Fiction Feature: Two Sides, Pt. 1

I’m trying to be more intentional about sharing my own original fiction here on the blog.  This story is one of my personal favourites, but it’s too long to share in one post. So, I’ve decided to give it to you in two parts. Part II will come next week. I hope you like it…all feedback welcome!


 

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Two Sides (Pt. 1)

I knew a Birdman would turn up eventually, but it was still a shock when I found one at the Lantern.

Tariq, the barkeep, caught my eye when I entered and nodded towards the table where my friends were sitting. I looked over and the breath caught in my chest.

Jim, George, and luckless Ed, they were all there, and one of those creatures was with them. To their eyes he would seem an ordinary person, but I knew better.

His blue coat was faded and torn, lapels shiny with use. Despite his down-and-out appearance, he sat like an eagle among the chicks, claws ready to rend and tear. His eyes met mine, and I saw laughter in them. Not fresh, clean laughter. More like the throaty chuckle of a raven on the roof.

The sight of him snapped all the tiredness out of me, the shock of it quickly turning to anger. It had been four years since I encountered one, in a town far from here. My faint hope that I had seen the last of them evaporated.

Jim saw me, and his face split in a grin.”Hey, Chris, c’mon over. Got someone you oughta meet!”

Steeling myself, I sat down at the table.

“This here’s Jack. He’s new in town, just came today.” Jim had been at the liquor long enough for his limbs to be loose, his smile goofy.

He needn’t have bothered with the introduction, for the Birdmen were all named Jack. This one had black hair flecked with grey, a five o’clock shadow darkening his chin. The picture of a scruffy, middle-aged down and outer.

Which was odd. Normally they didn’t look a day over thirty.

He put his hand out across the table.”Pleased to meet ye,” he said, a friendly smile stretched on his face.

I nodded back, but there was no way I’d take his hand.  I’d seen men snared by a Birdman by just one touch. Doubt it could happen to me, but I wasn’t taking any chances. “Likewise.”

His hand hung there a moment, and then he drew it back, that smile easy on his face.

George looked embarrassed at my apparent lack of manners. “You had a bad day today, Chris?”

I just shrugged. He couldn’t know I was being far more polite than I should be. I should be kicking that jack-a-daw’s head in, so I figure my restraint was pretty good manners.

The waitress appeared, thumping a pint of my favourite brew down in front of me.

I looked up at her, to say thanks, but she only had eyes for the Jack. She smiled at him, a dimple flashing, never mind that she was fifty if she was a day. “Any more for you?”

His eyes twinkled as he hoisted his still-full mug.”Nothin’ more for now, lady-luck.”

She just about giggled, I swear. “Well, just let me know, will ya?”

He’d snared her, alright. And as I glanced at the men around the table, saw the way their eyes shifted to that Jack, drawn like iron to a magnet, my anger deepened. Not just Linda had been caught.

That’s what the Birdmen do. They draw people into their traps, and they take. They go through their lives and poke, peck, and steal, uncovering all the garbage, leaving it strewn and stinking behind them once they’d had all the fun they wanted.

Just like a crow through the dump, my gramma used to say. But not nearly as loud. It’s why I called them the Birdmen.

Gramma had the gift of seeing them for what they were, and she knew right away that I did, too. It was the birthmark that gave it away, the small dark shadow etched on my skin just under my right ear. Hardly noticeable, except to those who know what to look for. A mark shaped like a star.

Gramma taught me all she knew about them. It was her that had named me, encouraging my mom to lay on me the name of Christian, after her father.

A good, strong name, she told me, once I got old enough. It will help. The Jacks are sensitive to that kind of thing. 

When I see a Birdman my insides give a bit of a quiver, and I feel cold and hot all at once. Minor imps, Gramma used to call them. Those words are too cuddly. Nothing minor about the damage they cause, the lives they ruin. And nothing impish about the way they go about it.

They call us the Watchers, and can spot us just as easily as we spot them. Makes for awkward situations, sometimes. Like now, sitting across from one with my friends all around, oblivious.

“And you are—?” Jack turned his beady eyes back on me.

I smiled back, just as easy as he had smiled at me. “Christian.” I enjoyed the slight twitch of his shoulders on hearing my name. “My friends call me Chris,” I added, before he could comment.

He twitched again, with a cold flash in his eyes that no one but me saw. He got the message, though. The Birdmen are sensitive about names. Gram thought that it was because they all had the same name. And so they had developed elaborate and arcane rules about names, ways to control and manipulate someone else by understanding what their name meant.

But there were some names that were immune to their charmings.  Names like mine.

“Unusual name, these days,” Birdman said.

I raised an eyebrow. “Named after my great-grandpa,” I said, and took a small sip of my beer.  “How ’bout you, Jack?  Who you named after?”

I couldn’t help it. They think they are so smart, the way they sneak in the shadows, tangle up anything that’s good. Lord it over all those poor people who don’t even know what happened to them, once they’re gone. Don’t even remember them, for the most part, except in their nightmares.

Oh yeah. If I get a chance to get under a Birdman’s skin, I take it.

His eyes darted fury at me. “Not sure,” he said, smoothly, and tried on a smile again. “My daddy never tol’ me much about my family. It was just him an’ me, and he’s gone now.”

Stricken looks flashed around my friends, sympathy for that cuckoo. It just about made me sick.

I wanted to needle him some more, but as I glanced around the table, I  relaxed my clenched fists.The Jack had already caught them neatly in his claws. From now on, until he had his fun and left, all of these guys would want nothing more but to please him.

If I pushed him too hard, he would take it out on them.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said. There was no sorry in my voice, not at all, but my friends relaxed.

“Sorry,” Jim mumbled from beside me, his hang-dog eyes looking even more mournful as he looked at the Jack.

“Yeah, man, sucks,” George said, pulling deeply on his beer.

“These things happen,” Jack said, lightly. He slapped the table then, jovial. “Well now, friends, it’s been real convivial gettin’ to know ye. I was a-gonna move on from here tonight, try my luck down the road, but I think maybe I’ll stay awhile. What ye think, then, boyos?”

And as they all chorused their assent, piping around the table like hungry chicks at their mama, the Jack just sat and smirked, his beady black eyes hard on mine.

#

I tossed and turned that night. At 2 AM I gave up, heading for the kitchen, and was stopped by a sharp knock on the door. The cold curdle in the pit of my stomach told me who it was.

I clenched my fist, and turned to the door. Despite my revulsion, I was curious.  Usually the Jacks wanted nothing to do with us Watchers. Like I said, they preferred to operate in the shadows, in secret.

“Waddya want?” I asked, my voice low.

“Let me in. Let’s talk.”

I snorted. “Come on. Let’s not waste time. Tell me what you want, or leave.”

Silence fell, profound and deep, and then he cleared his throat, coughed once. “Neutral ground, boyo? Across the street, in that old park?”

I almost assented, but fortunately my brain kicked into gear before I opened my mouth. Obeying a Jack gave them power over you. It’s one of the ways they did their dirty work.

“Nice try.” I said, “The pier. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

There was a low chuckle, another cough, and then I heard the creak in the floor as he walked away.

I hurried to the living room, pulled the curtains back a notch and scanned the street below.

A lone figure strode purposely away from the building, coat tails flapping, and disappeared into the night’s shadows as he turned the corner. What kind of trap was this?

I had no fear there would be any more of them. The Jacks were always alone. Just like Watchers. Only one of us to a place. Two sides to a coin, Gram told me. Heads or tails. Just make sure your side always lands up. 

Just the way it was, a mystery I had yet to understand. All I knew for sure was that when a Jack showed up, it was my job to deal with him. My mission from God, or that’s what Gramma used to say. But she had more faith than me.

It didn’t take me long to get ready. Pulled on my jeans, a hoodie, my black bomber jacket.  It was the middle of summer, but I knew it was going to get colder.  It was part of the effect they had on a place.

I stopped at the door and looked at the icon that was hanging there, the one Gram had sent me, when I met my first Jack. St. Michael the warrior angel. I touched it briefly.

“Look after me, won’t ya?”

The serenity in his eyes gave me some courage, and I quickly pulled open the door, shutting it softly behind me.

#

It got progressively cooler as I neared the lake, and soon I was zipping up my jacket.

Traffic was light, and what cars I saw were heading away from the water. You might think that was a coincidence, but I knew better. A Jack mesmerized people up close, but repelled them from a distance.

Who knows why. Cancer took my Gramma when I was 15. She didn’t have long enough to teach me everything I needed to know. We couldn’t live in the same city, she had moved soon after I was born. Our phone calls had been sporadic, letters few. Not for lack of trying, but the odd rules that governed us made it so that letters were lost, phone calls dropped, e-mail addresses broken.

