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  Table of contents Issue Twenty THE PALIMPSEST



y acquaintance with Gilbert Weathertop-Basington, the 17th Lord Bastable never seemed more than a pleasant pastime until just recently. We had met only briefly in London, at a symposium on early English literature’s Teutonic influences. I spoke with him in the lobby for a few minutes between scholarly presentations, and without a clue who he was, but he wore a cream-colored silken handkerchief in the pocket of an expensive, tailored black suit with the sort of fine-woven pinstripe that establishes Money more readily than a fat wallet ever could. He had the natural air of someone who knew and was worth knowing. So being only a Ramen-fed grad student at the time and honored at receiving the travel stipend that allowed me to cross the pond and attend the grand gathering of great minds and desperate to sound like I was every bit as bookwise as the most stuffed shirt in the building, I dusted off my best vocabulary and gave my most stalwart effort to appear the self-assured literatus. I cannot recall exactly what I said—something about how the Beowulf scribe’s sermonizing interludes offset the overall pagan flavor of the original story, I believe, a basic observation only the greenest of freshman would blather with any sense of pride and revelation—but he listened with patience, and if he found me a tiresome American whelp he never showed it.

I took him for a well-to-do and tenured Oxford professor, perhaps. I found out my mistake when the next lecture began and I sat by a colleague who benefitted from the same stipend, and she said, “I don’t know how you did it.”


“Kept your cool. I mean, it’s the Lord Bastable, man. I’d’ve been all sweaty palms, wouldn’t’ve known what to say to him. I’m jealous.”

“Wait. Who?”

“You’re serious? You were rubbing elbows with nobility and had no idea? And one of the richest men in Britain to boot. So who did you think you were talking to that whole time?”

“I don’t know.”

“Uh-huh. He’s only in The Sun every five minutes. Try blinking a little less and you might see something.”

My colleague returned her gaze to the front of the room, where the speaker had taken his place at the podium, and for the whole presentation wore a face that implied that she kept her eyes wide open, and would also have been the wittier conversationalist in the company of a lord, for all her talk of clammed-up mouth and clammy palms.

I tried to find him again after the lecture, but he had disappeared.

Months later I received a registered letter through campus mail. The Lord Bastable telling me what a pleasure it was to have met an American so young and yet so enthusiastic about our dry and dusty world of scribbles. Whatever I had said at the symposium, I had somehow made quite an impression. We exchanged the odd letter here and there—nothing profound or personal, mind you. We would talk shop, one letter on the widespread pop-culture legacies of The Saga of the Volsungs and The Nibelungenlied; the next on how myopic moviemakers’ visions turn out to be anytime they set their sights once again on adapting Beowulf to the screen; and a string of correspondence on our genealogies. He spoke of forebears who fought against Napoleon, Washington, the Dauphin, and even one another at the Battle of Hastings and in the Wars of the Roses. On occasion, he sent me copies of old parish records he tracked down to help me fill slots on the admittedly less distinguished British branches of my family tree.

So one afternoon years later, degreed and tenured at a university I abstain from naming (concerned as the Dean and the President are with appearances), I received a visitor in my office. The shape darkening my doorway was well-dressed in a vaguely foreign way. In declining the offer to sit he spoke English with one of the British accents peculiar to those educated but not born in the Isles. As preoccupied as I was with the package in his arms and the news he carried with it, I was not listening when he gave his name.

“I was instructed by the Lord Bastable to give you this.”

The package he put in my hands was large and rectangular, sheathed in an envelope bulging with a thick inner lining of bubble wrap. I found it was heavier than it looked, about the heft of a bowling ball.

“Wow, I hadn’t expected… Well. Tell him I said thank you.”

“So you've not heard, then?”

I must have cocked my head at him.

He went on to say, “I regret to inform you that the Lord Bastable is dead.”

“What? You’re kidding me.”

Behind a tactful veneer he seemed annoyed.

“Is that something you would normally consider humorous?”

“It's just an expression, no offense meant. What happened?”

“How is it possible you have not heard? He suffered a long and wasting sickness, and his heart finally gave out. He passed hardly a week ago. In his will was left explicit instructions. I was to transfer this into your possession in person.”

The long and wasting sickness was news to me. None of the letters ever said a word about it. It was just as much a shock as the idea that the Lord Bastable would have willed anything at all to me.

The man seemed to share my shock on the latter. He had an obvious distaste for sharing chitchat or even a diagnosis of the sickness that took our mutual friend out of the world. His duty to the deceased was fully discharged, though, so he left me with a backward glance that in the space of a second somehow let me know he suspected dementia a symptom of the malady, if the Lord Bastable had really thought me worthy of sending a personal courier across an ocean and a continent for the hand-delivery of a package. I got the distinct impression my visitor had hoped he had the wrong man the whole time. Or perhaps he was just one of those Brits who clamp down on a 200-year-old grudge over colonial disloyalty with all the tenacity of a snapping-turtle’s jaws on an unsuspecting child’s fingers.

