In Company

I like to sit up here, on top of the rampart. I like the view.

Unusual for a monastery to have a rampart, I know, but this wall looks much older then all the other buildings here, doesn’t it. I think it used to be a fortress once. In fact, it could probably still hold off an invading army.

Ironic, eh? I mean, I understand their efforts, I really do. It’s just that sometimes they’re so misplaced.

Still, the view from up here is splendid. See that road to the west? It leads to the sea. That’s where I came from, oh, about a fortnight ago. I traveled with a group of pilgrims all the way from Genoa. They were on their way to a famous sanctuary, the Sanctuary of the Merciful Madonna, somewhere beyond those hills, in the east.

It’s a long way from Genoa. We traveled by sea, and then on foot, and by the time we reached this monastery, everyone was exhausted, so we stopped to rest. The monks were very hospitable, at first.

This building there, that’s the pilgrims’ hospice. I don’t think there’s anyone left there now. That two-story building, that’s the monks’ dormitory. And there’s a chapter house and a graveyard on the other side of the church. All very quiet now.

The clucking? It’s the chickens. There’s a village outside the rampart. A couple of crooked houses, chickens, goats. The goats and the chickens are fine, I don’t deal with animals. But I guess they will die too, in the winter, if wolves come down from the hills and there’s no men to stop them.

Though some of the men are still around. Some are sick and dying, but one or two are doing fine. There’s always those few, the blind ones. No matter how close I come to them, they can’t see me. Nothing to be done.

Speaking of which, huh, there’s one just now down there, in the yard. One of the monks. I confess I’m a little surprised. He came out of that shed by the kitchen, a granary I think. He looks a little dazed, doesn’t he, gaping around him like that, as if he didn’t recognize the place. Or maybe it’s the bodies? They always seem to be wary of the bodies. See? He’s curious, but a little scared too. The way he leans forward, he wants to take a good look at the blackened face, but he doesn’t want to get too close.

Aha, and off he hurries into the church. Many of them do that. They seem to think it’s some sort of a safe place, a place I can’t go.

Well, I can.

I can jump off this wall and follow him right in, from the warmth of the day into the twilight and the cool of the church. There he is, kneeling by the altar steps, head bent, murmuring his prayers. I think I’ll just sit down here, in one of the back pews, and wait.

You see, I don’t remember seeing this man before. He must have been hiding somewhere when I was roaming about the monastery and the village. Maybe in that granary? I am quite sure we’ve never come face to face. So it could be that he isn’t blind after all. Maybe, if I sit patiently, the monk will finish his prayers, turn around, and look at me as he walks out the church. Maybe he’ll see me, who knows.

He’s weeping. Perhaps he’s crying for the dead. Or perhaps he’s crying for his soul. Those pilgrims that I came with did a lot of crying and penitence. You see, when I first came to Genoa, the people there mistook me for the wrath of God. They thought I came there to punish them for their sins. Nothing further from the truth of course. I don’t care about anyone’s sins, I’m in no position to judge. But they cried, and prayed, and repented. Then a group set off on a pilgrimage to plead with the Merciful Madonna, and I tagged along.

The monk is rocking backward and forwards on his knees, still praying. Yes, I think he’s asking for forgiveness too. He must be feeling wretched for locking himself up in the granary, while people were dying all around him. His brothers. His God’s children. He abandoned them all in their time of need. I wonder, is he worried that God will abandon him too? I’m always so curious about what they’re thinking.

Well, well, this is getting interesting, footsteps in the side chapel. Another monk? Ah, yes. That’s the blind brother Hobert, I know him well. He notices the kneeling man, looks around but doesn’t see me. He calls the praying monk by the name:

“Brother Amsel.”

Brother Amsel jerks up and stares at brother Hobert as if he was seeing the plague herself, which makes me giggle.

“You don’t look ill, brother Amsel,” Hobert says.

He’d know. He’s seen them all getting ill, and then getting more ill, and then dying.

Amsel shakes his head.

I wish I could know what goes through brother Hobert’s head. Does he know that the other man was hiding in the granary? Does he judge him? I don’t think so, Hobert is a practical man.

“Get up then. There’s plenty of work to be done.”

Ah yes, Hobert’s been quite busy these past couple of weeks, administering to the ill, burying the dead. Then, two days ago, the abbot left leading a few monks and the remaining pilgrims to the sanctuary, and brother Hobert was the only man left to dig the graves. He could use some help.


He ushers the other monk to the chapel, through the side door, and out of the church. Brother Amsel never has a chance to look at me.

I drum my fingers on the pew. That brother Hobert. Doing all his best to trump me. Of course, most of what he does is useless, and I think he understands it by now. But then he’d do something like this — lead a man out through the side door — and manage to trump me all the same. Ah, brother Hobert. I’m beginning to like him, in my own way.

But it’s time to go. I’m pretty much done here, in the monastery. I need to move on. It’s my curse, never being able to settle down, always on the move. At home everywhere, yet homeless.

I get up and leave the church. I walk across the yard and out the rampart gate, not looking back at the two monks, digging. Once I’m past the village, I turn east, towards the sanctuary. I hurry after the abbot and the pilgrims. It’s always nicer to travel in company.


comments powered by Disqus