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The Gospels of Innish Bawn


It is only I who am left, on this jagged rock, with guillemots and kittiwakes for company. Yesterday, I buried Brother Fintan in a shallow pit and covered him with slabs of granite in the crowded cemetery. He was my uncle and it was he who brought me here.

My parents died of fever and I, a child of seven years, was like to follow. Then Fintan arrived at our bothy on his way to join the monks of this sea tossed isle. My only kin. I often wonder why he did not leave me with some village woman. Perhaps, he feared that I should be ill-treated or sold into slavery. I like to imagine that during the weeks of my recovery my uncle grew fond of me and could not bear to be parted from my affection—although, in later years, he must greet all outward show with a blow from his staff until I learnt to keep it as hidden as myself.

He was mindful of his sinning against The Rule; it weighed heavily. He bade me take the name of Cormac and guarded me close. My hair was shaved back to a high forehead like his own. There are those who call for us to cut our locks and adopt the roman tonsure.  I hope not. I have no cause for vanity, but once, in a piece of glass, I saw my flowing auburn tresses, my eyes of deep sea-green, my moon pale face, and was startled by my own beauty.

This is a bleak and savage place. Sheer and forbidding. Blasted by storms and chill winds. We cling to steep sides with only a slender niche between two craggy outcrops on which to build the crude stone dwellings of our monastery and cultivate a small thin plot, mulched with seaweed. We catch what we can from the sea, net birds and scramble for their eggs. There are few visitors and whilst they may bring gifts of honey and mead it is the ingredients for our life’s work that the monks most crave. The lapis lazuli. The cornelian. The flecks of gold.

All my childhood was spent in the Scriptorium under the tutelage of my uncle. To become his equal in talent. My fingers are ink-stained black. We labour on The Gospels of Innish Bawn. They are the light and joy of my days, for which I endure all hardships. From the first, Brother Fintan marvelled at my quickness; how deftly my fingers fashioned and held a quill, how eager I was to gobble up each word—not simply to scribe but to understand. From rough practice on course hides, my skill flowered on to the fine smooth vellum of our gospels. And it was not simply at writing that I excelled but in the depiction of all manner of beasts and demons and holy men of god. My uncle took this as a sign that we were blessed, for his own eyes were fading.

Once, when I found the sharp gaze of our abbot narrowed on me, I flushed and trembled that he had pierced my disguise. I felt his salty breath on the soft down of my cheek.

Your gift honours the Lord, Brother.

I sighed with gratitude.

My gentle brothers are gone. Taken by the pestilence. My eyes strain out across the roiling waters to catch sight of the boat which must one day come. And yet, even as I yearn toward the sliver of land which lies shrouded on the slate grey horizon, I dread approach. Without protection I may be discovered and undone. Worse, my holy brothers shall be defamed as I am branded their sinful temptress.

And who should then credit the artistry of my hand? My decade long of toil? Or permit me to continue?

I pray to finish our glorious Illumination. The days pass in a fury.  No one comes. Then, of lapis lazuli mere grains remain, of gold a few specks and of the cornelian—which makes such a brilliant red, there is none. 

I contemplate the final page. The last sacred words outlined in charcoal black. It is not enough. Here should be both terror and ecstasy.

I know what I must do.

I stand on the cliff edge, pale with coming death. My life blood has seeped from the slits in my wrist but I have used it wisely. The iron red juice bled into a mix which swirls and dances across the parchment. Shades which conjure fire and death melding into colours which rise in radiance to speak of unbridled life.

And one last; in the margin I have signed my name and it is not Cormac.

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Rosie Cullen was born in Dublin and now lives in Manchester, England. Her career has included theatre, front of house, and puppeteer but principally writing for theatre, film and TV. She was Programme leader of MA Screenwriting at Bournemouth University. In recent years she has concentrated on prose, both short form and longer and is developing a series of historical crime novels.

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