Most of the greatest moments of our lives are totally out of our control from the moment we are born to the second that we die. We don’t chose to be born and we have no choice as to who our parents are. Likewise, death always comes too soon or too late, but rarely on time! The person we fall so deeply in love with is also unexpected and often totally different from the person you imagined them to be. The same is true when disasters happen, when friends are struck down in battle or a little sister dies from an unlooked for fever.
But opening that letter from Agnes was the biggest shock of my life. I had accepted little Anna’s death because of the star that appeared in the sky. I couldn’t comprehend how Agnes could write to me and tell me that she was leaving to marry another without ever having hinted at it in her previous letters. I was rocked with shock, and overwhelmed with confusion. I read and re-read that letter and yet not one word of it changed or revealed what lay behind it’s contents. It was in her hand and so I had to believe every word on the page. My heart was broken and it was then that I truly understood how much I really loved that woman. The only problem was that the realisation had come too late.
I screwed the paper up into a ball and threw it into the corner. I walked around and around my cell, then I stopped and picked up that crumpled ball and read it again. Nothing had changed so I crumpled it again and tossed it aside for the last time. My eyes fell on the tome by my bed. It was the writings of William Flete. The librarian had given it too me and I had been intrigued by the contents. We live in this world of things and places and yet so very often those very things and places take control of our lives. William Flete was suggesting a radical change to how we monks should live our lives. Give up our temples of plenty, walk away from endowments and the enmeshing power of rich benefactors and embrace simplicity and poverty.
William Flete was an Augustinian just like me and yet he perceived many things that had gone wrong with our Order. He wrote that “Worldliness is the ruin of the Order. The antidote is the practice of fraternal charity and fidelity to the common life in all its aspects, spiritual, intellectual and material”. I wish I’d had the courage to tell our Superior that! But William also realised that most of us monks lived in towns cities and villages “right in the middle of the market square as well as in university centres’. But then he said something that jumped off the page and into my head after I’d read Anges’s letter: “the friars should conduct themselves as if they were living in the desert”.
The desert. Those two words rang in my ears. I needed to go into the desert. Looking back I suppose a sort of madness descended on me then and I joined some ideas together that at the time seemed blindingly obvious. William Flete, the desert, the world is in ruin.
I packed what few possessions I had left, which was very little, and walked out of the monastery. A fleeting thought crossed my mind that I should let my friends know, but that was drowned by the idea that my burdens should not be their burdens and that it would be unfair to them to disturb them with my plans. Perhaps, I deceived myself, I would write and tell them of my decisions later on once I was settled.
Then I just started walking away from the city.
I had it in my mind that I would seek out William Flete whom I believed was living in a forest near Siena. I would find him and live an eremitic life such as his. Then I would find peace. They were the holy thoughts that I tried to focus on whilst walking, but the image of my dear Agnes stood before me every step of that journey. And the perversity of it all was that she brought me great comfort and peace. Her decision to marry someone else confused me and gave birth to wild thoughts that danced in my mind like mad monkeys, but Agnes herself only begat the certainty of love in my heart.
In my journey towards Siena, it felt odd that I should be returning to where some of the most important events in my life had occurred. It was at near Siena that I’d first met Villeprieux. It was not far from there that Gino had left us to live out his life with his long lost love. It was near Siena where the battle had maimed Dom for life and yet it was also the place that gave me new life. And it was also the place where I had met Agnes.
Now, here I was, so close to all those precious memories and yet I was going to lose myself to the world by taking up the was of a mystic. William Flete was going to be the key that would unlock a door in my soul and allow me to enter into a greater union with God. These were the lofty thoughts that I tried to fill my mind with on the road back to Siena.
Peace had returned to the area and the countryside was at it’s glorious best as I walked along the dusty track that led to the city on the hill. It’s tall towers stood out against the brilliant blue skies and birds swooped and sang as they hunted the insects that flourished in the heat. The forests we still thick at that time and often came up close to the path which lent a cool canopy to those like me who travelled by foot. The occasional cart would rattle past but mostly I was left to my isolation. When some kind soul did stop to offer a lift, I declined having found great comfort in the cadence of my walking that seemed to act like an opiate to my senses. Fellow walkers ignored the dust covered mendicant monk whose tonsured red hair was now matched by a redness in his madden eyes.
I was walking along a narrow cobbled path bannistered between tall buildings before I realised that I had entered the city itself. The coolness in the air spawned by the shadow entered my consciousness at the same time as I heard singing echo off those windowed walls. A group of men from one of the Contrada was approaching and I stepped to one side to let them past. Their singing was glorious and they were very happy. They stopped at a small taverna close by and finished their song. Then calling for wine their merry laughter entered my own mind and a smile creased my dust encased face.
“They’re warming up for the Pallio” a voice said in my ear. I turned to see who had spoken and found myself looking into the soft brown eyes of a washer woman who was carrying her load to be washed. I must have presented a weary and wild look, but she was a kind person who merely commented with a gentle grin, “You’re new here aren’t you”.
“How could you tell” I croaked back at her. And they were the first words I’d spoken in days. “Is there somewhere where I can find lodgings for the night?” I inquired “I’m on my was to Leccato” I added as if that were information enough.
