The Abbey

1

It was a dark night, full of clouds and shadows. Whispers carried on the wind, racing through the forest and brushing the trees. The monotonous chanting of a hundred voices lingered on the air.

A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood. . .

A figure hurried along the winding forest path. Overhead, the clouds shifted so that the moon emerged just as the figure did from the tree line. The forest was illuminated, a picture of viridian mist and boughs. Even the lake glittered under its glare.

A heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief. . .

The figure ran on, its hands slipping from beneath its sleeves and revealed for a moment in the moonlight. They were slick with wetness and black as the figure’s habit, which fluttered furiously as it ran.

A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren. . .

A long shadow stretched across the lake. Offset by the moon, an abbey rose into the night, its bell-tower cutting into the sky.

“I must not tell lies,” muttered the figure. Reaching the lakeside, he started across a walkway.

“I must not tell lies.” The raps of the knocker, when he reached the doors, rang leaden into the night. It was several minutes before they opened a crack, the wind rushing instantly inside.

“Yes?”

“Please, let me in.”

“We do not take to strangers in these parts.”

“Please, some charity.” The words seemed to have a strange effect on the doorman, the sliver of his face illuminated in a flash of lightning. “I am a man of God, like you.”

“There are no men of God. Not here, not anywhere.”

The door widened nevertheless and the tiny figure slipped inside.

 

2

 

The dining hall was empty. An air of reverence hung about the room, thick like incense or a guilty conscience. Dust coated the armaments and windows, visible as tiny motes in the flashes of lightning. Sin burst into unholy life with every jagged crack, their monstrous forms depicted in the stained glass of the windows

“I was caught unawares, travelling from Glastonbury. The weather fell foul, but we thought we could endure it. We took shelter, set up camp. . . We were wrong.”

“You were caught abroad?”

“By more than God’s rain. It was no ordinary storm but a Sin, come to claim us. Wrath, in all her vitriolic glory. We died. I ran. And now I am here.”

A startled gasp. “They chase your heels? You brought them here?”

“I lost them. I fled into the woods while they stayed to tear at the corpses. . .” The monk began to shake again, his hands rattling against the sturdy wooden table top. Cutlery clattered, the quiet sound reverberating within the heights of the dining hall. “My God, I still have their blood under my nails. . .”

“Your name?”

“Robin,” said the newcomer. “Brother Robin.”

“You will be safe here, Brother. I am Brother William and, for tonight, all that we have is yours.”

The room might have been magnificent, once. Figures decorated the ceiling with beautiful intricacy; depictions from The Book of Sin brought to life in vivid brush-stroke. Above the flickering candlelight, the painting seemed almost to move, a trick of light and Robin’s own heightened imagination, as if the Sins were in the very act of being banished from the world by God and His children. Except, of course, no such thing had ever happened, nor ever would, not so long as men were men.

Both men tucked into their food. Robin ate voraciously, as though afraid his plate might be taken unfinished from before him. The chanting continued; a hallowed, reverential hymn hanging like the dust in the air, and something else. The patter of claws, or tiny feet, skittering through the walls.

“Rats,” muttered William.

“You said earlier that there are no men of God? These do not sound like the words of a man in His service.” Robin peered across at the monk, who twitched but made no move to reply, raising instead a skewered sliver of meat to his mouth. It glistened, pink and bloody, reminding Robin of his own hands. He lowered them self-consciously beneath the table.

“Come,” said William suddenly. Spittle and ham flew from his lips.

“Where are we going?”

“You may be alone, but here we’re many. You must meet the others, before you retire. The Abbot is leading them in prayer.”

 

3

 

The two figures slipped noiselessly through the passages of the abbey. All about them, the hymn hung heavy on the air. They passed through great halls, their footsteps echoing on the cracked flagstone floors. Archways towered over them, engraved with signs of the cross, and every corridor was dimly lit with tiny candles. They wavered and danced, like the dying light in a man’s eyes, as the two monks ghosted past.

“I’ve never seen such architecture. I must admit, I’m somewhat in awe.” The two passed a statue, the edifice staring down at them righteously from its pedestal. An engraving beneath said St. George, who Robin remembered well as being the military saint responsible for casting back one of the Seven.

Outside, black clouds amassed in the night sky. Robin could see them as William and he strode through the cloisters towards the church, the monastic heart of the abbey. The church reared up before them. Windows watched them, more Sins staring monstrously at their approach. Then they were passing through the church’s doors and into the building proper.

