In which Waldo of Hereford and Rabano of Toledo fight fire, find shelter at the onset of winter, and revolt at the end of their illuminations, and truth learns to laugh at last.
We stayed close when the library burned. For three days we watched it from a lower shoulder of the mountain while the walls cracked and the embers recaught and died, and the snow fell over the golden sandstone crags and made no difference.
I was one of the first to run from the dormitory when the bell sounded, and the other illuminators with me. I had not slept. I could not lie easy, with Malachi on his back on a slab and the volume no one saw gone again into the sanctum. The brothers breathed out of time, like moving pages, like wind in the heaths over Missel moor when first I crossed it to Whitby.
Too many men I worked with had gone into the night, another down before I had had time and thought to absorb the last. By day I filled in wings on the back of a griffin, one desk before brother Adelmo's vacant place, and yet how often in five days had I remembered the fine dash of his lines, the supple balance of fishes' scales, the wry, compelling deprecation in an ass's eye.
We ran to the bell as though we had waited for a signal to stop this creeping death with our bodies. Brother William's novice, smelling of smoke and lamp oil, dropped naked on the snow, bleeding from the hands. Brothers shouted and scattered, and I was running into the kitchen beside a team of mules with panniers, clattering a litter of broken pans. The stairs to the scriptorium seethed with arms passing buckets.
I battered at backs. That line of desks stood under the open window, where any sparks might light, where any lout with a bucket might pour it over a year's work and blot out the bright colors with ash. My bestiary half finished, and only yesterday I had found the backward twist of a manticore's head to coil it in an echo of the acanthus, to strain the unnatural kink in the neck and gape the jaw.
Brother William broke through from above, cursing Jorge for a madman, shouting that Jorge had damned the greatest minds in Christendom for a joke. He hoisted a cloth to wrap round his boy, who had staggered in after us, coughing; I lost sight of them as I heaved up the stairs, but for a glimpse of the master's arm around his prentice's bare shoulder and the boy's cracked voice raised against his harsh one as if to defend him.
Heavy water jars passed overhead in the press of hands, and I set my hands to their cold sides and heaved them on, and the weight of them bore down like marble. Bodies crammed down the stairs against me crying for water or for air or for nothing at all, and I wanted to crack the next jug against them, to hurl it forward and clear a way, but the bodies around me wrested it forward.
Bodies shoved and surged, and I wrenched clear; I stood under the window with my hands flat on the vellum and the lip of the desk against my hip, as though by my presence I could ward off the flames from it if they came so far. I breathed in frost. The far slopes showed pale in the night, and light leapt in a tower window and receded. I pried at the fixed sheet, easing it not to tear it.
The ceiling fell. Hail and heat and screaming, and Rabano lunged from his desk in front of mine as spars crashed and grabbed at me and the sheet together, his forelock singed, his hands running with inks from a jumble of paint pots, and we fell together toward the spiral stair. We were skidding at the turn of the stair in a frenzy of bodies as the mules below screamed and lashed at the water carriers, and vessels broke, and men slid in the water and we crashed over them.
We reached the courtyard together. Shadows ran, and embers stretched across the enclave, flung out across the cobbles and down the hillside like the camp fires of armies, and men shouted over the bells and cattle bellowing and wind sheering between weakened walls, whipping sparks like demonic lightening bugs. Gangs of men ran over fallen bodies and clutched metal that burned their hands, jewels on a mantel that glowed like cats' eyes in the treacherous light, broken bone in broken silver.
I climbed a ladder to the upper windows and stayed there while the villeins came and fled and the church burned and the brothers beating at the roof fell in with it, and I reached for water buckets too often not there, flung water at the flames and leaned too close until the skin of my face smelted, and I must have shouted without stopping, because my throat burned when the ladder too caught fire and they hauled me down.
