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7

AN EXPERT WEIGHS IN
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Your catechism lesson for the week.

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THE COACH clatters across the cobbles of the market square, which is dominated by a magnificent marble-dressed, pink sandstone construction. During the Gallic times a monarch had reconfigured a stout Romanesque fortress, a useful design, especially during the Reconquista, installing gossamer spires shooting skyward, an ethereal homage to the Eternal.

The square is a fine, exclusive place lined with close-packed two and three story houses on two sides. On the far end, facing the cathedral, is a row of expensive shops. The area is patrolled, the constables assuming that after a certain hour, every passer-by had a mind for mischief, this not far from the truth. After sunset, beggars seek shelter in the deserted market stalls that abut the rear of the cathedral, bawds hike up their skirts to show their shapely calves, and inebriates, run through their day’s wages in the taverns, weave and stumble, cursing life.

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Burutzagi Zumaya, Bishop of Haute-Navarre, stands on the sweep of steps, eager to receive his guest. “This is a delightful surprise,” he says, embracing his old friend. “No one pries you out of that tomb.” (He means the castle.) Jakome rarely ventures forth. Zagi visits him, not the other way around.

“I’ve something on my mind,” whispers Jak. “I couldn’t sleep last night from stewing about it. Actually, I haven’t slept well in weeks.”

“Is it Bittor again? What’s he done now?”

“Something else,” sighs the king. “A sensitive matter. I am not comfortable confiding in Father Tancredo, despite him family.”

“This way,” beckons Zagi.

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“What’s on your mind?” he asks mildly. They are seated in his splendid salon, picking at a plate of snails, working on a bottle of champagne, anticipating a fine meal. Zagi employs a French chef. No local meets the requirements of his sophisticated palate.

“I am full of questions,” shrieks Jakome, grasping the arms of his chair and jutting forward. He had pushed the matter from his mind. Reminded of his mission, his anxiety returns full force.

“Easy, now,” coos Zagi. “It can’t be all that bad.”

“I’m shaking,” moans the king. “Look.” He holds up a trembling hand. “I am beset, positively beset. An uneasiness eats at me, day and night. I need to clarify, for my peace of mind, a point regarding baptism.”

“You’ve come to the right place,” says Zagi, grinning. The evening would be a reprise of the enjoyable discussions of their student days, explorations of points of doctrine. He is perplexed by the simplicity of the question. There is no controversy about baptism, nothing to be clarified.

“Who, precisely, is let into heaven?” demands the king.

“Any baptized soul with a sincere belief has the possibility of attaining glory, you know that. Ha!” He is always glad for a chance to recite of bit of his verse. “Listen to this, just conjured, to entertain my catechism class:

“Heaven bright, for faith aright.
Hell-hole black, should faith you lack.

“It comes down to, are you willing to accept the holy spirit?”

“Infants make no choice.”

“Parents and godparents intercede until the child is old enough to self-direct. Infants are set on the path. Train a child up in the way he should go, etcetera. By the way, there’s more to my verse. Would you like to hear it?”

“Ah, you were always jotting something or other.” Jakome smiles. The cat does the same thing. These two should meet, he thinks.

“This is thrilling, to be able to show off. An artistic soul is not approved of in a cleric. Art is rebellion, it cannot be otherwise. OK, here we go, my latest. I wrote this just last night.

“Heaven bright, for faith aright. Hell-hole black, should faith you lack.
Who would be saved, walk not depraved on the wrong path, earning the wrath,
spurning the love of he above. Temptations, rife in this sweet life
are a vile joy that doth destroy commitment to, you well know who,
the source of all . . .”

Zagi pauses. This was as far as he’d gotten.

“Delightful,” says Jak.

