"Listen, my son, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart."
--The First Sentence of The Rule.
"Whoever you are, therefore, who are hastening to the heavenly homeland, fulfill with the help of Christ this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners; and then at length under God's protection, you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue which we have mentioned above."
--The Last Sentence of The Rule.
Between these two lines, written about 529 A.D. in a dark age, is Saint Benedict's homely prescription for a way of monastic life that has prevailed even in the shadow of the Magna Civitas.
As he sat shivering in the gloomy corridor outside the meeting hall and waited for the tribunal to finish deciding his punishment, Brother Blacktooth St. George, A.O.L., remembered the time his boss uncle had taken him to see the Wild Horse Woman at a Plains Nomad tribal ceremony, and how Deacon ("Half-Breed") Brownpony, who was on a diplomatic mission to the Plains at the time, had tried to exorcise her priests with holy water and drive her spirit from the council lodge. There had been a riot, and an assault on the person of the young deacon, not yet a cardinal, whose shaman ("witch doctor") attackers had been summarily executed by the newly baptized Nomad sharif. Blacktooth was seven at the time, and had not seen the Woman then, but his boss uncle insisted that she had been there in the smoke of the fire until the trouble began. He believed his boss uncle, as he might not have believed his father. Later, before he ran away from home, he had seen her twice, once by day riding bareback and naked along the crest of a ridge, and once by dim firelight when she prowled as the Night Hag through the darkness outside the settlement enclosure. He definitely remembered seeing her. Now his ties to Christianity demanded that he remember them as childish hallucinations. One of the less plausible accusations against him was that he had confused her with the Mother of God.
The tribunal was taking its time. There was no clock in the hall, but at least an hour had passed since Blacktooth had testified in his own defense and been excused from the meeting hall, which was really the abbey's refectory. He tried not to speculate about the cause of the delay, or the meaning of the fact that pure chance had cast that deacon, now Cardinal ("Red Deacon") Brownpony, in the role of amicus curiae
at the hearing. The cardinal had come to the monastery from the Holy See only a week ago, and it was well known, but most certainly not announced, that his purpose in being here was to discuss with the Abbot Cardinal Jarad the papal election (the third in four years) which would be called soon after the present Pope finished dying.
Blacktooth could not decide whether the eminent Half-Breed's participation in the trial was favorable or unfavorable to his cause. As he remembered the night of the exorcism, he also remembered that in those days Brownpony had not been friendly to the Plains Nomads, either the wild or the tamed. The cardinal had been raised by sisters in the territory conquered by Texark. It had been told to him that his mother, a Nomad, had been raped by a Texark cavalryman, then had abandoned her baby to the sisters. But in recent years, the cardinal had learned to speak the Nomad tongue, and spent much time and effort forging an alliance between the wild people of the Plains and the exiled papacy in its Rocky Mountain refuge at Valana. Blacktooth himself was of pure Nomad blood, although his late parents had been displaced to the farming settlements. His mother owned no mares, and thus he had no status whatever among the wild tribes. His ethnic background had been no handicap during his life as a monk; the brethren were tolerant to a fault, except in matters of faith. But in the so-called civilized world outside, being a Nomad would be hazardous unless he lived on the Plains.
He heard raised voices from the refectory, but could not make out words. One way or another, it was all over for him but the final break, and that was proving to be the hardest thing of all.
A few paces from the bench where he was supposed to wait was a shallow alcove in the corridor wall, and within it stood a statue of Saint Leibowitz. Brother Blacktooth left the bench and went there to pray, thus disobeying the last command given to him: Sit there, stay there. Breaking his vow of obedience was getting to be a habit. Even a dog will sit and stay, his devil reminded him.Sancte Isaac Eduarde, ora pro me!
The kneeling rail was too close to the image for him to look up at the saint's face, so he prayed to the saint's bare feet, which stood on a pile of fagots. Anyway, by now he knew the wrinkled old countenance by heart.