Rabano shouted my name with a bucket in his left hand and a cloth bound over the right, stained with green and gold and red. I hoisted him on my back to douse a wall the heat beat through. The shouting had gone. The church, the dormitory, the horses all had gone with it, and we were among the last of the brothers stumbling between the shells of buildings, not yet beaten or burned too badly to stand. We had no more water. I turned up burned faces and cold bloody hands and could not find anyone alive on the ground.
He threw a blanket over me. It smelt burned. He had one around his shoulders, charred where someone had slapped at a flame and drawn it back in despair at the extent of the blaze. I was kneeling on the stones holding a dead man's hand while sparks flew from the aedificium as they shower from a horse shoe struck on an anvil, and the forge the labyrinth had become devoured first principals and the crucibles of alchemists and the lives of horned whales, the rules of scansion and of physics and the circumference of the earth, the stars the Arabic astronomers recorded at the knee and the breast of the swan, and a hundred faces of the virgin.
He said, "everything is gone."
He reached his right hand out of the blanket. We leaned shivering against one another.
"I have found none alive."
"All who could walk have run." He had a long mouth and a dark eye, and both turned with bitterness.
"And those who cannot walk?"
We sought among the bodies in the light of the fire, and in the first weak light of the day, but we found none in any place the heat and smoke allowed us that we could succor, except to bless them and compose their limbs.
I heard his voice murmuring over mine, as we crossed and recrossed the stones: raise you up... pardon you whatever faults you have committed... by sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, walking.... Among the brothers who had fed and clothed me after my months' long journey here, who had provided me pen and parchment and all the dearest necessities of my art, who had died stricken by fallen rock, their faces burned, their dwellings and the greatest efforts of their faith turned into hail and thunder, the words struck oddly. What slight or excess of man's natural senses, that God gave us and commended for our use, could we raise to His sight in these final hours, while the heat that the rock stored scorched our soles? If this fire purged, surely it purged some greater contagion, and walking among these thin, twisted limbs, I was too tired to see or feel what we might be capable of to call it down, or why I might be spared while novices who had sung the highest flights of the Jubilate Deo lay broken. I took a cloak that one had flung aside.
Rabano stood under an arch. I came up with him, and we turned away together. Outside the walls, the wind scoured the snow. We held to each other as we went down the stained path past the dung heap, looking up to the rows of slit windows foreshortened in the aedificium towers until we lost our footing. A smoldering reflected in them when the wind gusted and blackened when it died, as the last figures written three thousand years ago, and copied in these cold early hours when the thumbs cramped, and reglued and pieced together and pored over -- charred to dust.
"Where are we going?" he said, his voice as bare as the gravel where passing feet had stripped the track, and I caught him as his foot slipped, while I looked over his shoulder. My chin rested on it, but I bore his weight.
"Have you any Italian?"
"Who would take us in?"
He knew I spoke the local vernacular no more than he, for we had come within the year and stayed close within the walls, and if our need spoke for us, what had the abbey ever given the village people that they could return to us now if they would? They had nothing, and we knew they had nothing -- wattle walls that could not keep out the wind. If they had room around their fires, they would preserve their cattle.
"We would sleep as warm in a granary," I said.
The path led us through abandoned high pasture at the ragged end of the tree line. We stumbled and waded in the wet snow. My feet burned with cold, and my eyes with smoke. We walked in shadow, for it was a winter dawn, and the scant light would not leech over the flattened ridge tops before prime. We could just discern the summits against the sky, their abrupt slopes leveled off as though His hand had spread them with a butter knife, and the farthest north capped with ice.
We were walking nearly asleep when we came out on the first rounded line of a field sowed with winter rye. The light caught us up and snagged the new shoots, dry in frozen furrows, and branches and distant dull thatch roofs. Our faces were wet over char stains, and we had not slept since matins of the day before, when Malachi's fall distracted the wakeners.
"So quiet," I said, holding up a hand as though the roaring of the flames would follow if we held still enough.
He breathed, leaning on my arm: "De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine. Domine, exaudi vocem meam."
