Volume 2 Number 4

MYTHOLOG

Autumn 2004



Useful Visions

J.P. Moore

A thousand letters in a prayer, four hundred pages in a book--that was over two hundred skins, two hundred calves. Murdoch arrived at two thousand stones in the floor, if he had properly judged the proportions of the single stone at the tip of his left foot. Perhaps ten thousand more stones rose to the thatch roof. There, thousands of reeds worked, and often failed, to keep out the rain. Always rain; countless drops fell in the early summer. They had fallen since the Flood, and even before. Rain had fallen on Cessair's invasion, on the very birth of Ireland. It fell now, on monasteries like Murdoch's, on Viking raiders who plied the seas, on high kings and peasants alike.

Brother Murdoch blinked. His eyelids wanted to close. The brothers around him, all freshly tonsured for it was Thursday, muttered and rocked. They had found a rhythm to the prayer. Murdoch had not helped to forge that rhythm. Rather, he had been drifting in and out of sleep. In fact, their rhythm only lulled him.

Tierce--it was morning prayer. Rhythm ruled the day: lauds, prime, tierce, sext, nones, vespers. Between these offices of prayer, the brothers worked. After vespers, they slept. They ate on half of the days after nones, but only drank milk on fast days. The ethic of the Culdee order had made a competition of starvation. Each brother vied with the other to take less and less food. Fat Abbot Fionan seemed exempt, above this game. For all of his brothers, however, each day blurred into the next within a cloud of nausea, aching muscles, and mental numbness.

Murdoch closed his eyes again. Light flashed from the backs of his lids. A twisting, twirling pattern of stars bored into his head. Everything changed. A thin white mist now crept between empty pews. The brothers were gone. The roof disintegrated, its thatch blowing away in all directions. The wind shifted. The sky opened above him. Clouds rolled overhead. Thunder sounded from everywhere. The walls fell--slowly at first, one stone here and one there. Then, in a great movement, they dropped as if pushed all at once. Soon, nothing remained but a broken foundation.

Murdoch stood. The pew dissolved to dirt behind him. His heart beat as quickly as the clouds passed, as the thunder beat. His lungs heaved to handle his breath--in and out, a thousand times each second. A thousand days, countless days, passed each second. The rhythms, the routines, and the swaying monks had all become ghosts.

Murdoch looked to the altar. Abbot Fionan was gone. A stone slab now rested in the dirt, announcing his death. The stone seemed ancient. Lichen burst upon its dark, smooth surface. The mist swirled and gathered above this stone, forming upon a core. A woman--she was not of any substance. Her translucent skin showed her bones. Sunken cheeks barely covered her teeth. Her eyes were empty. She seemed young and old at once, a hag with hints of beauty in her figure, her hair, in the wonderful symmetry of her face.

She drew a breath. Her lips curled into a smile. The clouds halted. Murdoch's breath crashed and held. The foundation shook. All noise ceased as the attention of every detail, every droplet of mist, turned to the spirit at the altar.

She opened her mouth.

Murdoch jerked and gasped. Diarmat flinched next to him, but quickly rediscovered the rhythm of the prayer. Abbot Fionan stopped chanting, and one by one the brothers stopped with him. Fionan opened his eyes and turned them coldly upon Murdoch. Some of the brothers whispered. Murdoch's heart began to beat again, so loudly that he feared that they could all hear it. The abbot held his angry stare.

"Scriptorium," Fionan declared. He pointed at the front row, to one of the recent arrivals who overdid his gratitude with bows and backwards scurrying toward the door.

"Walls," Fionan bellowed. His hands waved over Murdoch's head, to the dozen brothers at the rear of the chapel.

Murdoch was the last. Fionan paused.

"Seaweed."

He usually kept that task for novice monks.

***

Murdoch stepped from the chapel, his feet sinking into the soft turf. He walked several steps forward and turned, looking over the short chapel, over the hills. The sky was orange there. The sun rose behind those hills and would soon break above them, shortening the shadow of the ridge. The sea would catch the sunlight first and bring it onto the land with the tide. He could picture the surf. Sloppy, lazy waves rolled into the stony beach. Cold froth bubbled.

The monastery was not as calm. The brothers scurried around him, gathering their tools. Most of the monks climbed onto the walls. Vikings had made their way down the coast. Now, the monastery had to prepare. Ancient stone walls surrounded the monastery, but had fallen here and there like the sloppy waves. But not all of the brothers worked the walls. Some went to the fields and the pens. The sheep were let to wander, to graze on the hillside.

