Ora et Labora

Issue #229

Matins: the apse is dark. The monks in the choir stalls hunch over their parchment, noses hovering over scratching nibs. The novices in the back have the worst light, but the air is so still the thick standing candles offer poor illumination for everyone: just beads of flame on the wicks. Obb stares so fiercely into his calculations they deform into cross-hatches, into the coarse-cloth weave of his cassock:

He tears at a nail with his teeth. His fingerpads are bitter with ink. Beneath his work, the dark is rippling with bugs; they sleep in the oak joints and chew his legs throughout night offices. His skin is scarred with bites to his knees. His eyes are gummy with sleep. Divine offices are the hardest your first year, the novices tell him, just get through the first year, and your body changes what it wants. He’ll wake for Matins at midnight like the night flowers in the cloister garden. Obb isn’t a night flower but a sack of coarse-cloth, left in a windowless cellar, chewed by vermin. Is there any idea so terrifying as being eaten in the dark?

Obb rises an hour before Prime. His shadow, in the sickly dormitory lamp, trawls over the other novices slumped headfirst into their straw pillows. He pads barefoot down the flickering galleries to the rear of the abbey, then crosses the meadow in the gray half-light: a cold, muddy shape in the mousy grass. The valley is covered in cottony morning mists caught in pine boughs. Faraway, a bleat of goats in pasture. Obb picks his way through the nunswood to a creek, where he washes like a bird. The pain of the freezing water relieves his itching legs, briefly.

He pulls off his cassock and cringes at his own reek of stale sweat on wool. It’s summer, even in the mountains, and his feet have started to sour and crack inside his leather shoes. He sits in the bunch grass and peels dead skin off his soles, in milky sheets like cheesecloth. He splashes cold water on his face and scrubs, until he’s shivering. The other novices are fouled with pimples and weird odors; they rush red-faced through the halls hiding erections under their books. Obb drags a wet rock over his pits until they smell like a wet rock.

He hasn’t been punished for leaving the abbey to wash, not yet; the nunswood is the most obvious way to escape, so he’s surprised no one stops him. They must know. A few brothers and sisters are already awake at that hour: he sees lamplight through the grates in their cell doors as he crosses each cloister. But the forest is too vast to cross on foot, and the goatherds will deliver you right back to the abbot like a muddy stray kid.

He prays sometimes, by the creek: not a number-prayer, but a word-prayer, to God the Mother: Please, let me go home. But what is home anymore? Is it his parents, whose faces his own bitterness will no longer let him see clearly? His older sister, who seemed to know before anyone he’d have to be oblated? Is it having hours alone, not punctuated every third by divine offices—Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline, Matins, Lauds—and the labor of infinite litanies?

He has been three months at the abbey of St. Riemann, but his life before is already blurring. He remembers his eyes sore from crying, as the abbey’s snowed towers and spires first turned into view. He remembers his terror at the brothers—wrapped in dark coarse-cloth, circling him in the dusky chapter house, their skirts whisking over flagstones—

In nomine Patrie, et Matrie, et Filie Oblatum

Two figures stood apart: the monk Wroński, his upper face a strip of shadow under his cowl, the lower half only a deep weathered grimace; and Sister Casorata, the matron of the boys’ dormitory, in a white, roseate wimple. When he approached them to beg their help and offered his name, Wroński stopped him short with a gesture.

“We call you Oblate,” Sister Casorata explained, “until it is time for you to name yourself to us.”

(Oblate, from ‘oblation,’ from oblatio, a word from a language thousands of years dead; meaning ‘offering,’ meaning he’d been ‘offered,’ and received.)

“Your family has renounced you and donated you to the Church. The name they gave you is a lie,” said Wroński. “You never were their son or their brother. You are Disordered, a child of the Jack of Lies. Rejoice in your deliverance, and submit with gladness to God’s sacred labor.”

It wasn’t true, Obb repeated in his head, as Sister Casorata led him to the dormitory. His family loved him and remembered him; they’d never wanted to oblate him, they were forced; in a few days they would come for him.

The abbey blots out the horizon. Cassock in hand, he lets the mountain air dry him as he makes his way back up the slope under a noise of bells.

St. Riemann’s is a massive limestone complex shagged with ivy and brown lichen, with eleven cloisters and seven square towers hoarding owls. There are two hundred eighty-one doors and four hundred ninety-nine stained windows; the abbot has counted. Along the church’s nave, under every window, there are walnut reliquaries carved as women’s busts, with intricate tresses and heavy expressions of pity. Inside are the skulls of martyrs of the sack of St. Riemann’s, three hundred years ago, when the forest lay thick with sisters strung from branches.

If the brothers showed any patience in Obb’s first three months, they want improvement in his second. Brother Wroński scrutinizes Obb’s litanies and leaves mark-ups on his bunk, rashed in red circles. Obb is no good at these calculations: Why is he, and not some other sad fourteen-year-old, here? Every Disordered child must be oblated to the Church, but what does that mean? He has ideas, but he doesn’t like them: because Disorder does not refer to any external and visible imperfection, it must point to some internal defect that was still, somehow, visible. Like a dome built wrong.

Children in the city, his peers, his schoolmates, regarded the Disordered like sorcerers, with their books of mysterious diagrams. The ship captains who hired priests to offer navigation prayers returned to port; those who didn’t, might or might not. Merchants at the Bourse had nuns pray over trades to set wheat prices and reaped miracle profits. Every civic guild tithed clergy to consecrate its construction plans; decades ago, an unblessed dome in the College of Sciences had collapsed and crushed dozens of only sons. Stories like these had convinced Obb’s sister that the monasteries and convents secreted in the mountains were schools of magic where oblates learned spells to summon elemental spirits of spectacular power and beauty.