Never greater depths or more need of mercy, I thought, and said with him, "Fiant aures tuae intendentes, in vocem deprecationis meae."
The hour of prime must be on us, without bell or candle, without the body of voices blended to one body in the choir, without the words of the rule and the light traveling from face to face and the press of bodies shifting in their habits, warming their hands against their ribs. We turned to face the east and knelt, shoulder against shoulder to keep us upright.
He did not speak, and I could not begin the office as we would have begun it secure in a daily round of private contention and public works to the glory of God. Our Lord has asked only one prayer of us through his son directly. I spoke it low.
"Pater Noster, qui es in caelis..." Kneeling on the earth, we held hands and looked outward, away from the tower. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses. Hard words, but we had burned away too many soft ones. And we were hungry, cold, alive on the earth, and still possessed of all our senses, to feel pain in them. We came to the end of the words, and the prayer became wordless; it took the shape of the pressure of his hand against mine, his living rib and arm and foot, the rock and soil below us and behind us and above us, the march of snow and scree and rifts and fires connected to us by the ground we stood on. When did we ever pray so, out of doors and in the arms of a brother, stripped bare to the world? I felt the joints of my bones and the meeting of rock and soil beneath, and in dizzy contemplation I thought, Holy Father, when the renegade Jorge dismissed the drawings of Adelmo my brother, whose gift You devised, did he fear the blood that quickened them? For Adelmo drew his makings from your creatures, and in changing their bodies he sanctified them to your use. For how else do we in our houses of stone praise your vines and forests and the variety and brilliance of your beasts, as you commanded us before any but the first blessed union?
Rabano shook me, for I nodded against his shoulder as we knelt, and the wind was bitter. We had sunk down within sight of an outbuilding for the storage of winter fodder, though it lay beyond us a raw, muddy furlong. He looked back at the burned walls, and snow blew against us.
"Resquiescat --" he said under his breath and then broke out, "not so! They should haunt us until we reclaim them! Some man should be born with an old soul who can write the riddles of Symphosius and the mirrors of Alhazen."
"Reincarnation?" I scrubbed my face with burnt wool. I knew the teachings of the east that had spread through Languedoc. We would not have spoken of them within the walls, but vivimus in libris, ex libris, pro libris; we were made free to choose among doctrines.
I said, "I cannot bear it either."
He clenched his hands. "They will make of it an act of God, visited against the abbey for it's learning; the madness of cowards they will twist into justice and declare God's love for the ignorant, condemning the intricate and the beautiful without any sense of them."
"They will not."
"We cannot stop it. Every villein in the village knows. The brothers themselves will talk of the dead and the spectres of the maze."
"We will oppose it."
He jerked out a hand, and the green inks on his fingers stood out, the only living colors against the scree and the snow. "How?" The outbuildings still burned on the ridge behind us. We heard rock fall and a distant crash of ceiling beams.
"You will not go either?"
The stiffness left him, and he turned from a tall silhouette to drawn flesh and became again my brother, the first I had here, for we had met on the last leg of our journeys, when he entered the Abbaye de Senanque in this same half light, in the long evening, with the same dust on his clothes and the same zeal. We had met under austere leafed columns in the north cloister, beside the dortoir, and I had watched him staring, head thrown back, at the clean lines of the dormitory arch, the plain glass round window, the red hue in the stone like blood under the skin, for here the reforms of the Cistercians had not wholly given way, and though the brothers now kept less stricture, the architecture awed with its sheer bare planes. He spoke to me with his fingers all through the silent meal, for I too had never come so far before, and I too had seen the very stone under my feet change from red to buff to blue roan as I walked, and I too had drunk figures of the numbers of hives the brothers kept here, the acreage of their lavender, the cordage of tree trunks burned whole in the conical furnace.
"Where would I go?" he said and took my arm again.
We reached the storehouse leaning on each other. This early in winter, the store gave us bedding enough to burrow into; we lay back to front, coiling our blankets over us both, that we might not freeze before night. His bright bandage showed as he pulled a fold of blanket about our faces.
