you saw an A headed for the drawbridge with the Devil himself after it –"

"I did."

"Matthias, perhaps some tea."

The four of them sat in the doorway, warming their feet in the sun, and waited for the pot to boil. Brother Gregory thought of all the trouble he'd gone to with the pestle, blending the ultramarine, how long it had taken. Brother Xavier thought of the boy he'd once been, able to outrun any creature. Brother Galen thought of his village's fool, how he hadn't understood the difference between himself and that shivering man.

A girlish shrieking interrupted these reveries, and the three monks in the doorway turned to find Brother Matthias covered with what looked like spiders, a sheet of them, a veil of inky many-legged beasties unfurling towards the door.

"Aze! Aze!" Brother Matthias barked. "Aaaaaaaay-eeeeeeeeeeeeeees!"

Brother Matthias squealed and flapped his arms and twisted hither and yon in the room like a burning warlock. Brother Galen and Brother Gregory bolted outside and around to either side of the scriptorium; Brother Xavier, looking to avenge his earlier defeat, huffed determinedly after the lemming stream of As as it poured over the earthen stoop of the scriptorium. Again he was thwarted. The retreating whip-tail of As vanished over the drawbridge and out of sight with Brother Xavier many yards behind.

Brother Gregory stood in front of the scriptorium, rubbing his arms absently. Within, Brother Matthias gibbered and wailed about the letters, their tiny tickling feet, the exorcism that surely must be performed right away; Brother Galen tried to comfort him. Brother Xavier limped back towards the scriptorium, the victim of a low-lying nettle. Somewhere close by, a shutter slammed shut, and Brother Gregory's eyes absently followed the sound, up to a bay window on the eastern wall of the castle. It was painted orange, and the morning sun, gathering its will, threw the color back. Brother Gregory felt warm — possibly from sun, possibly from ague, he could not speculate.

He trudged back in, at something of a loss as to how to proceed. Even assuming that they were not all dreaming, letters did not ordinarily flee the premises, singly or in groups, and therefore Brother Gregory did not know whether he should expect them to return, or if they should all make up some lampblack and begin over. Every A in the room, gone — and, evidently, Brother Galen as well.

"Where has Galen gone?"

"Rectory. For wine."

"Ah."

"Matthias is –"

"Well. Yes."

Brother Gregory sat down slowly at his podium and stared unseeing for a moment at the wax-sealed pot beside his brushes — the gold, lately arrived from Wrexham. The finishing touch.

"Why?" Brother Gregory said, to no one in particular.

"It is a possession, horribile visu," Brother Matthias said through grey lips.

"I suppose the possibility cannot be discounted," Brother Xavier said.

"All four of us, possessed?" Brother Gregory said.

"The letters are possessed," Brother Matthias said.

"Odder still," Brother Xavier said.

"HORRIBILE VISU."

"Odd — that they would be possessed?" Brother Gregory said.

"Naturally," Brother Xavier said, "but as well, that Satan would enter them…here. Why not" — he flapped a hand at the door — "out there, in the larger world? Would that not seem the easier way?"

Brother Galen reappeared. "Perhaps he called to them from out there," he said, possibly to appease Brother Matthias, to whose shuddering lips Brother Galen struggled to hold a cup of watered wine. "Perhaps they went to him. Perhaps His Darkness leads them."

"They did seem to go to something," Brother Gregory said. "There did seem to be a purpose."

"Yes. Purpose. Purpose," Brother Matthias said. His eyes had slitted. A pale purple drop traced down the side of his chin and he did not wipe it away. Brother Gregory said, "Matthias, perhaps an hour of rest."

The three of them helped Brother Matthias back to the priory, where Brother Balfour folded him into bed, suspiciously but without comment. Then the three of them, Brother Balfour's judging eyes upon their shoulders, walked in silence to the chancery, poured out a chalice, and drank it off between them, still without speaking. The fortification intended by this sacrilege did not materialize, but they walked back to the scriptorium anyway, staying close together and in the sun. Not knowing how else to spend the morning, they pitted lamps for blacking, and after an interval, Brother Galen and Brother Xavier settled in to filling in A after A, leaving Matthias's for another time, as none of them could replicate his distinctive Latinate tails. Brother Gregory found his tracings for the illuminated A and started the long journey from lines to paint from the beginning.

