The Fortune Teller, by Ed Ahern (short story)
The Crusader’s Latin was crudely scribed, with many misspellings, but Brother Willman read along quickly, absorbing the narrator’s pride in the pillage and destruction of Constantinople. Christians off handedly killing Christians. The writer had felt no need for apology.
Brother Willman sighed. The victors always wrote from moral superiority. He turned off the light above the vellum book and took a step over to an adjacent table, where loose parchment sheets were arranged. These sheets, also written in Latin, were an account of the same events by a Byzantine priest. He claimed moral superiority as well, but in defeat, and cited the atrocities of the Crusaders as evidence of their demonic nature.
Willman’s thoughts wallowed in ancient gore. He typed his Latin notes into a computer and left, unlocking and relocking the door. A Vatican guard let him out of the library wing housing among other sections the Liborum Prohibitorum, the works condemned by the church.
Niles was waiting for him in the vestibule. Both men were Dominican brothers, sworn to vows of poverty and chastity. Both had the stooped posture of scholars who hunched over documents for weeks on end..
“So, Willman, did you obsess about the winners or the losers today?”
“Both. It’s incredible how much material was retrieved from the losing sides, given that the winners wrote the histories and burnt the libraries of the losers. Squads of friars must have searched through the rubble for heretical scraps.”
They walked to their customary cafe. The waiter brought them each a bottle of Moretti beer.
“Well, learned associate, any revelations?”
“No. Same daily grind, atrocities and sins, sins and atrocities.”
“I envy your exploration of churchly shortcomings. My hagiography is almost too uplifting. The saints are all so good.”
“Don’t be sarcastic Niles. We can’t all be virgins and martyrs.”
“It’s just ironic that I, sardonic if not cynical, am assigned to study the blessed and you, who could have written Pollyanna’s autobiography, study the church’s shortcomings.”
“Blame it on the cardinal.”
Willman had been tucked away in a Catholic university in Connecticut, presenting dead languages to uncaring undergraduates. One evening, while flickering his attention between computer chess and television, he received a telephone call from his bishop. He muted President Obama’s assurances about troop withdrawal from Iraq and picked up the telephone.
The bishop was almost brusque. “Brother Willman, your aptitude in languages and analysis has come to the attention of the Vatican.”
“We’re sending you to Rome for evaluation. If you pass their scrutiny they’ll have some sort of long term assignment for you.”
Willman’s thoughts churned. “Your Excellency, did they indicate the nature of the task?”
“No. They’re being coy and won’t tell me what it is.”
Once in Rome Willman was tested in medieval German and French, as well as Latin. His arcane capabilities impressed both his evaluators and Cardinal Benetelli, who summoned Brother Willman to his private quarters.
“Brother Willman we want you to study the church’s defects.”
“Your Eminence, Holy Mother Church is not considered fallible.”
“Yes, yes, like our holy father in pronouncements on matters of faith. But our history has been…deviled by a series of horrific transgressions. We don’t want you to look at individual failings, although the Lord knows we’ve had enough of those. No, we want you to study our systemic aberrations-the murders committed by early Christian sects, simony and indulgence selling in the Middle Ages, papal wars, the crusades, the persecution of Jews and trials of witches, down to pederasty in our own days. We’ve never had a century without some sort of collective travesty.
“We want you to study two millennia of our defects. You’ll need to set aside the random violence- the wars, pillage and rape engaged in by the laity for which we were spectators, and focus on church instigated atrocities.
Then, assuming you’ve been able to digest all that, we want you to try and project what our future transgressions could be.”
“I don’t think I‘m capable of accomplishing that, your Eminence.”
“We have no one better suited. You’ll have access to the entire Vatican library, including the books that are condemned and restricted. This is a labor of years, so you should plan on becoming a Roman.”
Willman burrowed into his research, so deeply buried during the day that his thoughts were in the Latin vulgate. His evening reversions into English and Italian required several minutes. The church has no index of aberrations, and Willman had to speed read through stacks of documents and pick out the blemishes. He identified scores of monstrous jig saw pieces but couldn’t fit the abnormalities into a meaningful pattern.
His fertile imagination let Willman stare at the horror underneath the dry and self-praising descriptions- the unrecorded torture and rape, looting, disease and starvation. The souls wrenched from their bodies for no sin other than being in the way. He was amazed that the church repeatedly held together and healed, a spiritual amoeba able to absorb and neutralize the poisons of persecutions and internal rots.
