THOMAS BECKET’S BONES ARE MISSING
A short story [published in Sewanee Review]
By David Madden
In a corner room on the fifth floor of the fabled Nonesuch House, handsomest by far of the numerous shops and domiciles built on London Bridge, the young poet-chronicler, conjuring a key episode in his imagined life of Peter de Colechurch, architect of the bridge, gave the writing he was about to do that night a date that would be best known as that on which the most people–l,034– died of the plague: September 17, 1665.
Early morning after Christmas, too cold, Peter awoke in his cell and got up to walk himself warm, kept walking until he was on the bridge, stepping, sometimes leaping, over the storm-broken places, glad the sun had not yet come up, when he heard at his back, galloping hooves. A unicorn, he hoped. A satyr, perhaps. He turned, saw a white horse, like a sculpture about to spring to life, then vibrantly alive, running toward him, not panicked, just running as a horse, turned loose, runs across a moor, solitary from other horses, no human rider, past him, razor close, with rush of air and stinging flick of mane, its breathing as loud as its hooves, on across the bridge, leaping over the tempest-broken places, and disappearing into Southwark.
I must not doze off, lest I wake and think this beautiful horse the figment of a dream.
Spitting off the bridge as the sun’s first spark lit the river between two ships in the Pool made him feel certain he was not sleeping.
He stayed on the bridge talking to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, severally, until the first bridge crosser appeared.
After the noon meal, he felt drawn again to the river, to inspect the bridge’s defects from the bank. Not to be distracted, he pissed where he stood, on the bank. Distracted by the movement between two shops of a woman walking, Peter watched for her to appear again in the open spaces.
When the young woman appeared in full view, he realized he had been hoping she would be the girl who had appeared on the bridge, like a vision, just before the tempest.
His pissing cock leapt in his hand. Like the white horse of the morning, she seemed sculpted of stone, this moment come alive, but unlike the white horse, she moved slowly, with such grace, even as she avoided the broken places to walk the planks laid down across, she set off in his body a sense of movement confluent with hers.
Had I not built this bridge; I would not be watching her walking; I may never have seen her; she is there because my bridge is there.
As she passed the candlestick shop, one of the few shops on the bridge not damaged, she disappeared– but not her image from his mind–then reappeared in the spaces the storm broken open between the shops, as if framed. When at the Southwark bridgehead she entered the crowd and disappeared, his guts felt the certainty that he would never see her again.
Refusing to let her pass out of his life, he set out across the bridge, in pursuit of her, not as a vision of beauty held at a distance to preserve its purity—as before the gale struck–but as a body he must embrace. He watched her step off the bridge into the morning crowd gathering at the markets and around Saint Mary Overies Church in Southwark.
Even deep in the crowd, she stood out.
I am a body, wholly body, God, lusting for a young girl’s body.
No, Jesus, I am a priest lusting for a young girl, I am the body following the thought.
For a moment, he lost her.
A sign, Lord, to turn back?
Lust spurred him on, guilt failed to rein him in. Then her head bobbed above the crowd in a narrow street, on a horse that he could not see. White. Then he saw it, not all white. White and black, mostly black. Pushing past another young girl, he smelled her. An ordinary woman smell. How would she smell, if he got close enough? Now her smell, imagined, drew him closer.
Passing out of Southwark, she entered Canterbury Road. He turned back into Southwark and rented a horse from a stable where he was known. “I must to Canterbury on church business.” The lie caught in his throat like a nostril hair, sharp.
“Yes, Father, the Archbishop is expected there from Dover.”
“Yes, I must be there to greet him.”
“If I could, I would, but the day’s work keeps me rooted to this spot.”
Peter followed the vision made flesh.
What’s your name? He had not wondered before. Now he wanted to hear her name and to kiss the mouth that said her name and to say her name and tell her his old name and hear her say, “Joseph.”
The movement of the horse set her body swaying, her hair, her shoulders, her hips, her ass, silk on leather. Now the movement of the horse’s ass, even though it was a gelding, participated in the sight that affected him, then the very lifting of its hind legs. When the horse pissed and then shat as it walked, he felt bereft of spirit, transfixed in the body.
My feet are cold, her feet are cold. My cock is on fire, her cunt is calm. If I draw up beside her, I will be doomed. Seeing me, she will remain as she was, unchanged.
She never looks back. She is weaving a story of herself and her lover. No, she has been in an attitude of prayer ever since she came into view. Perhaps, she has reached that point at which she must decide whether to become a nun.
