“Make a note, Edgardo,” the Monsignor said to me on the way back to his summer residence amid the opulent gardens of the palacio above the cathedral. “The shrieks of the heretic as the flame first touches her body are not so much from mere terror or pain as from the first glimpses of the everlasting hellfire she is about to enter.”
In the dim light I scratched down the words as best I could as our coach, curtains drawn, jostled through the muddy up-slanting alleyways. I held the inkpot between my knees and, as soon as I uncapped it, a good third of its contents sloshed onto my threadbare britches.
“Show me,” the great man said. I unpinned the rough parchment from the narrow oak plank I carried with me on such occasions to use as a writing surface. I handed it to him.
He frowned. “Sloppy job,” he remarked.
Before I could apologize he flung the parchment back at me and said, “Let’s try it like this: Common minds might perceive the shrieks of the heretic, as the flame first touches her body, as mere terror, mere retort to pain; but the man of God understands that she has glimpsed for the first time the everlasting hellfire she is about to inhabit for all eternity.”
He held out his hand and I showed him the new version and he was satisfied. Speaking to himself, he opined, “I expect that will form the basis of a powerful sermon. Especially in light, if you will, of today’s proceedings.” He applauded his own wit with a dry chuckle. His big belly jiggled under his holy robes.
I was relieved that the Monsignor was satisfied, as my goose quill was rapidly losing its edge and the small pot of watery hawthorn ink I had brought to the noonday execution was almost empty. I hoped any additional inspirations would wait until we arrived at the residence.
As always I was in awe of the great man. I still had much to learn from him. Whereas I had come away from today’s proceedings diminished, appalled, sick to my stomach, my skin smeared with ash, my nostrils clogged with ash, he, never losing sight of his mission as a man of God, was rejuvenated, tossing out offhand ideas, such as the one I had just recorded, for the edification of his flock and, of course, for the enhancement of his reputation as a sermonizer.
Oh, he had many such ideas. Some were far better than the “shrieking” idea, although that one did lead to quite an effective sermon, causing many women of the congregation to weep pious tears. Some of his ideas, naturally, were worse. Some made no sense at all, at least not to me, especially when he was far into his wine and would summon me to dictate. But please do not get the false impression that the Monsignor always dictated to me; this would be far from the truth. Quite often he would scribble down his own ideas, then hand them off to me to be written fair. It was a peculiarity of the great man’s that he always needed to see his ideas in someone else’s hand before he could decide if they were good or not. For years he spewed ideas at me without discrimination, sometimes verbally, more often in writing, trusting me, I suppose, because (he once confided, drunker than usual) I reminded him of a bastard son he’d been compelled to send away with its young whore of a mother. I did not have the impertinence to ask what he meant by “send away.” It certainly crossed my mind that he might have had them both killed. But maybe not. Maybe not, at least, the child?
Aside from my resemblance to his bastard son, the Monsignor must have believed that I had no aspirations of my own, being a lowly scribe. Else, why trust me so? Perhaps he sensed, however dimly, my genuine admiration for his merciless dedication to his own ambition? Whatever the reason, trust me he did, and day after day I was witness to the great man’s method of rising within the hierarchy: he was tireless at rooting out heresy and, to prove it, he could boast an impressive count of souls led to the stake.
Over the years it was also given me to see that the Monsignor’s most peculiar attribute, by far, was how deeply his own inner mind resonated with the very heresies he attacked with such vigor. Within the hidden recesses of that wonderfully ruthless intellect, he loved to toy with the most dangerous ideas. He dictated (and also penned) endless notes questioning, if not outright ridiculing, essential doctrine: Original Sin, the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, even the Virgin Birth.
My path to high holiness will necessarily have to be different from that of my mentor. My first steps along the path, alas, cannot be like his: a rooting out, a pruning of myriad small transgressors. I have no standing, like he does, from which to prosecute the weak; I am myself as weak as they are. For now. Instead, my first venture will involve the felling of one prominent pillar of the hierarchy, one mighty oak. The Monsignor trusts that I destroy all his rejected ideas. But of course I do no such thing. I keep them all, all the ones scribbled in his own hand. For kindling.
M. Jonquil is the author of Seven Days of Rain (Exile Creek Publishers). Jonquil’s short fiction has also appeared in The Literary Hatchet.