He cries himself to sleep, every night; it’s impossible otherwise. Mosquitoes bite his face and ankles. Strange throttled cries and rustlings come from the end of the dormitory. The nights are swollen with rain that won’t fall. The panic and hopelessness hits him hardest after dark, until he wants to thrash in his pallet. Instead he cries, silently, lying on his back so that his nose plugs up. He can’t stand the idea of the others hearing him sniveling. He wakes with a sore throat and cracked lips.

It’s wearing him down: this cycle of sleeping and hoping to wake to a different life, then finding all of it the same.

His parents will not come for him, he admits. It’s a painful logic to yield to—oblation is mandatory, but why wouldn’t they fight for him, their only son, no small thing, but that’s what he’s become here: a small thing, in the mouth of something giant and old. He looks down and sees tears blotting his litanies, sees multiplications that abandon the laws of nature: fifth and seventh powers of nonsense, odd numbers hatching out of even products like moths wriggling out of cocoons.

He pushes aside his litanies and writes to the bishop:

I revere our Most Holy Church but I don’t belong here I will never belong here. This isn’t how my life is supposed to be please please I can’t stay like this I can’t spend my life here

For weeks after, he is vivid with anticipation of an answer. Between religious instruction classes he dawdles in the arcades over the courtyard, watching the mail carriages. He hears sister novices singing in the north chapel during Lauds: walled-up voices slipping under doors, passing through glass like light. Will he be punished? Obb isn’t so naïve to think the abbot would simply let his letter post without reading it. Will the brothers now see Obb’s bitterness written across his face? Or did they all write such letters as oblates, begging and bleating for their lives back?

Only the Disordered may manipulate the disordered numbers—Obb pictures this work like harvesting sprigs off a poisonous plant. But Obb’s infinite litanies aren’t truly disordered, or truly infinite for that matter, only novice approximations: calculate out xx3/3! + x5/5! – x7/7! +... for x = 1.1110, x = 1.1111, x = 1.1112, and so on and on, and on, and on. If x were a true disordered number, like the square root of two, x = 1.414213562..., the decimal would trail an infinite, never-repeating streak of digits and the calculation of x3/3! alone would occupy the remainder of Obb’s life and the universe’s life, and the life of all universes to come. So, he approximates to four decimal places; and even that, for x11/11!, makes his eyes cross and takes hour after hour. Novices spent years compiling tables of these approximations, or copying out and verifying old rotting books of tables that smelled of vinegar.

Four months in, Obb still doesn’t understand how this labor is supposed to glorify God. He knows that priests will use his calculations for engineering, navigation, and other important things. But it’s still dull, even crazy-making. He still hasn’t figured out how not to go deranged from boredom.

He tries taking each litany slowly, drawing each multiplication out with loving precision. The office ends with Obb stupefied, having accomplished half of nothing.

He tries rushing through the calculations, the top of his quill capering crazily. The office ends with Obb exhausted, his hand cramping, the bites on his legs crackling like fire.

There’s something unsettling about approximating numbers with infinite decimal places to just four: a poor trade for the truth, Obb thinks. He remembers days before his oblation when he’d had another name and felt perfectly safe in happiness. His family was well-off and loving. He had a bright future. Then he lost all of it, out of nowhere; his entire life, and everything he’d understood life to be, collapsed without omens or dreams or warning into this; yet Disorder, the necessity of his oblation one day, must have always been there and he’d just failed to see it—his understanding only, and dangerously, approximate.

One afternoon he is watching the carriages when Brother Wroński confronts him with a sheaf of Obb’s calculations: unacceptable, says Wroński; but the clatter of hooves on cobblestones muddles his words. Below, the stench of straw rotted in horse piss fugs the air; Obb is wondering where the horses have come from and where they’re going, whether any reach his white city on a blue bay, where the sunwarmed walls smell of salt...

Wroński grabs Obb by the shoulders and Obb reels back into his own head.

“Pay attention, Oblate. Error has grave consequences. Your calculations here give our priests in the city precise angles and logarithms, and if your litanies are even one thousandth of a percent off, their next multiplication is a tenth of a percent off, and so on until the roof falls in. Is that what you’d like? Is that worth your time? Do you want a dome to fall on your family?”

“That’s fine,” Obb says, wrenching himself out of Wroński’s hands. He is ashamed to be so furious. “I’m fine with that. I never was their son, isn’t that what you said? They let you take me here.”

Wroński’s response is swift and wordless. He hauls Obb downstairs by the wrist, asks the mail driver for his switch, and whips the backs of Obb’s hands exactly six times, in front of everyone and their horses. The pain is sharp, white-hot, and over; leaving behind a warm, gluey throb as blood buds over his skin. “He hit me,” he shouts at Sister Casorata, later, blind with tears, while she rubs stinging mash into his hands. “You said”—voice jumping, accusing—“you said to tell you if they touch me a way I don’t like,” and Casorata snaps at him, “That’s not what I meant,” and says, “I know it’s hard to believe, but he’s trying to spare you worse,” then she tells him a stupid parable about pulling out pernicious weeds before they grow deeper roots. Obb’s insolence isn’t a weed, though; it’s the last thing he has.

It’s a bland, dumb parable, but it makes him think of what Wroński has said about errors exposing: how if you make an error in the tenth decimal place but multiply this calculation by a hundred feet of wall, say, then by a hundred tons of roof work, and keep pressing this product in turn through more and more calculations, that flaw in that tenth decimal place rises to the eighth decimal place, then to the sixth, the fifth, the first, a whole number; like a monster from the dark canyons of the ocean rising and breaching. Obb lacks the doctrinal understanding to be certain, but he suspects his litanies are approximations of a true, perfect form; where the litany xx3/3! + x5/5! – x7/7! + x9/9! – x11/11! +..., when extended to its infinite length, becomes something else and strange, a function that twists like a snake. But the litanies he calculates during divine offices can only ever be approximations—even if he extended one to a hundred thousand places, and worked out x99,999/99,999! + x100,001/100,001!, et cetera, this wouldn’t cure but only bury the imperfection, dormant, deep below the surface, powerful and secret.

