The Apprentice Custodian: A Fable

by DRM

Cuthbert the apprentice custodian looks around the vast room in despair. Boxes, containers, books and glassware are strewn across the thick oak shelves, the heavy glass cabinets that had been mitered and glazed by long forgotten apprentices like him, the endlessly long wooden tables. Everything in this storage room is mandated to be made of natural, organic matter — even the catalog, which had been maintained on paper cards with quills made of goose feathers and ink made from minerals from the earth pits outside the monastery border. The nature of organic matter is to decay, Cuthbert thinks, and this law of nature led to the present circumstances; the catalog was crumbled and wasted, and the artifacts that were strewn about the room were the visible remnants of the extensive disarray of a collection that had no organizing principle, no central intelligence, to direct where an object could be placed and where it couldn’t, and over the decades, as the deterioration of the cards accelerated, the absence of order had defeated all care on the part of the custodians. They had considered the storage room a curiosity after all, a necessary part of the monastery’s purpose, to accumulate and maintain a complete collection of the discrete aspects of the human state, but unnecessary as a research tool, or as a conservation focus, for, they would admonish each other, what was a more enduring aspect of the human experience than Love?

“Let no matter of human artifice interfere with the creation and maintenance of the collection and preservation of the artifacts representing the expression of our sentiments of Love,” read the mandate in the Ars Conservationis Humanitatis. Before descending from the tower, after departing from his audience with Abbot Matthew, Cuthbert had searched the text for contingent protocols regarding the reclamation of an abandoned collection. The mainframe returned scores of documents: the index scrolled down his tablet face and digital copies of the relevant examples were illuminated along the interactive surface of the research table, shifting and growing at his touch, phrases and concepts highlighted, linked immediately to interpretive texts and guides; but within the terabytes of data there were no exceptions for the Bibliotecha Adfectio. There was only one reference: “No contingent protocol exists for the recovery of the collection,” accompanied by dozens of lengthy documents reinforcing the original practicuum.

The audience with the Abbott: Matthew stood looking out the wide window of his private sanctuary, the thick glass sealing out the foul air that streamed in rangy ropes, writhing and tossing like primitive demons, the thick span of his shoulders stooped as if with a unrelenting weight, the line of his tonsure neatly trimmed against the unearthly paleness of his skull, the inexorable pulsing of his brain indicated by the tremors of his natal cap, his voice low and uncertain, like the rattle of the great chains that cycled the revolution wheel that spun their haven around in pursuit of the meager sun. Cuthbert had never been in his quarters. He did not know another monk who had been. He stood expectant and patient.

“The essence of the human soul has been buried under the weight of the Rule, we have lost the power to Love and without that power, we are absent the power to Create, and our will to live will crumble,” Abbott Matthew said. “You must go to the Bibliotecha Adfectio and find the essence of Love.”

“Why me?” Cuthbert asked.

“I have watched you gaze at your brothers during hours,” the Abbott said, turning from the window and staring at Cuthbert with hooded eyes. “There is something different than lust and appraisal in your gaze, something like the look in the old paintings. You harbor something.”

Cuthbert blushed as his pulse quickened. He remembered his stolen glances, the imagined touches, chaste and dry, his cheek brushed along the soft skin at the back of the arm, his calf pressed against a hairless thigh, his hip laid lengthwise along the pale expanse of back and buttocks: a melding that lifted him beyond himself.

They prayed then, formally, before the unadorned onyx cross, the seminal prayer of their faith, asking forgiveness for their sins of intent and transgression.

Cuthbert is working now, opening each container and examining the artifact within. He is not certain what he is looking for. Cuthbert is overwhelmed with the expressions of desire that course through his being, unruly and insistent. The artifacts are virtually unnoticed in his hand as he drops them to the side: a sled imbued with the memory of its opening on a Christmas morning; an equestrian trophy; a marriage photo; a plume of vapor capturing a moment of gleeful surprise; the instant of first sight of a mountain range.

It will be a long search and we can only hope that the young monk will have the fortitude to continue. It is there, I believe, for my sake and yours. It is a small golden box, I imagine, crafted by hand with care, sealed tightly, covered with the dust of thousands of years. Inside is the mingled breaths of a mother and a child on the first day, the breath of what was and what is to come, the breath of nurture and nature, the molecules combined to form a new element: the Essence of Love.