Albedo One proudly continues the Albedo 2.0 Showcase with J. M. Sidorova’s fascinating alternate history, providing an evocative exploration of the manifold intersections of faith and science.
J.M. Sidorova is a biomedical scientist and a writer of speculative fiction. Her short stories appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Abyss and Apex, and others, and her debut novel, The Age of Ice, is forthcoming from Scribner. She lives in Seattle (USA). Visit J. M. Sidorova’s website for more on the author and the very real science of “Galileo Day”.
“Galileo Day”, by J. M. Sidorova
There is darkness, a man in it, and he is wrapping a bridle around his fist. He fits the snaffle over his gloved knuckles. He asks me my birth name. “Christopher,” I say. “It’s my given name.”
He wants to know my age.
“Twenty six, maybe. I grew up in an orphanage.”
There is a smell of fresh manure. He undoes the wrapping, dissatisfied. He hefts the bridle, swings it like a censer. “Why are you spreading contagions,” he asks.
“I don’t spread them, I fight their spread. I am a Theobaldian monk. I am sworn to physic. To heal, not to—”
He kicks at the straw — there is straw — clearing a spot. The straw is pale yellow. The cobblestones underneath it have pockmarks, like from small pox. He speaks. I have trouble understanding him.
“We do not do devil’s bidding!”
“One more time,” he says.
“Please don’t hit me.”
It was the Galileo day, a church holiday. The seventieth anniversary of the late Professor’s famous acquittal and the day I met Coby.
In the week before, we held our usual anniversary conference. This time it was in Cologne, a boon to me, because traveling to it from our monastic seat in Halteren brought me three quarters of the way closer to the place I planned to visit, a village about three leagues south-east of Cologne in the Rhine valley.
The Archbishop of Cologne opened the proceedings with a consecration of a new telescope installed in the Cologne cathedral’s right tower. Many ecclesiastical princes and even cardinals from Rome gathered for the occasion. After that, we, the natural philosophers, convened to hear each other’s work— and what a mighty showing of achievement it was! We’d come a long way since 1633 — especially in physics and mechanics. Amazing what good organization, funds, and not the least, pietas, temperantia, eruditio, — can do!
Our monastery was honored to present three papers and one of them was mine. My contagion theory. It caused much criticism among my peers. Some of it was just.
I told myself not to get upset, but those things are hard to brush off. Perhaps that’s why I did not stay for the closing sessions. Monastic reorganizations, catechismal novelties, theological updates could very well proceed without me. All I needed to know was that our studies would remain reportable to Rome under the Erga category, the revelations of “the works of Him who is wonderful in working”. And our, Theobaldian, organism — our lens grinding shops, printing presses, our farms, brassworks, our laboratoria — will go on as they always did.
So I left early and traveled by boat, wagon, and foot; I gazed at the flowing landscape and gazed into my soul. I’d always known I was a foundling. They told me my mother had left me on a doorstep of a church as a newborn. But lately I had grown a curiosity to see her — not to talk to her, not to reveal myself, no, just to see what she was like. A peeve, I suppose, though forgivable in a man as preoccupied with living creatures, as I was. I’d employed brother Antonio of Savoy, a Jesuit skilled in finding people. A week before the conference he had given me the name and location, and here I was, standing at the end of a field of mangel-wurzels in view of a small — two windows and a door — hovel.
There was a yard full of chickens, unfenced but with a kind of a culvert running around the whole place, which I chose not to cross. A young boy sat on the ground in the yard, intent on stacking rocks, wood chips and other rubbish into a tower at his crossed feet. The tower grew impossibly tall, teetered, then tumbled to the ground. The boy cursed. Then he saw me, my dress announcing me as a man of the cloth, and scrambled to his feet. He was slight and had bird-like features.
“Boy,” I said, “fetch me your mother. Jenna Brucke, is it? Go get her.”
He made no move. He swallowed, hard. He said, “I know why the tower of Babel fell.”
“Kneel,” the man says.
“…I do not preach devil worship… ”
There is a stirrup, rocking on its leather. There is a whip. Speaking hurts me. My face is broken and two of my upper left teeth hang on a thread.
“…Do not force people to pray to the Moloch. Or Golden Calf.”
“Put your hands on the wall.”
“…Touching the cows’ udders is not for worship. It protects you from small pox.”
“I don’t know. It just does.”
“Devilwork. Devil. Work.” A blow. “Causes dropsy. How?” And a blow. With a stirrup. “Causes stillbirths. How?” And a blow. With a boot. “Causes bad weather. How? Get up. Get up, put your hands on the wall. You brought plague to the German states. You’re stashing it till the right moment. Aren’t you?… Aren’t you?”
“No! Drawings of it is all I brought!”
A laugh. A blow.
When Jenna came out I knew that even if I hadn’t planned to act a stranger I would have done so now: a disabling shimmer washed over my body. I said, “I lost my way. May I have a drink of your water?”
My birthmother was blond, bland. She had an infant strapped to her in a sling. She stood blank-faced, reflexively fingering the infant’s head when a man of the house, a scowling fellow who showed together with her, said, “Where are you headed, Father?”
“Rheyd,” I named the village I’d come through. My lie was growing longer. “A drink of water, please,” I reminded.
“It’s a long way to be away from Rheyd at this hour,” the man said and gave Jenna a nudge on the rump.
She stumbled forward as if started out of a daydream. She plunged a dipper into an open cask that stood in the yard and carried it over to me. Up closer, she looked less aged than — petrified, inside and out. She offered me the dipper — but all I could think of was myriads of little animalcules that I knew to be frolicking in this sample, hardly any different from stagnant rainwater. Still, how could I reject her offering? “Perhaps I could have a few drops of vinegar to go with it?” And, as she finally looked me in the eyes, I was compelled to add, “You ought not to drink such water or give it to your children. It is unhealthful.”
I fancied I saw some movement of mind in her eyes, extinguished when her man said, “Wife, what is it?”
She turned to him, “He wants a sip of beer instead.”
