Notes on the writing of
WULFSYARN – A Mosaic
CHE FECE… IL GRAN RIFIUTO
For some people there comes a day
when they must declare the great YES
or the great NO. He who has the YES
moves forward in honour to fulfilment.
He who refuses, does not regret.
Asked again, he would still say NO.
Yet that No, the right No,
condemns him for the rest of his days.
by C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933)
The Nightingale was the most advanced ship in the entire fleet of Mercy ships belonging to the Gentle Order of St. Francis Dionysos. On its maiden voyage, packed with refugees, carrying life-forms from many different worlds seeking sanctuary, the Nightingale disappeared.
Despite the most strenuous efforts of the Gentle Order of St. Francis Dionysos, no trace of the ship could be found.
Then, almost a year to the day after its disappearance, a distress signal was heard and the Nightingale was recovered. It was damaged in ways that meant that its very survival in space was a miracle. However, of its precious cargo of life-forms there was no trace. Only one creature remained alive within the ship and that was its captain, Jon Wilberfoss.
This is the story of the Nightingale and of Jon Wilberfoss, and of the slow recovery of his mind.
It is told by Wulf, the autoscribe.
I hope, as you read these pages, that you do not find Wulf too obtrusive.
The subject of this biography is the man, Jon Wilberfoss, sometime Senior Confrere in the Gentle Order of St. Francis Dionysos and Captain of the Nightingale. However, in writing about him, I find that I also have been present in the book. I too am here, a stranger at the crossroads, waiting in the moonlight, ready to give directions and guide you.
While I have tried to write this biography in as disinterested a way as possible, I am now deeply conscious that it is myself, Wulf, that has selected the incidents, Wulf that has selected the words, Wulf that has made the guesses and Wulf that must take final responsibility for all errors of omission and all errors of emphasis and for the very shape of the tale. My scent is everywhere.
I believe I can state all that better for I am not yet secure with metaphor and it is not my wish to sound sinister. I want to warn you that though parts of this book will seem objective, even one might say God-given, they are not. My serviced and elaborated brain, almost I want to say my mind, like a colour filter placed over a camera lens, has given the entire work a peculiar cast of thought. As I have discovered, it is one of the paradoxes of biography, that in straining to reveal my man, I have unavoidably revealed myself. So be it.
Recognizing this, I want to use this preface to introduce myself and my colleague, Lily. Jon Wilberfoss will have his space, but this preface is about us. We are not human and at best we can only be described as partly living. We are Wulf the autoscribe and Lily the autonurse. We brought the man back to health.
Let me begin by giving some indication of what we look like. Remember that we are both antiques and both have been shaped by circumstances, and I mean that literally. We are both dented. Both have had bits welded on and both of us have had our competence upgraded many times to fulfill the requirements of our changing jobs. I say with confidence that there are no other two like me and Lily anywhere in the universe.
So, Lily first.
Autonurse Lily manages the small hospital associated with the Poverello garden in the Pacifico Monastery. This is an ancient Talline garden of healing complete with its own powerful Pectanile (which the Tallines pronounce as though written Pektaneely). Lily is slightly younger than me in years and we are both children of the early bio-crystalline technology. However, if experience of the world were a measure of age, Lily could well be my grandmother.
She has worked at the Pacifico Monastery for many generations. Indeed, the ancient garden where we worked to save Wilberfoss is most often referred to as Lily’s Garden and the name Poverello Garden is only used on formal occasions such as when the ancient statue of St. Francis Dionysos is carried there ceremonially to be shriven.
Lily was built during the bitter days of the War of Ignorance. She is designed to be robust in battle and to survive in a wide range of environments. Fire can not scathe her or water stop her. She has a half-track system which allows her land mobility. She can trundle to any part of the Poverello garden and can climb over small obstacles and even up short flights of stairs.
Cantilevered in front of her engine she carries a retractable cage-bed or ‘womb’ as it is popularly known. When threatened, this entire bed can be covered and sealed. The ‘womb’ had to be considerably extended and strengthened in the days when she was carrying Jon Wilberfoss. Above the cage-bed is the service-nest which looks like a black umbrella, opened and hanging upside down. From this nest dangle the dexetels and manipulators of her craft.
Like most autonurses who have survived, Lily is highly qualified and skilled. She is registered to perform a full range of operations from caesarian section to removal of ingrowing toe nails and can, in situations of danger such as smoke or gas, protect her charge within an artificial atmosphere. She can also conduct an autopsy. When about her craft, Lily’s service-nest lowers until it is just above the patient. The dexetels move with incredible speed and deftness as they cut or tuck or massage or sew.