Alone again, I closed the office door, if only because one should never commune with the dead in the open. I cleared desk space for the package and slit open one end with my keychain knife. A box wrapped in thick brown paper and twine slid out and with it a heavy cardboard envelope of the kind he used for his registered letters. I pulled the tear-strip at the end of the envelope and drew out two letters of carefully folded stationery, both closed with a red wax seal of his family crest (he was always one for the ancient flourishes). He had written Read First on one and Read Later on the other, so I broke the seal on the first and read the rows and rows of his near-perfect penmanship. It began, Hello, dear friend, and for the last time. He apologized for keeping his illness a secret, explaining that it was a hereditary condition the family routinely kept out of the public eye for fear of brutal treatment at the hands of the world-infamous British tabloids. Then he said:

The item within, considering the bulk of our correspondence, I believe to be right up your street, as the expression goes. You were the first and only person I thought should have it after I am gone. A word on the care it requires—my friend the museum curator recommends never removing it from its container, but unless I miss my guess, you can no more restrain yourself than could I. Yet take care. The contents are quite fragile, due to centuries of misuse before the item fell into more trustworthy hands. Its container is insulated against temperature and atmosphere. If you take it out, be sure to do so somewhere indoors and dry, at a temperature no greater or lesser than 70° F.

A note on the contents—I procured the MS some years ago shortly after you and I first met, from an estate auction in France’s Loir-et-Cher district. On a surface examination, the MS appears merely to be a ledger of the Abbey of Sénanque’s holdings and granary reserves for the years 1394-1401. Look more closely, however, and you will see that the vellum pages have been recycled, and the original lines, though faint, may still be seen, and for the most part, deciphered. My friend the curator dates the vellum to the late thirteenth to early fourteenth century. The Latin work initially inscribed upon it makes mention of only one date, that of Anno Domini 1242. That presents us with two possible theories about the author—he waited until the twilight of life to record his story, or he put it to pen much earlier, which means the MS could instead be a copy of an even earlier original. The MS features a crabbed script. The curator and I have a minor disagreement over whether the scribe suffered from palsy or wrote in some fit of haste. The good curator dismisses me as simply being partial to the sensational, as haste in the author implies the immediacy of danger. Yet our monk professes skill in manuscript illumination and makes no mention of nervous or arthritic cramps to his style, an omission that to my mind speaks a word in favor of a hasty composition. If the MS is merely a copy, however, that would, of course, dull the point of the argument. Nevertheless I am loathe to settle on mere scribal palsy, a reservation I am sure you will soon share.

Doubtless you wonder why I did not grant this palimpsest to the worthy establishment of my friend the curator. He indeed coveted it, and upon learning of my bequeathing it to a private collector—and to an American, of all the gall—refrained from cold-shouldering me only on the general principle of showing courtesy to a dying man. Ostensibly I disagree with this long-touted 'Indiana Jones' philosophy that museums should have first claim to all history’s little nuggets. (If it were so, they might own the entire world, and then where would we be?) Yet the genuine, if admittedly coy explanation: I believe you will find the account of boundless interest to you and your studies. You have but to read on to discover what I mean. Only after you have deciphered the monk’s story should you open the second of my letters.

Until then, I remain—

GW-B the Lord B

Fortunately I had no more classes that afternoon, only office hours for students. I turned the lock and ignored any knocks and shadows under the door. I set the office thermostat to seventy and settled in to open my package.

When I cautiously removed the manuscript from its container, I used a special set of tongs to turn the pages so the vellum would not contract oils from the pads of my fingers. Lord Bastable’s hint at past misuse was an understatement. The manuscript had suffered water damage and survived a fire—as I saw from the occasional blackened, uneven edge of the unbound margin. The first pages were missing, ragged-cut stumps in the binding marking their place, the work of an incontinent monk desperate with gut cramps, perhaps. Centuries-old mice had trimmed the top few pages with a snack-pattern fringe where flames had not already eaten; further in, someone had even used the book-folds as a trap to squash a fly—and who knows how old it was. But the area around the insect corpse had rotted along with it. Several pages had molded, and though someone (perhaps the jealous curator) had treated the pages, the scars were indelible. In addition were the various stains which could have been the residue of almost anything: wine, olive oil, or even blood. A forgotten monk or an indifferent collector had once used the Beowulf manuscript as a beer coaster and a slab for cutting meat, so we could hardly expect something as mundane as what seems no more than an abbey’s business ledger to receive ritzier treatment.

