The Obedience of Brother Odhran (V)

Brother Silas died as silently as he had lived. I often wonder whether he would have screamed, if he could. I think not. He was a mystery, Brother Silas, and the manner of his death the greatest mystery of them all.

I came running to the bell-tower knowing, sensing, evil. Indeed, the whole monastery came running since Silas, clinging to the bell-rope, had been ringing out the secret chime, to signify great danger. Over and over it sounded – how, I wondered, had he even known this signal? It is taught to every incoming novice but Silas – no one had thought it worthwhile to teach a deaf man a bell-pattern he could not hear. Unless… It occurred to me, now, that Silas had been able to hear all along.

Too late. The pattern broke, suddenly, though the ringing continued for some time. The haphazard, chaotic clanging of a bell when a dying man clings to the rope. He gave his own life to warn us. But of what?

I was first to the tower, despite my advanced age, though as I ran up the circular stairway my legs were trembling and I feared my heart might burst. Since a child I have known when evil was afoot; have always been able to sense the proximity of the Evil One and his henchmen. I, Father Cuthbert – the one you would least suspect, that kindly and somewhat ineffectual old cleric. It is not something I mention, and for a very good reason: I am ashamed of it. For how should possession of such a gift reflect upon the possessor? But when I heard that bell, I knew. And I ran towards it.

Brother Silas’ mauled and bloodstained corpse lay on the floor, his right hand clutching the bell-rope even in death. Odhran stood over him, drooling, or at least the shell of Odhran did. What looked out from his eyes, when he turned his blood-soaked face towards me, was something new, and the voice that spewed forth from his mouth was both familiar and unfamiliar. Something that was not Odhran – that was far bigger than Odhran – now lived behind those eyes. And yet…

The Odhran-creature circled, and I too. In mere seconds it had me cut off from escape by the door. When it moved in for the kill I knew that my only hope – and a fragile one  – was that something of Odhran remained. I therefore addressed myself to whatever might remain of the lad.

“Odhram, my child” I said. “I am Cuthbert. You know me.” A growl burst from its throat and it moved closer. And now, faced with the goriest of deaths, I began to know something – not with my head but with some other of me. And what I knew was that the knowing I had always had, the knowing of the presence of evil, was in the nature of a third eye, an invisible eye set over the other two. There was not time to meditate on the finer points this. Odhram moved closer still. I saw the emptiness in his expression – and the fire that consumed him.

I looked with my third eye. Death was coming at me but suddenly I was calm, focussing all my concentration into that place. And I saw – I saw the monster flicker, and for a second, Odhram underneath. At last I saw – what a fight the boy was putting up. Even now, knowing it was futile, he was attempting to wrest back control.

Suppressing all revulsion I reached out and took his hand – the left, the devil’s hand. “Ohdram,” I said. “Do you remember – I bandaged this hand? Do you recall the paste of healing herbs I smeared under the lint, to ease the pain? I have cared for you, Odhram, in my inadequate way. Have mercy on me now, I pray you, and on your brother monks.”

“I know you hear me, child. Remember what you told me once, about the shapes of the white spaces between the black letters? You are now possessed by whatever evil being lived in the manuscript, but it needs you for its survival. Black letters could not exist without white spaces, you told me once: they are of equal weight. He cannot exist without you. He is the letters, you are the spaces and together you are the manuscript.

Silence, and then Odhram was gone. Pushing past me he jumped onto one of the window ledges and threw himself out, into the air. I was not nearly agile enough to stop him but – and I have pondered this long since – would I have tried even if I could? For the thing Odhram did in those last few seconds was right.

As he fell from the bell-tower in a flap of robes and limbs, he made shape – a stark black shape against the white of the sky.

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Finis!!!!

(Jubilate Deo)

The Obedience of Brother Odhran (IV)

Belial, am I, and I lived inside the book. Lived, because I live there no longer. I have arrived at the very edge of the world. I am free. And I am hungry for souls.

In the Beginning was the Word – and shortly thereafter, me. Seraphim, was I, and fell from Grace and from Heaven with three others of my kind.  Lucifer fell into the air and dissipated into the clouds, where he now makes thunder, sends lightning; makes hailstorms and hurricanes. Satan fell onto the surface earth, and haunts it still. He wanders, repentant, whining, hour by hour and minute by minute tormented by the beauty of God’s creation. Leviathan fell into the sea. His vast bulk stirs the waters. He it is who eats ships and sailors; he who sends tides to wipe out the settlements of man; he the molten lava that boils on the ocean bed.