Obb suspects too that the brothers and sisters of the abbey are approximate people. In religious instruction, at Vespers, at Lauds, he watches them gesture and bow and turn around at a noise following them; they are reedy or stout, dark or sallow, but in all of their faces, their lips curl a decimal place off. They have almost-expressions, almost-voices. He thinks of the bright orange fish his father once showed him in a book of plates, with blots on their tails that serve as decoy faces for predators.

Lauds: hungry, cold, and dreaming, Obb processes to the dormitory for second sleep, and he catches in the dark a train of girls, in moon-white habits, filing out from the north chapel. One of them, a head taller than her companions, is muzzled. A rumor from last week: the sister novice who swallowed a carpenter’s nail from her pallet frame. And, the month before: she knocked the new sister oblate across the head for her eyeglasses, crushed them underfoot, ate the shards right there. In the amber light of the candelabras, she glows like a house on fire.

That’s Agatha, whispers another novice. Obb thinks of his letter to the bishop and feels he understands her. How long here before he has that much despair and courage?

From a window, he studies her during free hour, the novice Agatha, watched by a heavyset nun in the cloister garden. She sits under the sinewy quince tree, whose screen of twisting boughs cuts her figure up into small blooms of white habit, like the rosebushes around her. She’s spread over her lap a sheet of parchment ruled in even, parallel lines; she is dropping handfuls of dress pins on to the paper. She counts something, records the number in a notebook, then sweeps the pins into her hand and repeats: again, again. The falling pins shimmer like a trickle of water, and Obb sinks into a mysterious, painful longing to sit at her feet and listen to her arrange this unaccountable scene into a theorem.

The contraption is iron and leather, brown and brass. Obb barely gets a look before they hold him down shouting and force it over his head—it’s a mask, a grotesque, with ass’s ears, a long swinish snout, and brass-ringed eyeholes like big goggles. The abbot personally holds Obb by the shoulders as another monk fastens the straps and collars round his throat. Obb panics as the mask closes over him; it smells like mold and bad straw inside; but when he kicks or twists, the leather straps constrict his neck; he gasps, he fights, sucks air through his teeth, and lets out the scream he’s been nursing for months.

The abbot says. “If you will act like a dumb brute, let others see you for a dumb brute.”

The abbot’s words buzz strangely in the hollows of the mask. It’s his litanies, that’s what they’re punishing him for, Obb realizes: arithmetical errors. He cannot reply, because his mouth is stopped with an iron spike protruding behind the snout.

The shame mask has its own wicked momentum, so that in the corridors, when the other novices throw chalk at him and he turns around, its weight lurches and nearly topples him over. Obb groans round the bit and his thirst bites because he knows he can’t drink anything for hours more. The stench of previous wearers’ old sweat drives him crazy; it’s worse than the itching on his legs, which he can’t reach now. He avoids, but catches anyway, his shadow in the windows—the day outside is rained into grays—and he’s like a beast balancing on two legs, like they’ve taken a mule from the mill shaft and taught him to stand and carry books. The boys’ teasing (encouraged by the brothers) is not so cruel, they pelt him with fatty chicken scraps but not rocks; still, Obb’s pride is so raw that he staggers down the hours in a red rage.

The novices grab him and spin him in circles until he wants to vomit over the bit, until another boy steps in and cuffs somebody on the ear; still, Obb careens off in the wrong direction; he loses himself in stairs and halls he can neither recognize nor reject through the brass goggles. He starts to shake, because being late to class will mean another day in the mask. He sees a door he feels he knows, but when he enters, the equations on the board are unfamiliar and severe. And the students are sister novices, their expressions made opaque with strange knowledge. Agatha is there, muzzled but burning with intelligence. Obb reels back—he sees himself in their faces, monstrous and unimpressive.

In the shame mask he is unfit for divine offices and spends the time sweeping and scrubbing the church floor. His neck strains to hold his head upright when he bends forward; on his hands and knees, he settles the iron snout on the stone tiles and tracks his scrub brush out of the corner of one eye. He feels the floor’s every flinty chip in his kneecaps. He scrapes the iron candelabras clean of their caked suety wax and hauls pails of water to the kitchen. Between pails and brooms his writing hand is in agony by afternoon. Wroński says if his litanies don’t improve, this will be the rest of his life—not the mask but the labor. “Monks with no head for doctrine are cellarers and choristers. At worst, they work the latrines and stables.”

Unlike the other brothers, Wroński speaks to Obb no differently because of the grotesque locked over his head; or maybe Wroński goes around seeing ass’s ears on everyone. “You’re not stupid, Obb, but you are a fool.”

Obb hides in the crypts during the free hour, under heavy, low rib vaults.

An older boy, another novice, discovers him there among the stone saints. Obb flinches when this novice takes his wrist, but the boy sits on a bier opposite Obb and kneads the muscles in Obb’s hands. Obb’s eyes water, it feels so good and kind. This brother novice is sixteen, with thick brows and large, solemn eyes; his name is Bolyai. Bolyai tells Obb he once spent forty-eight hours in the shame mask his first year, even slept in it. The boy’s touch—the ease with which he presses his thumbs into Obb’s aching palm—flusters Obb. Blood flushes through his fingers and up his wrists; he inhales the chalky crypt air sharply. Bolyai is all ease: his cowl back, he tosses his hair from his eyes and lamplight catches in his smile. “I hated it here at first. Believe me. Now I can’t imagine life outside.” Obb squirms, but Bolyai holds on to his wrist and the flesh gives under the boy’s powerful fingers.