But she got a call through to me, near the end. Don’t be afraid, she said, her voice weak. Your name will guard you, but be careful. The Jacks will destroy you if your courage is weak. You’ll fall sometimes, but you have to keep getting up. Don’t let them win. Please. 

I had to blink sudden tears from my eyes, remembering. I curled my hands into fists and kept walking.

Mist was rising from the lake as the cold presence of the Jack met the sun’s warmth radiating from the earth. The water was black. No moon, tonight. Clouds were blotting out the stars. Soon the summer’s heat would turn to rain.

The wooden pier stretched over the water. At night, lights affixed to one side in regular intervals lent it a festive air. But tonight, with their warm glow only dimly showing through the fog that shrouded the pier, it was no longer festive. Eerie would be a better word, made even more so as I glimpsed the black silhouette of the Jack, standing at the end of the pier, waiting.

#

He stood perfectly still as I approached, my steps echoing off the wooden pier. The  water lapped and sloshed against the pilings.

The fog rolled around me as I walked, caressing my skin with clammy fingers. I tried to keep my fears under control. Birdmen could  sense fear from a mile off, and would exploit it in a second.

It’s why most people would call me cocky, arrogant even. But I have my fears just like any man. I’ve just learned to bury them.

The Jack’s coat was unbuttoned. He didn’t feel the cold. “Evening,” he said, pleasant-like, nodding his head. His words vapourized into steam as he spoke.

“What do you want, Jack? Tell me, and be gone.”

His nostrils flared in distaste, not liking the sound of his name from my lips. “I come to warn ye, and to deliver a proposition.”

I eyed him, skeptical. “Warn me about what?”

“Something bad’s comin’,” he said. He paused for a moment, letting his words sink in. “But you and me, if we work together, we can stop it.”

I must admit, I wasn’t expecting that. “Stop what?”

The Birdman shook his head, emphatically. “I will not name it, and call it closer. I have told ye as much as I can. It’s coming, Watcher. And when it gets here, you will rue the day ye refused my help.”

I snorted. “Really. Cute.”

He stood there, glowering at me. Rain started spattering, the wind gusting against us. I was impatient now, wanting this meeting over.

I took one step closer. “I’ve got a warning and a proposition of my own, Jack. You and I can go through the dance our kind always does, and in the end you will leave this town, considerably worse for wear. Or, you can leave now. Tonight. Make your choice.”

My hands balled into fists, and I held myself ready.

But he just sneered at me. “I will not leave. I canna. And neither can you. We are in this until the end, together. And if ye will not help me, the both of us will be destroyed, and your precious town an’ all.” His eyes were black holes of wrath. “You know how to find me. Ye change yer mind, come to me. But I tell ye true, I will be running the show, then. No partnership.”

Despite my anger, a tendril of fear was uncurling in my belly. He seemed to believe what he was saying. And no matter that for the Jacks, lying was as natural as breathing, I was almost believing him, too.

Almost.

We eyed each other a moment longer, then I turned on my heel to leave. Though the rain, I heard him again, his voice raised. “Test me words, Watcher. Try to leave. And when you canna, come to me. We’ll talk again.”

I hunched my shoulders at the words and kept walking, into the worsening storm.

#

The next day dawned grey, wet, and cold. The radio was full of chatter about an unexpected summer squall that looked to be settling in for a few days. Typical. As long as the Jack was here, summer would be but a memory.

My boss called to say I wouldn’t be needed that day. Too wet to work on the house we were building. Fine by me. I had preparations to make.

To rid yourself of a Jack was a tricky business. So much of it depended on when you first discovered him. If he hadn’t been around long, his influence was much less, and it was easier. Their magic only went so deep. But if he had time to weave his way into a community, to establish friendships, to start to glean all the nuggets he wanted from people’s lives, well, it became much more difficult. Almost impossible, in fact.  Just depended on his experience, and the people themselves.

Physical force was a method of last resort, but sometimes that was all I had. There was a reason I did manual labour for a living, a reason I took boxing and martial arts training. I wanted to be ready.

Thing is, weapons were useless. Knife, gun, whatever, had no effect on a Jack. So if it came to it, it was a knock-down, drag-em-out fight, ’til someone surrendered. Killing was the last resort, even if it was possible. Gram said it was hard to kill a Jack. I hoped the same would be true of me, but I had yet to test either theory.

The easier way was to cut off his circle of influence. Get to the people he had started to charm, and better yet, the people he had yet to meet. If I could warn them about him, then he was out of luck.

Watchers had some help with this. Sparkle, I called it. I could turn on the charm myself, get people to listen. It was more than just personality, it was a little magic of my own.

Like my Gramma said, two sides to a coin.

I used it sparingly, for it came at a cost. It fed the arrogance I needed to win. Frightened me, if truth be told. Luckily us Watchers didn’t encounter the Jacks very often. One every few years was the norm. Good thing. It wore on me.

My town was small, around 7,000 people. Everything was close to everything else, no place too far to walk to. It meant that nowhere in my town was off limits to the Jack, and the thought brought a cold shiver to my gut.

I touched St. Mike again on the way out. I was going to need all the help I could get.

#

I started at Second Best, a Thrift store at the end of Main. The owner was a good friend of mine, and his store far enough away from the Lantern to have escaped the Jack’s interest, for now.

I told Ben the Birdman was a con man and a thief, and to show him the door when he came in. Ben listened carefully, and by the time I left I knew I had convinced him, and that he would warn others about the Jack, as well.

But the rest of the day was a draw. Mike at the Cafe had already met Jack yesterday, and was lost to him. Same result at the travel agent, and a few other places. But I had better luck at the burger joint, and the jewellery store, and at the pharmacy and the liquor store.

So I was feeling pretty good when I got to Happy Tots, the daycare at the opposite end of Main from Second Best. But soon as I brought up the Jack, Celia, the cute twenty-something that ran the place, screwed up her face in a frown.

“Why, I met him  this morning! Nice guy, he was. Real nice. He brought some apples for the kids, and everything! They just loved him!”

I tried to warn her, used a little sparkle, but she was having nothing of it. I left there with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, all my previous successes like ash in my mouth.

I had made a tactical error. I should have came here first. The kids had no chance against a Jack, and through them he would get the parents. Some of those parents I had already talked to, but I may as well have not bothered. My warning would dissolve against the eager endorsement of their kids.

The rain beat against me as I made my way back along Main, kicking myself for a fool. Before I knew I looked up and I was back at the Lantern.

Cars lined the street on both sides. My fists clenched. There was no point in my going in, none at all, but I was angry. I shoved the door open and stepped inside.

Tables were filled, the waitresses hustling. I saw him right away, at the same table as last night. My friends were all there, circled around him, and a couple strangers, besides.

I pushed my way through the crowds to the bar, ignoring their table.  It took a couple of minutes for Tariq to notice me, but when he did he hurried right over. “Chris, welcome! Sorry, I did not see you there.”

“No problem. It’s busy.” I couldn’t quite hide the bitterness in my voice. I nodded at Jack and my friends. “He been here all day?”

Tariq looked over, a frown crossing his face, and then looked back at me, and shrugged.”On and off. What can I get you?”

Interesting. The Birdman had been in the bar long enough that Tariq should be fawning at his feet. But there are a few people, other than Watchers, who are immune to the Jacks and their charm. It looked like Tariq was one of them. “Just a Coke tonight. Got some work to do later. I’ll go sit with the guys. Can you bring it over?”

”Jenna will bring it,” he said, with a small smile of apology, gesturing at the packed room. “I’m a little busy.” He hurried off, and I watched him go, wishing I could explore his aversion to the Jack, maybe use it to my advantage. I’d have to talk to him later.

“Chris! There you are!” Ed waved at me to join them, and with a sigh, I pushed myself away from the bar, ignoring the grinning Jack and nodding at the guys as I sat down.

Jim raised a mug at me. “Cheers, bud!” he said. “Bout time you showed up. You weren’t working in that crap today, were ya?”

I shook my head. “Nah. Had some other things to do, though.”

My eyes met the Birdman’s, briefly. He nodded at me, imperceptibly, raised his glass at me, and then hacked a cough.

“Ya know, this Jack here, he’s quite the guy,” George said, eagerly. “Tell ’em, Jack, what you’ve been thinkin’.”

The Jack coughed again, into a dirty handkerchief he pulled out of a pocket.”Well, now, yer friend here, I don’t think he’ll be interested,” he demurred, waving a hand.

“C’mon, Jack! Sure he will!”

