In a Dark Fibre Age

for R ó

ìIf I have done my job well, what you are about to read will be seen as an analysis of the mechanisms and repercussions of catastrophe, a hitherto unknown explanation of our history, and a chilling warning for the future.î

David Keys, Catastrophe [1999]

Brother Germaine’s room was located at the top of the castleís north-east tower. The room ó or, to be more accurate, cell ó was so high up its tin exterior became sheathed in ice during the winter, and was beaten mercilessly by the summer sun. To say therefore that it constituted an ideal place of abode for an ascetic monk would be to do an injustice to all traditions of obviousness. The cell itself was nothing to speak of, featuring no windows, one continuous circular wall and a simple trapdoor to facilitate Br Germaine’s entrances and departures, as well as a series of paper-thin vents both to aid the entry of the air as well as facilitate the room’s extraction of Br G’s body odours. Ah, the sound of the air’s inhalations and exhalations through those vents, like the whistle of wind through the gap in a beggar’s front teeth! Br Germaine, were he alive today, might enjoy the allusion.

Despite the apparent stuffiness of his cell Brother G complained very little and indeed was seldom to be seen in any other part of the castle at all. He was rumoured to be a scholar, dedicated to both the reading of scrolls and the pursuit of translations, the most remarkable of which apparently involved the deciphering of the call of some obscure cricket, which had long ago become extinct, and whose malodorous song Br Germaine, for some reason equally obscure, must needs reconstruct, through the recollections of former inhabitants of the swampy area in which the cricket did dwell, before the glaciers melted and the whole region became sodden and uninhabitable. Br G spent hours coaxing the sound of the cricket from the throats of these bewildered refugees, and he busily calligraphed vowel sounds, accenting the unique bumpkin inflections with brisk strokes of his reed. “Hmm,” Br G would ponder at the end of each recital, “and now demonstrate for me how it sounded from inside your hut.” Eyes turned heavenwards, the poor peasant would begin again, cheeks flushed from the efforts of his or her continuous carolling ñ not to mention the lack of ventilation in the monk’s windowless cell.

Br G had few friends amongst the courtiers and thus was able to procure precious little support for his projects from the head Knights, who resented the catering bill mounting up due to the need to quarter these familiars of the cricket. Nevertheless the obscure requirements of the religious orders would never be denied, not in a pious kingdom such as this one, where marauders pestered travellers on the roads, saints ascended to heaven upon the moment of their death, taking their bedclothes and beds together with them; where the safest places were the castles, wherein a believer was afforded some small sanctuary, according to his needs. Where news travelled slowly, if at all, due to the treacherousness of the mountain passes and the strange magnetic fields, which sent carrier pigeons off course, necessitating further requests for funding on the part of the good Brother G, to conduct tests upon various helmets for the birds’ protection, not dissimilar to those employed by harriers to make their hawks look more professional. This of course required interviews with helmet makers and harriers, at the Knights’ expense, and much needle- and leather-work.

Br G never asked for much for himself, being a somewhat fussy eater, and so it came to pass that his insane experimentations (of which the cricket dialect and the pigeon helmet were but the first and least ambitious) were tolerated, though barely. The Knights, whose political organisation was structured according to the principles of ignorance, a not surprising philosophy given the castle’s remoteness, though they did become worried by Brother G’s excessive catering bills and strange requests, did also in all truthfulness depend upon the monk for news of the outside world, which he always seemed to possess, despite barely ever leaving his cell, as already detailed. The Knights had lost count of the number of times they had witnessed G relating the death or birth of this or that obscure noble blooded infant, only to be told the same story three months later, as if for the first time, by a returned horseman on the verge of death or else struck with some obscene palsy, or a goitre that emitted incredible volumes of pus. On each occasion, after blessing the expiring body of the messenger and catering for his horse, the monk’s knowing visage could be seen to smirk, or nod briefly, as if in prayer. “Amen,” he would reportedly murmur, apparently mimicking a cricket’s voice as heard underwater. And then he would disappear again, into his cell in the tower, not to be heard from for several more months.

