Thursday, June 28, 2012

Castles #5

5. In Castle Pulchra Mane

            Eudes Ridere finished dressing by fastening a leather scabbard over his shoulder.  It housed the great longsword once used by his dead father-in-law, Rudolf Grandmesnil.  The two-handed handle of the sword extended above his left shoulder where he could pull it with his right hand.  Eudes himself would never use the monstrosity in battle; one man in a thousand might be strong enough to wield Rudolf’s weapon of choice.  Rudolf, who had fashioned a kingdom with the sword, was reputed to have been the largest man in the history of Herminia, probably in the whole of Two Moons. 
            Eudes was an accomplished knight, but no giant.  He wore Rudolf’s sword for ceremonial purposes only.  He dressed in a bright blue tunic, loose gray breeches with a drawstring, and black hose pulled over the legs of the breeches.  Comfortable clothes, since his role would require him to stand silently for a long while.
            Mariel brushed her hair, dressed in soft white under garments, sitting before a huge mirror of gods make.  What magic enabled the gods to create such perfect glass?  Eudes was used to life in camp, not living amongst the wonders of Pulchra Mane.  He had visited Rudolf’s castle many times over the years, so castle features like the ridiculously high ceilings in gods’ rooms were familiar to him, but only since his unexpected marriage had the soldier come to appreciate the great variety of magical things in Pulchra Mane.  Not least among them was the golden-haired woman seated before the mirror.
            King Rudolf had died seventeen months ago.  The fractious lords of Herminia might have rebelled immediately, except some of them hoped to join one of their sons in marriage to the king’s daughter and thus rule in Grandmesnil’s place.  It came as an unpleasant shock to them when Mariel bonded with Pulchra Mane the day after Rudolf’s funeral.  Then the city councils of Herminia’s four largest free cities all announced their allegiance to the new queen.
            If they could not supplant Mariel, perhaps they could at least influence her.  The lords Mowbray, Beaumont, Thoncelin and Wadard offered sons or nephews as consorts for the queen.  Mariel delayed, hinting first one way and then another.  She instituted weekly Council meetings, using castle magic, and invited the lords and lady of Herminia to participate.  Whether eagerly or reluctantly, all seven accepted.
            One year to the day after she became queen, Mariel announced her choice of consort, surprising no one more than Eudes.  He was twenty years her senior, a veteran of her father’s wars, a hard man with a scarred face.  In private, in their castles, the lords and lady of Herminia probably said Mariel’s choice was a political one—without favoring any noble house over another she had found a way to cement her own power.
            In public, Mariel Grandmesnil and her consort addressed each other formally and never displayed affection.  Eudes assiduously projected an image of battle-hardened sternness.  In the presence of others, Mariel treated him as a mere servant.  Already they had heard rumors of a new nickname: the Ice Queen.
            In private, things were different.  The old soldier laid his hand on Mariel’s shoulder, slid it forward.  She smiled as he found her breast.  “It’s hard to brush my hair with your arm in the way.”
             “I was thinking perhaps I should try to do my duty as an husband.  The gods require that you produce an heir.”
            “As I recall, you’ve been actively fulfilling your duty most nights.”
            “Aye, my queen.  I’m just eager to serve.  But you must remember, I’m an old man.  I would be ashamed to die without accomplishing my purpose.”
            She lifted his hand to her lips.  “Not just now, dear thing.  We have a Council to attend.”  Her eyes met his in the mirror.  “But after we’ve done our duty in the great hall, I would happily have you do yours.  I’m ready for my dress; why don’t you send in Blythe?”
            “As you wish.”  Eudes inclined his head.  Approaching the door, he drained the affection from his face before opening it.  Mariel insisted that they maintain their pretense of coldness even with the castle servants.  Blythe, one of Mariel’s attendants, was waiting on a bench in the hall.  When she looked up at Eudes his jaw was clenched and his lips pressed firmly together.  Blythe drew in a breath and stood up.