“Alrighty. Y’see, I’ve got meself a wee business.” I could see the amusement in his eyes. He loved this, playing for an audience, the real story one only he and I understood.

“You don’t say,” I said. “And what kind of business would that be?”

“I make movies. Documentaries.”

“He’s gonna do a movie about our town!” Jim announced, all wide-eyed. “And he wants to interview all of us!”

My stomach curdled at the thought, but before I could comment, Jenna arrived with my Coke.

“Thanks,” I said, looking up at her. Cute girl, with long bouncy black hair. But she had no time for me. Her sapphire eyes were fixed firmly on the Birdman.

He flashed a smile at her. “Ah yes, Miss Jenna here is gonna be in my wee movie, aren’t ye, darlin’?”

Jenna flushed, and shrugged. “Maybe,” she said, but we all saw her “maybe” meant “yes”, and the table erupted into raucous laughter.

Someone called out for another drink, and Jenna reluctantly tore herself away from the Birdman’s gaze and hurried away.

“Ah, a beauty she is,” the Jack said. There were a few ribald comments from the men, and I grew sick of it, suddenly.

I took a swallow from my drink and then stood up, dropping some coins on the table.”Look, fellas, I gotta go.”

“Come on, Chris, don’t you wanna hear about the movie? Jack here says we can all be in it. It’s all about the Trench.”

The Trench, a unique geological feature just outside of town, was a deep fissure in the earth that fascinated spelunkers and geologists alike. Everyone had a theory about what caused it, from a long-ago earthquake to a UFO landing gone wrong. It put our little town on the map, so to speak.

There would be no lack of people eager to invite the Jack into their homes and yammer away into a camera about it. And once in their homes, the Birdman had them. Simple as that.

“I’m sure I’ll hear all about it,” I muttered, and turned on my heel, eager to leave.

No one called after me. I didn’t have to look back to know they would all be pressing around the table towards the Jack, my presence all but forgotten.

I yanked the door open, but before the door shut I heard the Jack coughing again.

It gave me pause. I had never known a Jack to be sick. They seemed above any mortal diseases. He must be faking it, for sympathy, or something. But they didn’t usually need to stoop to such lengths. Yet another thing about this particular Jack that was not quite right.

It was dark outside now, rain still falling. I squinted up at the clouds sourly, and strode around the back of the building, to take the short cut to my apartment.

Just as I passed the back door, it opened, and Tariq stepped out, the security light illuminating his face. “Please, I would have a word.”

I joined him under the shelter of the eaves, the rain dripping all around us, washing away the usual smells of dank garbage and urine that haunted the alley behind the Lantern.

“This man,” he said, distaste in his voice, his shoulders hunching up slightly. “This Jack.”

I eyed him carefully. He was immune, all right, and wary. And as much as I was glad to see it, it worried me. Jacks weren’t too kind to the ones who saw them for what they were.

“What about him?”

“I think you do not like him.”

“You think right,” I said. “He’s bad news.”

“You know him, then?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“I wish him away from here,” he said, suddenly vehement. “But the others, they are excited by this movie—“

“Look, Tariq, you are right to be worried. But just stay out of his way, okay? I’ve got a plan. I’ll deal with him. He’ll be gone soon.” I spoke with more confidence than I felt. The Birdman’s inroad into the daycare had shaken me quite a bit.

“Let me help.“

“No. It’s too dangerous. Just lay low, try to ignore him.”

He frowned up at me. “I am not a child, Christian.”

Resolve filled his face and I remembered that he had come here from Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban. He was no stranger to evil men and what they could do.

I placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know. Look, I appreciate the offer. But you see how he easily he can get people wrapped around his little finger. And if you try to move against him, they will all turn on you. You can’t fight them all.”

His face was grim. “And you can?”

“No. There’s another way.” I paused, unsure how to explain. “Let me deal with him, please. He and I, we have some history. I know what I’m doing.”

“Do you?”

There was something in his eyes that stopped my quick answer, and the words died in my mouth.

Just then the door cracked open. It was Jenna, the waitress. “We need you, Boss. It’s crazy in there.”

“Yes, I am coming,” Tariq said, and she closed the door.

He turned back to me. “I will help,” he said, stubbornly. “This is too big for you, I think. That man, he is no man. It is a jinni, come to bedevil us. Your pride will destroy you if you are not careful.”

He turned and pulled open the door, and slipped inside to a burst of laughter and music that faded as the door shut.

END PART ONE


Part two coming next week! In the meantime, if you have missed my other original fiction here on the blog, here are the links: 

Chasing the Prize

More

Life for Life

Dust 

A Delicious Irony

“Red”

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

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Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, PT. II

Two weeks ago we left off with Cuthbert, prior of Lindisfarne, taking a break from his rigorous duties and retiring from the world to live the life of a hermit on the Inner Farne Island, a few miles east of Lindisfarne. We’ll pick up the story from there….


The island of Inner Farne was deserted….or was it? Bede tells us that the first thing Cuthbert does is to banish some devils from the island who presumably had moved in once Aidan left, as the first Bishop of Lindisfarne had once used the Inner Farne as a place of retreat as well.  Once the island is cleansed from evil spiritual influences, Cuthbert is now free to build his hermitage.

The Inner Farne is one of a group of wild, windswept islands. Certainly Cuthbert got his wish to be free of human company, but even today the wildlife there is quite extensive, including over 100 species of seabirds (the Cuddy Duck among them) and myriads of seals. I imagine Cuthbert strode into this wild and rugged environment with a smile on his face, eager to begin his life of prayer and contemplation.

1024px-Inner_Farne_Wide_View

The south end of Inner Farne. Cuthbert’s hermitage was on the north end. The white on the cliffs is from bird droppings! Today, many go to the Farne Islands for bird watching as it is one of the most famous sea bird sanctuaries in Britain, home to over 22 species of seabirds, including Cuthbert’s favourite Eider Duck and over 70,000 puffins!

farne-island-map

This map, from farne-islands.com, gives you a good view of the Farne Islands, and where they lie in comparison to Lindisfarne. The Inner Farne is the island on the very bottom, closest to the main land. You can also see that some of the islands join to make larger ones at low tide.

For Cuthbert and the monks, the spiritual disciplines of prayers, fasting and communion with God were not to be taken lightly. They considered them labour, spiritual labour, whereby they were praying not only for themselves but for any and all concerns. Just as Cuthbert had fought against the Mercians as a soldier, he now took all the spiritual discipline he had learned as a monk and used it as spiritual warfare, conquering the devil’s temptations and standing against the work of the devil in the world through prayer, always seeking to draw closer and closer to Christ.

But he couldn’t just sit out in the open in the gusting wind and rain. His second order of business, after the clearing the place of devils, was to build himself a cell for shelter and prayer. Practically speaking, this would not be easy. After all, he is alone. Bede’s description of Cuthbert from when he first becomes a monk at Melrose gives you a hint that he is capable of the task:

Like the mighty Samson of old, he carefully abstained from every drink which could intoxicate; but was not able to abstain equally from food, lest his body might be thereby rendered less able to work: for he was of a robust frame and of  unimpaired strength, and fit for any labour which he might be disposed to take in hand.

So, he was up to the challenge, and he sets himself to work. It is possible that some of the brethren may have helped Cuthbert. Bede doesn’t say. But he does describe the result:

The building is almost of a round form, from wall to wall about four or five poles in extent: the wall on the outside is higher than a man, but within, by excavating the rock, he made it much deeper, to prevent the eyes and the thoughts from wandering, that the mind might be wholly bent on heavenly things, and the pious inhabitant might behold nothing from his residence but the heavens above him. The wall was constructed, not of hewn stones or of brick and mortar, but of rough stones and turf, which had been taken out from the ground within. Some of them were so large that four men could hardly have lifted them, but Cuthbert himself, with angels helping him, had raised them up and placed them on the wall. There were two chambers in the house, one an oratory [a place for prayer], the other for domestic purposes. He finished the walls of them by digging round and cutting away the natural soil within and without, and formed the roof out of rough poles and straw. Moreover, at the landing-place of the island he built a large house, in which the brethren who visited him might be received and rest themselves, and not far from it there was a fountain of water or their use.

Pretty impressive, huh? I find these details fascinating, especially considering Bede almost certainly visited this hermitage after Cuthbert’s death. Unfortunately nothing remains today of Cuthbert’s buildings.

Although Cuthbert is alone on his island, he is not completely cut off from the world. The mention of the guest-house above gives you a clue. Cuthbert was visited regularly, firstly by the monks who would also bring him food and water. He would minister to them as well, in prayers and spiritual advice. There is a lovely mention in Bede’s account of how he would wash the monks’ feet, and they his, showing  their mutual submission to one another, and to God.