Midday found Brother Gregory grinding chalk, Brother Galen napping with his smudged face in his elbow, and Brother Xavier humming and A-ing. When Brother Matthias returned to form, Brother Gregory mused, it could become a tale, a fable — or perhaps Brother Bonaventure had let the butter turn again, and they could all blame black-humored food for the morning's fantastical adventure. They had none of them anywhere else to be but there, after all, lettering and tracing at the duke's pleasure — why not do it twice?

No sooner had Brother Gregory formed this thought both wry and content for himself than what he thought was a starling began to call from the castle turrets. "CHEE!" it said, and "CHEE!" again, and Brother Galen grumbled with his eyes still closed that he did wish Bonaventure would stop encouraging those accursed things with kitchen crusts, but Brother Xavier put paid to the notion that it was a starling with an uncharacteristically flat "oh heavens." Brother Gregory blinked chalk dust out of his eyes.

Brother Xavier, tonelessly: "G, my friends."

The Gs rose up and rolled, pebbles in the bed of a creek, but faster, then faster still. They sluiced down, merging into one another, bubbling and chittering, and Brother Gregory dropped his chalk and mortar and followed them out into the courtyard, taking care not to step near them.

"G!"

His eyes on the Gs, Brother Gregory did not look up to the sound; somehow he still thought it was a bird, something besides what he was seeing, nothing to do with the letters he was following like a ridiculous robed hound. He watched them burble over the drawbridge and into the castle's great hall, a few of them knocked loose into the moat in the commotion, too light even to make a plip on the water's surface, eddying away.

"G!"

At last he looked up to the window he'd noticed before, the one with the orange shutters. He could see a little boy there, barely out of nurse's arms in age — just the top of the boy's fair head, really.

"G!"

A black sleeve came down then, and the long pale fingers at the end of it grasped the edge of the shutter and pulled it closed.

Brother Gregory stood with his face turned up to the window. Brother Xavier came up beside him.

"It's a child," Brother Gregory said. "Learning his letters."

"And he was learning…" Brother Xavier said, holding up his thumb and forefinger. Pinched between them was a lowercase G.

"…The letter G," Brother Gregory finished. As they watched, the G struggled for a moment, then poked its tail into Brother Xavier's cuticle.

"Ow! …Demon, ow!" Brother Xavier dropped the G, the G said "[tssss]," Brother Xavier lunged at the G to stomp it flat, the G said "[hhnn]" and zagged away, into taller grass.

"Stung me!" Brother Xavier roared, and put his finger in his mouth. Brother Gregory just sighed.

In the scriptorium, Brother Galen stood on a stool, shivering and angry.

"I fancy myself a stronger man in mind than Matthias –" he began; Brother Xavier raised a hand up to him, Brother Galen consented to take it, and stepped down. "What is this madness, please," he said, very low. "Please."

Brother Gregory explained what they had seen.

"The boy calls the letters to him?"

"It is…the only explanation," Brother Gregory said. "At the moment."

"Who is this boy?" Brother Galen said.

"The duke's son, we may assume," Brother Xavier said, holding his finger into the firelight to examine his wound. "Have we not heard tell? Of this boy. Have we not heard the story –"

"That he is feeble-minded," Brother Galen supplied.

"Yes," Brother Gregory said. "That is the story."

"That is the story from Jeremiah," Brother Galen said, rolling his eyes.

"Jeremiah gossips, it is true," Brother Xavier said. "Not admirable. But he is ordinarily accurate."

Brother Galen rolled his eyes again, but Brother Gregory said, "His information is good, for the most part."

"The boy is learning letters. The touched cannot do this. Where, pray tell, is the good information?" Brother Galen said, exasperated.

"He is touched, then, just not dull," Brother Xavier said. "He is said to be feeble-minded, but only because he is the opposite. You could agree to that."

"Or he is…possessed," Brother Galen said, and looked embarrassed, and added, "No?" and Brother Gregory wanted to say "no," but could not. None of them could, so there they sat until vespers, hands in laps, unsure. To continue lettering? To petition the duke? To fetch the abbot out of bed to see to this thing? But it was to do nothing that they decided.