“Leccato is it?” she frumped. “I don’t know what gets into you people’s heads. You either go out to kill each other or you run off and hide in caves thinking you’re going to have some ecstatic experience”. And pulling her shawl over one shoulder and squeezing her laundry under the other, she turned and headed off down the street past where the men were still making merry. The last muttered word I heard from her was “Men!” and then she coquettishly bowed her head whilst marching past her new found admirers.
My legs had stiffened in those few minutes and as I set off again I felt like an old man. But soon I forgot my pains and immersed myself in the smells, the noise and bustle of Siena. Suddenly all the buildings vanished and I found myself in a great Piazza. Flags were draped from every building and there was a carnival expectancy exuding from every face I saw. I’d heard about the Palio and here I was in the very place where the race would be run. I turned to soak up every mote of the atmosphere and I imagined what it would be like to be on one of those horses, galloping around the Piazza with thousands of people cheering me on.
There were crowds of people everywhere and I was jostled along with them. To be touched by another human after such isolation thrilled me. The sweaty smells and the colours, the cacophony of the carnival and the innocent delight in so many eyes were almost intoxicating. I no longer felt old. But I did feel hungry. It was a hunger that I hadn’t experienced for some time. It was the hunger of a young man who wanted to fill his belly with food, not an austere monk who would offer up his fasting for a greater cause.
I sought out a place where I could sit and immerse myself in this experience and feed on fresh bread, cheese and a glass of wine. For that moment it was like a small piece of heaven.
But a well fed body triggered a well engrained conscience and the memory of my Agnes being married to another was like a blood-caked bandage being ripped off my heart. I pushed the last of the olives away from me and settled my account with the owner. I asked him whether he’d heard of Brother Flett. The look he gave me in return confirmed in his eyes that he had just fed a madman!
“Oh” he grunted “you’re another one of them are you! What is it with you men? Can’t you be happy here?” he said waving his arms toward the milling crowd that was passing his taverna in the beautiful summer sunlight. Then tossing my few coins into his box he accompanied me out into the street and gave me directions to the woods where I would find my english mystic. “And when you’ve tired of all that starving celibacy” he shouted after me “come back and I’ll give you a carafe of wine on the house and the names of some beautiful women to entertain you”. And his parting words were met with lively laughter from his patrons and several passers-bye.
A shroud of loneliness descended on me again. Here I was in the middle of a beautiful city, surrounded by happy people and yet here was I heading out to find a cave and search for God. The idea that I really may be a little mad began to flit around inside my mind, but it was soon battered down by the steely decision that I must at least try to find what would truly give me real happiness.
The walk out of Sienna was a cleansing experience. Whilst in the town I had felt the buzz of urban life with all it’s complexity. Yet as the houses and homes became less and less and the countryside blossomed around me, I felt like I was shedding a skin of envy and want. As the sun warmed me more and more and the sounds of the country replaced the blare of the city, I felt a peace envelope my thoughts too. I felt reassured that I was making the right choice.
It’s quite hard to find someone who prefers to live in silence and isolation. In fact it took me some days of camping out under trees and begging from friendly farmers before I came close to the cliffs that rose out above the woods that surrounded them. Even as I approached those cliffs, the sounds of nature seemed to still themselves and I became aware of the sound of bees and the occasional fly on their hungry missions. I found a pile of rocks in an opening which had a small crucifix at it’s summit. There was a well trodden path around the monument and fresh petals had been scattered amongst those smooth white stones which gave it a festive look. But of a human being there was not a trace.
I caught myself in the act of calling out for anyone who might be there, but stopped mid breath out of respect for the sonorous silence that was in that place. So I began to slowly follow the path around that special edifice until I became mesmerised by the face of that terrible crucifix which stared down at me in all it’s agonised glory.
Perhaps it was the magic of the place or perhaps the simple fact that I was totally exhausted after all my travels and all my fasting along the way: whatever the reason, I fell into a deep sleep which was devoid of any dream whatsoever.
I woke with a start in the middle of the night and all around was deep darkness. Above, the night sky reassured me with it’s twinkling humour. I looked towards the cliff and saw the low glow of a golden light coming out of one of the caves and I knew that Brother Flette was there. I made to stand up but thought the better of it. The Hermit was a holy man and I must wait on him: not the other way around I thought. I went to lay back down but then I smelt it before I found it. A small loaf of bread had been left near where I had slept. The hermit knew I was here and he would come to me in his own good time.
The night was still and all I could hear was the silence ringing in my own ears. Then an owl hooted out from it’s haunt, it’s sound so pure that in my muddled mind I thought it must be a sign form God. The owl hooted several times more and each time I waited hopefully for just one more hoot. Then it ceased and I felt the inner shadow of loneliness envelop me once more. I lay on my back and tried to imagine where the owl had gone, what it had looked like, had it seen me? But I was answered by silence whilst the stars stared down from the black heavens above.
I woke early in the morning with a rime of dew on my clothes. It must have been the sound of singing that woke me. Not the silvern sound of the dawn chorus, but of a man singing his morning office. I got up and worked my stiffened limbs until they moved freely and then headed off in the direction of the song. It came from the same cave that I’d seen illuminated on the previous night so I went and waited nearby the entrance.
“Do come in and join me Brother” a voice called out in accented Italian. I pulled my cowl around my shoulders and went inside. The contrast between the bright light of dawn and the dullness of the cave cause me to stop and adjust to the much reduced light level. As if coming out of the darkness, an image slowly appeared, took on human form and became a man. I was surprised to see him in a singlet and trousers. His beard was thin, long and unkempt. He had slender long fingers such as musicians have who play the lute: but it was his eyes that garnered my attention. They were blue like the Starling’s egg but flecked with sea green. They held my attention as if they sought for something hidden inside me.