For a long time, the crypt is quieter than any place Obb can remember, and the mask muffles even this absence, so that his imagination shapes the quiet into soundless footfalls, like it shapes strangers out of shadows and half-seen statues at the rims of his goggles. His silence does not seem to trouble Bolyai, who now advises him to sit taller at offices, never to hunch, because good posture helps his wrist-muscles over the long term. Obb finds he’s already exasperated with his new friend.

“Come by my bunk tonight.” Bolyai stands and brushes the dust from his wrappings. He gives Obb’s iron ears a playful stroke. “I’ll do your other wrist, if you like it.”

Obb bites hard on the spike. The invitation paralyzes him, like some giant muscle running the length of his body has fallen asleep and will erupt in pins and needles if he moves.

Sister Casorata unfastens the throat straps and draws them tenderly away from Obb’s flesh, which the weight has chafed raw. The dormitory is empty, ruddy with evening colors; all the others are at dinner. The sister cups Obb’s chin and eases his jaw open. The bit, as it comes out, shines thickly with spit and mucus, like some just-calfed animal. At last the mask comes off, and all the hot salt and stick on his face cools in the free air. Sister Casorata wipes down his face with a damp cloth and rubs salve into his neck. She offers a mirror but he shakes his suddenly light head; what if he looks and his face is the same.

She sneaks a bread roll from the folds of her sleeves. “What does that man know of pity,” she keeps muttering. She squints at Obb. “The abbot, I’m sure you’ve realized, has no talent for doctrine. It humiliates him, so he humiliates others. Don’t let this experience teach you anything but some more discipline with your litanies.”

“I’m going to escape,” Obb says. His voice is dry and weak. “I don’t know how yet, but—” He takes a small bite of the roll, working his unfamiliar teeth.

She sighs. “If you only worked as hard to accept your lot here, Obb...” She sits and runs the cloth gently across his forehead. Her face is drawn, tired. “All of us were oblated, once. No one came to this life by choice, but most of us are content.”

“Happy?”

“Content.” She takes his hands. He lets them hang limp in hers.

Everyone wants Obb to be content here; so there is resistance, he decides, even a sort of nobility, in being miserable.

The sun dazzles the courtyard stonework, and the entry archway is so dark that the horses seem to form out of shadow as they emerge, drawing the mail carriage. Obb presses back into the wall as the horses pass; their enormous, sleepy black eyes dismiss him, and one lets fall a slop of shit. Brother Wroński sets a hand on Obb’s shoulder and they step forward together, Obb holding a letter up to the mail driver. It’s the height of summer, and the man’s face has the moistness and consistency of cake.

It is his second letter, this one to the royal governor. Obb suspects his letter to the bishop was confiscated, so he hands it personally to the mail. The driver expects a fee; Wroński fishes a copper out of his habit, but Obb grabs the coin and makes a fist around it, then counts to three. “I paid you,” he says, passing the copper up to the mailman. “Remember—I paid you, not him.”

Both men have the grace to accept Obb’s fiction without any visible pity.

Obb hates pity—compassion, as he sees it, is a blurring, demeaning virtue. The way his parents looked at him (sorrow-eyed, tucked lips) when he laughed too loudly or talked excitedly. Compassion clouds the truth, it introduces error. When he feels it, he’s tongue-tied and hobbled. When others feel it for him, pathetic. In this way, the abbey’s austerity is a relief. The stiff straw pillows and pallets, the cold stone floor as he processes in the dark, the winds howling over the roof, the mosquitoes in the night; the hours weeding the gardens, fingernails black with soil; the longer hours in the scriptorium, head numb with equations, lectures, and offices; his solitary icy rinses at dawn—he feels cleaner for it, more honest.

In theology classes Obb sits behind Bolyai, absorbed in the smooth currents of his hair, ignoring the proofs on the board but studying the shadows of tiny curls that run down either side of Bolyai’s neck. Bolyai’s hair, so black and straight, always looks wet, and parts perfectly over his left brow, although there are no combs or mirrors in the dormitory. Obb dogs him through the cloisters as the older boy, always a little pompous, points out scrolled corbels and ogee arches carved into the stonework over doors: look, on each side of the arch, how the lower concave arc, curving one way, quietly becomes the upper convex arc, curving in the opposite way. It is an effect Obb has seen in his dreams of lines.

Bolyai focuses him on the subtle but exquisite pop of pleasure at this point of conversion. “That is the voice of Our Mother, Queen of Good Counsel, exciting us to bend our intentions to the will of Our Almighty Father.” Obb grins stupidly; he doesn’t believe a word of it, but he feels safe in the way Bolyai smiles at him. Mocking but not unkind—laughing at Obb’s anxiety when Obb can’t himself laugh. Bolyai is the type of personality that enjoys arranging and dictating things, and Obb’s new life needs arrangement.

Obb sleeps jackknifed on his side, his knees pulled to his chest. Some nights he wakes in the middle of first sleep and hears sharp, unnerving breaths coming from down the rows of boys. From where Bolyai’s bunk is, maybe. Obb knows what is happening but keeps that knowledge sunk under the surface of his thoughts. He lies absolutely still until the sounds stop, or he falls asleep and then dreams of dark shapes ribboning up from the bottom of a bay.

