Journey: First complete draft
LLyn De Danaan
About 4100 words
May 31, 2015
It had become a test of my spiritual strength to sleep through the night. It required fortitude just to close my eyes. Each night, during my light and forced slumbers, a familiar sequence of images entered my dreams. There was, inevitably, a set of stairs writhing
slowly upward from a groyne that held the sea back from the friable bank above.
The stairs, made of rough-hewn logs flat on the top but rounded at the
bottom, were set into long notched timbers and these timbers laid against the
bank at a steep angle, not far off straight up and down. My task, never varying,
was to climb those stairs.
At the base of the stairs, an menacing apparition in human form placed a
heavy pack upon my back. It seemed to be filled with stone or rock for it was
not only weighty and cumbersome but was dense and hard and the one in figure’s gnarled hands and fingers snugged the pack’s straps so that they cut into the flesh of my shoulders. That person, if person it could be called, loaded me as one might load a donkey and urged me on by gesture and without speaking. She or he had a light rod in hand and whipped the calves of my legs until I began to ascend.
Every step brought fresh pain. I longed for an anodyne. It crossed my sleeping mind that
I might topple backwards and fall to the beach. That would, at the least, perhaps, end my journey and my dreams. Or perhaps leave me broken but alive and in a new kind of hell.
The will to survive whole always won out. I tightened my arms around the timbers and held fiercely. I feared what might be above. What new horror might I meet? But I didn’t get that far for I woke usually just five or six steps below the edge of the bank’s top. And I knew with certainty that I would have to begin the journey again the next night. I did what I could to put off sleeping I so detested the dream and the unremitting distress and extramundane misery it visited on me. The coming of dark brought with it a frisson of fear and knowledge that in time I would be forced to lay my head upon the rough bag filled with straw that served as pillow.
Still this pain and fear seemed to me to be beyond caring. For I witnessed, daily, the savagery of my associates. I watched the sackcloth covered monks tearing the flesh away from recent corpses to retrieve the bones They pulled and picked in much the same way as I remove a breast bone from a roasted chicken in order dry it, snap it, and learn my
fate. The monks rattled and threw marked rib bones to learn their own futures,
the rattle always accompanied by their crusty cackles and exclamations of
These monks, in the days of Cavallini, once allowed the corpse to dry before the harvest. This was our order’s golden era. This was before the monks or their minions were seen scudding down the lanes of the city, horrid, dripping parcels in their arms. These were the
days of old when their robes were clean and they did their work on floors tiled with
periwinkle blue Bukharan mosaics laid by craftsmen from the Silk Roads. The monks, kneeling or seated on simple pine benches that raised them a few inches from the polished floors, engaged in their dismembering and dejointing silently and in prayer and in belief that they ennobled themselves and the dead and honored God in the heavens.
The bones in those days were exhumed from ancient graves and had been deprived by time and worms and beetles of all flesh. They were lifted from graves with tenderness, then
cleaned and polished with a fine grit, and became almost as beautiful and lustrous as ivory
Most were pale as bleached parchment when ready for their installations.
We learned from the study of these bones the physical, corporal consequences of a lifetime of deprivation, hard work, and worry. Whole skeletons were knobbed and cracked and knuckled and ribbed according to their age and worldly occupations. Their skulls were lined and creased and knurled and ruched like maps of distant planets or the moon. Slender finger bones recalled their purposes for they were shaped or formed to pluck or plait, to stitch or scribe, to harvest or sew, or even touch in love. Jaws as deep as animal
troughs or wagon shafts seemed unbreakable as bronzes and just as finely
sculpted. Scapulas were as wistfully beautiful as fine porcelain dishes and as
slippery as newly iced pavement. They reflected light as if glazed. Teeth there were to yank from loose sockets and to string. Each specimen glowed with youthful gleam or glowered, stained and cracked with age. Each surface told a story: some of years of gritty dining, some of gnawing on a gristled stew.
There was no horror then and no message but that of plain mortality and the passing folly of our temporal earthly lives. To drill and thread was joyful and like a maker of the dry stone walls of our fields there was pleasure in finding a perfect place for each fragment. This was something of a pleasing art.
And did we in our secret thoughts alone sometimes restore in dreams the flesh, the smile, the nipple or the foot and stir in sleep? Of course.
A youngish monk, still fresh of face and nimble as a grasshopper, fell madly in love with a particularly well-turned humerus one day. He hid it in his robes, fitted it carefully next to his own long arm, and took it to his corner bed. The shame when he was found fondling
it in the night brought new and closer scrutiny to our days.
But no more did we have the old bones. We were digging newer graves and bringing forth fewer and still green corpses, some with only slight decay.