He remembered when he first came to the abbey, the abbot of that time, Dom Gido Graneden, had already ordered the statue removed from his office, its traditional place of repose, to the corridor here where it now stood. Graneden's predecessor had committed the sacrilege of having the fine old wood carving painted in "living color," and Graneden, who loved it in its original condition, could neither bear to look at it, with its painted simper and impossibly upturned irises, nor put up with the smell and noise of having its restoration done in situ.
Blacktooth had never seen the full paint job, for upon his arrival the head and shoulders of a man of wood emerged from what appeared to be the chest of a plaster saint. A small area at a time was being treated with a phosphate compound concocted by Brothers Pharmacist and Janitor. As soon as the paint began to blister, they painstakingly scraped it clean, trying to avoid any abrasion of the wood. The process was very slow, and he had lived a year at the abbey before the restoration was complete; by that time, a filing cabinet occupied its space in the abbot's office, so here it still stood.
The restoration was less than complete even now, at least in the sight of those who remembered its original condition. Occasionally Brother Carpenter stopped to frown disapprovingly at it, then to work on the creases around the eyes with a dental pick, or caress between the fingers with fine sandpaper. He worried about what the paint remover might have done to the wood, so he frequently rubbed it with oil and lovingly polished it. The carving had been done nearly six centuries ago by a sculptor named Fingo, to whom the Beatus Leibowitz--not yet canonized--had appeared in a vision. A close resemblance between the statue and a death mask which Fingo had never seen was used as an argument for his canonization, because it seemed to confirm the reality of Fingo's vision.
Saint Leibowitz was Blacktooth's favorite saint, after the Holy Virgin, but now it was time to go. He crossed himself, arose, and returned doglike to the bench to "sit and stay." No one had seen him at prayer except his devil, who called him a hypocrite.
Blacktooth remembered clearly the first time he had asked to be released from his final vows as a monk of the Order of Saint Leibowitz. Many things had happened that year. It was the year the news came that his mother had died. It was also the year that the Abbot Jarad had received the red hat from the Pope in Valana, and the year Filpeo Harq had been crowned as the seventh Hannegan of Texark by his uncle Urion, the archbishop of that imperial city. More to the point, perhaps, it was the third year of Blacktooth's work (assigned to him by Dom Jarad himself) of translating all seven volumes of the Venerable Boedullus's Liber Originum,
that scholarly but highly speculative attempt to reconstruct from the evidence of later events a plausible history of the darkest of all centuries, the twenty-first--of translating it from the old monastic author's quaint Neo-Latin into the most improbable of languages, Brother Blacktooth's own native tongue, the Grasshopper dialect of Plains Nomadic, for which not even a suitable phonetic alphabet existed prior to the conquests (3174 and 3175 A.D.) of Hannegan II in what had once been called Texas.
Several times Blacktooth had asked to be relieved of this task before he asked what he really dreaded, to be released from his vows, but Dom Jarad found his attitude peculiarly stubborn, obtuse, and ungrateful. The abbot had conceived of a small Nomadic library he wanted created as a donation of high culture from the monastic Memorabilia of Christian civilization to the benighted tribes still wandering the northern Plains, migrant herdsmen who would one day be persuaded into literacy by formerly edible missionaries, already busy among them and no longer considered edible under the Treaty of the Sacred Mare between the hordes and the adjacent agrarian states. As the literacy rate among the free tribes of the Grasshopper and Wilddog Hordes who ranged with their long-haired cattle north of the Nady Ann River was still less than five percent, the usefulness of such a library was a thing only dimly foreseen, even by the Lord Abbot, until Brother Blacktooth, in his initial eagerness to please his master before the work began, explained to Dom Jarad that the three major dialects of Nomadic differed less to the reader than to the listener, and that by means of a hybrid orthography and the avoidance of special tribal idioms, the translation could be made understandable even to a literate ex-Nomad subject of Hannegan VI in the South, where the Jackrabbit dialect was still spoken in the shanties, the fields, and the stables, while the Ol'zark tongue of the ruling class was spoken in the mansions, the law courts, and the police barracks. There the literacy rate for the malnourished new generation of the conquered had risen to one in four, and when Dom Jarad imagined such moppets receiving enlightenment from the likes of the great Boedullus and other notables of the Order, there was no talking him out of the project.