"What have you done to your hand?" We mixed our colors of metals as well as plant dyes; brought into a wound by proximity and abrasion, they might taint the blood, and what fed our souls could waste his body.
"It is well enough."
"You had no red on it when we left the scriptorium."
He withdrew it into the blanket and pressed my chest.
"You have a sharp eye," he said behind my ear, softly as though already falling into sleep. His shivering eased, and his breathing slowed at my back. My feet returned from numbness against his ankles; the blood pricked them, and I lay quiet, thinking of rubbing them, but that I would disturb his weight and balance against me. He had sat one desk before me these six months, the long bones of his face and fingers picked out in the light, and his mouth set in the taut, humorous line it took while he drew. When I looked up from mixing the hues of water against tidal rock, the dense grey-green of waves the wind drove, as they crested to break, his fingers would tap the quill and range against the stone of the window sill.
He breathed even, as a man who had labored and seen the end of his labors, and I stared into the seeds at the ends of the grasses and could not quiet my thoughts. The words of his prayer came to me, and the words of the psalm, in pace simul requiescam et dormiam... and I said it over to myself, droning in the voice of the chanter, seeking the rhythm of the morning chapters I had nodded through. "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, have settled me in hope...."
He said, "I am not asleep."
So we both knew.
My hand closed on his arm. We lay still, and he held in his breath.
"You need not fear me," I said, speaking still to the dried grasses as though through their quintessences I could speak to the breath that sowed and germinated them.
"What should I fear?" I heard the tautness in his voice that came there when we spoke of visions and of brush strokes, tempered with the humor that had run through his observations of the Luberon and the hill kindgoms he had come through, when we walked the last days of our journey here together. It came to me that the zeal had left his voice over these last months and remained only in his hands.
"No look or word --" he stopped me when I would have asked his pardon for what I could not control.
"This is not fair," he said. His fingers touched my jaw to turn my head, as though he would have me look him in the face.
"What is not?"
"You may not take all penance on yourself."
Then I turned on his arm, not believing what I heard in his voice, and his hand rested at the side of my face, out of my sight, so that it snagged in dense hair at my temple.
He said, "have you heard the teachings of the Cathars, that the popes have slaughtered with our own people?" His breath came short, and he spoke as though holding it back by will. I swallowed against his palm, for he still had not moved it. "They told that men and women were equal in spirit, and so the union of the flesh had sanctity only as it furthered a union of spirit, and the shapes of the flesh made no matter, for procreation did but bind souls to bodies."
"You are shaping what you have heard," I said, though the air lodged in my throat, and I felt the softness beneath his ribs move as I drew breath, "and after such warnings of mortality as we have had these last seven days." I put my hands on his forearms as though I would shake him, but I did not.
"Not in spirit," he said, " and Adelmo's was a forced sale, a sin in any conjunction." He hesitated on the last word. I saw again the teeming of Adelmo's borders, those men with leaves about their faces and women with fish scales, and oxen with wings that lifted them above the fields and the meal that wore down their teeth, and all the creatures that had lived and died on his pages.
"Do you dismiss his conjunctions?"
"His stags and sigmas?" I heard that he smiled. "You would treat them otherwise?"
"I would not mock them," I said, no longer able to contain my breath, and I put up my hands and kissed him.
"I know your compassion," he said into my mouth.
We clung with our mouths. Some might have said we wished to silence our own arguments before they persuaded us to virtue, but it was not so -- for I felt a clarity and singleness of purpose such as I had never felt but in the rare noon when a painting shaped itself whole in my mind and drove the brush in my hand.
His hands were in my hair and on my skin, for our habits had added to our blankets, and the words of Solomon whose wisdom in these places I never thought to know slid in my mouth: "Osculetur me osculo oris sui quia meliora sunt ubera tua vino." Though I told him, as his hands spread over my ribs, that my countrymen were no winemakers, and I would have to praise him in hops.