He shifted his feet about, like a horse rearing to go, and said, “Well, we got none, Holy Father.”
By Jenna’s look, it was a lie.
“Water is fine.” I didn’t want to make trouble for her. I reached for the dipper in her grip. I could at least mouth the rim for her sake — no matter the animalcules.
But now she refused to let go of the dipper. I pulled gently and she did not release it. Some water splashed out. Her infant stirred and made a squeal. We held on.
“It’s a long way to Rheyd,” the husband repeated with a degree of menace. “Mulchoven is closer and has a church where you can stay the night… Coby! Come out, you dunce, you’ll be showing the Holy Father the way to Mulchoven.”
Jenna glanced back, then turned to face me again, a mute urgency in her stare. It struck me that she had recognized who I was — her lost, bastard firstborn — and that she strove to say something but failed — confounded by the twenty plus years that lapsed, by her scowling husband within earshot, and not the least, by her boy, Coby, who reappeared on the scene looking anxious and ferocious at once.
I let go of the dipper, our only connection. “God bless you, goodwife,” I said.
“Don’t hurt him,” she whispered and hurried away.
I doubted I understood her.
It was not in my habit or status, to do a peasant’s bidding, but here I was, obliging Jenna’s man and following my own lie to a village I had not intended to go to, matching strides with a peculiar boy with a bird-like face and an interest in the tower of Babel. He was not a fast walker: in weak health, likely. I asked him how old he was and he showed me his ten fingers, then six. His hands were funny: thumbs didn’t have meaty “drumstick” bases. They were more like the rest of his fingers. “Are you sure?” I said.
He snorted, “I can keep count.”
He looked thirteen at best.
“Your mother did not want you to go with me,” I ventured, and he looked at me sharply and said, “Bullshit. She don’t care.”
“Don’t be foul-mouthed.”
“They’d rather I vanished altogether.”
We trudged on in silence, me wondering what his ailment could be. “So you can count. What about read and write?”
“A little,” he said.
“You go to church school, then?”
“Why not now?”
“I’m too runty. They pick on me.”
“You weren’t always like this?”
“Sickly? Or small? Been sickly always, and now I’m also small. Which Order are you of?”
“The medicine monks?”
“Can you fix me?”
He stopped, then went on. It wasn’t the first disappointment in his life, I thought.
“Because I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”
“Can you learn?”
“I don’t know.”
I knew Mulchoven to be a third of a league away, from the map Antonio of Savoy had supplied me with, half an hour walking at most. But with Coby it took us twice the time. His teeth-grinding determination to keep up was a sight to behold. By then it occurred to me that I had been made a tool in a tacit plot: Coby’s father wanted to rid the family of Coby. And Coby wanted to be ridden of. That’s what Jenna meant: she didn’t beg me to treat her son right on the road to Mulchhoven. No, she meant the rest of it. The rest of his— quite possibly short —life.
I pitied Coby. But I hated to have been used. When we were finally in sight of the local kirche, and it was half past eight on my pocket watch, I dismissed him, but he paused only for a few seconds and then dragged after me, again.
“Look. You ought to go home. It will be getting dark soon. I don’t need a guide, never did. Understand? Go!”
“Why did you show up then?” He sounded as if now he was unsure that he’d seen the worst of it all.
“It does not concern you.”
“I can tell you why the Tower of Babel fell!” his breath, his words rushed. “It is because the earth does not spin in one place. Our teacher in school said that it did, and maybe at first it had been, but, I’m thinking, when they started to build the Tower, the earth jerked and started moving, and so the Tower leaned out of plum and fell. Before that, the earth just spun round and round about itself, like they say in school, but since then it travels in a circle, along with its firmament with the sun and all!” He was panting, he was looking up at me as if he was a dog and I held a bone. “The Father at school said I should’ve been a monk. He said I was an apt thinker. Said, he wrote about me to the monks, that they’d come and take me to a real school! Didn’t you come to get me?”
Ah, they must’ve taken me for an enrollment monk! In some parts of the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, for one, we still did that — sent recruiters to seek out children to replenish our ranks. (A health inspection was always included: backward folk had a penchant for peddling off their weakest offspring.) “When did your teacher write about you?”
“Three summers ago.”
Well then — this one was water under the bridge. The village priest may have written indeed, and the Orders had not seen fit to respond. “I did not come here for you, no.”
Coby gave me a hawkish stare. “Oh, I know. You saw I’m a sickling and you don’t want me anymore. Right?”
Poor, angry Coby. Like in His Excellency Cardinal Isaac Newton’s prism, my feelings were a spectrum of many colors. Fastidious pity for the sick, medical curiosity, fledgling sense of kinship, fascination over this semiliterate peasant’s naïve theory, and not the least, dismay about our education. Lord Almighty, I thought, why did we still teach this watered down geocentric-geokinetic compromise? Why was the earth still spinning in one place in our grammar schools, and not around the Sun, as in our monastic institutions of scientific learning?!
Coby took my bemused introspection for disregard. He was on the verge of tears now. “Please don’t send me back. Let me stay with you. I need to be a monk like you!”
Pity, curiosity, kinship. In the end, I was never able to tell which one of them nudged me towards taking Coby with me — or at least letting him overnight in Mulchoven.
“So if the earth moves in a circle, what does it circle around?” I asked him later in the night, when the village priest lodged us in the church’s lean-to.
“The Lord Almighty of course!” And as if that was not enough, Coby added, “And I know all my Holy Orders by heart: Dominicans are there to know cosmology and astronomy, Theobaldians — physiology and animology, Benedictines — chemistry, Augustinians — physics and mathematics, Jesuits — soul and sin …”
I hardly listened. I was imagining Coby’s cosmos, where Earth, sealed inside a skin of its celestial sphere, orbited not a luminous Sun but an — unlit, powerfully magnetic — epicenter of God. A flight of fancy in was, but what a poetic one! The great Galileo would have appreciated it, then patiently explained the factual contradictions it generated; I should leave it to the Dominican cosmologists to improve Coby’s view, I thought. Still, it meant we were beginning to have things in common, Coby and I, my contagion theory also was — as of yet— unsupported by observation.
