Light in the DarknessbyNigel Debonnaire©
This story is set in the year 846 in Northern Italy. A brief glossary follows the story.
Abbot Agostino winced as he made his way on the muddy track. A afternoon rain had dampened the trees and shrubs on the five mile path between the historic abbey of Ebovium and the simple hut of Niccólo the Priest. The Abbot's toes grew muddy in his leather sandals; the chill dampness affected his sixty year old joints and old war wounds more than previous years. Mumbling his office from memory, he trudged on, alternately offering his pain up on behalf of the monks of his monastery and cursing the advancing feebleness of years that his warrior father and grandfather never knew. He longed to return to the Scriptorium, to his copying and his books beside a warming fire, and to his Cell afterward. He never slept well at Niccólo's house: partly due to the long evening of stories, instruction and simple entertainment, and partly due to what happened after Niccólo and his family left the next day for market, when the Mother Superior from St. Barbara's convent arrived.
Peeking up at the sky from beneath his hood, his cropped rusty silver hair was tousled by a flick of a breeze. The sky showed a few clouds hinting their red dusky hue while a dark storm on the horizon flickered blue as it headed farther into the mountains. Ice blue eyes darted around, peering between the trees; the Abbot knew this track from fifteen years of regular weekly passage, yet he knew the fragile peace of this area could be lost to brigandage at any time. He had put off the mad warrior ways of his youth, but his senses were always tuned for potential combat even after walking the way of peace for forty plus years. More than one unlucky thief had discovered this trying to rob this particular monk.
The path through the woods opened on a small clearing, where a simple, one room hut offered rustic incense heavenward through the central hole in its roof. Within sight was a small chapel on an old cart path where Niccólo offered the Sacraments of the Church to the farmers of the nearby village. Storytellers sang of an ancient pagan shrine to Diana on this remote spot, so when Christ came to the Lombards, a chapel was constructed here from Diana's sacred grove next to her sacred spring rather than in the village.
The nuns of St. Barbara's convent gathered for Vespers. Filing in one by one, they took their place in the dim light of the Romanesque chapel. Beams of light shone down like spotlights, playing with the incense that wafted through the Chapel. Mother Lucia strove with difficulty to focus on the Office: it was Wednesday and tomorrow would be the day she spent at the house of Niccólo the Priest. Her thighs were warm and wet in anticipation, and she knew she wouldn't sleep well, eager to rise early in the pre-dawn to bathe, as she had every Thursday morning for the past fifteen years in preparation for the encounter.
She looked over at the older girls, who were always present for prayer. Most were rapt in prayer, except for some of the teenagers. A frown crossed her face as she corrected them silently as their eyes met hers: afterward she would have to set penances for them. Thanks to the rebels, the older nuns seldom had to scrub the floors, weed the gardens and carry the water themselves. Mother Lucia's eyes met a young girl of eight, whose dark hair, blue eyes, full lips and olive skin were a mirror of hers. Little Monica was developing rebellion early, and Mother Lucia smiled ruefully as she remembered her own childhood and early independence. "My mother has cursed me well," she muttered to herself under her breath.
The small chapel by Niccólo's hut smelled of old incense as Abbot Agostino entered, and glowed from many beeswax candles. The walls were plastered and the ceiling and floor were made of rough wood. The high altar had been carved by Niccólo's father with great devotion and minimal skill. The crowning glory of the small chapel that could hold eighty souls before bursting was a stained glass window, created by Emperor Lothair's own glassmaker for this little chapel at Abbot Agostino's bidding, in exchange for Masses said for the glassmaker's late mother. A portrait of the Blessed Mother, holding the Infant Jesus in her arms, glowing in the light.
Four small children were playing in one corner: a reprimand from their mother dampened their glee. Niccólo was a dark haired man in his mid forties wearing a ragged alb, chausible and stole over his peasant shirt and trousers; his son Boetio was dressed likewise and younger son Silvestro, wearing only an alb, held the missal ready to begin the Mass. Abbot Agostino took his place, and the twenty year old Boetio, a mirror of his father, began: "In nomine Patris, et Filiis, et Spiritui Sanctis. . ."