Willman’s mind spun without traction, his thinking soggy. He felt trapped in a confessional with a series of boastful transgressors. He prayed daily to see a structure behind the vicious acts, to accept that these evil deeds were balanced by great good, but could only painfully absorb the egregious sins.
Months passed without progress. He began to imagine that he heard the cackles of demons rejoicing in his failure, that the butchered dead stood nearby in silent recrimination to his futile efforts. Brother Willman, by nature upbeat, succumbed to depression.
“Niles, tell me about a saint, I need something to counteract the day’s readings.”
“Well, I’m working on St. Jerome, doctor of the church, translator of the bible into the Latin vulgate. He often used a quotation from Vergil to describe hell, ‘The horror and the silences terrified their souls.’ At one point, in Rome, he was accused of having an improper relationship with the widow Paula, but that may have been because he was exposing the wrong doing of many priests. He died in a hermit’s cell near Bethlehem. His head was revered posthumously in two different locations at the same time.”
“’The horror and the silences terrified their souls.’ That’s maybe also true outside of hell.”
“Don’t get morose on me. God has given us ample reading material and Moretti beer.”
Willman’s summaries to the cardinal read like a child’s book report, describing actions with no clue about motivation. Cardinal Benetelli knew the hours and intellect that Willman devoted to his labor, and felt guilty about being unable to offer guidance.
It was while studying the persecution of Spanish witches and heretics that Willman sensed a faint outline, a skeleton with a few bones protruding from the graveyard dirt. And something else. The hint of infernal will that impelled clergy into violators of Christ’s teachings.
Willman circled through the library like a dervish, not just comparing aberrations but interweaving them, creating tapestries in his mind’s eye that blanketed the walls of the rooms. His cringed as he climbed inside the minds of the perpetrators, but delighted as he drew closer to the underlying pattern.
He lived within the scriptorium, and left Niles to drink his daily beer alone. His thoughts rode the collective failings like dragons, and he saw the violence and killings in the present tense, with identifiable faces, through the eyes of the perpetrators. As his reality lurched he intensified his prayers.
Then, like the unfolding of a particularly ugly flower, he saw the pattern, a suppurating tableaux of wounds barely healed before being reopened. The eagle that each day ate away at bound Prometheus’ liver.
Willman felt afraid to put his thoughts into the computer, and wrote them down in Latin. Had he vellum and a quill pen he might have used them. Willman carefully arranged the religious riots and deaths in first century Alexandria, the slaughter of French Huguenots in the sixteenth century, the machinations of often unholy Popes.
He paused several days to let his findings settle into the belly of his mind and made an about face- staring into the future and discerning with great fear the shapes of the atrocities to come. The wars driven by religious hatreds. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents.
The long hours and wracking tension had ground down his health. Willman wrote a guarded note to the cardinal suggesting that he might have a hypothesis and allowed himself three days of bed rest and meditation.
On the fourth day, needing a human voice, he called Niles. They met at the café.
“Niles, I think I’ve detected a pattern.”
“Little Brother, at the pace you were working I assumed you would either have a stroke of genius or just a stroke.”
“I need to think it through a bit more, but I have my hands around it.”
“Willman, just be prudent in your presentation. We sometimes treat new ideas with hostility. Look what happened to Galileo.”
They finished their one beer and parted. Willman was too excited to return to his small apartment and walked back to the Vatican library. He stood in the center of his scriptorium and viewed his many work tables covered with books and scrolls. Like music stands in an orchestra, he thought, and wondered that evil could create such terrifying harmony and melody.
The thought further saddened him, and he turned to leave. After the watchman had let him out and he was pacing down the corridor there was a bell like noise behind him. Willman turned and saw a very large man, backlit in the corridor lighting. His frayed nerves tore inwards from his skin.
“You’re…you’re not allowed in here.”
Willman had blurted this out in third century vulgate. The person before him responded in kind.
“Brother Willman I came to offer consul.”
“Do I know you?”
“Not in the sense you mean. We have observed your work.”
“I work alone, without observation.”
“And yet we are aware of what you surmise. Come with me.”
It was a command and not an invitation. Brother Willman crossed himself and followed the figure through basket weave passageways to a dead end alcove. In the dimness the figure seemed faintly self illuminated.