The monks worked on the bodies incessantly and with great concentration broken only by the order’s dictated hours of prayer or communal meals. They separated bones from muscles and tendons in an almost fever. They couldn’t wait to dry them and form them into arches and flowerets for their elaborate tableaux and the plates and
saucers for their afternoon tea. But even this was long ago. The moon was closer to the earth then, so Calveni says, and Eco’s roses bloomed in winter not in spring.
I was forced to watch this daily ripping of the dead. Yet still a youth, I was in charge of pressing live blooms from the gardens that were then strung into elaborate festoons that hung between the scapulas and clavicles or decorated friezes on the walls.
As alive as we were, some thought us not. Our faces were as dry as dust and etiolated from all the time we spent within our caves. No light crept in except that of oil lamps. Some older monks, well into their nineties, even took their meals inside those caves. I and a few others had a daily walk in the garden where the roses grew. We ate our victuals and sometimes had a gratefully numbing jug of wine and bits of bread while out. Those brief exposures were not sufficient to give color to our skin.
A wolf dwelt with us. White as snow that she-wolf was. We called her Cressius for she came to us as a pup by one of our order in the high hills of central Crete. There she was placed inside a wooden crate, and shipped to us aboard a grand armoured trireme along with elephants and camels and a host of other beasts from colonies in Northern Africa. Cressius emerged unbeaten yet not a little seasick. Thus she was tamed by gentle hands that fed and comforted her until she quite recovered. Cressius was a special friend to
me and it was Cressius who received scraps of dinner from my plate.
Cressius and I were doomed to slumber with our atavistic urges growing each day. They came upon us, like my dream of climbing, from nowhere. We shared them with our
grunts and whines and often found our limbs entwined when morning came. I do
not say when daylight came because dawn was not a thing we often witnessed. Oh
now and then we might be sent to harvest olives or to purchase goats. But many
plants were grown in our gardens by the youngest of the novices and there they
tended small herds and made our cheese and baked our bread. We had a lottery
inside the caves to see whose turn it was to venture afield for supplies. And
often the distance to be traveled required we stay over night at some small
outlier colony of our order. Those trips were eagerly awaited though as monks or other holy persons we should not long or dream or even think about that outside world or morning light.
Cressius was always permitted to travel with me. Though desexed in many ways by clothing and dress, the monks thought me a helpless maid and would not be sent alone on lonely roads. Cressius was a friend and a protectoress. No one dared approach or stalk me with Cressius by my side. And in the moonlight or even under stars she shone, her fur a rippling lantern to mark my path and warn all others away. Oh, but we wanted more trips
from the cave for what we saw and heard and smelled and touched on these too
infrequent quests for olives and such held wonder.
I had been orphaned. Well, not really orphaned for my parents, or rather those whose lust conceived me and out of whose bodies I was composed, deposited me on the threshold of the monastery. I had no choice in my education, vocation, or service.
But I could not become a monk for I was a female child. The monks dressed me
in sackcloth and asked for several nuns from the order, those who provided for the domestic needs of the brothers, to take me to their dwellings. I stayed with them until I’d learned all that they taught, then they allowed me, always draped and always returning to the nuns’ cave to sleep, to work first in the gardens and then to assist the nuns who worked with the flowers and brought refreshment to those who tore at flesh and fashioned murals with the bones.
Cressius was my only real companion for the novices and young acolytes closer to my age lived inside buildings outside the cave and studied and worked at other, cleaner, tasks. I don’t know why. I suppose the shame of my birth did not give me the rights that other younger persons whose relations had wealth and had purchased a berth for their offspring, one from each of the high families, so that a famous monk or priest or even cardinal might be attached and beholden to them. I was more a servant and my works beseemed that
status. I could be called upon by any of of the others on any pretense. I was kept
busy scuttering here and there when not drying roses. For that reason sleep was
important. I could not go without it for long.
Cressius and I had a particularly tenebrous corner for our own. Someone years ago had chiseled a tiny shelf in the rock and on that ledge I had a pair of goat skins and a fleece from a large sheep. I had a few private possessions, all small things I had found and coveted. One was a shell shaped like eternity. Another was a stick I’d found and fashioned into a cross with a bit of flint I’d sharpened. Once on one of our peregrinations to the
outside, I’d found a small bell. It had been snagged from the neck and collar
of a sheep, surely, for it was hanging unnoticed in a bramble. Though it was
tiny, it made a sweet sound and I kept it under the skins and listened to its
song in secret and in the silence of the deep night. It was something I called
mine, as close and dear to me as my own toes and fingertips.
Life in the caves and among these peculiar artisans was bearable while they were still digging up old corpses to harvest the bones for their creations. But, as I’ve said, even in my lifetime, these old graves grew scarce. And by the time I was nearly ten, the recently dead were being dug up and flayed and disassembled. The monks became surly and now they reeked of death, of rotten flesh, and we all had nightmares. A cruel corner was turned one day when there were no corpses at all within the confines of the monastery. It was then our cave became no longer a place of bone cleaning but an abattoir.