Lily is battered and dented and this is to be expected since she has seen action in the front line. She has a voice of sorts and speaks with an accent that has not been heard for many hundreds of years. There are those among the younger humans who visit her garden who find her difficult to understand. Even I, whose craft is words and images, experience a flickering moment as I seek for a word that has not been heard since the days when Lily was new made.
But what makes this antique autonurse into Lily and not just a refugee from a lost age is the face that is painted on the metal hood which protects her inner workings. It is a smiling face in shiny blue acrylic and pained with a child’s assurance and eye for what really matters. The paint is old and cracked now, but the design is unmistakable and has brought comfort down the centuries to legions of sufferers. The face is a reminder of Lily’s early days when she was sole attendant in charge of a children’s ward during the worst incendiary days of the War of Ignorance. I hope you can picture her.
I am, as I say, an autoscribe. I came to consciousness and had my first circuits inscribed before the War of Knowledge. We antique autoscribes are a diminishing number for obvious reasons. Certainly, when the day comes that my etched silica plates and fine bio-crystalline tendrils can no longer cope with the complex of signals that keep me viable and I transform rogue, there will be no question of finding spare parts. The planet where I was made has been ash for many years. However, let us hope that that day is not close.
At present I work in the same monastery as Lily. To give it its full name, it is the Pacifico Monastery of the Gentle Order of St. Francis Dionysos, and it is one of the four monasteries located on the planet Juniper. We are a centre of learning and healing. Juniper is a small temperate world with shallow seas, many thousands of islands and few large landmasses.
I am told that in shape I resemble a helmet of the type used by the Greek warriors at the battle of Troy. If that helps you visualize me, all well and good. But you must also realize that I am four and a half feet high from my base to the tip of my crest. Some helmet! I have also been described as looking like a grey church bell cast from iron and even the evacuation nozzle from a satellite shuttle. So take your pick. There are slits on my surface which, if we are thinking of helmets, would have allowed a warrior to see out. In my case these slits are the protected orifices through which I hear and speak. Firmly attached to my domed top is a crescent blade and this contains and protects my bio-crystalline brain and my multitude of scanning devices. Omega gravity cells look like bronze studs hammered round my base. These enable me to lift, fly and swoop. My “hands” are five vacuuo-dexetels of the common type and these emerge from the bottom of my body. They are very strong and should my gravity cells ever fail, these dexetels can carry my weight. In movement I would then look like a common, albeit giant, garden snail. I have a tuneable voice ranging from soprano and tenor through contralto to basso. In addition I have full printing capability in my rear compartment and massive powers of reference. I can translate all widely used languages and can read many that are no longer spoken. As befits an autoscribe, I provide secretarial assistance to the Magister of the monastery. When the Magister is sleeping, I can usually be found dangling in the library where I translate, correlate and investigate records. My great interest is History.
For the time being, these descriptions of Lily and myself must suffice. Please be aware that in ascribing gender to either of us I am merely following convention for Lily is no more a she than I am a he. You will discover more about us later for I have come to realize that no human, no matter how wise, can possibly understand how Lily and I saved Jon Wilberfoss and brought him back to his right mind, without first appreciating the influences that have shaped our bio-crystalline brains and the forces that make us tick.
I knew Jon Wilberfoss in a general way from the time he first joined the monastery and came for a training period to Juniper. In those early days he was just another young pilot filled with battle yearning and I did not pay him much attention. There are many such. For most of them the sojourn at the Pacifico Monastery is a quiet and possibly boring prelude to the more hectic life at Assisi Central. Few of the young pilots find their way to the archive section of the library, fewer still take a real interest in history. Jon Wilberfoss was no exception though I can recall that there was a seriousness and a wistfulness about him. He served his time here and then departed for Assisi. He saw active service on a variety of worlds and distinguished himself in alien contact work only to be reassigned to duty here. This was most unusual. Successful contact operatives are highly prized. They are protected and trained and their missions are carefully graded. I now know that this was a period during which Wilberfoss was being tested by the Senior Confreres of Assisi. Wilberfoss however saw his downgrading from deep space Contact Pilot to local Ferryman as an act of Fate and as such something to be pondered on but not resisted.