So, come morning I took Coby with me.
A respite. I’m alone. Pain ebbs. Memory unclenches and opens up. When I was in Venice, I saw a sea anemone do that. Puckered up when I stepped on it, then opened again.
I’ve been stepped on.
A vision hits: stampeding cows, Simon’s head impossibly askew on his shoulders as he slams the ground under horses’ hooves. Whirling riders. Sounds – bludgeon on flesh? On scull? Whip-swish? Pain. Coby in the middle of it. Above it. Sitting in an open cart, leaning to one side. A tower of Babel of a boy. Stone-faced — his mind away on its quest, his body lost in the haze of its sickness. I try to reach him. I fail.
That’s all Coby wanted: to become an astronomer. His “education” had stopped at the assurance that the monks observed and calculated orbits, and that was what he reared to do though he hardly knew what it was like. I failed to give it to him. I ran into the same resistance the Mulchoven priest must have run years go. Coby was weak. Too old. And he was a peasant.
It was about his upbringing, not his lowly birth. Our institution discounted birthright because Jesuits had shown over a decade ago in a series of brilliant — and clandestine, of course — child swapping experiments that a human being took the shape he was reared in. You could take a five-year-old peasant son and make a king out of him. Given the right environment you could even make a woman out of a man, and vice versa. But take a sixteen year-old peasant son, and you could dress and treat him as a king all you wanted, he’d still be a peasant. A peasant-king or, as it may be in Coby’s case, a peasant-thinker.
After a few months of petitioning, I gave up. “You will not become a monk,” I said.
“I’m not going back,” said Coby. “I’ll be your servant.”
“We are not supposed—“
“Pupil, then. Helper.”
He had the same look of ferocious determination I’d seen on his face when he’d kept up with me on the way to Mulchhoven. How could I send him away? He was already making gargantuan strides with his reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. To our abbot I argued, “We ought to keep him here to study his rare disease.”
He really was a quick learner. Soon I was dusting my lecture notes on mathematics and physics and giving them to Coby. In lieu of proper schooling in astronomy, I gave him the tome of Galileo’s Dialog on the Two Chief World Systems from the monastery library. After three months of absorbed reading Coby flapped the back cover closed and asked me, “So, which way is it?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“There are just ifs and thens. He never reveals the final truth.”
“Of course he does. The sum of all observations favors the heliocentric model as the one that explains the observations simply and consistently. Just as you had told me when we first met, the earth should be moving. Your theory wasn’t that far from Galileo’s.”
Alas, Coby said, “What do you mean, the theory? The sum? You don’t get to pick and choose. The Almighty knows which way it is. Shouldn’t we just ask him?”
“That is not the way it works. You don’t get to ask.”
“But you are monks! You speak to the Lord!”
“Nobody speaks to the Lord, Coby. Not even the Pope. All we do is listen. By observing and recording His workings, day in, day out, devout, learned, and disciplined. Pietas, temperantia, eruditio. That’s the only way.”
He swallowed, squeezing his eyes shut. “How can you know anything, then?”
“Sometimes,” I conceded, “in chemistry and physics, you get lucky to set up what we call an experiment. You can equate it with a prayer, in a certain sense. Or a lure. If it is pitched just right, it will fetch you a reproducible answer to your question, a tiny fragment of causative order out of the world that appears occult and arbitrary. This is as close to asking as you get.”
His look reminded me of our mother: a pained, muted urgency. But what else could I say? I was only truthful with him.
We all had confessors — older monks, mentors. My confessor was brother Simon, a welcome opposite of me: twenty years my senior, twice my size, the lowest bass in the monastery’s choir, and a bearish proponent of hands-on solutions. Simon was the one who not only had found the Protection against smallpox a decade ago, but also successfully applied it to most of the Lower Rhenish-Westphalian Circle, from Cleves to Berg. He called it vaccinalia (the similarity to bacchanalia may have been intentional on his part).
I tailed him as he went to the cellar. “Simon, what do I do? My Coby seeks Divine revelation as means of gaining knowledge about the cosmos!”
“Told you so,” Simon said and found me a pole to mount the lantern on. He stopped in the middle of the passage between rows of barrels, gazing.
“No you didn’t. What are we doing here?”
“Mold-hunting. Hold that lantern a bit higher, will you?”
“Is that what we teach children in grammar schools these days? Divine revelation?”
“Coby thought monks learn their science by praying to the Lord. We obviously don’t teach scientific outlook, I don’t think.”
“Because it’s a waste of time. Jesuits have shown: you want them to learn arithmetic, tell them they’ll be able to count their money. Want them to learn to read? Tell them they’ll be able to read how other people copulate. Apparently you don’t need a scientific outlook to breed and make a living. Grammar schools teach what they can.” He fingered the wood of the support beam, “There is only that much we can do. People are by and large — well, stupid.”
“Peasants, burghers, princes. Everybody. They don’t remember things, don’t see connections between them. Don’t like uncertainties. They think the incompleteness, the fallibility of our science means it is wrong. They want absolutes. The creation does not change. Anything you can’t see with a naked eye either does not exist or is an angel. You think if I tried to explain Protection to them they would let me protect them?”
“How did you protect them, then?”
“By applying the benevolent authority of the Church, that’s how. And by looking like a trustworthy fellow.”
I was baffled. “Simon, it’s 1703 and you singlehandedly have done more for people’s health than all of the likes of me taken together! Your Protection is the only cure I know against contagious disease. And all this time you’ve been holding the people you help in such — contempt? How do you go on like this?!”
“Aw, quit moralizing, Christopher. It’s not contempt. It’s marvel. Because they are all there is. And because it is from them that we come from. They bring us forth. They take us down. They’ll do what they always do, we just have to watch that they don’t hurt themselves too much doing it. Besides, they make darn good beer… There! See?” He set the ladder up and started climbing towards the ceiling.