            “Your queen desires your help to prepare for Council.”  Eudes spoke formally, quietly.
            “Yes, my lord.”  Blythe curtsied and darted into the bedroom.

            Aweirgan Unes, counselor to Mariel’s father and chief among Pulchra Mane’s servants, met them as Mariel and Eudes entered the great hall.  “Fair morning, my Queen. My lord Eudes.”  Aweirgan inclined his bald head.
            “Fair morning, Aweirgan,” said Mariel.  “Shall we take our places?”
            The queen stood before the globum domini auctoritate, facing the blank blackness of the viewing wall.  Aweirgan Unes sat slightly behind Mariel and to her left, on a finely carved wooden chair.  He held a slate and piece of chalk with which to record abbreviated notes.  Eudes stood behind the queen to the right.  Eudes pulled the great sword from its scabbard and stood it like a warning sentinel, his hands resting on the pommel.
            Aweirgan said, “We are ready.”  Mariel placed her left hand atop the lord’s knob.  The globe flushed immediately with a violet glow and lights began to flicker in the viewing wall.  Eudes had seen this magic many times now—gods be pleased, he had participated in Council every week since his marriage—and still he marveled. 
            Seven points of flickering light became steady; the others disappeared.  The seven lights grew and became tiny pictures, and the pictures grew larger until they looked like windows, and in each window there was a face.  Godfrey Giles, Wymar Thoncelin, Denis Mowbray, Rocelin Toeni, Lady Avice Montfort, Osmer Beaumont, and Paul Wadard—the lords and lady of Herminia, all of them subject to Mariel; these, with Eudes and Aweirgan, comprised Mariel’s Council.  Each one controlled his or her own castle, and most of them resented Mariel’s sovereignty.  But they presented themselves every week, by means of ancient magic, to report news, voice their complaints, offer advice, debate one another, and hear her decisions. 
            And they would obey; yes, they would.  First, they had sworn solemn oaths to Rudolf.  Second, they feared what the great sword symbolized, Rudolf’s army.  The king was dead, but Eudes, his general, still lived.  Pulchra Mane, the city around the castle, and the free cities pledged to Mariel were rich enough to support an army far larger than theirs.  In Rudolf’s time that army, under Eudes’ command, had besieged lords Mowbray, Toeni, and Giles, each in turn, eventually forcing surrender.  Even against the magic of a castle, a patient army could compel its lord to yield. Third, at least some of the lords of Herminia had grudgingly come to acknowledge the benefits of a united island.  In Rudolf’s last years roads had improved, highwaymen had been hunted down, trade had increased and no lord had attacked another.
            Mariel succeeded her father seventeen months ago.  So far she had proven abundantly able to hold his kingdom together.  She played the seven against each other, alternatively threatening or rewarding, praising and cajoling, reminding them of the benefits of peace.
            Soon, perhaps today, Mariel would go further.  Eudes contemplated their faces, wondering how they would respond.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Castles #4

4. Near Lafayette, Oregon

             “. . . the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”
            Martin Cedarborne tried to keep the phrase from the apostle before his mind while entering sales figures in a computer spreadsheet.  He speculated whether lectio divina would be easier if he worked in the bindery or—even better—in the monastery’s forest.  He didn’t positively resent his job; since he had extensive background in the use of computers, it made sense for the abbot to assign him to office work.  Besides, in November, hardly any of the brothers worked in the woods, and extra clerks were needed to fill holiday orders for the fruitcakes that brought in a significant portion of Our Lady of Guadeloupe’s annual income.  Still, he struggled to meditate while manipulating a spreadsheet.
            “ . . . the old things have passed away . . .”  Marty knew to a certainty why his spiritual director, Father Stephen, had ordered him to read and consider the fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians.  Father made no secret of his reasoning.
            “Marty, you are no greater sinner than others.  Over the years our ranks have welcomed felons.  One man, a generation ago in another monastery, not Our Lady, was known to have been an enforcer for a loan shark; a violent man before Christ subdued him.  There have been brothers who defrauded the poor, and others who cheated the IRS.  Not all of them were convicted in courts of law, but they all—we all—are saved by the kindness and grace of Christ.