In the scriptorium, he finds Bolyai and Agatha, heads bent together over their books, seated under a rose window of radiant stained glass. They are scattered with colors; her white habit like a flowerbed, his face wine red and forest green. They are deep in concentration; Obb approaches, fearing to breathe too loudly. Agatha is the first to look up—it’s the first time he’s seen her face uncovered and she’s pretty in an unsettling, porcelain way, like the figurine of an unnamed saint. When she smiles at him, shyly, tentatively, Obb sees the glass and nails she’s swallowed, tearing at her intestines; he smiles back. She invites Obb to read with them and when Bolyai makes a quick impatient face, gives him a coy look. But soon Bolyai is his cheerfully intrusive self again, slipping two fingers into Obb’s collar and tugging the cowl aside to see how Obb’s bruises are healing.

Obb is too nervous to talk, but Agatha understands this and talks to him instead about her work: she is studying to be an Azarite, an order dedicated to random chance and divination. Only nuns can learn their doctrines, since women are thought better suited to chaos; but sometimes the Azarites teach certain methods to the monks for specific application. Bolyai is studying religious economics, which require a basic knowledge of divination formulae. “I’m going to be Cardinal of the Bourse one day,” Bolyai says, in that irresistible confidence that makes the air brighter, the rafters and shadows of the scriptorium less awful. Obb tells them his concerns about infinity and error, and they sympathize. He tells them about the true function line his litanies seem to cluster around, like bulrushes keeping tight to a stream, and they lean in to hear him, so close he can feel the heat of their foreheads.

“She doesn’t need to wear the muzzle anymore?” Obb asks Bolyai, later, and he beams, “Not when she’s with me.” He spoke to Brother Ramanujan and promised to watch her. “She’s not a bad person,” Bolyai insists, “but she feels everything so strongly—and sometimes, it overwhelms her to the point she doesn’t know what she’s doing.” For a moment, Bolyai flickers and dims; then he takes Obb’s hand in his and squeezes, his fingers strong as ironwood.

“I don’t want to be here either,” Obb says, trying to control his own emotion. The longer Bolyai holds his hand, the more panicked he feels. “What right do they have to pen us up here?”

Bolyai looks at him guilelessly and says, “We’re Disordered,” and that’s that.

Something is out of joint in Obb, in Bolyai, Agatha, Wroński, Casorata, all of them. Six months in, Obb has passed from suspicion to disbelief. What could be wrong with all of them?

In Wroński’s cell, Obb confesses his dream of a function that snakes along the angelic axis in peaks and troughs. He can’t say where this vision came from, except his calculations at divine offices—hundreds on hundreds of approximate values falling into place along the snake-line in his head. The cell is cluttered and warmer than Wroński himself. Stacks of sketches and books texture the room, astronomical instruments crowd the pallet, but there is no iconography; only the expected figurine of the Offered Son, a womanly youth nailed to a wattle fence. An excitement comes over Wroński as he listens; he pushes up his sleeves and clears the straw from the floor on his hands and knees. He takes a piece of chalk and draws a line—

It’s the posture of the Offered Son: head bowed in pain, arms hooked over the fence’s top. And it’s the same function Obb sees in dreams. “Do you realize what a rare talent that is?” Wroński cries, almost laughing. Against the wall, Obb hugs his knees; he doesn’t like Wroński’s excitement, and he doesn’t like the idea that his mind has been doing something, changing, outside his conscious control. “To plot several hundred coordinates—in your head!—from numerical methods. Extraordinary. That’s extraordinary!” Wroński’s pronounced forehead, usually a dome of wrinkles, is smooth, his eyes light with relief, the corners of his mouth pulling away from an old, old sadness.

Obb asks Casorata to translate this scene to him, since there’s no use asking Wroński for explanations. It’s Obb’s monthly lice inspection, and every so often Sister Casorata’s long fingers come into view over the basin, rolling a white speck between them as if she’s salting a dish. “The line you saw is the graph of a function we’re all familiar with, fundamental to Trinity doctrine. Our priests use it a great deal in their engineering ministries.” Obb’s hands and ankles buzz with bug bites, but Casorata snaps her fingers right by his ear when he tries to scratch them. “The function is easy to calculate for certain values, but for others, we have to use an approximation based on an infinite litany; you’ll learn how next year. It really is remarkable, Obb. To chart the function line from the approximations you’ve been calculating. Magnificat intellecta mea Dominum.”

“Why did Brother Wroński look so relieved, though?”

“We’re all relieved. You won’t be consigned to drudge work, not with a gift for analysis like yours.” Obb’s heart sinks; everyone’s happy to see him fall into the rhythm they have forced him into, to excel at work that suffocates him. He really must belong here, after all. Maybe this is his home, now: forever. Sister Casorata’s muscular fingers dig through his hair and his head nods forward and back. “And it does happen, however rarely; of course there’s always a risk, however small—of some unfortunate Ordered child coming here by mistake, misoblated... We still worry it could have happened to one of ours...”

Obb’s skin crawls. Misoblated. There really are those who don’t belong here; they have a word for it. He digs his fingernails into his palms to keep himself from shaking.

When he washes, he checks his face in the creek’s reflection, so close to the water he can smell the vegetable matter at its bottom, the muck under the shivering skin of his image. What is Disorder supposed to look like, anyway? Isn’t it something in the line of his cheek; a thinness, a weakness, in the bones under his eyes? How did his parents know to oblate him, how did anyone know, if Disorder isn’t something you can see?

After Prime, one morning: Brother Wroński waylays Obb; his face is paler than Obb has ever seen it. He holds a letter pressed between his thumb and forefinger so forcibly it contorts into a valley: Obb’s third letter, the first two having gone unanswered. The crown prosecutor’s office must have forwarded it to the abbey—Obb is shocked at their callousness.