As already alluded to briefly, Brother G considered the day to day minutiae of the court a triviality, bordering on the facile. He had little tolerance for handkerchiefs of any kind and found the courtiers’ hose affronting. It was as much as he could bear to hear the ladies’ confessions on the evenings when the friar was indisposed, to listen to the pageboysí interminable tales of seduction, intrigue and venial sin. The arrogance of these people! Brother G considered it a penance, or a kind of homework, which was ironic in a way, as he usually continued to read in the confessional booth, the protective screen hiding him from both view and counter-surveillance. Upon the completion of each admittance he would murmur, “and what did the voice sound like from under the sheets?” Truth be told, Brother G also took notes during the confessions, and would retire at the end of his shift to his cell once more, trailing behind him a long cream parchment, upon which his various scrawlings could be discerned, like the malleable wings of dead black crows. His paint brush, nearly worn out from its calligraphy, he would tuck behind his ear.

He loathed archery, jousting, the hurling of rocks from catapults, the hurling of dwarves from any device, the smarting of a lance against armour, armour itself, the lute, harps, veils that covered the face, pointed boots, trumpets, felt caps with feathers in them, handkerchiefs of any kind, mead, chain mail, venison, other chunks of meat, crossbows, dancing, singing, laughter and draughts. Those things the pious brother liked could be counted on one hand, and usually were. To him even a breeze was offensive, being the remnants of a Satanic wind. A pheasant’s egg pleased him, though only in the abstract. He disapproved of helmets except when worn by carrier pigeons, harriers and hawks. He spoke several insect dialects fluently and grew to love the sound a cockroach makes when tearing through paper in the dark. Treacle, for some reason, did not offend him, and he devoured it as if he were the earth devouring pitch, which, as the astute reader has by now gathered, Brother G hated vehemently. Of all the things he loved, however, Brother Germaine loved email the most.

Yes, for while most residents of the castle dwelt in a dark fibre age, wherein news travelled slowly if at all, Br Germaine was fortunate enough to be in possession of a wireless network connection with seemingly unlimited downloads and an impressive connection speed: far faster, he had to admit, than even the swiftest helmeted hawk or (soon) carrier pigeon. The network connection enabled Brother Germaine to receive emails on his access device, a machine known these days as a laptop but in those cleverly disguised as a hymnal. Emails would come in, and he would be alerted to their presence by a small chirruping not dissimilar to that of the fabled and extinct cricket whose language he had soon mastered, along with those of several sea creatures including the whale and the flounder, whose visages he had never glimpsed and yet, nevertheless, whose entire way of life and culture he had grown to know and love even more than his own. A slight twitch of Brother Germaineís mouth would open the message and inscribe it on a piece of otherwise blank parchment, to be read at his leisure, either within the confessional booth or without, which is to say in his cell, for the length of time he spent between these two places of refuge, while necessary, he did limit to the merest fraction by sprinting boldly with his robes held skirtwise in his hands.

Once safe inside his booth or cell, ventilated by means of ingenious slats and slits respectively, he would be free to compose a reply (using one of his various email handles, for example germaine@theknightscastle.com, or themonk@thistediouscastle.net), either to the initial sender or to a group of like-minded email enthusiasts, for let it not be assumed for a moment that these dark fibre ages, of which we speak and write so mockingly, were ever as backward or unsophisticated as we now assume, there being even within the realm of the kingdom in which the castle was located scores of monks and nuns whose connection speeds would leave many a twenty-first century bourgeois awestruck, mouth agape, or slightly silly in the head. Brother Germaineís address book was indeed filled with addresses, as is only proper, ranging in significance from that of his spiritual master and guide, the enigmatically named yourmaster@jesuits.org, to his fellow monks and novitiates on the FreeThomasAquinas listserv. All in all, including vast amounts of spam of a religious or salivatory nature, he received approximately 3,000 emails per diem. Which called for a great deal of sifting and careful management of email rules, as well as good old fashioned deletion. Only then would he turn himself to the act of correspondence.

