A Niovel of the Saint-Germain
By Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2013 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
All rights reserved.
Set back from the Nile on the east side of the river by more than half a league, the Monastery of the Visitation stood at the edge of the desolation of the desert. Not unlike the village between the monastery and the river, it was a collection of stark, mud-brick buildings surrounded by a thick stone wall that enclosed simple herb-gardens, a stand of trees, a mill, a chapel, a church, a scriptorium, a dormitory, and a well. Two small barns, a small stable, three pens, and a paddock were attached to the outside of the wall. The place smelled of dust and dung and the restless, relentless sands that poured over the ridge behind the monastery, slowly and inexorably besieging it, promising with every wind that it eventually would press on to the village and its fields, covering the monastery and its grounds as it moved.
In the far corner of the enclosure, nearest the encroaching dunes, in the thickest of three spinneys of broad-leaved sycamore trees, there was a two-room house where the foreigner and his foreign servant had lived since their arrival, away from the monks and the pilgrims, though the leader of the monastery made it a habit to visit Rakoczy, Sidi Sandjer'min, once a day before sunset. This evening the monks would dance and chant to celebrate the coming of the Twelve Magi, and that would mean Sandjer'min would have to remain inside, for only Copts could witness the ritual.
A hint of a breeze was coming off the Nile and making its languid way around the monastery when Aba'yam came to the remote house late in the afternoon of Epiphany, a little earlier than usual; he was walking slowly, favoring his right foot. He was a square-built man of forty-four, with a formidable beard going white, an aquiline nose that made his eyes seem deeper than they were, and two deep lines running from his thick eyebrows toward his receding hairline; his ears were large and stuck out from his head like the handles on a pot. He was dressed in a simple hooded habit of dark-brown wool with only his pectoral crucifix to show his position of leadership. He blessed himself before he crossed the threshold, and found Ruthier, Sandjer'min's manservant, at his tall work-table, an array of herbs on drying mats spread out across it. "God give you a good evening, foreigner," he said in the language of his people.
"And you," Ruthier answered, turning around to face his visitor; his Coptic was a bit stilted; he had not learned the language until he had been with Sandjer'min for five centuries, and had not ever become easy with it. He wiped his hands on one of a stack of cotton cloths at the edge of the table. "Have the Thessalonians gone?" He set another raised, woven mat on the table and began to sort out a knot of feathery leaves. Behind him on the wall hung many bunches of herbs already dried and wrapped in twine.
"They will stay in the village tonight and take a boat down-river in the morning," said Aba'yam. "I came to thank the Sidi for translating their words for us. He was most helpful to us, and to them."
"He was pleased to do it," Ruthier answered, a bit surprised that Aba'yam would want to talk with him. "They went a long way to the south, those Greeks."
"As many pilgrims are doing since the Egyptian Crusade ended," said Aba'yam. "We're likely to see more returning pilgrims between now and the Mass of Resurrection; then their numbers will diminish through the heat of summer and increase again as the nights grow long."
"Hardly unusual: the summers turn this land into an oven," said Ruthier.
"We see fewer Orthodox Christians on pilgrimages than Roman ones; I suppose it's because the Crusaders are Roman Christians for the most part." He glanced around the room. "The Sidi is out?" He was used to seeing Ruthier in the house, making preparations for his evening meal, or sorting herbs as he was doing now, but to have Sidi Sandjer'min away was disconcerting.
"Yes. He'll be back shortly," said Ruthier. "I'll be pleased to send him to you when he returns, or you may wait here until he comes, whichever suits your purpose." He did not add that Sandjer'min had gone down to the river, for that might lead to questions that would trouble Aba'yam.
"No matter. I was only surprised not to see him." Aba'yam folded his hand atop his crucifix. "I was hoping to get more of that unguent for my foot; the wound is slow to heal, and it keeps me from dancing with the monks. The Sidi has eased its discomfort before, and I trust he will do so again." He pressed his lips together. "Furthermore, there is the matter of the Sultan's messengers."
"The men who came this morning?" Ruthier continued to create order with his collection of drying mats and their contents.
"Yes." He paused, uncertain if he should go on. When he could not make up his mind, he said, "But, also, I've come to ask that neither he nor you leave this house during our celebration of Epiphany." He had given the same warning at every outdoor celebration in the eighteen months the two foreigners had lived there. "You are not Copts, and though you show us great respect, it is not fitting that you should be with us for our rites. You cannot dance with us, and we do not want observers here while we celebrate."
"I understand; the Sidi and I have observed your Rule before and will now," said Ruthier. "You may be at rest. My master has not gone far; if for some reason he is delayed, he will remain outside the walls until you have finished your celebration of Epiphany, and treat your foot then."
"I am most thankful," said Aba'yam. "What have you there on your table?"
"Herbs for medicaments," said Ruthier, moving so that Aba'yam could see them.
"To treat what ailments?" Aba'yam inquired with interest.