“The-source-of-all . . . I’m stuck on all. I’ll keep at it until I get hold of a satisfying match. You-well-know-who, that’s a place-holder, to maintain rhythm. No, I may keep it. The children will giggle their heads off. A giggle and a prayer, that’s what I try to give my tykes, something to smile about, and to cling to through thick and thin. I often find myself with ten pages of verse. When you see me head bowed, half the time I’m running through variations of a couplet. Brawl. Stall. Gall. Befall. Befall might serve. Crawl, that has possibilities. Stay strong, stand tall, don’t you dare crawl through Satan’s muck, he wants you stuck in sin and shame, that’s his foul game, this thing is writing itself! Back in a sec.”

He hurries to his desk, scrawls, and returns, beaming. “You’ve got to get it on the spot,” he explains. “I’ve lost stunning lines by not having tools handy. I’d learned to stash ink-pots all over the church, in the pulpit, in the confessional, everywhere. But ink and quill are messy, hard to employ in a spill-your-sins snuggery. Capturing thoughts as they come to me, that problem has been solved by your delightful son.”

“Solved by Bittor! How?”

“A bright boy, our Bittor. He has stumbled across an amazing convenience, a stick of wood you write with. It sharpens to a fine point. No fuss, no quill to refresh. Take up the marvel and scratch away. Slip it into a pocket, it will not poke a hole. I’ve added my twist to the process. I’ve cut the tool into pieces that can be concealed in my palm. I write, even at the altar. If the Lord chooses to present me with a verse during mass, I believe he intends me to get it down and not waste the time he took constructing it. I have paper and stub beneath cascades of fern. I reach in and scribble without it being noticed, even by my altar boys. The pencil is a gift from God.1 I carry one always. You never know when the perfect line will formulate, only to slip away before you get to an inkstand.”

“My friend, the reason for my visit, he’s a poet also. The two of you are so alike, it gives me goosebumps.”

“Yes. Back to your problem. He writes? Splendid. I like him already. If I hadn’t taken vows, I would have been a playwright. Not that the priesthood doesn’t offer manifold avenues for expression, but Holy Mother Church does frown on too much originality. Suddenly they’ve got another Luther on their hands. I keep it my secret vice.”

“Two peas in a pod,” thinks Jak.

“Enough of me. What’s behind this mysterious convocation? You have nothing to fear from me. I’ve just told you my deepest, darkest secret. Spit it out. ”

Rupert would love to spit it out, but he doesn’t dare. Folks in those days were wary of unexplainable oddities. He takes a breath. “Can a beast be baptized?”

“A beast? Lord Above, whatever do you mean?”

“That is, can one who looks like a beast be baptized? Can one who is covered with, ah, an exceptional coat of hair, whom some might easily call a beast–I most certainly do not–one, you see, of savage appearance, can such a one receive the sacrament, if he so chooses?”

“This individual, he understands and obeys the teachings? That grasp may be elementary, right from wrong is sufficient. A first-rate intellect is not necessary, it may be detrimental, leading one astray. Curiosity killed the cat, you know.”

Jakome chokes on a snail. “My fellow has a keen wit, but hides his true nature for fear of giving offense.”

“In what way might he offend?”

“He would shock. The physicality is decidedly odd.”

“This is not unheard of. A woman in Saint-Palais grows a fine beard, I am told. His may be a related condition.”

“There is a difficult locomotion, although he manages quite well if allowed to drop to all fours. In that posture, he positively scurries. Out of his mouth, when he chooses, comes conversation of marvelous perception, which his appearance does not prepare you for. He is hard, at first, to understand. He has a vocal impediment. Also, he is a non-native speaker. You must concentrate to extract his meaning.” He watchs friend for a reaction. “He keeps silent for the most part, because he has been given good reason to do so. He has a dismal opinion of human nature. He is become more open because of me, more trusting. I hope to influence a spiritual improvement as well.”

Zagi is aware of the thinking in the palace. Two camps argue over a situation, one ascribing it to lunacy, the other, to the demonic. He is inclined to go with dementia, but demonism has more potential for him professionally. He probes gently. “Does he have a lively intelligence? Brush the fog away and tell the absolute truth. I am your old companion, you can trust me.”

“He reads with relish.”

“Does he answer questions on the texts?”

“With ease! His mind retains details far better than mine. Or yours.”