Peter followed the young woman out of Southwark and through Greenwich and along the Canterbury Road for twenty miles.
Twilight, she turned her horse into the yard of a Hospital for wayfarers.
Eating, drinking, shouting men, women, and a few children filled the hall, where she sat at small table against the wall, the smoke and smell of mutton, rosemary, and ale, and sweat, and farts, made such a swarm she, sitting still, seemed animated from within, her eyes darting about the place, catching the fire and the candlelight, igniting in Peter from toe to crown, from fingertips to his guts, from tongue to nipples, from ears to nostrils, a total body resonance, existence in the instant only, without thought, hearing, vision, smell, touch acute, mouth dumb.
He sat. “There is no other place.”
As she looked around, he followed her gaze to where it fell upon the three or four vacant places at tables here and there about the low-ceilinged hall. “The road to Canterbury,” she said, as if that explained the elbow-to-elbow clutter of wayfarers.
She’s very hungry. He bought her mutton and ale.
She did not look as young as she had seemed from a distance. Body of a country girl, eyes alive, a cat not quite domesticated. Her breasts heaved as she ate and when she talked, her voice was not that of an angel, nor her words, crude but not vulgar. Her odor was that of a country girl who had traveled several days. She was everything that, as a young man holding horses for Thomas and Henry, he had wanted for his first fuck. Not the wondrous whore, but the body his body had yearned for.
From lust look away.
He watched her wipe the grease from her mouth with the back of her sun-browned hand. “Goodnight.”
She smiled and nodded.
In the room next to the hall, where travelers, male and female, slept on rushes on the floor, Peter listened to the rats and the mice, scratched where fleas and other vermin bit, unable to sleep, until he woke to her voice close to his ear. “I am going to sleep with the animals.”
He followed her. “Yes, rather horses than fleas and rats.”
“My feet are icy.” He knelt upon the fetid straw and blew on her feet.
She knelt and blew on his feet. “Let’s fuck each other.” As if that were another way, a better way, to warm.
Fucking her, he was mindless, spiritless, wholly body. He talked to neither God nor Lucifer.
Hooves pounding, harness jingling, iron clanking distracted him. As the riders drew nearer, he was about to cum and all her movements declared that she was about to cum. Trying to figure how many riders were passing, he became more mind than body, remembering rumors that some of the King’s friends might ride from any and every direction to Canterbury to do Archbishop Becket harm.
From where they lay, he looked out at the moonlight on the road.
“Who are they, God?” Three knights shattered the moonlight, their armor clanking ferociously.
“It’s only the four horsemen of the apocalypse our priest is always threatening our village with. Come finish fucking.”
“I must go to Canterbury.” Peter pulled his cock out of her quim and turned to his horse.
“So must I, but first, I must get my fucking.”
“Forgive me.” Peter prepared his horse for mounting.
A victim of blue balls for the first time in a long time, he mounted his horse.
She stood up. “Father, will I go to hell for fucking a priest?”
“I don’t know, my dear, but if you go, it will not be as hot for you as it will be for me.” Having thanked her in French, he realized too late she would know no French.
He followed the three knights down the Canterbury Road, through Crayford, where they stayed the night, while he went on as far as he could.
He asked if anyone had seen the knights pass through Gadshill. “No” meant, he prayed, that he was still ahead, so he slept outside the town in hospital.
Crossing the bridge over River Medway after Rochester, where he slept in a monastery, he was told that three knights had crossed.
Desperate, he did not stop in Faversham, but pushed the horse in the harsh December cold until she was so exhausted, he had to rest her and himself.
Crossing the bridge over the Great Stout River, his nose and lungs full of the dust of the rushes upon which he had lain four nights, he passed through the West Gate past Holy Cross Church at four o’clock, growing dark, of the fourth day of his journey, eager to be the one who would warn the Archbishop. As he passed St. Peter’s church and rode onto the bridge over the little fork of the River Stout, he was aware that the villagers seemed joyous that the Archbishop had returned to them and was in their very midst.
But he heard one say, “The dog turned to his own vomit again.”
He imagined Royal Knights converging on the town down the roads from Whitstable and Machinton, up from Wye and Dover, and east from Sandwich. Passing East Bridge Hospital and the King’s Mill, he turned north on Palace Street past All Saint’s Church and then past the church of Saint Alfpheah, the martyred Archbishop of nine centuries ago.
