Authors: G.M. Dyrek
“Kiss her cheek, will you!” the old man bellowed, taking the shoulders of the young monk in an iron grip and pointing him to the young girl cowering in the shadows. He heaved himself upright and sneered, “She'll purr for you like a kitten.”
Volmar ignored the old man's blather and the girl's obvious humiliation. Calmly he removed the old man's worn, muddied boots, appalled at the condition of the man's feet. They were worse than anything the young monk had ever seen in his past seven years at the Infirmary. With care, Volmar continued removing the man's patched cloak and dirty outer garments before tucking him under the blanket with only his stained and frayed tunic on. The old man struggled, jerking and twitching his jaws, which were speckled with stubbly grey hairs and dried food. Pulling free, he yanked a fistful of Volmar's dark black hair and brought the boy's ear close to his swollen lips. “There's a smell to souls,” he muttered, his breath a rancid whisper, “and yours is putrid.”
“All souls are marred by sin, my good man,” Volmar answered, unclenching the man's fist and reaching for a clean rag. “After all, who can say, âI have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin?'”
Volmar quoted the Scripture passage automatically. Years of rote memorization occasionally had their value. Gently he wiped the whitish frothy drool from the corners of the old man's mouth as he searched the great hall for Brother Paulus. Their eyes met instinctively, as the older monk clipped the final round of linen bandage he was applying to a drunken man's bloodied cheek. Volmar gestured silently for Paulus to come. Volmar and Brother Paulus shared many hand signals. Volmar gave to Paulus the signal that implied immediacy. The young monk knew gratefully that nothing on this side of Heaven's ivory floor was as fair as Brother Paulus' Infirmary. Rich or poor, it did not matter; one's medical needs took precedence over one's station in life.
The girl, no more than twelve summers old, was still blushing from her grandfather's embarrassing outburst. “I'm so sorry about that,” she murmured apologetically, “If it is any consolation, sir, Grandda told me my soul was not only putrid but will burn forever in Hell.”
Volmar tried to smile to reassure her but couldn't find a smile inside him. The young girl looked woefully underfed and just as fragile as her grandfather. He could see reason struggling with emotion in her young face. Her eyes were an intelligent, yet turbulent, greenish-blue in color, and reminded him of the dark dampness of the earth. And yet her hair, as if to contradict such dankness, was the color of a candle's glowing ring, cascading around her heart-shaped face. She looked comely except for the crimson scar running like the morning's horizon across her pointed chin. Volmar spoke softly to her. “The old man is talking out of his mind. I'm sure he didn't mean it.” He wondered what else the old man had told her and how she had coped, for surely her daily life had been intricately woven into this man's abusive nonsense.
Volmar's kind words broke the girl's composure. Her full lips started to tremble. Then, as if permission had finally been granted, the tears and words came streaming out. “I-I think that there's a fierce and bitter demon in Grandda. He curses in languages I do not know and has been spitting up all this white foam. I didn't know where else to bring him. He didn't want to come here. Maybe he has a fear of holy objects and knows he would not be welcomed.”
Volmar struggled with how to respond to her fears and lamely muttered, “You were right to bring him to us, child. Perhaps he is under the spell of demon possession. He is also very sick and needs our help.”
“Tell me this, kind sir. There are plenty of evil people in this world, why would demons want to possess my Grandda's soul? He's the gentlest of all men.” She curled her hands into small fists.
Volmar knew that feeling well, how little youthful strength could help. “Old age wakens many demons,” he added in sympathy, wishing he could command the diabolical legions of Hell to take back its wayward, unwelcome guest. His fingers tightened around his quill, longing to wield it as a sword and defeat all suffering in one fell swoop. Instead, he turned to making notes, first concerning possession of the old man's knife, and then recording his observations of the old man's condition. His effectiveness, he reminded himself, meant he needed to record what had happened, rather than be drawn into that bottomless pit of despair. Paulus insisted that Volmar keep records not only of his successes but his failures as well. It was Volmar's job to record the date, the patient's name, any observable symptoms, the treatment given, and the results that followed. To this purpose he devoted his attentions.
The young girl came over to where Volmar was seated at the end of the pallet and peered over his shoulder, watching as his quill scratched the parchment.
“I need to know. Tell me! Is Grandda's soul no longer his own?” The young girl was unwilling to accept the young monk's abrupt ending to the conversation she'd begun.
Volmar relaxed his grip and put down his quill. Slowly, he ran his fingers through his tangled hair. “You've stumbled on one of life's mysteries. Life is certainly full of contradictions and strange paradoxes. Why does anyone fall ill? Church doctrine tells us it happens when a person permits himself to become alienated from God. He is tempted by greed, pride, fear or any other low moral standards; in such a sinful state, he can easily become possessed. Then again, there are those who purport . . .”
“I thought,” the young girl said, interrupting his philosophical discourse and crossing her arms, “I prayed to a merciful and kind Father, not one so disagreeable.”
Volmar suppressed a smile. He'd said the same thing when he was her age. “I tell you what, I'm not the Infirmarian. The man in the far corner finishing a wrap on the man's face is. His name is Brother Paulus. He will be here shortly. You can ask him this very question.”
“You told me who you are not, kind sir, but have failed to tell me who you are.”
“My name is Volmar. I'm a scribe
and, for now, Brother Paulus's apprentice.” Volmar returned to his writing, conscious for the first time of how his own actions must seem through someone else's eyes. When had he stopped feeling? When had he accepted such dreadfulness as commonplace? The smell was indeed rancid. Bed after bed lined the walls of the Infirmary. Here he came each day, to follow Brother Paulus around recording the pitiful cries of pain, feverish moans, and wild mumblings. The sounds of suffering were his daily chorus. If ever there was an outlying edifice of Hell, it would be here, he thought, where the beckoning shadows of death always seemed to linger.
