The Stories of
Father Anthony led the old man into the kitchen and closed the door. The brothers were seated on the floor around the hearth and bunched together along the benches around the serving table. The fire was blazing, but the chill night air was still creeping into the kitchen from cracks in the cold stone outer walls of the room. "Take a seat Old Paul." Anthony gestured towards his own big empty chair, and sat himself on the hearth between the firedogs to warm his back. "We have done with my stories, brothers. I have no more to tell."
Brother Anastasius looked at Anthony, "Are we going to have to resort to a reading of Beowulf again, Father?"
"I wonder, Brother Anastasius, if we could prevail upon Old Paul to break his long silence and tell us his secrets." Anthony looked at the old man without anticipation, but with a bemused grin. The men in the room grinned and looked at Paul as they always did when this suggestion was made. Brother Paul had never told them a single story in the twelve years he had been with them.
The fire crackled, and in the silent pause they relaxed and stared at the flames, feeling the heat on their faces as their backs got colder, except for Anthony, whose back was now beginning to scorch. He moved away from the hearth and turned his face to the fire. "Our stories are not as good as some." He tried to remember a really ripping yarn someone once told well many years ago, but could not recall even what it was about. Anthony was a quiet man by nature, and many years in the monastery had so becalmed his mind and guarded his memory, that any capacity for entertaining others had, like the afternoon sun, long since disappeared over the horizon. Still, he thought, it would be a fine thing to hear a new story this winter. Most of the brothers were thinking along the same lines.
As they watched the long supporting log at the bottom of the fire, it finally burned through and broke, sending the blazing woodpile into a short freefall ending with a shower of sparks and flame roaring up into the chimney. This was their quiet entertainment.
"Uh... Um... well... yeah, I suppose..." This quiet speech from the old man turned every head in the room. They waited for more. None came.
"You suppose what, brother?" Anthony prodded.
"Yes, Old Paul, go on. What were you saying?"
Nothing further was spoken by Old Paul, and this caused their general interest to heighten into genuine anticipation.
"Spit it out, man."
Old Paul had decided he wanted to obey his impulse to speak. He rolled his head to try and relieve the constant ache in his neck and tried again. "I, Uh... suppose I might, eh... have a wee story... or two. "
The brothers looked about grinning and nodding at each other, demonstrating silently a general agreement that this was indeed a favorable turn of events for the evening. They were patient men, but very bored with months of the same routine and no interesting visitors from outside the monastery lands. In fact, they'd had no visitors from outside since King William had died. And now, here was Old brother Paul about to tell them a new story.
They were not a demanding audience. A good story could simply be about service in a manor kitchen years ago when an infamous visitor came for dinner. A better story might involve having spoken once with any King at all, in person. A brilliant story involved a personal account of military action, but none of the brothers had such a story. They were hoping to hear about Old Paul having met an infamous visitor, but would settle for less.
Old Paul made a kind of grunt and, squirming himself over to the left a bit so that he could lean comfortably on his right elbow, he rubbed his forehead with his large left hand, and spoke.
"I, uh... am an old man... I, uh... am eighty nine years old. When I came here I was seventy seven years old."
Nothing further. The brothers looked at him. They looked at each other and chuckled.
"Oh really, brother, please do give us better than that."
Old Paul finished rubbing his forehead and started rubbing his hands together. His attention wandered towards Father Anthony, who could have sworn he saw a youthful twinkle in the crinkles around the old manís missing eyes. "Yes... yes, I was thirteen years old then... that was a long time ago, boys."
Again, nothing more from Paul. They waited.
"Yes it was a long time ago, brother Paul. But what was it?"
Old Paul looked up at the ceiling and took a deep breath. His memory stirred and as he awoke the past, he sighed deeply. Bringing his head back down to face his own hands, he made two fists and closed his eyes.
"I was thirteen years old in the Wulfnoth mutiny. When we wrecked the Sandwich fleet. Aye, that was a long time ago." He rubbed his forehead again, and covered his eyes. The brothers looked at Father Anthony, and then at one another with astonishment, and then again at brother Paul. "King Aethelraedís fleet. The Sandwich fleet... we, uh... we completely destroyed it. You know... on behalf of the Dane. It was all about money, you know. Danegeld... the Kingís ransom, we called it. Wulfnoth was going to share it with us... his cut. At least that was the plan. I never saw any of it. He was cut into pieces for his troubles, him and the others... not all of them, though... I got away, too. But most of them got taken away in irons." His gaze passed across the brothers. "That was a story."
He stopped talking and faced Anthony.
"Tell it, brother."
Old Paul nodded, and facing the crackle of the flames before them, he started speaking at the firelight, "It was a long time ago..."
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