That the project was vain and futile was an opinion Brother Blacktooth dared not express, so for three years he protested the inadequacy of the talent he was applying to the task, and he assailed the intellectual poverty of his own work. He supposed the abbot had no way to test this claim, for, besides himself, only Brothers Wren St. Mary and Singing Cow St. Martha, his old companions, understood Nomadic well enough to read it, and he knew Dom Jarad would not ask them to. But Jarad had him make an extra copy of one chapter of the work, and he sent it to a friend in Valana, a member of the Sacred College who happened to speak excellent Jackrabbit. The friend was delighted, and he expressed a wish to read all seven volumes when the work was done. The friend was none other than the Red Deacon, Cardinal Brownpony. The abbot called the translator to his office and quoted from this letter of praise.
"And Cardinal Deacon Brownpony has been personally involved in the conversion of several prominent Nomad families to Christianity. And so, you see--" He paused as the translator began to cry. "Blacktooth, my son, I just don't understand. You're an educated man now, a scholar. Of course that's incidental to your vocation as a monk, but I didn't know you cared so little for what you've learned here."
Blacktooth dried his eyes on the sleeve of his robe and tried to protest his gratitude, but Dom Jarad went on.
"Remember what you were when you came here, son. All three of you, going on fifteen and you couldn't speak a civilized word. You couldn't write your name. You never heard of God, although you seemed to know enough about goblins and night hags. You thought the edge of the world was just south of here, didn't you?"
"All right, now think of the hundreds, think of the thousands, of wild young fellows just like you were then. Your relatives, your friends. Now, I want to know: what could possibly be more fulfilling to you, more satisfying, than to pass along to your people some of the religion, the civilization, the culture, that you've found for yourself here at San Leibowitz Abbey?"
"Perhaps Father Abbot forgets," said the monk, who had become a bony, sad-faced fellow of thirty years, and whose ferocious ancestry was in no way suggested by his mild appearance and self-conscious ways. "I was not born free, or wild. My parents were not born free or wild. My family hasn't owned horses since the time of my great-grandmothers. We spoke Nomadic, but we were farm workers, ex-Nomads. Real Nomads would call us grass-eaters and spit on us."
"That's not the story you told when you came here!" Jarad said accusingly. "Abbot Graneden thought you were wild Nomads."
Blacktooth lowered his gaze. Dom Graneden would have sent them home if he had known.
"So real Nomads would spit on you, would they?" Dom Jarad resumed thoughtfully. "Is that the reason? You'd rather not cast our pearls before such swine?"
Brother Blacktooth opened his mouth and closed it. He turned red, stiffened, crossed his arms, crossed his legs, uncrossed them rather deliberately, closed his eyes, began to frown, took a deep breath, and began to growl through his teeth. "Not pearls--"
Abbot Jarad cut him off to prevent an explosion. "You're pessimistic about the resettled tribes. You think they have no future anyway. Well, I think they do, and the work is going to be done, and you're the only one to do it. Remember obedience? Forget the purpose of
the work, if you can't believe in that, and find your purpose in
the work. You know the saying: 'Work is prayer.' Think of Saint Leibowitz, think of Saint Benedict. Think of your calling."
Blacktooth regained control of himself. "Yes, my calling," he said bitterly. "I once thought I was called to the work of prayer--contemplative prayer. Or so I was told, Father Abbot."
"Well, who told you contemplative monks don't work, eh?"
"Nobody. I didn't say--"
"Then you must think scholarship is the wrong kind of work for a contemplative, is that it? You think that scrubbing stone floors or shoveling shit from the privies would put you closer to God than translating the Venerable Boedullus? Listen, my son, if scholarship is incompatible with the contemplative way, what was the life of Saint Leibowitz all about? What have we been doing in the Southwest desert for twelve and a half centuries? What of the monks who have risen to sanctity in the very scriptorium where you're working now?"
"But it's not the same."