As with any palimpsest, an anonymous scribe who preferred to avoid killing another sheep to make new writing material had taken a knife to the vellum and scraped off the original writing. The process usually failed to entirely exorcise the ghost of the older story hovering just behind the new ink, as was the case with this tally of flocks and bushels of the lavender for which the Provençal abbey was renowned. Whenever the palimpsest’s two levels of writing do not cohabit the same space we may read both easily enough, but sometimes a special light is necessary to make the older ink stand out. Beyond the neatly columned business transactions, my light revealed a paler and undoubtedly frantic Latin that, as it went on, made my hair stand on end. Far into the night, long after colleagues drove home to their families, students trudged out of night classes, and the custodian went in search of a warm supper, I stayed holed up in my office, poring over the manuscript with my special light and determined to finish if it took me until sunup—which it very nearly did.

The following is my own translation. Naturally, as the first few pages of the MS are missing, the account begins in medias res.

…[that?] the third time is upon me, I fear. As did the Apostle whom Jesus loved, I must keep a constant vigil. As the Acts of the Apostles says, in the latter days many of the faithful will receive visions. That has been known to happen every so often within our own walls. Nearly ten years back a young monk, one having taken with the cowl the name Tergerius, during shearing season fell to his knees amongst the flocks and proclaimed in a loud voice that he had beheld the figure of St. Helena floating in the air above him. Many of us had watched, some frightened and some puzzled, as he crawled through the dust and grime of the stable floor on his knees and used his hands to bring something to his face—her feet, as though she allowed him the blessing of reverently kissing them. He wept all the while, in that strange mix of fear, amazement, and love that accords all meetings with the divine, staring up at what seemed to the rest of us lesser blessed brethren but empty air. I recall, however, that the sheep had ceased their bleating and seemed at peace, lounging on the ground in silence as they must have on the eve of Christ’s Nativity. Brother Tergerius was as oblivious to them and anything else around him as we were to the saint. All he said in her presence was, “Yes… Oh yes, Blessed Lady, praise be to God… Yes, it is our honor to obey.” After quite some time of going on so, he sprang to his feet and ran out of the barn and into the abbey, shouting as he went, “As wretched as I am, St. Helena has found me worthy! I have seen her lovely face! The holy light shining round about her! She has found me worthy! A worm such as I!” and on and on he went until he burst into Father Abbott’s private office. Far from having our Brother Tergerius whipped for the intrusion, Father Abbott held a private conference with him, the result of which was that by order of St. Helena we yielded up a quarter of all the tithes and donations given to our abbey that year to hire a sculptor to carve her likeness in statuary so that the people may light candles and pray to her in our chapel. And so was it the Abbey of Elberz became known as the Haven of St. Helena. On a more recent occasion Tostig the blind monk, who for as long as I had worn the cowl had been the eldest and wisest among our brethren, was knelt in prayer in the chapel and without warning screamed out as though burning in the flames of Inquisition, startling everyone. He leapt to his feet, holding up hands with fire-blackened palms, though he had been kneeling by no candle or any other source of flame. Stumbling forward, he grabbed hold of the brother nearest to him and babbled out a stream of words none of us recognized, not even Brother Waltherin, so adept in translating works of the Saracen tongue. Prior Tostig glared at each of us in turn, and I truly believe his sight had been restored to him then, even while he jabbered on in what looked to be as much rage as fear. And when the upwelling of words ceased, he turned his besighted eyes to the ceiling as though beholding heaven, and he collapsed dead on the floor. At first, we none of us spoke, struck dumb in amazement at his speech. Then someone whispered, “The Lord touched his tongue so that he knew and spoke another.” Father Abbot said, “If one among you has the wisdom to interpret, let him do so.” The very same monk Brother Tostig had grasped, a servant of the cloth whose name, God pardon me, now escapes my memory, spoke up: “Dear Brother Tostig said that the angels brought him a vision, a terrible vision of the future in which Christendom is rent in two, like the veil of the synagogue at Jerusalem was rent after the crucifixion of the Lord Christ, as Judea was rent from Israel after King David’s adultery. Great numbers will rise up in opposition to Holy Mother Church, denying the power of the saints and the sacrament of confession. We are to pray without ceasing against that day.” The brethren were of one accord that Brother Tostig was to be counted blessed, spared the pain of living in such dark times. (We were of like mind as well regarding the interpreter monk, when a few days later he was helping tend the herbalist's garden and was stung by a bee and died.) From that day to this, we have bent our knees and backs to Mother Mary and St. Helena, begging mercy for us and for all believers that we might be spared this black prophecy.

I am prone to neither variety of vision, however; I have beheld neither saintly form nor future event. My vision is much darker and clouded with an uncertainty I witnessed in neither of my brethren. Be it heresy or not, I cannot find it within me to fear for Holy Mother Church, and I believe that in their wisdom the saints and God Himself have now found fit to turn their radiant backs upon our humble cloister. The misfortune follows me. And the figure I have witnessed may appear to any man, and yet he has chosen to make himself known unto me.

