The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 10
Leif cannot sell the Christian Holy Books that represent his father’s ransom until he can get someone to place a value on them. But Attor cannot because of the Lindisfarne raid, it is not safe for him to travel in Northumbria. When all seems hopeless, Elswyth remembers the monk who is staying with them. But will the monk agree to help a Norsk man? Get caught up using the index page.
10 The Monk
Brother Alun of Monkwearmouth had been elated when his abbot had told him that he was being sent to Twyford. Twyford was the village where, according to Bede, Archbishop Theodore had, in the year of grace 684, convened a synod with King Ecgfrith that had led to the summoning of Saint Cuthbert from his hermitage on Farne Island and made him Bishop of Lindisfarne. To visit a place of such historical and spiritual significance had seemed to him a great honor and privilege, and his abbot had impressed upon him that if prophecy was to be found in Northumbria in this age, this village, of such auspicious memory, was a more likely place for it than most.
But it had all proved a great disappointment. Twyford proved to be a very ordinary coastal village where all memory of the blessed synod held there seemed to have faded (the thegn had said that his father might have mentioned it once). The supposed prophet that it contained proved to be a dying old woman. Many in the village assured him that Kendra of Twyford was certainly a prophet. She seemed more likely to be a simple madwoman. Yet in the ravings of the mad, some said God spoke, and in the madwoman's final words, who could say what oracle might come. She spoke of those long dead as if they were living, which her son and daughter took to be sure sign that she saw ghosts and spirits. News of this had reached the Abbot of Monkwearmouth, and in these days in which prophecy was so much needed and so little to be found, he had sent half the monks in the abbey out across the countryside to hear and judge the words of every country prophet and madman from the Tees to the Tweed. But so far her words had been of nothing but pain and petty hatreds, sickened cows and palsied sheep and ungrateful children—all of which might be taken as evil omens, by those who looked for them, but to his ear they were nothing but the bitter commonplaces of earthly life.
Kendra was remarkably old for a countrywoman—some said over sixty—and had three children living, and God knew how many grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her face showed the marks of the pox and of famine, and of half the other ills of the world, but still she lived, though emaciated and bedridden. Nuns and queens and noblewomen might sometimes live longer, but for a peasant woman her age was remarkable, which gave all the more credence to the notion that she might be a prophet, even if only in her last words. And so Brother Alun sat beside her while she woke, prayed with her when she seemed lucid, and listened dutifully when she rambled. The hut in which she lay was rank and choked with smoke from a small fire that seemed to him entirely superfluous in the summer heat. Her neighbors and her descendants would come and sit with her, when their work allowed, so that the hut was often crowded, and pervaded by a wondering sadness, a kind of pent-up mourning, like milk spoiling in the pot before anyone was ready to drink it.
He missed the light and air of the scriptorium and the privacy and intimacy of the books. Yet he cherished his obedience as a gift from God, and therefore accepted this trial as a penitential service and attended hour upon hour for some hint of prophecy in the old woman’s ramblings. His only respite was when she slept, and though she slept often, the boundary between her sleeping and waking was hard to discern. She would seem to be dozing, and then blurt out some piece of bitterness or affection, eyes suddenly wide and staring. And then a moment later seem asleep again. She had slipped into this state, the most tedious part of all his vigil, and he was well sunk into the telling of his beads, when Elswyth stuck her head through the door flap and said, “Father wants you. Can you come or is she prophesying?”
“Rulers are not a terror to good works,” the monk said, not turning his head to look at her.
“If your father summons me, it must be for God’s purpose. If He intends to speak prophecy through this woman, no doubt He will wait while I attend to the demands of those rightly placed in authority over me.”
“Okay, but did she?”
“I cannot pass through the doorway while you are standing in it,” the monk said.
“Oh, right,” said Elswyth. She withdrew and turned her back to the doorway to let him emerge. She knew from experience that he would stand stock still and look skyward or at the ground rather than look in her direction, so he was not likely to emerge from the hut if she stood looking at the doorway.