Murdoch let all of this activity play around him. His eyes still adjusted to the light, his skin to the chill wetness of the air. He was still waking. When all of the tools were gone, when all the brothers were at work and it seemed as if the abbot would appear at any moment to check on the day's progress, Murdoch found a basket and walked toward the gate.

Burial slabs littered the space around the chapel. He dodged these. None were that old. The monastery had not been built more than three or four decades before, borrowing the walls of a far older encampment. The monks who had resuscitated the circular enclosure had then died of plague. Round beehive huts, originally theirs, formed a crescent on the southern arc of the enclosure. The cells were barely large enough to contain a man standing. Across from them, opposite the chapel, the scriptorium stretched along the northern wall. There had been talk of building a colonnade to the chapel and a tower to house the more precious manuscripts, especially those on loan from Clonmacnoise and Iona. There were not enough Culdee in all of Ireland to build such a tower. The walls, Fionan had decided, would have to hold.

Murdoch walked slowly through the gate, then followed the wall to the north, then west. A path led to the beach. The water was dark, still in the shadow of the hills. The tide was low. Seaweed littered the beach. He would gather the wet fronds into the basket and carry them to the fields, where the brothers would sow them into the dirt.

He stood for a moment, wondering where to start. Six currachs sat nearby, overturned. Three were damaged. Their hides needed repair before they would be seaworthy. The other three were new and would probably carry him all the way to Hy Brasil, or to other islands where there would never be age or death. Two possibilities struck him then. He might crawl under one of the currachs and sleep but would have nothing to show for his morning of labor. The gardeners, no doubt, waited on the seaweed and would report his transgression. The second possibility seemed infinitely more interesting: he could push one of the currachs into the surf and float away. White Martyrdom--the Culdee were famous for setting themselves adrift. He would land on a distant, magical island and stay there alone, to meditate, to contemplate, and, most importantly, to escape dreams and visions, half-waking hallucinations. Just as Brendan had sailed west, so would he. The abbot would have no choice but to recognize him as a saintly navigator. One day, Murdoch would return to tell of everything that he had seen. The brothers would respect him.

A breeze distracted him. A bell rang. It was not the monastery bell, the thin metal cone that Abbot Fionan would hold in his hand and strike with a hammer (his belly would shake with each clang); this bell came from the sea. Murdoch squinted but saw nothing. Perhaps it was the bell of a spirit, or the bell of Manannan gathering souls just as the abbot gathered the brothers for prayer. Or, he realized, Brendan himself could be calling him to follow.

Sand whipped around Murdoch, stinging his legs and face. The basket flew from the crook of his arm. The mist snapped into a shape, a vessel, close to the shore. It resembled the Viking ships, but was much larger and had no sail. And not of wood--it was as gray as the sky and the sea. It listed, pointing into the western horizon. Smoke billowed from structures on its deck, structures larger than the chapel, indeed larger than any building Murdoch had ever seen. It turned toward shore, revealing a black hole in its side. Smoke poured from there, as well.

Murdoch could do nothing. He could not even move as he watched. Men jumped from that ship, disappearing into the surf. His attention fell upon a single figure, a woman. The banshee of the chapel. She stood on the deck, her arms down, palms toward him. Her glance fell to her side. She looked like the statues of Mary that he had seen in the abbeys of Northumbria and Wessex. But she was not the mother of God. She was a spirit of disaster.

Murdoch's heart quickened. He blinked, and it was all gone. There was nothing where the ship had been. He waited for the men to climb out of the surf, onto the beach. No one arrived. They were doomed, or they had never existed.

"Brother Murdoch!"

He shook his head and turned. Diarmat called him. As Murdoch's mentor, Diarmat had taken charge of the younger monk's penance but had said little to him in the past year. Murdoch did not answer Diarmat's call, but simply looked past him.

"What are you doing, Brother Murdoch?"

"Collecting seaweed."

Murdoch lifted his arm as if to present the basket, but it was gone. He looked left and right and saw it dozens of yards away, rolling in the wind.

"The basket has ideas of its own," Diarmat called.

Murdoch could imagine the hint of a smile at the edge of the other monk's lips, but Diarmat was just a silhouette on the grassy bank. The rising sun was a halo behind his head.

"The wind is strong," Murdoch said.

"The abbot wishes to see you."