“This is the most wonderful time of day brother and just demands that we sing a song of praise. Come. Join me” and he indicated a small pile of dry fern near the mouth of the cave where we both sat and sang our morning office. Outside the wild world responded with songs of it’s own.
When we had finished we shared the small loaf that I had found during the night, but no words were spoken.
“I’ve come looking for something Brother William, but I’m not sure if I’ve come to the right place”. He chuckled for a moment and said “None of us know where to look Brother, and most of us fail to see the answer even when it’s in front of us. But the great thing is to dare to ask the question in the first place. Somewhere in the Bible our Lord tells his disciples to ‘push their boat out into the deep’. It’s a message for all of us for all times. Dare to take a risk, move out of our comfort zones and question our teachings and our beliefs. Some things that may have worked for others in the past don’t work anymore, so we must lay them aside and adapt and change. Just because we dare to try something different doesn’t make it wrong. Each age calls for renewal and our age is no different from all those that have gone before. Our Master was the best example of that. He took on the hierarchy and offered a new way forward. But He knew it would be hard and he knew the consequences of his actions. He got crucified. Don’t be drawn in by the comfort of faith, most of us will suffer to some degree or other for following in his fooststep”. He paused and turned those pale blue eyes on me and apologised. “I’m sorry” he said “It’s been sometime since I had anyone to talk to.” He allowed a smile to dissolve his concern and added “and then it just seems to pour out of me”.
My silence seemed to reassure him. “If you’re going to stay on I can highly recommend the cave next door. Well it’s not actually next door, more a hundred yards further along. It’s a rather nice little cave actually” he chatted in his english accented way “the last occupant managed to stay for almost a month before he discerned that perhaps our Lord had other ideas for him. You’re welcome to it if you want it”.
“Thank you Brother” was all I could manage then we returned to sitting in silence in the mouth of that cave just watching the world change its hues and scents and sounds. Measuring time seemed pointless in William’s presence so I don’t know when it was that I slowly rose and made to leave.
“Take the rest of the bread with you” William said “I have a second small loaf that I always keep in reserve, just in case I have visitors”. The merriment in his eyes as he said that made me burst out laughing. “But you need it more than me at the moment. There is fresh water down by the stream. But be warned, most people seem to get a spot of dysentery when they first drink it. I know I did when I first arrived, but it doesn’t worry me now. I seem to remember that one poor fellow almost died from it. But there are plenty of herbs, nuts, mushrooms and berries to be had if you’re prepared to search for them.” For the son of a butcher, this sort of diet was not an appealing prospect. “The good news is that the Priory does send someone around every few days with some supplies. Apparently the Abbot thinks it’s not good for the Community if his monks keep starving to death in the woods. Mind you” he said with that merry twinkle returning to his eyes “mother Church does love her saints an martyrs doesn’t she?”. With that he placed the remains of the small loaf in my hands and pointed me in the direction of my new home.
As a child, I grew up walking in the woods and so I knew many of the trees, plants and animals that lived there. The woods also had unpleasant memories of my father too but for the moment such memories were a long way away from my mind. Yet there’s a huge difference between walking through a wood and actually thinking of living in a wood.
For the moment though, I was filled with zeal and eager to experience the ecstatic life that I’d read about in the monastery in far off Rome. But reading and reality are vastly different too!
I found my cave and went inside. It was small and dry, although the temperature was several degrees colder inside than it was outside. There were obvious signs of fires that had been lit near the mouth of the cave and a small pile of dry kindling wood piled at the rear of my new home. A patch of dried out ferns indicated where the previous occupant had lived so my first job was to kick that into a pile and start a small fire with it, just in case it harboured any unwelcome inhabitants. Then I went outside again to explore.
The woods near Siena cover much of the countryside but they are what I would call working woods too. I found signs of snares laid to catch rabbit and small birds. There were also trails created not by human feet but by the bustling bulk of wild boar. These beast can explode out of the scrub and have been known to gore a man to death, so I was wary of their possible presence. I needed dry bedding and fern was the best for that so I gathered what I thought to be enough for a man of my size. I would also need water and something to carry it in too. It took me half a day to find a piece of hollowed out wood that I could use to transport water to store in my cave overnight. During my searches I picked up various berries and nuts that I knew were safe to eat and put them in my pocket.
I returned to my cave and set my meagre comestibles in a safe place. I put a spark to the old fern bed and went outside to sit and pray whilst the smoke and any small beasties that may be disturbed by it could disappear outside too. Clouds were gathering near the horizon and looked like they may threaten rain. At least I had a dry cave and some food so I was content to settle and soak up the isolation.
To the novice, the attraction of living like a hermit appears quite wonderful. No more distractions, no more noise just you and the almighty - alone together. But that’s where the first real challenge arises. For it’s not the awesome presence of the almighty with the supposed thunderous judgment He is about to make on your life up until this moment that’s the imminent challenge. No, the almost impossible challenge is to quieten your own mind for long enough so that the master of the universe can actually come into your presence! The struggle to achieve inner silence begins as soon as you stop doing “things”. Our minds, it seemed to me at that time, were meant for action. My attempts to change the habit of a lifetime and to just be still, opened the door for deep dark thoughts that I never knew existed inside me. And my dreams during that time were terrifying to the point that I was almost fearful to go to sleep.