On the first occasion I saw him, I was but a boy. I lived with my family in a village a few miles down the Danube from the abbey. The name of the village no longer lives in my memory, even if some of the people who lived there inhabit my skull still. My father was a blacksmith, and he shipped horseshoes, nails, and spearheads up the river to merchants and craftsmen in the nearby towns. From time to time he made decorative ironworks on order for the Abbey of Elberz, so he was known to the monks there. I lived in my father’s house with my two brothers and four sisters, our mother having passed when I was barely old enough to have any memory of her.

When the men came on horseback we knew who they were. Father, of course, had heard tell from fishermen and the merchants with whom he conducted business of the troubles the Croats, Poles, and Hungarians were having with the Mongol hordes. The men of the village could not agree whether Germany had anything to worry about from the Swift-Horsed Terror, and I remember people bickering about it in the street, and in particular two old men coming to blows with their walking sticks when one would not concede to the fears of the other. Some said the Mongols would own everything we saw and more, forests and mountains, pastureland and waterways stretching all the way to England. Others said God had blessed Germany, and giving way to fear would be an affront to Him. A priest told us that the Pope had once held private audience with Attila, dread king of the Huns. That birth-cursed murderer rode into Rome a slavering barbarian but left as harmless as one of the lions whose mouths the Lord sealed shut for the Prophet Daniel’s safety. The priest said that the power of God and the office of the Holy Father had preserved Christendom from the heathen before, and if need be would do so again.

And yet with my own eyes I saw Mongol hooves kicking up German dust. A small contingent of them lost their way from the main force fleeing their defeat in Croatia. The stray marauders raped, murdered, and burnt their way along the Danube. My village was one of those in their path. The day they came upon us, my father was down at the river loading his wares on a barge. My brother Torstein worked in the smithy, and as I was too young to pound the anvil and would have only gotten under my father’s feet down at the shore, I waited by my brother and made sure the bucket stayed full of water so that Torstein could cool his ingots when the tempering process called for it. I was walking back from the stream in the wood and carrying one such bucketful when I first heard the screams and the beat of hooves. Arrows struck down men and women in the street before anyone could see the archers. The horses galloped down from the hills and out of the trees so swiftly that they engulfed the village like flood waters. The men on their backs seemed little more than black trailing mustaches, great roaring mouths full of teeth, and windmills of steel that left a trail of mangled corpses in every alley and pathway. I saw the old blind net weaver's head fly away from his shoulders and roll like a stone in the dust, while his crippled body still sat up on his stool as though unsure whether to continue the work at hand. I saw the tanner’s son stumbling. An arrow protruded from his right eye, and though his face was full of blood he was still alive. He walked with his mouth gaping open, uttering words I could not hear over the screams of the dying and those who were killing them. He choked on the blood that ran into his mouth, and when he fell to the ground the arrow drove in further and he moved no more. When I reached my family’s house I saw my sister Ælfrida half-stripped beneath a Mongol, whose breeches were pushed down to his knees. I am ashamed to say that I could not defend her, my whole body rendered useless with fear. The man pushing into her stopped, too, and I saw my death in his eyes before I saw him pull a knife, but when he recognized my fear, he smiled at me with his yellow teeth and the trails of his mustache like the tails of rats, and he laughed as he returned to his perverse pleasure. My sister made no sound, and neither did I. I could hear only the heathen’s grunts and the rustles of his clothing. Then my brother clamored through the door, carrying in his smith’s mitt a half-formed sword still red from the forge. Before our sister’s rapist could gain his feet and put his knife to use, Torstein beat him about the head and shoulders with the ingot, which flayed as much flesh as it seared. The man’s body fell on our sister, who even then made no sound. Torstein yelled at me to help him, and we pulled the man off Ælfrida. She was dead and had been throughout the Mongol’s attentions. Where the rest of our…

[The text here breaks off for several lines due to irreparable mold damage. When it resumes, the author is outside, apparently after events now missing see that his house is burning and the brother, I presume, must be dead—though whether inside the house or out, I cannot guess, as the narrator makes no further mention of him.]