            “You know all this, Marty.  In your head.  You need to get it here.”  Father Stephen placed his hand on Marty’s chest.  “Your heart needs to know what your mind knows.”
            Marty’s eyes came unfocused from the computer screen.  He blinked several times and looked again at the formula at the top of column J.  The letters and symbols swam.  He needed a break; glancing at the clock, he decided 9:56 was close enough to ten o’ clock.  He clicked “save” before starting for the restroom.  Absentmindedly, he picked up the small-print New Testament he kept on his desk and put it in his pocket.  “ . . . behold, new things have come.”
            Alyssa Stout called herself a good Catholic girl, and she was.  At 27, Marty married her.  But when he was 31, the good Catholic girl moved out.  A baby, she told Marty; she would not bring her child into an alcoholic’s house.  Why not?  He had responded with cruel sarcasm.  It was good enough for you; your Dad is a sot, always has been.  And what will the Church say about divorce?  Her answer froze him.  “I don’t know what the Church will say, but I will go to hell before I let my baby live with a drunk.” 
            She left him.  Soon she had a new job, doing fieldwork for children’s services.  Marty liked to think that broke through his shield wall of denial.  Three weeks into the separation, he capitulated.  He called.  She didn’t pick up, so he left a message, and he sent an email.  “You’re right,” the message said.  “I drink with clients, and I drink at home.  I drink in the office and I drink in hotels when I’m on the road.  Last night, I went to an AA meeting and I said the words: I am an alcoholic.  I’m going to get better.  Lyss, babe, you don’t have to believe me yet, but you will soon.”
            Alyssa never returned the call, never responded to the email.  His stepfather, stone sober for once, called Marty that evening.  Alyssa was dead.  She was a social worker for children’s services.  Walking the corridor of an apartment building to see a client, she happened in front of a door just as a terrified meth addict flung it open.  The meth-head and Alyssa were both killed by the explosion. 
            The old man asked: “Did you know Alyssa was pregnant?”
            “Yeah, I know.”  After that, both men could only sob.
            After the funeral mass, Marty returned to church every week. He made confession, received absolution, and took communion.  He quit his job as a high-tech salesman, took the insurance money, and moved to Chicago.  He lived for a year in a Catholic Worker house, doing whatever needed to be done.  One time he sat up all night with a meth addict to keep her from doing the drug.  It didn’t stop the woman from dying a week later.
            As one would expect, Marty had friends who told him Alyssa’s death was not his fault.  If anyone was guilty, it was the meth-head.  But when life tastes like ashes, such rationalizations give no comfort.
            In Chicago Marty thought of his life as a penance.  He had killed his wife and unborn child through self-indulgence.  How many years of service did he owe? 
            After the Catholic Worker year, Marty gave away the money he had left—hardly any—and moved to Oregon.  One does not become a monk overnight.  An initial visit, then a thirty-day monastic life retreat, then three months in an observership, then a full year as a postulant, and finally two years as a novice.  Now, two months into his novitiate, Marty felt fully at home at Our Lady of Guadeloupe.  Sometimes he even felt okay as Marty Cedarborne.
            Early on, Father Stephen had forbidden him to think of life as penance.  “Maybe you will always feel guilty about Alyssa.  I can’t order you to change your feelings.  But you are a child of God, forgiven by Christ.  If you are to be a brother among us, yours will be a life of work, prayer, and contemplation.  The grace of Christ now rules in your life.  The old things have passed away.  You must put your mind on new things.”
            The restroom door pulled away before Marty pushed.  Someone had pulled it from the other side, Father Stephen.  Like most of the brothers, Father and Marty dressed in simple work clothes during the labor hours of the day.  The two men made eye contact, and the priest nodded.  Cistercians are not required to keep silence, but they often do. 