Blacktooth gave up. He was in the abbot's trap, and to get out of the abbot's trap, he would have to force Jarad to acknowledge a distinction he knew Jarad was deliberately avoiding. There was a kind of "scholarship" which had come to be a form of contemplative religious practice peculiar to the Order, but it was not the head-scratching work of translating the venerable historians. Jarad, he knew, was referring tothe original labor, still practiced as ritual, of preserving the Leibowitzian Memorabilia, the fragmentary and rarely comprehensible records of the Magna Civitas,
the Great Civilization, records saved from the bonfires of the Simplification by the earliest followers of Isaac Edward Leibowitz, Blacktooth's favorite saint after the Virgin. Leibowitz's later followers, children of a time of darkness, had taken up the selfless and relatively mindless task of copying and recopying, memorizing and even chanting in choir, these mysterious records. Such tedious work demanded a total and unthinking attention, lest the imagination add something which would make meaningful to the copyist a meaningless jungle of lines in a twentieth-century diagram of a lost idea. It demanded an immersion of the self in the work which was the prayer. When the man and the prayer were entirely merged, a sound, or a word, or the ringing of the monastery bell, might cause the man to look up in astonishment from the copy table to find that the everyday world around him was mysteriously transformed, and aglow with the divine immanence. Perhaps thousands of weary copyists had tiptoed into paradise through that illuminated sheepskin gate, but such work was not at all like the brain-racking business of bringing Boedullus to the Nomads. But Blacktooth decided not to argue.
"I want to go back to the world, Domne," he announced firmly.
Dead silence was his answer. The abbot's eyes became glittering slits. Blacktooth blinked and looked aside. A buzzing insect flew through the open window, circled the room twice, and alighted on Jarad's neck; it crawled there briefly, took wing again, and flew buzzing out by the same window.
Through the closed door of the adjoining room, the faint voice of a novice or postulant reciting his assigned Memorabilium penetrated the silence without really diminishing it:
"--and the curl of the magnetic field intensity vector equals the time-rate-of-change of the electric flux density vector, added to four pi times the current density vector. But the third law states the divergence of the electric flux density vector to be--" The voice was soft, almost feminine, and fast as a monk reciting rosary, his mind pondering one of the Mysteries. The voice was familiar, but Blacktooth could not quite place its owner.
Dom Jarad sighed at last and spoke. "No, Brother Blacktooth, you won't disown your vows. You're thirty years old, but outside these walls, what are you still? A fourteen-year-old runaway with nowhere to go. Pfft! The good simpletons of the world would pluck you like a chicken. Your parents are dead, yes? And the land they tilled was not their own, yes?"
"How can I be released, Father Abbot?"
"Stubborn, stubborn. What have you got against Boedullus?"
"Well, for one thing, he's contemptuous of the very Nomads--" Blacktooth stopped; he was in another trap. He had nothing against Boedullus. He liked Boedullus. For a dark-age saint, Boedullus was rational, inquisitive, inventive--and intolerant. It was the intolerance of the civilized for the barbarian, of the plantation owner for the migrant driver of herds, of Cain, indeed, for Abel. It was the same intolerance as Jarad's. But Boedullus's mild contempt for the Nomads was beside the point. Blacktooth hated the whole project. But there across the desk from him sat the project's originator, giving him pained looks. Dom Jarad was as always Blacktooth's monastic superior, but now he was more than that. Besides the abbot's ring, now, he wore the red skullcap. As the Most Eminent Lord Jarad Cardinal Kendemin, a prince of the Church, he might as well be titled "Winner of All Arguments."
"Is there some way I can get out, m'Lord," he asked again.
Jarad winced. "No! Take three weeks off to clear your head, if you want to. But don't ask that again. Don't try to blackmail me with hints like that."
"No hints, no blackmail."
"Oh, no? If I don't reassign you, you'll go over the wall, right?"
"I didn't say that."
"Good! Then listen, my son. By your vow of obedience, you sacrifice your personal will. You promised to obey, and not just when you feel like obeying. Your work is a cross to you, is it? Then thank God and carry it. Offer it up, offer it up!"
Blacktooth sagged, looked at the floor, and slowly shook his head. Dom Jarad sensed victory and went on.
"Now, I don't want to hear anything about this again, not before you've finished all seven volumes." He stood up. Blacktooth stood up. The abbot shooed the copyist out of his office then, laughing as if it had been all in fun.