…hiding place lost in the blaze and unable to see for the smoke I knew little else to do but run in whatever direction I could and cry. The haze of smoke assaulted my eyes and left me coughing. I found myself back in the wood, and I climbed as high as I could up a tree. From a branch, I watched as fires spread from house to house and all the people I had ever known died by strangers’ hands. What fixed my eyes upon the miserable scene I do not know, but though I had no desire to watch I could not stop myself. I kept watch for my father, but from the limb where I crouched, I did not see his face amongst the dead or the dying. I saw my uncle take a Mongol sword across the fat of his great belly. He died trying to hold himself in. I saw a neighbor’s small children toddle about in confusion, only to be trodden under hoof. And when the wind began to dissipate the haze of smoke, I saw a new stranger ride into the village. He was not Mongol. His face was European and he was taller, as was his horse. He had long black hair that twisted and coiled like the moss that grew in the shallows by river’s edge, and a black cloak fell from his shoulders. His face was clean-shaven and smooth, almost like a girl’s, the sort of handsomeness that borders on womanly beauty. My heart leapt up when I saw him, as I thought that at last someone had come to beat back the Eastern marauders; one who led knights from the nearby lord, perhaps, or even an officer from the Emperor’s army heading a detachment sent to rout our honorless enemy. He drew his broadsword and charged into the streets to work God’s swift justice on the Mongol. But he rode out alone, giving no order for troops to follow. When Wilhelm the pig-keeper tumbled out the door of his own burning hut, the dark-haired stranger put a sword through his skull, and the horse trampled the body. I watched in mortal dread as this black-cloaked man rode amongst the people, striking down Mongol and villager alike. No one gave any sign they ever saw him. Men and women, German and Mongol ran straight into his sword, never knowing that they did not perish by one another’s hand. I watched him kill and kill, only losing sight of him when the smoke rose again or when my sight blurred with tears. At one point he made a torch and lit it from one of the burning thatched roofs. As one poor woman passed by he leapt from his horse and took hold of her by the hair and lit her clothes on fire. The torch he tossed onto a hay rick. While she was still squirming and alive, he held her again by the hair and used his sword as a saw blade against her neck, taking no special hurry with the work. When he reached the bone he struck off her scorched head, letting it dangle and sway from his fist when the rest of her slumped over to smolder in the street. My heart failed in the moment his gaze found me, fixing instantly on my place in the tree, as though he knew where I had hidden all along. He swung the severed head by the hair and lobbed it in my direction. It could not reach me from that distance and fell to roll down one of the flaming rooftops, but he held my gaze. He smiled at me. He raised a gore-splattered glove in brief salute. Then he remounted, keeping eyes trained on me while his horse fidgeted and turned about—and still the man was smiling. Spurs to flank, murderer and horse fled the village. Fearing he would come back for me, I stayed put in my tree, helpless but to watch as the place I knew as home crumbled to ash, my lungs full of the smoke and the unforgettable stink of blood and death. Only after nightfall did the hunger and cold drive out the fear so I could walk the long miles to the abbey. The gate was barred shut for the night, so I slept in the mud. In the morning the watchman saw the soot and blood on my face and the limp in my step when I tried to stand, and he took pity on me. So in the Year of Our Lord 1242 I took refuge in my present home.

The brethren helped to bury the dead and administered the sacraments. They were occupied with the corpses for days, and I felt like the abbey had more dead guests than living residents. I recall Prior Tostig (for he held that office then; only later with his encroaching age and blindness did Father Abbot bid him yield the position and take on lighter responsibilities) holding my hand to guide me to the slab on which my father’s body laid, carefully draped so the mortal wounds were concealed. I saw my father’s mouth bulging with the swollen black tongue peeking through his lips. Brother Tostig stayed by my side while I looked my last on two of my sisters and my uncle. No one ever told me, and I never asked, but the rest of my family must have been among those marred beyond recognition. Other brethren tended the bodies, but it was Prior Tostig’s woolen habit that hid my face and soaked up my tears, his hand that patted my head, his voice that offered comfort. I spent my first two months screaming through nightmares, startling the brethren out of sleep. The only dream I remember is lying still in a room as dark as the night and my father’s rotten sponge of a tongue licking my face, smearing my cheek with grave-scum. The monks said that even while unconscious I rasped and roared about the devil on a high horse. Some amongst the tonsured believed me possessed of demons and requiring exorcism; others, that I was an ill omen, the presence of evil in their midst, that I brought the devil to their very doorstep, and that they should cast me out into the darkness, as is the due of all who embrace evil. Again Prior Tostig came to my aid, insisting that I was the poor and destitute orphan of whom the Lord had spoken and that in facing the Mongol raiders and witnessing the death of my family I had seen devil enough to shiver through the night. Those eyes that turned milky with cataracts over the years flashed a fire that evening, and he stamped his foot and growled that he, for one, served a God who loved and protected innocents and that none under that roof were worth their cowls if they would abandon a child to the evil of the world, be it of men or fallen angels or the common grip of hunger. Father Abbott added his voice to Prior Tostig’s. And so the mouths of the uncharitable were shut. The Abbey of Elberz became my home. In less than a year I took holy orders, and at the hands of my brethren, I learned Latin, Greek, and the art of manuscript illumination. I served for quite some time as the assistant to Brother Sigismund, the Librarian. I meant to pay back Prior Tostig’s generosity by serving God as well as I could and praying daily to the saints. Would that my poor, decent old Prior Tostig—the peace of Heaven be upon him—had let well enough alone and stood aside when the others meant to turn me out. Now, years later, I know that beyond even their own knowledge the brethren were fully justified in their fears. They had discovered me on their doorstep, and wickedness trailed after me as surely as did my own shadow. Good Prior Tostig, of course, was unaware of it. Neither did I yet know of my awful legacy. But do not doubt that the Adversary’s one solitary virtue is patience.