The monk Jeremy was sent out the first night. His mission was presumably secret but not really a mystery to the rest of us. He had been instructed to kill, to murder, and to retrieve a fresh body. Oh yes, theological grounds were laid for this twisted work.
Some cited the deplorable state of the church and the need to rid it of the heretics. Christ used a whip, they said, God sent plagues on Egypt and tortured Job and came close to requiring that Abraham kill his son. The whole world was destroyed by floods and a promise had been made that there would be “fire next time.” Did not St. Augustine speak of torture and of the uselessness of the good for nothings? The sword would be an instrument by which to purge the world of evil. Heresy, they said, is worse than murder. And heresy can be understood to mean any action that is non conformist or contrary to the
teachings of the church. Thus the monks spoke with themselves. Thus they taught
each other. Thus they determined to rid the world of those whom they believed
resisted the teachings of the Christ and the will of God. Thus they went into
the streets to slit throats and gather raw material for their labors.
And it was shortly thereafter the abbot decided that it was foolish to waste the
flesh. We were now to remove skins whole, or as whole as possible, dry it, and
stuff it. Now entire mannequins could be posed amidst the bone and dry rose passageways and next to stacks of skulls and be caused, by careful manipulation and rearticulation of hands and arms, to contemplate a knee or rib or any other bone or kneel before
a ulna or caress an ankle.
Perhaps we all went a little mad. We (I count myself complicit here) constructed scenes or tableaux that depicted chapters of the Bible. Jesus, a baker as a living being, turned water, poured from a bone cup into wine; Martha, in the body of a weaver, approached an empty tomb made of grinning jaws. Before long, the monks devised a way to animate these scenes with string and lighting. It was a Grand-Guinol long before the name was known or such a theater of horror was founded.
In these tableaux, a prostitute in life became the Virgin Mary posed with newly dead child and near a Joseph who in life had been a real carpenter. But this mattered little for no one except we who lived within the walls of the monastery or in the cave and and worked with the sad, cold, and stiffened bodies brought to us knew. And it was a craven work,
a work that despite the words our elders spoke to us seemed sure to damn us
We were more silent, more afraid, more sickened as we stripped and cut and snipped and violated. No one was happy in this work and none felt blessed or called to it. Oh, one or two seemed made for it. And sadly, by this time, I too was made to help. I cannot speak of it without I taste the bile in my mouth and feel my jaws begin to cramp and eyes begin to sting. I clung to Cressius in the night and begged to go forth for the gathering of grapes and bounty of the fields.
It had been months of this apocalyptic travesty before my name was drawn. Cressius and I spent the night restless for the morning and the journey. A small pack was made ready and directions were given by the abbot. I was to travel to our order’s house not 40 miles south, a journey of some days. There would spend the night whilst barley bread and new wine would be loaded on the cart I had with me for the trip back.
I knew there would be no trip back. Cressius and I walked slowly out the large wooden doors that led to the world beyond the monastery. When it closed behind us, we breathed an air we had not breathed in months. Although it was still the dusty dry air of the city, it was fresh as spring water to us. We listened for the birds, all of which had fled even our gardens now and never entered our caves. We listened for the rustle of the leaves and
looked for bees and crickets in the grass and flowers. Soon we were out of the
gates of the city and its ancient stones and were beyond the sight and calling
of its muddled citizenry and their suspicious gossip.
I knew this road from many journeys.
I abandoned the cart and little beast after many miles. I trod along the far edge of the roadway then, when no one was in sight before or behind, I skipped lightly across the verge and over a hillock and, with Cressius leaping joyous as a youngster behind, snapping at butterflies and nuzzling deep into the chopped grasses at the scent of vole, made my way across the fields. My cloche betrayed my order and thus I tore it from my shoulders. I shred and hid it best I could lest it become a clue to my escape route. My rough under shirt and pantaloons were all I needed for the day was warm. I’d saved some crusts and bits of bean and cheese from dinners and had tucked them in a pouch. So now, just now, I could
walk without a fear of hunger. The monks would not miss me until some days
when I would be expected back. Thus, I had time to travel far.
But where and how would I survive?
I rehearsed my story, my new biography. And in my head I listed to my satisfaction all my skills: I could read and write; I was young and strong; I was handy with a myriad of tools. I learned quickly and spoke easily with animals who seemed to settle comfortably with me as a friend. I could apply to be a farm hand or a clerk or tutor or the assistant to any of those.
My biography would be this: I was the daughter of a merchant who had employed a tutor for me in my home. I’d been well treated but was orphaned when disease had struck my village, a small one in the north. His brother had stolen my father’s wealth and I was put out without consideration for my well being. And now I wandered seeking employment where I could. I expected nothing more of life.
