I stay mostly in my bedroom chambers, examining what has found its way into my pores or the mucoid crook of my eye. I take my sister’s small round mirror from her vanity and position it strategically on the floor, or hold it if I’m on all fours, and check out what may be developing on my backside, somewhere between its cracks and finally, eventually, delve deep inside where the sun don’t shine, as the saying goes.

But there is light up there, for certain. Up there, so to speak, is where light goes to hide, saving itself, I imagine. I have seen this light insofar as I’ve seen its reflection on things.

And given the location of the light, it being up there, deep inside, such must be the thing on which the light is reflected, too – up there, deep inside. Its luster shows like a candle’s soft white flicker, it saves itself that carefully.

Coaxing something up there, into the light, can take all day. I have whole conversations with myself just to remit certain muscles, frames of mind, all the while holding the mirror, and the thing, taking breaks in between to use the latrine, pick at what the servants leave for me in my study, warm myself by the fire there. This is what I do on days I have no trouble in the castle or the manor, days the village does well by the knights and the parapet is armed, no threats: I engage in myself this way, with the light up there, deep inside. If you can imagine that.

 

A few things I’ve managed to illuminate are worth noting: a small bottle of sherry, my sister’s confirmation crown which I snatched from its velveteen case and hammered down straight and flat, a rabbit’s foot, a brass corkscrew, an ivory penknife. When I traveled to foreign kingdoms this method was ideal for concealing jewels, sums of money, keys to containers I’d left to the proximate nosiness of my sister, her goose-neck friends, the staff.

I used to carry an occasional doodad up there during our all-too-extensible family dinners – a little wooden top from my boyhood, for example. I spun it on the cold stone floor. Now a small blond dog sits there yapping as a servant girl sweeps. Another girl scrapes the tallow drippings from the wall.

‘Lord Brom,’ a feeble voice follows a knock on my door. It is the servant girl Ilspeth come to take the chamber pot. I am lying in the curtained bed. I watch her shadow pass. I cough.

‘Shuh,’ she says, alarmed. ‘I didn’t hear you say “come in”.’

‘I could not,’ I say, gasping for air.

‘Are you ill, my lord?’

‘Not ill, no,’ I choke.

What Ilspeth doesn’t know is that a certain loop of rope tied with a lovely turk’s head knot does more than hold back the curtains. Occasionally I like a good strangle.

‘You ate fish bones last night, my lord,’ Ilspeth tells me. I hear the chamber pot slosh and watch her shadow carry it from the bedside past the windows. A hunched little wisp of a girl whom I entrust with the blood of my bowels.

‘Ilspeth!’ I clear my throat, wince. ‘Ilspeth, tell me what time it is.’

‘Past noon,’ she says.

‘Very well,’ I say.

I untie the rope.

‘Ilspeth, are you still there?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

The floorboard creaks as she shifts her weight. I exhale.

‘Still there?’

‘Yes. Leaving now, my lord.’

I hear the door close.

I toss open the bed curtains and stuff my feet into fur-lined slippers. I see a gold streak of hay on the carpet which she must have trailed in with her from the latrine. I shuffle over, pick it up and hold it between my fingers. The hay is coated with pale brown excrement. I inhale deeply. I eat the hay.

 

I had a sister who didn’t like me. She didn’t like me, she said, because I was a bore. ‘What do you even do all day?’ she’d ask. ‘What could you possibly be doing in there?’ When we were small she’d draw pictures of pretty days – sunshine, flowers, rolling hills, with notes in Latin slipped under the door:

Obscurum est mortifer!

Procedo quod lascivio!

She was a very pretty thing, and had escaped the curse of intelligence without loss of much in the way of know-how. She could sing a fine song, sew something pretty. Whatever it is girls do. Now she was preparing for her wedding. Happily she preened about the castle with her cohorts, ladies-in-waiting juggling their tits, tapping feet, drawing pictures they’d point and laugh at and rip up and throw in the fire. I watched them with some pleasure, as one would regard a litter of kittens. ‘Get a life,’ I heard her say, ‘think of what that means.’ I take it she thought I should adhere myself to a life, my life, anybody’s life, like a leech on a pig. ‘Get married,’ she said. I had very little respect for her.

Plus I always thought it’s plain vulgar to be a lady. I’d like to meet one who can do it, be one, without making faces when she passes her reflection in the window, or who will invite you to her chambers and get finicky with the servants watching, yet have no qualms about instructing you like a whore when your head’s between her thighs.