            Marty peed, washed his hands, and dried them with a paper towel.  He received his new vocation in that instant, before tossing the paper towel into a trash bin.
            Father Stephen suddenly remembered something he needed to ask Marty.  He came back to the restroom, but there was no one there.  He frowned; novices don’t usually disappear into thin air.

Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Paths of Redemption

    Too often stories about good and evil turn into overt battles; one side triumphs over the other.  Whether we're cheering a spy, a sleuth, a scientist or a salesman, the battle results in the literal or figurative elimination of the enemy spy, the criminal, the mystery or the competitor.  Very often in popular stories the victory of good means the death of the characters that represent evil.  Given the stories we tell, it's not surprising that our children grow up believing that evil beings must be killed--and even then beware that they don't come back as zombies!
    I won't deny that terrific tales have been constructed on the simple plot of good killing bad.  But Christians should not be satisfied with this narrative arc.  The Bible is the story of good triumphing over evil, but the triumph doesn't consist in the annihilation of sinners, rather in their redemption.
    Redemption stories are harder to tell and make compelling to the reader than good-kill-bad tales.  The author has to go inside a character.  Readers need to feel sympathy for a character while at the same time seeing the character's need for repentance.  A character or characters may be pulled or pushed by events toward change, but coercion is not allowed.  Real repentance requires free will.
    A redemption story can be explicit, as in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Edmund is a selfish traitor and a liar.  Aslan's death substitutes for Edmund's, and Edmund says he is sorry for his bad behavior.  After Aslan's triumph over death, he meets privately with Edmund and forgives him.  Someone might complain: it only works (as a story) because it's written for children.  But Lewis gives a much subtler redemption story in That Hideous Strength.  Mark Studdock is drawn into greater and greater evil by means of his vanity, but in the end he is saved partly by a very simple fear of death.  His salvation is not dressed up in anything like the religious language of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  At the crucial point Mark understands that he will most likely die, and in that extremity he turns against the evil that surrounds him.  On Lewis's view, that's all the opening divine grace needs; God is eager to save, a theme of The Great Divorce.
    Redemption stories can be far less explicit.  Consider one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day. Phil the weatherman is a jerk.  He's egoistic, insensitive, disdainful of others, and manipulative.  Grace enters Phil's life through time-loop magic; he is condemned to repeat February 2 again and again, ad infinitum . . . until he freely turns from his self-centered life to a life of genuine compassion.  Along the way, Phil learns some humility: he doesn't really "make the weather"; he can't escape Groundhog Day by killing himself; he can't make the girl remember their time together; and he can't stop the old man from dying.  The story makes no reference to God, yet it gives us a marvelous parable of the operation of grace.
    These thoughts lead me to an obvious question.  Can I write well enough to bring redemption into my stories? 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Castles #3

3. Near Castle Inter Lucus

            Eacnung completely rejected Ora’s account of the rape.  She hurled anger at Attor.
            “It’s your fault, even more than the little jade’s.  You should have married her to some fisherman from Downs End.  She’s fifteen years old, a grown woman.  No wonder she wanted something between her legs.”
            Attor asked Aethulwulf for his side of the story.  So Ora had to listen while Aethulwulf lied.  “She came up against me when we was swimmin’ and she kissed me and . . . I don’t know . . . we did it.”
            Aethulwulf mocked Ora with his eyes at supper.  Attor and Eacnung ignored both of them.  Eacnung busied herself feeding porridge to her three-year-old son, Rand, while nursing baby daughter Rheda.  And Attor seemed engrossed with the embers of the fire, blinking at it for a long time before going out to walk in the dark. 
            Later, when the summer night was fully dark and the small children were asleep, Ora had to listen to Attor’s heavy breathing as he expended himself into his wife.  The Woodman’s one-room house had never afforded privacy, so Ora was no stranger to the sounds of sex.  But tonight hearing Attor and Eacnung’s coupling reinforced her sense of helpless rage.  Tears spilled silently down the sides of her face as she stared up into blackness.  She waited, half expecting Aethulwulf’s hand to snake from his pallet to hers; she resolved to strike as hard as she could the moment he touched her.  No doubt Eacnung would blame her, but it was not going to happen again.  Not tonight, not ever.
