The rag in the hallways is greatly in need of a good brush. You are uncertain what is more outrageous: finding the threshold to the quarters of the abbot of Mount St Bernard so shabbily maintained, or the fact that you are dwelling on such a petty detail when about to perform the sacrament of penance.
But fixing your eyes on the snuff and candle wax crumbs soiling the once exquisite weave of wool cotton and silk salvaged from the holly city, lands you the humble and pious air befitting a bright novice.
What is the cause of this sudden trepidation? For countless Sundays you came up to Abbot Bartholomew’s chambers, helped the frail elder down the steep stairs to the chapel, knelt behind the screen, said your confession and received absolution.
You have nothing to fear. Here, amongst the industrious Trappists, you are an exemplary young chap on the cusp of ordination, not the dark horse hastily whisked away from your family’s estate two winters ago to ward off scandal.
Nothing to fear, nothing to hide; your self-possessed knack on the abbot’s door states precisely that.
The husky voice that bids you ‘enter’, however, is not the abbots’. A gross anomaly which registers only when you are already inside the chamber, facing its owner.
Or rather, staring at the erect back of a Black Monk, gazing into the fire merrily crackling in the hearth. Grateful for years of subterfuge schooling you in retaining impeccable composure, you greet the intruder civilly enough, then enquire after Bartholomew’s whereabouts.
The Black Monk tosses a hefty log into the fire before turning to regard you, fingering his silver rosary. The space between motion and speech is ample enough to admit the yapping of the half-feral mongrels in the court yard who always trail after the miners and their brood patiently awaiting their serving of nourishing soup and prays. Fortuitously, the roaring flames provide cover for your blush as sooty recollections of services recently rendered to a mute Getter behind the abbey’s brewery glow in your mind under the Dominican’s inquisitive glare.
Was that the shadow of a knowing smile on his wine-moist lips?
You are taken aback when the Black Monk addresses you by name, vanquishing all hope that his presence here, at this time, is mere accident.
Abbot Bartholomew has been called away on an urgent business, says the Dominican, but he, father Tomás of Mdina, will be handling some of the abbot’s pastoral duties, including hearing your confession.
You can no longer conceal your bafflement at the queerness of the abbot departing at the dead of night and a foreign Black Monk taking charge of this Trappist abbey, without a whisper of those occurrences reaching the brothers cloistered herein, but before the torrent of questions pass your mouth, Father Tomás announces that he will hear your confession now, here, in the abbot’s chambers.
At length you find your voice to reason that surely, the appropriate place for the sacrament of penance is the confessional in the church. But the supple Dominican is unmoved. Ignoring your protests, he instructs you to kneel before him.
What choice do you have? None what so ever. Reluctantly, you drop to your knees, inhaling the wet horse scent clinging to Father Tomás, who, you are now well positioned to observe, is still wearing muddy riding boots under his habit.
‘Bless me father for I have sinned…’ the litany of oft rehearsed minor transgressions flows easily. It has never failed to appease the abbot, and with Father Tomás’s comforting hand resting on your head, you even succumb to the temptation of inserting the miners into your confession, claiming to have had uncharitable thoughts about the gruff men infesting the tranquil abbey.
‘Is that all?’ Asks the Black Monk. You foolishly answer that yes, you have nothing further to confess. Father Tomás rewards you with a predatory smile, and proceeds to rip gaping holes in your fabrications, asking unsettling questions which arouse true dread in your heart. Is it conceivable that the Dominican suspects – or worst, possesses evidence – of the sins of the mind and flesh you have taken such pains to conceal in the years since your exile?
Maddeningly, it is not only fear that Father Tomás’ probing stirs. Something about the manner of the Black Monk’s interrogation indicates that the striking Dominican has deep and carnal knowledge of the ways of the sodomites. Striped bare by his byzantine eyes, you can scarcely believe it when you hear yourself tell the priest of that sweltering afternoon many months ago when you were sent to fetch water, and lurked in the shrubs, frigging yourself as you watched a gang of young villagers bathing naked in the fast flowing river.
This revelation seems to greatly please Father Tomás, so you are shocked when he decrees that your penance will not be fasting or reciting psalms if Christian mercy is prescribed, or expulsion if not, but mortification of the flesh.