But, ‘Oh,’ said my sister, ‘come now.’ She was smiling. ‘You’ll marry and have children and be a father and let yourself go into the natural order of things. Have faith, Brom, there’s more to life than what’s in between your ears,’ she said. As if she’d had an idea. There was acid in my mouth I’d have liked to spit on her.

‘Bring wine,’ I said to the cup bearer.

‘Bring bread,’ said my sister after him.

We were seated in the great hall. There was a vase of red gladioli between us. A fat-burning lamp. A rat’s skull was illuminated in me, up there, not so uncomfortably that day. I had caught it, a large brown rat, in the pantry one night when I was up late, roving. My sister’s dress was a fine purple silk embroidered with gold filigree and pearls. I did have love for her. She was my sister. I still can’t imagine her as anyone’s wife, bearing anyone’s children. That seems wholly ridiculous.

She pointed down the gallery through the window past the motte. The sun was out. The crimson leaves of autumn swayed and frilled in the wind.

‘It’s always deathly boring and dark in the castle. Let’s go for a walk,’ she said. ‘At the very least, Brom. It’s a fine afternoon. Look.’

I rolled my eyes.

‘It’s our last day together before I’m married,’ she said. Her chin rose, mouth parted.

‘To please you, sister,’ I said.

‘God bless, Brom,’ my sister said. ‘You look like an absolute toad, besides. Fresh air, sunshine. You’ll feel good. I promise.’

I held back a mouthful of vomit.

On our walk she said that she’d been to visit our mother. That there were certain disgraces which our father never wanted us to know. That I was an abomination of the family name.

 

I am not a knight. When I failed to impress as a squire and returned to the castle unknighted, Dad barely looked in my direction. When he traveled I tagged along in back coaches. I tried to learn the ways of the manor, but the stewards, Harlon and Rauf, had no patience. They gave me a stack of coins and smiled.

My mother went mad when my father died and was sent to live with the nuns in the abbey. I pray God on one knee for her and for my father’s memory, let it haunt me. With my cousins I go out to hunt and hawk, and riding on the horse feels good, but I can’t really be cheered out of doors. The only real comfort I find is knowledge that, of all the people I’ve looked up into, I’m the only one who has the light up there, deep inside.

 

I imagine the exchange I’ll have at heaven’s gate:

‘Who sent you, Lord Brom?’

‘My father.’

And then I’ll slay all three hundred angels with my sword and melt the golden gate with the touch of my finger and laugh watching the molt drip down to hell and singe all the boring souls hanging in the air between.

 

I recall the night of my sister’s murder.

‘Lord Brom,’ a loud rap at my door disturbed me. I was in the curtained bed, not quite asleep.

‘Sorry to wake you, my lord, but there is a matter.’

‘Say it, Harlon, by God. What.’ I did not and do not like Harlon.

‘A madman has somehow got past the bridge guards and has been living in the buttery on your father’s wing.’

‘Good, Harlon. Turn him out then.’

‘My lord, it’s quite serious. Permit me to enter.’

I illuminated a smooth fist-sized stone I found last summer on the beach.

‘The devil, having found his way to your mother’s wardrobe, disguised himself with wimple and long robes and slippers. He got past the castle guards and into the motte this night. He came at Lady Fray, I’m afraid, my lord. She has died.’

‘My sister?’

‘I’m afraid so, Lord Brom.’

I pulled the linens over my head.

‘Is she in one piece?’ I asked.

Then the sound of Harlon gaping. I held back a laugh and a sob.

‘Yes, my lord, she’s in one piece.’

‘Bury her,’ I said.

‘My lord.’

I heard the door close.

 

I keep her killer in my closet. The donjon tower is better used for storage and servants’ quarters anyhow. He sleeps most of the day, hardly making a noise or stirring in there, in the dark. I let him out for meals and our weekly romp about the village at night. He is good at selecting the households with just feeble men inside. He can tell by the manner the horse is tied how strong the men are who live there. It is one of many of his gifts which I keep as my own, he himself as my own extra body. He is a man of action and few words. He will not tell me his real name.

 

The killer has a soft, meandrous mouth, his skin a powerful reflective sheen rendered by a thick lustrous grease. I wonder if these are the natural oils of the man or something he uses as a device, to trick us, to make us wonder at the light. I take a finger and run it across his fat brow. It’s warm and my finger slides easily inside a ridge of deep wrinkle. It tastes like salt.

‘Do you have a sister of your own?’ I ask the killer.

‘I got a sister back in Till, a big one.’

‘Did you kill her as well?’

‘No, I didn’t kill her.’

‘But you killed my sister.’

‘Your sister. I did. I killed her. If I knew who she was, I wouldn’t have killed her. But ha, I would of too. Who can say.’