I held up a piece of parchment paper for his mold scrapings. “Coby is better than that. What are you up to with these?”
“I’ll propagate them. I have bread molds, cheese molds, and now this one. I think I am on to something. Their tinctures occasionally help in wound healing. Clear putrefactive pus. Your brother may be a prodigy alright. Given what little he had to go on.”
“My half-brother. A prodigy he may be, but his head is a mess. Because of that schooling…”
“A peasant-thinker. You looked at pus under your microscopes, didn’t you?”
“And at the molds?”
“Yes. Remember I told you one looked just like an aspergillum? I’ve no idea why mold can clear pus though, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
I followed him to his laboratorium, half-greenhouse, half-menagerie. (Simon went everywhere, collected every kind of nature’s secretion or tumescence. Galls off trees. Slime off morels. Smut off corn. Cock-spurs off rye.) Suddenly, an idea flashed through me. “If your molds… could kill my animalcules that live in stale water… And if your molds could help cure disease… wouldn’t it be a proof that disease is caused by animalcules?”
“That’s quite a leap of logic there, Christopher.” Simon was arranging his cellar mold on a bed of wet wood pulp.
I sighed. “Never mind.”
Simon finished accommodating the mold and looked up. “So about your Coby. You ought to teach him by example. Prove to him that scientific method works.”
“What, prove my contagion theory?”
“Yes. If this is what you are laboring on.”
I am in a stable. A big, chilly stable built of stone, it could belong to a noble household. I try to make out a coat of arms. Between the trusses of the ceiling, on stable blankets, on horse tack. The red lion of Berg, the red-and-white checkerboard of Marck? I cannot see any. Grooms come and go, and chatter jovially among themselves. But they avoid my pen as if I am a leper. Days ago a man questioned me, I remember. And questioned me. My broken face must look worse than a leper’s.
My right hand is chained — has been for days — to a ring in the wall. If I stretch the chain and my arm all the way, I can just get to the gate end of the pen. That’s where I piss, that’s where I left my shit. I covered it with straw — all I could do. I keep to the other side now, squeeze against the wall. The mare in the pen to the left looks at me askance whenever I toss on the stone floor. She smells my blood.
Waking up in my monastery cell, in spring. Cold, sweet air poured into the window. Somewhere far away a jay screamed — maybe rooks were destroying his nest — but here in my abode the world was still safe, small, and good.
Guffaws from the river bank — so loud they were, we could hear them in my cell. Our monastic youths, splashing around. “Try that on your wood!” Squeals, laughter.
Jesuits had shown years ago we had to master our carnal side, not shun and suppress it if we wanted our minds available for rational thought. I suppose I’d harnessed it, but whether rationally or not… I’d been imagining the Truth, the Unknown sought by my studies as a fair lady, an apparition translucent and fleeting, sighted around a bend in a corridor or at the edge of a forest. From afar her face would be an undifferentiated white, her tresses — perhaps red. Glimpses of her gave me goose bumps. And sometimes, made my cock hard.
I told Coby about her, on that spring morning when we woke up overhearing those boys splashing in the river. I told him because I had to breach the subject somehow. Because I’d seen him naked. Naked, Coby was a true fit to the famous definition of a human being as a featherless biped. Plucked of his feathers, stripped down to his frailty.
According to Jesuits… well, no matter. Coby’s testicles were small and had not descended all the way. But he did have the thoughts, only not so much the effects. He blushed at the shouts we heard from the river. And at my Fair Lady Unknown.
After that talk with Simon, I involved Coby in my studies. I showed him every creature I had seen under my microscope: the tiny ones that darted and wiggled in a drop of rainwater or a fleck of dirt, the bigger ones that were found in beer and propagated by budding. I wanted to show him his semen but that was rather impossible as it might be. So I took his blood.
I pricked my finger, then his, then smeared the droplets that squeezed out next to each other on a slate of glass. I was used to seeing pale pink, perfectly round corpuscles, often stacked neatly like dishes in the monastery’s mess hall. Every once in a while you could encounter a different creature who looked like a knobbed ball, and other times there would be a flat, shapeless body, larger than the others.
“Look, Coby, your blood is made of these. As is everyone else’s blood.”
Coby peered. And peered. “Why?”
“Why? Hmm. I suppose everything— including a man’s body— has to be built of smaller pieces. Bricks and stones make a house. Trees make a forest. Cells make a monastery.”
His sharp Adam’s apple rode up and down, swallowing the news. “Or a prison. What makes them stay together?”
“What if they can’t survive on their own? Add a drop of water to them and they will burst. Here, let me show you.”
“No!” he stayed my hand. “Are they alive?”
“What is alive?” I replaced Coby at the eye piece. Our blood smears were side by side on the glass. Coby may have been envisioning this very moment how his body would give up staying together and disperse, each little brick and stone going its own way looking for greener pastures. But I saw something that was real and — ominous, if only in a sense that I did not know what it meant. The Lady Unknown, flashing her white, undifferentiated face at me, only it was a touch sinister this time, and it gave me chills.
I saw fewer “dish stack” corpuscles and only one knobby ball in Coby’s blood smear. The “dish-stacks,” though sparse, were larger.
I looked away from the eye piece and caught my breath.
“What does it mean?” he said when he had his chance to compare the blood smears.
“Maybe nothing at all,” I said. “You are smaller, you may have fewer of everything.”
In a month or so, the Gravine Marie Marguerite Francoise von der Marck herself paid a visit to our abbot. Born de Rohan-Chabot, and now Graf Ludwig Peter’s recent widow. Grafschaft Marck abutted our lands, the Hochstift — Prince-bishopric of Munster. With the old Ludwig Peter in the seat, our relations had been neighbourly enough. Now, I heard, there were issues of contention. Was it logging rights in the forest we shared in our western corner or something more serious? That French fox, Simon used to say about Marie Marguerite. The French fox with an inordinate love for horses. I wish I’d paid more attention, taken her with more gravity!