He rode through the gate into the courtyard of the Great Hall of the Archbishop’s palace, full of soldiers in postures of aggressive alert, and, having tied his horse loosely to a mulberry tree, approached the Great Hall in darkness. Turning to see whether the men in the courtyard were stepping off to oppose him, he saw that his horse had got loose, wandering away, stroked idly by one of the men as it passed. But a trembling sense of urgency sent him through the door and into the Archbishop’s Great Hall and into the Archbishop’s chamber to warn Thomas, as he had so many times almost two decades before. But the hall was empty. The chamber was empty.
Where is he, Lord?
Shouting, crying, moaning, lamentation echoed down a passageway between the Great Cloister– soldiers were striding up and down as if about to spring like hounds–and the nave where the townspeople would be assembled for evensong services. Hoping to find the Archbishop in the chambers reached by the circular stairway, he thrust himself into the stairwell. Tools of carpenters repairing the stairs lay about.
Suddenly, the stairway reverberated with the same sound, but echoing, of clashing armor he had heard on the open road.
One knight, sword drawn, descended toward him, behind that knight, three more heads encased in mailed iron. “Reaus! Royal knights! King’s men! King’s men!” A metal encased forearm pushed him aside and a broken sword struck Peter’s own forearm. Each of the others deliberately elbowed him, sharing the assault. Their mailed hauberks covered their faces and the shadows made their armor a convulsion of clattering, clashing metal.
Four knights, God, not three. Did I follow the wrong knights?
Face to face, he recognized the bare face of Hugh de Horsea, Mauclerc, an unfrocked priest who was known to hold a grudge against Thomas.
He does not know me, Lord.
The metal clamor descending and diminishing behind him as he ascended the steep stairs, he heard lamentations in the nave and the chapels. By dim light from an unseen source, he saw the blood on his arm, but felt no sharp pain, only a numb ache that the blade of the sword had raised. “Your blood, Thomas?”
He passed a monk reeling from a blow and, further along, a servant, moaning and muttering in French.
He walked along the south colonnade of the cloisters. The second door opened into the chapel of St. Benedict, creator of Becket’s order, where he had once seen a vision of himself crucified. Many monks and priests and clerks filling the chapel, he hung back in the shadows behind the flung open door.
All voices, sounds, movements seemed the issue of violence.
Up by the chapel altar, a stranger leaned against the wall, holding his arm, profusely bleeding, his face expressing jarring waves of pain. He seems to be looking over the heads of the others into my eyes, Lord.
As monks in black leaned or knelt down and others rose and moved aside or hovered, Peter looked down, saw by fitful candlelight, a foot, a hand, a bloody piece of cloth, a pool of blood on the stones. Fragments of voices from men he saw only in a confusion of fragments spoke of what the four knights had done to Thomas, whose body he saw only in one fragmented view after another.
“–four knights, not five—broke in just as Archbishop Becket was climbing the short flight of stairs to pass alongside the choir to the north transept and the high altar.”
“To avoid desecration to the altar, he had turned back to the chapel of St. Benedict to hear the knights and stay them.”
The stranger asked, “Where did William of Canterbury go?”
“Where has Benedict of Peterborough hidden himself?”
“Here’s Robert”–canon of Merton—“the whole time.”
“But where is William fitzStephen?”
One monk only, you see him, God, back here behind the door, but here, nonetheless.
“And above all, where is good John of Salisbury?”
“After the first blow, I went to my brethren in the choir.”
“–foot on Thomas’s neck.”
“–stamped out his brains and stomped about in his blood.”
“—and cried, ‘Let us away, knights. He will rise no more.’ Hugh of Horsea”–the unfrocked priest, Lord.
The maimed stranger must have stayed with Thomas, raised his arm to ward off a blow, perhaps the first. And I too late, O Lord, but just in time to take the same blade and his blood on my own self-protective arm.
Only a few candles and lamps in Lady Chapel across the passageway from St. Benedict chapel, Peter was aware, and the nave and the choir.
Peter watched a bloody hand pass something back to any reaching hand, saw a hand reach to take a bloody piece of cloth. And then another hand.
“–called one of them a pimp for all the whores in the king’s court.”
Wait. What? They jump around in the telling.
“—knights and soldiers out in the courtyard and the orchard.”
“We had to use force to get him to the safety of the Cathedral.”
“—said, ‘Do not bar the door of a holy place.’
