She seemed to have been born of the sun. Her hair shone; her face shone as well. Her skin was as bright as the day, her bosom as warm as polished rocks in the summer sun. She lived in the land of the Divine where there is neither illness nor accident and where even old animals play all day, mindful only of the now and caring no more about tomorrow than a kitten does.
But one day she was called, for she was needed. As the sun descended toward the western hills she left that land of constant joy and no tomorrow. She walked slowly at first, then hurried toward the hills behind which the sun soon dropped. The rocks had lost their shine and were cold. The hills became dark and undefined. The grass beneath the girl’s feet was still soft but no longer warm and only darkness was in the sky behind her.
She walked into the darkening hills more quickly than one really can, save in dreams. She walked all night unafraid of anything, for nothing could or would have wished to harm the child of day. Night’s terrors bowed as they sought a glimpse of her. Cougars purred at her approach for she was beautiful, and wolves ran to lick her hand for she was good. She had lost nothing of the radiance of the day and she passed through the night like a torch moving on the hills. At dawn the terrors would still feel warmed by her passing and greet the day with lighter hearts.
At last the girl saw where she had been summoned to. It was a little house between two of the hills with a single candle lighting the window of one room. There was a stone chimney which smoked a little, laying a lazy haze in the still air about the place. She could see it all for the moon had risen. Full in the sky above, it lit the cabin as though it had no other work that night. Perhaps it hadn’t for the pines that rose all about the house were as dark as they had been before its rising.
She approached that window lighted by a candle. How poorly the pane reflected her beauty. Yet the flame leapt at sight of her as though in joy; as though the girl was the mother of the tiny flame and it sought to reach up to her as an infant to its mother. She peered inside. There lay a child under a coverlet embroidered with wildflowers. The boy was not asleep. His eyes were closed, but in fear, not rest. He did not know why. This night was no different from other nights, the day had been no more troublesome than other days. Tomorrow would be no different either, he told himself as he tried to fall into sleep. Somehow he knew that was not true and in fear he awaited the messenger he sensed would come.
There was a knock. It was not the fearsome knock that he expected but only a tiny rapping as though to tell him not to fear. Then she stood by his bed and the room brightened. The single candle shone with the brightness of a rich man’s candelabra or the lamps of many windings that hung in the church far down in the valley where the child prayed each Sunday.
“Do not be afraid, Joseph. I do not bring pain. I am your friend death.”
Archive for April, 2011
Use these links for easy access to individual Stories.
She seemed to have been born of the sun. Her hair shone; her face shone as well. Her skin was as bright as the day, her bosom as warm as polished rocks in the summer sun. She lived in the land of the Divine where there is neither illness nor accident and where even old animals play all day, mindful only of the now and caring no more about tomorrow than a kitten does.
The sun had just risen when Sir Halfren rode out of the woods and into a large field of grain, yellow – almost golden – in the sun. Across the field was a building of some sort and he hurried his horse toward it. From the front it had the aspect of a chapel though it bore no cross and had no belfry. As he neared the building he could see that it was quite long. The walls were of a light stone color and all about it was a garden.
Near the door he dismounted. By now the sun was high enough to glint off many panes of glass. They were not the stained glass of a chapel but what seemed glass so clear that the whole inside of the building must be flooded with sunlight. He reached for a large iron ring that hung on the door and knocked. Almost immediately, as though his coming had been expected, the door was opened by a young woman. She said nothing but looked at him as though she knew the knight and had known him all his years. Her hair was obviously long but had been caught up to encircle her head in a style not of the knight’s century, and her gown – all dark red velvet and white lace – hugged her in a soft embrace. Her feet were bare.