"You speak a lost language," he said, "for who but homo caelibatus knows it now? But once men loved in it." And he did as I asked.
Still we spoke, as our hands moved on clean expanses, as they eased into unknown places, and we told each other what lights we would draw if we had our colors by us, to bring these new places into light. For here our hands traced the lip of a jar, here the furrows of a newly tilled field, here the shoulder of a bull, here a forest sheltering rabbits that dove into cover as the hounds gave tongue with their red-gold ears flying back, here the downward swing of a woodcutter's maul, here the neck of a swan with wing joints upraised and ivy fast in its beak, and we moved our hands as we would over new-prepared skins.
By sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and walking, we glorified the work of the Lord's hands and the light of his light, and the rivers flowed to the ocean and did not fill it, and the motions of our hands and bodies sustained them as the hands of the twelve walkers drew the oars in the boat that bore our Lord out upon the water in the troughs of the waves, and the blades entered the water without sound and cut cleanly through, and they drew the oars upward in their hands, and they pulled the boat on by the pressure of their feet against the hull and their bodies against the benches, and so they gave themselves to the storm and the current finally, without sight, or smell beyond the water and the salt, or touch beyond what they held and moved against, and the rowing and the light upright among them became all they knew and longed for.
For we had come alive through the fire, had walked on the embers of Babylon and not ceased to call the Lord's true face his own; for we were joined, and we knew the wisdom of the architect who adorned his columns with no border but leaves, damp and slight as the first unrolled in spring rains. For we did not call each other orchard fruits and cardamoms and the moving well of Miriam that never wanes, but we called to each other and to ourselves, soul and body unified and pledged to God through His own creations and compassions, and knew that any who would deny this worship or restrict it did so for lack of it themselves, keeping faith only in what they themselves had experienced, which is not faith at all.
So we walked the ways of our hearts, and I understood the Cathar creed that the holiest love rose above procreation, for here was no mechanism but a thirst for unity. Yet I could not believe what they concluded, that the physical body knew no sanctity. Never have I felt so unconnected to this body, so wrung with light, as when I gave myself up to it.
For I saw darknesses, and they were the Lord's, as he had called them to him firstborn, and they were given to us, and we were conceived and protected in them and opened in them and bared to each other where lights cannot reach and lights upon lights become shields against that complete union with God we are enjoined to seek, because understanding calls forth vulnerability. And I did not yield but opened of my own will, his mouth on my mouth, my hand under his thigh, promised in this need that no darkness need be empty, which is the oldest promise of God and the hardest to accept, until we can no longer hold against it.
And I felt a pain and a wonder at the heat of my bare skin and the prick of the seeds of grass on my shoulders and the sweat of my arms, at the two of us lifted up in this meagre shelter, without food or future, cast out from previous vows to our brothers by the clearer understanding of our vows to God, of the brotherhood in the garden that had slept, and the voice calling, wake; that is all I asked of you; and they did not wake and were lost, but we lifted ourselves up, we are aware, we will no longer shut you out, we choose and we are, and the darkness became rivers in the spring thaw, the rivers that return life to the soil as they sweep down in flood waters, and the priests set the holy words in arks upon the waters to bless them, and they anoint the land as the first kings were anointed with oil and it ran on their hands in the sight of those they must uphold and reforge, and new ways opened.
And as we held each other, touching in soft touches, as babes might who have just discovered a world beyond the first sea and another being full of textures, I knew that water, as it is neither solid nor vapor, possesses properties of both, as it may absorb both light and darkness, so that it may sustain both body and soul, and bless the union as it may cleanse the division. So I lay, rocked in mind and spirit, neither one with my body nor apart from it. And as I stroked his belly, he said, so low I would not have heard without my ear against his chest to feel the vibration, the words of St. Bernard: "the way to love God is to love beyond all measure," and I knew that he had felt it also.
I woke hearing his voice. He lay on his back, looking toward the door; the sky through the gap where the wood had settled showed a clear dusk, like the closed buds of lavender.