She heard him cross the threshold, then stumble, cry out, and land on his face. She did not turn to look at him.
“You can’t even look at me from behind?” she asked, not turning around.
“I have explained the discipline of the eyes to you,” he said, grunting as he picked himself up off the ground.
“But you look at Kendra. And Denegyth. And Collibe.”
“They present no temptation to me.”
“So when I am old and ugly, you will look at me?”
“If I live so long, I expect I will be beyond all such temptations.”
“But it’s okay for me to look at you?”
“You are not under vows. Though no Christian should look on anything that is a temptation to them.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but I am not even a little bit tempted by you, Brother Alun, so why don’t I walk behind you so you don’t stumble and fall again. Or should I get a boy to run ahead of us with a stick to drive any pretty girls out of your path?”
“If I keep my eyes on the path, I shall neither stumble nor fall,” the monk said. “Though I wish you would not tempt me to sharp words.”
“I’m behind you now. You can open your eyes and walk toward the hall, safe from my Blodeuwedd charms. And before you ask, yes that is one of Granny’s stories. A woman made from flowers, the fairest ever seen.”
“Your grandmother is a sterling woman, but more than half heathen. And no creature made by man can be fairer than those made by God. It is because I am sinful that I may not look at you. God made you as you are for his glory, not my torment.”
“Well, be sure to thank him for me,” Elswyth said.
“Thank him yourself,” the monk replied, “but also pray they your beauty not be a stumbling block to others.” And with that he started towards the hall, his eyes fixed steadily on the path in front of him.
“So, is Kendra a prophet?” she asked as they walked. “Did she tell you why the vikingar attacked Lindisfarne?”
“She does sometimes speak as if with angels,” the monk said, “but she says nothing to help any living man. If she has learned anything from the angels, she has not the wit to speak it, or I have not the wit to understand.”
“Have you heard prophets before?”
“My Granny hears them all the time.”
“She must be a rich woman then, beloved of kings and bishops.”
“So you are saying Granny is a liar?” she asked, teasingly. She had long since ceased to put much stock in her grandmother’s stories, though she faithfully pretended to believe every word of them. Her mother’s mother was the most beloved of all her relatives, and the source of all she knew of the Welisc side of her blood.
“More than half heathen, and therefore more than half in error,” the monk said. “She wants for instruction more than good will, I believe. Do you not have priests who visit regularly to instruct you?”
“We had one last year.”
“What did he preach about?”
“I don’t remember. He ate all the blackberries. My mother was furious.”
“Your bishop and his priests should be visiting the people, but they sit in their minsters getting fat.”
“We hardly ever see a monk either.”
“We are sworn to stability of place, yet it seems we travel more than the bishop’s priests who are responsible for the laity. Everywhere I have been on my journey I find instruction on modesty and chastity to be sorely needed.”
“What do you mean?”
“Young women going about with their heads uncovered…”
“Mother said I did not have to wear a wimple until I was married. Left here, not right, unless you want to go to the pigpens instead of the hall.”
The monk corrected his path and walked on in silence.
“Don’t you want to know why Father called for you?”
“He will tell me in his time.”
“You’re going to have a shock.”
“I thank you for warning me.”
“I can tell you, if you like. But only if you look at me.”
“The warning is enough.”
And after that she could think of nothing else to say to him until they arrived at the hall, where the monk stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the two Norsk standing around the table with her father.
“I thank you indeed for your warning,” he said, half turning in her direction. “I think it is better you did not tell me more.”
“They won’t bite,” Elswyth said. “They are old friends of ours. I thought you might even know them.”
“By God,” the monk said, “I think I do remember the old man. Hard to forget a man that size, and I think we bought hides and indigo from him when I was in training at Lindisfarne.”
“That’s Uncle Thor, and he’s a sweetie.”