Niccólo's wife and her spinster sister were thick, heavy set women, their short hair contained in their headscarves, their plain, placid faces lost in prayer. The four young children, barefoot and grimy, sat and watched in awe as their brother celebrated the Eucharist. Niccólo swung the censer and beamed at his son's flawless pronunciation of the Latin prayers. The Abbot nodded as he followed the rite, graciously receiving the host and chalice when offered. The Mass concluded and the family reverenced the altar before cleansing and putting the sacred vessels and garments away and returning to their home.
Some honey flavored dough was rising as the Priest's family entered the hovel with their guest. Niccólo's wife pinched and flattened several pieces before slapping them on an inverted pot: baking them to warm, brown, soft goodness. Niccólo brought out some homemade wine, and the family shared their simple meal with their guest in high spirits.
"Wonderful, Boetio, wonderful. You'll be a fine priest for this little chapel, just like your grandfather and father," Niccólo said as he slapped his oldest surviving son on his back. The older women smiled while the little children laughed at Niccólo's praise. "I've never heard such good Latin; you've learned your lessons from Abbot Agostino well."
The lean young man smiled and sipped from his cup. "Thank you, father. The Abbot has been very patient with me. I am honored that he has shown me such favor by patiently instructing me for so many long hours."
"My pleasure, Boetio," the abbot said. "I had hoped you would join us at Ebovium someday, but serving God here for the villagers is a noble life's work as well."
"Boetio's girl is large with child," his mother interjected. "We go to fetch her tomorrow so she may live with us. Ludovigo's daughter will make a fine priest's woman."
"She has large hips like my sister, and will bear him many children easily," her sister volunteered. The older women giggled like children while the little ones looked on in confusion and Boetio blushed. Niccólo beamed.
The Abbot nodded, trying not to wince. Boetio was an intelligent young man who deserved more than this small, vulnerable parcel of northern Italy offered, as the politics of Charlemange's Empire swirled back into chaos. Another sharp young mind was to be deprived of the resources of the Abbey library, where honed, it might uncover new mysteries from the past and provide new light for the future. He could only pray that Boetio, this family and this land would be spared the wicked winds blowing in the North and the South.
The women were chatting with each other and scolding the children, who had returned to loud pranks once they had finished their food. Niccólo moved close and whispered nervously: "Are the Saracens coming? I heard they defiled San Pietro and Papa Sergio is in danger."
Abbot Agostino leaned back and murmured: "I do not think so. The Holy Father has called his neighbors to support him, and the infidels have withdrawn. The Saracens still hold Sicily and press toward Gaeta, but by the Grace of God, they will not prevail. Their numbers do not seem enough to make it here through central Italia; their ships do not probe this far north."
"Will the Emperor intervene?"
"He still squabbles with his brothers Louis and Charles, trying to regain what he has lost. The peace is not firm, and I do not think he will look South unless the Saracens come to the Po."
"God forbid. This land should be at peace for the foreseeable future."
"Good. I do not want to worry about my family in my grave, and so lengthen my years in Purgatorio."
"In your grave? Surely not soon. Niccólo, you will have many more years, God willing."
"No, I do not believe it is God's will. When my father passed his fortieth year, Satan began squeezing his chest from time to time, and one day he was struck down gathering grapes to make wine. Satan squeezes my chest from time to time, has for a year now, and I know the day will come soon when I am summoned to the Refiner's fire. It may be next week, next month, next year, but I do not think it will be more than two. If I do not see you before then, Abbot Agostino, let me express my eternal gratitude for your kindness through the years. You have advised me well, tutored me and my son, done many favors to brighten our lives. Boetio will take up my work fully prepared for life as a priest. I am eternally in your debt."
"Father Niccólo, you have done me great service over the years, hosting my weekly conferences with Mother Lucia and Sister Agnes. Your dwelling is exactly halfway between our monasteries, but like the noble man from the Gospel who bears a pack two stadia when asked to bear it one, you have made us welcome without question, taking your family away to give us privacy. Words cannot express my appreciation for your generosity."
Niccólo the Priest stood up and dusted himself off. Clapping his hands, he announced: "It is nothing; we had to go to the market one day a week. Another cup of wine before we bed down?" The Abbot nodded his head, and the Priest poured him another cup of deep crimson liquid. Speaking louder, he said: "If you would favor us, Abbot, we would like another story of your youth in the far land of Laigin on the Holy Island where Naohm Padraig drove out the snakes of evil."