Reverent song prickled at the back of Robin’s neck. It was holy, sanctimonious, resonating within his bones as if he’d been struck by one of the very bolts that danced through the night sky. Goosebumps ran the length of his robed arms.

“The hymn. . .”

From beside him, William nodded. “I know. I know.”

The church was humbler than the rest of the abbey but no less beautiful. Rows of benches led up to a dais at the front, atop which three small altars could be found. The place was old, as old as anything of the abbey Robin had already seen, but lacked the dust and decay that he had so far grown accustomed to. The church looked attended to. Cared for. Perfect, in every way.

At each row of benches stood a dozen monks, their backs turned, hoods covering their heads so that only their voices could be heard. More stood at the front on the raised platform, and at the pulpit a lonely figure: the Abbot himself, leading his congregation in solemn song.

“I recognise the hymn,” whispered Robin.

“They sing for God and to ward off evil. To ward off the Sins, in all their guises.”

“Such a thing is not possible, you realise.”

“We do our best, given the times.”

Robin’s eyes flashed with the lightning. ‘There are no men of God. Not here, not anywhere.”

William hung his head. He looked tired, suddenly. A hundred years old. “Perhaps I spoke rashly, before. Certainly I regret those sentiments. There are many on God’s earth who would. . . well, who would kill to be so close to Him, if you will excuse the expression.”

“You’d say they envy you?”

“I would.”

“And in doing so, they would sin.”

William glanced back at Robin, a stranger, at the heart of their abbey. His hair was still drenched, although it had been well over an hour since he’d been admitted past their walls. The blood of his comrades was no less slick about his hands. Surely it should have dried by now? Surely he should have wanted to wash?

“Forgive me, Brother, I forget; to which order did you say you belonged?”

“I did not, merely that I was travelling from Glastonbury.”

“Ah, I assumed. . .”

“Indeed. You know, it really is an abbey above all others that you have here. Beautiful. God would be proud.”

“Pride, Brother, is a sin like all others.”

“Envious of you, then, to live in such luxury.”

Something was happening to Robin. His waterlogged hair was lengthening before William’s eyes. A pallor overcame his flesh, such that he looked more like a statue or – God forbid – a corpse, than a living, breathing man. The blood began running like dirty water from his hands, two puddles growing around the monk’s habit .

“What’s happening? What trickery is this?”

“I have enjoyed your company, Brother, so much so in fact that I’ve decided I would quite like to be you.”

Time slowed, everything illuminated in a single flash of lightning. Robin span on his heel, habit fluttering like the wings of a bat as he descended on William. Hands closed around the monk’s neck, even as William plunged a knife into Robin’s shoulder. The iron blade slid smoothly and without resistance into skin and bone alike, and Robin shrieked obscenely. Bladeless, his weapon buried to the hilt, William dropped to the floor. Bloody handprints circled his bruised throat.

“Sin!” he screamed. “Brothers, Sin! See how the iron burns its flesh!”

The assembled monks did not rise to his aid. They did not fly in defence of their abbey. They did not move but continued to sing, their monotonous moans carrying far into the night.

“It is always dark, where I come from. There is no light. No warmth. We have no birdsong, save the screams of the crows. The screaming. They do not stop screaming.”

Scrabbling away, William backed against a statue. He felt alone. Trapped. But the statue brought him comfort. It was another of St. George; tall, defiant, clutching an ancient sword in its hands.

“You will always find screaming. This abbey is no different. Can you not hear the wind, Beast, as it races through the woods? It screams to feel, to touch. The dying, they scream as their lives are extinguished. The living scream when theirs are not. God’s earth is a chorus of cries.”

“Poetic,” hissed Robin, haggard, the knife still steaming in his shoulder. “I like you even more.”

William wrenched the sword from the statue. It came free with a lurch, sent him spinning, the blade careering towards Robin’s twisted face. He swung it with all his might, a prayer to the Lord on his lips.

A stony hand grabbed his chest from behind. It held him still even as another punched into his back. His vision failing, William had just enough time to look down, to see his bloody heart in its fingers, before he slumped to the church floor.

Giggling obscenely, St. George sprang into the air. Two glassy wings burst from its back as it took flight, twitching and euphoric into the rafters. Its skin rippled like liquid shadow.