But Cuthbert’s fame as a holy man was spreading, and he began to get others coming to him for advice or blessings as well, including Elfleada, the daughter of King Oswald of Northumbria, who had taken over as Abbess of Whitby Abbey after Hild‘s death. He could not refuse this royal personage and met her on another island, further south from Inner Farne.

As time went on Cuthbert decided he should grow his own food and not be dependant on the Lindisfarne brethren, so he plants some barley, reprimanding a flock of birds who come to eat it, who promptly depart, never to return.

Cuthbert seems very content on his island, and withdraws even further from society, only interacting with people through a window he cuts in the wall of his hermitage. But in 684 AD his idyll comes to an end. He is elected in abstentia as Bishop of Hexham abbey at a synod, which comes as a great surprise to him and he refuses, even disregarding the tears and pleas of his fellow monks. It takes King Ecgfrith coming to his island to persuade him for him to finally relent, but only if he can swap with Eata and become Bishop of Lindisfarne instead, which they agree to.

But his time as Bishop would be short. In 686 AD he returns to his island home, having been told by God that his time is near, and after two months becomes afflicted with some sort of sickness, possibly tuberculosis. On March 20, 687 he dies there, while at prayer in the oratory. He is  accompanied by Herefrid, the abbot of Lindisfarne, who then tells the rest of the gathered monks outside who had been spending the night in prayer and watchfulness alongside their beloved Bishop. Immediately one of the monks ascended a hill with two lit candles, as they had agreed upon this signal as a means of telling the brethren at Lindisfarne the news, and the watching monk at the monastery hurried to tell the others.

Cuthbert had previously agreed that he would be buried at Lindisfarne, and so the brethren bring his body back and inter him near the altar there. But his death was not the end of Cuthbert’s remarkable story.

Many miracles continued to be reported by people who visited the monastery and his fame continued to grow. The first Anonymous Life of Cuthbert was written in the early 720s, and it is around this time that Bede wrote his poem about Cuthbert.

As Cuthbert’s fame grows, the monks at Lindisfarne decide that it would be a good idea to dig up his bones and put them in a small box as objects of veneration. So, eleven years after his death they dug up the coffin and opened it, and to their shock and amazement they discover that his body is perfectly preserved. As Bede recounts,

…opening the tomb, found his body entire, as if he were still alive, and his joints were still flexible, as if he were not dead, but sleeping. His clothes, also, were still undecayed, and seemed to retain their original freshness and colour. When the brethren saw this, they were so astonished, that they could scarcely speak, or look on the miracle which lay before them, and they hardly knew what they were doing.

This amazing occurrence sends the Cuthbert-cult into high drive, and it is this event that prompts the Lindisfarne community to commission Bede to write a new account of Cuthbert’s life and spread the news of this miracle. The monks hastily make a new, oak coffin to house the saint. This coffin, built in 698 AD, still can be seen today, and is one of England’s most important wooden objects from before the Norman conquest.*

In homage to Cuthbert, and to God, Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, creates the Lindisfarne Gospels, one the greatest treasures of the Early Middle Ages (arguably one the greatest works of art ever produced).  Cuthbert (now reburied in his new coffin) becomes a huge draw to pilgrims.

Disaster strikes in 793 AD with the first Viking attack on a Christian church in England. The Vikings had first appeared in 789 AD, off the coast of Wessex, killing a king’s reeve. But the attack on Lindisfarne was different, as it struck at arguably one of the holiest places in Britain, desecrating the church with the blood of the monks, the church itself partially burnt down, the precious objects ransacked and taken away as treasure. Some of the monks were carted away as slaves.

However, somehow the Gospels survived.* In the chaos of that day (and many more, for the church was attacked many times after that), the monks preserved this precious book, for which we owe them our eternal gratitude.

But by 875 AD the monks had had enough. They fled Lindisfarne, taking with them what ever precious items they had, chief among them the Lindisfarne Gospels and the body of Cuthbert. They also had with them some of the bones of Aidan (the rest buried at Lindisfarne), and the head of Oswald, the great king (and saint in his own right by this point). They wandered about Northumbria, settling here and there and getting driven out again and again by the maurading Danes, but always taking their relics and the marvellous book with them.  The monks were no milquetoasts, though. At the prompting in a vision from Cuthbert himself, they were involved in a bloodless coup by saving the young Dane Guthred from slavery who ended up deposing the current Viking leader of  Crayke, near York.

Finally after seven years of wandering they settled at the old Roman town of Chester-le-Street, and built a monastery, staying there for a hundred years. But in 995 AD the Danes were threatening again so off they went, carting their book, the relics, and Cuthbert, and went to Ripon. When things settled down they started back, but on the way the wagon carrying the heavy coffin became stuck on the road, and the monks took this as a sign that this was where the saint wanted to be laid to rest (maybe the poor monks were exhausted, too.).

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I love this sculpture, located in Durham, which commemorates the journeys of the Lindisfarne monks as they travelled across Northumbria.

The site was Durham, and here they built a church and monastery, replaced by a cathedral after the Norman invasion. Cuthbert’s fame was at its peak at this point, and they wanted a church worthy of the great saint. However, people were skeptical of the story of the incorrupt body and so, before he was interred by the altar, the monks opened the coffin again and found the body still preserved inside. The coffin was placed in a beautiful shrine and visited by a great many pilgrims.

Alas, during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry the VIII , the shrine was dismantled and the coffin reburied (not after opening it and once again finding the body complete!).

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This beautiful pectoral cross was found in the folds of Cuthbert’s vestments when his coffin was opened in 1827. It almost certainly belonged to Cuthbert himself, and he would have worn it around his neck. When Henry VIII’s reformers plundered the monasteries and opened Cuthbert’s coffin, looking for treasure, they missed this little cross, because it was hidden. Thankfully!

In 1827 the coffin was opened one last time, and a skeleton was found (darn). A post-mortem was done and the doctor said the bones were consistent with everything they knew about Cuthbert. He was laid to rest the final time in Durham Cathedral, where you can still visit his tomb today.

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The final resting place of Cuthbert is in Durham Cathedral, interred under the marble slab bearing his name. Behind the tomb is damaged statue of Cuthbert (ironically without at head), holding Oswald’s head, an object of veneration in its own right and which made the long journey with Cuthbert along with some of Aidan’s bones. Durham is a definite must-see for my next trip to Britain. Bede is also buried there, in a separate tomb!

….Or can you? There is a legend that before Henry’s agents could come and destroy the church and presumably Cuthbert’s coffin, the monks opened the coffin and replaced Cuthbert’s body with that of a recently deceased brother monk. They spirited Cuthbert’s body away and buried it in a secret location in the grounds of Crayke Abbey. The location was only known to twelve monks, revealed to another only when one of the twelve dies.

So ended the life and travels of Cuthbert. It is said that with all the travelling he did as a monk and the journeys he took after death with his fellow monks, that he was one of the most well-travelled people of Britain at the time. There is some dispute about the exact route, but after they left Lindisfarne the monks travelled between five hundred and a thousand miles before settling in Durham!

Cuthbert had a remarkable life, and a remarkable death. No wonder he is still celebrated today!

 


* Click here to read a fascinating article about a new display in Durham Cathedral of that coffin and some of the objects found in it.

**It weighs close to eighteen pounds, and due to its size, would have probably taken two people to carry.

2017 Reading Challenge: A Book in the Backlist of a New Favourite Author

This month I cheated a wee bit on my Year of Fun Reading Challenge. I was supposed to read a book in the backlist of a new favourite author. However, I decided instead to read the newest book of a new favourite author.

Last year I reviewed the book Westlake Soul, by Canadian writer Rio Youers, which quickly became the book I’ve told more people to read over the past year than any other.  I absolutely loved both the book and Youers’ writing style. So as per this month’s challenge  I thought I might read one of the books in his backlist, but I quickly discovered that up to the point where he wrote Westlake Soul, his books were definitely veering into (or firmly planted in) the horror genre.

While I have been known to read a smattering of horror books or, more likely, short stories, I find that I just can’t bring myself to read them at this stage in my life. My husband is often gone for work, and I rattle around in my empty nest quite a bit. And once night falls, it gets creepy when you are by yourself! *

However,  I have been eagerly awaiting Youers’ newest release, The Forgotten Girl (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) which is billed as a supernatural thriller. That, I can do. So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I settled down to read it.

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Love the cover. When Sally uses her psychic abilities she likens it to “letting the red bird fly” so the image is appropriate.