“But a heathen. And he would have known of the wealth of Lindisfarne.”
“It wasn’t them, I promise. Go and greet them. If you don’t, I will, and then you will have to suffer to look at my behind.”
“I will go, because of your father’s command.”
Elswyth followed him as he stepped forward again towards the table. But before he reached the men waiting there, Leif turned and saw him, gave an excited cry of recognition and rushed towards him crying “Brother Alun! My friend!”
The monk shied at seeing the young Norsk come rushing at him and darted backwards, stumbling into Elswyth, who was close behind him, knocking her over and then falling over her.
Leif immediately offered his hand to the monk, who shied away from him again.
“Don’t you know me, Brother Alun?” Leif asked. “I am Leif, Harrald’s son. When I was a boy, my father left me as hostage with your holy jarl, as credit for your goods which he carried to Canterbury. He wished me to learn your ways. What goods you have to trade. What goods you desire. You showed me the Gospel book. From you I learned that a thing of hide and paint can be more valuable than gold and jewels."
Elswyth picked herself up and dusted the dirt off her dress, but the monk stayed on the ground, looking up at Leif uncomprehending.
“Is it because my beard has come?” Leif asked. “I had no beard when you knew me.” He gathered up his thin beard in one hand and placed one finger of the other beneath his nose to cover his wispy mustache.
A laugh almost burst from Elswyth’s mouth at this gesture, but it seemed to work, for a look of comprehension came over the monk’s face.
“I remember,” he said. “We showed you our treasures. What fools we were to do that! What fools we were to trade with heathens!”
He still did not accept the hand that Leif extended to him. But Attor offered him his hand and helped the monk to his feet.
“We gave a fair price for your goods,” Leif said. “My father would never cheat any man.”
“Leif speaks truly,” Attor said. “Come, Brother Alun, I need your judgment on something.”
The monk came forward hesitantly but when he saw the book lying on the table his eyes lit with love and his hands stopped trembling. He opened the book, not pausing to examine the workmanship of the cover. Inside he came upon the loose sheet that Attor had replaced where he found it. He did not even glance at the rich picture on the first page of the book, but instead laid the loose sheet on the table and began to read it aloud in a language that Elswyth recognized as Latin, the language a visiting priest had used in the Mass.
Elswyth watched in fascination, forgetting the book for a moment. The sheet from which the monk read was a marvel in itself. She had heard it said that books were made from calf skin, but the sheet that the monk was reading seemed stiff, and gleamed a lustrous yellow, almost white, in the sunlight. It was marvelously thin, so that it seemed the light might shine right through it, and she had certainly never seen a piece of leather so stiff, so thin, or so luminous at this. But what process could this transformation have been achieved? And then, by what process were the black letters inscribed on it. What paint or dye could inscribe so fine a line?
She did not understand the words that the monk uttered, but the Latin had a foreign lilt and ring to them, that somehow spoke of ancient places and warm skies. Brother Alun seemed to realize that he had an audience, for he ceased to mutter the words and began to proclaim them like a bard telling an old tale in some distant place where this tongue was the language of hearth and hall.
“What is he saying, Uncle?” Leif asked anxiously. “Is this some magic?”
“I think it is Latin, the monk’s own tongue,” Attor said. “All writing is in their language.”
“No,” said the monk, pausing in his reading, “there are books written in Anglish also. Secular works. And no, I do not make magic. This is just a business letter.”
“What is ‘secular’?” Leif asked.
“Not holy,” the monk said.
“But this book is not secular?” Leif asked. “This is a holy book. A Gospel. A book of great value. See how beautiful it is. I am certain it is a Gospel.”
The monk did not reply at once. He bent over the loose sheet again and resumed reading, saying each word aloud as he ran his finger along the lines. When he had gone halfway down the page he looked up again and said, “No, not a Gospel.”
Next Chapter: 11. Not a Gospel
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