Following the Drop of a Bobbin
By Haley Dittbrenner
Father Eleanzer had just dropped his bobbin when he caught Father Jordon, the High Priest, motioning to him from the other side of the room. The slight nod of Jordan’s head was a simple gesture and yet it consumed the whole room: when men have lived together in silence for generations any sort of communication is noteworthy. It had been like this for centuries, men vowing to tie their own tongues in the name of reverence. Years before Father Eleanzer was born, the sheer coincidence unbeknownst to him, his grandfather had clambered to the kitchen window, pointing to the wooden structure in the distance, asking his mother what it was. And his mother, in turn, had laid her spoon to rest in the pot and wiped her hands on the apron covering her technicolored dress.
“That is the Convent of St. Taciturn,” Father Eleanzer’s great grandmother had said, taking the child into her lap. “It’s where your father ran off to, and soon where you’ll follow.”
The Convent of St. Taciturn was silent, save for the occasional turning of pages and harsh shrieks of chalk against a slate. The clattering of the bone bobbin against the tiles could be heard all the way down the hall.
Father Eleanzer took the fallen bobbin into his hand once more. His sun-darkened fingers trembled under the precision of lacemaking; he was much better suited for the work of the arboretum alongside Father Ocallaghan. He knew of the arboretum’s closure but was ignorant of the cause behind it. Regardless of why he had been switched to making lace netting, he begged St. Taciturn that it would be impermanent.
Without saying a word, he followed Father Jordon down the cobble-composed hallways into the Back Chamber, the route taken when one wanted to avoid the Chapel. From there the men entered a room known by the residents as the Hall of Slate. It resembled a traditional church chapel classroom, with a high wooden ceiling and polished windows flooded with sunlight. The room was devoid of any color and was painted in grayscale; pigments and coloring were seen as an Outsider’s sin, save for certain dyes and the occasional stick of chalk. Every cultist had a different reason as to why their little color avoided sin.
The only furnishings were a long meeting table—which sat roughly a dozen—and a board of slate which covered an entire wall. The room filled Father Eleanzer’s mind with memories of his own childhood, back when the world was boisterous and alive and resembled something more phantasmagoric than real. He had come to appreciate silence, yet found it smothering it in the Hall of Slate.
Father Eleanzer took his seat at the far left of the table while Father Jordon took to the head, adjusting his hair and sleeves as he did so. Ten other men filled the remaining seats, trading scraps of parchment in place of idle small talk. The tableside display seemed to be the same person at different ages, the members near-identical in their sable wool cloaks. The youngest cultists strayed to Father Jordon’s right; the faces aged the further left Father Eleanzer looked. It was only when he got close that distinctions could be made. The chair closest to Father Jordon’s left was jarringly bare.
There has been an incident that I must notify you of, Father Jordon scrawled on the board. His hands were quick, and his handwriting reflected such. The remains of Father Ocallaghan were found within the arboretum early this morning.
Silence hung over the cultists where nervous whispers should’ve. Father Jordon wiped away the chalk with the sleeve of his robe and continued, The Constable must be notified of this incident so that it can be brought to its full resolve. Erase, pause. One of our ranks must leave in order to do so, thus breaking their vow of silence. Erase, continue. As your High Priest, I bestow it upon you all to decide who will permanently leave our commune.
Father Jordon wiped away his final message, the black sleeves of his robe streaked with white. Father Eleanzer found humor in it all, how often Father Jordon spelled out his authority and made a mess of himself in doing so. Father Jordon had been the head of St. Taciturn for a few years now, and yet he still hadn’t gotten it right. The room remained silent; the cultists remained unmoved.
A look spread across Father Jordon’s face that could only be described as both rage and confusion when he took to the slate once more.
Surely one of you can name a man unworthy enough to leave our ranks. Must I call upon you like a primary school teacher?
He jerked his thumb at the man nearest to his right, and in response Father Alois Hale took up the stick of chalk himself.
I believe Fath’r Ede shouldst leave f’r the Constable, he wrote after a moment’s hesitation. He hast already broken the rules of our commune, and thus should beest the first to sacrifice himself f’r it.
Father Alois Hale was the youngest of the priests, nineteen with a head of eighty. He bragged often of memorizing his scriptures, unintelligibly and incorrectly emulating the language in his own writing. His skin was as pale as the chalk he held, his somber eyes as dark and muted as the slate behind him. He withdrew a handkerchief from the pocket of his robes and swiped away his accusation. I h’th caught him after a fortnight tempting Johanna Fawns by the gardens, off’ring her the garden’s bloom plant’d f’rty moons ago. He meddles in the affairs of the Outside, and hast created life within it. Shouldst he be so willing to give up his vow of solitude, what suggests you that he shall remaineth in silence?
An inkling of a story had lived within the Convent of St. Taciturn, running through it—unbeknownst to most of the inhabitants—as an energy of its own accord. It had reverberated off the walls in the raspy tones of one who hadn’t spoken in years, to the point where it couldn’t be considered much of a voice at all. Father Alois Hale had seen the petals of forget-me-nots and rhododendrons mingling amongst themselves on the floor, and he had watched as Father Ede offered the bouquet to Johanna Fawns, the prostitute, from the window.