And I, Belial coiled my vast, serpentine length into the caverns and passageways beneath the earth, and from there insinuated myself into the sewers of every city. I it was who sent disease and poisoned the watercourses; I who consumed rats, dead dogs, sleeping tramps and cast-off infants – anything that fell to my realm – with equal relish.

BelialFor twelve of their months this child, this boy, has been striving to translate the book I created as my disguise, into the black letters and lines of which I inserted myself, and which I caused to be thrown from the city walls. I was tired of my cramped existence in the sewers. I wished to sample the pure, fresh air of the surface – to share it, maybe, with Satan. Or to destroy that pathetic, maudlin seraph and take his place. The Siege came and, unnoticed in a sea of chaos and evil, I seized my chance.

Translation of my book would free me, and since men are curious fools I had expected that to follow swiftly. I had reckoned without the stupidity of the mercenary Zanobi. I have been trapped in this book for longer than I care to contemplate.

The boy, Odhran… I felt almost sorry for him. It surprises you to hear that? Even a fallen seraph has it in him to pity a child of such promise, so badly used. At first he resisted the task he had been allotted by that dolt Zanobi – he was strong in his resistance to that Roman fool, and he would do nothing. Hour upon hour he sat, arms folded, staring ahead of him. He would do nothing. Nothing…

But, as hope for release or some kind of escape inevitably faded, boredom got the better of him. Boredom, his old enemy. He opened the book. He looked first of all – as he was won’t to look – at the dark shapes of these foreign letters, these unknown signs and symbols. He looked – as he was won’t to look – at the white spaces between the words. These shapes fascinated him, but he knew there was no escape for him unless he translated the book itself.

He had never been interested in languages. His mind was all form, and shape and texture. The boy was an artist and sadly wasted among these dull and sheep-faced monks. For many weeks he stared at the letters, wondering where to begin. How to make sense of a language you have never seen and in which you know the significance of no single letter, no single word. Then he began to search among the books. He had been in a monastery library and books, after all, were his only resource. I had made sure to place such clues as he might need where he might find them, and it did not take him long. An admirable boy. He would make the perfect vessel – for myself.

As the symbols began to unknot themselves he became more and more absorbed in his work, his mind more and more in tune with mine, though he did not know it. Brother Silas, the mutilated, brought him food and other necessities. I observed him, this Silas, through my pages, for my book lay always open on Odhran’s desk. Another wolf in sheep’s clothing, I mused. Interesting: soul-misfits are rare and yet here were two in one monastery. His soul and Odhran’s were of equal strength.

After a while the boy ceased to eat. All he saw were the letters of me – those black spaces standing out against the cream of the vellum. As he translated he became me, and the book faded into nothing as he absorbed it – and myself – into himself. When the monk Silas, on entering the library, now imagined he saw the manuscript on the desk, but it was a simulacrum. I was free. I was Odhran now, and awaited my time to strike. Such hunger. I was ravenous, such that I could hardly contain myself.

This made me careless. Silas entered one morning with bread and ale for the boy, who sat hunched and staring ahead. Something – maybe it was pity, for he had never done it before – inspired that mutilated monk to place a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder as he placed the trencher before him, knowing he would not eat. My shoulder, now. His human concern – his kindness – burned me, and I screamed with pain. In that moment I fully understood the torments of Satan as he walked the beauteous Earth – ‘With what delight would I have walked thee round.’

‘With what delight… ‘ This was what I had lost. This was what my rebellion had excluded me from.

I snarled and snapped at his invading flesh, and in that moment he saw the boy Odhran for what he now was – an angel become a demon.

His face a mask of fear, Silas ran for the bell-tower.

Soldiering on when you’ve lost the plot

So there I was, having written part one of what I thought was going to be a two-, or at the very most a three-blog-post story. But just like those science fiction double episodes that you don’t immediately realise are going to be double episodes, things didn’t seem to be coming to any sort of conclusion. Rather, the plot seemed to be expanding. Dangerously.

Oh no, I’m thinking, could I have accidentally started writing a novel inside a blog? Could it be that in three years time I’ll still be posting some equivalent of War and Peace in bite-size chunks? People will long since have stopped reading by then. Why didn’t I plot the thing out in detail for heaven’s sake?

This is how I felt:

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I really don’t like the look of the man. Presumably it is a man?

The reason was because I was too lazy and also because I knew if I got bogged down in plotting it I’d never actually get round to writing it. I have boxes of detailed, well-thought-out plots for stories I have never written. Boxes full of files full of other files, full of A4 dividers and paper clips full of forgotten and unwritten plans for things. An aeon, an ocean of boxes.

