The Imp in Imperfection
Ulises watched the wick burn low. He refused to give up and his hand refused to write, so there he sat and watched the wick burn low. On his desk lay a copy of the Beowulf manuscript, blank paper, and a family picture from his last birthday. In it, he stands next to his wife and children.
‘Old with a capital O,’ Ulises must have said a thousand times that night.
And it was true, he was an Old English scholar. But the joke was running thin. As thin as his frail body, which was lowercase old. His wife joked back at him that one day they’d shelve him away with all those old manuscripts. But even in old age, Ulises was content in committing himself to the translation of ancient texts. At least he had been until his last birthday when a boyish face, that looked somewhat like his own, shouted that the birthday cake looked like a fiery dragon – but Ulises only saw the Library of Alexandria and the inevitability of an hourglass. He blew out the candles. His children and grandchildren cheered in slow motion, all flawed, all fragments of himself. Imperfect copies like, as he knew in his heart, his translations were.
Later he confessed his doubts to his wife and she - whose gentle soul was the closest thing to perfection he knew, though her blond hair had faded to grey and her pale eyes darkened into a deep ocean blue – was of great comfort. But as she has been, Ulises couldn’t help but think, so too had all human endeavour been torn apart by time. Yes, our words are swept away by the tide and, if they manage to return, are thrown up by the waves as deformed creatures we no longer recognise – wyrd becomes fate, skald becomes scop. Likewise, our own bodies are replaced cell by cell until strangers stare at us from our mirrors. For Ulises it had come, like the words and pages of Beowulf had endured, in tiny changes – a wrinkle, a ripple, a curl in the corner.
He felt his mind crack, and then like a drop of ink into water an idea took hold.
‘If you can’t bring the text to the translator...’ He muttered and began writing a list. One monk’s robe, one crucifix, one piece of vellum, a quill and a pot of ink – which Ulises set off to pillage from the archaeological wing and returned to set the scene. With his props he meditated into the medieval mindset of an Anglo-Saxon, which was simple: Fear the Dane, love God and forget all European history from now until 999 AD, the year the poem of Beowulf was transcribed by two English monks. To us the poem is enigmatic, but to these monks it would come naturally to understand why the poet infused an ancient pagan ethos into their present-day Christendom.
And now Ulises, as a monk, struck his quill against the vellum without the luxuries of a modern system of linguistics, without cultural relativity, and without fear. It was working, every stroke he committed to the page seemed predestined, carving fjords and glaciers and the creatures that slept under them. As he worked, he imagined his table take on the appearance of gnarled oak, the carpet sprout into a pelt and his office, piece by piece, become an abbey workshop. But something was off. Two monks had transcribed the original manuscript yet Ulises lacked company. He took off his monk’s robe, hung it on a chair, and propped up the hood with the crucifix. ‘There,’ Ulises greeted his fellow monk. But the monk answered him not. Ulises felt annoyed and then foolish for the monk had clearly taken a vow of silence. He was impressed by his ability to have created such a genuine monk but couldn’t help wondering what the monk would say had he not taken his vow, like, ’Why are you in your underwear, brother?’
‘Why?... I don’t want to get ink on my garb,’ replied Ulises.
‘You’ll catch your death from a draft and I would be disappointed to spend the start of the new year with a corpse.’
‘The new year?’
‘Yes – by tonight we’ll be men of the new millennium,’ answered the brother monk.
‘Will there be fireworks?’
‘No, no. The king’s decree, apparently it doesn’t fit with the whole dark ages thing.’
‘For the best, I suppose. I am far too busy with this poem.’
‘Quite absorbed with it, aren’t you?’
‘I can’t seem to get it right, though. The pagan parts are too bloody and Christ seems out of place.’
The brother monk approached, ‘I wouldn’t make mention of Christ.’
‘Anachronisms are almost never in good taste. I mean, what has Ingeld to do with Christ? These pagans knew not our Saviour like the Jews of old knew Him not.’
‘So, what should I do instead?’
‘I think you’ll find your answer by putting yourself in the mind of a pagan.’
‘That sounds adventurous but look at me, I am an old man.’
‘Middle-aged at most, brother.’
At that moment, Ulises noticed the presence of something on his head and to his surprise clasped a full head of hair. ‘The mind of a pagan, you were saying?’
‘Yes. If you want to do this old tale justice and have proper compassion for your ancestor’s poor soul to whom the Lord God, Head of Heavens and High King of the World was unknown – ’
‘...was unknown. Sorry, just jotting that down.’
‘Use it, brother. But first, let’s make a heathen out of you.’
They walked out of the abbey. Outside the monks were running back and forth through the snow, with parchments and codices in hand.
‘What’s all this?’ asked Ulises.
‘Oh, we’re in a bit of a rush to back everything up, there’s been talk in ecclesiastical courts about this Y1K virus. Don’t worry it’s just hysteria, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away and that’s how it goes.’
