The Abbey stood on a steep hill of jagged rocks and thorn bushes. On the western side, next to the refectory, was the novices’ dormitory, a candle-lit room filled with twenty boys sleeping in neat rows of beds. Near the door, where the room was coldest, a thin-limbed boy huddled under his coarse blanket and began to shake with a fear so strong that the legs of his bed rattled against the floor-boards.
Over and over again, he remembered the twisted bodies of the villagers lying amidst the smoke-blackened timbers of their cottages. As he did every night, he forced himself to picture his mother; the scar at the end of her chin; the fine lines where her eyes narrowed; the red hair that curled around her neck; and on the cottage wall behind her, the white buds of the rose bush she had planted on his first name day.
When the fear passed, he began to cry, softly so no one would hear him. He knew he would never see her again. That part of his life was gone. He felt as if he had been hollowed out and all that remained beneath his skin and bones were his fear and his memories.
A pale light began to seep through the dormitory’s shuttered windows. In the distance, the bells in the Minster, the Abbey’s church, rang the summons for prayers. The door banged open. The burly figure of the Novice Master stood framed against the light. “Get up,” he shouted. “The day’s wasting away.” He woke the novices every morning with the same words.
The boy wiped his eyes and stepped gingerly onto the cold floor. He pulled on the ragged tunic that was too big and the sandals that were too small and joined the end of the line of yawning, fidgeting novices. After the Novice Master, had inspected them, they followed him out of the dormitory, past the refectory and into the Abbey’s courtyard.
The great stone bulk of the Minster loomed ahead of them. As they drew closer, starlings flew up from the iron cross at the top of its tower. The Novice Master lifted the bolt from the doors and ushered them inside. The church was dark and gloomy despite the spears of light that shone through its narrow windows. The boy stood at his usual position near the door with his back pressed against a wooden beam.
When the rest of the monks had arrived, the boy watched as the Abbot, a tall man dressed in a white robe, walked down the nave with two black-cowled priests trailing after him. At the far end of the Minster, the Abbot genuflected before the wooden statue of the man bound to a cross, lifted the silver chalice from the white, marble altar, and began the service.
The boy knelt with the other monks. The stone floor bruised his knees and the acrid haze of incense smoke stung his eyes. He did his best to join in with the service but he didn’t understand Latin and the words were cold and harsh to his ears. While the others prayed, he scratched a small cross in the waxed surface of the beam behind him. He had made a mark for each of the mornings since the monks had offered him their sanctuary.
At the end of the service, the boy followed the novices to the classroom on the other side of the Minster. The daily lesson, when the boys practiced their reading and writing, was the worst part of his day. The Brother Teacher, a gaunt and humourless man, sat on a stool at the front of the room and tapped his walking stick on the floor as he watched the novices work.
The boy crouched behind his desk at the back and stared glumly at his manuscript. No one had ever bothered to teach him to read. He wondered what it would be like to know what the words meant. He imagined he would understand them in a single moment of clarity, as if he looked into a pool of water, one moment muddy, the next clear, and suddenly saw the small fish swimming back and forth between the reeds.
There was a sharp crack on his desk. Startled, he looked up. Brother Teacher stood over him, stick raised to strike again. “I’ll not have you day dreaming during my class. Let’s see what you’ve learned.” The Brother pointed at the manuscript. “Tell me what it says.”
The boy stared at the words until a nervous sweat formed on his brow. But no matter how hard he tried the letters were no more than crabbed marks. For all he knew, it was a recipe for venison pie. He stared at the floor, hoping the monk would leave him alone.
Brother Teacher rapped his stick on the ground. “You ignorant boy. You’ve never bothered to learn. All you’re good for is work in the garden. Now go and bother us no more.”
The room resounded with the novices’ jeers. The boy wanted to shout at them all to shut up; tell them how unfair it was; beg the Brother to be allowed to stay at the back where no one need notice him. But instead, he ran from the classroom.
He trudged back through the courtyard with the boys’ laughter echoing in his ears. Every morning on his way to the Minster, he walked past the garden. It was next to the refectory and surrounded by walls made of unevenly-sized stones piled one on top of another. The entrance was an iron gate about the height of a tall man. Moss grew between the cracks where the hinges on each side were bolted into the stone.