In one of my dreams that still brings me out in a cold sweat merely thinking about it, I open the door into Agnes’s cottage. She stands there looking as beautiful as ever. I can feel the warmth of her hands on my face, I can smell and hear sounds of her clothes. I can see those small scars on her face that I came to love, and I can bathe in the light from her eyes that are alive with love for me. In the next moment there is a man standing close to her talking animatedly to her and clasping his hands behind her neck. She seems both frightened and exhilarated. The man has his back to me and then he turns his face towards me. It is Villeprieux and he smiles that friendly smile of his at me. For some reason I see his fingers and they are long with filthy nails and they are smeared with blood. I can feel myself beginning to burn with anger. I see him dig those fingers into Agnes neck. She smiles up at Villeprieux. He continues to look at me and then I see that his eyes are shot red with blood too and deep in my soul I instantly hate him and scream out “Leave her alone”. And in that scream I sit bolt upright and wake up with sweat pouring down my back and gulping in great gobs of air.
Some days after this dream which had really rattled me, I went to Williams cave to talk with him. “I heard you screaming the other night” he said before I spoke. In the silence that followed I half expected that he would say something that would calm my mind. But he didn’t.
“Everyone is looking for a short cut to perfection or to heaven on earth. But there aren’t any shortcuts. What I do here may work for me but it probably won’t work for many others. But what does work is trying to be a sign to others that the old ways may not be the best ways now. Catherine can see it. Francis has seen it too. What our Master spoke of in Galilee is almost unrecognisable these days. Now it’s bound by rules, by tradition, by power and by wealth as well. We need to clear away the old wood and continue the ongoing work of renewal that each of us are called to do.”
Whilst he was speaking there was no harshness in his voice just a calm sense of serenity.
“Your dreams will become more vivid when you fast and suffer. I see it as peeling away the layers that we cover our soul with. But not all dreams do that. Sometimes they are a thing of complete beauty and remind us of what it is to be loved and to love others. I am not a dream interpreter. I am a simple man following a simple way. If I am a sign for others then so be it. If I am a source of annoyance to others, then so be it. I prefer simplicity to complexity. I prefer service to power and I love this wood and this cave. I will be sad to leave when that times comes for me to go”. He looked out over the trees and the wind sighed into his face like a gentle benevolence.
If the dream disturbed me, then the dysentery nearly killed me. The cramps came first and then the diarrhoea. I had no idea you could lose so much foul fluid so quickly. My tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth and I was half driven mad with thirst. I became delirious but remained lucidly aware of the times when William came and tended to me. He reminded me so much of my gentle Agnes. The paradox of those few days of delirium were that I had a dream that has sustained my life ever since.
The dream started, as they all do, without any introduction. I found myself in a vast white cloud, such as you seen in thunder clouds before they become dark and threatening. I was in the middle of this enormous mass of whiteness with its joyous eddies of sweeping softness as they swept me deeper and higher into its very substance. I knew instinctively that the cloud was made of pure love. And I knew that I could not live and experience so much love. My lungs felt as if they were going to explode. Then I woke up.
Reflecting on that dream after many years I now believe that God’s love is like that. In this life we cannot comprehend how much God loves us. For me, that dream has become like the sound of the owl in the wood. We only need to hear it once to know it exists, yet we keep going back to the same spot in the hope of hearing it again. Brother William, in his own simple way was trying to teach us that we don’t have to keep going back to the same spot to find God or hear the owl. He’s everywhere. But we do need to learn to pause so that we can clear our minds of our accumulated dead ideas and make time for Him to come to us.
I recovered from the dysentery, but it left me very weak and I remained close to my cave for some time afterwards.
William came to me one day and said “I’m leaving soon. Catherine has died.” and he smiled a beautiful smile. “Imagine no more suffering. Imagine being in a place that is so full of love that …” and his search for words failed him.
“So full of love that you cannot breath?” I finished for him.
He looked me in the eye for what seemed like an age, but perhaps was only a few seconds then softly replied, “You heard the owl”.
We clasped each other in complete joy, then he went on “I am going back to England. My time here is over but my mission is only just beginning. There is still so much work to be done. One day we will meet merrily again, but not on this earth. I wanted to thank you Rosso for your earnestness. Stay as long as you need to.” As he said that he had an unfathomable expression on his face “but now you know what love is and where to find it too”. Reaching out he tapped me lightly over my heart.
We embraced once more like dear brothers and then he left. My last sight of him is going down the slope, away from my cave and into his beloved woods. He is a great man and I will always love him.
Life seemed to be calling me away. Moving me on, and now I had a clearer picture of my future. I did stay on for several days afterwards. I had made up my mind about my future but wanted to linger in that place for the very simple reason because I could!
On my last day I visited all the spots that I had grown to love and paused before that small stone altar with the crucifix on top. I turned towards where I had first seen that golden glow from Williams cave and my footsteps took me in that direction for one last time. It seemed so empty without his presence. He’d left it clean and tidy, even to the point of replacing his fern bed and stacking dry kindling wood at the back, well away from the entrance. Then I noticed a small pile of clothes folded neatly with a small note held down by a marble stone. It was his tunic and trousers. I smiled at the thought of him going to cold England without any clothes, but he would have had his Augustinian habit safely stowed since his arrival. Now I saw his slight frame in that black habit and prayed that the smell of the wood would stay with him forever.