“–monks pleaded with him again to bar the door.”
“The knights broke in, shouting, ‘Where is the traitor? Where is the archbishop?’”
“Came back down the steps, declared, ‘I am here, and no traitor!’”
“‘You will absolve the bishops you have excommunicated!’”
“He could have slipped away so easily.”
So many places to hide, Lord, in your darkening house.
“But, no, he said, I will not.”
“Again and again.”
By the dim light of his imagination, Peter watched Thomas’ black cloak moving among the black robes of the monks.
“That one is the only man who never left the Archbishop–a stranger.”
“Edward Grim is my name, Archbishop’s new clerk.”
“—most of us watched from a safe distance.”
“And what did we see? Very little here and there.”
“But too much altogether.”
“Who were those barons?”
“Thomas knew them all.”
“Called one of them Reginald.”
“Seemed ready and even eager for martyrdom.”
“He could have moved secretly from one town to the next.”
“Would he? Not he.”
“A legacy of courage!”
“He would not even let them drag him to prison, like Peter and Paul.”
“We knew that once they got him away from the Cathedral, they would kill him, kill him.”
“Not prison-minded, but perhaps murder-minded.”
“Did you hear the monk who said he heard them demand that he repeal his sentences upon the bishops?”
“Only the Pope can do that.”
“And that, they say, is what he said. ‘Only the Pope can do that.’”
“It was then they threatened to kill him.”
“‘I am prepared to die! But you must not hurt any of my clerks or any member of my flock.’”
“That was when—“
“Yes, one of the knights swung his sword at him, knocked his cap off.”
“They took hold of him by his clock and he struggled to pull loose.”
“One of the knights tried to carry him off on his back.”
“‘Thunderous shameful!’ Thomas yelled at one of them.”
“That was William de Tracy. Or the one he called Reginald.”
“Reginald. Pimp, he called him.”
“Shook himself free with such force the knight fell upon the stones.”
“That one, Edward Grim, held onto the Archbishop so firmly, the knights could not budge him.”
“More townspeople come for evensong gathered around, so they must have feared a rush to rescue.”
“Ungrateful Reginald struck the first blow.”
Was that Edward Grim’s voice?
“Then each of the others struck.”
“Like Christ, he bowed his head—“
“—to God’s plan.”
“Those strong arms held low, those strong hands together in prayer.”
“I wish I had been a witness to hear his prayer.”
“Hear it now, for I heard it then. ‘I commend myself to God, the Blessed Mary, St. Denis”—beheaded by the French nine centuries ago—“‘and the patron saints of this church.’”
“I saw one of them raise and aim his sword and I raised my arm”– Grim held his arm, his hand a tourniquet. “—and the sword came down and cut off the archbishop’s scalp and on down into my arm. To the bone, I fear.”
“Struck and struck, over and over again. The light in here is too dim to see who—just four aging knights.”
“Archbishop fell to his knees, saying, “‘For the name of Jesus–’”
“–forward on his hands–”
“‘–and the protection of the church—‘”
“—face down against the stone–”
“‘I am ready to embrace death.’ Yes, that familiar face against the stones.”
“As he lies now.”
“As he lies now.”
“Too dim to see who struck the last blow–”
“I think I know.”
“That blow to his head, screaming, ‘This is for love of my lord William, the king’s brother!’ cutting the crown away from the Archbishops’ poor head, and his sword, may it be damned, broke in two on the pavement.”
“That’s when Hugh of Horsea stepped out of the crowd and jabbed his sword into Archbishop’s open skull and cast his brains about.”
“Some of it here.”
“Mind the blood!”
“He yelled, ‘Let’s be off, Knights! This fellow won’t get up again!’
“Only one among us tried to shield him–a man none of us know.”
“Your name is Edward Grim?”
Archbishop’s clerk Grim sprawls against the wall, in a faint, Lord, no longer strong enough to clutch his arm to stem the blood.
“The Knights are looting and the people come behind them, looting!”
“All out but one or two to stay with the body.”
“We must gather in secret to decide what to do. Follow me into the Chapter House.”
Each priest and monk seemed to turn several different ways, brushing against each other, then each headed for the archway of the chapel, slowly.
As men left the chapel, reluctantly, Peter lingered, and finally ducked around a pillar and waited. They have left no light, Jesus.
“I will watch for thee, Thomas.”