Then the lady smiled and that smile lit the doorway like a lamp of unimagined brightness. She laughed a light laugh and motioned Halfren to enter. Nor was it a slight and perfunctory gesture. Gaily she swung her whole forearm in a wide arc, her hand fluttering in welcome. “Come in, come in … Come in Sir Halfren. I’ve been expecting you for long ages, “
Halfren was confused, yet the welcome was so warm and joyous that there certainly could be nothing but good inside. He was amazed to find the the building’s inside far larger even that he had expected. It was at least three hundred feet long and divided in two by an inside wall running most of its length. Halfren could not observe the space to the right of this divider but its entire length was to be seen on the left. The whole interior was at least thirty feet high with window walls of beveled glass panes that rose from floor to ceiling and illuminated everything in a way no other building of his century could be lit. The floor was polished granite which supported occasional verde and porphyry columns that rose to the distant ceiling. Its warm teakwood was coffered and from some of the coffers a row of unlit chandeliers ran the length of the room. The central wall was of a pleasant cream shade and bore both gilded mirrors and occasional wooden shelves of various lengths and at several heights. On these were decorations from centuries past, collected, Halfren assumed, by a wealthy owner. There were ship models, portraits and statuary, ceramics, and some pictures which seemed too accurate to have been painted by human hands. The smiling lady looked at Halfren, at the pictures, and then at Halfren again: ”They are called photographs and are from the future.”
‘That cannot be,” Halfren heard himself saying, while knowing that what the lady said was true. Then she must be a witch, he thought but knew that to not be so. The lady and the whole room were far too beautiful and – yes, innocent. He felt warm hands on his shoulders, warm breath on his neck and in his breast his heart jumped with visions of joy without end. He knew that he should be afraid, that he should cross himself and pray; but to whom? God was right here in this calm and beautiful hall.
“You cannot understand. I am God’s only creation in this universe. All else I have imagined. Now I have thought of you and so you are.”
“You’re saying that you have only made me up. No. I am. I assure you: I am not a dream.”
“Of course you are, Halfren, and you always will be whenever I think of you; just as my friends of 1910 are always with me. Those that are not with me are only those whom my friends have thought up. Those are just paper images to me without depth and I care not about them. But, Sir knight, I do care for you.
As she said these words her whole look changed. Halfren saw that her pretty feet were now shod in high laced sandals such as he had never even imagined. When he lifted his eyes the lady was clothed in a white blouse with a high neck and long sleeves. A black ribbon encircled her neck and another her waist. She had let her hair fall to her shoulders. Her skirt was full and swung like a bell.
“Do you like this, Halfren? Or would you rather I was less demure? I can be that too. I have only to think of some tight leather or tiny short skirt. Would you like that Halfren? Somehow several glass panes had opened and a breeze swept through the room. Through the glass Halfren could see bushels of leaves, caught by the same breeze, blowing through the garden.
“Hello again! I’ve been gone and am returned. Of all my friends only you will be able to understand this. I know you will because I have imagined that you can. But I give you that choice. If you choose to understand you will have no need of paper people. This is the first time that I have ever asked anyone for anything. Will you give me your understanding, Sir knight?”
“What is on he other side of this wall,” the knight asked almost in fear. Sir Halfren did not fear any man, even the king with his castles and their dungeons; but now he knew that he did fear the unknown.
“Why nothing evil,” the lady said and her smile lit the dark side of the wall as they passed to the other side. Here instead of tall windows to let in the sun there was a wall of mirrors, one after another, perhaps twenty, As the lady led Halfren past them the warm glow of her smile lit each in turn and Halfren thought for a moment to flee the place and put as many miles as possible between it and reality. But only for a moment. How could any of this be evil? Halfren watched himself in each mirror that he passed then stopped midway down the line, for his image in one seemed different. He looked younger, and as he looked he began to see far in the distance the simple hut of a holy man; a man he had known when young.
“Come with me, Halfren.” The lady spoke in a firm but warm voice.
“I should know your name.”
“Call me Mara, sir knight.”
Halfren followed Mara past several more mirrors until she stopped in front of one which seemed somehow different. It took him a moment to realize that it was not a mirror at all for he was not reflected in it. But then it was not a window either. In it he saw clouds passing beneath him.
“Do you dare enter your future, sir Halfren.”