            Attor fell asleep, then Eacnung.  The Woodman’s wife snored.  Aethulwulf, too, seemed to sleep.  Ora made herself breathe slowly, regularly, mimicking the sounds of sleep.  Then, to test Aethulwulf, she held her breath for many heartbeats and waved her hand toward him.  No response—though the dark was so thick she couldn’t see her hand any better than Aethulwulf. 
            Still Ora waited, worried that Aethulwulf might be feigning sleep.  She formulated a short list of needful items and in her mind’s eye located each one: a knife, a flint, a cloak, a wool tunic, and a leather pouch that would hold all.  In three steps she could collect them.  Her boots were just inside the door, and a small fishing net hung on a sawed-off branch of a tree outside the house.
            Aethulwulf turned on his bed, still seemingly asleep.  Ora rose swiftly and as silently as possible.  She snatched the knife, flint, cloak, and tunic and fumbled only a moment pushing them into the pouch.  She lifted the bar of the door, thrust it open and grabbed her boots as she stepped out. 
            A voice from the house: “Ora!” 
            She bolted.  Never again.  Starlight was plenty after the dark of the house.  Ora took the fishing net as she ran and stuffed it into one of the boots.  Boots swung from one hand as she ran, leather pouch from the other.  She wore only a light linen under tunic that reached to mid-thigh, hardly protection from branches or nettles.  But she ran a trail well known to her, on tough leathery feet and sinewy legs.  Neither Attor nor Aethulwulf could catch her in the dark, and if they waited for daylight to track her she would be miles away. 
            Of course, if she fled north, deeper into the forest, Attor would eventually catch her, if he made the effort.  He was an accomplished tracker, and he knew all the woods between East and West Lake.  If Ora turned south, she would come to farms and the villages of Inter Lucus and Senerham.  Attor would expect her to flee there and come looking.  But she would not stop at the local villages; she would follow the road around the south end of West Lake to Down’s End, a real city.  A journey of four days, maybe five.  Maybe some shop or innkeeper in Down’s End would employ her.  Or she could hire on a fishing boat.  Or . . .
            Ora slowed to a walk and finally stopped altogether.  What’s the obvious and most likely employment of a young woman with no husband, father, brother or uncle?  Ora knew little of the world beyond the two lakes region, but what she knew promised nothing but trouble.  She could fish with net or line, and she knew the use of a woodman’s tools.  She could sew simple clothes, cook the meals of poor people, and clean.  Not likely any of that will save me from whoring.  And Eacnung will say, “I told you” to Attor.
             Ora sat on the ground and wept.  But she would not give in.  Even as she cried, she pulled out the fishing net and put on her boots.  Before fleeing to Down’s End, she would plead with the gods at castle Inter Lucus.  Standing, she pulled the wool tunic over her linen under garment and folded the fishing net into her pouch.  Now she need only carry the pouch.  In the hour before dawn’s first light the forest felt chill, and the outer tunic would keep her warm.
            Gray light came over the eastern sky.  The forest path turned into the parallel ruts of a road.  And where the road divided, Ora took the eastern fork, toward Inter Lucus.  But she skirted the village, vaulting over stone fences and following cow paths.  The sun was up by the time she came through the forest to the sacred hill.  For a moment she wondered whether she ought to pray to the old god rather than to castle gods; the gods of Inter Lucus hadn’t protected the lords who used to live there.  Many of the fisher folk of Down’s End worshiped the old god.  Old god or castle gods?  Ora felt no strong allegiance to either, but since she was here . . .