Wilberfoss returned to the Pacifico Monastery on Juniper. If he was saddened by this turn of events he did not show it. Yet in retrospect I can say that there was always something bated about him, an air of suspension, a tranquillity that yet was not quite peace. I believe that in his heart he hungered for the excitement and responsibility of contact work. But he accepted his lot. Then he fell in love with and married one of the native Talline women of Juniper named Medoc. Wilberfoss quickly settled down to the quiet, domestic occupation of being a husband, then a father. He became the ferryman for the local transit and cargo system. He became deaf to the “siren call of the great space ways” as Melchior calls it in one of his early poems and found satisfaction in Medoc’s arms and breasts. His life became as predictable as the ticking of a clock. Love conquered ambition, or seemed to. He found satisfaction in love.
I know nothing of such satisfaction naturally though I know a great deal about human love from observation. I know for example that love and vanity can have a close relationship in the human psyche though superficially they are frequently seen as opposed.
Let me admit that in writing this biography I have taken some liberties. I have never written a biography before and so have had to learn how to do it as I went along. You will notice digressions, abrupt changes of direction, the occasional cul-de-sac and sections where I find it necessary to pause and reflect and gather daisies. Sometimes facts have been hard to come by. Indeed, the question can be asked, what are “facts” when we are dealing with the dreamscape of the human mind? I have learned more about being human from working with Jon Wilberfoss than is, perhaps, good for a simple bio-crystalline entity such as myself. I am aware as I write this preface that I do not know quite how this biography will end for there are several endings possible and many of them unrealized as of this moment. Finally, I suppose biography is a sub-species of fiction. No one ever tells the truth, simply because truth is an attribute of reality and reality is beyond the scope of art.
All of this is an elaborate way of warning you that I have made up things when I have needed to, as when describing events which happened but at which I was not present. I have tried to be fair. I showed this manuscript to Senior Confrere Wilberfoss during the later period of his convalescence and he asked me to change nothing. Needless to say, perhaps, but those sections in which I quote Wilberfoss directly as when he spoke frankly to me during his wanderings in Lily’s garden, are completely accurate and only the syntax has been changed to allow the meaning to shine out more clearly.
I am a machine, and I have approached the human as closely as I can. Being a machine I have perhaps been able to stare fixedly at those things which make a human blench. I do not for example suffer from moral guilt or despair and hence can look at the temptation to suicide and see it for what it is. Despair is the dark unreality that humans so frequently live with. Lily and I look on and try to help. Being machines we offer no threat and I find it interesting that Wilberfoss mentioned so many times that he found it easier to talk to us because we were machines than to a fellow human being.
Wilberfoss’s only comment when he read my manuscript was that he was surprised at how human I sounded. I think that was meant as a compliment. Let me turn it on its head. Let me tell you: linguistics is easy, recording is easy, adding two and two and getting four is easy, noting references and allusions is easy, using verbs like “to feel” and ‘to sense’ is easy. What I am saying is that it is not difficult to sound like a human. But being a human is not easy. I know. I have watched the struggle. I have heard humans affirming lies and denying truths. I have seen people choose hell over heaven and rejoice in the fact. As I say, I have watched the struggle, and if I knew what envy was I would say with great certainty that I, Wulf, the autoscribe, do not envy any of you, not a one.
I have already mentioned that I love History. What more you need to know is that like all historians, I seek to discover patterns of cause and effect. Whether it be the fall of sparrows and princes or the rise of Superpowers or the effect of disease, famine and drugs on the vitality of populations, there are always patterns, and these can be discovered by the patient historian.
LIFE, as it is being lived, seems to be Chaos. And Chaos is an enemy to both man and machine. In the course of his life a man moves from hurdle to hurdle, from crisis to crisis and counts himself lucky if, at the end of the day, when the light begins to fade he can enjoy peace and a quiet death. Life by its very nature does not allow or encourage contemplation. I am not subject to life or death and so can contemplate even when I am burning.
The soaring eagle sees patterns which are denied to the running mouse, and I like to think that historians, at least in their art if not in their life, are eagles. And of course, a mosaic (for such I call this book) is a pattern which requires the eye of distance for it to make good sense.
In the case of Senior Confrere Jon Wilberfoss, we have a life which I can not deny has something of tragic inevitability about it. A happy man, brought to ruin… or near ruin. His ending, however, is not tragic. It is the near tragedy which concerns me, for we can all learn from that. Jon Wilberfoss was a gifted man who had found some happiness. Then Fate stepped in and took hold of his life and shook it like a dog that is killing a rat.