As he watched, Peter was all the while aware that this fabric within which he moved was more than one of the great Cathedrals of the Western World, more than a fabric of stone and wood and metal, but, like other Cathedrals of great magnitude, like St. Paul’s, though it was not yet complete, Canterbury Cathedral had been, since 500 or earlier, a fabric of terminology, within which a great swarm of ecclesiastical terms had been spoken or enacted thousands of times. This profanation at the altar of St. Benedict occurred within sight or sound or keen awareness of Trinity Chapel, the high altar, St. Alphege, St. Dunstan, North transcept, South transcept, the Choir, Lady Chapel, and five other chapels, the nave, cruciform, guildsmen made from floor to ceiling with piers and capitals, forming the apse above the high altar, arcades, with triforium above, clerestory, tracery, ribbed vaulting, buttresses, stained glass orifices. Tombs of St. Dunstan and St. Alphege. Dank undercroft, where two Saxon Archbishops, Eadsin and Ethelred, are buried. Surrounding lay the Great Cloister, Cellarer’s Range, Chapter House, Great Hall, chamber, chapel, kitchens, all, all a complete design, as when engineers first conceived it, laid out in the minds of Thomas, Peter, all the ecclesiasts, and the four knights. It cannot, cannot, must not, be said, then, merely that the assassins entered simply a place called Canterbury Cathedral. Monks and priests and Archbishops, Augustine, Anselm, Theobold, and laity had filled all these spaces often in nine centuries, and the men of this moment had abandoned all to stand in the choir or near and beside the high altar where blood was congealing and the body’s blood was from within itself turning cold, where lay, askew, the cloven head, once a cathedral itself of intricate intrigue and rapturous intuitions, perhaps visions. Fabrics within fabrics, the complicated fabric of theology, and four instances of simple military fabric—intent with “noble” purpose upon slaughter–within the simple fabric of stone, wood, and iron. And there in the midst, Peter, who, original purpose a bloody failure, stood poised on the lip of impulse, rain on the roof, thunder resounding in the nave.
“‘I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven,’ so saith Luke, in the gospel.” Peter spoke to Thomas, if to defy the brute fact of this death. “What commandments have we broken? Which beatitudes have we proved unworthy of? God, let Thomas speak to me, let him answer the tormenting questions. Thomas of London, you committed a multitude of sins. Did you repent? Thomas Royal Chancellor, what evil did you mingle with the good you wrought? Jesus, I fear this thunder and lightning, as both sinners and saints must have feared it when you died on the cross. Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury, your love made the poor for a time less miserable, while you wrought havoc in court and church. And yet, I held your horse and you were my sometime mentor, less by instruction than by example, in all things good and evil. Holy Spirit, does Thomas’ spirit move among us and forever, or is this flesh flesh only and are these bones to be forever mute? Abba….” Peter wept.
Soon, too soon, the monks returned.
Archbishop Becket rose up, no, surely, seemed to rise up, and bestowed upon all those in the murky light and deep in the shadows the sign of the cross, and upon himself, it seemed to those who gasped, Peter in concert with all the others.
A long pause having passed, one monk stuck his finger in the wound, another dipped a rag in it. Some monks and townspeople captured blood into vials, some stroked blood around their eyes.
Peter heard the ripping of cloth. Osbert, the archbishop’s chamberlain, seemed to be using a piece of his own shirt to tie Thomas’ crown to his head.
Lifting Thomas’ body to place it onto a bier, they uncovered an iron mallet and a double-headed axe.
Someone found and held up for all to see the pointed half of the Knight’s broken sword.
“We are obliged to keep this as a relic for the shrine.”
“Let us carry the body on the Cathedral bier out of the chapel and along the choir, the way Thomas had been walking when the knights broke in.”
Seeking the shadows, Peter, failed messenger, followed.
The clerks, monks, and servants were re-assembling, the townsfolk were crowding into the nave.
“Charged that I was illegal prior of Christ Church. Beckoned the Prior of Dover and the Abbot of Boxley to deal with me. He will not replace me now.”
“As royal chancellor, he was positioned well to dispossess us of much of what we own in time.”
Yes, God, that was a fear many harbored.
“Declared we are too fearful to challenge the king. Yes.”
“The city is occupied by soldiers. How can we resist?”
“He demanded too much of mere monks.”
“Did not the knights call him a traitor to the king and to the kingdom.”
“Thomas and his clerks are not liked in Canterbury.”
“Some say, some say.”