I picked up the note and found it was addressed to me. Opening it I read in Latin, “Habeo Sententia haec tibi necessaria - WIllelmus“ - I have a feeling you will need these - William.
He knew, even before I had made the decision, that I would not be taking my final vows.
My faith had been deepened and enriched by so many experiences in life, but I was called to live out my life in the world, not in a monastery. With that decision came great relief even though it opened up so many unknowns.
In the last few days I had decided that I’d travel back to Rome. I would call past where my dearest Agnes used to live because during my blessed time in the wood I had come to realise that I had heard the owl twice in my life. Only, when I first heard it I was too naive to understand what it was. I now knew that I loved Agnes more than anything on this earth and I would do all I could, wherever I could to make her happy, even if it was in secret. As she was married now, being close to her would be impossible, but there would be other secret ways in which I could make her and her family’s life easier. I would become her silent benefactor and pray for her every day for the rest of my life.
I took off my old habit and put on Williams tunic and shirt. I went to the stream and washed my scent out of the black cloth and left it in the sun to dry. Then folding it neatly I went back to his cave and put in at the rear and spent my last day there in Williams cave. I thought I might have some special dreams on that last night, but I slept like a baby and any dreams evaporated with the burst of the rising sun.
The journey took me back through Siena where I stopped at the Taverna on the way through. The owner gave me a double take before coming over with a cup of wine and some olives. “On the house” he said with a smile. “It’s make your hair grow” he smiled as he brushed his hand over my tonsure. “Seen the light have you”?
“Seen it?” I replied “I’ve been in it”.
“So you found your William then eh”?
“Found him. Lost him. But found my future and it looks pretty good from where I’m sitting now”.
“Welcome back to the real world” my host chuckled. “It’s not a great place, but it sure beats the alternative”. Flipping his towel over his shoulder he turned and approached a young lady who had just arrived. “And what may I do for you princess?” he asked with an almost lecherous sound to his voice.
Later on that same afternoon I was walking close to where Agnes used to live. I had determined that I would pause at the end of her road as there was no point in going to the cottage because it would be cold and empty, haunted by old memories and mice. I preferred my memories to be warm and my own. So I was mildly surprised to see smoke coming from her chimney. “Strange” I thought to myself and began to walk slowly towards the building.
All seemed as if I’d just come back from hunting for fresh meat. The garden beds were well cared for and there were even chickens in the newly erected coop close by the house. A cow rattled its bell in the small green field by my path and raised its moon eyes to stare at me. It held my gaze and appeared to be saying “Ah, you’re back”. Then it went back to ripping the green grass from its roots and slowly ruminating on that long expected observation.
I stood by the door not knowing what lay behind. I knocked and waited.
She opened the door. Her eyes opened wide, her hands flew to her mouth to suppress a scream then she burst out crying and laid her sobbing head on my shoulder.
My concern for her overcame all the confusion that swirled in my mind. My Agnes was sobbing on my shoulder and that one fact occupied all time and all the space in the universe for me. I held her. I smelt the sweet smell from her hair next to my face. I felt her shoulders slow their heaving as her hand reached down to her pocket for a kerchief. Then there was just the two of us warm against each other. The two most complete hearts in all the world.
Agnes raised her head and her face was just inches away from mine. Her eyes glistered with fresh tears but it was the smile on her face that melted all my wounds, all my cares away. Then wiping her eyes dry she said in her old quiet way “Forgive me Rosso for being so emotional. But it’s been such a long time and it was so, so very unexpected. But don’t stand here on the doorstep, come inside, you must be famished from your travels”
“But your husband” I stammered and the words hung in the air like a fog of unknowing.
“My husband?” she replied in honest confusion. “I’m not married dearest of brothers. Whatever gave you that idea?” I was thrown into deeper confusion by her response and jarred by her calling me ‘brother’.
“Oh Agnes” I said reaching out and holding her by the arms “Forgive me for the blindness of my youth. How could I ever think of you as my sister when I love you so dearly with the whole of my heart, every fibre of my body. You who are the completion of my soul and the very reason for my existence. Forgive me dearest Agnes. Forgive me.” Now it was my turn to bury my head in her shoulder and sob all my foolishness away onto that gentle place of comfort.
When I had finished, she smiled and offered me her kerchief saying “I think you need it more than me now”. Our eyes shared their sparkled light before we both laughed and embraced some more. “With all this crying I think we’ll need to drink as much as we eat” Agnes said gently pushing me away and heading toward her store cupboards. “But tell me, whatever gave you the impression that I was married?” she asked as she poured water from a stone jar into two mugs.
“Your letter” I answered in compete innocence. “The letter you wrote to say that you had met someone else and that you were going off to marry him”.
Agnes paused from what she was doing and her head dropped. Then she turned that pure and honest face towards me and said “My dearest Rosso. Since the moment I found you I swore to myself that I would never be with any other man than you until I draw my last breath. I have loved you every second of every hour since that moment”.
The great fullness in my throat rose up through my face and erupted as tears from my eyes. “Oh my dearest and most blessed love. How big a fool have I been?” In two swift paces, she was back home in my arms and we both were convulsed by love, laughter and tears.
Drying her eyes once more she said happily “Enough of this nonsense. Sit down and let me get some food for you and we’ll talk once your stomach is content”.