"Quan vei l'alauzeta mover . . ."
I looked at him, for I had seen the sky before. "A new Spanish you're speaking."
"Amans, it is occitan. Sung by Bernart de Ventadorn, so they told me." His mouth turned up, and his hand behind my head ran through my hair, loosening seeds.
He went on, translating for me: "When I see how the lark beats/ his wings in joy at the sun's ray/ when he forgets himself and lets/ himself fall with such sweetness of heart/ oh I feel such envy for/ anyone I see in joy/ it is a wonder that my heart/ does not melt with its desire . . . ."
He still looked upward, but his voice strained over the last words before he fell silent.
I raised up on one elbow and touched his chest with my free hand. "You ease my heart."
"In what way," he said, drawing breath away from my hand.
"That it is amans and not amandas."
He pushed his arm through the straw to grip me to him.
"God's my witness -- you will get no farther than this."
We slept, and woke chilled, and warmed to sleep, and in the first light of the next dawn we foraged and returned with what we had. The farthest abbey outbuildings had corners not baking hot or drugged with smoke, where the walls had held. We stood between the herbarium and the glittering sand on the floor of the glazier's workshop, listening to embers pop and shift behind the library walls like a draconic rumbling of digestion. The light would fall square onto our cracked desks, as it had every morning when the brothers' voices, singing the first daylight mass, came to us muted over the stone, and the sun lifted above the highest ridge, and the valley spread below us. Often the birds came with the light, bright with noise, ordering their day on our left hands as our brothers did on our right, but with a clamoring and forthright energy.
The light fell down the herbarium wall like the light on the plain wood of my desk, over a clean sheet and new ink. A triangle of light on worn oak and leather, the smell of binding glue, the hollow tube of the quill and the cold line of the ruler, simple, straight tools in my hands, filled me then. In longing for the work, for the absorption in color and the elation of setting down under my eyes the sense of His order, the impossible fleetness of His creatures, the words that moved men to will and compassion and health and ecstasy, I longed for the rudiments of the work. The paper would all be burnt. Our Lord, qui mundum creat, would not have condemned His own art to fuel and ashes.
"Why?" Rabano said beside me, facing into the wind. The sun touched his skin, the golden buff of the cliffs of the massif central. I shook my head, but he went on, talking of a human agency, not divine. "His life was that maze. Everything he lived to guard, every mind he lived to preserve, every effort -- gone with him. More than his life; more than all their lives; more than all their wisdoms." He turned to me, his face tightened against the bitter cold.
"How?" he said again.
"They said he ran mad for fear of laughter."
He kicked a broken globe of glass that shattered against a wall. "He gutted a thousand years of learning to preserve us from a few old asses with crooked teeth?"
"If Bernard Gui were to produce his sorcery, and the people laughed at him -- if they said, here is a starving woman and a scrawny cockerel swinging by its feet, and we know these things better than you, having the breeding and rearing and chivvying of them, and if all your pronouncements proceed from like causes, then we will take back what is ours and preserve the flame for our cooking pots -- what then?"
"Hah!" He slapped the ragged hair from his eyes. "Teach them to roar with laughter."
I said what still ran in my mind: " but we have no paper."
He threw back his head and waved his arms, flapping his cloak about him, and I did laugh, for the spring of his movements and the height of him and the snap of his hands in the air, for the sheer ardor of him beside me, a new laughter chipped from delight and fear and not from the conviction that I knew what was right in defiance of kings with asses' ears.
"In principio erat Verbum!" He flung up the mountain.
The gates had fallen on their hinges. The stairs had burned in the towers, and the stores in the houses, and the bones in the crypt. Wind swept the stone through gaps in the walls. I caught folds of his flapping blanket, raising my hands and jumping to grasp his flying hands.
"Fe wna chwerthin, cariad!"
He pulled me around beside him, and we turned and crossed the wall. "And the word was made flesh," I said, smiling and leaning into his hand. "and dwelt among us."