As my mind floated lazily up to the surface from my free dive into the depths of medically induced unconsciousness, there were creatures in the form of memories awaiting me, caught in glimpses like wisps of color in the filtered blue. Jellyfish or manta ray, puffer fish or electric eel, the nature of these creatures of reminiscing I wasn’t to know until much later.
But memories, like the things they are about, can be taken in various lights and with emotions held at bay by the pharmacological gods, can be witnessed like a short film festival in which the starring actress only reminded me a little of myself. So safe in the womb of numbness, I recalled lives not yet grasped in consciousness, threads of karma unraveling into single strands of truth.
There was a girl, her short curly red hair stuffed into a boy’s cap, staring in awe at the shelves of books and stands of manuscripts in a small scriptorium. Her puffy cheeks were red from exertion; she had run all the way up the hill to the church as her father bade her. There had been bad men in the forest and her father had worried and sent her ahead on his horse.
When the ruckus had started, the monks had run out of the church and the side building and she had slid off the horse’s back, sprinting into the closest door, not knowing the bad men would soon follow her. She heard the boots scrap across the porch, snapping her out from her awed state.
She looked helplessly about the room, frozen and frightened, knowing that the room was too small in which to hide. After so many years of travel to dubious locations such as this, she had become an expert at being unseen. But her love and wonder at the trove had left her flat-footed. She turned toward the door as it creaked open and before her full form of her pursuer was revealed, there was a whoosh of light and she was suddenly up in the rafters, arms carefully about her and holding her, one hand over her mouth. After a few breaths in which she didn’t struggle, barely breathed, the hand over her mouth eased and she could turn her head.
The face she stared into was lit by lamp glow and was the most wondrous she’d ever seen. He raised a single finger to quiet her and then stared intently down into the room as more bad men entered, his eyes near to glowing in amber.
And as the men ransacked the room, grabbing random books and stuffing them into knapsacks, kicking over the tables and benches, the precious inks and paint spreading across the floor, she felt no fear with this man or of this man. He simply waited for them to be gone but with a rumbling quiet. It was as if she knew his mind for if he hadn’t been there, she too would’ve been angry and attacked them, kicked at their shins, berated them in as many languages as she knew for their wanton destruction.
But they found what they were looking for: the gold leaf used on the most precious of manuscripts, the illumination. That and destruction of some of the precious books seemed to be their aim as they cheered in a reckless way and stomped out of the room, crashing the door closed behind them.
The girl watched the man’s eyes drop from the door and stare into space, as if coming to some decision or capturing his will. But when he turned his head to her, he smiled pleasantly and pointed down. She nodded dumbly and in another whoosh that she couldn’t explain, she was back with her feet on the floor, standing amongst the ruin of the vellum, ink, and red. In any other place or time, she would’ve felt this sacrilege like a stab to her heart, her father’s passion and learning had become her faith.
But she was caught staring at the striking man, in his simple monk robe that looked sizes too big and hastily donned. His hair was wild and unkempt but shining bronze. He didn’t seem to notice the room much but looked as if through the door, his head tilted slightly as if listening. She didn’t need him to shush her again, her breath had been stolen. In the aura of the lamp glow, his rumpled robe cast a shadow upon the wall that made him looked like one of the winged ones.
Her eyes darted from the shadow to him, convinced he was giving himself away to her. She had read all about the djinn from her father’s people and the angels from the local ones and either way, his rescue of her spoke of the divine.
In the quiet of her breathtaking epiphany, he slowly turned to look at her. His face screwed up a moment as he considered her, then bungled over a few words in Latin as if words fell uncommonly strange from his lips.
The door then burst open and her father rushed in along with an old, bearded monk with a cane. How her father, who swept her up in his arms, had completely missed the man who’d just been standing there was a mystery and when her father asked how she’d escaped, she pointed to empty space where the man had been.
Only to see him standing up against the wall, now indistinguishable from his shadow. Her father’s eyes darted around the space, looking everywhere and yet still not seeing the man against the wall who smiled at her again, slowly lifting his finger to his lips. She lowered her arm and hugged her father about the neck, proclaiming she’d hid behind the shelves.
Her father praised Allah as she did too, with a little prayer to Yahweh thrown in for good measure. When her gaze looked up at the elderly monk, he seemed to be staring behind her, right at the space where her very own savior had stood. She gasped, ready to explain but when she looked, the man was gone, just wafts of smoke taking up the space but the memory forever burned in her mind.
