Tuesday, March 7, 2017

[Short Story] The Book of Rime

The Book of Rime
Riley C. Pritchett
April 24, 2016

A dim sliver of light flickered across my face. An ache that hinted at a lack of sleep tugged at my mind. I surveyed the other bunks in my monastical hideaway. Seven holy Brothers, my faithful companions for the past two years, still slept. The sylvan scent of pine leaked through the dragon-eye slit which also let in the sun, our call to action.
I pulled out the trunk containing my five possessions. The first possession was a vaguely red formal robe with my mother’s initials stitched in the collar in black thread. The second was a heavy book in which I had recorded sayings from the Book of Rime. It represented a year of toil, and treasuring it was my greatest sin. Staring at the words brought back my faith, quelled my doubts. The third possession was a small dining set: metal bowl, metal cup, wooden fork, wooden spoon. The fourth was a satchel, into which I shoved my book and my last possession. I blush to mention the stack of money I had saved from my old life. It would do little good to give it to the poor—if I gave it here at Renwald Abbey, that is.
It isn’t that our abbey is corrupt, but the ways of men are not forgotten here. A holy brother once spoke of Brother Ezriel’s endless pockets. Though he swore by the feet of the gods he meant nothing by it, he spoke as one who said a woman was not of concern to him, when his heart ached to watch her pass. The next day, I observed Ezriel dig his bloated hands into the bag and stuff coins into his habit when he thought no one was looking.