“May I call you simply Volmar?” the young girl interjected, chasing away the dark thought crossing Volmar's mind.
“Only if you grant me equal privilege in knowing your given name.” This time he managed a weak smile. Sometimes he forgot that he was only sixteen, not much older than this young girl, and yet, he had lived too much to feel as if he was very young.
“It's Sophie. I didn't know where else to bring my Grandda. His name is Silas.”
Volmar wrote both of their names down on the sheet of parchment. “And how old is he?”
“He was born in the spring of 1053. That means he's 58 years old,” she answered promptly.
“Interestingâyou know numbers,” Volmar said, impressed. He knew that his Abbot ascribed to the belief that names provide glimpses into one's ultimate destiny. Maybe there was something to his theory. “I shall speak plainly, Sophie, for your name means Wisdom; and as I've suspected all along, you are very wise for one so young.” Volmar held her gaze directly. “Your Grandfather is seriously ill; bringing him here was the right thing to do.”
“And I, young lady, concur with whatever my able young apprentice has said to you thus far.” Brother Paulus approached the two of them, patting dry the beads of perspiration on the back of his neck and forehead with a damp rag. To Volmar, Paulus looked tired and infinitely older than his forty-five years. He stood a head taller than most men and had a brooding expression in his deep-set eyes, the color of blackened pitch. In direct contrast was his long white beard and wild hair; obviously a man of presence and clarity of mind. Volmar longed to acquire the sharp logic and confident manner of his mentor.
Brother Paulus continued, “Shall we find out what's going on with your Grandfather, young lady?”
Volmar was fascinated by Paulus' unique approach to each patient. Paulus had travelled far in his youth and had been eager to study under many teachers before turning his hand to medicine. His self-proclaimed eclectic approach owed much to Hippocrates
, the Greek healer, and others whose works were harder to come by unless you were a scholar and could read the original Greek, or Latin, languages Paulus had mastered in his youth.
Volmar passed over his notes and stood up beside Paulus. “His name is Silas and he is 58 years old. He is suffering from hallucinations and some sort of wasting disease. Take a look at his feet.” Volmar lifted the end of the blanket, revealing the deformed feet. “I've never seen anything like it before.”
Paulus nodded, his brow furrowed. “It seems his feet are full of scabs and scar tissue from blisters. Hmm, they are still blackened and quite swollen, but, it seems they have mostly healed. We'll need to wrap both of them right away after cleaning them with warm wine.”
Paulus had his look of total concentration etched on his face. He knelt beside the pallet and felt for Silas's pulse. He then leaned forward and held his head close to the old man's chest to listen to his lungs and heart. Volmar held the old man's limp hands back just in case he woke and tried to attack Paulus.
“His breathing is erratic, and so are the beats of his heart.” Paulus frowned, as he leaned back and began to move Silas's head from side to side, “Interesting, it seems he has a twisted, contorted neck.”
Volmar went back to his writing, “The young girl is his granddaughter. Her name is Sophie. She can likely answer any questions.”
Silas stirred at the mention of his granddaughter's name, “You-u can't have her. I promised her to that boy first.” His stark green eyes fluttered opened briefly before shutting again, his eyes rolling back into his head.
Frightened, Sophie mumbled a prayer of forgiveness.
Paulus turned to her and spoke plainly, “Diseases, Sophie, are not a punishment from God.” The elder monk went on. “There's always a natural cause and each disease has its own peculiar nature and external causes. There must be something in your Grandfather's diet, his occupation, or perhaps even the weather, that's affecting him. My task . . . our task,” he said, correcting himself with emphasis, “is to find out what's causing this condition. To do so, however, I'll need your cooperation.”
“Yes sir . . . Brother Paulus, sir,” she stammered.
Volmar whispered to Sophie, “Don't worry. I was terrified of him for years. He's much nicer than he looks.”
Brother Paulus grunted obligingly. His thoughts were already racing to make any connections to past cases. The only things that kept coming to his mind were the âHoly Fire' epidemics of 857 and 1039. Silas
had all of the classic symptoms, the gangrenous feet, the twisted neck muscles, the confusion and hallucinations . . . . He'd read of the dreaded disease's devastation at a monastery years ago in Vienne, recalling that no one knew how it started or why and no one knew how to treat it. Nightmare stories abounded on how it spread like a raging fire throughout the Rhine River Valley, mainly affecting peasants in rural areas, killing thousands; leaving aristocrats, monasteries and other more heavily populated villages alone. Disibodenberg was ill-prepared to deal with a plague, especially one so deadly and unpredictable.
Paulus turned to Volmar. He didn't want to raise any alarm unnecessarily so he kept the worst to himself, at least for the moment. “Well, well,” he declared, “whatever we're dealing with is not contagious. Otherwise Sophie would be suffering from it also.”
“I agree,” Volmar replied, making additional notes in his book.
Paulus closed his eyes and prayed silently, hoping his instincts were wrong. He leveled his eyes with Sophie's. “When did your Grandfather fall ill?'
“Outside of Cologne, I think. Three months past.”
Paulus gave a sigh of relief. He had it all wrong. No way could a man of Silas's age survive three months with âHoly Fire.' “Go on, child, tell me what happened,” he urged, listening intently.
Sophie nodded, “We've been on the road since spring, looking for work. When the weather was pleasant we would sleep outside. We made camp in a clearing outside of the town when suddenly Grandda was attacked by a demon. He became horribly confused and complained that his feet were burning. The skin on his feet started peeling off. I didn't know what to do. I built a big fire and fed it with branches because he complained he was so cold, but then he started sweating so, saying how hot he was.”