Halfren did not answer. He could hardly believe it himself, but he felt no fear in the lady’s presence. He stepped though the “mirror” and with him so too did Mara. He expected to fall to earth. Why that did not frighten him Halfren did not know. But that was not what happened. A cloud enveloped him and as he passed out of its mist he found himself beside Mara, standing on a hillside with the dawn breaking.
Halfren looked around him. He did not recognize the place. The landscape was unreal. It was like that in a painting. He could see a village and there was a road to it. On the road he saw a small group pf mounted men. Their dress was from the east and they spoke among themselves in a language that he should not have understood, but did.
“Pompey will end piracy in the east; then it will be safe to go again.”
“Pompey?” Halfren heard himself repeat. Pompey had lived six hundred years before. Mara just looked at him wanting to see the reaction in his face.
“Yes; six hundred years before your time.” Mara looked serious as she examined Halfren’s face. Could he understand? Would he even want to understand? “Time is a tapestry, Mi-lord Halfren; and we are looking at it without constraints of time.”
“But Mara…” Halfren felt uncomfortable addressing her in so familiar a way, but he did. “Mara, Who are these men? It seems that I know them.”
“Of course. If you did not know them they would not be. Now you think you imagine them. No. They are as real as you and me for they are you and me. Let us join them.”
Of a sudden Halfren was walking the road and as in a dream he and Mara were beside the men more quickly then was possible. Yet the men did not seem to see them.
“I told you it is as though we were watching a tapestry. Would you want to see these men when they were children? Look they are playing at ball.”
Sir Halfren saw the children but the older forms at the same time until his attention was drawn to the road and the village for a moment and when he looked back all were gone except Mara, the one constant in this world of fleeting images. They began again to walk the road. They walked toward the village but never reached it.
“Because you do not want o reach it, sir knight.”
“You said I’d see my future, but those men were in the past.”
“Future, past. They are the same. I told you that time is a tapestry. One person follows another. First they bath and dress, then mount horses to go to battle. Then there is the fight and a victory celebration. But to you and me watching it is all one… As it is to God and to the dead.”
When Halfren looked again at the road it was gone, and the village too. He and Mara were standing outside the mirror again.”
“It is your choice, My dear…. May I call you that? There is the door through which you entered but be warned, if you leave there will be nothing left of this place. It is where I am and I will not be here.”
They had walked past all the windows and stood again by the door, now in the full blaze of the sunlight which broke into rainbow colors when it struck the bevels in the room of many windows. Mara was no longer smiling; her expression was quizzical. Her hair streamed behind her as though in a breeze.
“Then I will not be.”
“You are my dream, Halfren, and my dream does not know anything of now and later and the past. You will always be to me, but only as you were and as you are now. But would you rather know my other friends. I offer you this, and I offer it only to you. They are my thoughts and dreams but to you alone I offer it, to be one with me.”
The lady still looked serious, almost worried. None others in her mind had ever had choice. They were what she saw.
Halfren dropped to one knee and offered his gage to her.
Nothing there is but the mirages of God; and in one mirage is a lady. In her thoughts are time and eternity with lands and people and good and bad, and a man to share it.
Terri closed her mother’s door as quietly as she could. Mamma was sick…very sick…and had been for many months now. She went to her own room, just down the hall from Mamma’s sick room, from which she could hear if Mamma woke up coughing, or was moaning, or even talking very quietly to herself as she sometimes did very late at night when she thought that everyone else was asleep. Or was Mamma talking to God, as Terri sometimes imagined? That thought might have given the child comfort but it didn’t. Terri knew what she did not want to know. In her heart she knew what she would not say even to herself: that Mamma was dying.
She tried to sleep. How can a child sleep knowing what she knew? Some people would think that Terri would be frightened at losing her Mother. That was not it. For perhaps the first time in her life Terri’s thoughts were not at all for herself or even for her loss, but only for her mother and her daddy.