I have been kidnapped, forced into the cloister against my will and against God’s, I am the rare unfortunate Ordered child coming here—

“‘Misoblated’! Where did you learn that term?” Wroński steers Obb by the shoulder into the chapter house, and the benches along the wall are like an empty audience: lives stolen for the abbey, what they might have been. Wroński pins him against the stones. “It’s a deeply offensive term. An insult to everyone here, everything we work for, and a lie.”

“How do you know, Brother? How does anyone know.”

Wroński’s hand pulls back into its sleeve. His voice quivers: “If we imagine one case in a thousand, even then— No. Unheard of, a confirmed case. The nature of Disorder is that we never do know our true selves, after all.”

His gaze tears over Obb’s face, as if the confirmation is there, plain for anyone to see: Obb is exactly where he should be, where he will stay the rest of his life.

Some migrating dark birds—grackles?—are flocking the oak trees. There can’t be more than a hundred, but they sound like three thousand; they send up piercing, shrill calls like a metal axle grinding under a cart, and these cries echo through the valley in the white mists that trail like brides through the treetops. Obb notices. A few others notice and leave their game. They stand in a row looking out across the landscape. In the distance, a horn sounds.

An Inquisitor arrives in the afternoon. Novices in the theology classroom spot the red carriage, with the papal compass emblazoned in gold, making its way up the road. They set down their proofs and crowd at the windows. Brother Russell doesn’t scold them but peers over their heads from where he stands, his hands gripping the lectern. Obb has once seen an Inquisitor’s carriage, in the city, but it had been hard to see in the late dusk blues that shaded the street, and his father, livid, refused to speak of it.

Everyone gathers into the church for a High Mass to honor the Inquisitor and his retinue. The abbot unstores showy gold censers and monstrances from the treasury and lines the brother and sister novices along the nave to sing grave hymns. The sound, under the vaults, is sharp and clear as glass, unbearably beautiful.

The Inquisitor is a slight man with thinning red hair and oval glasses, but the way he bows his head uncuriously as he processes down the central aisle, never once looking at the people around him, makes Obb nervous. Behind the Inquisitor is his dervish, a sort of doctrinal advisor, a tall woman veiled in fine red mosquito netting that covers her entire body and drags on the floor. All the bells of St. Riemann’s seven towers are clamoring, bells big as houses, rattling church windows, their peals rolling like boulders down into the valley. Obb finds Agatha and waits to catch her eye, but she is staring at the veiled woman with a gray look of shock.

Obb is washing in the creek when shapes push through the bracken, on to the muddy bank. A weak light crests the mountains, but the dome of the sky is still black and starry; in this uncertain light, the figures recognize Obb, and he knows Bolyai’s and Agatha’s voices at once. He climbs out of the creek and they step into the clearing. They’re in peasant clothes and carry haversacks and water skins. Agatha has hidden her hair in a shepherd-boy’s cap—it’s a shocking effect; Obb feels if he hadn’t seen her before, he’d never know her for a sister.

“I can’t stay,” she says, embracing Obb. “He’ll take me and turn me into one of them, that woman... Their training, it—it breaks their minds...” She steps back, shaking. Bolyai holds her to him. How can they hope to escape through the forest? It’s impossible and Obb gets angry, thinking of its impossibility, but then Bolyai comes to him and hugs him and Obb’s thoughts get confused.

“You’re a good person,” Bolyai says, holding his face close to Obb’s. “Please, don’t tell anyone.” Obb feels he knows what Bolyai’s eyes are doing despite the morning dark.

“I won’t.”

Bolyai hesitates, then kisses Obb on the lips. It’s quick, but they both open their mouths. And Bolyai darts off. Obb’s head swims; he stands stiff, naked, dazed, and as Bolyai and Agatha disappear down the bank he hears the boy defending himself: “What? Everyone’s first is special.”

Obb lies on his back in the grass, drying, watching stars hide under spreading daylight. His body is all confusion: he’s crying, smiling broadly, he has a painful erection. His friends are gone and yet it’s invigorating, tremendous, to feel heartache over anything but his life before his oblation. Thin tears slide into his ears, into the cracked corners of his mouth. The cottonwoods overhead rasp in the breeze and shed airy white clots of filaments that catch the dawn colors and swim out from every gesture of capture; they are so miraculously light that his hand’s movement itself is heavy enough to fan them away. He cranes his head and squints as they thin into nothing.

Obb is true to his word; he is a little thrilled to be so true. The Inquisitor has asked to see Agatha; the day is dangerous. Obb protects her secret, but he can’t lie, only refuse. He’s stubborn about honor, but more basically he’s missing whatever gland lets others switch facts with lifelike inventions on the spot; when Brother Ramanujan asks if he knows anything about Agatha, Obb swallows his words and stares petrified, wide-eyed, and thrilled. And when Brother Ramanujan brings over the abbot and the stupid cruel man harangues him, promises him a year in the shame mask, Obb turns dark red and quakes uncontrollably, as though the words he holds inside would crack the mountains apart.

“Please, we’re worried for them,” Sister Casorata says; she bends and meets his eyes, her pupils dancing. “They grew up in a city, like you—they know nothing about being on their own, out there.” Obb does not begrudge her, but he says nothing.

Brother Wroński is at the door, looking startled. He and Casorata exchange an obscure glance. “She’s called for him, in the cloister garden.”

He nods stiffly to Obb. “Well, this should be interesting for you. Come.”

The Inquisitor’s dervish waits on a crooked wooden bench under the quince tree. The quince’s hundred-jointed boughs throw patchworks of brilliance and shadow over her red veils, which spread from her crown, over her obscured face, and pool in harsh colors at her feet. She shifts deliberately so the bench rocks on and off its uneven legs, knocking the flagstones, pock-POCK, pock-POCK. Obb starts to wobble as he advances.