Robin watched his child as it flew. “Silly monk,” he shrieked, casting off his own glamour. Slick hair cascaded from her head, clinging to the infantile body beneath. Pale flesh glinted wetly in the candlelight and two shards of broken emerald shone where there should have been eyes.

Envy plucked the steaming dagger from her shoulder. Black blood spat from the wound, not unlike that of the congregation’s, murdered earlier by her hands. Not that it had stopped them singing, of course. She did so enjoy their singing.

“Silly, silly monk.”

Movement, in the shadows. Shapes ghosted in and out of the darkness, flitting between this world and another. Faint shrieks and triumphant barks joined the unending hymn. Envy watched the unholy procession with a wicked grin; the flutter of crow wings, the clicking of bones, screams of malediction and joy alike filling the despoiled church. Scuttling down the aisle like a spidery spinster, she sprang atop the central altar.

“And now, Lesson One,” she crooned, her voice cracked, sing-song. “Lesson One. Lesson One. . . We must not tell lies.”

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.

Jerusalem

Lambing season arrives with fine rain and the moan of distressed ewes. John has just sat down to dinner when he hears them, the sheep’s cries mingling with the whistle of the kettle. He hasn’t been through the door for an hour and his feet ache. Evening sun catches the dust and makes silhouettes of the shattered window pane. He eats alone with his thoughts and his chipped mug and the scratching of mice in the walls.

When his plate is cleared, he takes it to the sink and runs it under the tap. Brown water catches the worst of the stains. Outside, a crow laughs. Looking up from the sink, he stares out across the back garden to the bird and the plot where his father is buried. It isn’t much, but it means something to him, and it is ritual; the first day of every March he books time off from work, packs an overnight bag, and makes the long drive into the hills to visit his dad.

A wooden cross marks the spot, and another, and another; generations of Shepherds, laid to rest in the earth. Retrieving a dishcloth and an old knife, he wanders outside, crouches by the crosses, and scrapes the worst of the moss from the wood. Cobwebs cling to the crossbars; he brushes them away. He smokes while he works, lips sucking and twitching around his cigarettes when his hands are busy. Across the hills, the ewes continue to bleat.

When the worst of the nettles are stripped back and he runs out of cigarettes, he retires indoors. Lying on the single bed in the room where he grew up as a child, he listens to the house, the groan of the floorboards, the tapping of the rain on the windows, and he waits.

At some point the sun sags, wavers, dips below the rolling mounds. The rain hammers down, then peters out. Eventually he hears the bleating of lambs. The sound draws him from the bedroom, across the dark hills. One a.m. nips at his fingers and the tip of his nose, turning his breath white on the air, and as he leaves the yard he almost slips on the dark stone of the step.

“Jesus!”

He does not have to walk far before he sees them. Moonlight illuminates the parade as it winds its way through the trees. Where the branches allow it, the light makes silver outlines of pale limbs, bare footprints pressed into the mulch and, held by thin hands, clutched close to sunken breasts, severed heads; the old dead nurturing the new with ageless love and sour milk.

The stiff-legged procession stretches both ways into the trees. They might always have walked here; an endless wake marching solemnly beneath their cowls. He moves silently closer, his approach masked beneath the clicking of bone and wet sucking sounds, which he hopes is feet sunk into mud and not cold mouths hungry at stiff teats. He does not speak, but in his head repeats an old hymn, hoping it might help him, ground him, keep him sane and safe from demons and the dark.

It is many years since any sheep have grazed here. Not since his father passed have livestock of any sort dotted these hills. Idly, he wonders what he is doing here. Not just tonight, but last year, and the year before that, and the one before that. He thinks about his guilt at having abandoned the farm, and his love for his father, and his shame at the generations of slaughter committed in the family name. He can never shrug that shame, but he can pay his respects to the dead. For one night a year, he can manage that.

He is still standing, watching the march, when a piece of deadwood snaps underfoot. The branch is small, the sound weak, but it still cracks like a gunshot in the dark. For the most part, the procession continues heedless, all except one of their number. Closest, it stops in its tracks. The mud at its feet is a mess of cloven tracks. With the inexorable slowness of the ages, it turns its face towards him. A scream fills his mouth.

Night has sapped the colour from the world but he can still make out spring: ghostly lilac blossom, branches heavy with shoots, fat roots, and the bleating of lambs, long since taken to market but revived on this night when life courses renewed through the wet, blood-soaked loam.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.