“And the boy will be safe here,” Father Ede had told her, a slight lilt to his voice. “He will be provided with food, shelter, and work, though he will not be able to speak of these things.”
“But what of you?” Johanna Fawns replied. “What if he takes an interest in you?”
“He won’t have the words to say.”
“You know he’s been looking for his father. He latches onto everyone he sees: the postman, his tutor, anyone who will give him the time of day.”
Father Ede pushed the flowers further into the plump face of Johanna Fawns. Her face turned a shade of salmon matched almost exactly by the rhododendron.
“This is the only way to keep him safe,” Father Ede continued. “It’s much too loud out there. All sin and streetwork and pickpockets wearing multi-color garments. Look at what you’ve had to do for your living. You want to keep our son safe, don’t you?”
Father Alois Hale had stopped in his tracks; his cloak kept him concealed within the shadows, as if under the effects of invisibility. He had awakened this early to attend a personal vigil in the Chapel, he had no expectations of intruding on another. With all his attention on the maiden, Father Ede had expected the same.
“Think of it this way,” Father Ede said, pausing at the end of his sentence to cough. He checked to see if anyone else had heard him. “Your father was a thief. Your father’s father was a thief. Never mind your father’s father’s father. Your lineage has been reduced to sticky fingers and street corners; don’t let Toby be the same. We can get you started as a prioress and induct Toby on his eighteenth birthday. This is your chance at a better life. Take it, or drop these flowers and with it my companionship.”
The air hung thick with juxtaposition as Johanna Fawns slowly took the flowers, confidence and uncertainty swirling about the room. And from the shadows, from an angle at which they were hidden, a pair of black eyes narrowed. Father Alois Hale took in the scene and the echoing sounds. He left with his robes billowing behind him. And from another point in the hall, obscured in the shadows and disembodied, was another voice, whispering.
Presently, Father Alois Hale took to his seat once more, glaring at Father Ede with eyes of pearl and coal. Father Ede, in turn, with a face as expressionless and devoid as the board before him, produced a stick of chalk from the inner pocket of his robes. The stick was dyed a lurid shade of green, the same sort of dye that was applied to the cultist’s drinking water so their reflection couldn’t be seen within it. Father Ede sighed and smiled. To speak metaphorically, he knew how to start a fire.
As unmannerly as Father Alois Hale’s accusations are, his devotion puts himself in good grace. I believe it is Father Mycroft who should take his leave to the Constable. Father Belsey can attest alongside me that Father Mycroft works not for the order of St. Taciturn. Erase, sigh, continue. He looked to his fellow men as if they anticipated what he was about to write. You accuse me of meddling with Outsiders, but Father Mycroft has spoken directly to them. He has written sermons to them, speaking of gods they spend every moment living against. He is the one to have disgraced our commune.
This, at its core, was a falsehood. To start, Father Mycroft simply hadn’t been writing sermons. He had been writing letters, a sermon well within them but letters without a doubt. Father Eleanzer had seen them, read the names listed at the heading of the page. His parchment had dripped with inks of all colors, to the point where it began to bleed from the paper and onto the wooden desk below. St. Taciturn’s name had been written in a lush purple, a stark change from the black it was usually represented with.
Father Eleanzer hadn’t thought of looking in the writing study until he heard the commotion. All the men were in their respective studies, during an hour dedicated to work of the hands. Father Eleanzer found himself in Father Solomon’s study when the latter wanted to show him his set of bone bobbins, fashioned by hand and traditionally blessed. I was thinking of donating the nets to the fisherman’s district, Father Solomon had scrawled on a piece of parchment. When I was a boy, my mother worked in a fishery. There were always so many yellowtails. They always needed more nets.
It would be a noble thing to do, Father Eleanzer wrote to the younger cultist.
From down the hall, in the writing study where Father Mycroft worked, then came the slamming of books, the crash of an ink vial breaking against the tile, and the strangled grunts of one who was desperately holding back from shouting. Father Mycroft was, typically, one of the quietest men in the commune, though his sudden misfortune was always recognizable.
Fathers Solomon and Eleanzer took leave from their room, poking their heads into the writing study. Two other cultists were visible through the crack in the study’s door—Fathers Belsey and Ede, who had surrounded Father Mycroft. Father Mycroft held another vial high above his head, as if offering it to the gods, his eyes wide. He was poised to throw it at the men before him.
It was then that Father Eleanzer felt something pressed into the tawny skin of his palm. He opened the folded piece of parchment and read it silently to himself. We should leave was what Father Solomon had anxiously scribbled on the paper. The taller man tugged at Father Eleanzer’s sleeve as the second vial crashed, shards of glass spilling out of the doorway.