Sleep came very slowly that night, more slowly by far than the tears that Terri would not let flow lest she lose control of herself and hurt inside even more than she hurt now. Besides, Terri told herself, Mamma might hear. If Mamma heard, than her mother would be even more sad. Terri would not do that to her. But at last, the child did sleep just a little, waking up with every strange sound in the house. Deep in sadness, Terri did not know whether to pray to God or not, for God was taking her mother from her…To a better place, the Reverend would say. For the first time in her young life Terri had to worry if the minister was right. How can anyone be sure what happens after someone dies?
“Terri!” a voice called gently and the girl opened her eyes just a little because it was so small a voice that she wasn’t quite sure she wasn’t imagining it, especially since it seemed so near even though so very faint.
“Terri.” In the dark the child thought she felt a hand…her mother’s hand…gently stroking her hair back from her eyes and touching her cheek. “You must sleep. You need sleep, Terri. You will have a very busy day tomorrow and must wake up early.”
“Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you’ll have cake,
And all the pretty little horses.”
Her mother’s voice though faint and gentle, was also strong. Terri thought it very strange that she was closing her eyes again with her head in her mother’s hand, for Mamma was in her own room down the hall.
In the sky above her bed the stars were brighter than ever she
had seen them. It was as though she were in the desert. It was like the starry sky over Bethlehem on Christmas cards that had come in the mail to her mother every year from her many friends in places far away; friends who always thought of her at that time of year. There was not a sound from the room down the hall.
So it was that Terri finally found sleep in the arms of her mother. She never told anyone about the “dream” for she knew that it had not been a dream. Death does not come, as people often say. A good person goes to it when that person sees it, for it is as natural as getting out of her sick bed when she has regained her strength; not to leave, but to go to her child’s room and soothe her baby with a lullaby, a lullaby that she will always sing to her when the grown child needs it all the hard days of her life.
“Behind the glittering plate-glass windows of the present lies the mystic, stained glass past. Like the silver in an old mirror, it gleams fitfully when the light strikes it right.”
Old mirrors; one can barely use the things. Why does Momma keep the one in the hall, the one kept out of the way where no one will notice the shoddy thing? I suppose once it had been pretty; maybe too ornate for our taste today, but pretty in its way.
The young man bestirred himself from his bed to go into the hall and examine his mother’s keepsake mirror. The glass was streaked and some of the wood veneer had long since fallen off, Some other bits were just hanging on, more by inertia than by the cracked glue. Some of the silvering was entirely missing at the mirror’s beveled edges.
The old thing was long and narrow, intended to hang over some other long-gone piece of furniture. Tom knew how it had been acquired. Some friend of his Dad had given it to them when he’d moved to California. He knew that in those days his parents had little to furnish their first apartment with. The mirror had been old even then but still serviceable. Twenty years in their present dry and overheated house had finished off the work of decay that had no doubt been eating under bits of veneer for decades before. It might have been pretty in the apartment; Tom couldn’t know. He’d been just a baby and had no recollection of the apartment.
His mother had been pretty then too. For a moment Tom imagined her reflection in a corner of the mirror; not her as she was now — still nice looking in a mature way but hardly cute – but as the pretty girl in the short-shorts that Dad kept on his desk. Then the figure was gone. It had just been a rainbow aberration where the afternoon sun struck the bevel. Still, he’d keep it for awhile more.
Old Mister Twilling lived on a hill. He was quite old; so old that he hated the coming of winter. His days of skiing and skating were long past and winter was just cold and snowy. The only really good thing in his life now was Old Furface, his beloved pussycat. They had been together – just the two of them – growing old together for many years. Sometimes he would just watch her in the evening while something soft played on the radio. He liked to watch how her green eyes would slowly close when she sat on the window sill as though lost in meditation or prayer.
But for him there were chores that had to be done. He had to shop for food and he sometimes had to visit his doctor. But how could he do that if it snowed? He had to drive, but he couldn’t drive unless he shoveled the snow from his driveway and it was cold outside and windy; On cold, windy, snowy days he just wanted to lie in his nice warm bed like his cat.
Oh, Mister Twilling thought, I forgot, we need cat food. I must get some tomorrow.
But that night it snowed and to make matters worse the county snow plow came past on the road and piled even more snow at the foot of Mister twilling’s driveway.