From a window of my laboratorium, we watched her gliding silkily across our court yard: a woman walking into a place of men. So ostentatious she was! When she disappeared indoors, Coby abandoned the filtering funnel he was attending and went outside. There were a few other youths out already, loitering by the carriage, trading comments about the horses, querying her entourage. I lost track of time, working, but could hear her return: the courtyard went quiet.
She was no beauty but, assuredly, refined beyond measure. She cut a straight line to the circle of loiterers, which opened as she approached. She stopped to talk. She turned right and left, she wrapped those boys around herself, they stuck on her like feathers on tar. She let them support her arms as she ascended into her ride.
She was furious with our abbot, I later learned. I also learned that she singled Coby out of that circle — the weakest, safest link — and caressed his cheek. “Godly youth,” she said, “What is your name?”
He managed an answer.
“I will keep you in my prayers, Jacob Brucke.”
If Coby had his own Lady Unknown by then, she now had the French Fox’s face.
The gate of my pen opens, a groom scrapes away my soiled straw with a pitchfork. Another throws in a fresh bale. I see a man standing before the gate — the man who questioned me. My gut heaves: more beating. Then death. The certainty of it.
But the torturer steps back, leaves room for someone else.
Footsteps approach and wooden wheels clunk over cobblestone. It is not a cartful of hay, though it sounds that. She, the French fox, wears a hunting dress, red and white feathers of her hat bespeak the colors of House of Marck. He – is in a likeness of a throne, only on wheels. He wears batiste now, not linen and horsehair crin.
“Coby?!” Words hurt, spoken around my knocked-out teeth.
“I should like to take a peek at him,” Marie Marguerite says.
“My Lady, it might not be —” my torturer begins but she is already staring.
“Ouh. Why the face?”
“So he looks like the villain he is, my Lady.”
She puts her gloves on. “Well then. I shall be back by dinnertime.” She mounts a horse, with my torturer’s assistance. I pray that he leaves with her but he doesn’t.
“Godspeed, Madam,” Coby says, not letting his eyes off me. His stare is heavy. Why does he not say anything to me?
“I thought you perished,” I lisp. “What happened?”
“Where is everybody? … Simon? …”
“Why are you here?”
He just stares.
Finally he licks his lips and says, “Why don’t you ask me why you are here.”
I no longer need to. I am sick with the answer.
But he gives it to me nonetheless. “Because I want you to. Master Gus! I’m done.”
The torturer-Master Gus wheels him off.
I worked twice as hard because of Coby. Yes, I had to prove to him that the mysteries of the world could be uncovered in scientific observation, but that was not all. The truth was, his mere presence made me think harder. His misplaced whys, his blindsiding hows that came from a bird’s eye view of someone who felt a trespasser among the living, exposed the many cozy complacencies of my ignorance. He helped me more than he hindered me. And more than I could help him.
But that was not all.
He was closer to me than anyone in the world. I knew all of him, as a brother would. On the same string of twine as his wooden crucifix, he wore a rabbit foot, to ward off colic. At nights he sighed, prayed, grunted. His gut made mournful noises — as if someone was wailing a great distance away, in the fields beyond the monastery.
He had runs much too often.
He had a manner of swallowing with his eyes squeezed shut when he didn’t believe something.
He liked apples. Apple seeds, too.
He had ways of enduring himself, weathering out the drudgery of his body’s day to day struggles. He used to stack things when he felt unwell. Then, when he learned it, he did arithmetic. He divided large numbers, loping down a string of decimals with his teeth bared, as if trying to pounce on infinity. When a division product ended up a finite number, he seemed disappointed.
Later yet, he invented and then solved equations. The ones with no solution gave him the most satisfaction.
He scribbled them wherever he could. At nights when he could not sleep, he scratched on the walls of our cell, by the light of stars and moon, in a minute hand, lines curving down as if on a slippery slope. With time, the sound of his chalk in the dark, even the lightest of it woke me up to a vigil of dull worry.
“Coby? Awake, aren’t you? Why don’t you tell me about your mother,” I asked once.
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“Come on. You must miss her now and then, no?”
He took a pause before saying, “She’s a stupid cow.”
“Hey! That’s no way of talking.”
Another pause, a long one. His chalk made a furtive scratch or two. “Why can’t we divide by zero? Why is infinity the product?”
I knew how his blood looked and how fast his nails grew. I knew how many pigmented spots showed on his skin over the four years we’d lived together.
The truth is, I just never knew his mind.
It was a tall order, to prove my contagion theory true. Years ago I had started out with Morbus Gallicus because even the most backward of miasmatists admitted that this one was transmitted person to person by copulation — and that was where one had to look for it. So I looked and looked, by now in hundreds of samples of Semen masculum. I had come up with the use of pigments in hope to reveal the putative animalcule that caused syphilis. I spirited away saffron from the kitchen and bloodwood from the print shop. The bloodwood, Haematoxylum campechianum, stained all kinds of marvelous things in the microcosm, but nothing I was after. And the saddest part of it was, I knew I saw something— a spindly, fragile creature — but only on occasion, in some samples but not others. As if it sneaked in and out of existence, and the medical community already made it clear to me during the Cologne conference that this flickering uncertainty would not be taken for a proof. Worse, that is was nothing new. Since Fra Castoro’s De Contagione, everybody admitted that epidemic diseases were spread by certain seeds — semina morbid. But were these seeds physical or occult? That was the question. Did they materialize out of the air, took shape of microscopic spirals, or darting rods, or anything at all— and then vanished again? Or did they firmly belong to this world, birthed, fed, and died, and were just like any other animal, only very, very small?
Was a morbid seed a Semeion, a sign of God, a kind of angry spittle off the Lord’s mouth, or a semen, a lively animalcule? Or something of both? If it was an animal, at least part time, one could kill it. If it was divine wrath, it could not be killed.