Father Eleanzer waved the younger cultist off, and in response Father Solomon ran back towards the room where he had left his bobbins. Father Eleanzer never found out whether he was truly fleeing or running to their superior, as only a few moments later Father Jordon shook the ground with the stomp of his boots and the pomp of his presence. The men slipped into silence. Behind him was Father Ocallaghan, the peacekeeper, who stuck himself between Fathers Mycroft, Belsey, and Ede. The latter two, with nowhere to turn, took to the High Priest’s side, cocking their heads in Father Mycroft’s direction to silently assign blame.
Father Jordon’s face twisted into a devilish snarl as he snatched Father Mycroft by the wrist. Everyone, save for Father Eleanzer, started for the Hall of Slate with Father Mycroft in tow. Even from down the hall, the lashings and screech of chalk against the slate could be heard.
Father Eleanzer still had the letter in the top drawer of his desk. It was addressed to church leaders from the Outside, Father Mycroft having written a sermon for them to nail to the front of their doors. It was ornate, unlike anything the men of the commune could ever behold. Father Eleanzer had run his hands over the ink, leaving a smear of color on his fingers. Written overtop of the work in pointed black ink was the handwriting of Father Ede. We do NOT meddle in the affairs of the Outside. Obsidian ink had been poured over what was left of the sermon.
Long after Father Eleanzer had left for his chamber, the letter still in his hand, came the whispers. This time they were composed of two voices, two vows of silence being broken with every word. Father Ocallaghan, listing off names as another approved. Solomon, Ede, Mycroft, Eleanzer.
Currently, Father Mycroft, whose face was growing redder with each word, slammed his hands upon the table. His lips were pursed together, and the purple veins of his forehead began to protrude. He stormed up to the slate, ripping the chalk from his fellow cultist’s hands and scribbling his rebuttal. THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED AND YOU KNOW IT, YOU—His handwriting was pointed, angry, and Father Eleanzer made no attempt to decipher it. Father Jordon now stood at the far end of the hall beside the door to the Chapel, a smile fixed below his pointed ears.
What a smile it was, serrated, not dissimilar to that of a wild beast. It was a familiar sight to the cultists, everyone had become used to it in the short time that Father Jordon was here. After only a few years in his fellowship, he had charmed himself into the seat of High Priest. He kept his hair parted so that the backs of his ears were covered, lest any of his men discover the three sixes branded behind them. He had always erred on the side of caution, lest his men discover the demon’s blood coursing through his body. He had always avoided the Chapel.
Father Eleanzer had no clear stories about when the whispers became obvious. He knew not when Father Ocallaghan, the oldest of their ranks, fell before temptation. Father Eleanzer knew no stories of when Father Jordon took Father Ocallaghan into the Hall of Slate, offering ten thousand silvers to fake his own death. He bore no stories of the latter accepting. He nor any other man could recall what came next: the list of men infatuated with the Outside, who would return to its garishness. Solomon, Ede, Mycroft, Eleanzer, each name burning like a lick of flame from the Afterlife.
Father Jordon got what he wanted.
At the front of the Hall a war raged in the form of written words, ten men abandoning their chairs for a chance at the slate. The cultists all wrote as fast as an orator spoke, or perhaps an auctioneer rhymed. If Father Mycroft was lightning and his accusation was the flame, then the other nine men were the brush that ignited first in a wildfire.
When Father Eleanzer was almost certain that Fathers Mycroft and Belsey were about to break their vows of pacifism (or what was left intact of it), he took to the front of the hall and withdrew something from his pocket.
Pure white, it could almost be mistaken for another stick of chalk from afar. From within the sight was clear: a bone bobbin, fashioned by Father Solomon himself, the fragile matter carved with runes and blessed with water. Father Eleanzer held out his hand and cocked his head to the side; Father Mycroft sacrificed his chalk.
It’s apparent that we’ve all broken our vows and deserve nothing more to take leave, he wrote, choosing his words with the precision of a prophet. For the first time since the meeting was called, the room was truly engrossed in silence. We are all angry, uptight, secretive men who have covered the name of St. Taciturn under the powder of chalk. There is only one way to decide our sacrifice from here. Erase, smile. He spoke the language Father Jordon found himself fluent in; such proficiency could only come from a life fed by stories. A pact, agreed to by all. One of our ranks will be cast out tonight.
The other men looked amongst themselves in agreement. Father Jordon locked eyes with Father Eleanzer and nodded. Father Eleanzer, in turn, held up his bobbin before turning back to the slate.
This bobbin fell from my work as the meeting was called. The lace is in shambles, just as we are. In a room where every man bears his sin on his hands, why extract one but at random? Again, I will drop this bobbin to the ground, and whoever’s feet it falls beside will be cast out in search of the Constable.
The stick of chalk and bone bobbin were rather similar in size, shape, and weight, to the point where one standing across the room would not be able to tell the difference. Beside the feet of Father Eleanzer fell the chalk which, to the neglected and ignorant eye, finally sealed his fate. Father Jordon stood at the far end of the room, willfully crushing the fragile bone that inevitably rolled beneath his boot.