10 March 2011

Knowing Mil

Brother Kieran hung up his leather apron on the stout oak peg jutting from the king post near the door.  The summer sunlight lay gold upon the air, motes of dust and hay drifting like snow.  His fatigue was a wet cloak draped on aching shoulders.  Kieran sighed, drew a deep breath, and gently rubbed his hands together.  Three stings today, more than he had endured in many a fortnight.  His charges had seemed unusually rambunctious today, and harder to control.  He had been stung so many times over the years, he had ceased to question the occurrence.

But today was different.  The stings hurt more than usual.  The first had taken him by surprise, and in reflex he had swatted the bee, killing it.  This troubled him greatly.  He took quiet pride in never harming the miraculous creatures that gave forth of the blessed bounty that made life possible in the monastery.  He was so distracted by the image of the dead bee that he was more careless than his habit, and the bees could sense it.  For the first time, Kieran had begun to resent the bees...and this was not right before God, in the monk's mind.  He locked the door to the shed, and hurried back to the abbey.

That evening during vespers, Brother Kieran could not concentrate.  He was still hungry, and his hands throbbed , red and still puffy from the stings.  He tried to summon up the energy to make his recitations honest, but to no avail.  A single thought had seized his mind, and looped over and over as he prayed:
"I've yet to taste the honey" he heard himself saying in a voice low and gravelly.

It was true.  In all the years Kieran had been at the monastery, from the time he was a scrawny waif left at the gate all the way up to this, his 35th year, he had never tasted the golden nectar he and his fellow monks worked so hard to produce.  God had forbidden it, he had been told, and those who disobeyed God would be harshly punished.  The best honey was reserved for a chosen few, officially the king, the royal family and high church officials.  To the extent that some of his brethren had sneaked a taste here and there, and had gotten caught, Kieran understood it to be true.  The offenders had been cast out, stripped of their robes and sent on their way with the traditional bee sting on the lip, so that others could see and know.

Kieran had never questioned this, but he had noticed that the abbot and some of the senior monks had taken honey for themselves, and nothing had happened to them.  About that time, Kieran had also noticed those same fellows always seemed to be in better health, clearer of skin and carrying more pounds on their frames.  He had never questioned that, either.  Until now.

In the middle of vespers, Kieran rubbed his aching hands together and resolved that he would taste the honey.  He worked hard to get it, and he was hungry.  He was tired of being thin and cold and feeble.  

It took some months before he found his chance.  He worked on his courage, biding his time.  The days and weeks followed their usual pattern, prayer, work, prayer, eat, prayer, sleep.  Days followed nights and the urge to taste grew stronger and stronger.  Finally, towards the end of a long day of field work topped off by collecting honey, he had his chance.  The two monks who usually assisted had left the shed, and Kieran was all alone.  His hands held a cool stone jar, nearly full of dark gold liquid.  He could smell it.  His hands shook.  As if possessed, they brought the jar to his lips.  The thick liquid poured into his waiting mouth.

He knew ecstasy.  He knew lust, although he knew not what to call that sensation.  Energy surged through his limbs, he felt himself coming to life.  Kieran thought he knew in that instant, what it meant to be alive.  He was amused to find himself getting an erection, and he laughed.

The loudness of his laugh startled him, and he set the jar down with a crash.  Honey slopped over the rim, oozing over his fingers.  His heart fluttered in fear.  God knows, he muttered, He knows, and I will be punished.

One of the helpers came back in, asking what had happened, was everything all right?  Kieran hastily replied that it was all fine, he had been clumsy and dropped the jar while trying to move it.  He dabbed at the honey on his hand and silently prayed the brother had not seen the honey on his lips.  The other monk grunted something noncommittal and helped Kieran tidy up.

That night, in his cell, Kieran prayed for forgiveness, but received no assurances.  He feared retribution, punishment, banishment.  He was consumed with feelings of worthlessness at his sin.  He meditated, he fasted, but to no avail.  The memory of that taste would not leave his mouth, and in the months afterward his initial transgression, Kieran found himself sneaking a mouthful of honey whenever he could.   His health improved, his skin cleared, his belly grew soft, but no one seemed to notice.

The days flew by, and Kieran finally began to relax.  The taste of the honey was too good.  But he was caught, on a bright, sunny day that felt like God Himself was taking care of even a sinner like Kieran.

The abbot had been watching.  He had spies, he had other monks keeping a count of honey jars and amounts.  The abbot summoned Kieran to his office and let it be known they knew what was going on.  The abbot said he had no choice but to cast Kieran out.

So it was that Kieran found himself standing at the main gate to the compound, clad in the rough burlap allotted to the outcast, the willful sinner.  In one hand he held a green oak walking stick, ghostly wet for being freshly peeled.  In the other was a small sack, made of coarsely woven fiber and held together with two leather straps.  In the sack was a wooden cross, a hunk of dry bread and a large chunk of hard cheese.  A small gourd served as a water bottle.

The brothers had formed a silent gauntlet, a row on each side of the path out.  They said nothing, heads downcast in the formal display of shunning.  By tradition, the most senior beekeeper stood in his path, a small wooden box in hands.  The box held three bees, and soon the keeper took them out and placed them on Kieran's lips.  The bees were provoked into stinging, and Kieran flinched, eyes watering.  His lips throbbed and felt like they were on fire.  He clenched his jaws, refusing to make a sound.

The keeper stepped aside, gesturing toward the gate.  Two monks were slowly opening it, and through the tears Kieran could see the track leading out and over into the nearby hills.  The abbot bade him Go, Leave Us, you have sinned mightily.

Kieran trudged out the gate.  He pulled the cowl of his burlap tunic over his head, less for shielding from the sun and more so no one could see him smiling.  Inside his tunic, in a hastily made pocket, there was a small stoppered flask.  In it was a mouthful of honey.

Kieran walked into the lengthening shadows, never looking back.  He consoled himself with the thought that surely, God would not be so cruel as to let him taste heaven just once, only to take it away forever.  The land stretched out before him, green and gold in the waning summer sun.  The wind ruffled the grass, and faintly Kieran thought he heard humming coming from the trees up ahead.

His smile came back.  The world was not so empty as he had thought.  Honey was there, he would find it.  He would taste it, again.


  1. Nicely done, Irish. I like this character.

  2. a story of revelation, jubilation and redemption. K. was the only one truly ALIVE and in the skewed and narrow confines of his society was deemed a sinner. He was given a gift, being sent on his way. The whole world now open before him. Lovely.

  3. Finding life's honey...tasting it...sharing it. I get it. And it's good.


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...