Sunday, September 9, 2012

Encoded Vellum

by Jeff Chapman

Brother Sebastian Norwich observed the rise and fall of the thermal blanket covering the old man’s torso and legs. That something made from minerals hacked out of rock could be soft and comforting never ceased to amaze the young medico. A monitor mounted on the white wall above the bed displayed the man’s vitals—stable but weak. A cyclops scanner—so named for its single, pulsing, blue eye—whirred and clicked as its gaze travelled up and down the length of the man’s body.

Brother Sebastian had removed the oxygen mask an hour ago. Tubes for feeding, hydration, and disposal disappeared beneath the blanket. Rising hues of tan and ochre had beaten back the man’s initial pallor. One might think him simply asleep, not locked in a coma. Considering the man was a day from death when he arrived at Lazarus House a fortnight ago, Sebastian was much pleased with his patient’s progress, but only prayers could help him now.

Sebastian turned his attention to the curious manuscript that arrived with the old man, strapped to his chest like an instruction manual. The pages were stiff but malleable and crinkled as Sebastian turned them, like nothing he had ever handled before. The unfamiliar sound, deafening in this wing of the House reserved for the sickest patients, set him ill at ease, so he tried to be quiet as if he delved where he should not be trespassing. Row after row of uniform characters in some dark yellow ink packed the pages. Stray Greek and Hebrew letters stood out amidst the scribbles like rubies and sapphires in a bowl of white marbles. The man must be a priest or a scholar of ancient languages, he surmised, but he wagered only a priest would trust Greek and Hebrew.

He translated the familiar letters, recording them on the touchscreen of his notepad to test his theory that the scribe embedded meaning in the white noise of the unrecognizable scribbles. When he finished a page, he scanned the string of letters, expecting them to snap into words, a message to shout at him, but all he heard was a noise of random sounds. Simple letter shifts up and down yielded nothing more. Perhaps the Greek and Hebrew was the noise or the old man was simply insane.

“How is our mystery patient?”

Sebastian dropped his notepad, which bounced once on the tile floor. Its shock resistant rubberized case absorbed the impact.

“Brother Peter.”

The director of the infirmary, Brother Peter An Loc Maria, stepped into the sickroom which now seemed very crowded. Peter smiled at Sebastian, whose hand still rested on the open manuscript, and raised his eyebrows.

Sebastian reached to close the book but stayed his hand. He stood to answer the director. He felt less like a child caught sinning when he looked across at his superior rather than up. “He’s stable but very weak. To be expected. I’ve been watching after I removed the oxygen mask. He’s a tough one.”

Peter nodded. “Any hope?”

“He’s in God’s hands now. Always was, I should say.”

Peter smiled, his almond-shaped eyes nearly squinting shut, and slapped Sebastian’s shoulder. “We are but humble instruments. I’ve arranged a mass to be said for him tomorrow morning.”

Sebastian nodded.

“And what of his manuscript?”

“It’s like a puzzle.”

“We must learn what we can about a patient. If he cannot talk, we must read what he has written.”

Sebastian summarized his investigation and theory that the man was a priest. “He must be at least seventy Foundings.”

Peter nodded. “Interesting. We should check the chronicles for missing priests.” He turned a page and scanned the text. “This must be how vellum felt to the scribes working in the monasteries of the ancient past. Fitting that as we race into the future, we find the past.”

“And can’t understand it,” added Sebastian.

Peter grunted.

“Do you think it’s important?” said Sebastian.

“Very much. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble. The Abbot should be along shortly. If he agrees, we can put all the students to work on it. Give them something challenging and new.”

They discussed the other patients under Sebastian’s care as they waited. Then the Abbot’s staff clicked on the tile in the hall as he approached. The staff, a gift from an old hunter, was carved from the carapace of some giant beetle and adorned with a simple cross on top.

“Brother Peter. Brother Sebastian.” The Abbot, Brother Anthony Mary de Guadalcanal, leaned against the door frame, gripping his staff with both hands, and panted from the exertion of his walk. “Blessings.” The director and medico echoed the greeting. The Abbot was the last of his generation and joked that what he lacked in skill and knowledge the Lord had compensated him with longevity. “So this is our mystery patient?”

Peter and Sebastian parted as the Abbot took a heavy step forward to look at the old man.

The Abbot’s eyes grew wide and his staff clattered on the floor. “Mother of God.”

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