by Erin O’Shea

They will say it was the Devil, but it wasn’t. Restless with temptations of the flesh, I paced my small cell within the monastery walls. I went out to the garden, to cool my searing flesh and pray for forgiveness from the Divine Father, from whom all relief must flow. My brethren slept, so I slipped out beneath the full moon of autumn, to pray for purity of mind. Where the last of the roses arched over the cemetery gates, a figure stood. A village girl, slight, and young, hair still unbound, golden skin unmarked by even a thought of impurity. Standing in shadow, I watched her cradle each crimson bloom with tender hands. She sang, as if those beneath the soil listened. She heard my sighs; she startled, her lovely face rose to the moon, and she looked into my eyes. 

I never meant to hurt her. 

She dropped her flowers, turned to run, but I was faster than she. I caught her, held her, assured her I meant no harm. Closer now, I knew her face. The bookseller’s daughter, Mercy. A clever, brown-eyed girl, who could read and write. Weeping, she explained that her mother was ill, and had begged for roses in her fever. Would I pray for her poor mother? I would, I promised, and I would see her daughter safely home, for there were dark things that lingered in shadows on a full moon’s night. She trembled, so tender, and soft. She whispered some frightened thing about a betrothal, but I held her and kissed the words away. I soothed her, so when I laid her down in the thick grass, and covered her body with mine, her cries must only have been in pleasure.

Afterward, I tried to do as I promised; I started to walk her home, but she ran from me. I let her go. She knew the way. 
It was the night before midwinter when the bookseller appeared at the monastery gate, shouting curses in our holy stone hallways. The brothers heard his accusations, and looked at me. Yes, I remembered her, a lovely girl on a dark night, so gentle, and willing. Enraged, the bookseller leapt at me, and my brothers held him back as he swung his fists. His voice echoed as he bellowed that his daughter had gotten with child, and with her betrothal broken, she had thrown herself in the river. The Friar locked me within my cell, while the brothers considered my fate. 

Her father demanded my life, insisting he would take it himself if need be, but our order killed only what flesh it would eat, no other was permitted by God. With the girl’s angry father outside the door, and my confession, the Friar offered me this mercy: I should copy the holy Book, in glorious illumination. If the Lord believed in my redemption, he would grant me the strength to do it in three nights. Otherwise, they would turn me out, and let the girl’s father make justice for me as he would. 

“Impossible,” I cried out, as they shoved me in and bolted the heavy door, leaving me alone with candle and vellum and ink. I fell to my knees, truly contrite, and I prayed. To anyone, or anything that might save my worthless life. I begged all the gods for mercy. 

Mercy seeped in, a liquid, greenish and puddling, beneath the door, then took her woman’s form. Covered in moss, she trailed tangles of reeds. Slender, golden-green, reeking of rot. The river had saturated her skin, so that it had begun to slip from her bones and hang, pallid and moist. Her gown, mouldering and heavy, left water on the floor. Brown eyes, clouded with the film of death, stared into me. The only sweetness that remained was the sickliness of the unhallowed grave. Her bare feet splashed across the stone floor towards me, and I drew back to the corner, shaking. I wept; faced with her as she was, I begged for her forgiveness. She offered none, but seated herself at my table, picked up my quill, and began to write.

Rank water puddled beneath the stool and trailed across the floor, pooled beneath the strings of her dark hair. As morning came, and the bells rang, she laid down the quill, and dripped across the floor, evaporating from whence she came. Exhausted, hungry, thirsty, I slept. When I awakened, she was there again, and the scent of rot stronger around her. Flies buzzed about her head, but she seemed unaware. Page after page she filled, quick, flawless strokes. In her silent act of love, she saved me from a terrible fate. She labored until I heard the day bells again and she dissolved into the air. Certain she was gone, hearing the brothers above, I crept across the slick floor to see her work. 

She had filled the pages, yes, but the work was surely damned. Among the holy words were illuminations, twisted souls cavorting with demons, bright fires leaping to consume them, gilded with precious gold leaf so that they glowed in their debauchery. It was blasphemy, this work, unfit for human eyes. A hanging crime to own it. When she poured in again, with her greening skin loosened to expose the orbits of her skull, I scolded her, panicked: “Can’t you see? They will burn me for a witch, I will die suffering.” 

She raised her head, her fogged eyes stared into mine. She dipped her quill, and finished the last illumination. Trembling now, I looked at it. Then she began to laugh. The last image: a monk, caged, over the river, while those above lowered him on long ropes. Dipped for a witch. She laughed, so high and shrill I covered my ears, and then she sloshed to the door, and evaporated. 

The door is opening on a blinding river of light. They have come for me.

Erin O’Shea is a part-time writer lurking in the shadows of Appalachia. She loves books, dogs, and things that go bump in the night. You can read her other work here.
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