“He need not be a brilliant. A want-wit gets past St. Peter easier, probably, than you or I. I hope there is not some inconvenient detail that you are hiding. Please, hold nothing back.”

“There is, I’m afraid, a quite considerable sticking point. He will refuse the rite, which I have repeatedly begged him to allow. It is for my own gratification, not his, that I hope to see it accomplished. I am in agony over the disposal of his immortal soul. He is a heretic of the most virulent kind.”

“A heretic can be converted, we need only look to Saint Paul.”

“He is an English obstinate, he will not bend an inch. Look, here’s what I’ve come about: can one be baptized secretly, in advance of the acceptance that will surely follow? I will keep at him until it does. I would never forgive myself if I had not done all in my power to provide for his spiritual well-being, whether he gives permission or not, for I care for him deeply.”

Zagi frowns. “The church looks upon forced baptism, under certain circumstances, with a reluctant approval. It is less problematic to torment. If excruciating pain leads one otherwise consigned to eternal damnation to gain everlasting joy, so be it. We do not put men to the rack but for their best benefit.”

Jakome shudders. “I would wish to avoid that. I have read that savage peoples are often baptized without fully understanding the import of the gesture. The simple minds are, I believe, likened to newborns who will grow into faith, given subsequent instruction.”

Zagi’s measured response gave no hint of his unsettlement. “An affirmation of faith must be made at some point. Can you assure me that it will occur in fairly short order? Otherwise, I cannot approve an insincerity of process.”

“Do I have a year in which to work a wonder?”

“Surely.”

“Two?”

“Without a doubt.”

“Three?”

“I’d say, until a child begins his instruction for the first communion. Four years would be the grace period, in my opinion.”

Four years safe, thinks the king. The brat will be back long before. If he never returns, I’ve done my duty by him. One last point devils him. “Could I do the deed myself? So as not to upset the fellow unnecessarily? He is easily agitated, as I’ve said, especially among strangers. I can anoint his forehead under the pretense of scratching it, as I often do. He will think nothing of it.”

“You scratch his head?”

“Head, ears, nose, under his chin.”

“You scratch this fellow. For what reason?

“For the reason that he enjoys it. For the reason that he has fleas . . .”

“Don’t we all,” sighs Zagi.

“. . . and trouble reaching certain areas of his anatomy to relieve an itch.”

“Don’t we all,” Zagi moans.

“He loves to have his tummy scratched. He stretches out on the bed and begs for it.”

“My friend, I must say it, this sounds unsavory.”

“You have entirely the wrong impression. I provide affectionate contact, such as he seldom receives. He provides me hours of amusement. I understand the English mind better, I would guess, than anyone this side of the Narrow Seas. To judge by this one they are a wily lot.”

“Beware that he has not been planted, to milk state secrets out of you.” Is the individual an English operative? Is it an honest friendship, though tending to intimacy of a perverse nature? A distasteful situation indeed. “An ad hoc baptism is out of the question. The process must be handled in accordance with church law. Clerical participation is required.”

“The subject will react violently, I’m afraid. He is an energetic ruffian, raised on the very edge of civilization. He can be shockingly belligerent. I have had to assign him an escort, for he has made enemies. He’s a bumptious border lad, almost a Scot. And they’re the worst. So I hear.”

“A wild Scot, is he? A woad-caked banshee? How did the marvel find his way to us?”

“As I said, he has a good mind. He educated himself, to a very considerable degree. Listen to him debate from behind a screen and you would think yourself privy to the musings of the most subtle diplomat.”

“He is a diplomat?”

“Not that, though he certainly could be, easily.”

“Ah. The appearance unfits him for public engagement, he is too much a curiosity. Elizabeth is fond of monstrosities, but not as the face of her diplomacy. I do understand. An aide, then, whose competence and devotion have earned him a vital although less public assignment. A fine mind is a fine mind, and there are far too few of them. They must be encouraged at all cost.”

“That’s how I feel. I’m so glad you agree with me.” Jakome relaxes. He has felt himself interrogated, and he has not enjoyed it.