On this last point Brother Germaine was at a slight advantage over his contemporaries, having been already introduced to the reader as an inventor and thus having perfected, within a very few years, the art of voice recognition software, which enabled a writing quill to mirror even the most elegant spoken Latin on paper without the slightest effort on his part, much as a modern day etch-a-sketch reproduces in exact parallel the most complicated of diagrams. This explains, to some degree, the massive amounts of time Brother Germaine spent in his cell, ostensibly praying but, as we all now know, in fact replying to his dozens of contemporaries, some sixty different news and hobby lists, innumerable inquiries from monks the world over seeking information on topics ranging from the proper dimensions of a carrier pigeonís helmet to the word for ìluteî in this or that insectoid dialect, masses of invitations to moderate public chatrooms, numerous requests of a financial or sexually implicit nature (deleted), and, lastly, the odd message from his spiritual mentor, the aforementioned yourmaster@jesuits.org.

These messages, fortunately archived for us, reveal a deep affection between the two correspondents, as well as an encyclopaedic level of garrulousness. While the sum total of inquiries directed to the monk’s superior brain by well-wishers and spiderers from far and near alone might account for a sizeable modern-day library, preserved in a CDRom much as a beetle beneath amber is trapped and readable, the to-and-froing between Br G and his spiritual mentor might amount to the equivalent of all the lost wisdom of the civilisation at Teotihuac·n, if that can be conceived of in these warlike and unenlightened times. Their conversations sprawled like mountains across continents, taking in both the large and the small, including: the mating habits of prairie dogs; the question of lava’s similarity to pus and the implications for various medicinal treatments; the origins of the species including dogs and whether they once existed in the wild, roaming in packs, marauding much as modern day bandits persecute travellers, wearing bandannas; the wisdom of wearing bandannas; the question of time zones and their relevance to the playing of chess across long distances; the feasibility of ridding the world of toads; the language of toads and its translation into the languages of the insects; the possibility of a common language through which to unite all the languages, dialects and pidgin of the animal kingdom; whether it is possible for a man to love a boy, or a boy a horse; how to shut down a website or hack into the personal account of one’s opponent, laying bare his financial and private details; how to scrawl obscene graffiti across the front page of another’s website, without leaving a trace of implicating evidence; whether a hug conveys the same emotion as a kiss; how to make one’s fingers or whole hand transparent; and so on.

Of course, being an inventor Br G had automated many of the tasks associated with his correspondences so that a trigger such as the slightest cough, or even a shrill cricket whistle, might call forth a trojan horse to clear his inbox of guff relating to jousting, moats, scabbards, small boys or other equally tedious topics. Likewise his replies, though always considered and courteous, followed a set order, based upon the rules of etiquette he had learnt existed in the cricket community, and which had been built up over countless millennia to avoid confusion between speakers (or, more accurately, trillers) in a large congregation. So it can be seen that Brother G had more than enough to occupy his time without attending to the tediosities of the court, the utter boredom of the jesterís gags (the hand lodged firmly in the armpit, then the bringing down of the elbow to produce the obscenely unfunny simulacrum of flatulence being the least among these so-called jests, at which the assembled courtiers and madamery enrobed in their finest handkerchiefs would naturally titter and snort, it not being in their make-up to remember the previous million occasion on which the same jest had been performed).