            Castle Inter Lucus, from which the village had its name, was only a ruin.  Haunted, everyone said.  What would you expect, when the last lord died a hundred years ago?  But in the morning sun Inter Lucus didn’t look horrible or frightening.  Broken old apple trees lined the foot of the hill.  Riots of flowering plants clambered over stone walls lining what might have once been a road.  The gatehouse was fallen in; the gates themselves long since stolen for iron.  The only “guards” were huge oak trees, growing here and there on the gently sloping hill.
            Ora walked the lane to the castle itself.  Moss covered the ancient walls; Ora couldn’t tell if they were made of wood or stone.  All the roofs had collapsed.  Inside the castle, green grass and a few small trees made the great hall look almost like a garden.
            The gods answered prayers at castles; everyone knew that.  Of course, most often they didn’t answer prayers, but who understands the gods?  Sometimes they did.  Everyone also knew that only a lord was welcome to speak to the gods, but there were stories . . . Attor called them stupid stories . . . The gods help needy folk.  And who could be more desperately needy than me?
            The stories she remembered said something about the god’s knob and the lord’s knob.  Nothing in the north end of the greensward looked promising.  There were a couple pits she wouldn’t want to fall into.  Ora shook her head.  The gods are gone and the lords of Inter Lucus are dead.  But what will it hurt?  I may as well pray anyway, now that I’m here.
            The ground rose near the south wall; more decay had fallen here or the wind had blown dirt into the lee of the wall.  Grass covered the slope right up to the wall, a strange wall, neither wood nor stone, she saw now.  It almost looked like black glass, if there could be such a thing.  To her left, a thick pillar stood, an incomprehensible statue, if statue it was.  Atop the pillar something looked like the broken egg of some huge creature; all that was left were sharp shards of black eggshell.
            At Ora’s feet, a stone—no, not a stone, but a perfectly round ball or egg—was half covered by dirt and grass.  A smaller version of the broken one?  She knelt on the cool, wet carpet to look closer.  The egg might also have been made of black glass.  Ora put her hand on the ball.  It felt warm—why should that be? 
            “Gods of Inter Lucus, your servant has no right to beseech thee, yet she has no hope but thee.  Look with favor on me and send a rightful lord to this fallen house.  By your power give me protection.” 
            Brilliant light flooded over the wall, blinding Ora.  For a moment, her heart soared, but then she thought: Oh.  It’s just sunlight.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Castles #2

2. In Castle Hyacintho Flumen

            The five children of house Mortane presented themselves as instructed to Arthur the old in the great hall of Hyacintho Flumen.  Dinner had been solemn, and the children supped quickly before retreating to their rooms to be dressed by servants.  Boemia the nan had explained the significance of the occasion to the little ones, Eddricus and Rose.  Amicia, Aylwin and Milo were twelve, sixteen and seventeen years old respectively; they needed no explanation.
            Lady Lucia stood next to Arthur as the children filed into the great hall.  She wore a floor-length blue dress with long sleeves and jewelry, dressed as for a reception of some high lord.  Which, in a way, this was.
            The great hall could seat more than a hundred guests at feast, shouting, singing, and dancing.  But now it was quiet.  Besides Arthur, four other servants attended: Denby the reaper, Meccus the groom, Diera the washerwoman, and the nan Boemia.  They watched and listened raptly, but none would say anything.
            When the children had lined up facing their mother and teacher, Arthur raised his right hand.  Without turning he pointed to a dark globe mounted on a tall black cylinder standing behind him.  “Eddricus, can you tell me what this is?”
            The little boy’s eyes widened, but he answered without hesitation.  “The gods’ knob.”
            Arthur smiled.  “Aye.  It is so called.  Better, it is a globe.  You see?  It is round: the god’s globe of authority, globum deus auctoritate.”  Arthur had been teacher for two generations of Mortanes, and he rarely missed an opportunity to instruct.
            “Please, Master Arthur.  Why is the god’s globe so high up?”  Standing so close, Eddricus had to crane his neck to look at the globe.
            “Has no one told you, Eddricus?”  Arthur loved the boy for his curiosity.  “Some say the gods could fly whenever they wanted, and they merely lifted themselves up to their knob.  But I believe, as others say, that the gods were much taller than men and women—and boys and girls.  For the gods, the god’s knob was just the right height.”