“We might be in for a long period of silence then” I cheekily replied.
“Sshh you” she rounded on me “Some things never change and one of them is your cheek master Rosso. Or is it Brother Rosso now.” She looked at my tunic and added “but I’m not sure which order you belong to now”.
“The Holy order of Agnes” I replied looking up from the place of food she had placed in front of me. “And I’m afraid I’ve entered for life”.
In my opinion, there is no artist in all the land who could have captured that look on my Agnes’s face. The balance of scarred yet sacred beauty with pure love and happiness could only be experienced but never captured, except by me. I was honoured in that moment.
We sat and ate at her table in her small neat kitchen in her humble house and we were the happiest people in the whole world. What I ate, I have no recollection of. What I do remember is that I would eat, chew my food and look at her. Smiling and masticating are not comfortable bed-fellows, but all I recall is the smiling. For her place, Agnes seemed content just to sit and watch me with a smile and a giggle. At one point she reached forward and wiped a crumb that had escaped my attention and was hiding at the corner of my mouth. It was such a simple action. But whilst so many events of my life has been lost to my mind, if ever I were to feel low, all I needed to do was to recall that moment, and love and happiness flows back into me. That memory never fails to make me smile.
With the meal over, we took ourselves outside and slumped down against the wall in the late evening sun - just like in the old times.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said. About me being married and I believe I know how that came about” Agnes said. She half turned toward me and reached out to hold my hand in both of hers. “A young man came by who suffered from the falling sickness. I think I wrote to you about him.” she said and saw the confirmation in my eyes. “I took him in because he had nowhere else to go and he seemed a simple and honest person”. She paused and in that short silence she struggled to find words to capture his deceit. “Let me just say that he wasn’t as honest as he appeared to first glance. For a time all went well and he helped a little around the place. But he was a hopeless hunter, unlike the present company”, and her hands squeezed mine a little harder. I acknowledged her unsaid compliments about my trapping skills with a shrug of my shoulders and a suitably smug look on my face.
“Soon he started to act as if it were his house and I was his guest. He never harmed me but he took advantage of my compassion which is sometimes a more hurtful wound than an actual blow”. It was my turn to squeeze her hand. She responded with a loving smile in my direction and went on. “One day I came back from visiting a neighbour. There was no-one home so I came back immediately. He was there, in my room, looking at my letters. I felt betrayed and went in and confronted him. First he tried to bluff his way out with contrived stories and I was wavering on the point of believing him when he mentioned that Fr Alphonsus was dead.” There was a look of confusion on her face and hurt too. “I had not received any letter from the dear man in months and couldn’t work out how he knew such a thing. But one lie led to another and soon even he was lost in a maze of deceit of his own making.”
We are all called to forgive the sins of those who trespass against us, but few of us have the capacity really do that. Agnes could. She had forgiven that troubled man who’d deceived her and used her badly.
The sun had slipped behind the horizon and the lingering evening light seemed reluctant to draw back from our presence. “I don’t know why he felt that lying was necessary. I would have helped him anyway” she said in that wise way of hers. “He was only a boy in a man’s broken body and I suppose he coped with protecting the little boy in him by lying. He would have seen plenty of examples of how it had been successful for others who had accumulated great wealth and power” she said. A shiver caused her to tremble. “Perhaps we’d better go in. I think there will be a heavy dew tonight”. I stood and pulled her to her feet and held her in my arms whilst studying her face. Yes, there was real love for me there, but there was also the receding shadow of a recent hurt there too. Perhaps it was getting cold, but perhaps she shivered because she’d just seen a vision of a young man who’s lost his moral compass.
We went back into her home, lit some candles and sat opposite each other at the kitchen table: holding hands! “Something caused him to change recently” she went on. “He’d become nervous and more fretful. He’d raise his voice to me which is something he’d never done before. But he never harmed me” she quickly added as she saw fire flicker in my eyes. “It was after a stranger arrived at the door one day. He never told me who it was or what it was all about. Just that some vagrant came which had made him feel that we were unsafe out here all on our own.”
Agnes has a heart big enough to love the whole world. I had been blessed enough to be the one destined to love, and be loved by her. Yet people who love like Agnes, not only have great hearts, they have unquenchable spirits too. They can look into the eyes of even the most dangerous of people and dare to challenge them with the truth.
“He knew before I told him that he couldn’t stay with me any longer. He stopped looking me in the eye when I spoke with him. I tried to find a spark of honesty in him, but his lies became more devious and eventually all effective conversation finished between us. I told him to leave and the words actually hurt him. Maybe it was the little boy in him that had dared to come forward for a second, but he was soon beaten back by the more malicious man he’d become. He told me that ‘I’d pay for this’, whatever that threat may mean, although I think I know now. And then he just disappeared one day and left no trace.”
The sound of the guttering candle was the only sound in the room. Her eyes looked sad as if she’d failed in some way.
“When I was lost my dearest Agnes” I began “I met two men who began to change my life. But they didn’t complete the job. You completed my life and I thank god every day for that now. You have done as much as you can for that sad man, but it’s up to other good people to bring him to the point of change and completion. It might take a hundred such encounters before healing comes to him, or he may hearken his heart to the whole world and refuse to change. But you, my beloved, have done all that you could and you should be at peace with that”. A powerful smirk erupted on my face and Agnes said “What? What are you smiling at?”