He pushed at the gate. It opened with a rusty creak and a dove flew up from the branches of a magnolia tree just inside. Ahead of him were a series of raised soil beds bordered by apple and pear trees. Three monks worked on their hands and knees in the nearest bed. One of them, a man with an unkempt grey beard, put down his trowel and walked over.
“What do you want me to do?” the boy muttered.
The monk pointed at his mouth and shook his head. He handed the boy a trowel and a small cloth bag. Do what you will, he seemed to say and went back to his work.
The bag was filled with pale, yellow mustard seeds. Shivering in the wind, the boy looked back at the gate, and thought of the warm classroom. But he couldn’t go back there. Shoulders slumped, he went to the soil bed furthest from the other monks. The wet earth dampened his knees as he knelt. He dug a small hole with his trowel and planted the first seed.
Through sun and wind, sleet and rain, from morning mist to dusk’s long shadows, the boy worked in the garden. His back stiffened until he walked with a stoop like the other garden monks. The lines on his palms darkened from the soil ground into them and the callouses on his fingers hardened into thick burrs.
As he toiled, the garden bloomed around him. Buds appeared on the tree branches and grew into twigs and leaves. Carrot tops and beetroot stalks emerged from the soil. Clay pots overflowed with sage and rosemary, tarragon and parsley. When the yellow petals of the mustard plants opened, he slept through the night without waking. As his fear left him, his memories of home began to fade away.
Spring passed into summer. One baking hot afternoon, a storm blew in from the east and torrents of rain lashed the garden. The boy dashed back and forth with the other monks, staking the younger trees against the howling wind and wrapping sackcloth around the vines. A bolt of lighting crashed down in front of him. Stunned, he fell to the ground.
In an instant, the storm’s roar ceased. He was no longer in the garden. Instead, he stood in front of the Minster. For a moment, all was quiet, and then the earth shook with a low rumble. Cracks appeared in the ground around the church and widened into jagged fissures with the ear-shattering sound of stone splitting. Where the chasms met, the ground collapsed into gaping voids. Leafy fronds rose up from the depths. Creepers swelled to snake through the Minster’s windows and wrap around its tower. Tangled knots of twigs and gnarled branches flourished and trunks thickened, until the church was hidden by a forest of oak trees.
He woke to find himself lying in the garden with his cheek pressed against the wet soil. The storm had passed and the sun shone. Starlings swirled overhead. A hound bayed in the distance. I have work to do, he thought, and his heart filled with purpose.
The following morning, he tended to the mustard plants and the lilies that grew beneath the magnolia tree. While the other garden monks were busy at their work, he plucked the yellow and white petals from the flowers and put them in his pouch. The next day, at the end of morning prayers, he let a few of the petals slip between his fingers and fall onto the Minster’s stone floor. When he returned the next morning, only a few of the petals remained, swept away into the corners, so he left more.
The magnolia tree blossomed with pink flowers. He clipped the ends of the longest branches and hid them under his tunic. In the middle of the night, he crept bare-foot from the dormitory. When he arrived at the Minster, he lit a candle, and walked to the altar. In the flickering light, he placed the branches against the sides of the chalice until the blossoms covered the silver and then he filled the bowl with yellow petals.
On the south wall of the garden, jasmine creepers had grown across the stone. Where the white flowers were thickest, he cut several lengths and tied them into bundles with twine. That night, he went back to the Minster and walked past the altar to the statue of the man bound to the wooden cross. He wrapped the creepers around the ropes that tied the man’s wrists and ankles. He wound the longest around the circle of thorns on the man’s head so the white flowers covered the sharp points. Before he left, he pressed the rest of the petals into the hole in the man’s side.
At prayers the next day, the Abbot railed at the monks. “Some wicked man,” he shouted, his voice shaking with anger, “has dared to desecrate the church. There is a snake in our midst and he must be punished.”
The Novice Master barged into the dormitory in the middle of the night. He overturned the novices’ beds and rummaged through their belongings. When he found the boy’s pouch hidden under a blanket, he turned it upside down. Petals, dried flowers, and lengths of vine fell to the floor. The Brother cuffed the boy so hard that his eyebrow split and blood ran down his face. As the novices looked on in shocked silence, the Brother knocked the boy to the ground and dragged him through the door.