Murdoch's shoulders fell. He exhaled loudly. His heart, already thudding after the day's second vision, quickened.

***

Abbot Fionan stood at the altar exactly where the banshee had stood. He looked over a folio that nearly covered the entire stone. Murdoch could see the colors on those pages from as far away as the chapel door, as if they were glowing onto Fionan's round face. Without looking at Murdoch, the abbot spoke.

"Diarmat tells me that you do not properly complete your penance."

Murdoch swallowed hard, wondering if the gulp reverberated throughout the chapel.

"Abbot, Diarmat has not given me penance in nearly a year. When he last gave me penance, we discussed this very issue. You gave me leave of that penance, which you agreed was severe, even for a Culdee."

"It was, but it is a rare Culdee who would complain of such a thing." The abbot turned a heavy page. "Who assigns your penance now?"

Murdoch had been without a mentor for some time. Several of the brothers had worked with him after Diarmat, but each only for weeks.

"No one," he finally said.

"Do you know why, Brother Murdoch?"

"I imagine that there is no one available."

"There is no one willing. They all say that you would rather sleep than labor or meditate. A shame, really. You have a sharp mind. You have some skill in the scriptorium."

"I find other work menial, Abbot."

"Menial? Beneath you. That is what you mean."

"No, Abbot, I--"

"There is no work that is menial if it frees your mind to God's thought. There are no routines that are pointless, that merely pass time, if they allow your body to act without taxing your spirit."

"Of course, Abbot."

"I wonder--"

"Abbot, I have visions."

Murdoch could not believe that he had said it aloud, that he had interrupted the abbot. He was not sure how Fionan would react, but the abbot merely sighed and shifted his gaze from one page to the next.

"Visions of what?" Fionan asked.

"I believe they are of things in the future, Abbot. I do not fully understand them."

"Visions of what?"

"A ship, Abbot. A giant ship of gray metal. It sinks and its men dive into the ocean, drowning."

"A Viking ship?"

Fionan lifted his eyes and looked at Murdoch.

"No, Abbot, I do not think so."

The abbot's gaze fell back to the book.

"What else?"

"The chapel--I have seen it destroyed. And you, all of us, dead."

Fionan raised an eyebrow.

"We die? Do you see how we die?"

"No, Abbot. But I see your stone, years from now."

Fionan sighed loudly.

"It is a shame," he said. "You should have more useful visions. We mend walls to protect against attack. We have the worst harvest in years, with barely enough to feed ourselves. I hear of plague in Leinster, moving west. Monasteries battle one another. And we, the Culdee, are called heretics. Your visions offer no solutions to these problems."

"I do not choose them, Abbot."

"A disciplined brother would be able to interpret them more effectively. Or share them--this book describes the visions of a saint. He wrote them for others to read. He included every detail. I read it and I live his visions. You tell me only a handful of words."

Murdoch shifted his feet and looked at the stones in the floor. He had no control over any of it. He doubted he ever would, no matter what he might write or how many details he remembered.

"I am going to send you away," Fionan said.

"Abbot?"

"I feel that time in hermitage will do you some good, away from the order. Away from the structure."

Away from him, Murdoch thought.

"I do not do this lightly," Fionan continued. "We need everyone now, with threats of attack. But you do not seem to contribute. The scriptorium needs ink. You will go into the hills. You will not return until you have filled three of the large sacks with leaves of woad."

"Abbot, the woad has already bloomed."

"It has not bloomed inland. Far inland. There is little room for complaints. It is not penance, and it is not impossible. Indeed, I have been far too patient with you. However, I hope that you will take the time to think on your place in this community."

Fionan gestured, perhaps meaning to gesture to the community, to the world. But all Murdoch saw was a gesture to the chapel walls. Murdoch knew his place within those walls. He knew his seat in the pews and the very stones at his feet.

***

Murdoch walked quickly through misty rain, with the sun setting at his back. He was not sure how far he had gone, stopping finally at a high place where the plants grew in abundance. The summit lorded over a lake. Round piles of stones crowded a shelf just below him. They were cairns, the tombs of ancient pagan men. The similarity of those cairns to his own beehive cell struck him immediately. A monk lived in death--separate, a slave to time. As the hours passed, one office of prayer after another, the monk decayed.

He let the sacks fall to his feet and began to descend. Murdoch had passed several fields of woad that had not yet bloomed, but guessed that it would be easier to harvest leaves on the walk back to the monastery. Perhaps it would be tomorrow, or in weeks, or even in years.