The first time I spoke to the abbot, it was because I didn’t know why Ezriel had not been punished. The abbot told me men find the error of their ways in time, and to force them earlier into that recognition would be sacrilege, so says the Book of Rime. Why had I not been told this? There was so much I needed to learn. I was ashamed to have interrupted the Father Abbot’s prayers again, as they protected everyone for miles, but I had to ignore my shame if I was to live anew within the iron fences of this abbey.
The wooden doors of the abbey began to groan as the holy brothers awoke from their sleep. Schlock, schlock, the doors swung open. I had to speak now before others approached the father with the worries of abbey life. My simple request would stand out as much as one stone in the wall stands out from the next.
How much better it would have been for this to be my first formal request to see the good Father! His prayer room was big enough for three people, and no more. His rug took up almost half of it as it was, and no priest would dare transgress upon that holy symbol of leadership. The abbot rose from his prayers as if he was going to float up to the red and blue glass that blocked out the light as much as they allowed it in. His wrinkles stretched as he swallowed, and his glassy blue eyes roved like so many fish as he looked at me.
“Young Dathan, you return.”
“Yes, Father. I have come to request a pilgrimage.”
“A pilgrimage and a gentle spirit may lead to great learning, so says the Book of Rime.”
I said nothing. I knew this was but a prelude. The father told the story of the first pilgrimage taken by the grandchildren of Rime, a story I had heard many times in the past two years. The eldest sought wealth, and found poverty. The second born sought happiness, and found sadness. The third born sought love, and found loneliness. But the last born sought truth, and found peace. He recited a verse from the Book of Rime, and turned to me expectantly.
“My faith is not strong enough, Father. I need to see the truth, to see the Book of Rime and read its phrases for myself.”
“My child, even I have not read them. I saw the book from a distance once, as many have, but I have not gazed upon its pages. It is in the Temple of Dale, a week’s journey from here, beyond Felgren. I bless your pilgrimage, but I warn you that they may not honor your request in the way you desire.”
When I stood at the abbey gate, I was stricken by the uncertainty I had felt the first time I stood at this gate. I had heard from the book from the infancy of understanding. It had guided me to the priesthood. Surely the temple priests would understand my desire for truth. He who seeks knowledge finds peace, and only the truth would bring peace to me. My mind gently combed through the sayings I had learned: sorcery is the seat of contempt, marriage is a gift, question not those who rule over you. When no one was watching, I had written them down in my book. I knew the sayings of the book must travel by the tongue alone (so says the Book of Rime), but I couldn’t destroy the words written in my careful script. These words had become my breath, my connection to the thrill of certainty I felt when I donned my robe for the first time.
“You seek the book?” My host, a farmer, asked me.
“Yes, it guides us all. This kingdom hangs upon its truths, and I desire nothing more than to see its pages.”
“I heard of it. What’s in it that you gotta see?”
“The full truth.”
“Truth about what?” He squinted.
This simple farmer—ah, I knew so many like him at one time—could not understand what I required. One drop of philosophy could set the heart on fire more than the kiss of the most beautiful woman. What judgment lie beyond the knowledge of the abbot, the common sense of the farmer, or the studies of the pilgrim himself? I could not tell him what truth, only of the hope that set my mind afire.
“Every truth I do not know, kind farmer. Whether it be about the bliss of marriage, or the tragedy of death, I wish to know it.”
My host lived a day from the temple. His round, tan face animated when I asked the state of his crops, and he soliloquized in his grinding, earthy voice. We sat at a table outside his shack, which barely held him and his remaining child. Barley fields sprawled before us, with their coattails lapped up by the encroaching forest. The barley was a homogeneous pool of green, their lilting heads declaring the glories of the spring in silent chorus. I let the color stain my gaze as the farmer told me this year was worse than last year, but not as bad as two years back, and soon he hoped to have enough money to sell his land and live in the city.
“Everyone has his duty which, once he finds it, he must not forsake except in the greatest of calamity, so says the Book of Rime.” I recited. “It is honorable that you tend this earth.”
The farmer said nothing.
“The Temple of Dale lies north of Felgren, does it not?”
“Yessir, you ever been to Felgren?”
I admitted I had not.
“It’s a busy and dirty place, but the temple—ah, the temple. Was there ever such a place? Pictures and colors!”
“You’ve been inside?”
“When my dear wife passed on, I went there to pray.”
Though it was the extent of his devotion, the distant echo of these grievous prayers touched me. I would find what the book said about woe unsought and unearned. The words would find their way into my book, and I would speak them to the sorrowing. 
When I reached Felgren the next day, I entered through the southern gate. The crumbling stones hung loosely in place. In days of old, the bloodthirst of enemies had lapped against the rocky face as archers cast judgment from above. The eye of the archer gazed at the twisted faces, the patchy armor, and their gleaming olive skin. Every inch of that skin thrilled the heart—the intimacy, the weakness, the brazen courage—they gave the archer reason to draw his bow, taut with the love of country and the romance of death. The blood had long been washed away, but the calls of that suffering spoke to memories I knew I couldn’t have. The whispers lingered.