The cat looked at him. It wanted breakfast. So Mister Twilling got out of his nice warm bed. He would have to shovel the snow from his driveway and go to the store for cat food. But when he looked out the window he saw that the snow had already been shoveled from his drive. No neighbor could have done it because Mister Twilling lived on top of the hill, far away from his nearest neighbor.
Who would have done that, he wondered? But there was no one around so all that Mister Twilling could do was to be grateful and happy. He put on his warm coat and hat and told Furface to be good and wait for him. He would go to the store for cat food. And he did.
The next week it snowed again at night, and again Mister Twilling had to go to the store because there was very little to eat in the house. When he got up, sure enough, the driveway was clean. Fairies, he thought, or maybe elves did it. So he went to the store and told everyone there of how faeries or elves had shoveled his snow away. They just smiled and thought he was kidding because no one believes in fairies anymore.
The weather report was for more snow that night and Mr. Twilling decided to wait up in the dark and see who it was who shoveled the snow that would pile up on the driveway. By midnight the storm had grown fierce. He tried to look from his window to see how much snow had fallen but the wind was so strong that the snow was just a blur. Mr Twilling returned to his chair by the nice warm wood fire still wondering if the snow would be cleared this night as it had been before. Now the trouble with sitting in a nice soft chair by a nice warm fire is that one falls asleep. Mr. Twilling had not wanted to fall asleep, he just did. He did not notice how, about three in the morning, the wind finally quit its howling and the snow stopped falling and piling up outside his door. He did not see that only the path from his front door to the road was clear, nor how everything but his car was covered in eight inches of snow; nor that Furface was sitting on the window ledge and licking a bit of moisture from her fur.
It was in Colorado not many years ago that this story begins and ends. A young artist in stained glass opened a shop in a little town where many people came to ski the mountains that rise all about the town. He made beautiful pictures out of bits and pieces of colored glass which he cut and fitted together with pieces of lead and copper. Some of the pictures were of the nearby mountains and others were of beasts which no-one had ever seen: unicorns, griffins, and dragons. But most of his best stained glass were pictures of animals. There were lambs and lions, and cats and dogs too. There were also many pictures of birds.
Outside his shop the young man hung up a simple sign which said
Stained Glass Emporium
Many people came to the shop and many of them bought his glass pictures. He sold a picture of a tiger in the jungle of Burma and another of a little goat eating grass. He sold many pictures of great eagles flying above the mountains, swooping down to catch fish from the river, or sitting proudly on a tree branch. But there was one picture he could not sell: the picture of a little blackbird standing on a rock and looking up into the sky. He did not know why no-one bought this pretty stained glass picture. It was a proud little bird with a yellow eye and glossy black feathers that made him stand out against the clear sky.
Day after day and year after year people would come to John’s studio and many would buy his glass pictures. Sometimes a child would look at the blackbird and ask for it, but then his mother would show him some other bird picture: a big ostrich, or a lovely flamingo standing proudly in the water, or a fine peacock spreading his plumage of many colors. Sometime a father would explain that blackbirds were pests and not nearly so pretty as the other glass pictures. Then the child would walk away from the little blackbird to look at the others.
After many years the artist thought that if the blackbird would not sell at the usual price he should get rid of it and use the space for another picture. He wrote a little sign that said:
This item only
John was about to paste the sign on the blackbird when he looked very carefully at the bird wondering why it never sold? He thought it a very fine blackbird with its long beautiful feathers and bright yellow eye. But the once proud bird did seem a little sad now. He realized he liked the poor bird more than any of the others. Perhaps that was because the blackbird had been in his shop so long and was a familiar old friend. It was something about the picture display that never changed no matter how many other pictures he made and sold. He decided to go home and think what else he might do instead of pasting the sign on his old friend. Perhaps he could hang it in his house or give it to a neighbor. Taking it up, he prepared to leave his shop for the day but as he was locking the door the artist happened to look up into the sky. A whole flock of blackbirds were flying over the town and the little glass bird seemed to see them as well. Then a thought came to the artist. John unlocked the door again and hurried to the basement of his shop where the studio where he made his glass pictures was. He soldered a brass frame behind the blackbird picture and on this he wrote:
John went outside again and hung up his new sign. The glass bird no longer seemed sad. He looked happy and proud as he watched people passing by and the blue sky above. Now every morning since that day, when the artist arrives at his shop he greets his old friend and the bird seems to greet him in return.