Two cairns greeted him, the space between them a path to countless other tombs. Their mouths all opened to the east. Cairn after cairn--some of them had fallen while some were as solid as on the day they had been erected, perhaps thousands of years before. Murdoch walked forward, jumping from stone to stone to avoid the brambles and woad. Other structures had once stood here. He saw pits lined with stones, foundations and standing rocks. The place seemed untouched by monks, who would have put crosses on everything.

Murdoch soon reached the eastern slope. Two rams grazed below him. One looked at him, blaring and bleating a warning. It probably did not know what to make of him, stepping from the city of the dead as he did.

The rain had drifted off, but the setting sun was just a smudge in the sky. He could barely see the lake. Yards off the shore, half hiding in the mist, an island sat amidst the waves. More foundations there--he could see the remains of a circular wall very much like the monastery's. But the fort below had been deserted for some time. Sheep, Murdoch knew, meant men. Yet there was no other sign of settlement. Ancient walls ran in all directions but had fallen into disuse, their boundaries meaningless.

Thunder rumbled behind him. Murdoch turned to see a bank of black clouds. It had followed him from the monastery. It would be upon him, soon. The cairns would provide shelter, but he remembered a story from his youth. A hunter had followed prey into such a tomb. The villagers then heard an awful noise. The deer finally appeared, limping, but the hunter was gone forever. Such places were sidhe, gateways into other worlds. Dangerous things lurked at those boundaries, where men of ancient times left the ashes of their dead to blow into the land of fairies.

Fat raindrops fell on his scalp and shoulders. It was also dangerous to be caught on a hilltop during a storm. Spirits who caused such storms looked for men like him, men who taunted them merely by staying outdoors. A storm in this season, at this place--the cairn, with all of its risks, was at least shelter.

One of the largest stood right beside him. Murdoch walked its edge. Its entrance had been exposed. An enormous oval stone lay on its side there. Swirls and pits marked its surface. They were warnings, or stars in the sky. Or, he guessed as he lay on his belly, they taught the contortions one had to achieve in order to navigate the passage.

He crawled several yards. His breath, his grunts, echoed against the stone as if the space beyond were enormous. The air was musty and ancient, lacking the electricity of the brewing storm but possessed of its own steady, dull ache. He pushed through it, his arms and legs scraping against the stones.

Then the floor fell. His arms flailed as he dropped. He heard wailing through the darkness. Impossibly, the summit appeared below him. It rushed at him, its soft moss broken by jagged rocks. Thunder rolled all around him. He was in the midst of it, falling with the rain and smashing into the ground.

There were no cairns. Rain fell on his back. Murdoch rose to his knees and, lifting his gaze, saw her. She was no spirit, no banshee, but a woman clothed in the finest robes. Golden chains fell over her chest. Her expression, however, was as blank as it had always been. She pointed past him, into the west, into the fields he had crossed.

Murdoch stood and turned. Smoke rose in the rain, mixing oddly with the mist. He climbed. The mist parted from the fields below him. Troops of men and beasts clashed there. Weapons flared with lightning. The ground itself undulated under their marching, as if they fought on a violent sea. This was a battle of the ancients, the battle of fairies against the monsters who once ruled this land: the devilish Fomoraig. They were grotesque and deformed, with hair growing from their shoulders. Some hopped on one leg or had mouths and eyes on their chests. They assaulted the divine Tuatha de Danaan, whose armor gleamed despite the solid cover of clouds.

Murdoch watched, so familiar with the tale. He had transcribed it himself several times in the scriptorium, thinking carefully on the genealogies that tied all of the pagan characters to Noah and Abraham. There was Balor--king of the beasts, with boils and wild black hairs sprouting from his chin--unveiling his single eye and turning swaths of the noble attackers into stone. And Lugh--casting his spear, calling the lightning to himself--felled countless monsters with magic that sounded like long harp strings. The dead littered the field in numbers so great that there were as many dead as stones. The survivors would bring their dead here, Murdoch realized, to the top of the hill. The cairns were theirs.

Murdoch heard a voice, a brittle whisper. The banshee spoke to him, fading with each breathy word. He heard only phrases.

"Summer without blossoms. Cattle without milk. Every man without valor, a betrayer. Every son deceiving, a reaver. Another evil time comes."

She spoke of the end of the world.

