Heaven bright for faith aright.
Hellhole black should faith you lack.
Your catechism lesson for the week.
THE COACH bumps across the cobbles of the market square, halting in front of a marble-dressed, pink sandstone construction. During the Gallic time a monarch had enhaced a squat Romanesque fortress, adding gossamer spires shooting skyward in an ethereal homage to the Eternal.
Burutzagi Zumaya, Bishop of Haute-Navarre, stands on the sweep of steps to receive his guest. “This is a delightful surprise,” he says, embracing his old friend. “No one pries you out of that tomb up there.” Jakome rarely ventures into town. 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? What’s he done now?”
“Something else,” sighs the king. “A sensitive matter. I am not comfortable confiding in Father Tancredo.”
“This way,” says Zagi. They descend a set of steps. His residence sits at the rear of the structure.
* * *
THEY ENSCONCE in Zagi’s library, his favorite room. They are picking at a plate of snails, working on a bottle of champagne, anticipating a fine meal. “What’s on your mind?” he asks.
“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.”
“There is a halting locomotion,” says Jak, “although he manages quite well
if allowed to drop to all fours. In that posture, he positively scurries.”
Zagi’s thinking, Oh, crap. Crap-crap-crap!
Zagi’s on the left, Jakome’s on the right. Zagi has taken to wearing turbans, popular in Paris, to keep his head warm in a cold cathedral. Queen Zamanthe hid her husband’s favorite hat with ear muffs that he wears around the chilly palace. She refused to let him go out in public in it. He had to settle for this one.
ZAGI GRINS. “You’ve come to the right place.” The evening will be a reprise of the 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 sincere belief has the possibility of attaining glory, you know that. Ha!” Zagi is always glad for a chance to recite of bit of his verse. “Listen to this. 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, 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, thinking, the cat does the same thing. These two should meet.
“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 composed 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 . . .”
“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 giggle over, and to cling to. 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 a note 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. Ink and quill are inconvenient to handle in a dim 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. No fuss, no quill to refresh. Take up the marvel and work away. Slip it into a pocket, it will not poke a hole. 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 assistants. 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 self-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. Tell me yours.”
Rupert takes a deep 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 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. He is hairy in the extreme.”
“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 watches 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 debate in the palace. Two camps argue over a situation, one ascribing it to senility, 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? 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 begged him to allow. It is for my 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. 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 heard that savage peoples are often baptized without fully understanding the meaning of the gesture, with the expectation that they will come to belief, given instruction.”
Zagi’s measured response gives no hint of his unsettlement. “An affirmation of faith must eventually be made. 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?”
“Without a doubt.”
“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 bedevils him. “Could I do the deed myself? So as not to upset the fellow unnecessarily? He is easily agitated, especially among strangers. I can anoint his forehead under the pretense of scratching it. 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 belly-up 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. He may have been planted to milk secrets out of you.” Zagi is concerned. Is espionage afoot? Is it an honest friendship, or one of a perverse nature? A distasteful situation indeed. “An ad hoc baptism,” he instructs, “is out of the question. Clerical participation is required.”
Jakome’s face falls. “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. He’s a bumptious border lad, almost a Scot.”
“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 could be, easily.”
“Ah. The appearance must be extraordinary. Elizabeth is fond of monstrosities, but not as the face of her diplomacy. An aide, then, whose competence has earned him a vital although less public assignment. A fine mind is a fine mind. There are far too few of them. They must be encouraged at all cost.”
“That’s exactly how I feel. I’m so glad you agree with me.” Jakome has felt himself interrogated, and he has not enjoyed it.
“I am so relieved,” the Bishop booms. “I recall one smallish, wielding a cane, a heavy beard. He hugged the wall at your last reception, keeping an eye on the English deputation, waiting to be summoned, I surmised.” This is bunk, to mislead. Jakome might be party to a politically dangerous involvement. Or it might be an innocent although bizarre affinity of one lost soul for another. Something was not as it should be. He must not put the man on guard, causing him to clam up. “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. What a relief!
“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, to show the world that this is not such odd behavior. You have a number of the animals at the palace. Send me down one. We’ll confound the tongue-wags, eh? Supply me with collars, and with 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, coming apart. I award myself a penance, your son’s cheese at every meal for a six-month. Bittor will be thrilled to pieces.”
* * *
IT APPEARS that a baptism will not be possible, but the animal’s relocation to the monastery, that will go forward. Jakome 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 the King’s well publicized frenzy of disgust. The cat is exiled to the monastery. Jak hopes his intellectually-inclined friend will be impressed by saintly men living their belief.
Sly had been excited by the opportunity to explore another grand library, but quickly found it to be an impossibility. The King had ordered the friars to trail him proclaiming their faith. They were to work in pairs, it was to seem a casual discussion concerning their experiences with deathbed penitents, with the conclusion that one ought to avail himself 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 a script–in every part of the enclosure. The business mystified them, but this was the instruction. 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.
He was returned to the palace, livid over a betrayal. He should have been mollified by the king’s sincere regret. Lectured on the enormity of what he’d done, the man was nicely cowed. This did not dilute the disdain of one who, determined to have his revenge, resumed his wastrel ways with a vengeance.
Jakome had tried to force his narrow world-view on a stubbornly independent thinker, seeking 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.
* * * * * * * * *
- The pencil had been invented thirty-odd years earlier in the north-western corner of England, to mark sheep in the field. Graphite’s more important use was in the production of cannon balls. The discovery of the only large deposit of the hard form of the material ever found (to this day!) was a closely-held military secret.
The full story (twenty-six chapters) will be available as an ebook
in the not-too-distant future.
I’m adding a final page here called Sheesh!
To the editor who asked (to my mind) a dumb-as-dirt question, that floored me:
As George Sanders (in the role of Addison DeWitt)
said to Marilyn Monroe (as Miss Casswell)
in the film All About Eve:
“You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.”