TERRI’S FIRST STORY – MARCUS AURELIUS
In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury.
Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and with a feeling of affection, and of freedom, and justice; and give yourself relief from all other thoughts. Then you will indeed give yourself relief if you do every act of your life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to you. You will see how few the things are, the which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods will require nothing more from him who observes these things.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
The circle of the nations that fronted on the inland sea had competed and clashed and then fallen before the legions of Rome, to become, if not one people, then at least one empire, a nation of nations, combining the will of Rome. the arts of Greece, and the commerce of the East. Then in AD 167 the empire itself came under attack by barbarous horsemen from the north and its future lay in the hands of a frail saint turned general. The war lasted eleven years but Rome was victorious and Marcus Antonious Aurelius could bequeath to his nation another hundred years of life.
His veterans were encamped now, outside eternal Rome itself, at last at peace after years of cold and pestilence and hardship on the Danube. Cohort by cohort they began to form up. Each soldier shouldered his iron-braced shield and placed on his head a crown of victory. Each took in his right hand the tool of his trade a six-foot javelin. This he would stack outside the city to bear in its stead his awards for valor. With the troops would march musicians, priests, and sacrificial animals; carts of spoils, and captive slaves. The Imperator himself, their saint and the savior of the state would ride with his son in a gilded chariot.
“Tell me a story, Terri.”
“Sic transit gloria….Sic transit Gloria mundi.” Terri’s voice was low and her eyes were closed. She had never spoken in Latin before.
“Marcus, your troops await you. Even an emperor should not be late for his triumphal procession.”
“Triumph indeed! A joyful procession over dead bodies, How civilized we are! Friends that I will chat with no more, enemies who died for nothing…widows and orphans and the mutilated. ”
“Will you give yourself a piece of praise, husband. The whole city is glorifying the legions; and you, the greatest general of our age, don’t want to participate in your own parade.”
“Oh I do Faustina. But I shouldn’t. It is not fitting to glory in this dirty work though it must be done. Besides it’s all a lie. The crowd thinks I’m fearless, I’m not. Many times I’ve lain awake all night scared of the battle next day, or of someone killing me in my sleep. The ruler of the world has enemies as well as suppliants. Sometimes they’re the same people. I should not…but I fear the day when I shall be killed…The only good I may make of it all is that I’ve written my worries down. Perhaps it will console our son if he becomes emperor to know that his father, the philosopher, was frightened too.”
“After the triumph we can be alone again. Like in the old days before the Quadi war. I will dance for you then, like the slave girls you won’t let amuse you. You’ll like that. Admit it, my philosopher is a man too and I am pretty.” Faustina dropped onto the floor and swept her auburn hair against her husband’s sandled feet.
“Now stop that, Fau, or it will take hours to get your hair the way you want it again, and we don’t have hours.
“The triumph can wait a quarter hour.”
“All the City knows me as a very serious man. This will not be in my book.” He smiled.
“You are serious, my Lover, and a man. It is I who cannot be serious.”
“I know. You have stolen the hearts of the court…”
“You are my lord, Marcus. Courtiers are courtiers, and courtiers are toys. Yes, I tease them. They are fun, some of them. There is talk. Many people are jealous of my fortune in you.”
“Fools think how great it is to be the emperors wife?”
“No. Not just that. They are jealous because I have Marcus all night as I am jealous because they have Antonious all day.”
“Is that all? Terri. Do you hear more?”
“I want to draw the curtain.” Terri sat up and adjusted herself on the sofa. Her voice had lost it’s music and was flat now. “Besides, I think they’ve stopped talking.”
