Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Their very silence is a loud cry." ~ Cicero

They said, "Tourists, especially American tourists, just don't go all the way to Durham!"

Mary Lou said, "We're NOT tourists! We're here in England on a National Endowment to the Humanities Fellowship. We are scholars studying Chaucer, and we ARE going to take the train to Durham!" 

They lifted their eyebrows, but we went anyway…

It was wet and rainy-cold with water-painted clouds swashed all over the sky. The land was a thumb, a fat, hammer-smashed thumb, that swelled without breaking the river's path, forcing that water into a wide redundant curve. On that swollen thumb of land was a tower, the castle tower, that rose straight up, but alone. The rest of the castle lay tumbled and broken at the river's bottom.

On that same thumb of land, not too far from that lonely tower, rose the cathedral with its iron-grey walls, blending into pounded white, ending in great iron-red tears of rust at the top. This was the heart of Durham. The city might have been the heart, the city that you could see through the dormitory window in the cathedral's chapter house. That city was right across the river from the cathedral and the castle ruins, but the city came later. With wattle and daub, and fear and trembling, its buildings grew, but only after the cathedral and the monastery stood there.

The city of Durham sent some of its boys to that thumb of land. The boys would walk through those great soaring monastery gates… gates that opened just that one time for many of those boys.

That cathedral was strong and stolid; the chapter's meeting room was the same. Upstairs and to the right lay the huge rectangle of the dormitory. The ceiling was made of warm, living wood, layed and inlaid with pattern, repetitions echoing repeats. A monk who looked for peace in that dormitory ceiling, after hours of illuminating a manuscript, would find only more patterns with the parts and the whole pushing and pulling until, hopefully, the pitch dark finally put him to sleep.

At the far end of that dormitory was the fireplace, big enough to walk into, but not big enough for its warmth to reach all the way to the furthest cots in that stone cold room. What was the sleeping order, I wondered. Who lay at the opposite end where even the light of the fire could not cut the darkness? Might it be a monk, quivering with the spiritual pride of having the last, coldest cot? Or would it be the youngest boy, or the poorest, or the monk who needed to be humbled? I wondered…

In the center of that wall was a window with clear glass, not stained. It showed the town across that river, a town filled with love and death and longing and merriment and despair, just like all that was contained in this room, only freer and more brutal. The sounds of the city would carry across the river into that dormitory… laughter, shouts, maybe drunken singing. Who slept by this window with its view? Someone who could eshew the world and never be tempted to look? Or a boy who peeked at the world and wondered? 

The window was too narrow to climb through… but, if you could, the ground below was too far for any cloth rope to reach… but, if it would, the ledge that rose above that river was too rocky to be safe. It was too far, so far from the town and its heart.

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