The grimy faces of the country melted into the clean faces of the city. A cynic would call them meaner and crueler than the weather-kissed farmers. But everyone was equal under the watch of the gods, so says the Book of Rime. What greater truths lurked ahead, what wisdom would pierce my heart the next time I gazed upon the bustling denizens of the twisting cobblestone?
I passed near a man begging in the street. I stood over him and prayed that his life would be touched by the gods, and though he acknowledged me, he did not smile or thank me. I looked into the midday sky and silently asked he be given gratitude as well as means to discontinue his indelicate trade.
As I pushed through the crowds of Felgren, I considered how strange I, a robed priest, must look to them. Did they visit the temple? Surely not, as the unenlightened could not do so without wishing to join the Order themselves. Perhaps when they saw me they admired my dedication—envied my knowledge. Every glance, every stare was a badge of faith which I would wear all the more proudly after I had seen the object of my travels.
Soon I beheld it: the Temple of Dale, nestled between two grassy hills. Compared to Renwald Abbey, it was ancient. The central column rose through the heart of the massive temple, far into the sky. Sitting on top was a bust of a crescent moon, which from a distance appeared no larger than a knickknack a young girl kept next to her bed.
A guard loitered outside. I approached him, and explained my quest. He said nothing, but waved me inside. Through the first door was no vestibule or foyer, but a courtyard with a round hole in the roof to let the sun in. What roof there was had been brightly paintd with vague scenes of bygone days. The twisting passages of Renwald were nowhere to be seen. Open halls stretched in five different directions, each decorated with statues and meandering priests. I found one who would hear of my journey.
“Fear not,” he said. “Your pilgrimage is not in vain.”
He scratched his head. He was an unattractive, scraggly man who, had he been employed differently, would inspire unease. But in the Order, all held a calm and reassuring visage. All of us were one.
“Many ask to see the book. This way to the hall of viewing.”
He led me to a room empty except for a single window that pointed not outside, but into an adjacent room. I looked through. At the far end of the next room, a book sat on a pedestal.
I gasped. “Is that it?”
“Yes, please take as much time as you need to pray.”
He yawned and left.
I stared at the book. It was so close—but why was I led here, where I could see it scarcely closer than if I was back at Renwall uprooting carrots? I scoured every inch of the room, but there was no indication of a subtly hidden door like the ones at the abbey. I was not as narrow as I had been before joining the priesthood, but the window was too small for any grown man to fit through.
The cover of the book longed to be touched. The aged pages glowed in the distance, their sacred truths waiting to spring forth to a devoted adherent. Was sight alone enough to declare my journey at an end? No, no, for even sight cannot determine truth, so says the book I longed to touch. I could not be doomed to merely hear morsels of this sacred manuscript, whispers of old gods whose tenets exacted strict obedience.
I tugged gently at the window frame. Harder. I pushed, shoved, groveled—and click, the entire wall swung open. I had the presence of mind to slip behind it without a sound. As I approached, the book seemed to be moving closer on its own. It was massive—twice the size of my book. I hung over it for a moment and sighed with pleasure. Silver was laid into the deep grooves of the cover, which was as thick as my thumb. Rime’s name was etched elegantly in the bottom left-hand corner. At the center was a symbol I had never seen before. It had artistic merit, but the block-like pattern was refined, sharp, and unfeeling.
I felt my skin prickle as I reached for the cover. A sudden dread took a hold of me, as if I held in my hand a letter disclosing the death of a loved one. But I shook off the feeling, and opened the book. The first page was blank, a clean and aging slate as holy as the untouched forests of the east. There was something serene about the potential of this page, and the knowledge it prefaced.
I breathed deeply and turned the page. It was also empty. Odd. I turned to the next page: empty. The next page: empty. I turned to the middle of the book. Empty. What trickery was this? No, this had to be a dummy book—the real volume was hidden away, under this stand, perhaps. No, that wasn’t it. I returned to the book. On the last page was written one phrase: “So Says The Book Of Rime.”
I felt dizzy. “He who forsakes his family is blessed by the gods.” I heard these words echo in my head. They had persuaded me to leave home, to join the abbey. The image of my parents’ tear-stained faces, which I had once suppressed so guiltlessly, returned to me. Where were these words, where were they?
Someone shouted. I should have run, or pretended to be praying—anything. But I stood there in silence, staring at the six putrid words of the book. The scraggly priest wrenched the satchel off my back and I felt two guards pull me away from where I stood. I looked at the priest. He was reading the phrases I had written in my book.
“Recording the sayings of the Book are forbidden. This tome must be burned.”
“Burned?” My vision blurred. “What is there to burn?”
“Your transgressions must be punished, so says the Book of Rime.”
“It doesn’t say that—it doesn’t say anything.”
He cursed me for my blasphemy. I wrenched myself out of the grip of the guards and lunged at the massive book. As I tried to open it, they pulled me back, and I was slowly dragged away.
“No, look.” I pulled as hard as I could, but the book’s yellowed razor-like pages grew smaller, fainter. I screamed for them to look—to see—but they said nothing.
The priest spoke slowly: “Silence, and obey your elders, so says the Book of Rime.”
I cast my eyes on the gaily painted roof, but its idyllic scenes turned white and stained as I sobbed.
“So says, so says, so says! The vanity!”

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