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  Table of contents Issue Fifteen THE MONK'S EARS

by
DIMITRIJE MEDENICA
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hen Prior Caesarius of Heisterbach delivered his sermon to a crowded and candle-lit nave, he talked of an exorcism performed on a wealthy burgher’s wife. During that exorcism, he stated, the woman had confessed to the demon entering her ear after her husband had shouted: “Go to the devil, woman!” Struck by his prior’s words, Brother Paulus resolved to warn the world against the Devil’s wickedness.



Within days of that late summer's sermon, Brother Paulus started on his journey. He intended to reach the Alps by fall and spend the winter in an isolated monastery or village, because he felt God had entrusted him with warning society's forgotten souls of the perils they would incur. Brother Paulus also decided to never lower his hood, unless in a church or monastery, for fear of the devil slithering into his ears. His insistence on holding the flaps of his large hood at the occasional expense of freeing his hands to receive alms, drove more than a benefactor away. And Brother Paulus lost much weight roaming the paths that the Schwartzwald swallowed, spitting him out thinner into every clearing. Yet his resolve never faltered and he left a trail of exorcisms villagers would remember for generations. He carried a canvass pouch that hung empty most of the time, but for occasional visits from chunks of black bread and hard cheese. He slept in monasteries, barns, and even at the back of village churches. He washed rarely, but when he did, he would ask for a bucket. Then he would take his scapulary and habit off, splash himself, and rush to don his clothes lest the Devil slither through a bodily orifice.



On a chilly winter eve, having crossed the Schwartzwald and bedded in the village that clung to Interlaken Abbey in Central Europe, Brother Paulus reached a high summer pasture to find shelter in a shack. He lighted a small fire in the hearth with his steel striker, flint, and bits of dry bark. These stood as his prized possessions, because even a monk with no interest in personal property had to admit that braving the winter required a good fire. When he slept, he always kept a small iron lantern close to his belly, filling him with warmth and allaying hunger pains. The small lantern also formed a tight circle separating the monk from the Devil's night.



The following morning, Brother Paulus pulled his moth-ravaged hood, circled his waist twice with the cincture, and opened the loose door. Cold air breathed under his cassock, clinging to calves that breeches and the lambskins wrapping his sandals could not reach. With every thrust of his ash staff, layers of angry snow protested, but Brother Paulus focused on mountains that squeezed the gray sky, forcing it to drip and form a lake of fog drowning the valleys. He squinted as a timid sun threw spears from behind peaks whiter than any cloud, and he began his descent to the remote village of Schönloch--Beautiful Hole. It lay about a mile down. With each step, he speared the snow for loose layers that courted the abyss. He carried a slice of black bread and a dozen chunks of cheese as hard as rocks. When passing a pine tree, he enjoyed the prickling needles on his palms, a rare sign of life. Toward midday, Brother Paulus broke some branches and tossed them on slushy snow to sit. They would keep him dry. Beside the moans of trampled snow and the gusts that lifted snow from peaks and pines, silence ruled. He murmured a prayer and bit into a rock-solid cheese. One, two, three bites, and the chunk disappeared behind bleeding gums. He munched on ice to lessen the pain. Then he stepped to the abyss and watched waves of fog beach on rocky shores dozens of feet below.



Two hours after lunch, Brother Paulus reached the fog lake's shore. He glanced at the setting sun, hoping the village stood somewhere near in the fog. Snowflakes began to tease the hook of his nose and they brought soggy siblings to play. Rounding a bend, he recognized the silhouettes of snow-covered roofs: Schönloch emerged from the steep slope overlooking a valley, so near, yet so far, an apparition drowned in a sea of fog.



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Brother Paulus stopped to reflect on the coming darkness and, as he adjusted his hood to parry the whirling snowflakes, he heard a man shouting. "Pull us out! Pull us out you stupid good-for-nothing horse!" Brother Paulus shivered and crossed himself. He planted his ash staff, lifted his lantern, and tightened his grip over the wooden cross hanging from his neck. For who could tell, in these forgotten regions, whether travelers were free or possessed by local demons?



And Brother Paulus saw the cart lean, sending clumps of snow into the abyss. He stepped forward: "May I help you?" said Brother Paulus, as a whip tore the darkness to lick at a terrified horse. Each time the whip dug into its back, the animal rose on its hind legs to behold more of the black abyss. "May I help you?"



"Who's this? What the--No! We don't need help!"



"Let me help, two people's better than one," said Brother Paulus, probing the snow with his staff. "I'll hold your horse."



