the winter trek

A tale of a book

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 14 Mar 2023



          It would have been inappropriate, even disrespectful, to further question the visitor along such lines.  Yet the main question still remained unanswered and bred a host of doubts in some of those present.  Why did he come to such a small place to carry out this business, and who could this mysterious commissioner be?  Some guessed that it must be a new Church edict, announced in many places, of which they hadn’t yet been informed.  The officials on the next supply ship could settle that point quickly enough.

          But other priests weren’t content to wait so long and were quietly thinking of ways to pry more information from Jonathan without angering him.  The chief secretary suspected that Jonathan was mad and an imposter of sorts.  But he didn’t dare take the risk of unmasking a scoundrel.  "Let others do the prying," he thought, "and face the danger."  He would orchestrate the plot and step in when there was glory to be got.

          With all this thinking going on, the table had quieted down to a strange peacefulness.  The sweetbreads and tea were brought in, and to restore good cheer the old priest kindly asked Jonathan if he would treat them to a travel tale, as he had done the last time he was there.

          Because Jonathan had done little else than wander the globe for over ten years, receiving the hospitality of the high and low, he’d developed quite a repertoire of stories for all occasions.  It was the one way he could pay back his hosts and leave them glad of his visit.  With the repeated telling of these stories he had fine honed several dozen of them, and could vary and bend them to the interests of his listeners.

          But on this evening, feeling quite bold after his successful battle of wits with the priests, he decided, after a moment's pause, to relate a story that he hardly ever told.  It was a long and somewhat disturbing tale, with dark overtones and implications for the Church.  He’d never even thought of telling it to a body of priests before.  It was the story of a book, a bible even, and full of woe.

          So he took one large draught of tea, cleared his throat, and informed the whole table that he’d share a tale of a voyage he’d made many years before, in a place far, far to the north, a story he called: "the book that got away."

          “Many seasons ago, when I was first sent across the ocean from White York, I was assigned to be part of a special team of commissioners.  There were five of us and we were to travel through the inland towns of the old continent, to check into the purity of their rites and their temples and their houses.  We were also to search the region as best we could for any hidden caches of printed matter.  There had been several reports of large numbers of books found and this greatly disturbed our Church Fathers.

          We were equipped with fine outfits and staffs, and the highest seals and commissions.  These would supply us with any help or gear we might need along the way.  We left from the port of White Lond, and when we reached the continent we appropriated a large carriage and driver and set out on our way.

          In the first few seasons we were very successful in our hunt, going into villages and offering badges of merit to anyone who would lead us to contraband.  We found and burned many volumes and destroyed many hidden caches of old jewelry and pictures and crucifixes.  In the larger towns such searches were unnecessary.  But we would visit them to turn in our lists and reports, and rest while we plotted our next excursions.  We were always well received, and treated with all the courtesy and comforts the temples could offer.

          We found, over time, that the further inland and north we travelled, the more matters stood in need of amends.  Unlike other continents, the interior of this land had never been depopulated by migrations.  Towns and villages still stood where they had always stood.  Of course there were far fewer inhabitants, and many towns were deserted.  But these places hadn’t been destroyed like the ones in the new world.  Only the old churches had been toppled.

          Many of the houses still remained, though not one in ten was occupied.  And though all of them had been checked over, there was still much to be found in basements and hidden corners and attics, leaving us heaps of contraband to destroy, as was our commission.

          By the fifteenth season of our labors we had travelled to the furthest reaches of the north.  We’d left a trail of bonfires behind us in every village, so rich was this region in forbidden relics.  Because of the poverty here it was hard to convince the inhabitants to part with anything they owned.  They had many dark blankets and utensils which we had to replace before we could take from them, and our carriage was always busy running back and forth to the nearest city for such materials.

          Winter was almost upon us when we heard in one of these hamlets of a settlement further to the north, straight down the river we were on.  We heard a tale from a peasant that an old priest still practiced in that place and led a small flock of faithfuls in the old style, in a church, and read to them from a large, dark book.

          It was against my advice that we ventured out at all.  Snow had lately fallen and the wide river was solid with ice.  But our aged leader prided himself on his thoroughness and couldn’t be deterred from one more expedition.  There was no road along this river and no sure information, and the weather was getting bad.  But I used all my powers of persuasion to no avail.

          Our leader wouldn’t wait until Spring or until guides and equipment could be brought up.  We were told by several of the townspeople that it would be an easy two day trek along the river, and was impossible to miss, as it was the only feature besides the river in this flat and treeless land.  We packed some camping gear in knapsacks and a five-day supply of food, and set out on what seemed to be a serene winter morning, taking with us only the informant, whom I didn’t trust.

          So the five of us set out on foot, with our guide, along the river's edge.  There was a light dusting of snow on the frozen ground, fallen a few days before, but our progress was easy.  The air was still, yet it seemed heavy, and we travelled that whole day through a desolate, flat landscape, whiter than the best of man's efforts, and an eery silence, broken only by the crunching of the ice beneath our feet.  We camped that night in our three small tents, after a warm meal heated up on our camp stove. By morning the temperature had dropped considerably and another light snow had begun to fall.

          As the day progressed the snowfall became heavy.  The air was still, but now our feet sank many inches with each step, and we had no snowshoes.  Night fell early and we still hadn’t reached the village.  Our guide told us that it was only a few miles ahead.  We set up our thin tents in the dark, nibbled on the few morsels of food that were not frozen solid, and shivered miserably the whole night, as the wind now began to blow.

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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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