A wise man doesn’t travel much during the winter if he can help it. The weather is normally bad, it is normally cold, frequently rains, and away from the coast snow is common. It must be confessed that I have patrons who like snow. They talk in excited tones of the beauty, the sudden delight it can bring to a winter garden. I know one lady who has a ‘summer house’ which she had converted to a ‘winter house’ by the simple expedient of installing an excellent stove. There she can sit, snug. She will take her paints with her and will attempt to capture the effects of the snow on the view. She is accomplished and her pictures stand comparison with any.
Indeed when her gardener clears the path to the summer house for her, he is under strict instructions not to scatter snow willy-nilly but to fold it back. Thus he pushes the blade of his spade along the surface of the path. Then when the entire blade is covered he doesn’t lift the spade, but rather rotates it about the blade’s left edge. He takes one blade length at a time on the way from the house to the summer house, and then takes one blade length at a time on the way back. Finally he gently runs the flat of his spade over the disturbed snow, thus smoothing it off a little so the signs of disturbance are less obvious.
Even I, curmudgeon that I apparently am, will admit that for a brief moment snow does render Port Naain strangely beautiful. This beauty is transient and rarely lasts more than an hour after dawn. Once people start moving about, the drabness of the city finds a way of slouching confidently back. But to those who comment unkindly about my dislike of snow, I merely ask this question. “Who has to travel in the snow, does the poet travel to his patron or does the patron travel to their poet?”
One phenomena I do appreciate with snow is the silence. A white shroud descends and even when the shroud is tattered and grubby, one still finds the city quieter than usual. For a poet this is no bad thing and provides time for thought without distractions. I have done some fine work under these circumstances. At times this work has not perhaps been as well received as I might have hoped, apparently one can have too much time to think.
Snow curtained city, silent and dim
Wearing your whiteness like a pseudonym
To Mona Ditty I raise my hymn
Hiding her name to indulge every whim
As she filled her boots to the brim
The cream with a shovel she doth skim
As a lady who operated under her maiden name so that she could benefit her family without her deeds being obvious in the record, Madam Galwart, nee Mona Ditty, already had her suspicions about my part in her final meeting as chair of the ‘Committee for distributing alms to the worthy poor.’
This verse was perhaps the last straw. I decided it was time that I travelled for a while. I realise that my absence from the city meant that the belligerent and burly gentlemen she had hired to assault me might grow cold, loitering on street corners, waiting for me. But after all they could always beat each other up. Or alternatively they could take up a profession which didn’t expose them to the rigours of the weather. In this matter, I lack all sympathy.
For once I did not flee at random, nor without resource. I availed myself of my role at the Shine of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm, and undertook the role of a messenger, transporting some copies of a new edition of various lesser known commentaries, which our incumbent had promised distant colleagues. Admittedly the role wasn’t formally compensated, and given the funds available for my expenses, you would have been forgiven for thinking that I was expected to treat the trip as an occasion for fasting and the mortification of the flesh. Still I managed to acquire a new, large, mendicant’s robe which I could wear over my coat, and this I hoped would help keep me warm as I travelled.
I adopted my usual mode of travel, seeking accommodation and my meals in various inns along the road in return for an evening’s entertainment. I have tried travelling as a mendicant in the past and it has much to commend it. There again, I discovered that mendicants rarely get anything better than small beer, and poets are not expected to display an air of ostentatious piety.
My furthest destination was the small shrine at Far Upper Icegill. Here I delivered my last burden to the Holy Mother who was in charge of this small and somewhat penitential fane. There was a small guest room that was technically outside the grounds of the shrine, and it was here that male visitors were allowed to stay. The sisters at the fane ensured there was a good fire and that the linen was always aired, and I have slept in many worse places. But it was there that I met ‘Brother Dormic.’
He was quiet, even taciturn but many wandering mendicant brothers are. He wasn’t attached to any particular shrine within the Order, and gave the impression he was looking for a home. I finally got him to talk when I mentioned I had come from Port Naain. Slowly he opened up, asking questions about people he remembered from when he was there. Finally I asked him what had provoked him to the wandering life.
“You mean matters relating to death, the end of the world, or the ultimate destiny of humanity?” I was somewhat bemused by this.
“Mainly my own death. But the end of the world also seemed imminent as well.”
This wasn’t making a lot of sense to me. “But how do eschatological concerns drive you into this mendicant travelling life?”
“There was a vow.”
“That’s common enough, but what made you take the vow.”
“It wasn’t my vow. It was Maljie’s. She threatened to kill me if she ever found me.”
Now this intrigued me. “So what did you do to incite this?”
“I helped her clean out her loft.”
“That seems innocent enough.”
“Yes but I found the ‘dressing up box.'” Here he shuddered involuntarily.
“I opened it.” I thought he was going to burst into tears.
Here he did burst into tears. I passed him a napkin that had been put out for him to use as a facecloth when he washed. When he slowly regained his composure he said, “The pirate’s outfit threw me, I nearly cut my hand on the dagger. But like a fool I went deeper and found the dress.”
“The dress?” I was remorseless.
“Short, low cut, meant to be worn without corsets!” The horror in his voice was palpable. “I panicked. I fled without putting things back in the box. I left Port Naain and I kept running.”
“You’ll have to stop at some point.”
“I will stop when I come to a shrine where they’ve not heard of Maljie.”
Next morning over breakfast he gently quizzed the sister who brought us our breakfast. Apparently there was supposed to be a shrine even further to the north, deeper in the mountains. The sister admitted she had once nursed an elderly monk who had arrived, drawn on a sledge by two of his brethren. They had been taciturn, apparently spending much of their time in silence. She said that they had come from the north and returned back in that direction, leaving their colleague with the sisters. He had died two or three days later and she had no more knowledge of them. After breakfast we left together but at the road there was a parting of the ways. I turned south back towards civilisation, he heading north into the snow covered forests. I watched him go, a small robed figure almost silhouetted against the snow.
It is true, the wise man avoids caught up in matters eschatological.
And now a brief note from Jim Webster. It’s really just to inform you that I’ve just published a full Tallis Steelyard novel. Yes the rumours are true. Tallis Steelyard, the man who considered jotting down a couple of anecdotes to be ridiculously hard work, and considered the novella form to be the very pinnacle of literary labour, has been cozened into producing a novel.
It is, ‘Tallis Steelyard. A Fear of Heights.’
In this novel, recounted by Tallis Steelyard in his own inimitable manner, we discover what happens when the hierarchy plots to take control of the Shrine to Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm.
Will the incumbent be exiled to a minor fane in the far north?
Will Tallis end up having to do a proper job?
Does ordination and elevation beckon for Maljie?
This story includes the Idiosyncratic Diaconate, night soil carts, Partannese bandit chieftains, a stylite, a large dog and some over-spiced food. On top of this we have not one but two Autocephalous Patriarchs and a theologically sanctioned beggar.