Do her eyes move, examining him, under the red clouds of fabric?

“Brother Wroński tells me you have a gift for analysis,” she says. Her voice comes thick and husky through the mesh, and slow, swollen, awkward, like a voice in a dream.

Obb collects into himself, like a tortoise. His hands pull into his sleeves. “I won’t tell you where they’ve gone,” he says, “no matter what you or your master do to me.”

He tries to sharpen the words as they slide through his teeth, to cut through the sultry air, but the sun on his back makes him drowsy. His skin prickles with the first stirrings of sweat. The dervish does not invite him to sit. She draws her head back, and her netting rustles softly.

“How old are you, little brother? Fourteen?”

Obb nods. He holds every muscle so that he doesn’t shake.

She gathers her veils and folds her hands in her lap. “I hope that wasn’t the last of your courage. I’d like to see more of that fire, if you have it.” She laughs—a ringing, affected laugh. “My ‘master’? Do I look like a dog to you, you pimple-faced shit?”

Obb’s face goes so hot his scalp crackles. “I don’t have pimples.”

“Why should you protect her? She seems a willful, nasty sort. You don’t go round eating tacks and pencils, do you?”

“She didn’t choose to be here.” He tries to be sullen, to sink his resentment in silence, but it keeps surging up out of him. If he isn’t careful he’ll blaspheme and be in front of the Inquisitor before he finishes his sentence.

The dervish rises, and her clouds of netting condense around her. “I heard you spent a day in a shame mask,” she says, and her voice drops lower. “Imagine spending years in one, little monk, except it’s your own face, your own body that’s wrong.” Her posture shifts, as she stands; Obb is bewildered to see, or to think he sees, a man under the reds; then the illusion is gone. “I am so very familiar with being trapped in a life I didn’t choose.”

Obb cocks his head, forgetting his anger. “Are you...?”

The red figure stands motionless in the sun. The cloister is quiet, the arcades empty and shaded, the only movement the bees in the lavender. Obb recalls that some doctrines and orders are restricted by sex, only nuns can study divination, only men can be priests. Are the dervishes all cross-sexed, then? But then, he thinks, why would Agatha be afraid of becoming one herself, unless—

Obb lowers himself on to the bench and lets out a breath. He is a fool.

Dervishes, the dervish says, study the mysticism of numbers: the patterns of primes, the ranks of infinities, the powers and dominions of God’s angels. It is exhausting and baffling work that demands rigorous thought but produces no practical uses. Only the most Disordered, men and women born into the wrong lives, become mystics. She spreads all her fingers, examining them through the fabric. “They tell me I have a nervous condition,” she says. She wiggles her fingers and the fabric glimmers with light. “It makes my nerve ends prick at random. So they say. Do you know what I say? I say, I’m being bitten by ticks and fleas and ants and mosquitoes all over my body, at every hour of every day. They don’t believe me, and I don’t believe them. But the netting helps me believe them a little. Do you ever feel, little monk, that the world is eating you alive, a little more every moment?”

Obb’s eyes swell with tears. It is exactly how he feels, but he’s afraid to admit anything to her. “I’m not telling where they’ve gone.”

“The runaways? They’ve gone into the nunswood, obviously. Stop underestimating me.” She waves this off. “You know, I’m heels over head for you—per caput que pedesque, and all.”

Obb goes very still. “What does—”

“Because you hate it here.” She draws from her habit a bunch of pages and unfolds them, one, two, three. He can’t see their script under the red fabric, but he is certain they are his letters. “Hate is an interesting thing. Well, Love gets the poems, but isn’t there something grand about someone who never stops hating this awful place? By which I mean life itself.”

“I was misoblated...”

“Nonsense. You’re Disordered, you just don’t know what that means.” She steps closer, bowing under the crooked quince branches and their yellow-green apples. “I’m right, aren’t I? No one’s told you what ‘Order’ and ‘Disorder’ really are? Clergy are such fucking prudes.”

Obb crosses his arms and ankles and pulls further into himself. His temples are pounding; he focuses on the function line from his dreams, a sea serpent undulating up, from dark, dinosaur depths... She sits by him and places a hand on his back. Her veils whisper over his cassock. “Go ahead and let it out. You must have an idea.”

He thinks of Bolyai, kissing him by the creek. And what the boys do to each other in the dormitory in the night. He has considered that possibility before—he knows most boys are doing those things with girls at their age—but rejected it because if that’s Disorder, then that belongs to Wroński, Casorata, everyone here. It means the abbot is that way too, which is a horrifying idea, not only because the abbot is ugly, but because it means he and the abbot are the same to the rest of the world. His spit sours on his tongue. The dervish hums. “Don’t feel you have to make it into a bigger shock, child.”

Her patience humiliates him. If he accepts what she is saying, he has been a fool all his life. Has everyone known but him? He feels sick, to think that something so tender and naked in him will be what everyone else knows about him, how they mark him, for the rest of his life. He spits and spits into the ground.

“That’s one I haven’t seen before.”

“Why? Why would they send us all here for that?”

“Fear. Low birth rates. They still think they can cull the trait—so they corral us in these dreary monasteries and put us to work ciphering out their civilization.”

“But it makes no sense! If that’s Disorder, what does it have to do with doctrine?”

“Makes sense?” she repeats to herself. “ ‘Makes’ sense.” In her arms, he feels her laugh. “Ecce ancilla Domini. Doctrine makes sense. The world wants sense, so we make it.”

“Some people here are bad at doctrine, even if they are Disordered.”

“It’s a funny thing, there doesn’t seem to be a reason at all why we are, and yet we are... Now, what do you think would happen to us if they thought we were no use at all?”