In my twenty-seventh year Father Abbott sent me with a group of my brethren on an errand to deliver a copy of the Scriptures unique in the richness of its illustrations and decorative binding to the Prince-Bishop of Augsburg, who had commissioned its making with the intention of taking it with him on his forthcoming visit to Rome and presenting it to the Pope as a gift. I had contributed many of the illumined letters and some of the illustrations for the Old Testament, in particular, the six days of Creation and Cain’s murder of Abel for the Book of Genesis. Some of my finest work went into that book. Upon reaching Augsburg and fulfilling this duty we were to take up another one by providing escort to the Prince-Bishop’s young niece and her maidservants on their way to her cousin’s estate in Heilbronn. The niece’s name was Annike Eckhardt, and at fifteen she had reached the full flower of womanhood. She had the fair complexion and the pleasing form that all too often make chastity vows heavier to bear for the more virile monks and more brittle for the weaker-willed. During her stay in Heilbronn, she was to fulfill a long-standing marriage contract with a distant relation. After delivering the book to the Prince-Bishop, we stayed the night as his guests. We took shelter in the barn, lying on straw so as not to tempt our flesh with the comforts of the world while away from the abbey. The next day, with the Prince-Bishop’s good wishes, we took the young niece into our custody. The journey was not unfamiliar to us, as other brethren of our order resided in Heilbronn. On the road to Aa[len?] we…

[Twenty-two lines following the break are only partially legible due to mildew damage. From context, the monks appear to have stopped for the night, lodging the niece in the house of an unidentified man, though we may presume he was well-to-do, if not rich, as the lodgings were considered fit for the niece of the Prince-Bishop. The monks themselves settle in with the livestock in an outbuilding.]

…in a village. What made me wake in the night I am not sure. A misplaced sound? The warning nudge of a monitoring angel? Perhaps my body had grown so accustomed to waking each night for the Matins prayer session that the full night’s rest of the common man was forever beyond me. Whatever the reason, I awoke with a sense of uneasiness. My brethren had no such difficulty remembering the sleep habits of the uncloistered and were snoring all around me. None of them even stirred when I rose and tiptoed out of the cattle shed. Not even the cattle slept so soundly. Outside the village was quiet, and the light of the full moon crystallized the whole settlement in the haze of dreams. Dew sparkled where it had frozen on the roof thatching. Everyone was asleep but me. So why did I feel so anxious? I did not know where I was going. I do not believe I was in control of my own feet. I passed through hedgerows and garden plots and down a forest path I did not know was there. The woods were silent. Though I have spent most of my days within abbey walls, I frequented woodlands as a child, and for all their peace and seeming solitude no wood is ever silent. Yet I heard not the rustle of a leaf, not the hoot of an owl, not the crackle of a twig beneath the paw of a night scavenger. My own footsteps were soundless even as I tromped through the underbrush like a stag. I came to a clearing, and that same bright moonlight fell upon two familiar faces. I saw my young charge as naked as Eve, though she did not see me. Embracing her from behind, half-clothed and clutching her by the throat so that I thought she must be strangling, was the man I had beheld so long ago, riding into the ruin of my village and working such atrocities as to make the Mongols seem like God’s anointed. His face in the moonlight was still beautiful, his hair still the flowing liquid black I remembered. He had not aged a day. His pelvis moved against hers in savage thrusts of a love that could not be love. I wanted to look away, spare my eyes of this unclean act, but I could not. The girl was unaware of any watcher, but he stared me in the face, smiling, as though he had been expecting me at any moment and was pleased I had arrived. He held my gaze as he ground his foul lust into the young woman. When sated, he held her at a distance but tightened his grip on her neck, shaking her. She showed no pain, did not choke. Her body swayed with his agitations as though she were a doll, her arms flopping without purpose against her legs. I thought of my dear sister at the mercy of the Mongol and wanted to pray God to have mercy on the soul of the poor young woman then before my eyes, for surely mercy was too late to save her body, but as my feet and my eyes had done, my mouth betrayed me also. When he tossed her body aside, it fell limp in the grass and lay in a way that was unnatural to living limbs. And still, he looked at me. Unashamed, he did not cover himself up again. “I have counted the days, my friend,” he said. “You have grown so tall, so strong. But I still see the little boy in you. You are still the boy who lived in the tree like any other thrush.” He then told me many things, so many foul, unclean, horrible secret things that I do not dare put to pen. They have no place under the sun. Step by step he came closer, and though I wanted to run away I could not even walk, not even when I could feel his breath on my cheek. I wept and trembled. He seemed concerned. “So you worry for the girl? Do not trouble your heart for her, my little thrush.” He left me, his steps like a dancer’s, and tugged her body by the throat to stand upright again. Her hair had leaves in it, and it fell over her face. He shook her and swung her about, and the whole of her but dangled from his hand. He said to me, “In the garden, of the dust of the earth He formed them, and breathed His breath into them, and they lived. And so shall I.” For the first and only time, he looked away from me. He relaxed his grip upon her throat, held her mouth open, and he blew his breath into her. She gasped, and strength returned to her limbs and she stood on her own, but her eyes seemed dead still. “See, little thrush? Worry not for the girl. She has... [many?]…