The Forgotten Girl opens with the main character, a twenty-six year-old dread-lock sporting, vegetarian, peace-loving street musician named Harvey Anderson, getting kidnapped and beat up by some unknown assailants. Harvey has no idea why they have taken him or why he is being subjected to this brutal beating. It’s quickly apparent that Harvey has been followed for some time, and that the thugs know all about him, and all about his dad, who came home from the Vietnam War wounded in both mind and body, and all about his girlfriend, Sally Starling, who recently has left Harvey.

The problem is, Harvey has no memory of Sally at all, even though they show him proof that he has been living with her for the past five years. They tell him that she has erased all memories of herself from his mind.  He soon realizes that she is the prize they are seeking. They were on Sally’s trail, and the trail led to him, and they want him to lead them to her.

But Harvey cannot. Only a vague flicker of a memory resurrects: a dancing girl, but with no features or any indication of where she was then or where she might be now. This is unfortunate for Harvey, for the next step in the interrogation is the creepy villain of the book who has set the thugs on Sally’s trail, whom Harvey calls “the spider”: Dominic Lang. Lang is a powerful psychic who crawls into Harvey’s mind and searches through it for any trace of the girl both he and Harvey once knew; a horrific violation that leaves Harvey shattered.

And angry. The thugs and the spider leave Harvey with the message that they will be watching and following him, waiting for him to lead him to Sally. But in the resurrection of that one tiny memory (which he begins to think that Sally left him deliberately, as a beacon to lead him to her), something else has been resurrected. Love.

The anger stirred me. Riled me. It also exposed the indefinite emotion inside–the one I’d been afraid of admitting to. And it was love. Of course it was. I loved a girl I couldn’t remember, and that made total sense to me. Because love is quite apart from memory. It runs deeper, like a hole in space that exists even after the star has exploded. 

As Harvey begins his journey to the girl he has forgotten, he gets deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that not even his paranoid father could make up, reaching to the top levels of government. The book races along a fast clip, always keeping you interested, but with Youers’ lyrical prose giving you moments of contemplation about the nature of love, memory, and loss.

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This could actually be a pretty good tag line for The Forgotten Girl

The characterizations in this novel are complex ones, and the relationships that Harvey discovers with both his damaged father and his “forgotten girl” are rich and true to life. And in the terrible circumstances he finds himself in, Harvey has to confront his worst demons, overcome the weaknesses he finds in himself, and discover strengths he didn’t know he had.

I particularly liked the way his relationship with his dad grew and changed in the book. Youers’ ability to portray family ties in interesting and realistic ways, so evident in Westlake Soul, shines in this novel as well. The only drawback is that I wish we could have seen more of Harvey and his dad together.

Both The Forgotten Girl and Westlake Soul touch on themes of memory, love, and courage. Both are about who you become when everything is taken away from you, and the roles of both our minds and emotions in our relationships with the ones we love. Westlake Soul sits a little higher on the shelf in my mind, but that is not to say that The Forgotten Girl is not worthy of much praise.

Bottom line, this book is about a man who loves a woman and loses her, and the depths that he will go to get her back, even if all he has left of her is a wisp of a memory. And that’s a story I can heartily approve of!

I really enjoyed it and look forward to what Rio Youers will do next.

My rating: 5 stars for excellent writing, a thrilling and interesting plot, and well-drawn characters.


*Ok, technically, I am not completely alone. I have my wonderful Labrador RetrieverX, but although he is good company I’m not entirely sure how useful he will be if the zombies come a-callin’. He’s a lover more than a fighter, if you know what I mean….

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Pt. 1

I realized a few weeks back when I wrote a post about clothing in the 7th century, that I have yet to write a post about one of the most influential figures of the Early Middle Ages, that being Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne (634 AD – March 20, 687 AD).

It’s time to rectify that!

Cuthbert is a fascinating figure whose life echoes throughout the centuries until even today. After his death he became possibly the most popular saint in England, eclipsed only by Thomas à Beckett who died in 1170 AD. In fact there is so much to say about Cuthbert that I am going to present his story to you in two parts. I will follow up with Part II next week.

Most of what we know about Cuthbert comes from the hand of Bede, the famous Early Medieval historian, sometimes called the Venerable Bede.  Bede actually wrote three accounts of Cuthbert’s life. One was a  poem, one was a work of prose, commissioned by the brethren of Lindisfarne, and one which was included in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 

What fascinates me about this is that Bede was actually a contemporary of Cuthbert. Bede was fourteen when Cuthbert died and, although he never met him, in writing his Life of Cuthbert he spoke with many who knew Cuthbert well. As he puts it in the introduction to the Life (addressed to the Lindisfarne community which has commissioned the work):

…I have not presumed without minute investigation to write any of the deeds of so great a man, nor without the most accurate examination of credible witnesses to hand over what I had written to be transcribed. Moreover, when I learnt from those who knew the beginning, the middle, and the end of his glorious life and conversation, I sometimes inserted the names of these my authors, to establish the truth of my narrative, and thus ventured to put my pen to paper and to write. But when my work was arranged, but still kept back from publication, I frequently submitted it for perusal and for correction to our reverend brother Herefrid the priest, and others, who for a long time had well known the life and conversation of that man of God. Some faults were, at their suggestion, carefully amended, and thus every scruple being utterly removed, I have taken care to commit to writing what I clearly ascertained to be the truth, and to bring it into your presence also, my brethren, in order that by the judgment of your authority, what I have written might be either corrected, if false, or certified to be true.

After he had completed the task the book was read by the Lindisfarne elders and teachers for final approval before it was allowed to be copied for wider distribution.

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This is the earliest surviving copy of Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert. It dates from the 9th century and was found in France, which shows you how far-reaching Cuthbert’s popularity was, even at that early date. Image from the British Library. 

Now let’s remember that these hagiographies (biographies of saints), are always meant to popularize the said saint in order to attract people to the monasteries that saint was associated with. In other words, nothing negative was going to be included in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert. Hagiographies were a kind of medieval one-up-man-ship: “Yo, my saint’s better than your saint, dog!” .  So we do need to keep that in mind as we read these accounts.

However, with all that being said, I love the fact that Bede’s Life of Cuthbert was written in consultation with people who actually knew the man and who had seen themselves the stories they recounted to Bede. And I love that Bede tried to make his account as accurate as possible, using many witnesses and checking and rechecking the stories. We have so few credible accounts of people’s lives from this era. It’s wonderful having this window into one person’s life, even though that window may be squeaky clean indeed.

What is also interesting is that Bede’s Life of Cuthbert was not the first one to be written. Bede completed his work around 721 AD, but the earlier one was completed around 700 AD. This earlier work, like Bede’s, was commissioned by Bishop Eadfrith* of Lindisfarne, which is the monastery most associated with Cuthbert. The earlier Life of Cuthbert is often called the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, because we are not sure who the author was, although it most certainly was one of the monks at Lindisfarne.

Although you wouldn’t know it from his introduction quoted above, Bede draws heavily from the anonymous Life in his work. In fact you might accuse Bede of being a little disingenuous in his introduction, but I guess I can forgive him seeing as Eadfrith and the other monks certainly knew all about the other anonymous Life, and possibly the author of the previous version may still have been at Lindisfarne. The Latin of Bede’s Life is apparently much more classical and stylized than the earlier one, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Bede was asked to do another one. The other reason we will discuss in Part II, so come back next week to find out!

So, now that we know the source(s) of our information, let’s get to Cuthbert himself.

He was  born in 634 or 635 AD, just as Aidan was invited by King  Oswald to found the monastery at Lindisfarne and become its Bishop. He was born in Dunbar, located on the east coast of Britain at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. At the time this was part of Northumbria, but now it is in Scotland.

There are indications that Cuthbert came from noble birth, perhaps even son of a king, but other historians discount this, and say that he was more likely born to a poor family. Either way, he grew up near Melrose Abbey (at the time called Mailros)  on the banks of the river Tweed.  He was by all accounts a devout youngster, and one night in 651 AD, when he was seventeen, he had a vision while he was watching the sheep. In the distance he saw angels coming down to earth and escorting a soul to Heaven. The next day he discovered that Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne had died, and decided then that he would also join a monastery and devote his life to God.

However, the real world interfered with this plan. At the time Oswy, King of Northumbria, was engaged in an epic struggle with Penda of Mercia over who would eventually have control over Northumbria. Like most of the men of fighting age at the time, Cuthbert became a soldier and fought with the Northumbrians against the Mercians until the decisive battle of Winwidfield in 654 AD. While we don’t have the exact date of his entrance into Melrose as a monk (Bede let us down there) it seems that some time after 654 AD he arrived at the monastery with a spear, and on horseback–one of the reasons some say he came from nobility, as only the wealthy had horses.