I wanted to prove it was an animal. But everything I did, beat me back to Fra Castoro: I was getting nowhere with syphilis, Simon’s smallpox had no animalcules whatsoever, and most vexingly, the more I looked, the more I saw animalcules in all environs, in water, in air, in dirt. If they were everywhere, why weren’t we all sick? Because it took the wrath of the skies to get us there?
That was why I had to seek out and confront the plague. When one sprang up in Venice, I packed up and headed across the Alps. Coby wanted to go with me but I refused him.
I cannot sleep. I have a fever. My wounds are putrefying. Vermin scratch in the hay, just like Coby’s chalk on the walls of our cell, back in our previous life.
A vision hits: it’s Venice, shimmering in summer heat, it’s the Lazaretto, and I am suffocating in my mask, cape, and gloves, queasy with smells of pigskin and tallow, vinegar and pus. Another bubo pierced, another droplet under a microscope. Another unmistakable proof: the animalcules of plague. I make sketch after sketch of them. And yet… The epidemia waxes through summer, dozens, then hundreds of people dead each day. But come fall it wanes, until it is gone. Vanished into thin air. I can probe the soil and air till I am blue in the face, but I won’t find my animalcule.
… The vermin chalk keeps scratching. Mice and rats divide my hours by zero, leave droppings of infinity.
Epi-demos — by it the Greeks meant over the populace, the wrath of the skies. Did the plague animalcule go to seed? Does its seed flicker in and out of existence… or just visibility? Am I pressed against the wall of our limitation, my lenses too weak and irregular, my oil lamp too dim? Does occult always mean we just cannot see it yet?
My cheek is squashed against the wall, the humongous bosom of my Lady Unknown, my eye is rolling back and forth, unable to see something so big, so close to it.
How small we are and how uncomprehending.
It must have been my absence, my sojourn in Venice that turned Coby. He must have had more visitations from the French Fox while I was away. He must have been getting all kinds of ideas in his head. He is not to blame, he is but a confused youth.
Why had I not told him we were related?!
We had some Augustinians from Brno as guests once, brothers Johann and Gregor. We gathered in the mess hall to trade gossip, we had split pea soup and some beer. The soup brought a curious story out of our guests: Gregor, known for his love for gardening, found that if you bred together two diverse plants of Pisum sativum, one that made yellow peas, and another — green peas, then you always got your pea harvest split by about 3:1 ratio by color. In fact, instead of expected amalgamation, the colors always segregated as indivisible units, and insisted on adhering to various numerical ratios as far down generations of peas, as one cared to look.
We sent Coby to the pantry to bring us some yellow and green peas and we arranged and rearranged them on our big table until we had a full pictorial narrative of the Augustinians’ results. Gregor and Johann were at a loss as to what could be behind this; it seemed occult — why would a pea plant convey numerological messages? Johann joked that perhaps the Jews were right and the creation did have some numbers placed just for the sake of numbers at the base of it; peas happened to expose it, a conduit to Kabbalah.
God as Coby, I thought, inventing numbers in the middle of the dark just to spend the time.
Simon said that numbers couldn’t be there for numbers’ sake, they had to reflect physical fundamentals.
I said that since the colors did not mix it meant they were represented by discrete determinants, some sort of seeds of colors that locked their potentials much as a seed of a plant locks in a potential of a plant. But why did they distribute 3:1 and not 1:1? Peace on earth if I knew.
“Our Christopher always sees seeds everywhere,” Simon said and slapped me on the shoulder.
“Well, whatever it is, it gives a new meaning to the saying, like peas in a pod,” Gregor said. “It means not alike at all.”
At this, I could not help glancing at Coby. I a green pea, a yellow pea, he. He noticed. He was still rearranging peas; now he did it circumspectly, as if the act of being watched subtracted something from his movements.
He rearranged peas for months after. He moved them around and around with his skinny, bird-like hands. Peas took priority over his other trick of distraction, the stacking. His blood under the microscope was getting more and more desolate. Once, after looking at it, he shouted, “You have all these observations, but you don’t know what anything means!”
I said, “If one collects enough data the meaning will follow. Maybe not today. But in time, it will.”
“Oh yeah? Like with peas? Gregor’s been gardening for how long? I ain’t got a decade! If I went to a proper school this long ago, then maybe, but now it’s too late!”
I am hallucinating, or dreaming. I fly over the Rhinelands: forests, fields, and towns so sharply beautiful in their colors of autumn that I tear my mouth open and cry, unable to contain my awe. I see the twin spires of the Cologne cathedral stab through the skin of the horizon, scrutinize the heavens with their telescopes, and at the other end the Munster cathedral tick-tocks — Mars-hand, Venus-hand of its old clock still stuttering round the dial with Earth in its center. I fly like a cloud — it takes no effort at all — I fly over toy-like people working the fields or crowding town-squares. I fly over the populace. I am an Epidemia.
I shudder out of sleep. It’s night still, but the gate of my pen is open. Coby is back, leaning forward in his wheeled chair, studying me. “You ought to give him some water,” he remarks to the man behind him, “or he won’t last.” The man — my torturer and Coby’s Master Gus — walks off.
“The vaccinalia,” I say, “we were ambushed. Simon is dead. Why?”
“Enough of your messing with people.”
“The Protection is good for them. You know that!”
“It’s just as well.”
I feel perforated. I feel as if cold drafts are blowing through me. Tears are just a side effect. “I am your brother!”
“Half-brother. I know, Simon told me years ago. You almost killed me.”
“I was trying to help!”
He shifts, his chair creaking. “You almost killed me.”
Master Gus returns with a pail of water.
“Not the stable water,” Coby fusses. “Clean one, fit for drinking.”
Master Gus leaves.
“You know what else Simon told me?” says Coby. “That Galileo wasn’t acquitted in an open court. That when he was under house arrest in Florence, Cardinal Bellarmine struck a deal with him. Everything the professor ever wanted, in exchange for becoming a monk and working for the Church. The old man agreed of course. That’s how you people started it all. That’s how you do it still.”
