The Name of the Artichoke (IV)
Episodium IV about how the very pious and scared Franciscan brother Pio de Pollalonga and the also very pious but not so scared but still smarter William de Whiskey visit the library again but this time is dark because they go there out of opening hours and they have to carry a candle and discover a book that tells the story of the knight Crusader Federic de Mallet who traveled to the Holy Land to crush some infidels’ heads and saw the many things and prodigies that tend to happen in those distant lands and how he and his men found many skulls to crush everywhere they went and there was much slaying and carnage and some goriness too and he met some Infidels and discovered some unholy but interesting things.
That night, after retiring to my quarters for the night I sneaked out of my cell and went to meet William de Whiskey at the cloister as we had decided, so we could do further sneaking into the library. The abbey’s cloister is one of the few cloister in the Christendom built round instead of square. The reason for this peculiar configuration is that the founder of the abbey of Lalechera was a very fast Dominican who liked to run while he transited the corridor reading his Bible and had problems negotiating sharp corners. This singular layout allowed the cloister of Lalechera to be used on Sundays and Passover celebrations as racetrack for the monks who organized competitions riding serfs around although betting on the result was considered improper and banned, as was the participation of extremely obese monks after a peasant perished at the end of a race he had won carrying brother Marrano de Cazorla. When I arrived to the cloister it was deserted and only cold beams of moonlight passing in between the arches illuminated the corridor with a dim pale glare. I couldn’t have seen William unless he had a torch in his hand so I waited. I waited for quite a long time hidden in the shadows. Old tales of ghosts and spirits came to burden my soul with fear as I waited. I remembered the eerie story of Grinnaldi the Ghost Jester. Grinnaldi was an Italian court jester who was tortured and beheaded by the King of Sicily for making a joke about the peculiar soft sounds the Queen whispered during the act of fornication. Apparently the King of Sicily didn’t find the joke so hilarious as all the other members of the court and he had Grinnaldi skinned alive and beheaded. From that day Grinnaldi’s beheaded skeleton appeared every night on the king’s bedroom and pestered him with unsolicited jokes that were so unfunny that eventually drove the monarch to madness.
My thinking of spirits and ghosts did little to control my fears and apprehensions and I began to feel a pressing need to urinate, pressing with special zest against the internal walls of my bladder. I approached a solitary statue of Saint Pancrass and under his concealing shadow I relieved my pressing need murmuring a prayer to the Virgin Mary thanking for the relief I felt and forgiveness for my sacrilegious irrigation of one of his saints but I got a punch on my nose instead. It was William’s beloved stone-hard fist that I recognized instantly used as I was to its attentions. William was a true master of disguise and was concealing his presence in the cloister posing as a statue when I decided to christen him with my humble bodily wastes.
Under the cover of the night William used his cross to break open the lock of the library’s door, an useful trick he had learnt as novice in a monastery with a particularly stingy cellar master. We have visited the library during the day but at night it was dark as the belly of the Devil and in my thoughts I cursed my luck of being born in the Dark Ages. Always dependable William’s foresight had made him bring a candle and under its flickering light he inspected the Roman numerals carved on the bookcase’s sides while I hold the candle. Soon we realized there was only twelve bookcases and we had to climb the stone staircase to the upper floor where the section containing blacklisted books was located. Those were books written by heretics and infidels or simply books that the Pope had found boring or distasteful. William forced the lock again and soon we were inside. The upper floor had no windows and it was pitch dark. We were surrounded by towering bookcases loaded with dusty volumes that made me sneeze loudly and earn a new admonition from William that this time took the form of a crushing blow with a tick volume of the Koran which is the sacred book of the Saracen and contain many lies and nonsense and it really hurts when it smashes your head.
We soon located the nineteenth bookcase. William climbed on my back to reach the sixth shelve and search for the hundred-fifty ninth volume. This took him some time because he felt great liking and affection for forbidden books and he was not supporting a stocky Franciscan on his back. He leisurely flipped through the pages of each of them and made erudite commentaries while the hot wax of his candle dripped on my forehead causing me great discomfort and my eyebrows to vanish for some months afterwards. My legs had began to falter when he reached the spot on the shelf where the book was supposed to be just to find it empty. The book had been taken and there was only a wide empty space between the other tomes.
