Book of Hours: Unholy Error
by J. S. Anderson
Once again in its long life, the Book of Hours was in danger. And Alphaios had put it there…
While recreating a resplendent fifteenth century Book of Hours as a gift for the pope, Brother Alphaios and archivist Inaki Arriaga discover ancient shreds of parchment thrust into its covers. Though warned away by a visibly shaken Prior Bartholomew, they pursue the few haunting words that remain only to stumble on a dark secret that undercuts one of the very pillars of Catholicism. They find themselves in a battle between the Church, which wants to destroy the parchment or bury it forever, and its owner, real estate mogul Salton Motice, who wants to use it for nefarious purposes.
Meanwhile, the brothers of St. Ambrose learn that Motice intends to buy their mid-town cloister and replace it with a skyscraper. The monks will be displaced from their home of nearly two centuries with no certainty at all about their future.
Wandering the city, Alphaios finds a strange young woman obsessed with painting enormous replicas of master artworks under one of the city’s great bridges, and a couple who, decades later, are still coping with having to flee from despots in their own country and almost certain death.
Through it all, Brother Alphaios must find a way to protect the document for the truth it tells.
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Excerpts, Unholy Error
Inaki crowded in beside him to look at the piece of gray-white vellum that lay on his table. It was badly wrinkled and stained and looked naked, even faintly obscene against the black felt. It had been folded repeatedly and asymmetrically, as if done casually or carelessly. But what interested Alphaios most was the faded gray-brown text that moved erratically across the wrinkles and against the folds. It was in Latin, but as no more than a word or two were evident or uninterrupted on the surface, there was little sense to make of it.
He pondered it for a few moments, then glanced at the other cover. He looked at Inaki and raised his eyebrows. The archivist nodded.
When he was done, one more piece of wrinkled vellum lay in front of them. His heart beat hard in his chest. Whatever these fragments were, they had not been seen, had not even been exposed to light, for centuries. Perhaps not since the early fourteen hundreds, more than half a millennium ago.
Alphaios could not help but think of the countless paintings he’d seen of such righteous horror. Even with those awful images in mind, it was hard to move beyond the abstract, impossible to imagine flames licking at one’s own feet or face, or superheated air searing away one’s lungs beyond use. If one were lucky, if the wood were green and the smoke heavy, death might come more mercifully.
He thought of Jeremiah and Obadiah and the others at Leyre. He could not see how, but prayed their deaths in the scriptorium had been faster, more clement than those who’d suffered at the stake.
Just as he reached the top step, a disturbance caught his eye. Someone, a young woman he thought, was trying to enter the museum against the determined efforts of a uniformed security guard. Her movements oddly angular and ungainly, she weaved from side to side, trying one moment to sidle past the man and the next to duck under his outstretched arms. She was a head taller than the guard, and Alphaios could see his hair was gray and his face bore the features of age. For all that, he was agile and through anticipation and quick parries was able to deflect the woman’s efforts. It was an odd drama, made more so by its silence. There were no pleas or accusations, no insolence or imprecations—in fact, neither of them spoke at all. Nor was there anything approaching anger or violence. It was more like a dance, albeit one of graceless stutters and stops.
The guard was far gentler than Brother Levi had been when he’d sought to exclude some unwanted visitor from the monastery church of Saint Ambrose—open though it was for all of God’s children.
The woman stopped her efforts. She turned without comment or gesture and made her way to an oversized poster in a window some twenty feet away. Oddly, her steps were inches higher than a normal gait, wider and less certain. Her legs seemed loose, as if connections in her hips and knees and ankles had come unwired. Her upper arms and elbows seemed in constant flux, quite independent of her lower body. Altogether it was an inefficient movement, almost anarchical.
“KLIMT,” the poster read, the letters spread out evenly across its top.
Having arrived, the woman stood focused intently on the image in front of her, her limbs now quiet. After some minutes, when Alphaios drew near to discover the source of her interest, she seemed oblivious to his presence. She was perhaps in her late twenties, tall, lanky, and with no figure to speak of. Her blond hair was cut without care, more boyish than not. The skin of her face and hands was luminous, clean and cared for. With her even features, blue eyes, wide mouth, and full lips, she might have been beautiful in the way of Scandinavian women but for her lack of expression and her eyes. They were open wide, strangely wide, her lids and brows never seeming to relax from a look of perpetual surprise.
Just as suddenly as she had stopped fencing with the guard before, she turned, high-stepped past Alphaios, and returned to the doorway from which she had come. The guard moved forward to meet her, and the strange little dance began again.
Zechariah had done the calendar, and Alphaios had concluded he’d done it alone. His work with brush and quill was primitive when compared to similar work of the period. His visual perspective was seriously flawed, showing discrepancies in both relative size and converging distances. Even more telling was his naïve characterization of the human form and the draping of clothes.
“It’s the greatest flaw in the book,” he’d told Inaki.
“It takes some amount of hubris, Alphaios, to point out faults in such a beautiful work as this.”
He’d laughed and nodded. “Yes it does, and I’ll plead guilty. It’s so different in style and skill it could have been created for another manuscript altogether.
Inaki had scoffed. “So what? It was made for our book, and we’d be hard pressed to find many other calendars more stunning than this one.”
With that Alphaios had to agree. The overall impression formed by the lavish use of gold leaf and the blues of its skies made it compelling. The azure was lighter, some would say more natural, than the lapis lazuli and deep cobalt that was the hallmark of Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, and some would say of lesser beauty.
It was the use of gold leaf and crushed silver that gave illuminated books their name and reputation for opulence, for the metals seemed almost to form their own source of light. They were not Alphaios’s favorite use of color, though, for he preferred the intricacy and effects of pigments. For him, it was the full spectrum of color, the skill of the painters and their points of view—artistic, intellectual and spiritual—that created a books beauty. This calendar’s reliance on gold meant that it compelled the eye and was prodigiously expensive, but not necessarily that it was great art.
He’d gone to the scriptorium after yesterday’s chapter meeting not to work, for he would be unable to focus as intently as the book of hours demanded, but to retrieve the photos Inaki had promised. It had been a wise decision—even in his cell, he was unable to discipline his thoughts. It was not just the abbot’s message, for he had known that for some weeks. It was the distress of his brothers.
Jeremiah’s painting of the Expulsion came to mind: Awaiting Adam and Eve was only vast emptiness and separation from everything they’d ever known.
From there, the comparison failed. The Monastery of St. Ambrose was certainly no Eden, and its occupants—save perhaps Brothers Haman and Malcom—were not so naïve as Adam and Eve. They were instead deliberately, stubbornly unappreciative of God’s finest creations—the colors of the spectrum, the creamy opulence of Italian cheeses, or the sweetness of peach. The rich taste of coffee brewed as God intended. No, given the chance they would distrust Eden itself and believe it to have been created solely to distract them for their search for salvation.
And further, in this case, it was not the monks who were tempted by the apple, but an already wealthy man outside the cloister who had not part in their lives whatsoever.
Yet the fear in the room was palpable.
There was no way to know what personalities these brothers had had before they had taken to the cloth. Whatever they might have been, he’d come to agree with Timothy’s assessment that the city around them was perpetually corrosive.to their spirits. If one’s character already tended toward the unappreciative or ungenerous, a lifetime in these conditions could certainly exacerbate it.
No, this was no Eden. It was, though, what his brothers knew. Here was where they had come, most of them many years ago, and until yesterday they had believed they would live out their lives and die here, their inconsequential bones interred in the rough little patch of grass just behind the refectory.