‘And when you came at her,’ I ask the killer, ‘What did it look like?’

‘Scary because her eyes looked scary and she couldn’t talk really.’

‘But, when you came at her, what did you do?’

‘That is between a man and a god, sir.’

‘You have to tell me.’

‘I have not.’

‘I am going to kill you.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Tell me what you did to her.’

‘No.’

‘I will have you put to death in the most painful manner known to man.’

‘I am dumb on the matter, sir,’ says the killer.

We are in the great hall enjoying supper. The killer’s gentle mouth cradles a leg of rabbit, the meat and tendon trailing loosely around his lips. The oils glisten like stars down his chin as he chews in the candlelight. I am illuminating a dozen acorns which Ilspeth gathered for me earlier in the day. There she is now walking past the archway of the hall.

‘Ilspeth!’ I call out to her. ‘Ilspeth, would you come here.’

‘My lord.’

Ilspeth walks quickly to the heavy wooden table, curtsies and bows her head.

‘This is the man who has killed my sister,’ I say.

Ilspeth moves her eyes to his face and back down to the floor.

‘I have a mind to let you know, Ilspeth, that he would have come at you had he encountered you in the pantry instead of my dear sister. Is that right?’

‘It may be it,’ says the killer.

‘I wonder, Ilspeth, if you’d like to have some time alone with him. Would you like that, Ilspeth?’ I say.

‘No, my lord.’

‘What now. You wouldn’t enjoy time spent with this man?’

‘No.’

‘Does he scare you?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘And why is that.’

‘He’s a killer, my lord.’

‘And you expect he’ll kill you.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Would you enjoy time alone with Harlon, or Rauf then, Ilspeth?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘So you quite like those men then, Ilspeth, do you?’

‘No, my lord.’

‘But do they scare you, Ilspeth?’

‘No.’

‘Do you expect they’ll kill you?’

‘No, my lord.’

‘Why not?’

‘They wouldn’t do that.’

‘Why so?’ I ask.

‘They’re good men. They wouldn’t risk their jobs.’

‘Ah. I’ve just employed the killer here as my personal guardsman, though, Ilspeth. Won’t you then spend some time alone with him now?’

‘I’d rather not, my lord.’

‘I’d like you to, Ilspeth.’

‘Please, my lord.’

‘I order you to,’ I tell her.

‘I beg you, my lord.’

‘Do you mean to put your job at risk?’

‘I don’t want to die.’

‘Just an hour or so, Ilspeth. As a favor to me. Your lord, abandoned by his father, mother and now his only sister, punished by God, a miserable creature in a prison of despair. For such a wretch you could do this one favor. It will not require much effort on your part. Just sit in a chair and perhaps you could explain to our killer the workings of the castle, who’s who and so forth, how one day passes to the next. He’d love it. Wouldn’t you?’

‘It’s fine,’ says the killer. ‘What’s my wages?’

‘We’ll discuss that later on.’

The killer eats.

‘So, then,’ I say.

Ilspeth is quiet.

 

I was eleven when they sent me to X Castle to learn how to joust and bide God and the king and so on. I was one among six other sons of lords sent there as pages. We dutifully brushed the horses and polished swords. But I had a headache every day. Nobody believed me. One day I pulled a tick off a horse and fit it into my ear. A servant fainted watching blood drip down my jaw that night at supper. They put me to bed. They brought in a bundle of laurel and opened a window. They put a rock in my mouth. They said this would keep me from swallowing my tongue. They spent two days cutting my arms and poking my head with a branding iron. They wrapped me in raw mutton for a night. They tied a string around a wolf’s tooth and had me swallow it. When it came out the other end, that’s when I discovered the light. Some of the light spilled out that night, blinding my eyes in pulsing orbs of God. I didn’t need a mirror then, I was a spry, soft-boned kid. My entire world revolved. I swallowed the wolf tooth again, and again the light seeped out when I pulled it out from up there, deep inside. I tried it the other way, illuminating the tooth directly. I told them, finally, on the seventh day, that my headache was gone. Harlon came to take me home. I couldn’t have cared less what happened after that.

 

When we stake out a house in the village we come equipped with tools and weapons. There’s an iron ball on a chain we throw through the window. Then one of us goes around back to kick in the door. We set fire to the manger, if there is one, or to whatever brush is around the backway. Once inside, we put down the men first. They are usually the ones to come out with a knife, a little rondel or stiletto most likely, or a club or flail or maul. The killer doesn’t like to use a sword. He carries a small morning star which he fashioned himself out of wood and nails. It looks a bit like a big magic wand. And I’m armed with my father’s broadsword, no shield. I have never been injured in any way which I’ve later regretted. Once the men and children are down, the killer takes out the great burlap sack. We put the women in there. I try, each time, to select from their mantel or chest or whatnot a trinket I think would be nicely illuminated later that night, when all is said and done and the killer and I are resting by the fire.