Brother G, however, also maintained a string of bulletin boards, web logs and fully-fledged cyber-portals, all of which required constant updating, not to mention protective vigilance against the vagaries of both digital decay and terrorist pranks. These, though time consuming to rectify and tedious in their ultimate expression, amused Brother G more than life itself, and he did himself, it must be admitted, engage in various acts of lurking, trolling, flaming and (now we have said it) hacking. All of these acts were engaged under this or that pseudonym, it being traditional even then (when there existed very few traditions per se) to mask oneís identity ñ indeed, entirely to transcend the physical by means of methods various, the least of which were prayer and imaginary flights along dotted lines, through the shaded areas of Venn diagrams and across the borders of magnetic fields the latter of which, my alert reader has no doubt already ascertained, shall play no further part in this expostulation.

It was the performance of the hacking act just mentioned, whose name derives from a symptom of the plague that becomes apparent mere seconds before the fabled rivers of pus run from the victimís eyes, that would prove to constitute Brother Gís appendix, that is to say, a completely unnecessary foible. Let it be stated at the outset that had the good monk resiled from engaging in such childish (nay, boorish) acts, his time on this earth may have stretched on longer than it in fact did, plague symptoms notwithstanding. Let it also be said that these acts would eventually provide no small encouragement to latter day monks and celebrants, even at young ages. This, it must be stressed, constitutes a bad idea, setting an example almost as foolish as that set by the Emperor Justinian of Constantinople, who in the sixth century AD decided that the best way to rid the city of plague was to bury its victims in pits, seventy-thousand at a time, and to pay workers vast sums to lance said corpses, thus allowing the pus to run in rivers, and to press the bodies closer together, as in a wine press. But enough of history.

As I was relating, Br Gís greatest error was to attempt to hack into the cyber castle of his spiritual guide, mentor and yogi, the infamous yourmaster@jesuits.org. Gís motivation for this suicidal prank remains unclear, though perhaps an unfortunately-worded email from the aforementioned, or a suggestion that a particular act of vandalism had been a trifle passÈ set the good monk off. Perhaps even the master himself had dared Brother G to attempt the impossible, to enter the lair of his six pronged beast and perform the necessary decapitations. Who knows? Whatever the reason, it seems that this attack upon Gís supposedly venerated leader was connected, in part, to the arrival at the castle of a certain Knight, whose name has been struck from all records, including those of Guinness. It is related that one summer, when the heat in Gís cell was at its most oppressive, he did seek refuge in the catacombs beneath the castle, wherein cool breezes, though still Satanic, did blow, as if from the very armpits of the earth. There liquids also did trickle from the rocks, creating pools which, upon certain days of the year, became filled to the brim with refreshing cool waters. It is also related that Brother G entered one of these pools and, finding its temperature either too cool or too soothing (we shall never know), decided smartly to leap from the water and to seek his relief elsewhere.

Thus it came inevitably to pass that G was scurrying through the castle court when its gates were opened to admit a miniature knight on a normal sized camel, returned from who knew what province of the mind, for both the knightís finery and the camelís humps were sandblasted to within an inch of ignominy, verily, most wretched in appearance. The Knights, long may their names be remembered in the annals of thyme, suspended immediately all plans for a large-scale trumpeted welcome, and instead offered their brother a small flask of mead, which he did decline, thus proving his Knightliness, while also raising Brother Germaineís opinion of him. The camel, being possessed of no such restraint, barked loudly and eloquently, speaking thusly of its torment, and was for its pains offered a straw. The small Knightís tale, though wondrous, seemingly impressed Germaine not in the least, for it has not been found amongst his precise and voluminous G-drive. Suffice it to say however that despite conjecture and hearsay, it is probable that the tiny Knightís tale concerned the overthrow of a religious order in some far-flung province, and the exposure of a certain impostor as a philanderer and bad draughts player.

