Saturday Morning Short Stories: The Illuminator

March 31, 2012

The young monk rubbed the back of his closely cropped head, feeling the sweat that collected on his scalp. The page he illuminated reflected the bright sunshine slanting through the slot that was his window in jewel tones so rich, his heart swelled. It was tedious work, it was true. He often took months to finish a single page. But deep in his chest he had long ago learned to accept the healing salve of monotony.

How long ago it seemed that he had spent his autumn hours painting biblical scenes on canvas, dining with his wife and rocking the baby to sleep in the twilight. Now he measured the progress of a day’s labor in a pair of square inches of space bordering the meticulously penned phrases from the apostles or the Master himself.

But even with his window opening  a mere crack, into the heady, intense air of the early autumn, the smell of the grapes and the ripe garden and green leaves baking in the sun reached into his memory and beckoned to him. He would withstand the temptation to walk outdoors in the sun and leave his paints and single-haired brushes for different day. He had very nearly finished the Gospel of Luke. He worked from back to front, forming the calligraphy backwards so the text would fill the page evenly. If there was extra space, it must appear at the top of the sheet.

 But it was no small thing. A bee explored his dim workbench, landing first on his arm and then his shoulder. It hovered a moment over his intricate painting, but despairing of any promising scents, he flew to freedom again.

In his youth, he had loved to paint the garden scenes that surrounded his country home. But since the fateful month that preceded the opening of two graves in the churchyard,  he had not painted out of doors. He could not. The flashes of grateful joy in God’s creation turned to pain of memory. And it was better this way. Better to wield his gift in the solemn, silent illumination of the holy writ: a sacred sacrifice of self. His own heart was broken then, and it seemed the only value in continuing in this veil of tears was in sharing something of the glimpses of godliness he had received.

But that day, he sat motionless, feeling his mortality in surging strength. His senses seemed more vigorously alive as he smelled the sweet harvest richness and basked in the gold and green and purple landscape delivered in slivers through his small window. After six years of that narrow view, he did not often see it. But that day, he relished it, yearned to widen it, flex his dormant muscles and to expand his narrow cell.

The page he had been working on told of wise men searching for the Christ. The man let his gaze shift from his work to the window. He remembered his little son running with his head forward, his legs pumping eagerly as they tried to catch up. He had also been a beautiful boy, full of bright thoughts and whimsical dreams. He had learned to speak very young and had seemed to see the world as it would be when restored to Paradisiacal glory, rather than as it really was. Everything was beautiful to him. Everything interested him. Each night he had closed his eyes grudging the beauty he must miss as he slept.

A noise behind the monk caused him to startle and spin to see who entered his room. Two boys stood staring at him. Their ragged costumes bespoke their orphaned state. Shoeless and hatless both, they hesitated timidly at the door. The young man wondered that he had not heard them arrive. He had known they were to expect some orphans from the village.

“What can I do for you?”

“We’re orphans,” the bigger one replied as though that explained why they stood on the threshold gazing at him.

“I see.” He nodded wisely, looking into each face expectantly.

“The Father sent us to the abbey and the Abbot sent us to you. You have to take us into the orchard and find some work for us.”

The young man wondered how many children had trudged up the winding road to the abbey that day.  With cholera in the village, only the heartiest would survive. But he had not heard any children in the monastery that morning. “You must be mistaken. I am an illuminator. I paint the pictures in the beautiful Bibles.”

“Yes, he told us where to find you. He said you needed to go outside anyway.”

The monk felt a wave of shame when his heart leapt in his body and his breath came more quickly. But he quelled the guilt with wondering if God intended for him to yearn himself away from the nearly finished work. Was it time to move forward? Had God opened a portal for him to return to vital, seething life in bustling human interaction?

The monk carefully cleaned his brushes with spirits and laid his paint pots side by side on the shelf above his workspace.  The smaller of the two boys came forward, watching his methodical process. The child reached for the remaining pot of brilliant yellow. His buttonless cuff caught the feather pen protruding from the ink pot. It flipped in the air, splattering black ink on the boy, the monk and the nearly finished Matthew.

The monk gasped. The boys gasped, their breath poised fearfully in the dank cubical.

Slowly, methodically, silently, the monk examined each damaged page. The splatters had dispersed over a dozen pages, but they were mostly small. On one sheet, the lettering seemed underlined with a row of fine, droplets. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren,” the passage began. But the segment that the splatters highlighted were “ye have done it unto me.” He laid the muslin cover over his workbench as though nothing had happened. He closed and locked the slot window.

“I’m sorry!” the older boy whispered.

“Accidents happen,” the illuminator replied. “Tell me your names and ages.”

“I’m Yvegenny and I’m eleven. This is my brother Vlad. He’s eight.” The boy hesitated, glancing toward the splattered desk. “I’m so sorry about your painting. He didn’t mean to, he just didn’t see.”

“I know, Yvegenny. Don’t worry. I had been sitting at my workbench wishing I could go out and pick apples and here you come, like angels from heaven, bringing me back out into the sunlight.”

The little boy raised his serious eyes. “Do you like little boys?”

And the monk was suddenly filled with light and joy and his chest felt as though it would burst the bands of scar tissue. He could only nod.

Vlad persisted. “The Abbot said that you used to have a little boy, before you were a monk.”

He nodded again.

“What happened to him?”

“He and his mother rest in the churchyard.”

“With our mother and father.” Yvegenny murmured softly.

“Then we’ll be your little boys,” Vlad said. He slipped his hand into the artist’s palm and drew him from the room.

The dust grew thick on the covered Gospel of Matthew. The lock on the cubical door rusted.

In a cottage about half way between the village and the abbey, a young orchard sprang heavenward and burst into bloom each spring. Two boys grew into tall, square-shouldered clear-eyed men.

The monk transformed from an adopted father to a husband and again to a father and then to a grey-bearded grandfather.  In the autumn, you may see him sitting on a canvas stool in front of his easel illuminating a canvas with the full rich ripeness of the harvest.

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