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Unfortunately, there is nothing left of the original Mailros Abbey, founded by Aidan and the monks from Lindisfarne around 650 AD. This is the little interpretive centre built on the site associated with the monastery. Image from saintsandstones.net

Along with the epic political struggle between Penda and Oswy for control of Northumbria that was occurring at this time, there was also an epic struggle in the ecclesiastical world. On side was the Celtic British monks of the north-west, nurtured under Columba‘s Rule at Iona, whose influence had spread across northern Britain, and on the other, the southern Roman Christians, whose practices of the faith stemmed from Rome (this is a very simple explanation…one day I will do a more detailed post on this).

Us moderns have a hard time understanding the nature of this conflict between two “styles” of Christianity, for it seems to us to revolve mainly around what style of tonsure the monks should wear, and, most importantly, how one should calculate the date of Easter. Indeed, these are the outward expressions of this conflict, but it goes much deeper than that.

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Two styles of tonsure: Roman, on the left, and Celtic, on the right. Or is it? Technically we are not entirely sure of the Celtic tonsure. We know that the hair was cut from ear to ear, but some suggest that the opposite of this look, in other words the hair at front is kept and all the hair from the ear back is shaved off! Image from Church History for Everyday Folks.

As a Celtic Christian monk who learned the monastic rule from the community at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert was by no means unaware of this conflict, and it shaped his life in significant ways. He quickly distinguished himself at Melrose, and when a new monastery was founded in Deira at Ripon,  he was sent there as guest-master along with Eata, who became Bishop.  But in 661 AD Cuthbert and Eata returned to Melrose, ousted from Ripon by King Alhfrith of Deira (son of Oswy) who had put the ambitious monk Wilfrid in Eata’s place. Alhfrith and Wilfrid were proponents of the Roman practices, and Ripon was thus changed from a Celtic Christian monastery to a Roman one.

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St. Wilfrid. Oh, he was a wily one. Soon I will be doing a post on him…stay tuned. 

Soon after their return, some type of plague strikes Melrose, and many of the brethren there are afflicted, including Cuthbert, but he recovers.

However, by 664 AD Cuthbert must have seen the writing on the wall, for he has a change of heart. In the hugely important Synod of Whitby that year, King Oswy decrees that henceforth the Roman practices would be the ones followed in the Northumbrian monasteries. Some of the Northumbrian monks balk at this, but Eata accepts the ruling, and Cuthbert follows his mentor’s lead.

Back at Melrose, the abbot, Boisil, dies of the pestilence, and Eata is named Abbot/Bishop (these offices were somewhat fluid at the time).  Cuthbert becomes prior (second in rank to the Abbot). While there he became a great evangelist, travelling around the country and up into the mountains to preach the gospel to the pagan people where others feared to go. He also encouraged those Christians who had given up the faith in the face of the plague and had resorted back to their pagan practices to rid themselves of the sickness.

It is during this time at Melrose that one of the most famous stories of Cuthbert occurs. Cuthbert often left the monastery to spend the night in prayer. One night one of the monks follows him to see where he goes. He follows him down to the sea, and watches as Cuthbert wades out into the waves, until the water is up to his arms, and begins to pray.

As dawn breaks he comes back on to the beach, falls on his knees, and continues to pray. The monk watching is astonished to see two otters come out of the ocean, breathe upon Cuthbert’s feet, and lay down upon them to dry his feet with their fur. Cuthbert blesses them for their duty and the otters scamper back to the waves. The astonished monk confesses his spying to Cuthbert and the Bishop forgives him, but asks him to tell no one of it until his death, a promise the monk keeps.

Eata is in charge of both Ripon and Lindisfarne, and sometime in the 670s  he assigns Cuthbert to Lindisfarne as prior. Cuthbert is given the task of reforming the monastery from the Celtic practices to the Roman ones. This would not have been easy, and it seems it caused some bitterness among the brethren there. But he was a perfect one to do it, seeing as he was raised in Northumbria and trained in the Celtic practices himself as a monk.

Let’s hear Bede’s explanation of this:

There were some brethren in the monastery who preferred their ancient customs to the new regular discipline. But he got the better of these by his patience and modest virtues, and by daily practice at length brought them to the better system which he had in view. Moreover, in his discussions with the brethren, when he was fatigued by the bitter taunts of those who opposed him, he would rise from his seat with a placid look, and dismiss the meeting until the following day, when, as if he had suffered no repulse, he would use the same exhortations as before, until he converted them, as I have said before, to his own views. For his patience was most exemplary, and in enduring the opposition which was heaped equally upon his mind and body he was most resolute, and, amid the asperities which he encountered, he always exhibited such placidity of countenance, as made it evident to all that his outward vexations were compensated for by the internal consolations of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes retreat is a good offence, it seems. I can think of a few meetings I have endured where this strategy could well have been employed!

At any rate, it is after the reforms are completed, in 676 AD, when he is 42 years old, that Cuthbert decides he wants to withdraw even more from the world and become a hermit. I suppose after the harrowing work he had to do to change the monastery’s practices and dealing with the difficulties that caused I can’t blame him for having enough of people and wanting to renew his spirit by time alone in prayer!

He first finds an isolated spot on the outskirts of the monastery, but finding even that not quite isolated enough (too easy for the other brothers to get to him, I imagine) he sets himself up on Inner Farne Island, a deserted island some miles east of Lindisfarne.

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Eider ducks are known as Cuddy Ducks in Northumbria, after Cuthbert. While on the Inner Farne Cuthbert became enamoured of these ducks, and instituted laws to protect them as people often would harvest both the eggs and the birds. So aside from his religious accomplishments, Cuthbert thus became the world’s first conservationist! Image from wikicommons

Thus ends the first part of Cuthbert’s fascinating life. But there is much more to come. I hope you join me next week as we learn more about Cuthbert the hermit and the influence he continued to have, even after separating himself completely from the world.  And even after his death, as we shall see.


*Fun fact: Eadfrith is also the man responsible for the Lindisfarne Gospels. And by “responsible”, I mean he is one who actually designed, drew, and painted them, as historians have determined that the Gospels were the work of one man alone.  What wonderful treasures he gave us!

Featured image is an icon of Cuthbert, from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons. Note the otter at his feet, and also the raven. Ravens are associated with Cuthbert because, as he was building a shelter on Inner Farne for visiting brethren, three ravens came and pulled out the thatch on the roof. Cuthbert banishes them from the island, but they return, and in a penitent manner bowed their heads and showed signs of asking forgiveness. Cuthbert does so, and they bring him a piece of hog’s lard, which he uses to grease the visiting monk’s shoes.

Superstition in the Dark Ages

It’s Friday the 13thAlthough we have left a lot of our superstitions behind in this supposedly enlightened age, there are still many people who will not be travelling today (or doing all sorts of other things), simply because of the date.

Which got me to thinking: would the people of 7th Century Britain be superstitious about this day, too? And if not, why not? What might they have been superstitious about that we are not?

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First of all, let’s start with a definition. Google the word and you will find a couple of definitions:

  • excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.
  • a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.

I have written before about how differently people in 7th century Britain saw the world, compared to us. For them there was no separation between the religious and the secular. Everything related to God (or the gods) and everything you saw, especially in nature, had a deeper meaning beyond itself. It’s very hard for us to enter into this mindset, almost impossible, but not completely. It means turning off your rational, scientific brain, which is hard for us to do. But seeing as there are plenty of superstitions that still survive today, including the one about Friday the 13th, it’s not impossible for us, it seems!

So in one sense, the 7th century people of Britain were superstitious about everything. But it is interesting to dig into the research and find out some specific things that they may or may not have been superstitious about. Here’s just a few for you to ponder on this Friday the 13th:

Friday the 13th – funnily enough, although the people of 7th century had plenty of superstitions, this particular one was not one of them.  People became superstitious about this day as being one in which bad things might happen because it combined two things that people were superstitious about: Fridays in general, and the number thirteen. In Christian history Friday was seen as a day in which bad things happen because Christ was crucified on a Friday (paradoxically called Good Friday, because of the results of that crucifixion was salvation being made available to all, which is a Good Thing). The number thirteen was an unlucky number because there were thirteen people at the Last Supper (Jesus, plus the 12 disciples, and the “13th man” is generally said to be Judas). However, it seems that neither of these superstitions were evident before the 13th century. So, our seventh century friends were not too concerned about Friday the 13th. And realistically speaking, they weren’t too concerned about what the exact date was in general. Calendars were more for monks (or the pagan priests) than for ordinary people. The monks kept track of the feast days and the high holy days of the year, especially Easter. In the pagan world, the Druids and the pagan Saxon priests would certainly pay attention to, and track, the Solstices. But having to know the exact date of other, ordinary days, were not too important to the general population.