It was in the precise instant when William was dismounting my shoulders to great relief of my crushed collarbones that we heard a loud noise coming from downstairs. It sounded like the slap of a giant hand crushing a not less gigantic insect. William quickly extinguished the candle with a blow not to reveal our presence. We descended slowly and with great care down the spiraled staircase feeling the walls with our hands and praying not to break our pious noses. The floor level was bathed only by the moonlight that managed through the narrow slits of the cross-shaped windows and in the darkness complete silence reigned unchallenged. Nobody seemed to be there so William lighted our candle again and what we saw would have frozen the blood on our veins had it not been an already familiar scene.
In one of the reading tables there was a thick massive volume with the body of a monk sticking out from between the pages. First we thought, or at least I did, that he had been used to mark the page but when we saw the pages soaked in blood we realized his head had been crushed between the heavy pages of the tome that somebody had closed violently while the poor monk was still reading. It was just like the macabre episode in the kitchen although this time the cheese had been replaced by a book. There was no way to know who the unfortunate victim was because his head was smashed beyond recognition and divine intervention would have been required just to collect all the bits, not to mention reattach them to build a human skull. The title on the book’s cover was Crushing Accounts & Trustworthy Testimonies of Prodigies, Marvels & Amusements from The Crusades to the Holy Land and the not less crushed brains of the unfortunate monk were splattered precisely on page one thousand and nine, the same page mentioned in the mysterious note I had found under my bed.
I was so terrified by the dreadful sight of the shattered monk’s skull smeared over the open pages that I fell on my knees and I promised God I wouldn’t read a book in my life if I was allowed to leave the library with my head in one piece. William joined my prayers whipping my head with his hardwood rosary until I regained control of my senses. Then he had me clean the scattered brains and wash the blood using my robe so he could read what was written on the pages without having to ruin his own clothes. The thick bloodstained volume was a collection of knights’ accounts about their experiences during the Second Crusade, celebrated after the first had been cancelled due to bad weather. The book gave advice about good hostels and inns in the route to the Holy Land and of chivalric forms of entertainment and amusement between battles against the infidel. In page one thousand and nine there was the personal account of a French crusader and this is what it said.
Account of the adventures and tribulations of the very pious and humble servant of God Federic de Martell known as the Bonecrusher who went to the Holy Land to do the Lord’s will with relish and on top of a horse.
July. Year of the Lord of 1119
We have crushed a serfs’ revolt in the Languedoc. Their skulls were weak and frail and there was little enjoyment in crushing them. My men feel uneasy. They want to do some slaughter and bloodshed so we join the Crusaders. They give us a brochure. It says the infidel’s skull is thick as steel and there is great enjoyment and amusement in crushing it.
August. Year of the Lord of 1119
We cross the Alps into Italy and slaughter a village of possessed heretics who speak in tongues and tried to hamper our advance. Later we are informed those people were speaking Italian and throwing us flowers. The weather is not good and I have a hole in my boot. The men are bloodthirsty and spirits are high. I must remember to hone my blade, it makes strange noises when I slice a head.
September. Year of the Lord of 1119
We arrive to Genova to board the ship that will take us to the Holy Land. In spite of the Plague hostels are overbooked. We lay siege to one hostel with good views of the bay and slaughter the owner and his guests. Free accommodation after slaughter. Some men die of fevers and there is rats and lice on the rooms. Nobody to complaint because we impaled the owner. Poor service. Not recommended unless for short stay. The ship we have commandeered is dirty and overpriced. We slaughter the captain and begin our trip. Important: remember sharpening the sword, it took me three hours to behead the roughneck of the captain.