They were so long without a leader, Jesus, without unity, spiritless. And now this uncertain future.
“Only 50 years old.”
“Becket wanted the power of a king. Becket wanted to be more than a king. Let Becket be a king now.”
Onlookers are saying negative things now, Jesus. Peter began to pay attention the tone and qualities of the voices.
“His stubbornness killed him.” That hoarse voice.
“Thomas was vindictive.” Hissing high-pitched voice.
“Greedy for glory. Glory, glory, glory.” Like a duet, hoarse and high pitched.
Yes, God, I must concur.
“He disturbed the very life of the monastery.”
Peter looked toward the high altar. Thomas’s body lay on the bier before it, a bandage tying his crown to his head, a little cap covering it. On his face, in the flickering candlelight, only a trace of blood from his right temple, across his nose, down his left cheek.
He watched them strip the bloody outer garments from his body and set them aside. For the poor, Lord, as when noblemen are beheaded in London.
The monks in unison uttered a sound of awe.
“Look, he’s a true monk!”
Moving closer, risking discovery, Peter just barely saw that Thomas wore a monastic cowl and shirt.
Peter recognized Robert of Merton kneeling and delving into Thomas’ undergarments. “He is wearing a hair shirt and breeches! He has been a monk all along.”
Peter saw without looking that lice and worms swarmed in the hair shirt and breeches. Penitent like a common monk.
“No one could have known about this.”
“Let it be known that he has been a true monk all along.”
“No furs of gris and vair—
“– and no garments of rich samite and silk!”The hoarse-high pitched duet again.
“Sop up the rest of his blood! Wring the blood from his clothes and from the cloths you have used to soak up his blood.”
“We do not have time to observe ritual, to wash and embalm the body.”
“The body of the Archbishop Thomas a Becket of Canterbury,” whispered Peter, “has been washed in his own blood, Jesus.”
“Rush to his trunks, bring out the vestments he has already designated for this moment. You will find the very garments in which he was ordained eight years ago, the alb, the superhumeral, mitre, stole, maniple, and the charismatic that caught the sacred oil at his Episcopal anointing, a comfort to know, and a comfort to see them all again upon his body.”
“Yes, we must bury him before day breaks.”
This raucous thunder and rain stirs up their fear again, God.
“The knights may return with more soldiers.”
“They will seize the body.”
“They will drag it in the mud through the town tied to the tail of one of their war horses.”
“They will hang his mutilated body from a tree limb.”
“Toss it on to a shit hill.”
That single minded duet again.
“Chop it up—“
“–throw it to the hogs.”
“Because the church has been polluted with murderous violence and blood–” the voice of Richard of Dover, Thomas’s friend who had traveled with him recently, assumed leadership– “we cannot give him a funeral Mass, we cannot give his flock the comfort of a service.”
Watching, listening, Peter hoped for his opportunity. To do what, Jesus?
“Down in the crypt, Richard, there happens to be a sunken marble sarcophagus already prepared for burial.”
“Archbishop ordered it several days ago, as if with foreknowledge.” Who is that chiming in?
“Let us bury him beneath the Trinity Chapel where he so often prayed,” that’s Richard again, “behind the High Altar, at the end of the crypt. He will have the altar of St. John the Baptist on his left, and on his right, he will have the altar of St. Augustine.”
“Let us go down and look.”
All gone below now, Peter stepped briskly to the bier, lifted Thomas’s body, naked except for the vermin swarming hair shirt and hair drawers, onto his shoulder and turned with a rasp that sounded to him very keen and loud, and ran, crouched, out of the faint candlelight, into the shadows, into the total dark, back the way they had brought the body, past the blood-smeared site of the murder, and down the narrow, steep, staircase, where the Knight had struck him with the broken blade, making his shoulder scrape the stone wall to guide him down in the dark, three times almost falling, falling off the bottom step. Rising, he struggled to take hold of the body, he prayed, “Lord, may it be thy will that my horse will have returned to the mulberry tree and tarried there.”
At his work table in Nonesuch House, surrounded by the four biographies of Becket, most of them by men who witnessed his murder–John of Salisbury, Edward Grim, William fitzStephen, Anonymous I and II, and the Icelandic Thomas Saga–the Poet suddenly smelled the blood of a woman with the curse, and the next moment heard and felt hot breath panting on his neck and turned and looked up into the face of that girl, Blythe Arden.
“You put a fright on me, child. The shop is closed, given the plague.”