Vespers. Brother Xavier prayed for guidance. Brother Galen prayed for nighttime. Brother Gregory tried to pray, but found his mind emptied of everything but a terrible vision of the little boy in the courtyard, pointing at a Q the size of the moon and laughing as it rushed into his fine fat little arms. A fine sweat covered Brother Gregory at this picture of stupid delight which he could not banish, and he did pray then, if a singing wail for help heard only in the head can be properly called "prayer."

Brother Gregory took his supper at Brother Matthias's bedside. Brother Matthias slept, motionless, blown down by the storm of his blanket. Brother Gregory hoped he would wake, but he did not, only breathed, steady as a clock.

When Orion rose, Brother Gregory left Brother Matthias and went to his cell, although he did not expect to sleep. Brother Alfred had refilled the candle box that afternoon, and Brother Gregory busied himself at his table with the new candles, shaping the bases with a curved tool that had belonged to his mother.

"Save the leavings for Alfred, he can reuse them," Brother Galen said from the doorway.

"I always do," Brother Gregory said.

"Any change with Matthias?" Brother Galen said.

"He is resting quietly, or it appears so," Brother Gregory said. He swept the cut wax into a little hill.

"That's one of us, then," Brother Galen said, and Brother Gregory chuckled, and just then Brother Jeremiah appeared beside Brother Galen and said, "Dreams elude us all, I see." He shuffled into Brother Gregory's cell and sat on the windowsill. Brother Galen rolled his eyes, then shrugged to himself and came in also.

"It is going around," Brother Gregory said. "Shall I lend you something dull to read?"

"Duller than the Catalinian Orations, which I have already tried, in vain?"

Brother Gregory searched his mind for a written narcotic stronger than Cicero; after a moment, he brightened. "Lucretius!"

Brother Galen frowned. "I rather like Lucretius."

"I rather like him as well, but on and on he goes with the wind particles," Brother Gregory said, and Brother Galen said he found that section fascinating, in point of fact, and Brother Gregory said it began well enough but went on too long, surely Brother Galen could admit that Lucretius might have concluded his argument a bit sooner, and Brother Galen scoffed that Brother Gregory must not have understood the principles entirely, then, if he found their explication so tiresome, and Brother Gregory snapped that Brother Galen should not confuse explication and repetition, and the wind is not made of bits in the second place but he certainly hadn't intended any offense, and perhaps Brother Galen would like to enjoy some Lucretius in his own cell instead of defending it in Brother Gregory's, and Brother Galen said he would love to, but first he had to finish the frightfully poor Livy that Brother Gregory had insisted he read. This debate, which had attained the standing of the Doxology in its rote familiarity to everyone in the abbey, would have wended its way through the entire library at Alexandria had Brother Jeremiah not interrupted to observe that Brother Galen had a point about the Livy.

"There is a reason Sartorius drank," Brother Jeremiah said, crossing himself, "and it was not for the taste of it."

"Requiescat in pace," Brother Galen murmured, and he and Brother Gregory crossed themselves.

Brother Jeremiah cleared his throat in an introductory manner, and Brother Galen, who knew what was coming, initiated an eye-roll as Brother Jeremiah said, "The map remains elusive."

"Perhaps because the map remains a figment of your imagination," Brother Galen grunted, and began to clean his nails, for as many hours as Brothers Galen and Gregory had spent arguing over the Roman authors, Brother Jeremiah had used up twice as many turning over and over the glittering mystery of the map allegedly left behind by Brother Sartorius. Brother Sartorius, an inveterate drunkard, had two favored topics of discourse: the responsibility of Livy and various Gnostic-gospel irregularities for his sodden condition; and the network of treasure he had constructed belowground. The treasure consisted of great earthen jars of spirits, made with the help of Brother Bonaventure in the name of promoting distillery science and buried by Brother Sartorius in secret locations throughout the estate. He had sworn, not entirely believably, that upon the event of his death a map of the system of jars would make itself known to his brethren, but no such legend had surfaced, and as a result, Brother Jeremiah had become nearly bewitched by its promise. He cared little for the jars themselves or their contents; it was their concealment that obsessed him.