“One thing that life in the monastery teaches you is that there is only one God in heaven. Unless you happen to be the Abbot!” Her laughter dissolved her doubts and she was her old self once again.
I must have been there for some time because my hair had begun to cover the top of my head and Agnes had managed to trim it into an acceptable appearance. Suddenly there was a loud banging at the door. Agnes’s face went white, her worried eyes looked at mine and she whispered “Do you think he’s come back”.
“Sshh” I hissed softly and indicated that she go into her room and close the door. I was walking to the door when the loud knocking happened again. I moved the covering on the window next to the door but could only see the back of a stocky man. Taking a deep breath and bracing myself, I swung the door open.
Afterwards we both laughed until tears streamed down our faces because neither of us could believe what we were seeing. “I thought your mouth would never shut again this side of Paradise” Gino said struggling to regain enough breath to even speak.
“I thought you’d taken root and would start sprouting leaves you looked so thunderstruck” I replied, finding it hard to stop the pain in my stomach and breathe at the same time.
Byt this time Agnes had appeared and her eyes were illuminated with joyous wonder. Agnes my love, this is the most wonderful friend a man ever had. This is Gino. I thought I’d never see him again and here he is knocking at your door. Will wonders never cease?” And we three of us embraced as only the closest of friends can hold each other. “But what am I saying. Come in , come in” I said and the three of us went and sat around that simple wooden table that had see and heard so many tales in it’s long existence.
We talked long into the night and many a candle was sacrificed to that happy reunion. Agnes, sensing that dawn would soon be upon us shoo-ed us off to our sleeping quarters that she’d arranged at some point during the evening. Gino and I carried on talking until the sparrow song suggested that we get some sleep, so it was late in the day when we eventually woke again.
Of agnes there was no sign which caused a flurry of anxiety to pass through my mind. But she appeared about the time that Gino and my stomachs had decided it was time to be fed, and the good woman produced fresh bread that she has purchased from the farmer nearby.
“I also asked him if his son cold look after the place for a few weeks” she said archly,”Because I suspect that there may be one more journey for the two of you to make.”
Gino and I looked at each other. “I told you she was a mind reader” I laughed. “Tell us my dear, where do you think we might be going then”?
Agnes looked at us both with mocked wounded pride before going on “Well, if I were a couple of friends who’d heard that their friends had been in all sorts of trouble then I would like to know that they had got home safely. And if they weren’t home safely, then I’d want to go and help them” Sitting down she glanced from one to the other to confirm that she had hit her mark.
“Whatever you do Rosso, you make sure that you marry this woman”. Gino had leant forward and whispered in my ear.
“What are you two plotting now” Agnes smiled back at us.
“Nothing” we replied in perfect unison and we all laughed loud and long.
The journey to Gino’s place took a few days but we weren’t rushing, rather we were rejoicing in each others company with Agnes constantly at my side. Maria was the first to spy us. She had been long used to watching out for Gino’s return. Toni was happily ensconced in the little shepherds hut up on the hillside. “He’s gone from strength to strength since he’s been here” Maria said glowing with happiness. “And it’s not just the regular meals he’s getting. Something’s come alive in him. He’ll be so glad to see you Gino.”
“And I’ll be glad to see him too. But not a tenth as glad as I will to see my beautiful Bella. Where is she?” I said.
“You’re not going to believe me” said Maria with one eyebrow cocked higher than the other. “Rabbit’s changing her nappy!”
“What?” Gino shouted in amazement “What is the world coming too” he cried in wonderment. Agnes and I looked at each other in confusion.
“It took her a little while, but she eventually got him trained” Maria grinned at Agnes. “Rabbit’s the name of the lost soul who brought us the message from Dom” she said as an aside. “He’s a good lad despite his appearance”.
“Changing nappies though Maria. It’s not a good thing for the male reputation. Just wait until I’ve had a word with the young fellow” Gino smiled at his beloved.
“Oh stuff and nonsense” she said pushing playfully away from an approaching hug. “Come inside all of you and lets get you fed proper”. And following the dear lady into the house, we all submitted to her motherly attentions. Toni arrived shortly after having seen our group arrive from the distant hillside. His reunion with Gino was very emotional. After they had embraced, they stood at arms length from each other smiling like tearful buffoons, and they embraced once more. Gino introduced Toni to Agnes and I. For me it was a delight to meet someone who had been a part of rescuing our dear friends and we thanked him from the bottom of our heart.
“I’ve found a new life, new friends, new family and I’m happy” he said. “What more could a man want?”.
What more indeed I thought to myself.
But our destination wasn’t Gino’s farm and family, it was Rome and it was dear Maria who reminded us of that after she’d filled our stomachs to the point of bursting. “What time will you leave tomorrow husband”? she asked from the trough where she rinsed the platters.
“I couldn’t leave you so soon” the poor man blustered in some discomfort much to the delight of the rest of us who watched the scene unfold.
“Gino my love, you can’t leave a job half completed” she said coming over to him and putting her arms around his waist. “I know you’re torn, but the sooner you start the sooner you’ll get home again” She reached up and kissed him gently on the lips, then placed her finger there as if to seal the memory of it in his mind.
“You’re right” replied Gino “and at least you’ve got two fine men to protect you until I get back” and this time it was his turn to return her embrace and love.
We headed south about mid morning intent on reaching Rome in a few days if we were lucky and the weather held. There was an anxiety about the trip yet it was mingled with the great delight that Gino and I were on the road again, re-living old memories and in the company of the dearest woman in the whole world. My Agnes.