"Well, if you insist. . ."
Mother Lucia returned to her cell at last. Another day at the convent was done, and all were bedded down for the evening. Monica had accepted rebuke for her behavior at prayers sullenly, and the Abbess worried about her. Ten years and the girl would be told about her heritage. By then she should have shaken off her youthful rebellion.
A breeze played through the window, and Mother Lucia shivered in anticipation of the next day. Memories flooded back of the Flann Mahon, and how he made her feel. She tingled from her head to her toes, and ached for him.
The sun had long sunk beneath the horizon when Niccólo called for an end to the stories and bade all to rest. The Abbot was invited to lie on the bed alone, where two of the family dogs lay across his throbbing arthritic feet once he was settled. The children scurried to the rafters where their pallets were set up, while Niccólo, his wife and her sister made their resting place in a corner. The lamps were doused, and moonlight shone through the window.
Resting uncomfortably, the Abbot listened as the house and the world outside came to its evening rest. When all was quiet, he heard slurping sounds from the corner, and turned away from them. The rustling grew more and more frantic, with murmurs and moans wafting through the room. "Niccólo deserves to have Satan squeeze his chest, using two women to satisfy his raging beast," he said to himself as he half-dozed through the ordinary sounds of the hut at night. It brought back memories of his childhood and his teen years, sleeping in common rooms and politely ignoring different couple's lovemaking in the night, and made him long for the silence of his Cell. He shifted uncomfortably as he grew erect, the sounds reminding him of the next day's meeting and the one who met him there on Thursdays. Finally, he fell asleep, his member still rigid, as Niccólo, his wife and his sister concluded their coitus.
Mother Lucia and Sister Agnes silently toiled up the path from their convent barefoot just before dawn. The dampness brought a delicious sensual feeling to the hardened soles of their feet, squishing up between their sturdy toes. They walked in silence befitting two religious women, their heads bowed but their eyes darting beneath their veils. There was only one possible ambush spot on their trail until they met the old Roman road that ran up the mountain toward the Lombard village and beyond to the chapel that transformed Diana's grove. There were other travelers that bowed as they passed, touching their breasts in respect, before passing on. Enough people were on this road today that the possibility of a madman beyond God's control would consider attacking a holy woman. They breathed prayers of gratitude for their safe passage.
Each step was a thrill for Mother Lucia, Abbess of her monastery. The Flann Mahon, the great Red bear of a man, who pushed her patience and devotion like none other, would be waiting for her. Her skin tingled as her rough habit touched her skin.
Sister Agnes had entered the convent when she did twenty eight years before, at age 12, and they had shared many long hours of labor as they claimed their place in the community. Mother Lucia remembered Sister Agnes' long blond locks from their childhood together: an odd pairing of a dusky daughter of ancient Roma with the descendant of the Winnili from the far North, a barbarians who came as invaders toward the end of the old Empire.
Sister Agnes spent every moment possible in prayer, and was always glad to accompany her Abbess on her Thursday journeys, to spend long hours lost in meditation undisturbed in the remote chapel, away from the cares of the nursery for orphans she supervised. Sister Agnes never asked Mother Lucia what she did at Niccólo the Priest's hut. The old friends traveled together cautiously, but with light hearts.
They reached the market, touching the faces of the children in blessing as they passed, receiving the thanks of their parents. A basket of fresh eggs covered in straw, and another with fresh vegetables and figs were pressed into their hands, to share with their sisters upon their return. An offer of a delicate lamb and a shank of fresh, red deer meat were refused with a delicate shake of the head. "We are abstaining from meat this month," Mother Lucia said quietly, and the villagers gasped in awe of spiritual white martyrs, great in faith, that would abstain from meat outside of Lent.
Between the village and the chapel, they met Niccólo and his family on their way to the market. He touched his brow in greeting and his family bowed as they approached. His voice almost sang: "Greetings, sisters, how fare you?"
"Well, sir," Mother Lucia replied, "both of us. And you?"
"Well for today. A great day, a great day."