It was a cold winter morning and Ulises began to shiver, so the brother monk shook the ice off some pelts that lay nearby and threw them over Ulises.
‘There. You look like Erik the Red now.’
Ulises laughed, ‘And this is going to help me write the poem?’
‘Well, they were inspired to write this tale while in various taverns I recall, from the tales of drunk scops, tales they had heard from their grandfathers, who had heard it from their grandfathers and so on, right?
‘Yes, but – ’
‘Do you think those grandfathers, our grandfathers, had any of your luxuries, a single quill or a pot of ink? No. They had a voice, a pair of lungs, and a tankard of mead to wet the tongue.’
Ulises looked out into the snow-capped forest. The brother monk put a stick in Ulises’ hand. ‘Off you go, take a ramble. Oh, and make sure to forget you believe in the Lord.’
‘You have confidence in God, don’t you? Then have the confidence that God isn’t going anywhere soon – you’ll find your way back.’
So Ulises embarked, and long he walked through brush and brittle ice. These woods were strange, the trees somehow more alive – especially when the cold wind whispered through them. But merry in mood, Ulises carried on. The cold increased as the sun descended and the firmament rose, revealing the stars which appeared foreign. The signs, which he studied as a boy, formed strange beasts and heroes he had no recollection of. I have stayed too long in this place, he thought. But then the familiar smell of roasting meat wafted past his nose. Ulises followed the scent in a hungry trance, and then, from out of nowhere, emerged a great hall of dark wood walls that rose up to carved dragons sitting high upon the ridged roofs. He approached the door, which was many times his height, and entered. Bearded men sat at long tables, shouting and gesturing with legs of meat or tankards of mead but paying no notice to their unexpected guest. And beyond them, a blonde maiden sat upon a throne. Ulises felt blood rush to his face as she locked her pale blue eyes onto his.
A hand landed on his shoulder, and a man with a smiling face and a pair of honest eyes greeted him. ‘You look weary, friend. Have you travelled far?’
‘You have a long beard but it doesn’t fool me, your eyes have the gleam of a young man on an adventure. Come, sit, you must tell me of it. What do you pursue or run from?’
Ulises sat and stroked his beard to confirm it was there. ‘I don’t believe it would make much sense if I told you.’
‘Ah, but I am a skald and that’s exactly the kind of tale I enjoy.’
Ulises took a swig of ale. ‘Death. It is death that I run from and truth that I pursue.’
‘It is the same for me, but you don’t see me looking so glum,’ said the skald who poured another tankard for Ulises. ‘Nothing is certain in this world, a dragon could smash through this roof and land right on my head, and even something like that wouldn’t be certain. Perhaps you are part of someone else’s dream or just a man in a story, maybe not even the hero. I’ve often thought this, or at least I think I have. I don’t know. But here’s what I do know; that I am with good friends, that two halves make a whole…’ He sloshed another man’s tankard into his own. ‘And that we are in the presence of a beautiful woman.’ The skald jumped onto the mead-bench. ‘Now watch me woo her.’ A cheer arose and he sang:
And then, a dragon smashed through the roof and landed right on his head. Chaos ensued – a blur of spears and shouts, flames and fury consumed the hall which was soon ablaze and, in the madness, Ulises was knocked over by charging thanes. Now under a maze of upturned tables and benches he crawled away but by chance found the blue-eyed maiden trapped under a heavy beam. Ulises tried to free her with all his might but his arms had become thin and weak.
‘You cannot save me but do not mourn, we will meet again brave stranger,’ she said.
‘Save your words,’ Ulises replied, ‘at least until we’re away from this fire-breathing death machine.’
She smiled. ‘But, child – we would have no need for words if death weren’t always so close.’
Ulises felt a warmth behind him and knew, at last, it had found him. He turned to face the dragon’s mouth. A wick burnt at the back of its tongue, which grew and grew, until everything was aflame: Ulises, the maiden, the skald, the hall, the forest, the monks, the abbey, the manuscript of Beowulf – the flames died and all was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
A light turned on. Ulises awoke. His wife stood by his side, looking at her husband covered in ink and in his underwear. The translation was stained with a perfect imprint of his face – lines and wrinkles mingling with monsters and men. ‘I came to see how you were going, and lucky I did – they almost shelved you away this time,’ she said, wiping the ink from his face and trying her best to look perturbed, though she couldn’t help letting a smile shine through. Ulises’ heart fluttered. He had seen that smile a thousand times before, but each time noticed a tiny change – a wrinkle, a ripple, a curl in the corner.
Conor Ross is a student and avid traveller. He is either studying literature in Melbourne or else somewhere else on the planet teaching English as a second language. A great fan of being useless, he finds literature to be the most agreeable way of ignoring life.
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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence