This is a story washed up by the tide and written in shells and seaweed…
It was a fortnight after the bargain had been struck. The lord came to dwelling of the pilgrim woman in his velvets and furs.
‘Tell me a tale of men,’ he called up to the garret.’ No more of your flighty girls.’
The woman padded downstairs in stockings banded like evening clouds.
‘I made no promise about what kind of tales I would tell. Still – this may suit…’
She sat on the last step and began:
‘Monks lived on a certain island, making wondrous books to the glory of God. One day the Abbot brought a dark curly-haired lad from another continent to decorate the Great Gospel book. Son-of-the-Soil they called him on account of his peat-brown skin. He had been a slave confined in a galley and so his greatest joy was to roam the island, talking to the birds and animals, plants and trees.
After his speech with nature, he would draw with a passion. His work was exquisite – he put the entwined spirits of the place onto the vellum to praise their Maker. His artistry was a marvel and a pleasure to all.
All except one. One brother envied Son-of-the-Soil his skill. He was the finest writer they had – his letters so perfect they seemed written by angels. The brothers called him By-the-Rule for his work on the Great Gospels was so neat.
The more the Abbott and the other monks praised the Great Gospels that they made together, the more By-the-Rule only heard them compliment Son-of-the-Soil. His heart shrivelled. How does that dark boy make such fabulous beasts? I must find out his secret, he said to himself.
By-the-Rule followed the artist monk in secret. He saw him kneel and pray with the dancing Lent-lilies. He saw him lift his arms in jubilation at the flight of the red-legged choughs. He saw him go down to the boulder-strewn bay and heard him sing with the seals.
The writer monk crawled through the clumps of sea-thrift and peered over the cliff. Aha – I have you now! he whispered. In the time he had taken to squirm to the edge, a woman had appeared. Her huge dark eyes never blinked as she spoke with the boy. Only her long ash-grey hair rippled over her nakedness. An outrage.
By-the-Rule ran back to the Abbot and told his tale of the boy’s dalliance. Son-of-the-Soil did not deny it upon his return. He shook his gleaming curls and said nothing.
‘I have no choice, the Abbot said to him. ‘You will have to be left on the Rock of Judgement for two turns of the tide. God will preserve you from the waves if your heart is pure.’
‘Let the sea take him if he has broken his vows,’ said By-the-Rule.
Son-of-the-Soil prayed silently as the coracle took him into a tall cave beneath the island. He clambered up the slippery weed-covered rock that barely lifted her head above the tide and stood still.
The coracle left. Waves rushed and boomed in the cave. They threw white salt spray around him. The water tugged the seaweed into streamers beside his feet. Anemones opened their blood-red arms and starfish crept along the green strands.
The water rose. The rock became wet and glistening. The sea nudged at his bare toes. It sucked at his ankles. Fish flickered past his shins. He prayed for help.
A seal came by. A pale-furred seal with ash-grey ripples in her pelt and eyes as black as the darkest ink. Three times she circled the rock singing.
‘I cannot come,’ the monk said, ‘I must prove my innocence.’
She dived down and swam out of the cave. The waters ebbed and the monk’s habit dripped around his feet. Although he shivered, he studied the patterns of the rocks around him and the flight of the gannets outside and the swells and spirals of the sea foam. All these he would paint in the praise of his Creator.
The tide turned. It raced through the cave mouth roaring with the anger of the jealous one. Son-of-the-Soil noted a familiar figure shadowed against the sinking sun.
‘What did I ever do to you, Brother?’ he said, though his voice was lost amongst the kittiwakes. ‘I forgive you, Brother. I will not leave anger on my soul. If my pleasure and pride in my work was your undoing – pardon me.’
A full moon rose and pulled the flood higher up the lone rock. It swept up to the monk’s knees. The cold rose through his bones like sap in a tree. His teeth chattered as he prayed.
‘Send me your aid, Lord.’
The seal came swimming past his waist. She held out a fin.
‘Let them think what they will. I know my truth, ‘ he said. He took off his robe and slid into the water. It did not feel cold.
Next morning, some of the brothers paddled out to the Rock of Judgement. Only the monk’s habit remained on the great boulder, sloughed off like a snakeskin.
‘Guilty,’ said By-the Rule. But the old Abbot was not so sure. He had seen a new peat-brown bull seal on the shore – with eyes like pools of ink.
‘Was it really the painter monk?’ the lord asked, eager as the boy still inside him.
The pilgrim woman let a half smile pass across her weathered face.
‘Now that would be telling. I will have another tale from the garret ready next week.’