But Terri knew that there was more. Aurelius had awakened startled when an old friend, the legate Flavius Licinius stepped through the portal.
“I’m sorry, Flavius; I was dreaming of poor Fau. She should have lived to see this day. She’d have been in her element…The great lady and all those marching heroes.”
“No, Caesar. Faustina’s teasing was a delight to everyone. But she had only one hero.” The legate turned away to hide an unmanly blush and spoke very quietly. “You were not dreaming; she has returned to you on your day of triumph that you may fulfill your own wish to share it with her.”
“Thank you, friend. Then my happiness is complete.” With gratitude in his heart Marcus Aurelius, Pontifax Maximus of the whole Roman people, crossed the room to where, as in every Roman home, a small altar was kept to departed loved ones and the family gods.
“Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.”
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
John was dead. Finally the long trek had come to its end. Their lives had been lived and nothing accomplished. John’s body lay in the bedroom that they had shared for thirty years; Mary sat in the next room, on the floor, in a corner, crying and crying, loudly sometimes, very loudly sometimes, just moaning sometimes. After many hours, the widow stood. She was stooped not only with sorrow but with age. She covered her head with a pala and walked slowly to St Irene’s, hardly noticing the people who watched her as she climbed the hill.
Mary had hoped to find peace in the church. There was none. There was no consolation. The church was as cold as the stones with which it had been built three centuries before. Mary prayed for his soul, She begged for his soul. She feared for his soul. She cried tears for his soul. She swore to God that she would never cease to cry until He had forgiven her husband’s many sins. This was the last thing a wife could do for him but as she at last left the holy place, she noticed how brightly the sun was shining Had it been so when she came in? She hadn’t noticed. Her eyes were clear too. A peacefulness covered her own soul and Mary went out into the daylight.
In a chateau. there is a library and an old man. I know where and when, but let me preface the story for you. There is a book. It says something like this:
“Until the fifteenth century European men and women could rarely do more than wonder at what lay outside their own continent and the circle of nations which ringed the Mediterranean sea. Subsahara Africa was blocked by a desert wasteland and the path down the Red Sea to Ethiopia, India, and the far east was the monopoly of Moslem traders. The route which Marco Polo had taken overland to China was expensive and hazardous, itself a monopoly of the Ottoman sultans except where even their strong rule was challenged by bandits.
There was the sea, and the Mediterranean was a rich province of the Italian city states; but the Atlantic was another matter indeed. It is vast and it is stormy. True, Viking longships had sailed upon it, but the galleys of the Mediterranean powers and even the high caravels, gallasses, and galleons of Spain and Portugal were at hazard if they dared it. Few captains would risk their boats for long out of sight of land until around 1450 when two instruments, perhaps known to the ancients and certainly known in the orient were reinvented or brought to Europe. These were the marine compass and the astrolabe. With these devices, the new charts that were then appearing, and a brave crew, discovery became possible.
Hence the Americas. In the following three hundred years that same curiosity which spurred adventurers to the new world also touched men of calmer minds. They avidly read the reports of sea captains and the scientific journals which by the seventeen hundreds began to appear in drawing rooms across Europe. They tried to fit it all together into their own world, adapting new ideas in agriculture and invention to their estates yet holding to the past also. Nation states were developing around the stronger kings. The once powerful lords of former days were becoming courtiers, advisors, and often mere ornaments to the powerful monarchs. For the first time critical analysis replaced repetition of myth in the recitation of history. Edward Gibbon’s massive study of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was the most popular book of the mid eighteenth century. The cloaked anticlericalism throughout that work would blossom in the writing of Voltaire and the philosophes.”