“I’ve come with a message from a lady of Southwark.”
“And also from hell, a touch of the plague?”
“That’s me monthly. On days when I’m not cursed, I carry on me the bloom and
aroma of heath flowers.”
“Old enough to bleed, too young to—I’ll have the message, child, hoping it has not
picked up plague.”
“She does not write to you, sir. Tis a mouth to mouth message.”
“Then spit it out and be gone with you. You’ve broken into my work as well as my shop and my domicile.”
“I’ve never been in Nonesuch House, nor this high above the world before. Look at the Pool from here, the great ships all assembled.”
“May I know the lady’s message?”
“It makes no sense.”
“I will be the judge of that. If you ever speak it.”
“Oh, I will, I will, I promise.”
He watched her circumnavigate the room, touching everything within reach. “Don’t
“They all say it’s in the air, not on our fingertips.”
“Have you not touched your lips?”
“Aye, and many others besides.”
In a rush, he intuited many hands up under her dress and blushed. “You must not–”
“Must not. I like not ‘must not.’”
“Must I wring your neck to get you to squawk my message out.”
“Though it makes no sense, I am here to transmit it. It is simply this: ‘I cannot raise the drawbridge until the plague has passed.’ Did I not tell you, it makes no sense?”
“You did indeed, child. Now go home.”
“You should be abed at this hour. Your parents.”
“Listen! You can hear them snore from the London end of the bridge.”
“So you have sneaked out to explore the world.”
“First London, and then the world. I shall hide in the hold of a great ship one night.”
He looked into her eyes and nodded. “I have only to shut my eyes.”
“I crave also to touch every thing in the world—and every one.”
“Will your friend go with you?”
“Oh, yes, as far as the staples at each end of the bridge. Only so far will she stray from her parents.”
“Unless you can prevail? I see it in your eyes.”
“Gilda sees something in my eyes that gives her pause.”
“A good long pause might save your own life, child.”
“Say you ‘child’ to put me off or to lure me in?”
She spoke, he sensed, from experiences he dare not imagine, with her still in the room.
“You must sneak back into your bed now. And wake in the morning resolved not
to venture into London until the plague has passed.”
“I know how to get in.”
“Don’t tell me you broke my window.”
“Glaziers need work these days.”
He gave her money. “Go.”
“I’ve seen you watching us. Why do their looks linger longer upon Gilda than upon me?”
“They? Men? I do not watch you.”
“I look up and there you are at your window.”
“I am thinking.”
“No, I am thinking of the next line perhaps. I am a poet.”
“What did she mean, ‘I cannot raise the drawbridge?’ It has been broken since before I was born.”
He was certain she knew exactly the meaning of the riddle. “Go. Go.” He opened the door wider.
“You are the least friendly man I have met in the whole world.”
He left his worktable and the company of Becket’s biographers and walked to the door, beckoning her to follow. She stood so close to him in the doorway that he smelled the bad blood again.
“Be careful going down. The stairway is dark. Feel your way down along the wall.”
“You provide no candle to light my way?”
“You are a bloody nuisance, child.” Both the message and the messenger were severe interruptions to the Poet’s work on the bridge, to Peter’s own thoughts in Canterbury Cathedral. He jerked the candle off the table so quickly, the flame sputtered out. Suddenly, the blood was upon him again, the stink so rank he tasted it faintly upon the tip of his tongue. He pushed her body aside and fled down the steps in the dark, feeling Peter brush past him going up the stairs to warn Archbishop Becket.
Somewhere near the second landing, he fumbled in his pocket for a match and reached for the tinderbox and lit the candle, saw sprinkles of blood going up—or down?—the stairway and felt his cock springing hard against the fabric of his trousers, crying to get out. The drawbridge is raised, a strangled laugh, as he heard her above, coming down. He whirled and continued down, to reach the door before she could breathe upon his neck again.
Panting, she staggered down and across the shop into the circle of the candlelight where he stood at the open door. Like an obedient child she passed him, then from the street, the face that looked back at him over her shoulder was that of a wanton woman.
Not looking, but knowing the trail of blood was beneath his feet, he climbed the stairs, doubting but with no certainty, that his mistress had entrusted that message, however seemingly senseless, or any other, to such a creature. Peter brushed past him going down the circular stairs, Becket’s body his burden.
As Peter staggered out of the Great Hall, the echoes of cries of shock and consternation drifted from the altar down the stairs.