"This" — he held up a thick-leaved dark-green mass of leaves — "will diminish fever and help clear the skin when made into a paste. And this" — he pointed to a handful of bulbous pods laid out on another raised mat — "will ease pain and help reduce panting for those with gasping sickness. It is not to be given to pregnant women."
"Poppy syrup. He has given the monastery a good supply." He pulled the larger of the two chairs in the room a bit nearer to the work-table and sat down.
"This is used for cough and wet lungs. This is for problems with the eyes. This is for women with severe monthly bleeding. This helps burns to heal. This relieves itching. This restores the eyes when they are tired. This clears the bowels. This reduces inflamation of the joints. This will settle the digestion. This and this in equal portion stops sores on the skin. This will relieve sore muscles. This is for teething infants. This eases sleep. This treats insect bites. This with this mixed together draws putresences." He pointed to a jar. "There's moldy bread in there, from which my master makes his sovereign remedy, which he keeps secure in his medicaments chest."
"But nothing for the bite of a mad dog, or for a cobra's venom," said Aba'yam, sighing. "If we had such medicaments, we could save so many from a suffering death. It is always hard to see such suffering before death."
"If I had such medicaments, you would have them as well," said Sidi Sandjer'min, coming through the door bearing a pair of jars filled with water from the Nile hanging from a wooden pole on his shoulder. His black linen short-sleeved cotehardie was damp around its calf-length hem; his heavy-soled Persian boots were wet, and there was a smear of mud on the back of his left hand. Unlike the monks', his dark hair was cut short, and his attractive face was clean-shaven. "When I first started to learn to heal, I had a woman come to me who had been bitten by a mad dog. Nothing I tried could help her, and nothing I have used since can stop the madness the bite brings, or the death." That had been more than twenty-seven centuries ago, but the experience could still bring a sense of failure to him.
This revelation troubled Aba'yam, so rather than pursue so discouraging a matter, he offered a standard greeting. "God give you a good evening, Sidi," he said, rising and blessing the Sidi.
"And to you," said Sandjer'min, inclining his head and showing his palms as he had learned to do in the Temple of Imhotep, more than twenty-seven centuries ago; this ancient courtesy amused Aba'yam.
"Some day you must tell me where you learned that form of greeting," said Aba'yam, shaking his head.
"I learned it here, in Egypt," said Sandjer'min, setting down the wooden pole and bending to retrieve the jars. He did not add that the time he was remembering was more than a thousand years ago.
Aba'yam laughed. "If you insist," he said, glancing toward the open window. "Our rite will last through sunset and into night so long as the wind doesn't rise." He coughed diplomatically. "I was hoping you might have a salve for my foot, before the ceremony begins. I prefer to dance than limp."
"I do." He turned to Ruthier. "In my red-lacquer chest, the chalcedony jar with the dragon on the lid, and three lengths of linen."
"At once," said Ruthier, and went into the second room.
"During your rite, Ruthier and I will remain here," Sandjer'min agreed; he wiped his hands on a damp linen towel that hung at the end of the work-table. "We will not leave this house until your chanting is over."
Aba'yam cleared his throat and spat. "The Sultan is worried about the warriors from the East, for it is said no army can stand against them. Great kingdoms fall to their horsemen every year, and they are coming westward," he went on apologetically. "The Sultan is ordering the young men in the village to join his troops to defend this land from the might of — the name escapes me."
"Jenghiz Khan," said Sandjer'min; images of T'en Chih-Yu filled his mind, and her appalling death at Mongol hands, a little more than a decade ago.
"That is the name," Aba'yam said, relieved that the foreigner knew.
Ruthier returned with the jar and two rolls of linen and handed them to Sandjer'min. "Do you need anything else? The rest of the cloth is in the clothes-chest."
"Not just at present," said Sandjer'min. He took a clean length of cotton and knelt before Aba'yam. "If you will raise your habit so I can see your foot?"
"You will find it a little puffy," Aba'yam warned.
"Um," Sandjer'min said, lifting both feet to make a comparison. "Have you been soaking it as I have recommended?"
"Not as often as would be wise, but as often as I can spare an hour to do it," Aba'yam said. "At this time of year, the holy feasts demand my presence; there are so many observances, celebrations, and rites ..."
Sandjer'min removed the sandal on the swollen foot, wiped it with the cotton cloth, and examined it closely; the small, open puncture on his heel was dark-red around the edges, and some bits of skin were sloughing off. The top of the foot felt spongy, like dough, yielding easily to touch, and marked deeply with the impressions of his sandal-lacings. "You need to soak this more often, using water from the well, not the river, and with the tincture I gave you added to the water." He wiped the foot again, more thoroughly. "It has heat in the flesh and there is an odor of skin putrescence."
"How long will it take to heal?" Aba'yam did his best to sound unconcerned about the answer.
"It's difficult to say; you are on your feet much of the day, and that slows your recovery; if you could lie abed for half the day, the wound would be likely to close," Sandjer'min answered, opening the chalcedony jar and scooping out a little of the honey-colored contents; it smelled a bit like camphor and a bit like mustard, and it slipped down Sandjer'min's fingers to his palm. As he smoothed the unguent over Aba'yam's heel, he said, "Tonight, after your final prayers, I would like you to soak your foot for as long as you can bear it in heated water with double the usual amount of tincture."
"That may be difficult; our Rule requires that we go to sleep immediately after final prayers."
"Surely God won't mind if you take time to treat the wound on your foot," Sandjer'min said. "And you are Aba'yam. You can allow yourself to do this."
"That would be lax in me, so I cannot do it, for I must set the example for all the monks here," said Aba'yam. "I am Aba'yam, and the monks are sworn to me. For as long as I am Aba'yam, I am as much their servant as their leader. To set such a poor example — no. I could not." There was no pride in this statement: Aba'yam was the name all the monks promoted to the position of Superior took upon their election to the post, and it became both their title and their identity within the monastery; it brought with it both authority and responsibilities. This Aba'yam was the ninth to hold that name and title.
"I understand that," said Sandjer'min, "but I have my duty to perform as well as you: if you continue to walk on this heel without soaking it, you risk getting a severe putrescence that could eventually require the removal of your foot."
"Flesh is weak," said Aba'yam, watching Sandjer'min wrap his foot. "I will try to do as you recommend," he said in another, more resigned, tone.
"Very good," said Sandjer'min, knotting the end of the second strip of linen to the first and going on with bandaging Aba'yam's heel.
While Sandjer'min worked, Aba'yam said, "The Sultan's men said they will return after the Inundation to gather more young men for Malik-al-Kamil's army unless the Mongols stop their advancement, which would mean moving troops from their present locations in order to fortify the eastern frontiers. He is also concerned about foreigners in Egypt, his messengers told me. Now that the most recent Crusade is over, he is anxious to restore his sovereignty from the Second Cataract to Alexandria, and to spread Islam everywhere."
Ruthier looked up from his drying plants. "You say the Sultan is worried about foreigners: does that include European foreigners? Do Europeans trouble him?"
"Yes. His messengers told me he believes that Europeans still in this land, unless they are religious, are spies and criminals, or men willing to be suborned by the agents of the Mongols, who must surely be in Egypt by now. The Sultan has declared that he cannot allow Egypt to be drawn into another Crusade at a time when other foes are moving against us." Aba'yam made a gesture to show that he did not share the Sultan's belief. "With the Mongols approaching, he may decide that all foreigners must leave, and on short notice."
"Is that the current rumor?" Sandjer'min asked, feeling suddenly very tired; he had seen the same response to the Mongol invaders in China a dozen years before, and finally had traveled into the Land of Snows in search of safety. He finished the bandage and tied it off. "There. You may put on your sandal now."
"It is what the Sultan's men told us," said Aba'yam as he picked up his sandal and set it in place along his sole, then took up the laces and secured them while he went on, "I have no desire for you to leave; between your knowledge of medicaments and your facility with languages, I would be pleased to have you here for as long as you wish to remain, but that may not always be my decision to make. For the most part the Sultan has left us alone, as he has left the Jews alone, but if there should be another Crusade, or the Mongols get nearer, then —" He shrugged. "It is in the hands of God."
A rattle of the shutters revealed the shift in the wind; it had swung around and now came off the desert, bringing a steady trickle of sand with it.
Sandjer'min nodded his understanding. "So it hinges on Jenghiz Khan: again." He wondered where he would have to go this time.
Aba'yam got to his feet and turned his hands toward Heaven. "It hinges on God's Will," he corrected his foreign guests. "May you receive the gifts of Epiphany," he said, blessing Sandjer'min and then Ruthier. After a formal gesture of farewell, he left the little house, going out into the deepening sunset to join his monks in their celebration.
"How bad is his foot?" Ruthier asked in Imperial Latin.
"Bad enough. If he had the Bending Sickness, it would be worse, but not by much. However he got that puncture, it isn't mending properly. There may be something lodged in it which ought to be removed," Sandjer'min answered in the same tongue.
"Would Aba'yam allow that?"
"I don't know. He would have to be in more pain than he is now, but he would heal in time, and the pain would fade. If he stays as he is, the pain will persist." He took the cotton cloth he had used to wipe Aba'yam's foot. "This will need to be washed in boiling water with astringent herbs." He had learned that from the Romans when Nero was Caesar and had found that it did help to contain the spread of putrescences.
"I will do it in the morning, when the dancing is over. Do you want me to draw water from the well or the river?" Ruthier asked.
"The well. At this time of year, the river teams with animacules. Once the Inundation comes, the animacules will disperse, but for now, they are increasing. That's why I brought those jars here, so I may test the water to learn which of the animacules are present. I can treat the well-water to keep it clear, but not the Nile."
Outside the first droning chants accompanied the lighting of torches around the front of the monastery's chapel, where the monks would dance to exhaustion. The ragged flames leaped and fluttered at every gust of wind. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Night Pilgrims by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Copyright © 2013 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.