A crowd of monks waited outside. The boy lay on the ground surrounded by their angry faces. He tried to crawl away but the Novice Master took a stick from his belt and struck him in the ribs. He yelped and curled into a ball. A boot kicked the base of his spine and he cried out. A fist hammered into the back of his head. Someone spat on him.
He thought they would kill him but instead the Novice Master took him to the refectory and led him down the stairs to a windowless cell. It was cold and dank and half again as long as his body. There was no light so he couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Occasionally, the door opened and a hand shoved inside a cup of water and a piece of stale bread.
In the pitch-black, the boy’s fear returned. As his body shook, he tried to remember his mother but his memories had faded. He couldn’t recall the shape of the scar on her chin or even the colour of her eyes. Now I have nothing left, he thought, and so he resolved to die. He stopped drinking the water. The bread piled uneaten by the door. When he no longer had the strength to sit, he lay curled up on the floor.
He lost touch with the passage of time. All he knew was the murmur of his breath and the weak fluttering of his heart. As he began to drift away, images poured into his mind: the yellow of the mustard petals; the green leaves on the trees; the garden monks working in the soil. And finally, he saw the great forest that would surround the Minster. I have work to do, he thought, and he crawled to the door and ate the bread and drank the water.
He spent so long in the cell that his nails grew into long spirals and his skin hung loose from his bones. One day or night, he couldn’t tell which, he woke to find the Novice Master standing over him. At first he thought he was still asleep and turned back to his dream of the forest but the Brother pulled him to his feet and led him from the cell and out of the refectory.
The sun dazzled the boy’s eyes. His legs were so weak he could barely stand. The Novice Master propped him up against a wall. “You’re not to do it again,” the Brother said. “Or we’ll cast you out.”
The monk let him go and left without a backward glance. The boy sat in the sun until his strength returned and then he limped to the garden. When he stumbled through the gate, the garden monks rushed to greet him. The bearded monk poured him a cup of water. The next gave him his trowel. The third handed him a bag of seeds.
The bearded monk put his lips close to the boy’s ear. At first, only a hoarse and croaking sound came from his mouth. Then his neck muscles clenched and he whispered, “John.”
The boy would have fallen if the monk hadn’t held him up. He didn’t think that anyone remembered his name. Even he had almost forgotten it. The monk pointed at a barren patch of soil in the west corner of the garden. You’ve work to do, he seemed to say.
John walked past the soil beds filled with vegetables ready to harvest, and beneath the trees branches heavy with apples and late-ripening pears. When he arrived at the corner, he ran his hands through the dry and stoney earth. The walls on either side were bare of moss and crisscrossed with silvery snail tracks. He tipped the seeds into his hand and examined them carefully. One of them, bigger than the others, had a small, green shoot. He planted the seeds in the soil, taking care to bury the largest close to the shelter of the wall.
When he had finished, he sat for a few moments, thinking of his mother. She had always made an offering after she planted so he poured a little water on the earth. Then he sang one of her old songs and the words sounded like drops of rain falling on the sea and the wind rustling between the trees.
That evening, John returned to the dormitory and it was as if nothing had happened. The other novices ignored him as usual. He slept in his pallet by the door. The next morning, the Novice Master woke them with the same words he always used. John went with the other boys to the Minster and stood at the back. The church was as dark and gloomy as ever.
At the end of the service, he walked to the garden. The bearded monk was standing just outside the gate. When the man saw him, he put his finger to his lips, looked left and right, and waited for two other monks to walk by. When they were out of sight, he gestured at John to follow him. The monk led him across the garden to the barren corner where John had planted the seeds. The other garden monks were waiting for them. One prayed with his trembling hands clasped together. The other’s tear-filled eyes looked up at the sky.
The bearded monk pointed at the wall. Look at what you’ve done, he seemed to say. A green branch had risen up from the earth to curl back and forth across the stones. At its tip, swaying gently in the breeze, was a perfect, white rose. And everywhere, the scent of flowers.
DAVID HAYWARD is an aspiring first time novelist who lives in Paris.
Image: SofieLayla Thal via pixabay