Brother Blacktooth passed Brother Singing Cow in the corridor on his way to Vespers. The rule of silence was in force, and neither spoke. Singing Cow grinned. Blacktooth scowled. Both of his fellow runaways from the wheat plantations knew why he had gone to see Dom Jarad, and both lacked sympathy. Both thought his job a cushy one. Singing Cow worked in the new printing shop. Wren worked in the kitchen as Brother Second Cook.
He saw Wren that night in the refectory. The second cook stood on the serving line, apportioning mush to the platters with a large wooden spoon. Each man in passing murmured, "Deo gratias,"
and Wren nodded back as if to say, "You're welcome."
As Blacktooth approached, Wren already held a huge gob of mush on the spoon. Blacktooth held his platter to his chest and signaled too much
with his fingers, but Wren turned to speak "necessary" instructions to a busboy. When Blacktooth relaxed his platter, Wren piled it on.
"Half back!" Blacktooth whispered, breaking silence. "Headache!" Wren raised his forefinger to his lips, shook his head, pointed to a sign--sanitary rules--
behind the serving line, then pointed toward the sign at the exit, where a garbage monitor checked for waste.
Blacktooth laid the platter on the serving kettle. With his right hand he scooped up the heap of mush, with his left hand he seized the front of Wren's robe. He pushed the mush in Wren's face and massaged it until Wren bit his thumb.
The prior brought word directly to Blacktooth's cell: Dom Jarad had relieved him of his job in the scriptorium for three weeks, in order that he might pray the stone-floor-scrubbing prayer for the cooks in the kitchen and dining area. And so for twenty-one days Blacktooth endured Wren's smiling forgiveness while knee-skating on soapy stones. More than a year passed before he again raised the standing question of his work, his vocation, and his vows.
During this year, Blacktooth felt that the rest of the community had begun to watch him rather closely, and he sensed a change. Whether the change was really in the attitudes of others, or entirely within himself, its effect was loneliness. Occasionally he felt estranged. In choir, he choked on the words "One bread and one body, though many, are we." His unity with the congregation seemed no longer taken for granted. He had spoken the words "I want out," perhaps before he really meant them; but not only had he uttered such a thing to the abbot, he had allowed his friends to learn of the incident. Among the professed, among those who by solemn vows had committed themselves irrevocably to God and the Way of the Order, a monk with regrets was an anomaly, a source of uneasiness, a portent, a thing in need of pity. Some avoided him. Some looked at him strangely. Others were all too kind.
He found new friends among the younger members of the community, novices and postulants not yet fully committed to the Way. One of these was Torrildo, a youth of elfish charm whose first year at the abbey had already been marked many times by trouble. When Blacktooth was sent to the cooks for three weeks of floor-scrubbing penance, he found Torrildo already scrubbing there as punishment for some unannounced infraction, and he soon learned that Torrildo's had been the muffled voice reciting a Memorabilium in the room adjacent to Dom Jarad's during the professed monk's unhappy interview. They differed widely in their interests, origin, character, and age, but their common penance pushed them together long enough for a bond to form.
Torrildo was glad to find an older monk who was not impeccable. Blacktooth, while not quite admitting that he envied the postulant's relative freedom to leave, began imagining himself in Torrildo's sandals, with Torrildo's problems, Torrildo's charm, and Torrildo's talents (which evaded the notice of many). He found himself giving advice, and was flattered when Singing Cow told him sourly that Torrildo was copying his mannerisms and becoming his talk-alike. It became a brief case of father and son, but it further estranged him from the ranks of the professed, who seemed to frown on the relationship.
He was beginning to find it hard to distinguish the frown of the community from the frown of his conscience. One night he dreamed he knelt for communion in the chapel. "May the Body of Jesus Christ lead you to eternal life," the priest repeated to each communicant; but as he came closer, Blacktooth saw that it was Torrildo, who, as he placed the wafer on Blacktooth's tongue, leaned close and whispered, "One who eats bread with me here shall betray me."
Blacktooth awoke choking and gagging. He was trying to spit out a living toad.
Excerpted from Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman by Walter Miller. Copyright © 1999 by Walter Miller. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.