            Arthur turned his gaze on Rose, the youngest.  “Rose Mortane, what is this?”  Arthur’s left hand indicated a much smaller globe, like a large cantaloupe, atop a shorter, black post.
            “The lord’s knob.”
            “Aye.  And who can use the lord’s knob, or as it is properly called, globum domini auctoritate?”
            “My lord father,” said the youngest Mortane.  “But he is dying.”  Tears rolled down the girl’s face.  Lady Lucia knelt to envelope her daughter in blue-sleeved arms.
            Arthur spoke tenderly.  “We cannot be sure.  But Lord Hereward himself believes his time has come.  That is why he has asked me to put his children to the test.  He wants to know which of you should succeed him.  One by one you will put your hands on the lord’s knob.”
             Twelve year old Amicia asked, “But Master Arthur, how?  It hurts to touch the knob.”
            “Is that so?”  Arthur could not resist the urge to tease.  “I’m sure you have been told many times not to touch your lord father’s globe, but who told you it would hurt?”
            Amicia tossed her head.  I’ve touched it many times.  Why deny it?  But never for more than a second or two, because of the pain.  Father is bonded with it, and for him it is pleasant, but Father is the lord.”
            “Indeed.  But as his spirit fades, globum domini auctoritate will open itself to a new lord, or perhaps a lady.  It will not hurt so much, I think, for you to touch the lord’s knob now.  And when Lord Hereward has joined his ancestors, it is imperative that one of you bonds with the knob.  Without a new lord, Hyacintho Flumen will cease to live.”
            The oldest son, Milo, spoke.  “Should we not wait?  After Father dies, I will try to bond, and if I fail, then Aylwin or Amicia.  Would that not be the proper way?”
            Arthur kept his face blank.  “In most castles and for most lords, yes.  But not in all cases.  For instance, the Osberns of Lapideum Punctum have long practiced the choosing of their lords when the old lord still lives.  The Lords Osbern put their sons to the test while they are still hale; as a result, no Osbern inherits without burned hands.”
            “Why then?  Why risk burns for Eddricus or Rose?  We need not rush Father to his grave.  When his spirit departs, then I will bond.”  Milo intended his voice to be calm and reasonable, expressing concern for the little ones.  But Arthur, the Lady Lucia, and the servants understood his speech to be a ruse protecting Milo’s own interest.
            “There will be no danger for Eddricus or Rose, since you and Aylwin and Amicia will go first.  Surely you will be kind enough to report whether there is pain.  More to the point: your lord father commands it.”
            Milo seemed about to argue further, but Amicia impetuously interrupted.  “Very well!  How do I do it?”
            “Simply place your hands on the lord’s knob and hold them there.  I will count ten seconds.  Then release.”
            Amicia walked to globum domini auctoritate and circled behind it.  Her eyes were just barely visible over the top of the dark orb, looking at Arthur.  She held her hands flat and rigid an inch away on either side, hesitating.  Arthur thought: she really has touched it many times.
            “Begin.”  Amicia pressed both hands against the globe.  Arthur read pain in her face, but her hands didn’t move.
            “Two, three, four . . .” Arthur counted deliberately.  Colors began to swirl in the knob.
            “Five, six, seven . . .” Blues and greens flashed, but then a faint yellow began to shine in the lord’s knob.
            “Eight, nine, ten.  Release.”  The yellow had become a bright sunflower before Amicia let go. 
            The girl staggered away from globum domini auctoritate, shaking her hands and trembling.  “I held through!  Did you see?  It felt like bee stings all over my hands, but I held through.”
            “Bee stings” clearly frightened Rose and Eddricus.  Lucia huddled them in her arms.  She shook her head at Arthur, and he nodded agreement.  The test was never meant for the little ones anyway.