Black cats – this one is a little more tricky, but in general, in the 7th century in Britain, black cats would not have been seen as unlucky, or as witches’ companions or consorts of the devil. Those ideas again come from a later time period, specifically from the time the Pilgrims arrived in America in the 17th century. Therefore the idea of the black cat being unlucky is far more prevalent in America than in European folklore. In many parts of Britain, black cats were seen as bringing good luck rather than bad (in other words people still had superstitious beliefs about them, but not in a negative sense). The Celts, including the Scots and the Irish, did have a legend surrounding the Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe, which was a fairy that shape-shifted into a black cat with a white patch on its chest. This cat was feared because they believed it would steal the soul of a recently dead person before the gods (or God, in the Christian era) could claim it, so they would have special distractions during the wake to keep the cat away before burial, such as leaping and wrestling, catnip, and forbidding fires in the room the body was laid (as we all know cats are attracted to warmth).

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Doyle based this famous Holmes story on the legends of the black dogs common in Britain

Black dogs – the black dog is a much more fearsome being in British folklore than the black cat ever was. Stories of large, black dogs, often with blazing red eyes, are common throughout the British Isles, and more common there than anywhere else. They are often seen as being harbingers of death or even directly harmful to those unlucky enough to encounter one. Due to its prevalence in the British culture stretching back just about as       far as we can track, superstitions about black dogs would definitely have been part of 7th century life.

Knocking on wood (or touching wood) – this is another superstition which goes back a long way. Both the Celts and the Saxons saw trees as sacred objects, and the practicing of knocking or touching wood after good fortune could have been a way to rouse the spirit of the tree to protect someone so that their luck wouldn’t turn, or to scare away evil spirits which might come around seeking to reverse your good fortune. Add to this the reverence for the cross of Christ and you can see why this particular phrase and action got so embedded in western culture that it has survived even to this day. However….there are some researchers that scoff at this explanation and trace the practice back to a 19th- century children’s game called “Tiggy Touchwood”, which was a type of tag where a player was “safe” if they touched some piece of wood or tree. So I’ll let you decide on that one!

To wrap up, I thought I’d leave you with something from Bald’s Leechbook, which is a medical text that comes to us from the Early Medieval period. In a previous post I explained that this is a compilation of many remedies for all sorts of injuries and diseases, most of which comes from the medical knowledge handed down from the Greeks and Romans. But there is one section which contains a lot of strange and wonderful “cures”, many of which are very superstitious sounding indeed.

Here’s an example:

Against elf-disease: take marsh mallow, fennel, lupin, the lower part of bittersweet nightshade and the lichen from a holy crucifix and frankincense. Take a handful [of all of the plants]. Bind all the plants in a cloth. Dip [them] into a fountain with holy water three times. Let three masses be sung over them: one Omnibus Sanctis, another Contra Tribulationem, a third Pro Infirmis. Then put hot coals in a chafing dish and lay those plants in [it]. Smoke that person with the plants before 9 a.m. and at night, and sing litanies and credos and Pater Noster, and write the sign of the cross on each of his limbs, and take a little handful of the same plants of that kind, likewise consecrated, and boil in milk. Drip three [drops] of the holy water into [it] and sup [it] before his food. Soon he will be well.

Ok. First of all, what exactly is “elf-disease”? The Anglo-Saxons believed in elves, and that they interfered with humanity with often malevolent results. Sudden pains in the body were seen as being the result of elf-shot; in other words, that an elf has shot you with an arrow. So conditions such as arthritis or even growing pains could have been explained that way. There are remedies for being elf-shot in the Leechbook. So, perhaps elf-disease is something similar? Who knows?

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Some historians believe that finding obsidian arrow heads (like this one, made into a necklace) left behind from the ancient people who populated the British Isles was the origin of the idea of “elf-shot”. Photo from wikicommons

I suppose that is exactly the point. While the medical practitioners of the day knew quite a bit about wounds, infections, broken bones, and things like childbirth, etc, they didn’t know about germs and what might cause something like cholera or even the plague. So some vague sickness that had no obvious external cause would have been a mystery to them. So, elf-disease was as good as an explanation as any, right?

All the rigmarole about the plants and the masses and the prayers and the holy water speaks to the desperation of the patient and the physician alike to “do something” to fix someone when they are ill. According to the Christian faith, we are called to pray for those who are sick, and in some instances anoint with oil. The other practices detailed above were definitely not mentioned in Scripture. So where did they come from?

Somehow simply praying for someone doesn’t seem enough, especially if you contrast that with the magical charms and rituals that the pagan culture around you would have been using when faced with mysterious illnesses. So to avoid the people turning to those more pagan remedies, the monks and other Christian healers would have felt much more comfortable with adding these more Christian practices to their healing repertoires when simply praying for someone didn’t seem as spectacular in comparison.

We all know the power of the placebo…and while that connection would not have been immediately understood by the healers of the time they may have seen times when these types of “cures” actually worked, either through the patient believing they were going to work or just simply the body fighting off whatever was ailing it, and so these practices became worthy of inclusion in the Leechbook.

Superstition? Yes, of course. But you can understand where they come from, when you live in a world where terrifying things happen that have no logical cause that they could see.

I hope you have a great day today, Friday the 13th and all! I’d wish you good luck, but that would be superstitious….

Ecgfrida, I’m Home!

In the post What’s for Dinner, Ecgfrida?, about food in the Dark Ages, I mentioned that one of the important things I needed to get right when I began to research and write my novel set in 7th century Britain was the food they ate.

However, even before I looked at what they ate, I did a lot of research on where they lived. And, like all things Dark Ages, this whole area of research is at turns fascinating and frustrating, especially to a novelist who has to write about the spaces her characters call home.

Once again, there is not a lot of existing material from that time period to give us many clues about this. Mainly because, for the most part, the houses and buildings were built out of wood. There are a few stone buildings surviving from that time period (more about them later) but your average, everyday dwelling was made from wood with either timber or wattle and daub walls. Such materials do not survive the test of time, never mind the raiding of the marauding Vikings, with their penchant for burning and looting.

This means that archeologists are left with impressions of buildings, only. In particular, they find things like the post holes (or even just the impression of post holes)  from the wooden posts which made up the frame of the building, or the ashes and other indications of the hearth fire.

And a word about “villages” or “towns”… there were no such things, for the most part, although this is also a matter of some debate (remember, I’m not a historian, so feel free to quibble, but this is my understanding from the research I have done). People would naturally gather around the centres of power, such as the kings’ halls, or powerful thegns, or major ecclesiastical centres. So, for example, at Bebbanburg, where King Oswy had his hall and the influential monastery of Lindisfarne was close by, there would have been a village of sorts, a centre for trading and commerce. But out in the countryside, people would live in “holdings” – a gathering of extended family members, under the lordship of the most powerful of those, where the main source of activity was agriculture. The concept of a town where a whole lot of unrelated people lived in close proximity to one another would have been a fairly exotic one in those times.

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West Stowe Anglo-Saxon Village is located on the spot of an actual Anglo-Saxon village dating from the 5-7th century. Here archeologists have reconstructed several buildings, trying out various interpretations of what the buildings may have looked like based on the evidence they have found.  In the reading I’ve done it seems like the style of building shown in the foreground is not as likely as once thought. Mainly because the thatch on the roof will rot because of the contact with the ground.  Image from wikicommons

It seems that the buildings in general were fairly small, mostly one room, and generally with no second floor (although there is speculation now that some of the buildings actually might have been two-story). The mead halls were an exception, I’ll cover those later, too. But people’s houses were quite simple, for the most part.

One thing that is quite clear from the archaeological evidence is that many of the buildings featured a sunken pit of about three feet below ground level. There is some speculation about what this looked like and the purpose of it. It seems likely that in many cases the houses had a wooden floor, and the pit area was used either for storage, or even filled with straw which would provide some heat as it rotted during the winter months, giving the inhabitants a type of central heating system.

The hearth was often raised, and found in the centre of the house, where it would provide both warmth and the place to cook food. There were also separate cook houses close by the mead halls, where the thegns and kings could cook the large amounts of food and bread needed for feasting.

Windows were not common, and when they were used, they were not glass, for the most past. Vellum would be used as a window “pane”, and shutters could also be employed to keep in the warmth during the cold winter nights.