His hired horse was gone, but a soldier had tied his own horse, unattended, to the mulberry tree. He placed Thomas’s body across the horse’s neck and mounted behind it and rode out of the courtyard and through the town gate.
The moon was clouded over, but he was able to keep to the street until he could conceal the body and himself and his stolen horse under the bridge over the little fork of River Stout. Then he rode all night and hid himself and the body all day in a shaw full of thorns and dead branches and rode all night again, back through all the towns.
In Rochester, he was seen, and he was believed, when he said, “A monk of my monastery in London, to be buried at St. Paul’s.”
Fleeing with Thomas’s body, Peter imagined the search for the body throughout the fabric of Canterbury Cathedral.
Why did I take up the body, Holy Spirit? As he rode, Peter settled into a sense of God’s purpose for his impulsive action, to prevent the martyrdom of a man in whom good and bad faith were so mixed as to render him unfit for martyrdom.
When at last he rode past the hospital when he has spent the first night in pursuit of the girl, he saw her in a sort of delirium of fatigue, grown even older, haggard now, rush into the road, her dress up over her face, naked, in “lewd disport,” a phrase he heard in his head, and rode on until, just before God’s light, he was approaching the bridge he had built of elm across River Thames, the bridge he had been preparing for the ceremony of Archbishop Thomas a Becket’s triumphal entry into the city of his nativity. Midway, he reined in the horse and said, not to the body slung across the horse’s neck, but to Thomas’ spirit, “I will build a chapel here in your honor, Thomas, and devise a way some day to bury your body here.” His own voice woke him to the stench of the body, concealed under hay in the stable of the hospital the night before.
A chapel on the bridge. Yes. But, God, do you want me to name it in honor of Thomas?
He had stolen the body in a state of revulsion at the prospect of its desecration, every piece of clothing to the last thread, every drop of blood, piece of flesh, and every bone down to the little finger’s three separated joints, from his enemies trying to humiliate his remains and eliminate all trace of his existence on earth to prevent him from becoming a saint, unless all signs expressed an appearance, at least, of God’s will that Thomas be sainted.
Peter spurred the military horse on, simultaneously imagining places where in London he might conceal the body—under the bridge, in St. Paul’s, in the house of Barbra the courtesan–and having a vision of Thomas’ chapel, taking shape in his head, blinding him to the sight of the city that finally stretched before him as he rode over the bridge.
In the night, Peter dug a narrow grave in St. Mary’s bone yard, between his father and his mother, interring Thomas lying on his left side. Aware every minute and with every exertion of Thomas a Becket’s nativity, Peter buried the body of the Archbishop of Canterbury at St. Mary Colechurch in the wall under the stairs that Thomas’s, fearing the frail infant might die before daybreak, had climbed to take him into the church to be baptized only hours after his difficult birth. I will move him, Holy Spirit, at another time. To where? Under the weight of the question, he sank into sleep.
* * *
It is a matter of historical record, which, I must confess, has been lost to posterity, that two monks, having discovered the missing body, conspired to place another body in the crypt, its face and scalp disfigured a little more than Thomas’s had been, then one felt obliged to kill the other, a known gossip, leaving the secret safe with him until he died of the plague in the course of his penitential wanderings disguised as a goliard.
* * *
“They let the body lie where it fell, before the High Altar,” said Mark, “and buried it in the crypt beneath on the next morning.”
“Your news is as fresh as the dew on this stone.”
“I was there, in the vicinity, though too late to see with my own eyes.”
“Not that you doubted?”
“That the body— No, why should–?”
“Why should I, indeed?”
“The four knights crossed the Channel from Normandy in separate ships, landed at Sandwich, above Dover, maybe a few at Dover itself, rendezvoused at Saltwood Castle, near Hythe, below Dover, then took the road north, I suppose, to Canterbury from Wye or from Dover.”
“Then there were four knights? Not three?”
“Four first interrogated him in his palace, then one stood guard, while the others executed their mission. Stories contradict, human nature being what it insists upon being, but all strike this one note in concert: that Thomas made no effort to avoid seeing and later to flee from the knights, and made a great effort to offend and incite the knights and then when attacked make no effort to defend himself.”
“To fulfill the prophecies, Christ had to nurse events along by provoking the priests, declining to answer Pilate. That is only one possibility, that Thomas followed Jesus.”
“It will all come out in time.”
“Meanwhile, I must direct repairs upon the bridge.”
© 2010 David Madden