The damage done to the monastery in total was isolated to the scriptorium and when her father’s fear for the daughter he hid in plain sight as a boy has passed, he mourned the very manuscripts he’d come to examine. Even if his patron, the Duke of Durazzo, had not settled a great sum of money upon him to travel afar for the potential of uncovering great works of astronomy and philosophy, he would’ve felt robbed of such fine works.
That night, the other monks kept their dubious distance from the newcomers as if harbingers of doom and it was much later when the last prayers had been said and a stillness of anticipation settled like darkness over the monastery, the old bearded monk, the rubricator, the one called Imperius, settled her father down with an ale of the monk’s own brew in the ruins of the scriptorium.
“So much destruction, so much knowledge lost,” her father despaired, ignoring the cup beside him. “And yet your monks seem so calm, as if this is a passing storm.”
“My friend, it is God’s will that we be tested.” Imperius folded his hands in his lap, easing back in his chair. He recognized the father’s words were not just limited to this most recent episode.
“Is there no rest for the wicked, no peace even high in the forest?” Imperius remained silent, letting her father settle into troubled thoughts before admitting the turn of his concern. “We were to go back to Sofia and as far as Bucharest before returning home.”
“Your daughter will be safe here if you remain until day after next.”
Her father blanched at the monk. “Daughter?”
Imperius fought the tug of a chuckle but knew in the face of this father’s despair over what was now deemed a horrible decision it would not be taken well. Instead he rubbed the grizzled beard over his chin to cover the smile. “Perhaps the other monks have been long divorced from the real world not to recognize, but it will soon become impossible to hide her in boy’s clothes. She will be quite a beauty.”
Her father glanced over to the pallet on the floor where she lay on her stomach, arms crossed under her head, by all appearances sleeping and to all thoughts to the contrary, much more able to translate the Greek they used for their discourse than even her father knew. She kept her eyes shut as her father sighed.
“I thought to teach her to use her mind, her intellect to survive. To be a master of languages and customs like myself. But her mother was a Circasssian…I fear I will have to strike a terrible bargain some day to keep her safe.”
Imperius understood well and hoped the girl would heed the words she overheard. There would not always be a golden demigod to save her. He listened to the wind in the woods. There would be no blood tonight, no terror in the forest whose sounds would echo up to the monastery.
“No bargain is needed this night,” Imperius spoke, standing. He took up the cup left untouched by this scholastic pilgrim and drank some of it down. “This place was just a copy room; we’ve learned to store all our valuable work in a safe place nearby. Tomorrow I will show you and the following day, one of our…ur…order will travel with myself to escort you to Sofia where I’ll take you to the library there.”
Her eyes flew open and she saw her father’s stunned face staring up at the monk. “These were…copies?”
“Yes, Idris, there are many secrets in this place.” Imperius threw his eyes to the girl faking sleep on the floor. “Some more wondrous than manuscripts.”
Heart beating in her chest, she hoped fervently that she would see the golden monk again and proceeded to succumb to the fatigue of a full day’s travel and horrible consequence of the day, not even noticing the shadow of wings the firelight cast above her.
“You’ll not pursue them tonight.”
It was a command, not a request. One he found odd coming from the monk. Still, he felt the weight of it even though it made little difference to him. He scratched the gray-brown wolf under his chin and watched the fire dying.
“The sounds in the forest would be too much, I think, for our gentile visitors,” Imperius continued, throwing a short log onto the fire and taking a long draught from the cup he’d once offered the pilgrim.
His brows drew together. The boy. Maybe it had been a mistake to reveal himself to the lad but he couldn’t let the intruders take a victim. He’d already felt pained that the scriptorium had been desecrated, even if it wasn’t the valuable work. He’d wandered far afield with his wolves, appeasement that seemed to bring with it a price.
The boy had unsettled him and in truth, he had already planned to wait a day and then seek out the defilers to take his revenge. Such an innocent face looking up at him as if he were something…he couldn’t place the thought.
“What is it, my son?”
He struggled with his words and when he was troubled, as much as it eased him to find the right words, his vocabulary was still limited and the effort to bring his thoughts to sound an honorable fight against his mouth’s own strangeness.
“The good boy sleeps?”
“The good boy?” Imperius didn’t stop the smile filling his face. Well, apparently, his nature boy had been fooled as well as all the other monks. “Yes, dreams laden in gold, surely.” His reply went with understanding or reply. “Thank you for seeing the youth spared.”
This caused him to turn his head, trying to understand the look of expectation on the monk’s face. When no words further passed between them, he returned his eyes to the fire, not seeing anything but light green eyes wide and awed staring up at him, painting him as something he was not.