***

Murdoch woke. A nauseous light warmed his chest. The sun peered through a hole above the shallow passage. He could see everything in the tomb. It was a small space, almost as small as his cell. He leaned against a stone pillar that rose from the center of the floor. Alcoves opened to his right and left. They contained stones and bowls of something like ash.

The banshee had disappeared. The battle had ended. The storm, the clouds, the rain--they were all gone. The dead were interred. Murdoch's back and neck ached.

The sunlight crept toward his face. Perhaps the pillar was a calendar, meant to catch the sunlight upon its markings. He thought a moment longer on the ancient hands that had smoothed and carved it, erected it here. Then, suddenly, he remembered his own task.

Leaves of woad, three bags.

The sooner he could make it back to the monastery, the less likely he would go insane. They would stop him. He would pledge to do their penance, and that would save him. He was afraid of being alone, afraid now of his visions.

Murdoch leaned forward, slithering into the passage. He crawled and exited into the morning. The mist had lifted. The sky was still overcast, but he still had to squint until he walked around the cairn and put the sun at his back. There the battlefield spread, empty but for heather, woad, and brambles. Nothing marked what had happened but enormous standing stones, some the size of a church. He had not seen these, or at least did not remember them. Yet he could almost make out his path as it dodged them.

Murdoch descended into the field. He watched the ground carefully, expecting to find corpses and weapons. Or, he would see Balor's deadly eye and be turned to stone. He saw none of these things. His visions were, indeed, remarkably useless. And in a Culdee monastery, where visions were a particularly valuable currency, he realized that he would find no mercy. They would not save him, but merely expect him to starve himself to death.

He left the bags, the woad, and the battle as he walked toward the monastery, thinking that he might resign. Perhaps it might even be smarter, he guessed, to continue in the opposite direction, to go as far from the Culdee brothers as he could. But he was not entirely convinced and, perhaps more importantly, had nowhere else to go. With them, he might find work as a layperson or in the scriptorium. He was, after all, good at that. Skill in writing and transcribing would not have done very much for him in the bogs.

Murdoch walked for two days, twice the time it had taken him to travel to the cairns. He moved slowly, explored, debated. He rested in the grasses and under the trees after the sun had burned away the mist. He was not looking forward to facing Fionan. Fear consumed him, but it was a childish fear--a boy confronting his father. He was actually thankful for such a pedestrian fear. The visions had abated and the banshee left him alone. Once, she crouched behind a standing stone. Then, she walked the crest of a ridge. Both times, she was a trick of the light. She was not there at all.

The wind carried the brine, the salt and sweet of the sea. The sun grew fat and orange as it began its descent. Behind the brine, however, he smelled smoke. It did not alarm him. Smoke meant settlement. The monastery was near. But the smoke thickened. He stepped onto the last ridge.

The walls had fallen. The wattle cells were ash. Bodies lay in line for burial, their hands crossed over their chests. Murdoch took giant steps down the gravelly slope. His feet slipped. Diarmat waited for him at the foot.

"Ostmen," he said. "Vikings. They came yesterday."

Diarmat removed his cowl. A deep cut ran from the corner of his mouth, through his ear and onto the top of his head. It struck Murdoch as a giant smirk. Murdoch said nothing. He simply stared at the black edges of that cut. Diarmat took a deep breath that shivered in his chest.

"Fionan is dead," he continued. "They killed him at the altar, right over his book. There are four of us left. Five, with you."

"No," Murdoch said. "You are four."

Diarmat looked at him and squinted. "What do you mean?"

"I could have done something," Murdoch said.

He walked forward in the mud, aimlessly at first. The Vikings had shattered the stones of the founders' graves and made rubble of the beehive cells. The chapel was in ruins, its roof burned. Murdoch moved to the doorway. Blood pooled on the stones of the floor and spattered the pages of ripped folios, their jeweled covers gone. The Vikings had struck during prayer. His knees shook and his vision began to spin. He waited for the heavy lintel to fall from the broken wall and crush him. Diarmat was behind him, then, steadying him.

There was one body left in the chapel. Steam rose from Fionan's split chest and mixed oddly with the smoke. The banshee leaned over the corpse. She looked at Murdoch and nodded, as if they were still atop the summit, as if the battle still raged and she had just finished whispering to him.

"How many currachs are left?" Murdoch asked.

"Just one, Brother." Diarmat seemed puzzled.

"It will be enough."


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