Five Years Later. The Benedictine Monastery of St. Ambrose,
Near Chaumont, Switzerland
I don’t remember much about it myself. That day, I mean. I recall the icy cold and the sleet against my face. I remember the crying woman in the red scarf — the one who kissed me and said “I love you” and then disappeared across the stone bridge and down the road.
I believe I am fourteen, though I’m not sure. The brother monks say I’ve been here ten years — here in our monastery of Saint Ambrose — and they reckon I was four years old that day I was left at their gate. They say I didn’t know my name, so they called me Gabriel. You know, after the angel.
The odd thing is that Percy St.-John came to Saint Ambrose on a windy November morning, much the same as I had. More or less left at the gate. After an odd commotion in the forecourt, the gate opened and there he stood — slender and carrying his pack, with ruddy cheeks and a full head of fair hair that seemed to stand up and then to go every which way at once. I could see he was feeling lost.
The thing people seem to notice about me is that I’m small for my age. The thing you notice about Percy is his eyes — large, dark eyes that can suddenly rake you with a piercing glance like you were something a dog had left at the doorstep.
Before Percy arrived, the most exciting events of my life happened when I was nine. It was then, you see, that I began to bump into things. I bumped into doors, walls, and furniture. But, when I bumped into old Brother Simon and caused him to drop a platter of the abbey’s best stoneware, Father Abbot sent to Zurich for the famous oculist, Professor Dietrich. He examined me and some of the old monks and then fitted us with spectacles. At first, mine felt very thick and heavy on my nose, but I rejoiced that I no longer bumped into things and people.
I cannot remember much about my own history, but I remember the murder. The broken body of the little priest. And all the strange things that happened just before and after. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I guess I must begin at the beginning, where the nightmare that Percy and I lived together started.
You see, it all began that day, several months after Percy’s arrival, as we scrubbed floors in the Scholarium. That’s the monastery’s great library. That was the day I began to see people who are not there. The day I began to hear the chorus of evil voices.
“Ouch! Each time I move, my knees feel like little pins are sticking them,” said Percy, as he stopped scrubbing and glanced over at me. I could see the pain in his face. “Gabriel, we’ve washed most of the floor this afternoon. Time to unbend our legs. If we don’t, we’ll be walking like old Brother Paul the rest of our lives. Did you ever figure that Brother Paul probably got that way by scrubbing too many floors when he was young?”
Suddenly, he smiled. That deceptively angelic, gap-toothed grin that always signaled mischief. “No better way to stretch our legs than to climb the tower, eh?”
We dropped our brushes, sprang to our feet, and in the blink of an angel’s eye we were scrambling up the long ladder toward the hatch that opens onto the roof of the abbey’s great tower. One of our favorite places to go.
As soon as we stepped out, the wind caught our robes like sails, almost taking me off my feet. I closed my eyes and filled my lungs with air that smelled of the new life of early spring. In it was even the fragrance of flowers, though who knew from where.
Our abbey sits on a prominence, and, looking out from the north parapet, we could see clear across that broad valley in the high Alps watered by the River Aarn, all sparkling in the sunlight and washed in shades of blue and green. Across and beyond the valley there arise the ice-covered mountain peaks. Peering over the parapet we could see all the many buildings of the abbey itself — the church, Cloister*, the Dorter or dormitory, the Guest House beyond, and further still, we marveled at the most wondrous part of our abbey — the Tomb. The crypt of Saint Hilda of Braytherae, a twelfth-century Irish nun, lies within our monastery. This tomb is an object of pilgrimage by many who wish to obtain a cure by invoking the saint’s name and begging God’s mercy. The monastery is always host to numerous pilgrims, who sometimes stay with us for several weeks. Percy and I are assigned to care for their needs.
Holding out our arms to catch the wind, Percy and I glided to the south side of the parapet and gazed across the river to the village of Chaumont, nestled in the shadow of the abbey. In fact, the town and most of its surrounding farms and forests are the property of the abbey. Below us, wagons and people moved along the road that connects Zurich and western Switzerland with Austria to the east.
As a monk, I have never been permitted beyond the gate, and so I have often watched those people moving about and wondered about them — their lives, their homes, their shops, and businesses. I sometimes think that I find Percy so interesting because he comes from the world beyond the gates. I remind myself too that the world beyond is filled with temptations to sin, and I fear that even to think about it may be sinful.
We glanced down upon the stone bridge that connects the monastery to the village across the river. To one side of that bridge stand the great iron gates of the abbey, proudly inscribed above with words of our patron saint, which are the motto of our community.
Veni redemptor Gentium
‘O come Redeemer of the Earth’... what we monks look forward to with all our hearts. That gate stands guard over the great forecourt of the Church of St. Ambrose, where each Thursday the villagers hold their market.
As Percy gazed down, I found myself looking at him and wondering as I often did just why, or maybe how, he’d come to the monastery. He was about fifteen, I judged — close enough to my own age that Father Abbot had assigned me to be his mentor. I had not presumed to ask Percy about his past, though there was plenty of gossip about him among the brothers. The talk made him seem mysterious.