[Two lines are rendered illegible by unidentified stains.]

…[you] and I will have our time. I will return…

[Three lines are lost to unidentified stains.]

…[wonders] I have in store for you.

[Seventeen lines are lost due to fire damage.]

…have lived each moment from that night to this one, years, in constant dread of seeing him again. A dull pain resides in my chest always, as though a stone formed in my heart and weights it down into my ribs. I have spent nearly every waking hour in prayer, begging the Saints to work mercy upon their servant and spare me the third and final meeting with this black spirit. Yet this winter I beheld a portent that bodes ill response. A pure white dove, caught in the teeth of…

And so ends the manuscript, as abruptly as it begins. What kept the monk from finishing his account is uncertain. Did he suddenly die before completion, like some marooned pirate in a children’s adventure novel finger-smearing on a cave wall? Was the manuscript supposed to have additional pages which are now missing, cut out more cleanly than the first or left out of the binding altogether? Or are we to believe that our man of the cloth’s final tryst with the devil came sooner than anticipated? That the devil is no respecter of literature—even books that feature him as the main character? Theories remain just that.

I found answers of a different sort in my dead friend’s second letter.

A puzzling story, is it not? The monk seems to believe he is suffering no delusion, that his visions are every bit as real as the coat of flesh we all wear ever so briefly. I do not like to contradict him, certain as he is in the telling. His narrative is so different from anything else of the period—unencumbered with chivalric artifice, full of candor and personal detail, and quite in the line of a confession—his “dark night of the soul,” perhaps. The events he narrates are real enough to him to spark mortal fear in his cockles. And unlike his contemporaries, he depicts his devil figure not as a shriveled blackened imp with goat’s hooves and horns or clawed fingers or a long twist of spade-tipped tail but at once both masculine and beautiful, as well as wholly dangerous. His devil truly is Lucifer the Morning Star, one-time Light-Bearer of Heaven. For his divergence from de rigueur, I want to believe the “written in haste” theory I mentioned, as though the monk’s penmanship lies testament to his mortal terror. I smile, thinking of our dear cloistered friend as old, brittle-boned, and most of his hair gone the way of the tonsure, with that beautiful and terrible visage peering into his head and sending great squabbling eels of fright rippling up his spine and down his fingers to eke out into a tangible recording for future posterity. It makes him so three-dimensional, does it not? No faceless, dusty academic like William of Malmesbury or Henry of Huntingdon, but someone who bled his life on the page drop by drop. And yet supporting facts for his tale are quite difficult to verify. No other find in history or archaeology has suggested that the Mongols ever traveled so far west as Germany, though mention of the date 1242 seems promising. That was the year the Croats repelled the hordes at the Fortress of Klis and the whole Mongol force left Slavic Europe for their own continent after Ögedei Khan died unexpectedly from a case of alcohol poisoning—over-fond of the drink, that one. No other record exists of any Abbey by the name of Elberz, but my archaeologist friend, a M. Auguste de St.-Denis from the Sorbonne—recently conducted a dig on the Bavarian shores of the Danube, and interestingly enough he unearthed foundation stones and other scattered remnants of what appears to be a previously unknown structure, which in its better days followed a plan common to monastic constructions of the medieval period. Many of the stone ruins he dug out of the earth showed signs of a fire. Our monk’s mysterious apparition would feel right at home with such warm accommodations, would you not agree?