Eventually we trudged down the slopes from Hadrian’s ruined old Palazzo and made off across the plains to Rome itself. There we joined the throngs entering the gates and made straight for Gian’s taverna where all news eventually settles after the storms of life. He was delighted to greet us and immediately sent for Brother Julian “on urgent family business” at Santa Maria Maggiore. The three of us were immediately submerged in a flow of family and food. Gian’s wife took Agnes under her wing immediately and straight out to the kitchen where they could “discuss things” in peace and quiet!
“I’ve heard that Laura and the children are back, as well as there friend. But there’s still no news of Marco and Sarah” Gian reported after finishing a plate of excellent pasta.
“And the Dom?” I asked. Gian’s brow furrowed. Before he could answer there was the sound of joyful singing coming from the alleyway, bursting through the front door and then filling our room and hearts with great happiness. Julian had arrived.
The glorious welcome that was such a natural part of that residence was repeated once more with all the children being treated as equals when it came to love and attention.
“Welcome home” Julian fired whilst perching his favourite on his ever increasing girth. “What a great blessing you bring to this house”. He paused as Agnes stood before him and gazed into her eyes. Without turning away he said to me “There is no doubt in my mind Rosso where your true vocation lies”. Then he enveloped her in his arms and kissed her tenderly on both cheeks. “Welcome dear lady”.
“Thank you Brother Julian. I feel that I’ve know you all of my life. You’ve been such a blessing to all of us”. He smiled happily back into her almost perfect features. Then he sniffed, turned and cried, “Food” and his eyes opened with mock wonder. “Dear brother we’ll keep you poor if you feed us like this all the time”.
“As we didn’t have a fatted calf dear brother, I thought a modest feast might do instead” returned his sibling with great glee.
We all sat around the table and Gian’s wife joined us “Seeing as it’s such a special occasion” seating herself next to Agnes so they could continue their whispered conversation. None of us had noticed that Gian’s eldest son was not amongst us but after the first bowl of food had steadied our hunger there was knocking at the door. “Who could that be” said Gian looking worried. “I’ll be back in a moment” and rising he left the room. The conversations continued in a subdued, listening fashion. A noise of scurrying feet sounded and then what sounded like mice squeaking.
The door opened to reveal two young men in black capes followed by the regal presence of Sara who was followed by Laura, friend Connie and bringing up the rear, the two smiling faces of the conspirators, Gian and his eldest son. “I knew we couldn’t have a feast without Laura and her family” he said whilst helping his son drag another table next to the main one. Once again there was great joy in the room and dear friends embraced, laughed and even shed the odd tear too.
There was a gleam of light in Laura’s which nothing could hide. “What is it” I asked.
There was more noise in the corridor. Then there before my eyes stood Marco holding Clare’s hand and looking fit to burst with happiness.
“They just got back this morning” said Laura immediately returning to her husbands side and reaching for his hand. I walked slowly around the throng until I stood in front of Clare. She seemed to have blossomed into a young lady yet she still had the eyes of wisdom that I’d seen what seemed like an eon ago. “Welcome home” was all I could muster before we both embraced and wept into each others hair.
Sniffing and turning at the same time I introduced Clare to Agnes. There was only a head height difference between the two of them, and for a moment I thought they might be sisters. “It’s so good to meet you at last” said Clare politely, “Rosso’s told me all about you. In fact he’s told us all about you”. Everyone laughed, Agnes blushed and I held her in my arms.
“You don’t think you can all have fun without me” a familiar voice shouted from without.
“Uncle Dom” the children screamed and ran to meet him. Gian smiled quietly.
“Have you been plotting again brother” said Julian.
“Maybe a minor intrigue” replied his twin “but nothing worth reporting the the great Boss on high” he smiled. “Dom came back a few days ago and we’ve been trying to hide him ever since. He’s been staying in peaceful isolation with Pietro, but I think he’s missed the children too.”
Pietro came in first leaning on his cane, without needing his beads which made us all happy. Then came Dom, draped in writhing humanity and surrounded by the sounds of happy giggling. He looked up at us all with a huge smile on his face. Then something happened to him as if he’d been struck on the head and a look of great shock filled his whole face. He stared across the room and we all turned to see what he was looking at.
What we saw was Agnes with a similar look on her face. She was the first to recover saying almost under her breath “Bruno? Could it really be you Bruno?” as she walked slowly toward him. For his part, Dom had disentangled himself from the small ones and was saying “Ann? What are you doing here”.
“You know each other” I asked incredulously.
“He’s my brother” said Agnes as she fell into his arms and they sobbed with great delight.
In all the confusion and emotion it took some time to fit all the pieces together. Laura comforted Agnes as she told her story and Gino and I stood with Dom as he filled in his part too. It was stunningly simple really. Agnes had told me from the beginning that her name was Ann Agnes, but she preferred the name Agnes. For his part, Dom, or Bruno, had taken the name of his beloved Poppa just in case anyone had cared to follow him in those far off days when they first fled from their home. After that, he’d just stayed with the name.
My joy couldn’t have been greater. Here I was with my beloved Agnes, my friends had all returned safely and now Dom was to become my true brother. For I had determined that I would marry Agnes and marry her soon.
“A toast” Gino shouted above the din “To Rosso and Agnes. To love and family”
And we all shouted loud and long “To love and family”.
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