But Obb is still working his way through the implications. “If there are Disordered people who aren’t good at doctrine, does that mean there might be Ordered people who can learn it?”

“You’re not listening very well. If the laity decides we’re unnecessary—if their architects and engineers and naval astronomers could do their good works without tithing us—without us, do you see?—what do you suppose they would do with boys like you, and girls like me?”

It is the second time she asks that her meaning sinks in. He remembers a detail from the sack of St. Riemann’s: that the town had raped the sisters before hanging them in the forest.

He tries to meet the shadow of her eyes behind her veils. He could scarcely imagine any world where the Church didn’t absolutely control theology, Trinity doctrine, infinitesimals, the analysis magna, divination—anything with disordered numbers, any calculation more complex than arithmetic. But if he was following the dervish’s argument, the bishops had only seen power and taken it, and told everybody else it was theirs alone.

“It’s just a lie, then?” he asks—not as criticism, but she catches his chin anyway.

“Nothing about faith is ever ‘just’ a lie,” she says. “There are no lies in religion. But there are concepts that grab the imagination and take root because they offer us solace—or utility. Is infinity a lie? A concept dreamed up in books thousands of years old from before the Floods. Is it a lie? It doesn’t occur in nature. Yet without this concept you’ll never know the red planet’s perihelion or the volume of Gabriel’s horn. Is it a lie?”

Obb nods. He is struggling to take everything in, but he perceives a new trust between them, so that he follows her words even when he doesn’t understand.

“What happens when a layperson tries to study doctrine?” he asks, suspecting that, for once, he knows the answer.

“Then it’s heresy, Obb. You see now, why the Inquisitor pursues his office with such ruthlessness? He protects our claim to doctrine against those outside the Church—or in it. If they still burned heretics at the stake, he’d do it, to protect us. He has hatred enough, to do it. But it’s time for him to take on a sharp-minded clerk and train him up in the protection of the faith, such as it is. And Brother Wroński tells me you have a natural gift for analysis.”

Obb relaxes into the dervish’s arms, meeting a strange comfort there. He feels safe in her cynicism. Maybe the Inquisitor’s fearsomeness feels just as safe. Obb knows Sister Casorata doesn’t want him to become a cruel man. And he knows his parents would be horrified—but what loyalty does he owe them, their values, anymore? Over the scalloped roof tiles, crows settle on a procession of limestone sisters along the scriptorium roof, black against the sky and holding books open to the western light.

Compline: the Inquisitor’s carriage will travel by night. Brother Wroński intones the tutor’s blessing over Obb, full of misgivings. He’s told Obb how little he likes Obb’s choice and urged him to consider analytic geometry. But he said this already resigned, his mind already at work on a more promising abstraction than mentorship. He means well, but Obb is no scholar.

The abbot bows to the Inquisitor and eyes Obb warily—wondering if Obb will remember him. Let him be afraid, let them all be afraid, in the villages and cities. Obb will remember.

Sister Casorata hands Obb his provisions for the journey. She begins a gesture as if she will push Obb’s bangs out of his eyes; as if he will feel her firm fingers raking his hair one last time. But she is all formality, just as on his first day. He says to her quietly, I told you I’d escape.

Neither the Inquisitor nor the dervish say anything to Obb as he climbs into the carriage. The wheels shudder into ruts as the carriage leaves the courtyard. It is a clear night and the moon stipples the cottonwoods’ waxy leaves with soft light, like a scatter of small bones. Obb imagines Bolyai and Agatha slipping through those trees, a pair of eternal fugitives always one night ahead of their pursuers. But he knows that in a few more days, if they haven’t been found, they’ll likely be dead. He lets the panic of this thought wash over him and off him.

But if they did make it out on their own, where would they go? Could they live together undetected, an ordinary couple in a city, unlucky in childbirth, like so many? And if he or she couldn’t help but pursue their studies on their own: if Agatha can’t sleep for the power chance holds over her imagination, and if she closes the shutters and lights the lamp in the small hours of Lauds—dropping handfuls of dress pins on to ruled paper, flashing shivers of gold—would she and her dark-eyed husband one day be brought as heretics before Obb on his inquisitorial throne, robed in magisterial black?

“Well, Oblate,” the Inquisitor speaks at last, “have you chosen your name?”      


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Theodore McCombs is a writer in Denver and a current student of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop. His fiction and essays have appeared in Guernica and Electric Literature, among others. He is a co-editor and regular contributor at the speculative literary blog Fiction Unbound and he tweets as @mrbruff.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“After Compline, Silence Falls” by M. Bennardo
“The Telling” by Gregory Norman Bossert

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2 Comments on “Ora et Labora”

2 Responses to “Ora et Labora”

  1. Richard Leis says:

    A powerful story set in a fully-realized world in which mathematics and religion construct a barrier–perhaps a protective one despite all of its horrors–around society’s castoffs. There are hints about some of the story’s secrets early in the piece, but I glossed over them because I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from such a dangerous tale. As the truth is revealed, the story comes into sharp, visceral focus even as the future is left ambiguous. The end comes with lots of ramifications to think about.

    Other elements I enjoyed about this story: the imagery and beautiful language to describe an awful circumstance; the way my sympathies as a reader changed as more information was revealed; the use of religious jargon (lots of words I had to look up, but I found that really fun); the characters and how they are revealed in small details that take on greater meaning later in the story.

  2. Danyelle says:

    Fantastic story. Just gorgeous. I loved inhabiting this character and his suffering and eventual epiphany. The math is so perfect. Not enough literature has math in it. And the frankness and bluntness of the ending was so beautiful and refreshing. What a crazy fantastic piece.

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