Mother Lucia nodded and smiled: "How so?"
"Today after we market, we go to fetch Ludovigo's daughter to be Boetio's woman."
"How wonderful. She is a lovely girl, and I'm sure Boetio will be happy with her."
"Yes, yes. The Abbot speaks highly of both of them."
"Did he spent the night under your roof?"
"Oh yes, slept soundly this morning. The travails of the Pit could not awaken him, but I'm sure he'll be lively when you get there."
"Thanks, Niccólo. We would appreciate your blessing."
Niccólo reached out and muttered a few words in Latin, ending with the Sign of the Cross. "Hope your conference is a productive one."
"Thank you. I hope your journey to Ludivigo's house is safe and your celebration of Boetio's union is a festive one."
"Oh, doubt not, doubt not." The nuns resumed their walk as the priest and his family moved on toward the market.
A dream gripped the Abbot's slumbers after dawn passed. A flashback: wild men shouting and sending way cries to the heavens, women and children crying. Smoke and blood, metal clanging against metal. The Flann Mahon met his match: a huge Vik who was a head taller and the reflexes of a cat. A nick here, a cut there, maybe he could bring the big man down. A comet grazed his chest and threw him to the ground, wet blood bubbling, a blow to the head sent sweat and blood to blind him. Lying on the grass, waiting for a death blow, but bright light appeared above and an angel's voice sounded in his ears. . .
Abbot Agostino woke with a start, realizing Niccólo and his family had risen and left without his awareness. He rubbed his eyes, and looked around as they cleared. The sun was still a red ball on the horizon, and he dashed water on his face before chewing on a crust of bread.
He went out the door and sat under the tree in solitude. The day was warming rapidly and he was glad for the shade. The animals browsed languidly, and the birds sang in the nearby trees. His feet were no longer pulsing from the morning's damp chill. Shortly, a solitary veiled figure in a habit approached, gliding peacefully as a swan on a placid pond. The abbot nodded to her, and bowed her through the door of the simple hut.
On entering the room, she fell to her knees and crossed herself. "Bless me, Father, for I sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. Since then I have been angry with the sisters of my community for vain things, and for when my moods grew dark. I punished Sister Monica excessively for pride; she is but eight years of age and has her mother's stubbornness; I should have more compassion for her. I have been distracted in prayer, distracted in my rest, and distracted in the cloister. I beg your penance and absolution, Holy Father."
The Abbot cupped his chin with his hand. "What was your distraction, Mother Lucia?"
"The Red Bear."
"Yes, the Red Bear. My desire for him is undimmed after all these years. He stalks my dreams when I am alone in my cell, he prowls my thoughts when I try to pray. My legs ache for his touch, my breasts for his hot breath. What is there that can help me with this fever?"
Abbot Agostino felt a stirring below his simple rope belt. Mother Lucia's eyes were fixed on him: two dark pools shining with insistent light. Her nose was aquiline, her skin an olive hue that was her inheritance from a long lost Roman Imperial family. Her mouth was full, her lips turned up humorously, as if enjoying an old game.
The Abbot looked away. "Your penance, Mother Lucia, is to fast tomorrow and Monday, praying for the sisters in your care. Between that and your discipline, you will redeem your soul."
"Yes, Most Reverend Father. May I have absolution?"
She bowed her head as he laid his hands on top of her head, muttering the syllables of the Latin formula, breathing heavily and expectantly. As he finished the sacred words, his fingers began to move, caressing, palming, moving softly. Her breathing grew quicker and quicker as his hands stroked downward over her covered ears. The caresses became more frantic roamed farther, she licked her lips and stroked her stomach, working upward and downward simultaneously.
"It is time," the Abbot intoned solemnly, stepping away from the kneeling woman.
Mother Lucia rose, staring hungrily at Abbot Agostino momentarily in calm determination, before reaching downward suddenly and flipping her habit and veil over her head in one quick motion. Her long, lustrous dark hair tumbled down as it was released, draping her voluptuous nude form. She was long and lean, with ripe breasts hanging heavily with milk, a lush forest between her legs, and pair of dimples that graces her cheeks, stomach and buttocks. Unlike peasant women in their forties, she had kept her form through monastic moderation and hard work.