And this was who I was. I called myself Alma and my wolf would be known as Zanna for her large ripping teeth.
Night fell but not before we had come upon a small pool of water from a recent rain. I shared the last bit of bread with Zanna and tried with it to teach her to answer to this new name. I bathed as best I could and drank. We slept as usual, me smothered in Zanna’s fur, her right forelimb cleaving me to her as if to bond us as one forever. On this night I did not have the dream.
I awoke to the heat of the sun for there was no shade tree
where we took our rest but only tender tall grasses that flourished near the spring.
We had no food and seemed to be ready to be food ourselves. A hawk dove down toward us and came so close its knobbly legs and huge, sharp talons were within seconds of a strike. I waved my hands toward it and heard more than saw its gigantic wings beating at the air as it rose to circle from a distance.
The sun shone through its feathers so the its wing bones, its radius
and ulna and carpus and metacarpus and the digits were clearly visible. So familiar. So like a human arm, I thought. So beautifully formed. As dizzy from hunger as I was, I found myself overwhelmed by the symmetry and precision of those wings and for a moment found myself with the hawk, on the hawk, circling over my own body. Zanna did not move through any of this until the sun hit her furred head and troubled at her eyes. She rose and
stretched and went straight to the pool for a long sloppy drink.
We began to walk again, heading, I hoped for a village or town. Somewhere I could seek work and friendship. I tried to attend to the wanderings of my mind and to shake off the sometimes shivers of horrors when I had sudden recollections of the horror of the past few months. My life so far seemed to be a concatenation of events that needed sorting in order
to make sense. Other times I seemed to myself to have been on a perfect and
willed trajectory. Where would it lead?
The day was suffused with a golden, dusty glow and the fields around me were parched and stubbled. Dark green poplars showed themselves faintly on the distant horizon however, and it was toward that horizon that I traced my route and
pulled myself and my companion in a desperate bid for freedom.
At last, before nightfall, I entered a knotty, dark copse that I took to be a wetland surrounding the rows of poplars and leading to a town. The shrubs and trees were small and cowered densely over a thicket of wild berry vines. I saw no path and wrenched and tore my way in the direction of the larger grove ahead. My clothing was ripped, sleeves and pants, and my hands and arms and legs around the ankles were nearly shredded and bleeding from berry vine and thistle scratches. Cressius slunk lowto the ground, beneath the growth, behind me.
Just as I could see the first of the poplars an easy march away, an elderly monk with a long staff came down through a clearing and stopped in his tracks when he saw me. I did likewise. He was bare headed but wore a sackcloth robe cinched round the waist with a hemp rope from which hung a large wooden cross. His otherwise naked scalp sprouted fluff without design. More grew out from and around his overlarge ears. His nose too was oversized and his nostrils like two immense caverns. His eyes were bright and eager.
“Ah. I see. A lost soul.”
“I am, indeed. Lost. Whether a soul or not is for God to
say.” And I began to recite my story, the tragedy of my village, my hope to
find employment and all the rest.
The monk stood watching me, listening attentively, and then
said, “Follow now. I will see that you are cared for.”
I had little reason not to follow. The trajectory, I thought. This is another step in my ordained path. Here was, it seemed, a good Christian man who offered aid. Perhaps God had sent him to me. Zanna and I were weak and I stumbled now and then but kept the man in sight as he nearly leapt up the hillside, through the poplars, and through a lively and brilliant green glade within which birds sang and chirruped seemingly from every surrounding tree branch. He traveled on both I and wolf panted to keep up.
Soon a large brick building with a crenulated wall around it
rose into view. It was alone, that is, isolated amidst the surrounding forest. No other
clearing or settlement could be seen.
We approached it by way of an elaborate, staired barbican made of chiseled
grey stone blocks. The monk knocked with fierce force on an oaken door that was set
steadfastly between the stones of a grand arch. When it was opened, it was clear
that the interior was protected from intruders by both an inner and outer door.
I was led through each and each was closed firmly and locked behind me. Zanna
began to whine. No doubt she was hungry and a little wary of a place she did
A moment, the monk said, and disappeared into a dark interior
space apparently deep within the building judging by the time he was gone. When
he returned, he had another with him. This fellow had a younger bounce to his
walk though his head was hooded like a falcon’s. But even though he was shadowed by the
hood he could be seen to have a lean, saturnine face.
Then he saw me and his broad lipped mouth broke into a
crooked toothed smile and his dour appearance cracked into one of pleasure.
“Yes yes, brother,” he said to the older monk while eyeing me and following the line of my cheek with one stained and ragged finger,
“she’ll do nicely for a new Mary. A lovely jaw bone indeed.”