When you argue that flagellation and such has not been employed in this abbey for over a decade the Black Monk retorts that manifestly, this laxness did a grave disservice to the eternal souls of the resident novices and priests, and was indeed the cause of his urgent summoning to Mount St Bernard, having purged prominent monasteries in his native Malta from such evils.
You submit to the first penance. The sight of Father Tomás’ powerful arms reflected in the frosted window as he swings the leather straps, and the warm bite when it lands on your back and rump, no small compensation for the pain and humiliation inflicted.
The bells ring for vespers. Your confession, however, is far from concluded. One by one, the Dominican extorts every detail of your fornications. And he is no longer satisfied by mere retelling of your wicked deeds. Hoisting up his habit, he unfastens his breeches, exposing a curios implement: An ivory artefact, fashioned in the likeness of a monstrous male member and secured to his lap by means of sturdy leather straps. On this device designed to prevent the polluting of his own flesh, the Black Monk proclaims, you must demonstration the most shameful acts confessed, and each act divulge and re-enacted will be followed by a crueller punishment.
As you kneel there on all fours, your face pressed upon that filthy rag, bruised bottom and inflamed cock throbbing, Father Tomás informs you that this highly irregular penance is in fact a new method devised by himself in order to reform, rather than ejects, young fornicators and sodomites from the church.
While the ruthless Dominican pronounces, idly stroking your neck, you feel the head of his rigid shaft pressing against your arsehole. Should you beg him not to do it – not this?
Swear by the virgin and all the saints that yes, you have self polluted, bag-piped the mute miner and grinded his older sister’s corn, fondled your brethren and bootlicked that handsome peasant back home, but in truth, you have never committed the act of sodomy itself?
Or will you give a false confession yet again, swearing that you have indeed been soiled just so: been ridden below the crupper on many occasions by countless beastly man, in order to have the Black Monk’s elephantine boner violate you?
Lie. You would do this and commit many mortal sins besides to have Father Tomás mount and break you like a young thoroughbred.
Afterwords, you snuggle together on the rag, listening to the rain storm raging against the thick stone walls. And for you, those hoarded moments are vested with a lifetime of clandestine congresses. Of cleverly coded letters. Of pilgrimages to Greece.
But Father Tomás is quick to wipe away the evidence of your damnation with a soiled cloth and crafty words. Putting his soul in peril to save yours is the ultimate sacrifice, says the Dominican, rising to his feet. Now that your vilest sin has tainted most sanctified flesh, a torment as grave and agonising as the sin must be inflicted. And once you this final mortification have been preformed you will truly repent and receive absolution, delivered back onto the bosom of the church a purified lamb cleansed in tears and holly flames.
The Black Monk turns away from you, towards the fireplace. When he towers again over your buggery-spent body, you realise belatedly that the Dominican is brandishing a red hot poker. Your last penance, says the Father Tomás, will be a brand on your scutum. Shrouded from prying eyes, yet forever in your sight: a dire reminder against straying again from the path of the righteous.
‘May the merciful Lord have pity on thee and forgive thee thy faults. Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.’
But you are young, and hauling water buckets, night soil and ale barrels has hardened your muscles. It was only habitual obedience and fear of discovery, then unbridled desire, which had you submit to Father Tomás’ ministrations. Now, laying covered in lashes and cooling blow, hearing those words, watching the searing rod, your arm reaches up on its own accord and grabs the monk’s wrist.
And once this word passed your lips, once you witnessed how uttering a simple monosyllable transformed the Black Monk’s features, you know that you have a fair chance. Not of love, alas, but assuredly deliverance, and better yet – revenge.
That look on priest’s averted face reveals that the church has no inkling of the Dominican’s less orthodox methods of reform and redemption, and that his superiors would not have condoned them if they did. Mortification, perhaps, but surely not sodomy, and there will be hell to pay if they ever found out.
Still holding Father Tomás’ wrist and the cooling poker, you pull aside his habit and reach between his legs with your free hand,
Your cocky smile widen in unison with the Black Monk’s eyes when, following the slippery leather straps, you breech his quivering quim.