“You have an English rascal in your clutches! I recall one smallish, wielding a cane, heavy beard. He hugged the wall at your last reception, keeping an eye on the English deputation, waiting to be summoned, so I surmised.” This was bunk, to mislead. Jakome might be sunk into a politically dangerous involvement. Or it might be an innocent although bizarre affinity of one lost soul for another. Something was amiss. He must not put the man on his guard, causing him to clam up.

“I am so relieved,” the Bishop booms. “I had begun, believe it or not, to think you might be talking about that cat of yours. The busy-bodies must have their fun. That’s all it is, nasty fun. What a notion took hold of me! I feel quite giddy. My fever of doubt is broken. I wavered, shame on me.”

“Adore a dog, no one challenges the attachment. Any indulgence is allowable to man’s best friend, a loyal companion who makes himself useful to boot. Spoil a cat? Idiocy! I shall adopt a feline myself, and dress it up, and show the world that this is not such odd behavior. You have a multiplicity of the animals at the palace. Send me one. We’ll confound the tongue-wags, eh? Send collars, and boots. I have not the resources to lavish rich trappings on a cat. Dear God in heaven, I actually wondered if you were not, as everyone insists, off your nut. I award myself a penance, your son’s cheese at every meal. Bittor will be thrilled to pieces.”

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Jakome is discouraged. It appears that a baptism will not be possible, but the animal’s relocation to the monastery, that can go forward. He hears mass daily in his private chapel. He has begged Sly to attend with him. He begins to insist on it. Father Tancredo tolerates the animal’s presence until it is caught drinking from the basin of holy water. A joint denouncement follows, and a relocation to the friary, after Jakome’s well publicized frenzy of disgust.

The King had hoped that the community’s philosophical leanings might influence a change of heart. Those men fed the hungry and tended the afflicted. They were scholars, with a substantial library, that alone would appeal to the bookish intransigent. They were generous of spirit, maintaining a sweet disposition in spite of being obliged to eat Bittor’s cheese day in, day out. Jakome clung to the idea that his friend would be impressed by holy men living their belief. That hope went nowhere.

Sly had expected a relaxing interval. The King had other ideas. He’d ordered the friars to trail the animal, to sit with him, stroll with him, proclaiming their faith. The men worked in pairs, it was to seem a casual discussion between thoughtful men, concerning their experiences with deathbed penitents and the comfort that the sacrament gave in the final hours, concluding with an agreement that anyone with a brain ought to have the sense to avail themselves of a simple procedure, just in case. One might be dead-wrong on certain unknowable matters. Who would risk hellfire for lack of an easy splash and spiel?

Stalked, the cat hid. Since no one could be sure where he was most of the time, the brothers blasted a text, a committee had crafted what they felt was a persuasive script, in every corner of the property. The business mystified them, but it was the king’s explicit instruction. And Jakome had sworn, if they were diligent, to halt the delivery of cheese. After four years of the stuff, the smell made some want to throw up. The cat took to scratching, spitting, snarling, every time a burnoose approached him. Lay staff he let be. To attack religious, no one else, confirmed the ignorant supposition that cats were of the devil. The critter had put himself in grave danger. Jak had him smuggled back to the palace.

Was Sly grateful for the rescue? Not a bit. The animal was livid over a betrayal. Respect for one’s principles meant nothing to the jackass. He should have been mollified by the king’s regret; lectured on the enormity of what he’d done, the man was suitably cowed. This did not dilute the disdain of one who, determined to extract a revenge, resumed his wastrel ways with a vengeance.

Jakome had tried to push his narrow world-view on a stubbornly independent thinker, to buy his own peace of mind by violating that of a friend. On the other hand, the animal was oblivious to the extent of the king’s pain, nothing to be congratulated for either. A sturdy self-involvement had been his life-long way.
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  1. The pencil had been invented thirty-odd years earlier in the far north-western corner of England, by sheepmen, to mark sheep. Graphite was used in the production of canon balls. The discovery of the only large deposit of the hard form of the material ever found (to this day!) was a military secret.

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