One thing at a time, I thought. What is today’s problem? Today’s problem, me told myself, is that you/she have/has bravely/foolishly published part one of a short story having no clue as to what happens in part two, let alone the rest.

So what shall I do? me asked me.

Start asking questions, me replied.

So here are the first three of a list of questions I asked myself about The Obedience of Brother Odhran going forward, and the answers that arrived from somewhere or other – out of the ether. I spent an hour or so doing this, by the end of which I had more or less uncovered the whole plot, although the characters will keep butting in at inconvenient moments with refinements and fol-de-rols:

Where did the manuscript come from?

Italy, the Siege of Florence – and thence into the hands of a Roman ancestor of the new Abbot. The book was thrown from the battlements by an unknown hand, and he caught it. It was in some unreadable script. He was taking part in the siege and brought it back to Rome.

Why has the new Abbot been appointed – with what ulterior motive?

By the Pope himself, to root out dissolution weakness in the monastery. He has heard Henry VII means them harm (1536) And may even be thinking of destroying the monasteries. The Pope requires the monasteries to be strong and above reproach, should this happen. The new Abbot is therefore a cross between a spy and a sergeant major.

What happened to the old Abbot?

He was said to have died of a mysterious illness on a visit to a sister monastery, but there is no proof. He was got rid of.

There were many more questions and answers on my list. I’ll keep them to myself for now  so as not to give away the ending of The Obedience of Brother Odhran for anyone currently reading it. You will see, by the way, if you read the story itself, that not all of the answers were slavishly followed. Things change and rearrange themselves as you go along, sometimes quite drastically. That’s all right.

I think the thing is – a kind of practical confidence that comes from years and years of constructing stories of one sort or another. It’s really odd since I have very little confidence about anything else. It’s not conceit: it’s not believing you can write a good story, only that you’re going be able to write some sort of story. You have the bones of  this monster in your head. You will to be able to build the Creature, stitch all those charnel bits and pieces together and breathe life into, even if it’s not exactly pretty. The thing is you can perform as much cosmetic surgery as you like on It/Him/Her later (or not, in my case, since I’m posting as I go along). The only important thing is to finish what you started.

The Obedience of Brother Odhran (III)

I knew him from the siege of Florence. No Abbot, then, but a soldier; a brutal mercenary in the service of the Holy Roman Empire. I would know him anywhere since before my eyes he cut the throats of my father and sister. My mother ran and hid in a ruined house; when his men had finished doing what they did to me, she came out to drag my insensate body through the streets. She would keep me safe for a while. I had seen what Zanobi did, you see, I was a witness, and he didn’t like witnesses. Some might say he was merciful in that he could have killed me, Abbot Zanobi; instead he ordered his men to cut out my tongue. In what way was that a merciful act, Abbot Zanobi? Death would have been the mercy.

He does not recognise me. Last time he set eyes on me I was younger; filthy, bleeding and bruised, cut about the face and hands. My outer scars have long since healed. It was many years ago. I have lost count of how many. He would have no reason to think that you would see me again, ever, let alone in this cool, green backwater at edge of the world. All cats are grey in this dark, as they say in this country; which is to say that they are indistinguishable from one another. Equally, a monk in an English monastery is just another body in a woollen robe and he must, of course, be English.

The siege ended; the city, inevitably, fell and my mother died. She had been ailing long before Zanobi killed my father and sister. I believe she lived on for as long as she needed or wanted to – to see my wounds heal. When the pain subsided she fed me gruel with a spoon. And then she had no more reason to remain on this earth. On the day of her death I carried her body up into the hills. She was so wasted that she weighed scarce more than a child – and buried her. Then I packed my few belongings, hung her rosary around my neck for a keepsake and set forth for the coast. I sought passage on a ship, any ship. I cared not where I went, if it was away from Italy.

A man does not need a tongue to haul upon ropes, or a voice to get down on his knees and scrub a deck. I came to the monastery and opened my mouth to show them. I put forth my hands in supplication and they took me in. Silence was easy in a monastery, and I took to the work I was given. They did not know I was a foreigner because, being unable to speak, I had no accent. By listening I gradually learned their language, but by the time I did they had me down as deaf as well as dumb, probably something of a simpleton. I have been happy here, or at least… peaceful. Until our new Abbot came.

A year has passed since that fake of a priest, that dissembler, set foot in my sanctuary and I know full well why he is here. He is one of the Vatican’s spies. He is the Holy Father’s agent, and maybe his henchman. I would kill this Roman devil but what would it serve? I would be hanged and another would be sent to fill his place. Better to watch, to learn. My time will come.