I am sure I had not heard all the rumors, but I knew the worst of it. Percy is a thief, the monks said. In fact, the brothers say that Percy, despite his age, is a famous thief and even, some said, an evil genius at stealing things — a sinful thing that will surely send him to everlasting hellfire if he does not repent.
Still, Percy seemed to me a good fellow. A little too lost in his own thoughts, most of the time and even given to brooding, but a good person nonetheless. I liked him and, in fact, I noticed that most of the monks did too, in spite of themselves. Since coming to the abbey he had been accepted as a lay-brother and had even impressed the older monks with his knowledge of Latin and Greek and his studies in the Scholarium. Oh yes, Percy St.-John was an odd fish alright. All this made me eager to know much more about him.
From the parapet, we surveyed the surrounding forest.
“Looks an evil place alright,” said Percy, shaking his head.
“Oh yes,” I agreed. “Dreadful. For hundreds of years, the folk hereabouts have feared the Forest of Ohme and have dreaded passing through it. Some say that just as God has claimed the prominence of the mountain for His holy monastery, Satan has claimed the lowly forest for his legion of demons.”
Percy cocked his head and eyed me sympathetically, the way he often does. I continued, “Just last month, I heard Brother Felix say that a farmer... poor fellow... who dared to follow a straying cow into the forest found the unfortunate beast, its carcass being fed upon by winged demons, who fluttered away at his approach, cursing him and God. Imagine that, Percy. They were cursing God.”
“Gabriel, if you’ll pardon me for saying so, that’s a lot of monk piffle. You’ve got to get a grip, m’lad, or you’ll be a raving lunatic in only a few years. Living in this place as long as you have can do strange things to a young mind.”
I ignored Percy’s sinful attitude, as I often do, and instead continued to gaze out at the mountains. When I turned again to Percy, he was standing rigid, his eyes closed and his arms at his sides.
At first, I thought he was shamming. Making more fun of my beliefs. He was fond of doing such things. “Percy! Stop shamming,” I demanded. Nothing.
I don’t know why but just then I turned to look behind me, and there stood an old man — dressed in a rough wool tunic, with a rope cinch and a rough-made wooden cross on a leather string about his neck. His long white hair and beard radiated out from his scowling face. His fierce eyes seemed to be on fire. His arms were outstretched. At me!
My blood ran cold and the look of him so frightened me that I fell to my knees. Just then the old man rose up above the roof by a meter or more and hovered in the air before me. Maybe it’s God the Father, I thought. The old man looked like I often imagined God must look.
I closed my eyes, hoping he would disappear and prove I was having a dream. No good. When I opened my eyes, he was still there, his fiery eyes still fixed on me and looking even angrier.
Now standing, I too began to rise off the roof. The frightful old man kept his gaze riveted on me, as I began to hover, first above the tower roof and then slowly out beyond the parapet, high above the forecourt. I knew that somehow it was the force of the old man’s gaze that had lifted me off the roof. I wanted to close my eyes, but couldn’t. For some reason, I was compelled to experience the full fright of drifting high above the pavement below, knowing that I would surely fall to my death.
Then there came from deep within the old man a low, guttural voice, which said only one word: “Cavefacio!” A word I did not understand.
Once this was said, the old man seemed to lose energy. He closed his eyes. Then repeated, only now in a lower, less angry voice, “Cavefacio.”
The old man’s loss of energy allowed me to close my eyes and when I reopened them, I found myself kneeling on the roof, still terrified.
I turned to look at Percy, to see if he’d witnessed the same thing — heard the strange word — but he remained rigid, his eyes closed.
When I turned once more the old man was gone.
“Why are you kneeling, Gabriel?” I heard Percy ask. I swung around with a start and came to my feet.
“Percy! Did you see him? Hear him?”
“The old man with the white beard.”
“You saw an old man? Where?” he asked, looking over the parapet.
“Yes,” I said, insisting. “Here. On the tower. An angry old man who hovered.... Looked like God the Father.”
Percy’s face suddenly filled with disbelief. “Gabriel, you’ve been having one of those monkish visions that people who live in places like this often have. It’s a trick your mind plays on you. Happens all the time in monasteries, eh?”
All that gave me to know that Percy was not going to believe me. So I decided merely to ask him something I did not understand.
“Percy, what does Cavefacio mean? I know it’s Latin, but I am a simple speaker and it’s not a word I know.”
Percy raised his chin and looked at me differently, somehow. Strangely. As if I’d said something I was not supposed to know.
“It’s an odd and very ancient way of saying Caveo — Beware,” he explained.
Percy continued to eye me strangely, in a sidelong way. Meanwhile, there was something very calming in Percy’s explanation, and I was no longer frightened. It troubled me that I did not understand why I should see something that Percy did not see. Why I should be warned to ‘Beware,’ when others were not. What, I wondered, was happening to me? I decided to say no more and tell no one of the strange man, lest everyone should think I was going mad.