“You are twisting it. It’s not like this—”
“That’s why it’s going to get you.”
“You’re resentful because they didn’t let you become a monk. Simon didn’t mean—“
“Simon liked beer way too much. Listen: it’s not about me. Or you. It’s about power. Always was. Think about it.”
Master Gus is back again, with another pail. “Put it next to him,” Coby says. Then they both are gone, and I am left wishing I could drown my thoughts in the water they brought me.
I finally found something — in Oribasius’ comments on Galen. A mention of a disease of being bird-like. The Ancients thought the afflicted had been fathered by birds of prey: they had beak-like faces (Coby did), and sometimes claw-like hands or feet (Coby’s hands were like that). Their long bones became hollow as they came to adolescence. They never grew wings though, got weaker as time went, and died of a failure to thrive. Galen prescribed cabbage early on to slow the course, and autumn crocus in the end, to buy more time.
Oribasius thought the crocus was more poison than medicine.
Hollow-boned, like birds? Yet I was taught there was a grain of truth in every fancy found in Galen, Pliny, or Avicenna. I decided to weigh Coby to see if he was becoming lighter. And I made sure Coby had cabbage at least twice a week. I sent out requests for the crocus, Colchicum autumnale, which did not grow in our latitudes.
That winter half the monastery had pleurisy and we drew lots who’d be taking Simon’s mold extracts and who won’t, so we could see if they were curative. They were. On fat Tuesday we threw a big festivity in Simon’s honor. He had done it again— dug up another outrageously inexplicable cure.
Only Coby kept coughing come spring, despite the molds.
Under a microscope, his blood had changed. Fewer yet dish-stack corpuscles while knobby balls exploded in numbers.
Stained with bloodwood extract, they all had dark-blue cores, lobed and swollen. I didn’t think it was a good sign, but Coby said stubbornly, “It means well.”
He was getting lighter— and I only worried about the hardships of the road and dangers of the plague when I did not take him with me to Venice.
When I returned, in late fall last year, I was not my ordinary self. Thrilled to have seen the plague animalcule and mad to have lost it; bubbling with new ideas. If Simon cultivated molds, then why couldn’t I do the same to animalcules? Why couldn’t I feed and house them in my laboratorium, so that I could freely experiment with them — because no matter what Simon had said, confronting my animalcules with his mold extracts was a darn good idea! Never before did I feel such self-confidence — the intoxication on having lived through plague made me so.
Coby, meantime, was worse off and his welcome felt lukewarm to the heat of my exhilaration. I had brought the precious autumn crocus with me from the Italian peninsula and, in my inflated confidence, I at once insisted that Coby took it. He did not argue.
I kept insisting even when Coby became yet sicker. Only when one day he no longer could get out of bed did I begin to doubt Galen and myself. The knobby balls in his blood fell back to being rare. Did it bode well or ill? Was it trust in Coby’s stare or surrender to fate? I took a spoon to his lips and he smiled. “Just one last one, right, Christopher?” Mortified, I withdrew the medicine.
I gave him no more crocus. Because of — or despite it, Coby pulled through. He was weak but alive; he went back to playing with yellow and green peas. And the knobby balls kept low in number. That was the last blood sample of his that he let me take.
Why does he keep coming back? “Are you feeling remorse?” I ask his silent shape at the gate of my pen. “They think we can spread disease. That’s their accusation,” I say, and it dawns on me, “but I fear they just want to know how we do it so they can do it too. Do you realize how dangerous a game this is?”
I am sure he’ll hark but he flickers out of existence. This time he is just my hallucination.
In May this year bad news like miasma crept down from the north-west. The Dutch had sprung smallpox, and cases of it were already trickling up the Rhine valley. Messengers crowded the steps of St. Sixtus Church, trampled up the yard.
It was vaccinalia time. We were ready, and as soon as we got a blessing from Munster, off we went, ten monks and a herd. We were dredging through the countryside in a torturously slow sweep, cattle-pace over rutted roads, countless rivers, muddy fords, goading our precious cows, The Protection, from village to village.
A stop in each, the folk would be herded to the commons, to the market square, to the local church. Bells would toll, priests would leaf through records, line people in a queue, send volunteers to drag in the holdouts. Simon or I would show, by example, what they had to do. One more time, I’d nick my hand, just to break the skin. Then I would touch a cow’s udder, the precious, oozing pustules on it. Rub my skin against them. “This would protect you from small pox,” I’d repeat. “Give it to yourselves, give it to your cattle. This would save you and your children. This is for your good.”
Children screamed. Men rumbled, women clucked. So many more people than a decade ago, Simon complained. So much more discord.
He had refused a convoy of men-at-arms. “What message are we going to send if we march about with a platoon from the Hochstift Munster?”
In Broken I agreed with him. By Wefel, I wasn’t so sure. We planned to cross the Rhine at Griet, then loop south. Simon had in mind confiscating fresh cattle to replenish our Protection-carrying herd; now I wasn’t certain it was a good idea.
Coby had insisted on going with us — he wouldn’t take my no for an answer. We both knew he had one up on me, what with the ill-fated crocus treatment. He spent the journey bumping up and down in an ox-drawn cart, leaning listlessly sideways half the time, fingering a handful of peas as if it was a rosary. In Wefel he had a falling-out with Simon. “I don’t get it,” he said, “why do we have to march cows through the country? Why can’t we just collect the pustule pus at home and then rub it into people’s hands?”
“Because it does not work this way,” Simon snarled. He was tired after a day’s work. Tired and vexed by people’s recalcitrance.
“You extract your molds, why don’t you extract the pus?”
“Does NOT WORK! If you make an extract of it, it’s useless!”
Coby shrugged. “So don’t extract it. Keep it like milk, cold in a cellar until use. Keep it like your favorite cheese!”
Simon made a derisive snort. “In a cellar! Howd’you make more of it on the road, then? Smart-ass!”
Yet I could see that Coby had struck some kind of gold. There was a reflection of a why-could-I-not-see-it on Simon’s face, a disoriented inward stare. Was Jacob Brucke a genius, after all?