Brother Gregory found it faintly credible that Brother Sartorius could have generated the spirits, and buried the jars, but that he would have had the foresight to chart them Brother Gregory very much doubted. Brother Galen had none of it. Brother Jeremiah was untouched by their skepticism — he had been proven correct before in similar matters, and felt sure he would be again in this case — and he said so to Brother Galen in so many words.

"This is why you cannot find sleep," Brother Galen said, pointing a finger at Brother Jeremiah. "These fantastical notions rile your blood."

"As you like," Brother Jeremiah shrugged. "It will be found. I might have liked the company, but you will suit yourself."

"And how will it be found, Jeremiah?" Brother Galen asked, teasing him. "Will Sartorius rise to point the way? Will his ghostly hiccups make a map for your ear?"

"If any shade were to behave so…" Brother Jeremiah said. Brother Galen, sounding surprised to hear himself agree, finished, "It would be Sartorius's." Then he added, "Provided he can find his way back here, of course."

"Or is not distracted by a jar on his way," Brother Gregory put in. Brother Jeremiah smiled and stood up. "And off I go, on that note, to my fantastical notions, and to any warm milk Bonaventure may have at hand," and he left them.

"I nearly wish he did have that map," Brother Galen said, rising to go himself. "We could tire ourselves out with the digging."

"Or with the drinking," Brother Gregory agreed. He paused in the doorway. Brother Gregory went to his shelves and took down the Lucretius and handed it to Brother Galen, who said sadly, "The wind particles are a trial."

"They can make a nice picture at times," Brother Gregory said.

"Good night, Gregory."

"Good night, Galen."

Brother Gregory blew out his candle and sat on his windowsill. A half moon threw a thousand shadows down, and Brother Gregory imagined he saw many things at the edge of the woods in the middle distance — wolves, nuns, Brother Sartorius walking with a shovel, even little dancing letters at times, but when it took those shapes, Brother Gregory averted his eyes.

Sleep would not come that night, Brother Gregory decided, so he went down to the kitchen to see about some tea. He found Brother Bonaventure in front of the kitchen fire with his feet up, deliberately peeling an egg.

"Another one, Magdelene," Brother Bonaventure said to the cat coiled on the hearthstone, a scarred grey specimen nearly as old as Brother Bonaventure himself. "If it is an inn we run here, perhaps we should expect a highwayman next."

"A relief to find you up," Brother Gregory said. Brother Bonaventure heaved himself to his feet, handed Brother Gregory the egg, and said, "If you wouldn't mind. Old hands are slow." He poured out a saucer of tea for Brother Gregory, who handed Brother Bonaventure the denuded egg and inhaled the purple steam of the tea.

"Thistle," Brother Bonaventure said. "To quiet the mind."

"Or to make clouds," Brother Gregory said, pantomiming a circular painting motion.

"Or that," Brother Bonaventure said.

Brother Gregory regarded Brother Bonaventure for a moment, the drooping jaw slowly working a bite, the branched hand holding the egg.

"Bonaventure," Brother Gregory said, "what do you hear about Matthias?"

Brother Bonaventure flicked a crumb of yolk from his sleeve. "I hear a great deal."

"I imagine so," Brother Gregory said, with care.

"Very well," Brother Bonaventure said. "I hear that Matthias is broken from a fright. I hear that it is the business of His Darkness." He paused so that Brother Gregory could interject, but Brother Gregory did not, so Brother Bonaventure went on, "I hear more particularly that Matthias believes manuscript letters to have assaulted him. And that Balfour painted him with holy water as one might a wall."

Brother Gregory felt very tired suddenly, and said, "Ah."

"Whether any of it is true, I cannot say," Brother Bonaventure said, "although Jeremiah does not tend to make up stories."

"No," Brother Gregory said, and Brother Bonaventure said, "This is what I hear. But it is not what I hear that you are really asking for," and Brother Gregory said again, "No," and Brother Bonaventure leaned forward and clasped his speckled hands between his knees and said, "I am an old man, witness to many strange things in time. Some stranger than this. Not many, but some."

"But you did not witness this," Brother Gregory said.

"Whether I witnessed it is not the point," Brother Bonaventure said.

Part The Third: Countermeasures. A Meeting Behind the Convent. Forces Seen and Unseen. One Brother Lost. The Only Plan Remaining.

November 13, 2006

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