The Cradle of Becoming and Unbecoming

August 4, 2011

Noel: his pupil, almost his child. He had a name like a bell, wholesome and round. Noel could have tended the golden queendom of hives after Brotherhood and finally a home. They would have planted aster, blackberry, dandelion all in neat districts. They’d reap bitter chestnut honey and thyme that tasted a forest deep.

Isidore watched the weasel go.

He had nothing to say, or he could express nothing. Noel left him. He left any hope for the boy there to wither in the graveyard.

Isidore plodded home. Noel walked with him only a few days before, just like this. A sudden spasm of pain knifed through his shoulder, and his muscles clenched — they writhed like snakes.

Hellgates,” he hissed. Had all the weight he shouldered finally crushed him? Dying of a failed heart would mean dishonor. But the seizure passed– he shuffled on to the orchard.

Foweller swung in a hammock between two pear trees. He swatted a gnat, lazily regarded its brothers, swatted again. “Hullo, Brother Isidore.”

“Boy.” He sniffed the pear-blossoms. “I can’t stand these.”

“They’re not so bad,” said Foweller, but he grimaced. “I don’t want to be in the dormitory.”

“Like me. Do you want any whiskey?”

Foweller gawked. “Can I?”

Isidore fetched the flask. The little otter took a swig; amber dribbled down his chin. “I like,” he said, “I like beer better.”

“Try again.”

He lulled the kit to sleep that way. “You know,” he said, “you’d make a good beekeeper. They have armies, bees do. Kingdoms, too, and things you could never imagine. Bees know how to dance, even. You know how soldiers live, so you’d be…”

“D’n wanna,” said Foweller. “Not that.”

“All right, boy.” Isidore stroked Foweller’s head. He could have wept. “All right.”

Isidore stood beneath the belltower. Cobb lay there crumpled and broken, cold to his touch. Once he bought a wilted, dwarfish cabbage from the mole just to brush his claw and say hello when so many at market did not. His sachet of tobacco went in Cobb’s pocket. He wrapped the body in a blanket.

“Do you need help, Brother?”

Carter. He had brought Clacher with him. The badger hunched over Cobb like a tumbling stone, tipping, tipping, but he miraculously bore the corpse aloft. Isidore began to speak, yet the words felt forced as stones through a sieve. “Father, you didn’t–”

“I didn’t. Not that.” The otter’s voice creased like old, worn paper. “None of us did.”

“How?”

“Could’ve been the rebels,” he said. “Plenty of them here, I can feel it. But I don’t know.”

“I trust you, Father.”

“You do?” He regarded Isidore as if appraising cloth at market. “There are so few.”

He held out his burned paw. “We had vows.”

“We had vows.”

Clacher followed them to the wood in the south-east corner of the lawn. South-east. He seemed to always list south-east, like the needle in a broken compass, pointing past the Abbey and the forest, the inland sea and Southsward, the tallest tree and the deepest gorge… past the graves of countless others he had known.

They chose an alder for Cobb’s tombstone. Isidore did not think the Abbot wanted to see the graveyard again.

“Any words, Brother?”

“For Cobb, who needed guidance. Would that I could help you now.”

“Yes. For Cobb, would that I could trust him– and him me.” He scattered dirt over the grave, then smiled at Isidore. “Gone to sunny slopes and quiet streams. Old Loamhedge words.”

“I know.”

“Is it beautiful there?”

“Very.”

His heart flew ever homeward. But he’d lived too long away; all that waited for him there were more sons he’d never raise, more maids he’d never love, more friends he’d never know.

“I know all the stories about Bragoon and Saro.” Carter looked almost childlike when he spoke. “They were my favorites. They weren’t real, but I always wanted them to be. Like Gonff and Basil and Sunflash.”

Isidore had never heard those names.

“Maybe Martin. I find I doubt so much,” the Abbot said. “Come. I have something to give you.”

At the top of a stairwell, they paused. Carter offered him something wrapped in silk, simply, casually, a bundle no larger than his fist. He unwrapped it: a niello broach depicting the abbey, its center set with an uncut balas ruby. That stone came from lands beyond the Bell and Badger rocks, from wide desert valleys. Maybe his ancestor had touched the same spinel.

“Do you know what this is?”

Isidore shook his head.

“It was Abbot Arven’s, once. Warrior Arven, before that. We are old, so very old, you know. This’ll be your sign, outside the Abbey.” He pinned it to Isidore’s tunic. “I trust you, Isidore. You are my friend; my every secret is yours.”

“I cannot think,” said Isidore, “I don’t know what to say–”

“Then be quiet. There is time enough to talk.”

He opened the door. Isidore could not have guessed who sat at that table, in that room, not before he saw them: the head cook Sister Melina, Tompkins, Delores, the cellarkeeper Ambrosia, her assistant Sebastian, the vole who rung the bells, Sister Redronnet, Foremole, a half-dozen members of the Order, the Badgermum, even a bird with coal-dark plumage and a circlet on his brow. All of them pinned the Abbey at their breast.

The Abbot held out his paw. “To attention, please.”

Tompkins rose from his seat and took a ragged book from his pocket. He held it forth and read. “Tonight I am Mattimeo, our founder, the order in the order. Tonight I bring you our charter, the true charter, that which we hold eternally: we are true to our Abbey, the sovereign of Mossflower.

“Our watch ends only at death.

“The enemy is without; they whisper and wait; they are fox and ferret.” He faltered. “Rat and cat. Marten, stoat, and weasel. And any that doubt our claim on the woods, and all the lands of Mossflower.

“We are a sword in the darkness, and we hold the walls for ever.

“Whispers will not breach them, nor sword or arrow, fire or snow, famine or gluttony.

“Abbot Carter leads us, as did Abbot Simon before him, Abbot Titus, Abbot Copperjean, Abbess Casimira, Abbess Dittany, Abbot Ludo, Abbot Cloverleaf… ” The list went on. “And first and forever, the Blessed Germaine.

“We are the Society of Martin. Rise.”

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