As in the case of the Beowulf poem of which you and I are both so fond, passing mention of a genuine historical character or two lends some credibility to the events this MS insists really happened. Of most import to you is the figure of the young Miss Eckhardt so willing to frolic with strangers exuding what you Yanks so charmingly label “bad-boy appeal.” While our monk recounts nothing of her fate after she departs her uncle’s household, records of the Convent of St. Bonifatius in Weisbaden—not to be confused with the cathedral of that name today—tell that one Annike Ekhart, then with child, took sanctuary there in 1262, and gave birth to a son, Lorenz, a month later. In the tradition of the father, the boy appears to have grown into infamy. In the mid-1280s he was arrested and convicted of highway robbery along the roads in Vest Recklinghausen, but he seems to have escaped the Archbishop of Cologne’s hangman through a bit of trickery. Next we hear of him he is in Flanders, fighting as a mercenary; again, in Holland. He continues his career as a sword-for-hire in the service of King Edward I of England, helping old Longshanks in the wars to seize and maintain disputed lands in France. Apparently, his bloodthirsty actions in Normandy so impressed the King that by the late 1290s he had received as reward the minor barony of Denby-on-the-Severn in Shropshire, where he was known as Laurence Eghart, that is to say, the founder of your family line. Until recently the connection had escaped me, as no records seemed to exist for the parentage of Simon P—, which we had thought would be the last traceable link of your ancestry. Only several months ago a new cache of fifteenth-century census records was discovered gathering dust in the cellar of a Shrewsbury chapel undergoing renovation, one listing the father of Simon as Beaufort Eggert, 8th Baron Denby-on-the-Severn. The difficulty we had before in establishing Simon P—’s parentage seems to have arisen over his illegitimacy. He was born out of wedlock to a woman who was not Beaufort’s wife. Conflict arose when the boy came of age and began styling himself Simon Eggert without Beaufort’s permission. The census record for 1430 refers to him as “Symon P—, once cault Eggyrt.” Beaufort himself was son of Johann, who was son of Robert, who was son of Johannes, who was son of Rogerius, who was son of Walter, who was son of Hugh, who was son of old Laurence himself. In short, my dear friend, you are the son of the devil—or rather the latest link in a long chain of the Dark Lord's progeny. I knew some intangible appeal had always drawn me to you. May I say that the honor of knowing you has been all mine. All hail Satan. Until we meet again in the flames.

With all finality, I am—

GW-B the Lord B

As strange as his last words must sound, they explain volumes. One of the many conjectures tabloids were so fond of barking about Lord Bastable was his secret devotion to Satanism—like anything is a secret once The Sun and The Daily Mirror pump it through every bullhorn and printing press under Parliament and Crown. Publicly he maintained that he had only dabbled in college and that any allegation that he ever took his brief interest in Black Mass more seriously than a way of meeting girls was nothing more than another contemptible falsehood peddled by a cadre of gossip-mongers and mudslingers laboring under the delusion that they are journalists. Yet even in the best of lies hides a seed of truth. In addition to manuscripts, he collected Middle Age art and once told me he had the largest private collection in the world of devil-themed imagery from the period. I have since heard rumor that he willed it all to the Vatican. That sounds like him, a private joke to make his last breath a chuckle.

He could not possibly have known about M—. (That is what we will call that wide-eyed, superior conversationalist of a colleague who accompanied me to that long-ago London symposium.) At some point, she decided I was attractive. One night she pounded on my door, vodka on her breath and more in her hand. I had just returned from the university gym, still wearing sweats splotched and rancid from my workout. She giggled and said she could do with a bath anyway. I let her pull off her clothes. I made no objection when she pulled mine off, too. Under the stream of the shower, I clamped a hand over her mouth and drew a straight razor across her throat. I held her until she went limp, until she stopped spurting, squirming, lipping aborted mumbles into my hand. I let the water run over us until we were both clean. Then I used the razor to ever-so-carefully excise her face. I pried out her teeth with a claw hammer. That night I broke into the campus utility building and burnt her in the industrial furnace. The next day, telling the neighbors in the apartments on either side of mine that I would be making some homemade furniture, I crushed those pearl-white teeth into powder with the same hammer and flushed the fragments. I did all of that without understanding why. Oh, I knew perfectly well why I killed R—, my only real rival for the professorship I presently hold. (Lord Bastable doubtless harbored suspicions about that one, though all he ever said to me was “How fortunate for you, his otherwise regrettable disappearance.”) That was business. R— had stood in my way. But M—, well… Not that I ever regretted her, or any of the others, but I puzzled over the why until I read the manuscript and the final letter. They provided the insight I needed to grasp the reason I sometimes take out her face and slip it over my own, stare at her reflection in the mirror, speak to myself in her voice. I know why I wore it while writing these words.

This is my nature. This is in my blood.

I am, as always,





Nathan Stanfill is a thirty-something native Tennessean and former English teacher who enjoys bonsai trees and sarcasm. Currently he lives in a defunct mannequin factory, where he cooks for stray cats and works on his novel.

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