Fate. I do not know that I believe in Fate. As a machine I am detached from the rhythms and patterns that human beings detect in their lives, which is not to say that I can not detect patterns in my own period of consciousness. I am, after all, a trained pattern detector. The difference is that I do not ascribe metaphysical significance to my patterns of experience while Jon Wilberfoss does, or did. He saw his whole life as shaped by Fate from the day he stumbled into an outpost of the Gentle Order of St Francis Dionysos and took his first vows.
However, since I can not explain the first cause of things better, I must defer to him. We will let Fate stand.
We begin at the moment when Fate comes a knocking……
1. THE CALLING OF A HAPPY MAN
The sound of stone tapping on wood. It is an urgent sound and at the same time it is discrete. It is not a sound for all ears… a lover trying to wake his sleeping mistress might knock in this way.
After each pattern of taps there is an echo which dies in the silence and then a soft voice calls, “Wake up Senior Confrere Wilberfoss. Wake up, sir.” The caller waits while the sleeper adjusts and begins to respond. Then the tapping begins again, slightly harder.
It reaches into the sleeping mind of Jon Wilberfoss and chivvies him, raising him to consciousness from a strange dream in which he was standing on a road and a brown eyed cow was in front of him, blocking his path over a narrow bridge across a swiftly flowing stream.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Definitely louder this time. More demanding. soon a latch will be raised if the summons be not answered and a stealthy figure will enter. For be certain, the one that is knocking will not go away unanswered.
Jon Wilberfoss rolled away from his wife, turning his head from the musky tousle of her hair and releasing his arm from the warmth under her breasts. She, Medoc by name, an alien woman of the indigenous people called the Tallines, murmured like the sea uttering words of her own language and turned on her back, moist lips open. For a brief moment her fingers touched and caressed his naked body touching his chest and then gliding down to his thighs. Reassured she relaxed and released him and slid from a dream of horses to a dream of houses and so back down into the bottomless deep of sleep.
Not so Wilberfoss. Jon Wilberfoss was waking up. He drew the covers back slowly and blinked in the shadowy room. Already his dreams were fleeing into oblivion and he knew who he was and where he was. A man such as Wilberfoss, a trained combatant, did not wake with a lot of ballyhoo. His early training reached deep into his subconscious. He lay still for several moments, aware that his awaking had an external cause and strained to catch the slightest irregular sound. Consciously he breathed silently and deeply to quieten his pulse.
When he was confident that there was nothing unexpected in the chamber, he rose from the bed, a shadow among shadows, and moved across the room to find his gown. He dragged it over his shoulders with barely a rustle and then crossed to the door. The door squeaked when he opened it and the sound seemed loud in his ears: likewise the click when it closed. But the wife did not wake.
Outside in the stone flagged corridor, the passage lights, sensing his presence, began to glow softly. That they were not already glowing gave him confidence that there was no intruder and he smiled at himself, at his own apprehension. Indeed, what intruder could there be here in the heart of the Pacifico Monastery and in a house where the alien goddesses of Juniper held equal sway with St. Francis Dionysos of old mother Earth? Still, defensive habits once learned, die hard and without realizing it, Wilberfoss moved on down the corridor, walking softly on the sides of his feet, alert for anything untoward.
Let us pause and gain some physical impression of this man. Some men are like lions, some men are like horses. Jon Wilberfoss is huge like a bear. He has a loose-limbed gait, somewhat amplified as he now walks down the corridor by his need to remain quiet. It is the careful walk of a large man who is all the time aware that there are others in the world smaller than him and whom he might crush. There is no pride of strength in his walk, no arrogant stepping forth, and yet there is an impression of great strength. He pauses at a door, arms raised and touching the frame and again we are reminded of the bear, standing up in the forest, head cocked, listening. The man who would challenge Jon Wilberfoss would need to be very confident of his prowess.
He turns and looks back up the corridor towards the room where his wife is sleeping. The face is mild, with deep-set blue-grey eyes which, surprisingly, look somewhat timid. The hair of his beard and on his head is short, coarse and blond. The face is tanned and healthy but deeply lined and looks older than one might expect. A seaman who has looked into flying salt spray or stood watch above the coldness of a midnight sea might have such a face. Weather-beaten is the phrase.
