The Obedience of Brother Odhran (I)

Mea culpa, I was too lenient on the boy. It was because he reminded me of myself, sixty years before. My mother had died in childbirth too, and nobody had known what to do with me. And so, like Odhran, I was bundled up and unceremoniously dumped on the monastery steps. Gifted, as the Abbot preferred to say. Yet there had been many like me since; it was a common enough occurrence. I suppose, to be honest, I liked the boy. I suppose I was lonely and, in my advancing years, began to regard him almost as a grandchild.

Gifts are always the hardest to subdue. Unlike those who have chosen to enter the novitiate, a Gift has no natural vocation. God does not call to him. He is here because he has nowhere else to go.  What calls to him is the smell of autumn, and the warm sun slanting in through stained glass and making coloured patterns on stone flags; dust dancing in that light; swift shadows of birds flying up to roost in the rafters. What such children want, and need, is to run free by God’s streams and meadows. Often the sons of peasants, had it not been for Death’s swift scythe they would be out there with real scythes right now, bringing the harvest home. Growing straight and tall rather than hunched over a scriptorium desk.

Odhran was an untidy boy. He took no care for his clothing. His hair was often tousled where he had run his hands through it in thought, and he left it so. To begin with he wrote and painted with his left hand, the devil’s hand, so his arm was tied behind his back. After a very little while he learned to letter with the angel hand as well as with the other. He did it, I believe, just to show us that he could.

So we untied him, thinking him cured, but immediately he reverted to the devil. He was demonstrating that he could, but would not. The old Abbot degreed that he should be flogged upon the left hand, a punishment performed with a switch of willow until the skin was raw meat.

Odhran examined his wounded palm in silence. He seemed to find it interesting rather than distressing, almost as if considering making a painting of all this brightly-coloured gore. I bandaged his hand myself when they had gone, concealing a soothing paste beneath the muslin. We were alone but something had closed off in his face: he did not cry and he did not look at me.

They set him at his desk, placed the quill in his right hand and dipped it in the ink. He let the quill fall; ink streamed onto precious vellum, as his blood had streamed onto the floor. The Abbot then ordered that they beat him on the back, which they duly did, and inflicted other punishments. Still he let fall the quill.

Devil hand had scarcely begun to heal before he picked up the pen with it and set to work as if nothing had happened. He had won that battle. I could not help admiring him for it.

The irony of it all was that he showed true promise as an illuminator. Complex letters formed themselves with swiftness and grace. And as to his drawing? In sixty years he was the most able young artist I had ever had the misfortune to tutor. Yes, my scriptorium was both graced and cursed by the presence of young Brother Odhran, bent over his high desk, eyes screwed up and tongue trapped between his teeth in those moments, albeit fleeting, of fierce concentration.

durer boy.jpg

For a while after that we let Odhram be, in the hope that he might arrive at discipline in his own way. Truth be told, we did not know what else to do. But Odhram, being gifted, bored easily. His black letters were without blemish but his Latin most assuredly was not. So it was that in transcribing he introduced more errors than had had been there before – many more. I could see that he was interested in the shape of letters and numerals but not their meaning. We had taught him to read but he did not read as he copied. Instead he followed the dancing of the letters across the page, listened to some silent music. He had told me once, before all the troubles arose, that he saw the space between the letters as much as the letters themselves. “Tracery,” he called it.

“Do you not see, Father Cuthbert, that without the white there would be no black, and without the black there would be no white? The page is a whole made up of two equal portions, each the obverse of the other, and so pleasingly arranged.” And I did see, now that he pointed it out to me. Sixty years a monk and I was learning from a novice.

Each day vespers I would take from him those beautiful, useless, error-strewn pages, briefly admiring them before concealing them in my desk until morning. Then I would pass them over to our Brother Silas to be done all over again. Brother Silas was discreet – indeed, he had to be as he was deaf and dumb. But this could not go on, I realised. The axe must surely fall.

And shortly thereafter the axe – in the shape of our new Abbot – Roman of lineage, aquiline of nose, stickler by temperament and with all the humour of a boar on a roasting spit – was well and truly raised above our heads.

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