They took him to a monastery to escape the noose, a sunless cathedral far from his family. Inside, the monks stripped him of his cloak, his rings, and anything that might have signified his membership of the aristocracy. They shaved his head, dressed him in brown rags, and rendered him indistinguishable from any other holy drone. They gave him a new name: Tirso, after the saint. With the nobility particle de Molina, which he supposed was a kind of joke.
The monks locked him in a cell with a Bible, some paper, and the instructions to copy out the verses of Leviticus as penance. There’d be no food until he finished them. He set the papers and the Bible on a pinewood corner desk before collapsing onto a metal cot, pressing the threadbare blankets against his face to keep from crying. After a while he put the blankets aside, opened the book, and began to write.
Two days of hunger gnawed in his stomach as he eked out the last stuttering paragraphs of Leviticus. He set the quill back in its holder, gathered the papers together, and banged on the cell door. The red face of a bloated monk appeared in the bars. He passed the pages through. The monk considered them.
“Well done,” the monk grunted. Then he tore the papers in half and walked away.
“Sir,” called Tirso in a hoarse croak. “Sir, I need food.”
The fat face returned, grinning. “You will have food when you complete your penance.”
“Have you finished?”
“Then you best start writing,” said the monk. “Oh, and you might find this interesting: the man they arrested you with was just hanged. Sodomy is a vile thing, my friend; if your family wasn’t who they are…”
The monk walked away, chortling to himself. And Tirso turned away from the door, the pieces of an idea falling together in his mind. His life was over, that was undeniable, but he would not spend what little of it he had left on pointless drudgery. He picked up his quill and with malicious satire began a fresh variation on old Quixote. A form took shape in his mind, mirrored on the page in front of him: a man, free from every kind of morality. Who moves through life using and discarding and destroying every virtue imaginable. A true hero for the ages: the trickster of Seville, Don Juan.
Time passed and the paper containing the Don filled the desk, spilling over the sides and onto the floor. Whenever they brought him fresh paper for his penance, he conscripted it in service of his hero. Eventually the monks, realising what he was doing, stopped bringing him paper entirely, leaving him hungry and alone in the cell. And as he faded, the Don’s voice grew more and more powerful. Tirso stayed slumped by the desk dreaming, dreaming into reality his character; tracing out in his imagination the clothes his Don would wear, the affectation of his speech, the nobility of his bearing. And he became not Tirso, but Juan; his soul melding with his creation, giving it life far beyond the cold cell. Becoming something higher — Don Juan — free to love and live inside the honeyed unreality of the mind.
Harman Burgess studies psychology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His short fiction has previously been published, or is forthcoming, in a number of magazines including Flame Tree Press, After Dinner Conversation, and Cosmic Horror Monthly.