- Well under the Sun
And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.— Revelation 20:1
Chrysostom had been a novice for six months when he started to itch. On his back most of all, but later, on the nape of the neck, his armpits, and finally the belly and his face as well. He did not ascribe to it much importance at first. It was August, the air was full of pollen and the yard was full of straw, hay carts were making endless circuits around the fortress, the nettles at the edge of the moat were up to the eyes; by day simply millions of flies crawled on the walls of the pig-fattening farm below the orchard. Flies blackened even the Porta Speciosa’s carved plaitwork and consoles of red marble; saucer-sized gadflies buzzed around Father Cripple’s mules, and when the Sun set, dense clouds of mosquitoes swarmed in a haze over the cistern. Plenty of reason for itching, then, to say [End Page 180] nothing of the gatekeeper’s black mongrel, which in giving chase six times a day to Father Cholesterin’s cats, must have spread fleas around the yard from where, in the hems of the monks’ habits as they swept the ground, they quickly reached the farthest corners of the monastery, even unto the smallest personal shrine. No sign of itching was apparent, that is, no dropsied swelling to suggest a botfly, nor the bumpy, flushed remnant of a mosquito bite, nor any minute reddish needle prick to indicate that a flea had busied itself, despite which Brother Chrysostom, a native of the village belonging to the monastery, scratched peacefully the whole summer long, not worried about a thing.
It grew cooler in the autumn, and in the fog mosquitoes, gnats, house flies disappeared—and even the fleas on the gatekeeper’s dog preferred retreat to adventures in search of monks, deacons, and novices to taste. But good Chrysostom itched persistently, if anything worse than he had done in August. That was when he first began to worry. He had checked he was not lousy, had not picked up some form of mange; no jigger had burrowed into his skin. He was concerned the itching might be a vestige of his temporal life—God forbid!—and if so he would be obliged to confess, no matter what scorn he might face. For that reason, he furtively but thoroughly scouted the others at Vespers, Sunday Mass, Compline, Vigil, and kept his eyes peeled when others scratched, noting how much and where. When the early frosts came in late November and the leaves fell, and insect life ceased, and at night the quack of restless ducks echoed off the ivied walls, while by day rosaries of cranes, gently snaking, flew low above the chapel tower, Chrysostom saw that the others were also scratching. The server Prius, Papyrus, and Father Bungle, as much as the gatekeeper’s dog or Cholesterin’s cats. Even Abbot Gigas at the elevation of the Host, and more than once; in one hand, the consecrated white wafer, the body of the Lord, while the other hand, at the moment of transubstantiation, involuntarily scratched beneath his cassock. “If everyone scratches at the same time, then there is nothing wrong with anyone. Why worry?” went through his mind, though Chrysostom did not rule out that his morbid self-observation was a product of vanity. When one day he realized he was praying for his itching to cease, he was ashamed for his lack of trust in God’s will. If it was God’s will that he itch, then he would have to scratch, but on no account would he supplicate for relief during Vespers. How could he, when village beggars, and lepers on the outskirts of town, were praying for a crust of bread, pleading for their very survival? If Chrysostom turned to his Father in Heaven for relief, would it not be better to say prayers for relief of Abbot Gigas’s itching?
It was due precisely to...