December. Year of the Lord of 1119
Christmas and still no wind. We celebrate the birth of Our Lord eating some comrades who died of scurvy. Men hungry and bored. No wind. We slaughter some pages for New Years Eve dinner. Still no wind. One of my men suggests fishing for food. We slaughter and eat him instead. God does not send wind yet. Remember to sharp the blade.
May. Year of the Lord of 1120
We sight Holy Land and praise the Lord. The land is flat, dry, hot and Jesus didn’t come to welcome us. There is great disappointment and there is a little less Lord-praising. We slaughter some onlookers. We steal their horses and continue towards Jerusalem. The blade. Sharp it.
Late May. Year of the Lord of 1120
Praised be God! Finally we sight Jerusalem and lay siege to the city. Great bloodshed and slaughtering. The men are happy with so much carnage. We crush many infidel’s skulls and there is much rejoicing and we thank the Lord for His blessings. Jerusalem is beautiful seen from outside although it doesn’t look like the brochure. My sword is almost blunt and I ask the Lord to remember me to sharpen it.
September. Year of the Lord of 1120
Victory! Jerusalem has fallen. We enter the city and kill everybody. Great slaying and bloodbath. Crushed infidel skulls everywhere. The Saracen king is an effeminate man who wears long golden garments and claims to be somebody else. This is Byzantium and he is an Orthodox patriarch, he says. Whatever. We slaughter him and pillage the city. There is so much raping and burning that I forget to sharp the blade again. Further skull-crushing later and quiet evenings of slaughter by the waterfront. Men in good mood and sticky with blood.
Late September. Year of the Lord of 1120
Letter from the Pope. His holiness is furious. Mea culpa. This is not Jerusalem. Sorry. Who ever heard of a place named Byzantium anyway? We do some farewell slaughtering and board another ship. There is something I had to remember but I don’t know what it is. Slaughtering of fish. Boredom. Slow winds.
December. Year of the Lord of 1120
We sight Holy Land on Christmas eve. Auspicious. We disembark and do some slaughtering to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. We ride towards Jerusalem. Rumors were true: Saracens heads are fun to crush. There is much bloodshed on the way and the men celebrate. Only one worry in my head. I feel I forget something.
February. Year of the Lord of 1121
Lost in the desert after beheading our guide. Legends not true: headless infidel cannot give directions. Men are mutinous because the lack of slaughter. We try to slaughter some stones but there is no bloodshed and there is great sword-chipping instead. Word-chipping, that reminds me of something, but what?
June. Year of the Lord of 1121
Still lost. No water. No food. No bloodshed in sight. Men more mutinous than ever. Talks of slaughtering me. God has forsaken us. Specially me. We eat our horses and there is great discontent and bewilderment when we realize that we have to walk. The good news: I remember what I had to do. Sharp my blade but there is no infidels around and no slaughter to do. Why bother?
August. Year of the Lord of 1121
More lost than before. Nothing to eat. We wander Eastwards or what looks like Eastwards to me. Whatever Eastwards is. A man ate some sand and it was poisonous. Everything is unholy and vile in the land of the infidel. I miss crushing heretic heads near home. Heresy! Men talking about slaughtering God. I pray God for a miracle. I have faith. He is merciful and wise and He will help his humble servant.
Late August. Year of the Lord of 1121
Everybody is dead! I am captive of the infidel and I have been castrated. I thank merciful God for sparing my life. Infidels are strange men with strange noses and strange garments. They are cruel and evil and do vile things like slaughtering and bloodshed. I am taken to a fort on top of a mountain which is also vile.
September. Year of the Lord of 1121
I am an eunuch now. I take care of the harem of the King of the Mountain. There is much debauchery and fornication and I cannot take part. I curse God, but not very loud. He could hear me. He could befall some more calamities over me. Pestilence. Leprosy. Baldness.
Christmas Eve. Year of the Lord of 1121
No Christmas tree and no presents. This is the land of the infidel and it shows. The King of the Mountain is powerful and feared in this land. Many prodigies and occurrences: I lost one sandal. The warriors of the king are called assassins. They do much slaughtering and bloodshed for his king. I envy them for that. And because they still have their member to do fornication. When they rest of so much bloodshed and slaying they smoke a dark matter of strange smell and they become deponent and humorous. It is Christmas and God has forsaken me. Some infidels offer me dark matter to smoke. I might try and see.