            “Yellow is a good color for house Mortane.”  Arthur addressed Amicia.  “The knob shone a bright yellow for Hereward’s father as I recall.  I will be pleased to tell Lord Hereward that his daughter will be able to bond successfully, should he choose her.”
            Amicia beamed and tossed her head, throwing glances at Milo and Aylwin.  Milo stepped up to the lord’s knob.  Arthur smiled inwardly.  Milo had no choice now that Hereward had an option other than his oldest son.
            “Begin.  One, two . . . ten.”  As Arthur counted, the colors of the orb blinked and flashed, finally settling on a pale yellow. 
            “As I told your sister, yellow is a good color.  Not a strong yellow, but I have no doubt you would be able to bond.”
            “Should Father choose me.”  Milo’s voice was thick with sarcasm.
            Arthur inclined his head.  “Aye.  Should he choose you.”
            Aylwin had been silent throughout the ceremony.  As he moved to the lord’s knob he asked quietly, “Is there any better color than yellow for Mortanes?”
            “There is.”  Arthur made eye contact with Aylwin, but said no more.  Aylwin’s eyes danced and he gave the old teacher a slight nod.
            “Begin.  One . . . nine, ten.”  This time the lord’s knob raced through blue and green to yellow and finally a fiery orange, almost red.
            “Your father will be most pleased.”  Arthur’s eyes shone at Aylwin.  Hereward had predicted his second son would bond wonderfully with Hyacintho Flumen.
            “Damn!  It’s a cheat!  What happens to me now?”  Milo Mortane waited for no answer, and he stormed out of the hall.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Evil in Stories

    The "problem of evil" is a major area of philosophical work for anyone interested in moral monotheism.  I'm currently reading a book by a Jewish scholar, David Birnbaum, Summa Metaphysica I: God and Evil.  Since I'm still working my way through Birnbaum's argument, it's too early for me to comment on his approach to theodicy.  But the depth of the problem is well illustrated by two quotes Birnbaum uses to introduce his book.
    First, Hosea 2:21-22: "I will betroth you unto Me forever; I will betroth you unto Me in                righteousness and in justice, in kindness and in mercy."
    Second, from Germaine Tillion's Ravensbruck: "In 1942 the medical service of the Revier [Ravensbruck death camp] were required to perform abortions on all pregnant women.  If a child happened to be born alive, it would be smothered or drowned in a bucket in front of the mother.  Given a newborn child's natural resistance to drowning, a baby's agony might last for twenty or thirty minutes."
     The pathos of this horrible contradiction seizes one's heart and mind and won't let go.  What happened to God's covenant promise during the holocaust?  Why is there evil in God's world?  Why is there such horrendous evil in God's world?  Philosophers, such as Birnbaum and I, try to give intellectually and emotionally adequate answers to such questions.  A few weeks ago I debated an atheist friend of mine, Bernie Dehler, at Portland State.  Bernie argued that if one believes in evolution, the problem of evil is insoluble, so we should all be atheists.  I argued, and I'm sure Birnbaum would agree, that the problem of evil is terribly important, but evolution is irrelevant to it.
    What does this philosophical problem have to do with stories?  In the hands of a master--Dostoyevsky, for example--a novel's characters may directly address theodicy.  It would take a superlatively great writer to work really hard philosophical theory into a story without having the philosophy ruin the story as story.
    I don't expect to write a new Brothers Karamazov.  But the question of evil won't go away.  Any good story, that is, a story that offers some vision of the good, will indirectly reflect on the general problem of evil.  Where does evil come from?  How can characters resist it?  Is there any real hope for goodness in the world?
    Conflict in a good story inevitably becomes conflict between good and evil.  It may be internal to the soul of some character; and the character might win (a redemption story) or lose (a damnation story).  By the way, it is possible that someone write a good story that is a damnation story, if the story communicates that fact.  The conflict may be between the "good guys" and the "bad guys," but the more simplistically we apply that model the more likely the story will be a lousy story.
     The great story, the story of Christ, is the story of good triumphing over evil.  In one way or another, all my stories fit into that one.