“You know your way here.”
The figure smiled, “I have visited often.”
“Who are you?”
“Your names are vague and tongue distorted, but two you would recognize are Malach and Raziel.”
“Those are angelic.”
The visitor shrugged. “Perhaps. Lucifer is also an angel. Brother Willman, I must show you the impact of revealing what you think you know.”
“I won’t talk of private church matters.”
“There is no need. Our only wish is to illuminate the consequences of your deductions becoming known to others.
“You see a pattern through a billowing veil. What you infer approaches truth, but your telling of this partial truth will set no one free.”
“But I’m charged with reporting my findings to the church.”
“And would be sinless in so doing, Brother Willman. Most of what is unfortunate is not evil.”
“But these two thousand years of outrages are surely inspired by the devil!”
“Are you so sure? Is not Asmodeus in his efforts self-ish, working for the ruin of individual souls rather than whole churches? Are not calamities and group transgressions rife outside of religious contexts? Do we not accept that life consists largely of pains and disappointments?
“Think in terms of the chess games that you love Brother Willman. What do you do if your opponent makes a move that is unexpected?”
“I would think through the new variables.”
“And have you considered the consequences of your revealing this partial truth? Or have you just assumed that your pearls of wisdom would somehow eliminate the inequities for which the church is the stage? Do not answer immediately- devote at least as much thought to it as you would to a chess game.”
Willman noticed that the presence in front of him did not seem to breathe, but also discovered that he had lost his fear.
“You’re saying that the future would be worse than what I now see?”
“Beloved Brother, do you remember the quotation used by St. Jerome to describe hell?”
“The horror and the silences terrify their souls.”
“If you reveal your findings, you will have discharged your duty. You’ll be spared much personal anguish. But by acting to diminish or eliminate your visions of future evil the church will create even worse alternatives. Your silence spares others painful and useless foreknowledge. But you must abide in self inflicted anguish. You would be uniquely burdened and tormented. You have free will. It is your choice.”
Willman found himself alone in the alcove. He stood motionless for several minutes, then turned and went back to the scriptorium. The guard seemed unsurprised by his reappearance. He walked into the center of the prohibited wing and rehung the mental tapestries that illustrated his solution. Willman impelled his thoughts forward in time, racing through almost endless chains of if-then, if-then. After two hours of motionless thought his shoulders slumped.
Willman had a farewell beer with Niles two weeks later.
“So you’re going back to teaching dead languages to over privileged children?”
“How badly did Cardinal Benetelli beat you up?”
“Not so badly, considering all the time and money involved. When I told him that my note was in error, and that I’d been unable to make any sense of the church’s missteps, he seemed unsurprised. He thanked me for my efforts and asked for my research. I’ve provided him with all the computerized files. He assured me that I have an academic position to return to.
“May real peace be with you Brother.”
“Thanks Niles. You remind me of someone I met recently. I think that’s a compliment.”
As Willman walked slowly back to his apartment he thought of what he hadn’t told Niles. About carefully burning his handwritten notes and stirring the ashes. About the Cardinal’s final comment to him.
“Brother Willman, I should tell you that you were not the first to be given this task, nor the first to admit defeat. Two hundred years ago we assigned the project to a Franciscan priest. After lengthy study and prayer he acknowledged his failure to resolve this issue. He was thanked for his strenuous efforts and assigned to a quiet parish here in Italy. But the work had a malignant effect on him, and he drank himself to death a few years later. We sincerely hope that if you become troubled you will rely on us for help.”
Brother Willman’s apartment, sparse as a monk’s cell, was not welcoming. He sat down in the only chair in the room and opened his breviary. But his vision refused to shift focus from dark images of the future. He knew that sleep would come grudgingly, and would be infested with unshared dread.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after forty eight years they are both out of warranty. Ed has had a hundred forty stories and poems published thus far, most also reprinted. His collected fairy and folk tales, The Witch Made Me Do It is available from Gypsy Shadow Press, and his mystery/horror novella, The Witches’ Bane from World Castle Publishing.
Posted on July 19, 2016, in Issue 18: Mark My Words: Prophesy Signs & Portents, Uncategorized and tagged drabble, e-zine, fantasy, flash fiction, genre blender, horror, microfiction, poetry, prophesy, science fiction, short stories, The Were-Traveler. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.