The overthrow of said impostor, whom the height-challenged Knight implied was in fact himself, had involved various criminal and barbaric acts, including the attachment of his followers to the wheel, the lancing of their eyes, the curdling of their brains in vats of boiling water, and the hacking of their limbs from their torsos, with disastrous implications for those amongst them whose task it had been to play the harp, or the lute. His followers, faithful to the last, sang tremulous hymns as the horses galloped off in inevitably opposite directions, their tuneful and sonorous songs melding with the hideous sound of their tendons being ripped asunder. Decapitated heads decorated poles, while intestines replaced bleached wigs in the incredibly sophisticated and long-winded operatic performances of the victors, whose time shall come. Throughout the region the stench of burning flesh relayed the news of the religious order’s downfall, and the stealing away of its leader, the aforementioned impostor. For while the small Knight did himself possess a wireless internet connection of the most astounding speed and reliability, his whole order’s communications system had been struck by a massive denial of service attack, causing them to be routed both cybernetically and in person. His escape constituted a small miracle, and he therefore now formally requested asylum within the walls of the Knights’ fine castle, so as to avoid the fate exacted upon his followers by the barbarians.

While the Knights were no doubt saddened by the small personís tale and its implications for the safety of their own castle (not to mention the potential destruction of the intricacies of court life attached to it, however trivial), its import must surely have disturbed our Brother G even more greatly, for the small knight, by referring to the overthrow of his religious order, had related what would normally in the castle have been dismissed as old news ñ that is, a piece of news of which Brother G would already have heard; or, sneering, might have related himself in far more grisly or ghoulish detail, perhaps with reference to the lays and elegies sung by the beetles and scorpions of the region, in perfect insectoid harmony. Alas! It was all news to Brother G, who now looked upon the exiled Knight with more than a little curiosity, bordering on respect. Something about the lack of brevity in the small man’s account of his misfortunes struck G as familiar ñ for all in all, allowing for both drinks breaks and recesses, wherein the assembled were allowed to top up their goblets of mead and select chunks of venison from the vast number of platters scattered throughout the hall on gigantic throw rugs depicting various scenes of honour and glory not unlike horizontal tapestries, the Knight’s tale was over seven weeks in the telling.

Upon its completion the monk awoke as if from a dream and realised that his inbox might now actually be full to overflowing with assorted spam, Nigerian currency hoaxes, epistles and digests. To his horror, Brother G found access to his account had been suspended, due to the large volume of gunk in said inbox, some eight million messages in all. Despite all of his skills as a hacker and knack at fixing temporary workarounds all of his accounts remained iron-bound as war-chests, causing him no small angst. He began to sweat, and to stammer in a dialect that could have been the colloquial slang of several species of snails, intermixed. He banged his head against the wall of his cell, sending slight echoing shudders throughout the tower, to no avail. Brother G was on the verge of seeking solace between the legs of one of the courtiers or else a maid when he heard a slight scuffling at the trapdoor carved into the floor. Astonished, he yanked the handle upwards, to discover ñ come, you know not whom? Surely, you must be joking! You mean to tell me that this hardly elaborate fiction, concocted upon a whim as a temporary cure for boredom, has so addled your brain that you do not know who it is at the trapdoor? Spare me.

The miniature Knight peered up at Brother Germaine, calmly assessing the situation, then hauled himself into the cell proper. Staring at Brother Germaine keenly the small man introduced himself as “Your Master”, at which Brother Germaine did kneel and kiss the Knight’s hand, though even having done so it still required no small effort on Brother G’s part for him to bend his head down far enough to reach that hand, which was no greater in size than a pheasant’s egg. From the moment his lips touched the Knight’s small, icy hand, the monk’s body and soul became infected with a peculiar virus, to which he would have remained impervious had he never met his spiritual guide, master and (let it now be said without shame) true love. Brother G spent his last moments looking into the Knight’s tiny eyes, which purred in the growing darkness, as sparks from a faraway fire sometimes catch the eye. Brother Germaine felt himself lifted from consciousness and as he rose so too did his deathbed, each stray length of straw retaining its place amongst its fellows, like pick-up sticks glued together in a vain effort to annul the universe’s final act of catastrophe.

Edited version originally published in the Sleepers Almanac (2005).

O hai, you were saying?