"Leave us," said the man, his shouting titillating the snows far above.



"Jonas, let him help, please," said a woman in the cart.



"Go to the devil, woman!" said the man, as a deep rumble bounced off the mountain peaks. All eyes turned up to probe the heights as thunder rolled.



"Jonas, Jonas, we've got to leave the cart, I think it's an avalanche, it'll take us all down, forget the--"



"I said the 'devil take you' woman and no, I'll not leave the gold!" said Jonas. Brother Paulus stepped back. He found shelter behind the bend, recalling a stone ledge he had seen moments before the fall of darkness. With Jonas having invoked the devil, a cautious Brother Paulus squeezed under the narrow ledge and prayed. He trembled inches from tumbling snow, tasting its cold breath that burned his tongue and throat with frost.



When the avalanche ended, silence filled the alpine nooks and crannies. Occasional clumps splashed on the path, but they did not linger before tumbling into the abyss. Brother Paulus emerged from his shelter, holding his lantern high, trudging over chunks of ice, and praising God for a miraculous escape. Then he tripped and lowered his lantern over a blood-soaked wiggling hand in the snow. Was it the demon? Or was it someone who needed his help? Murmuring a quick prayer, he planted his staff into the snow and grabbed the hand. "My duty is to help those in need, God shall provide the rest!" The blood-soaked fingers slipped through his own until he felt nails dig into his skin. "Who are you?" he asked, as he saw a head and neck emerge. Nobody answered but the wind.



Brother Paulus knelt to grab a clump of hair and lifted the head to peer into its eyes. Inside, deep inside bulging eyeballs, he beheld his lantern's flame. It grew larger the more he stared and his eyes began to burn, threatening to catch his soul on fire. He shivered, dropped the head, and wedged the lantern by his feet. Without an instant to spare, the distraught monk began pelting the head with chunks of ice, pretending not to hear the rising moans. Then he collapsed with only the strength to hear the wind sing, the mountains dance, and the snowflakes whiz.



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A candlelight pried the monk's eyelids open. He searched for the familiar wetness of snow but found prickly straw instead. As he rolled his eyes, he noticed more flickering candles behind which floated rough-hewn faces. He felt hands nudge him toward a cup of red wine, and once he sipped, it began to warm the memory of a belly the Black Forest had stolen.



"Brother, I found you in this snow, fresh from the avalanche so I brought you here, in our church," said someone. "You said a demon's out there!"



"Yes, the demon ... " said Brother Paulus, fumbling for his hood. "May The Almighty preserve our souls. You're right and I remember the avalanche falling over my head, and the shouting and neighing and -- and then the demon found me!" The faces drooped like melting wax. Then he stood and someone handed him his staff to lean on. "When I looked into the face of the woman, or so I thought it was one, I saw flames grow in the eyes, so I covered the head back with all the snow I could find, burying it with prayers."



"Tell us what to do, Brother ... Brother?" said another voice in the nave.



"Brother Paulus is my name."



"What can we do?" said the same voice. Brother Paulus chose his words as he limped to the altar. He raised his arms and knelt on rough pavers that bit into his knees. Then he ordered the men to bring their families into the church, and when they did, Brother Paulus lowered the wood bar into the iron hooks of the mighty doors, turning his back to the howling wind.



Fear stunk as it filled the air. Adults shushed their children so that the demons scratching the doors would not hear them. But Brother Paulus began spewing words louder than the wind. "Let us pray. Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen."



"Amen," the villagers whispered.



"On my way to Schönloch, I saw a wretched cart, and on it sat a demon whipping a horse. I remember this demon, telling these very words, may God forgive me for repeating them here, but ... " Brother Paulus tugged on his hood. "He said ... No, I can't -- I can't repeat the words! What terrified me most was the laugh I heard when I pulled the possessed woman to safety. At first, I thought she needed my help. But then, I saw the fire of Hell burn in her eyeballs -- in the demon's eyeballs!" A silent wave of heads rolled in approval behind the candles they clung to.



"This tragedy's reminded me of a sermon by the great Prior Caesarius of Heisterbach in the German lands beyond the Great Black Forest. It reminded me of the confession that followed. What better way to ward off the Devil than to tell you what happened? It may be distressing to hear, but you'll be armed with new knowledge!" Brother Paulus leaned on his staff to catch some breath and watched his new flock share one another's tremors. "Let us remain calm," said Brother Paulus, and the bushy brows crowning his wind-beaten eyelids began carving his skull. With the crowd's trust, he felt himself become the appointed protector of Schönloch. He kissed the cross hanging around his neck, adjusted his hood, and spoke: "This is what Prior Caesarius of Heisterbach said." While he paced in front of the altar, he breathed as if to speak but stopped short of delivering his message more than once, fearing that invoking the Devil would invite him into the church.



