I’ve lost count of the winters I have seen, more than fifty, less than seventy, always longer than the summers, which seem to pass so quick as hardly to count. But, whatever the count, my fingers ache in the morning and my hips crack when I kneel. Sometimes my vision is blurred and other times I see bright lights were there should be none. More often than not, at the end of the long day’s toil, I cough and there is blood in my spit.
I can hardly remember what I ate for breakfast but my memory of my youth is as sharp as a knife. I was cursed to be the third son, a blessing to my mother, a burden to my father with his two older boys to feed and divide his land between. One winter morning, with the promise of snow in the air, my father said, “Amos, come with me in the wagon,” and bade me say farewell to my mother. At the time, I did not wonder why she wept.
For two days we traveled through the barley fields and down the stone road that runs straight as an arrow from north to south. All that time, my father barely said a word. But still I did not worry though I remembered my mother’s tears. On the third day, we climbed a path up a steep hill, past jagged rocks and thorn bushes, and through the Abbey’s iron gates.
Three monks in black tunics perched on a bench under a birch tree. My father, still silent, unloaded from the wagon ten sacks of flour and a vat of honey. The monks opened one of the sacks, sifted through the flour, and then tasted the honey. They nodded their agreement.
“Amos,” my father said, “you’re to stay here. But I will be back for you, never fear.”
Little did I know that my life had been measured in flour and honey. The monks shaved my head, gave me a novice’s tunic and taught me to pray. Days passed to weeks and then to months. Still my father did not return. Soon my sorrow turned to rage. Blackened eyes and cracked skulls were how I measured my value. I kicked and punched my way through each day until the other novices shied away from me as they would from a biting dog.
One evening, some of the other boys stole a bottle of ale. Chattering like sparrows, they drank their fill but like the fools they were they did not hide the evidence of their crime. When the Novice Master found the empty bottle, he came to each of us and demanded we tell him the truth. I did not care for my fellows but I would not betray them. I stayed silent and received a blow from the Brother’s fist as reward for my misplaced loyalty.
The Novice Master went to the next boy, Dondas, a red-haired Mercian, and asked him who had stolen the ale. The boy pointed a treacherous finger at me. “Amos, the wild one, he is the thief.”
I have fought, and I have lied but I have never been a thief. I threw myself at Dondas and punched him until his nose was smashed flat. Uncaring of his shrieks and the cudgel blows raining down on my back, I bent his arm until it snapped like a rotten stick. It took five of them to pull me off him. His arm was almost broke in two. I’m not proud of it now but then I was filled with such savage joy that I howled like a wolf.
The monks chained me up and dragged me to the punishment block. They whipped me until the wood ran wet with my blood and strips of flesh hung from my back. Sometimes now in my sleep I hear a distant screaming and when I wake I wonder if it was me or Dondas.
I don’t know how long I was unconscious but when my I opened my eyes I was lying on the stone floor of a cell with a thousand bees stinging at my back. Each morning for the first few weeks of my imprisonment, a monk shouted from the other side of the locked door, “Do you repent?” I did not answer. Growing tired of my stubbornness, they left me alone. Perhaps they thought the quiet would drive me mad. But it did not. Silence became my comfort.
Months passed before I saw or heard anyone. Then the door to my cell opened and two monks entered. One was short and fat, the other tall and thin, as if the first had been stretched on a rack. “Do you repent?” the tall one said. My choice was either to say, yes, and make of myself a liar like my father or Dondas, or say, no, and be left to moulder in my cell. So better not to speak at all. What’s the use in words if all they do is lie and cheat.
Confounded by my mute response, the monks huddled in conclave while I slumped against the wall, my legs barely strong enough to hold up my skin and bones. Perhaps they wearied of my torture or more likely they could ill-afford to feed a mouth that did not earn its keep, because they led me from the cell to the monastery garden.
Jeremiah was waiting for us at the gate. He seemed old even then with his lined face and white beard. But despite his age, he was as broad-shouldered as an ox and with his rake in one hand and scythe in the other he looked to me like some ancient spirit.
The monks explained that I was to be his responsibility and he could do with me as he wished. Jeremiah ignored them. He never had time for fools. “Will you work hard?” he said. I did not answer. “Good,” he said and that was that.
The old man started me on the simplest tasks, repairing the garden walls with the flat stones from the river and making trellises for the summer vines. He never cared that I didn’t speak as long as I could make my signs and draw with a stick in the soil. After I had proved myself, he gave me my own patch. First thing I ever had for my own.
Not a day goes by when I don’t hear Old Jeremiah’s voice in the gate’s rusty grate or a spade’s thud in the soil and think of him watching over us from his place beneath the verge. I still wonder what he saw in me. I like to think that he looked beneath my anger and saw the boy beneath who deserved so much better.
And so I became a planter of seeds, a grower of vegetables, a tiller of the soil. The years passed and the anger that had been my blood’s vigour faded until all that remained was the certainty of the seasons’ path, one to next, and the honest journey from the sowing to the scythe’s sharp reap and in the end the fire’s cold ashes.
