Jan. 13th, 2011

The Abbot enters the Scriptorium, and the brethren all fall silent. Abbot is a stern one, believing that our task on this mortal earth is a God-given and holy thing, and hence is a serious business. Usually the Scriptorium is a lively place, full of chatter and small jokes, but the Abbot frowns on frivolity and dispenses punishment liberally when he believes his monks have lost their sense of the importance of their duties.

Abbot is not alone; he comes with a small boy. The boy’s head is newly shaven; his white scalp shows scrapes and cuts where some nearsighted monk did a hasty job with poorly sharpened shears. Is it already the time of year for new novates to join our ranks? Yes, it must be; the spring plantings are done, and now is the time for many of the sharecroppers to find themselves with a superabundance of young mouths to feed. The boy appears frightened and clings to Abbot’s cassock. He is about ten years old.

Bullova, my deskmate, leans over to me. “Another for the pulp mill perhaps, Siah?” he whispers. It is a grim joke. Many novates never grasp the basics of translation and are of no use to the Library. These are sent upriver to the paper mill to work on creating foolscap – grist for our ever-hungry mill. The paper-making business is a hard life, fraught with danger and exposure to harsh substances, and these young monks are rarely seen again.

Abbot senses talking from our desk, frowns, and leads the boy over to us. His brows beetle.

“Siah,” he says, “it has been several years since last you trained a cartoonist.”

I bow my head. It was needlessly cruel for Abbot to remind me so harshly. True, five years ago I did train young Mikal in the ways of illumination and translation, and I cannot imagine a more talented youth setting pen to page. But he was taken by the Inquisition in the second year of his apprenticeship – sentenced to death for heresy. I remain ignorant of his exact offense, but most likely the auditor of the Inquisition felt that the boy had taken needless liberties with the translation of some text. The critical eye of the Inquisition holds no mercy for artists or creative thinkers.

“This is Jeb,” continues Abbot. “You will train him in the tasks of cartooning. Jeb, Siah is a senior monk and you shall follow his directives exactly. If I hear that you fail him in any respect, you shall be beaten. Is that clear?” Jeb nods once but keeps his mouth shut. Good lad – instant obedience plus brevity equals boy who gets to keep the skin on his back for that day. I smile at Jeb in what I hope to be a reassuring manner, and bow my head to the Abbot once more.

Abbot takes his leave, and the Scriptorium slowly returns to life. Committing minor sins, the monks leave their benches and gather around me and Jeb to welcome the new boy. I clap Jeb on the shoulder.

“Jeb, you are the luckiest of boys,” I tell him. “Your fellows are going to continue their hardscrabble farming lives for the rest of their foreshortened years. They’ll depart this earth having left it no richer or poorer than it was when they were born, having left no lasting mark. But you, Jeb – you’ll be leaving a mark! You have joined the ranks of the cartoonists, my boy. By our labors we enrich the earth, and leave it a little better than it was. We are miners in the lore of our ancestors, bringing dusty old treasures up to the light for all to see. And what treasure could be richer than restoring the knowledge our forefathers encoded in all these books, before humanity lost the ability to read?”
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September 2012

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