The words are ancient, haunting. They form an edict that cannot be avoided or ignored. Written down in the language of man, this heavenly command describes mortality’s only predestined act. Even the mortal who first penned this insight has long since fulfilled his portion of its truth.
The statute is centuries old, yet with the whimper of every newborn its jurisdiction over humanity is daily renewed. To the majority of the living, its eight simple words are a sentence of execution without appeal, a slave’s chaffing shackle, an ever-depleting hourglass. Yet here, in the foot hills of my adopted France, these words are welcomed, even cherished. In this land of plague, inquisition, and famine, this divine law is not reviled, but relished. Its command is a kind of emancipation.
“It is appointed unto man once to die...”
The eight-word Edict is part of the Sacred Book that rests on the altar of our monastery; and I, being the proprietor of this mountain abbey, have read it often. Over the years I have witnessed the callous results of The Edict’s boundless rule. Yet on occasion I have also observed that, like every law devised for mankind, this decree of death also has its loopholes. And it is the existence of such exceptions that compel me to chronicle what I have seen, firsthand.
In this land I am called Friar Bethanae. It is not the name I was given at birth, nor the vocation I aspired to in my youth. Still, it is who I am today. For safety’s sake my old name is rarely spoken. Suffice to say I am a man of many experiences; none the least of which took place over the evening just passed.
￼ Although I am weary from the ordeal, and the folds of my bed beckon, I must record the details of those moonlight hours while they are yet fresh. But because this tale is an exceptional one, I must inscribe it mostly in the northern language of the Anglos. For at present, the English words come easy for me and hard for The Inquisition. That probing priesthood of exclusion does not tolerate the existence of any “exceptions.” Daily their prisons, chopping blocks, and bon fires implement their blind arrogance. They do more to populate Heaven with their sentences of death, than they accomplish with their masses and homilies. Therefore sadly, prudently, this record is not for their perusal, but rather for those who practice discretion with a feeling mind and an intelligent heart.
By rendering this episode in English script (which I have been told all nations will one day comprehend), I hope to sketch a glimpse of humanity so vivid, that all who experience it will chisel its image into the granite of their understanding. For without wisdom mortals perish before their “appointed” time. And indeed, “it is appointed unto man once to die.”
For one particularly plagued soul this ultimate destination was reached last evening. And serving as his reluctant escort on that final furlong, I likewise encountered an experience which has but one rival. It began just after sunset with a pounding at the abbey door...
￼ At first hearing, the rumble seemed just another roll of thunder from the canopy of black clouds hanging over the valley. The rain, which poured from the dark billows, had fallen in relentless, blinding sheets for the better part of the day. So it took me a moment to recognize that the thunderous pounding was in fact a drenched soul standing just outside my door.
As I picked up a lantern to investigate, the mental image of a water-logged caller awakened my sense of dread. In this region no one dared venture out in such weather; for each soggy fool who did so seemed to be the next to exhibit the gray pustules of Le Charbon, the Black Plague. This being so, as I reached the vestibule and laid my hand on the latch, I concluded there could be only one mission that would prod a countryman up the rocky pass in such a downpour; it could only be a matter of life and death.
Lifting the bolt from its cradle, the thick wooden door swung open. Its sustained creek was quickly drowned out, however, by the deluge of wind and rain pummeling the threshold. Raising the lantern and thrusting it out into the elements, my eyes fell upon the silhouettes of two trembling figures huddled under a leaky swatch of burlap.
“Bonsoir Friar,” a breathless voice shivered from under the covering. As they stepped closer to the light, I recognized the mud splattered faces of Henri and Luc Ducant, the brothers who ran the ferry in the valley below.
“Mon Abbot, your skill is needed in the village.”
Perceiving the ominous timber of Henri’s voice, I inched the lantern a step closer and discovered that their faces were not splattered with mud, as I supposed, but with blood.
Pointing them toward the fireplace just off the vestibule, I leaned the full weight of my slender frame against the door, and pushed. As it slowly closed, the noise of nature’s fury diminished just enough that I could hear the labored breathing of my visitors. The staggered cadence of their heaving chests told me of their fatigue and anxiety. Their exhaled breath, visible in the firelight, filled the large stone-walled room with an air of foreboding.
“C’est mal, Friar,” Luc the elder groaned, “it is bad.” Shrugging off his water-logged coat into a puddle around his feet, he anxiously stretched his blood-stained hands out toward the hearth. Rubbing his palms together as though washing them in the warmth, Ducant shivered, “It has happened again.”
His unshaven visage of deep, leathery lines framed a set of old eyes which had obviously witnessed a horror. The expression spoke volumes; still I pressed the ferryman for more. “Happened?” I repeated the obvious, “again?”
“Oui,” he replied, “This time a child, a boy.” His head tilted down, his shoulders drooped, allowing a trickle of pink rain to fall from the bridge of his nose. “Blood is everywhere. You have to come. S’il vous plai, you must!”
Ducant’s plea was direct, put in words as common as the rain. Yet in his voice I sensed a lingering something as potent and unexplainable as the lightening in the night sky. Instantly I felt a rush of uneasy anticipation. My senses flushed.
“Where is he?” I inquired, setting the lantern on the hearth’s mantle.
“We took him to the cafe at the crossroads. The child appears to have encountered the same animal that attacked Marcel’s sheep yesterday, just up river.”
I searched the ferryman’s eyes to find a reason for my uneasiness. But only the glaze of mortality stared back.
“The café owner, Gino; he is a fine cook,” Henri shivered up along side of his elder brother, “But he’s no physician.”
￼ “And Doctor Baptiste?” I probed.
“Summoned to Provence five days back. No doubt the weather has detained him.” Another roll of thunder echoed over the mountain, sending a discernable trimmer through the rafters above us.
“It grows worse,” I observed, glancing up at the groaning crisscrossed beams.
“So does the child,” Luc pressed. “With the doctor away, you are the boy‘s only hope. Please, say you will you come with us.”
In the pit of my belly a giddy apprehension grew; the kind I experienced as a boy, exploring the dark caves of my homeland. Like those Palestinian caverns, I sensed there was more to Ducant’s plea than met my eyes. Something awaited me; this I could feel. Something, or someone was lingering in the darkness, at the bottom of the hill. But what? Who? And how did I know?
Without a ready reply for the brothers I moved to the stew pot simmering over the hearth. Removing the cauldron’s cast-iron lid, I retrieved two bowls from the mantle.
“I would not be a proper Lazarite if I did not first tend to your inner beings. Please,” I motioned the siblings closer, “come warm yourselves with some broth.”
As the soaked pair shuffled closer, I leaned over the pot and dunked the ladle in deep. The act of stirring the kettle and gazing into the fire always provided me with a moment to myself; and I needed the reprieve. The flame’s dancing light shut out the surrounding world. And the circular motion of the broth focused my thoughts; which, at the moment, were likewise swirling.
“A proper Lazarite...” The words I had just spoken echoed in my head, reminding me of my place, my inescapable post.
Tending to the bodies and souls of fellow mortals has been my assignment forever, it seems. It is a difficult, thankless vocation from which I have seldom had a holiday. I have witnessed more than one human’s share of The Edict’s power. Yet I continue on; tending, tolerating; the chosen of an ancient monastic order; ‘a proper Lazarite’. This life-long post I alternately adore and deplore. Yet I would never willingly give it up. It is my purpose, my reason for living. For me, c’est la vie - such is life.
Still, as I leaned over the pot, deep in thought, a reluctance gripped me. “A child is dying.... But it could be a trap. The Inquisition’s hunters are known for their subtle schemes. What do I do?”
Everything is a choice, fraught with risk. The very thing we think we should do can be done at the wrong place or time. The wrong choice, made at the right moment, could be a waste of precious energy, or not change a thing. Even the most thoughtful, well-intentioned plan can turn out to be the most regrettable act of one’s life. We never know the purchase price of a choice until after the selection is made.
Yet, there have been occasions when I have wanted to turn a different way but, for some reason, did not. And it is that unexplainable persuasion which has kept me from countless disasters.
As I turned the ladle, I felt myself reluctantly being drawn into the mouth of an unexplored cavern. The contrasting options whirled in my head as the broth swirled in the pot. ‘What do I do?’ I stared into the hearth’s dancing lights, like a moth drawn to flame.
“The broth, it smells good. Friar? ...Mon Abbot?”
The sudden voice over my shoulder brought me back to my stone-wall surroundings. Looking up, I gazed into the blood-smeared face Henri; the younger, larger Ducant. His towering frame was bending low, extending is long arms down toward me. In his massive hands he cradled a bowl of half-served soup.
“The broth,” he smiled, “perhaps a little more, yes?”
Realizing my lapse, I nodded my head and dipped the ladle from the kettle into his bowl twice more.
Holding the steaming stew up to his face, the young ferryman drew his shoulders up about his wet ears and savored the aromatic heat. The warmth filled his lungs. But in the midst of this pleasure, I watched his half-closed eyes fall on the red stains that matted the cuffs of his sleeves, and Henri’s broad chin began to quiver.
“So much blood,” he whispered softly, unable to turn his eyes from the stains. “We found him just as we were docking for the night.” His voice was distant, barely audible above the crackling fire.
￼ “The covered torches along the pier reflected something odd in the wake of our paddles. Through the gray rain, there was this clump of red bobbing against the shore. Since I was already soaked by the downpour, I jumped to the pier, tied off the bow and went to investigate.”
His account was whispered, reverent; as though he were describing the ritual of the Sacrament to a blind man, while sitting on the front row of St. Peter’s, itself.
“From the looks of him, the lad had been mauled, torn a part. His neck and chest were nothing but a gaping, bubbling wound.”
“Just like Marcel’s sheep,” Luc added, taking the second bowl from my hand.
His elder brother’s interruption gave Henri a moment to visualize his next words. But the image he envisioned only conjured up a well of tears in his staring eyes. The gush reflected the flickering firelight.
“There was so much... red!” Shaking his head as if trying to dislodge the image from his mind, the younger Ducant’s voice broke. Struggling to choke back the swell of emotion building in his broad chest, he gripped the bowl tightly.
“So defenseless!.. So very young!...” The words escaped his trembling lips in a high, choked-back pitch; like steam from a boiling tea pot. “He was about the age m-my Antoine would be now.. if ..if only...”
“If what?!” A sudden growl of aggravation erupted from the other side of the fireplace. “If only what, Henri?” Luc’s old eyes squinted. The younger took a step back, trying to avoid what looked to me a familiar confrontation. “Tell us! Tell the Friar... If what?! If things had been different? If the sun were the moon? If water were flame? If La Charbon had not taken your little girl? Please! Henri! Enough! This must end!” Luc grasped his sibling’s wet sleeve and tugged, “She is dead, let her go!”
The image of the clashing brothers balancing their bowls of broth, reminded me of Jacob and Esau; the Old Testament pair who quarreled over their dead father’s estate.
Watching the Ducants in the firelight, it struck me how little the basics of this world truly change. Everywhere I have journeyed Death leaves a legacy; an inheritance to be claimed or released. Some struggle to possess the tangible spoils left by the departed. While others are themselves possessed; holding on to their decomposing memories until they, likewise, are in danger of spoiling- like Henri.
“Let Antoine go?!” the younger ferryman repeated in disbelief. “She was a part of me, Luc! Antoine was the part that was suppose to live on. She was my only chance -- no, our only chance for the family to continue. You expect me to simply forget that I had a daughter? Should I toss away her memory as easily as throwing another log on the fire?”
“It is time, brother,” Luc persisted. “For more than two years there has not come a sunrise that you have not evoked her name. Let her go! It is time, Henri! Everything ends. So must your anguish - and my long suffering of it!”
From my vantage point, looking up at the arguing pair, I realized that the child in the village was not the only one bleeding. One brother suffered from deeply inflicted grief; and the other, from the denial of his own unattended despair.
“Friar,” Luc turned toward me in desperation, “YOU tell him. Tell my stubborn brother that everything ends!”
With those words my inner eye adjusted to my own dark cave, at least enough to take my first exploratory step. Looking up into Henri’s sad face, I nodded my head slowly and gestured toward Luc, “Your brother is right. Your life will never move forward as long as you are anchored to the past.”
“Oui, Henri,” Luc interjected, “listen to the Abbot.”
As I rose from the kettle and laid a hand on each of their soggy shoulders, the younger Ducant lowered his eyes to the floor.
“I know you loved your child,” I continued softly, “I am sure she was a joy to your family. She was the triumph of your young life. But her brief time here is over. Yours is not.”