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Old Father Cuthbert was fond of the boy, as I knew. And because he knew I knew he assigned me to take care of him. I am to take in food and ale twice a day, supply pens and ink and fresh bedding, and empty the stool closet. I am not to communicate with the boy, but then, how could I? I am to observe the boy’s progress and state of mind and report back to Father Cuthbert. I am to be of comfort, if only by my presence in the room. This I know without being told. I am no stranger to suffering.

Winter moves into spring again, the birds are singing and still Zanobi has Odhran shut up alone in the library, tasked with the translation of that infernal book, which is an inconvenience to us all: an inconvenience to us because we can no longer consult our books, and an even greater inconvenience to the boy, Brother Odhran. He is confined to a single room – admittedly a large, high-ceilinged room with every single book at his fingertips – but a prison cell, at root. He is forced to translate – or attempt to translate – a large, vellum-bound manuscript in a language so strange that none of us here has been able to place it. It may even be a code. Our ‘Abbot’ is teaching him a lesson in obedience, and in the process we are learning it too. It is a military lesson.

A recruit’s will must be broken or he will not follow orders instantly and without question. Young soldiers are forced to carry boulders or heavy logs from one place to another in the boiling sun. Then they are ordered to carry them back. Then back again. They learn soon enough that they have no will of their own. They belong to the military, body, mind and soul. Zanobi himself cannot read that manuscript, though he pretends he can. He does not believe that the language, code or whatever it is, is susceptible of being deciphered. Furthermore he does not care. The point is that Brother Odhran cannot leave that room until he completes an impossible task. The lash is boredom. The lash is repetition. The lash is utter pointlessness.

I have often wondered how the manuscript came into Zanobi’s possession. He is not a man who values learning, or would hand over money for such a thing as a book. Whores and taverns would have seen his gold; book-sellers and learned men might starve. There are rumours, of course. I am believed to be deaf and so men speak freely in front of me. I have only to assume a slightly puzzled expression or stare vacantly at my feet. His servants say the book was thrown to him from the walls of our besieged city by some unseen hand. It was not meant for him, some say. It just zig-zagged down through the air and Zanobi just happened to be there to catch it. Others say it was some kind of code book and that Zanobi had been all along communicating with Vatican spies, within the walls of Florence, our soon-to-fall city.

Or – and this is the version that sometimes wakes me in the night, sweating – the book was a book of curses or magical spells; and that whoever – or whatever – sent the book sailing down that day intended Zanobi, and only him, to have it. The book itself decided to leave the city – to travel, if you will. Our Abbot was merely its transport.

How not to write a short story (and write it anyway)

Any writer with any common sense would sit down and make a plan. I mean, what a dumb thing to do to publish part one of a story – admittedly a story you only imagined would take up one- two at the most – posts – without making a plan? Who would start off with four characters in mind and have absolutely no idea what they were going to get up to?

Me, I’m afraid. I should it be ‘I – I is afraid’ or even ‘Afraid, am I’? After you’ve been exploring the boundaries of your linguistic abilities for a couple of hours, you begin to think, and write, like the small green furry with the sideways ears, ie:

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I just thought you might like to know how one story kind of… happens, in spite of the incompetence of its writer.

So I got this idea for a short story, but not the short story in question (The Obedience of Brother Odhran). The short story I got the idea was a kind of fantasy/horror item involving Jane Eyre and… That one was/is, probably going to be a long one for submission to an online magazine. That one might make me some money.

However, I thought – (some) people seem to like it when I put short stories on the blog. I don’t want to not write short stories for them. So what if I use the same skeleton of a plot but kind of drape a different story over it. And make it shorter. Much shorter. You do go on a bit, I told myself.

So I typed out a page of notes, which were… (and this is a trade secret I’m handing you here)…:

The work of a young illuminating monk does not meet with the approval of his master. The master agrees that his artistic talent is prodigious but he makes costly mistakes because he does not understand the Latin well enough. He gets bored easily and starts drawing in the margins or on scraps of vellum. The master knows that this may be a sign of his gift, but he needs to learn to be scrupulous.

So he sets him a task, to decipher a dusty old Latin volume – one of many. He is to refer to Latin text books as he goes along in order to produce a perfect translation. The master does not tell him that this same task was set to him, in his youth, and probably to other monks before him. The text is obscure/untranslatable – and the aim is to focus the youth on a single aim – discipline through denial, since he cannot draw until he has completed the translation. The master fully intends to relent, after a year or so. The youth will then be so grateful to return to illustration, and so much better at Latin – that the purpose will have been achieved.