 

We keep Ilspeth now in the oubliette out in the cavalry house. We feed her horseshit and sod. We pee down into the hole. Sometimes the killer picks yellow flowers on our walks across the pasture, down the gentle hill under sunset. He plucks the petals and lets them fall between the holes in the grate of the oubliette, says he’s showering her with sunshine. I have shown the killer my light inside. He says he sees nothing but black, the blind mule. When it rains the oubliette fills with water. The stink is something awful so we send the servants in with lye. Twice I threw down some of my mother’s jewels, a handful of gold.

 

It is the anniversary of my father’s death. We go to the abbey to visit my mother. The killer carries a small trunk of food: breads, honey, cheeses, wine, cherries, onions, herbs, a cake. We find the nuns in the chapel. The killer drops the trunk on the altar, making a sudden thump. The nuns gasp and rumple their robes.

‘Where’s my mother?’ I ask. My question echoes like birdsong.

‘Shhh,’ goes the killer. ‘You’re praying here,’ he whispers.

He lumbers down on his swollen knees and faces out towards the empty pews. The nuns fidget. A few of them silently walk off into the garden.

I slap the killer’s head. ‘Get up,’ I say.

A tall, botch-faced nun comes towards us with her hands in her robes. She has a purple scar across her forehead. ‘Your mother is in the infirmary,’ she says. ‘Follow me.’

‘Get up,’ I say, and slap the killer’s head again.

 

The infirmary is behind the church and looks out at the ocean down a steep cliff of red rock. My mother’s room is at the end of the dormitory hall. The nurse wears a thick white woolen shawl and covers her mouth with a rag and points. A mongol mops the floor with steaming vinegar. ‘Ach,’ says the killer. ‘Smells like home.’

The room is dim. That’s my mom in the bed, the tremulous speck of person beneath the flimsy brown linen blanket. Her hair is white and flared out on the pillow like the rays of the moon. Her face is flush and waxy and her mouth looks welded shut with spittle.

‘My boy,’ she says suddenly, gurgling, eyes bulging, and darts a fragile, squirm-fingered hand out towards the killer. He ignores her and sits down in the chair by the window, pulls a hunk of bread from his pocket and eats.

‘It’s me, Brom,’ I say, taking her hand in mine. She looks at the ceiling and breathes heavily. I shed a cold tear and kneel at her bedside. I am illuminating a Lincoln scarlet scarf I found in my father’s wardrobe. I cry.

‘You’re crying,’ says the killer.

‘I am not,’ I say.

‘My boy,’ says my mother again, this time stroking my hair.

‘Mom,’ I say. ‘How are you?’

My mother tells me all her favorite nuns are dying. She says she’s watched them die, one by one, over the past ten days, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Each one who comes to bring her dinner dies the next day, she says.

‘There’s something out there,’ she says, holding my hand in hers. ‘It will find you, it will hunt you down, and it will get itself into you and it will eat you up inside and you will start to rot even before you’ve finished dying. You will feel thirsty and you will raise your arm to lift the cup of water and your arm will break and your muscles will tear and the bones in your hand will crumble, and when you open your mouth your jaw will unhinge and your tongue will dry up and your throat will blister with fever and the water will boil as it travels down your throat and your insides will stew and it will all come out the other side, Brom, and meanwhile the flesh on your face will sink and melt and your eyes will roll backwards and your hair will turn white and you will stink, Brom, so badly nobody will want to come near you, not even to see if you’re still breathing, and you won’t get but a torch thrown onto your bed through a broken window and no one even closer then until it’s all burned down and the light’s died down, and after all that then who’ll be left to sweep the ashes, because there’s something out there and it can’t be stopped, Brom, and I know because I can feel it down here, deep inside.’ She taps on her belly making a cacophonous, huffish, hollow sound.

‘Look in my mouth,’ she says, and tilts her head back towards the plain pine headboard, face splayed, eyes white, leaving her lower jaw grit and grumbling where it lies on the pillow.

Inside is a gaping, vacuous infinite galaxy of black space.

There is simply no other way to save her.

I pass my sword to the killer, bend over and show him where to cut.

I let my light shine.

 

Photograph courtesy of the author

This Is Our Descent
All the Caged Things