“Tell him, Friar,” Luc nodded agreeably, dipping his spoon into his steaming broth.
“Antoine has slipped from your sight... but hear me,” Purposely I placed my forefinger under Henri’s bowed, still-trembling chin and I raised it just enough so the two windows of his soul could look into mine.
“Not everything ends, Henri,” I whispered, “You will see your daughter again.” ￼
The ferryman’s eyebrows slowly raised and he lifted his large frame back to its full height. “What are you saying?”
Luc cocked his head, halting the spoon halfway to his lips. “She is dead, gone!,” he wrinkled his old eyes. “Everything ends.”
“Her life ended Luc, but she did not.”
The two glanced at each other, then back at the madman they suddenly perceived me to be. The fog of their mortality was thick.
“I will see her again?” Henri’s voice returned to its wistful reverence. “H-how?”
Stepping past them to the woodpile resting against the stone hearth, I pulled a shard of kindling from the stack. Tossing it into the flames, I turned back to the mesmerized pair and attempted to burn away their blinding, mortal fog.
“That piece of young tree,” I pointed to the burning shard, “will never have the chance to grow tall and large. It will never know the joy of holding a Robin’s nest in its arms, or shading the sun from lovers carving their names in its trunk. Yet look at it,” I gestured to the glowing embers, “its attributes are warming this room, filling it with light, accomplishing its purpose here, at its appointed time. But all too soon it will be gone, consumed ...at an end. But we are not wood.”
Slipping my hands into the cuffs of my woolen frock, I crossed my arms and studied their bewilderment. Their confused gaze, reminded me of my own indecision. And I realized that my words were not only for the Ducants, but also for the boy within me, hesitating at the brink of the unknown, waiting at the bottom of the hill.
“Though our allotted days are consumed in the heat of love, impatience, anger and regret we are not incinerated, like kindling. Our nature absorbs these volatile experiences. If we are wise, we use life’s heated moments to stoke the glowing embers of our individual understanding - our illumination; so that we might shine the brighter. We are not wood, but living, thinking beings capable of accomplishing far more than a sliver of kindling.”
Henri wrinkled his brow, “But how can the loss of my only child possibly be a good thing?”
“Everything has a purpose, Henri, a reason for being at a specific moment in time-- Your daughter’s birth, her brief life, her death, your reaction to it, even your presence here on this night, in this storm. We should not shy away from these heated moments, but rather experience every flicker of its flame. Such illumination is meant to burn away our imperfection. It is designed to enlighten and guide us toward our appointed destination.”
Moving back to the hearth, I directed their gaze once more to the flame.
￼ “At our appointed time we each rise from the cinders of our flesh, like the smoke, and fade from earthly view. But retaining the glow of all that we experience here, we continue on toward a light far brighter than the fire of a thousand hearths.... We are not wood. We do not end.”
“Mon Abbot you are a man of God, no doubt. H-how do you know these things?”
“Enough!” Luc bellowed again in disgust, banging his empty bowl against the stone hearth. “All of this talk will not change the past. Nor will it raise the dead! It only wastes time for the living!” Bending over, he picked up his soggy coat. “The living, Henri! Remember us? The living? Your wife Louise...my Maria... that ravaged child who hopefully still breathes! We did not come here to dwell on death, but prevent it!”
Throwing his coat about his shoulders, Luc shot an impatient glare in my direction, and pointed toward the foyer door. “Well, man of God? Whether the boy lives or no, your services are needed.”
Ducant’s old, anxious eyes tugged at me. The heat of the hearth’s flames on my back prodded me forward. The cauldron in my belly was a conflicting swirl of Lazarite duty and growing dread. And in the tense silence of the moment, another roll of thunder rumbled through the rafters.
“It grows even worse,” Luc prodded, glancing up at the creaking beams.
“Yes,” I admitted, forcing a hesitant smile, “and so does the child.”
“So, you will come?” Henri whispered, pushing his blood-stained cuffs back into the confines of his soggy coat.
“Of course,” I bowed in priestly fashion. “I am not wood. How could I refuse?”
The question was rhetorical, but my sense of foreboding would have gladly welcomed another option; for the unexplored cavern, just ahead, remained dark.
If I could have only known the price of my choice before it was made.
Freewill ...there is nothing free about it.