LE CHAT DE VILLAHARDOIR
I see a man, Eddie. He is Le Compte Raymond Francois Villehardouir De Champagne and he lives a life of simple loyalty to the crown untroubled by the politics at court, for which reason the King did not require his presence at court but indulged the count’s wish to remain at a small family chateau with his books and his cat. He has spent most of this day in the fields with what he considered his own very extended family. Truly, the children could be bad and sometimes he had to judge and punish petty thieves, lechers, and those who would be bullies if they were allowed their heart’s desire, but with most of the peasants who worked his various estates, and especially this one at Marmande, he enjoyed, and truly they enjoyed, a very familial relationship. Under carefully chosen overseers and a seneschal whom his own father had groomed for his duties when Armand and he had been children together, the farmers and workmen performed in sturdy fashion those duties necessary to keep the estate efficient. In turn the count took seriously his sworn duty to defend and protect his villeins from bandits, to guard the chastity of the girls when they wished it, and, of course, to provide a good blacksmith, miller, and priest. His own needs were modest for with the death of his sons in battle and of his dear wife many years before of the fever, the count had few other wants than to buy a new book from time to time. At his death the estates would pass to his brother or nephews. They were good knights, better lords than many, and his mind was not terribly troubled for the future safety and happiness of the rest of the “family.”
Now it was early evening, late afternoon actually, but the hour seemed later for the count was quite tired and the sun had dropped behind a hill. Raymond got up from the chair in which he had been reading the latest volume of Gibbon to come from the English presses. He stood at the window wondering whether to further strain his failing eyesight by reading under candlelight. No. Mister Gibbon can wait, he decided. That man is very hard on the Church. Perhaps the priests are right in condemning him. Some things are best unexamined. It’s all in the past and cannot be changed. In front of a fireplace his cat sat upon the pillow provided to warm her underside. The two were growing old together.
“What do you think, Furface, ah? You live in the present and are ignorant but contented. I have all my books but really know no more than you about the whys of things.
“But that is not the way for humans, is it? We carry all the wrongs of centuries past as prejudice and whatever good things befall us we make into religion. Ah, Religion? Too often simple superstition. … I’m becoming as much a cynic as Mr. Gibbon, Cat. But truly, religion should not be a matter of rewards and punishments and looking for miracles, but of gratitude for being, ah Cat. I think too much. Enough. Some supper, hum? I believe there is still some roasted rabbit. Enough for us, ah? Where is Marie? No; not to bother her. She’s probably outside. We can eat later, Ah. Be patient. Let Marie enjoy what remains of the day.”
The count picked up the old cat who did not resist and Presently they began to fall asleep upon a day bed that each spring he would have moved from near the fireplace to before a large window whose shutters he now kept open all day and all night. That had been done eight weeks before. The past few days had been more than warm. Summer was upon the estate once again. How many more summers, Raymond wondered, will I survive? Many? He had reason to hope for he was still not very enfeebled. But still, as the holy Bible says, the Lord comes like a thief in the night.
A little of the failing sunlight and a light breeze off some fragrant honeysuckle lay softly on the old knight like a child’s blanket. Outside his window the bees that fed upon the honeysuckle droned softly. Then Marie tiptoed into the room and quietly knelt beside his bed.
“I belong to you as your fields belong to you,” she whispered in the lowest of low voices; A sweet voice so small that the sleeping knight would not have heard it at all were she not touching her lips to his very ear.
“No one has ever said that to me, Marie. Not even my dear departed wife, the mother of our poor sainted boys.” The old man thought for a moment. “Perhaps no one has ever said that to anyone before. It is a beautiful thing you said.”
“I’m happy that you like my phrase though you have neatly changed the subject.”
“I am not so subtle, Marie. I have never been good with words. Plain talk is all I can do. Perhaps that’s why Louis doesn’t want me at court. My talk tends to the plain and the honest.”
“Will you have me?’
“You are so young. It was so good of your father to send you here to care for an old man. …”
“That was a year ago, Milord. Papa sent me to care for an old friend. But I have fallen in love on my own counsel.” Marie stood for a moment, then slipped out of her sandals and lay down beside her lord. She was still dressed in a pale green dress, the color of the great lawn and embroidered by her own hand with wild flowers. Count Raymond wrapped an arm around the young girl and they slept close awhile until his pendulum clock chiming in the great hall awoke him. Furface was looking steadily at the count, sitting on his chest with her paws upon his shoulder. The cat began a rumbling purr and touched her cheek to his.