Now when I catch sight of my reflection in a pail of water, I do not see the angry boy I was but Old Amos with his grey beard and wrinkled face, a garden monk who wants no more than to be buried with his seeds in a bed of soil.
The boy and I first met on a cold day in early March. When I saw him, standing just inside the garden walls, icy shivers ran through my body. It was as if my past had returned but turned the other way round so I was Jeremiah, even though he was long dead, and the boy was me, though we looked nothing alike. Where I had been barrel chested with a man’s growth of beard, he was smooth skinned and skinny as a reed.
“Who’s the youngster?” Brother Bartholomew said as he raked the soil.
“He’s one of the novices,” James replied. “An orphan. Can’t read or write so they’ve sent him to us. Give him pots to mend and wood to cut.”
With my fingers, I said no. Even then I could tell the boy was special. As I walked over to him, it was his eyes that caught me first. Two empty holes you could fall into and never find their end. When the boy spoke, his voice was so quiet I could barely hear him.
I gave him my own trowel and a bag of mustard seeds. Off he went, simple as that, and got on with it. He kept going past sunset, on his hands and knees, sowing all those tiny seeds. He wouldn’t have stopped if I hadn’t taken the bag from him and told him to go get his dinner. The next day he was in the garden earlier than any of us, planting those mustard seeds like there was nothing more important in the world, and maybe he was right about that.
The boy had a knack for the garden. None of us needed to tell him what do do. He knew what distance apart the seeds should go; how deep to bury them; how much to water them. It was plain to see that someone had taught him. But he never talked about his past and what had happened to make his eyes so empty.
It wasn’t just that he knew what to do. Everything he did turned out right. His mustard seeds grew into flowers with perfect golden petals. He knew vegetables better than me, and I’d been growing them for more than twice his life. It all came so easy to him. There was neither mildew nor canker on his plantings and where he dug his trowel there were no stones. Even the grass softened for his feet so you’d hardly know he’d walked upon it.
And the garden paid the boy back for all his work. The sun turned his face a rich dark brown. He was never going to be the biggest but his shoulders filled out so at least it looked like he wore his tunic rather than it wore him. Once or twice, when his plants first bloomed or as he watched the sun set over the garden wall, I’d see a smile ghost past his lips. It made me happy to see the boy do well. I was proud of him. That’s what it was.
I once knew a monk called Esau though his birth name was Aesir. With his blond hair and sharp features, he looked different from the rest of us though he hardly spoke about his home. One day I asked him where he was from and he told me he had been born in a far away land of ice and snow. When he was a boy, he had taken his father’s boat to fish for herring. A storm came and blew him so far out to sea that he could not find his way back. Weeks later, he landed on a foam swept beach and found that he had been blown across the grey sea.
I’ve never met anyone who talked as much as Aesir. And he was always contrarily minded. You might say to him, “Aesir, have you ever seen such a beautiful sunrise?” And he would reply, “The sun does not rise, it falls from the bottom of the earth.” And then he would argue that rise was fall and fall was rise until I scarcely knew anymore what the world was about. He’s dead now like all the friends I ever had.
Perhaps it was Aesir who sent the storm that summer’s afternoon. It came so quick we had no time to prepare. Day turned to night as tall clouds like warring giants so dark as to be near enough black covered the sun with their sack-cloth. Torrents of rain lashed our backs and thunder claps battered our ears. We dashed through the garden, slipping and sliding as we tied down the saplings and wrapped burlap around the vines.
In a flash of light, I saw the boy a few paces away from me. He was looking up at the storm. I could have sworn he saw something up there because he nodded as if greeting a friend. A fork of lightning crashed down. A giant hand picked me up and flung me back down. The world turned black. Deaf and blind as a worm, I crawled in the mud.
When the glare passed from my eyes, I saw the boy lying unmoving, his tunic singed, the rain pelting on his back. I ran to him and turned his head so he wouldn’t drown. He didn’t move. My heart stopped. I put my cheek to his mouth. There was no breath. I took his wrist. He had no pulse. I buried my face in the crook of his neck. The boy was gone.
For the first time in many years, words ripped from my throat. “Why did you take him?” I shouted at the sky. “The boy was nothing but good. Why?” I railed at the clouds. Why?” I cried at the thunder. “Why?” My whisper lost in the wind. Tears soaked the rain from my beard. The boy I wished I’d been. The son I wished I’d had. Gone. I understood then that everyone has a son but I had found mine too late. Now there was nothing left for me but old memories and dead friends.
I felt a warm glow on the back of my neck. A bright light spilled from the sky. I held the boy’s head and breathed my old life into him. An animal howled, angry and mournful, a wolf, its leg bitten through by a rusty trap, its cub wandering lost in the forest. A howl so loud it ate the dying storm and rippled through the earth, coursed up my legs and into my chest, through my lungs, and poured out of me and into him. The boy’s eyes opened, blue as the sky, filled with a deep and ancient knowing.