This is the first half. No point in spoiling the second (as yet unwritten) half of the story by publishing the plot. Only a silly billy would do that.

Then I spent a pleasant hour or so rummaging about on the internet for images to go with the story. That’s the fun bit. Anything that’s not writing is fun. It’s not easy with fantasy/horror stories, though. Although there are a lot of lovely fantasy/horror pictures on the internet there’s a limited supply of free-to-download ones. You can’t just snitch them so you have to be a bit creative in your choices – do a bit of lateral thinking.

And then I spent maybe a couple of hours (I lost track, as always when I’m writing – I know it got dark at some point) writing part I. It was quite good, I thought. And then I hit the button and published it. This is not the correct thing to do, ladies and gentlemen, for three very good reasons:

a) you are then committed to writing the rest of the damn thing and there is nothing like having to write something to make you not want to;

b) you are also committing yourself to writing by the seat of your pants/trousers/plus-fours, pantaloons or whatever they call them in your country. This is scary, but also… exciting! I don’t get much excitement nowadays. The thing is, when you get onto part II you tend to realise that something or other in part I wasn’t right – and then you’re left with a choice. Do I go back and change part I, which isn’t really cricket, or do I skew the whole plot going forward in order not to change it? In part II I realised the nasty Abbot was not in fact of Norman lineage but a Roman. It was a single word, so I went back and changed it.

c) you need to take into account that writing a story gets harder as it goes along. The first instalment is always easy but the further you go with pushing this knot along to the end of the piece of string, building this wall when you are only an inch away from it, etcetera, the more complex it gets – the more plates you have to juggle, the more you have to keep in your head. And the characters will keep messing around with the plot, they keep inputting. For example, I was schlepping around in my dressing-gown this morning, feeding the cats as always. I checked my shopping list. Did I need soap?

And suddenly Brother Odhram was whispering in my ear: ‘When I fall, I make a black shape against the white sky, like the shape of a letter upon paper.’ He hasn’t fallen yet, by the way, and he may not fall. By the time I get to that part he may have decided to pack up and become a sheep farmer in Patagonia. How would I know?

More of this later, maybe.

The Obedience of Brother Odhran (II)

(From the journal of Abbot Franchesco Zanobi)

At this point I believe I am justified in congratulating myself on a plan successfully executed, in that I have this day taken up my post as Abbot at this chilly pig-trough of an English monastery. The holy brothers appear to have accepted, unquestioningly, the death of my predecessor – of a sudden illness whilst on a visit to their sister monastery, some fifteen leagues from here.

I admit I caught my breath on learning that a deputation of these bumpkins had appeared at the gates with a farm cart, of all things, determined upon carrying the old man home for Christian burial, and had in fact departed with the incriminating corpse some hours before. It would have been inconvenient, to say the least, if some observant Infirmarian suspicious, for example, of the blueness around the corpse’s lips, had troubled himself to consult some herball, or wise-woman book. There must surely be many such in their library. However, I could have spared myself a sleepless night for they did not. Bumpkins! 

I had nothing against the old man, of course – had never even met him before I set about poisoning him. He had to be disposed of to make room for my good Roman self. And so he was.

The Abbot’s quarters here are, if not luxurious, at least comfortable. The brothers are wary of me, which is excellent, since one of my purposes is to install a healthy fear into these rural numbskulls. The Holy Father has been told of a plot by King Henry – that portly, overdressed thug. The villain may be plotting not only to dissolve the monasteries but – and I can scarcely believe this myself – to create a new, non-Catholic church and appoint himself the head of it. Inevitably, since he appoints himself the head of everything.

My instructions are to review and amend standards of conduct in this monastery. The King, it is assumed, will avail himself of any excuse when ridding himself of monks and monasteries, including accusations of sloth and degeneracy. He shall be given no cause to act, none whatsoever. The brothers here must not only appear but be beyond reproach. It is a huge operation, this. Others such as myself, have been despatched from Rome to every Catholic community in this cold and sodden land, and with like aim. To have been trusted with such a task is a sure sign of His Holiness’s favour. More importantly to succeed in such a task, will ensure my progression to higher things.

So – my plan for tomorrow is to make an example of some poor dunce or other. Whoever it is (and I have one such in mind already, but intend to observe him further) shall be treated very, very harshly indeed for his misdemeanours. In subduing one I intend to subdue all, and with the least possible exertion. I believe in economy: economy in all things.

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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.

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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.