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.


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.