Late December. Year of Allah of 543
Converted to Islam this morning before breakfast. The sun is shinning and birds sing in the garden. Life is beautiful! Praised be Allah whoever He is. I smoke dark matter every morning and my health seems to improve. Miracle! Praised be the Prophet, peace be upon him. Making new friends among my captors. Presented with a hat I think is a handkerchief an I blow my nose on it and there is much laughter and enjoyment.
February. Year of Allah of 543
My Muslim brothers take me with them to slaughter Christian infidels. We ambush a caravan of pilgrims to Jerusalem and there is much slaughter an bloodshed. I feel like at home. They let me crush some skulls but I soon realized I need training. I crush my feet instead. I smoke some dark matter and I feel better. Hashish! That is the name of the dark matter. Praised be Allah for giving us the dark matter.
May. Year of Allah of 543
I have been promoted to cellar master. I take care of the stocks of foodstuffs and hashish. Busy days. Little time for slaughter and bloodshed. Even less time to keep this diary.
‘ That’s it.’ Said my master William. ‘Some pages are missing. Somebody must have snatched them before we came. I am afraid that we won’t find out tonight how Federic de Martell managed to come back or why. ‘
‘ How do you know he ever came back? It seems to me he was having a great time slaying and smoking dark matter and doing heretical things.’ I pointed out.
‘Your head is hollow as a church bell. Who wrote this account if not Federic de Martell? How did it get to this abbey? I have read before another account about this intoxicating black matter. Some Venetian merchants following the Silk Route wandered away of their path because silk is a very subtle and slippery fabric. They found themselves in the company of a caravan of Bedoiuns that wandered the desert in camels, that are like deformed horses and have protuberances in their backs because they haven’t been baptized. The merchants smoked some of that sticky substance and their judgment clouded and there was great turmoil and rejoicing among their numbers and one of the merchants tried to take his pants through his head.’
‘ What does all this have to do with the cheese? And the dead monks? What are we going to do now? The first light of the morning soon will be here and after the morning prayer the monks will come here to find me covered in blood. It is not going to look good. ’ I said fearing to be mistaken by a criminal and hanged. God did know I killed nobody but sure the Almighty was not going to bother wear witness at my trial to save the neck of His humble servant.
‘ You are right this time. We must go of we will get in trouble. Let’s go. ‘ Said William and we closed the book an left.
We headed back to our quarters through the cloister. It was still dark and we saw candlelight through the arches at the far end. On the dim trembling light of the candle we recognized the spherical shape of brother Marrano coming in our direction. His wide bulk blocked almost the total span of the corridor and our way to the cells. There was no way we could pass unnoticed unless by unlikely divine intervention we were transubstantiated into thin transparent slices of glass so we turned back and entered the door that gave access to the church chapel. Through the keyhole we saw him pass by the door, he seemed in a good mood in spite of the late of the hours. He was humming a popular Gregorian tune and following the rythim with his feet causing the paving stones to shake. He was heading towards the library and we anticipated very soon he would be running back in opposited direction and proclaiming the End of Days in panic.
Before that happened something else did. We heard a noise coming from the altar and the protective hand of the Lord might have been upon us for a change because instead of befalling some new calamity upon us we were concealed under his shadow and the monk who had caused the disturbance never detected us. He had enterd the church through the main door and was carrying a torch. Under its orange glare we saw he concealed a package wrapped in cloth and he went straight to the trap that gave access to the crypt. While he opened with his own key we recognized the hideous bearded face of the abbot that dissapeared intside after taking a furtive glance around the nave and still failing to see us. We were wondering what was he doing there at such a late hour when the not for anticipated less bloodcurling scream of brother Marrano reached us from the library.
‘ Either brother Marrano has found the body or somebody woke up hungry in the middle of the night and decided to slaughter a pig for snacks.’ Said William.