Chimneys were not a feature of the buildings. The roofs were thatch, and the smoke would escape from a small hole in the roof, or diffused through the thatch. The hearth fire would lend some light, as would tallow (animal fat) candles, but still, the interior would be both dark and smoky. I imagine most people would have a cough, especially the women, who would spend the most time indoors preparing meals and caring for small children.

To escape the gloom and smoke, people would do as many of their chores outside as possible, whenever the weather allowed. It’s likely the houses would have had some kind of porch or area under overhanging eaves where people could sit and repair clothing or furniture, weave cloth, or make things.

The walls could be either  timber or wattle and daub. Wattle and daub is thin, coppiced wood woven together with the chinks filled with a mixture of dung, clay, and straw (rotting straw, manure walls, smoke and sweat….the odours in a typical house must have been, shall we say, interesting….). The wattle and daub would have been a good insulator, at any rate. Any chinks which still allowed the wind to get through could have been covered by tapestries or other wall hangings.

It all sounds very crude to our ears, and indeed it was in many ways. But it probably wasn’t quite as crude as you might think. The Anglo-Saxons were master builders, and loved making beautiful things. To the extent that they could, their dwellings and the furning in it would have been embellished with carvings, paint, or, for the very wealthy, even adorned with gold. We know this from some of the descriptions of the mead halls found in poetry such as Beowulf.

Here’s a description of the mead hall, called Heorot, from that poem:

The men did not dally; they strode inland in a group
Until they were able to discern the timbered hall,
Splendid and ornamented with gold.
The building in which that powerful man held court
Was the foremost of halls under heaven;
Its radiance shone over many lands. (lines 306-11)

Even accounting for some literary licence, this gives you a bit of an idea that the mead hall of the Anglo-Saxons was an impressive place, built to show off the wealth and power of the king or thegn who had built it. Rich tapestries and intricate carvings would adorn the walls and wooden posts, and also along the walls the treasures taken from vanquished enemies such as mail, swords, helmets, and the like, would be displayed.

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Tolkien modelled his  Rohirrim on the culture of the Anglo-Saxons (he was an Anglo-Saxon scholar, don’t forget). Here is Peter Jackson’s take on the Golden Hall of Edoras, which Tolkien based on Beowulf’s description of Heorot. Image from Middle Earth Architecture

The Anglo-Saxons did build some buildings out of stone, and amazingly, there are a few of these at least partially surviving in Britain today. For the most part these structures are churches. You can see an example of one in Escomb, built somewhere between 670-675 AD.

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Escomb church, located in County Durham. Much of the stone to build the church came from the nearby abandoned Roman fort in nearby Binchester. In fact, on the south wall you can see a brick with the words LEG VI (Sixth Legion) set upside down! On the south wall you can see a 7th century Anglo-Saxon sundial. Amazing. The building fell into disrepair over the centuries but thankfully was restored in the late 1800s. This church is definitely on my ever-expanding bucket list of places to see in Britain. Image from wikicommons

So, to sum up, the Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century would have had small, cosy (!) houses, along with a central place to gather with the community in the larger centres.  They would have taken pride in their dwellings, decorating them with as much largesse as their wealth allowed. In some cases that could make for a richly decorated hall, and in others, maybe one simple tapestry or tanned hide to hang over the drafty spot in the wall.

There’s a lot more to think about when we think of the dwelling of the times. What furniture would they have? How would they store things? Did they have locks on their doors? What about a latrine?

But I’ll have to leave those for another day, perhaps…


Featured image: Another one of the reconstructed houses at West Stowe Village. Image from wikicommons

 

YOFR : Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

(Last week I fell behind, and missed posting this on Friday. And then things got even busier. But I’m back on track now, so this week, you get two blog posts!)


This month my Year of Fun Reading Challenge required me to read a book recommended by someone with great taste.

I don’t know about you, but I have a book guru in my life. Someone who I look to for book recommendations, because I know she shares the same love of reading and appreciation of a good book that I do. And we also are similar in that we read widely in book genres. She might have a few more romance-y type books than I do, and I might stray a little further down the science fiction/fantasy path than she will, but generally we both like to read widely, and have pretty high standards when it comes to quality of writing and plot development.

So when I was looking for a book to fulfill this challenge, I decided to read a book that my book guru recommended, that being Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011). This book has been out for a few years, and has been getting rave reviews from day one.  However, I was a little leery of it because it features a teen mastermind who basically saves the world, and I don’t particularly like Young Adult fiction, nor storylines about teen geniuses that save the world (Wesley Crusher anyone? Ugh.)*.

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So I had been avoiding this book, until my book guru told me she had read it and enjoyed it, and recommended that I give it a go.

What makes a good book, anyway? For me it’s a mix of great characters, a compelling story and high quality of writing. You can play around on the sliding scale of good to bad on any one of these qualities but essentially I need a book to have some of all of them for me to truly enjoy it.

Ready Player One hits the mark on all of them, I am thankful to say. My book guru was right. I did enjoy it!

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There are a lot of dystopian future novels out there, and Ready Player One fits firmly in that camp. A lot of those YA dystopian novels also feature some kind of love triangle (i.e. Hunger Games). Although there is a romance in this book, it’s not a love triangle, thankfully.

The story is set in a near-future America (2044), where due to global warming, an energy crisis, and economic collapse,  life is pretty dire indeed. The only relief from the bleakness of life is the virtual reality platform called OASIS where players can immerse themselves in another world (or worlds, technically) using specialized goggles, haptic gloves (to feel things) and body suits.

On his death, James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, reveals that he has hidden a very special Easter egg inside of OASIS, which, if found, will enable the winner to inherit his  fortune and ownership of OASIS. An Easter egg, if you don’t know, is a special hidden bonus in video games that gamers can find, which may or may not have anything to do with the game itself.  This sets off a global egg hunt (inside the virtual realities of OASIS), but the clues are so tricky enthusiasm wanes quickly and eventually, five years after the announcement, no one has deciphered the first clue and the only ones left searching for the egg are the die-hard dedicated gamers.

The protagonist, Wade Watts, who has given his avatar in the game the name of Parzival, is a young teen who lives in the “stacks”, basically a trailer home in which the trailers are stacked on top of each other. He is your typical geek, who spends far more time in the virtual world of OASIS than in the real world. He spends most of his time trying to figure out the first clue to the first stage of the hunt and in a eureka moment figures out that the first clue will lead him to a place on the virtual planet that his (virtual) school is on.

When he finds it, the announcement goes out on the game scoreboard, and the interest in the hunt is revived world-wide, as people realize that the announcement of the Easter egg was not just a joke that the OASIS founder, James Halliday, had perpetuated on the world. Parzival is immediately famous, and the eyes of the world are on him as he begins to work out the next clue.

Wade (Parzival) has two good friends in OASIS: Art3mis (a girl he has a crush on), and Aesch (pronounced like the letter “h”). Wade has never met these people in real life, he only knows them through their avatars in OASIS. He helps both of them get the first clue as well, and the three of them begin the task of trying to figure out the rest of the clues and get the prize. They, along with a couple of others from japan (Daito and Shoto) become the top five “gunters” (egg-hunters).

Complicating the search is the main antagonist, Nolan Sorrento, the head of Innovative Online Services (IOI), the worldwide Internet provider, who wants to find the egg in order to gain control of OASIS and monetize it. The IOI players are well-funded and have all the resources that the gunters could only dream of.

This is a well-written novel, with likeable, realistic characters. The plot is exciting and interesting. It was a great deal of fun to be immersed in this Easter egg hunt along with Parzival. Sorrento and IOI are ruthless, even resorting to murder to advance their progress in the game. OASIS itself is a fascinating place, with lots of worlds to explore and puzzles to solve.

The plot builds to a satisfying and exciting climax, allowing our hero to grow along the way and face down his nemesis in a way that fits seamlessly into the plot.

The best part of Ready Player One, however, is the fact that the whole novel is immersed in the pop culture of the 1980s. Halliday, the creator of OASIS, was a 1980s aficionado, so the clues to the hunt and the various puzzles and challenges the gunters have to solve, are all related to the 1980s somehow, including games of PacMan, nods to Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, and movies such as Blade Runner and War Games, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail (yessssss!).

I graduated high school in 1980, so all of these references made the book that much more fun. I suspect they are part of the reason why this book has become so popular. It has even caught the eye of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose film adaptation of the novel is coming out in 2018. Which is fantastic. This is one of those books that is just begging to be made into a movie, and to have Spielberg at the helm is perfect for it.

Ready Player One is a good book, meeting or exceeding all of my requirements for book excellence.

Thanks, Book Guru. I owe you one!

My rating: 5 stars. Loved it.


*Fun Fact: Will Wheaton, the actor who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is the narrator for the audiobook of Ready Player One.