At Meer we came across a mounted party from the Grafschaft Marck. I did not understand what they were doing in the Herzogtum Cleves and why they offered to cross the Rhine with us. A convoy of the Cleves soldiers had sat on us since Creudeburg. In some ways it made even less sense than bringing on our own military. Men from Cleves were friendly with men of Marck, what with their new common master, the self-crowned King in Prussia, Frederick. “We are no longer in the Holy Roman Empire, brother,” Simon winked to me, drunk. “Protestant lands, if you know what I mean.”
I thought he was joking. Vienna would never let the Prussian upstart break off from the Empire. Besides, we were leagues away from Frederick’s home grounds… and we were about health, not politics!
Marck people left the next day. The day after that we were ambushed.
“What are you looking for?”
This time Coby is not a hallucination. He sits in his chair and twiddles peas in his fingers, a green one, a yellow one. The motion is repetitive, unconscious.
“Are you getting weaker? You are too weak to walk, right?”
A green pea, a yellow pea.
“You are right, it is about power.” I glance at Master Gus’s looming bulk outside my pen and continue in an even lower voice. “The power bid by Frederick of Prussia. We are caught in it, you and I. Coby — the Gravine will use you for her goals and then throw you out, you understand?”
Coby looks down at his twiddling fingers. “My Lady likes my geokinetic theory. She is fond of education.” A yellow pea. A green one. “Power, huh. Frederick of Prussia is building schools, while you people are hoarding knowledge, because your Holy See wants it all for herself.”
“She told you that? And you believed her!”
“ …And who does it serve, all this power? You think it serves your kind, so you can spend your days in comfort and safety, feeding your own idle curiosity, jerking off to the thoughts of invisible creatures, or distant stars, or other things useless to a common man—”
“We are not—”
“Do NOT interrupt me! All this power serves your Church so she can rule. Your war mechanics are her power against the princes. Your vaccinalia are her power against the people. Knowledge is power. But hear this: ignorance is a greater power. You keep people ignorant — and they will turn against you.”
He is catching his breath, eyeing me. I feel so ill. Is this how Coby has been feeling all these years?
I whisper, “I’m sorry.”
“I say I’m sorry!”
“You still think it’s about you and me. You’re so full of yourself—”
“— I never thought of you as an object of study. Maybe only at the beginning, but it’s been years since — what I mean is I should’ve tried harder. I’m sorry that the autumn crocus did not help. But Galen was all for it even though Oribasius objected so I thought—”
“I should have paid more attention. I was so fixed on my science… I’m sorry that I failed to help you change — that you didn’t get to grow wings, that—”
“… that — that your Father beat you… ‘cause he did, didn’t he? Jesuits have shown—”
“I SAID STOP IT!”
I stop. There is silence where my words used to be.
He fingers his breast pocket, pulls out a folded sheet of paper and stares at it as if he forgot what it is. He swallows, squeezing his eyes shut. “Tomorrow, Christopher, be prepared. Tomorrow is your trial. Be ready to explain what it is that you and Simon have been doing to the people. Share your knowledge.”
“We don’t know why vaccinalia work. But it’s not because of the Devil. Or the Lord our God. We just — don’t know yet, that’s all.”
He cringes, still staring at the sheet of paper.
“Coby, why are you doing this?”
He finally lets go of the sheet, first with his eyes, then with his hand — his pale, skinny hand draped in a fanning white cuff. The sheet glides down and lands in front of me. “This may amuse you. In the hours before tomorrow.”
Never once looking me in the eyes, he orders to be wheeled away.
I pick up the sheet. It’s a solution to brother Gregor’s pea puzzle. It is physical and occult. Prodigal and bizarre. It’s every bit like its creator.
Coby has pea plants each carry two determinants for every feature, he calls them genitor genetivus, or innate begetter. During the life of a plant one genitor flickers out of existence, the other realizes itself. Coby calls the one that prevails a dominant genitor and proposes that there is a “pecking order”. That is, yellow always dominates the green. But when it’s time to flower and pollinate, both genitors are given away separately and equally, to pair in a new offspring. The offspring can inherit any combination of two genitors as long as it receives one from each parent. When all possible combinations are realized, and the pecking order is observed, the features of the progeny are exhibited according to a three-to-one ratio.
I think he invented it just to mock me. He could have come up with any combination of names, rules. He did it just to show me that meaning does not come from observation. He despises me.
And yet — his interpretation could be correct. That’s what makes me laugh.
Tomorrow I will come before the judges. I will stand tall and explain myself. Laymen learn the movements of stars to predict fate, I will say, they learn the elements’ transformations to get rich, learn their body’s workings to stave off disease or to make more babies. But we learn for the sake of knowing. For the sake of what we are. Because we are the only ones who can withstand the uncertainty of it. Because sometimes learning means ceasing to understand. Being suffocated by the unknown, never knowing whether it was your greatest failure that was, after all, your greatest discovery.
Because sometimes, Coby, learning means longing to help and not being able to do it. Ending up the healthier though not the most gifted one of the two brothers, two peas in a pod — just by pure chance.
One genitor flickers out of existence. The other realizes itself.
The morning of tomorrow comes. Master Gus removes my chain and drags me out of the stables. Daylight sears my eyes. The boiling crowd spills almost all the way to the gates. No judges, no speeches. The end.
“Behold the power of ignorance,” Master Gus growls into my ear, and then shouts to the crowd, “Behold the devil-worshipper!”
Only there is this rattle, like a hay cart runs amok over cobblestones, the wooden wheels clunk, clunk, dissecting the crowd; he is pushing the chair of his frailty in front of him like a ram of war, stumbling, hanging, being dragged by it, my featherless birdling, my little brother, my yellow pea, frightful in his hollow-cheeked ferocity. “Behold the truth!” he shouts, “He’s innocent! By Lord’s will, I am the one you want! Look at me! LOOK at me!”
And they do.