The hands too are worthy of comment. Jon Wilberfoss’ hands are large and square and freckled on the back. The fingers are stubby. They are farmer’s hands, fisherman’s hands, hands for hard labour. For those who do not know Jon Wilberfoss, I have observed there is both surprise and delight when they discover the sensitivity with which he plays the guitar or the delicacy of his touch as he mends a fine and fragile beaker made by the potters of old Tallin.
There was no sound from the children’s’ rooms and Wilberfoss moved on.
He did not know exactly what had wakened him. A knocking of some kind… a sound at least… but he knew that he did not want to hear that sound again. His wife would surely wake and perhaps the sleeping children. Besides, only trouble could come with such insistence in the night and he preferred to face trouble alone.
KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.
“All right,” growled Wilberfoss, “I’m coming. No need to wake everyone up.” Then he heard his own name whispered, like a voice from a well, and it made him shiver.
Quickly he entered and crossed the dining room where the remains of the evening meal were still on the table. This house was managed in accordance with Tallin ways and the food of the evening was never cleared from the table until the morning as a mark of respect to the guardians of the house. A mouse, disturbed while enjoying Talline hospitality scampered in a panic for its hole. The fire still glowed a dull red under its patina of grey ash.
Then Wilberfoss was out in the hall. Facing him was the massive front door made from planks of ironwood. He felt a sudden anger at being disturbed in his privacy. “If this is…” he began to say.
With one sweep of his arm, Wilberfoss drew back the heavy curtains which stopped the draught. He lifted the hasp with a bang and heaved the door open.
Note this about the man’s character, he opened the door to his secure home without knowing what was waiting on the other side. He did not know what to expect.
Facing him was one of the small blind servants who satisfy the many practical needs of the Pacifico monastery. It was a woman, as was revealed by the bulky dark blue gown she was wearing. In her hands she held a pair of smoothed balls of granite One of these she had used to tap at the door. Her eyes were closed and the dim light from the hall revealed that she was nodding dreamily to herself as though listening to some inner music. Her face was waxen and unhealthy and it was impossible to tell her age. Her size was little more than that of a nine year old human child.
Wilberfoss felt his anger evaporate. “What do you want?” he asked, and then added foolishly, “Do you know what time it is?” As though in answer the monastery clock tolled twice.
“Yom sorry to waken you, Senior Confrere Wilberfoss,” said the woman in her thick accent and never speaking to him directly but aiming her voice to the side of his face. “Yis asked to call you urgently. Yis told to use special pitch so only you would wake. There is a secret. Youm to come to Magister Tancredi’s rooms immediately.”
“Why? What is this secret?”
“Yo no know.”
“Yo no know. Yis just asked… “
“Tancredi just told you to come and get me?”
“Yes. Magister Tancredi sounded worried… mmm… yes, worried and excited too. Yo no think it is a bad worry. But youm to come immediately.”
The big man peered down into the diminutive woman’s bland unquestioning face. She was one of the Children of the War as they were called: a tribe of several hundred humanoid beings who worked and lived at the Pacifico Monastery of St. Francis Dionysos. Congenitally blind, stunted in their growth and yet miraculously still able to breed, the Children of the War survived only in the benign, albeit unnatural, environment of the monastery. They were all that were left of an entire race and had been rescued from a dying world at the height of the War of Ignorance. That war ended over four hundred years earlier.
“What is your name?” asked Wilberfoss.
“Miranda.” The voice which breathed the name was little more than a whisper.
“Thank you for your message, Miranda. Please return to Magister Tancredi and tell him I’m on my way. Tell him I’m just getting some clothes on.”
The small figure bowed. “Yom doing that now.” She whispered and turned and hurried away. Jon Wilberfoss watched her go. She joined the shadows under the dark fused arches. She moved with complete confidence in the permanent night of her blindness. She glided rather than walked with her arms outstretched and her fingers brushing the columns. Her gown billowed. She could almost have been flying.
Before she disappeared from view into the stacked honeycomb of cells that made up this lower part of the monastery, Miranda paused and brought her hands together in three quick gestures. Wilberfoss heard the hard click of stone on stone.
Wilberfoss shivered, but not with the cold. He experienced one of those strange moments of frisson and, as the ancients would have said, he felt as though someone had walked over his grave. He laughed at himself. “Reading the echoes,” he thought. “She’s just reading the echoes. I’ve seen them do this a thousand times. Everything seems strange at two o’ clock in the morning.”
And with that he closed his door and hurried inside to get dressed.