"Beware because the story will strike deep. In fact, I'll tell you when to cover your ears! Now, Prior Caesarius said that on the Mount of the Holy Savior near Aachen, a possessed woman was brought to his abbot after mass. When he read the gospel lesson of the Ascension over her head and placed his hand on her head, the Devil gave a horrible roar. 'Ajured depart,' the abbot said. When asked how he entered in the woman, he did not reply and he did not let her reply. But later, she confessed that when--Cover your ears!" And all pulled scarves and rags over their heads. "Then she confessed that when her husband said, 'Go to--'Go to the devil,' she felt him enter through her ear." Brother Paulus closed his eyes and raised his arms: "Let us pray, so Father thou--"



But loud knocks shook the oak doors, shoving snowflakes through cracks. Everyone turned. "Who dares? Who dares disturb our prayer?" Expecting to hear the Devil laugh, Brother Paulus waited. And he waited with sweat dripping below his cassock.



"Brother Paulus?" said someone in the crowd.



"Yes?"



"Could it be -- "



"It's the Devil, yes but ... "



"But I don't hear him laugh, Brother?"



"You're right! But then could it be ... "



"Someone we left out?" said the voice with anguish.



But Brother Paulus still waited for the terrifying laugh. It did not come. Then he said: "May God take pity on us; I don't hear the Devil laugh, so this could -- this could only mean one thing: we've forgotten someone out there!" He limped to the doors, preceded by the stomping of his staff. He propped it against the stone wall. When he raised the plank that barred the entrance, the doors burst open, thrusting him into the squealing crowd. Darkness spewed snowflakes into the nave, killing the candles by the entrance, while those by the altar flickered for their lives. "Someone gimme my lantern!"



A shadow rushed to the altar, snatched the rusting lantern, and brought it to the monk. Then the shadow retreated. Brother Paulus lifted the lantern to behold a bone-thin woman covered in rivulets of blood. Her clothes fluttered in the wind, baring legs as white as snow. She shivered and pulled a wide torn scarf to cover what once had been a prized noblewoman's dress. Brother Paulus then recalled the disheveled demon and crawled back.



"I ... My cart got buried in the avalanche!" the woman said and only Brother Paulus heard her as the wind began singing in the nave.



"But you--you're--you should be dead," said Brother Paulus. He raised his lantern. She looked at him with bulging coal eyes and, once more, the lantern's reflection flickered behind haggard eyeballs. Brother Paulus felt faint. Was the fire in her eyes about to burn him again? Her thick blood-spattered lips made a feeble attempt at carving dimples into cavernous cheeks. Brother Paulus rose. He grabbed her shoulders and pushed her down to her knees. Her hands slid along his habit and when her knees reached the floor stones, she let out a squeal that terrified everyone. Wrapping her arms around Brother Paulus' legs, she buried her tears in the waves of his habit. "Stay away, demon!" said Brother Paulus, as he slammed his wooden cross on her forehead. He spread his legs to parry the gusts of wind that tinkered with the church's beams, scraping the villagers with such delight.



"My child and Jonas, my husband, they all died. I couldn't find them so I saw a light through the snow. It was a lantern, I knew it, so I pushed the snow and saw someone who helped me out, but then my savior shoved me back under. Something struck my head and I felt so much pain, so much pain! Please -- Please, you've gotta believe me." The more she buried her face into the cassock's folds, the stronger Brother Paulus pushed his rough wooden cross into her forehead. And he pressed until blood trickled from under it, while he gathered courage to repel the demon that had entered her.



"No, I don't have to believe you! You're lying! You won't curse and you won't enter my ears! Adjured, depart!" He shoved her back into a snowdrift the wind had built for her fall by the church entrance. She whisked a trickle of blood dripping from where the cross had pressed, and she looked at the rough-hewn faces that stared without a blink. None smiled, none frowned, and their lips hung frozen in time. She lowered her eyes to the stone floor.



"Anyone? Will anyone help me?" But the wind sang, Brother Paulus' ears ached, and he grabbed his staff with both hands.



   
   

 

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When Dimitrije Medenica retired from architecture and healthcare design, he began writing about fictional history, architects, and physicians. A graduate from Columbia University, a content developer, and a translator, he is working on short stories and has written a novel, The Good Healer. His work has been published in Aphelion Webzine and Bewildering Stories.



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