by Eric Mayer & Mary Reed
Eric Mayer and Mary Reed also co-write the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in 6th century Constantinople published by Poisoned Pen Press. They are at work on their ninth Lord Chamberlain novel. Learn more on their website.
“You’ve heard of the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury?” Professor Wilkens leaned forward in his wing chair to pour another shot of scotch from the bottle sitting on the edge of the hearth tiles.
“It’s supposed to bloom only at Christmas, isn’t it, outside Glastonbury Abbey — The same place where those twelfth century monks dug up some bones they passed off as King Arthur and Guinevere?” said his friend Lawrence, with his journalist’s mix of exactitude and scorn.
The two men had pulled their chairs over to the fire in the professor’s paneled study. Beyond the window, a fine veil of snow caught the lights of Oxford and cast upon the February garden a pallid glow that might have been mistaken for twilight except for the late hour.
“Legend says the bush grew where the saintly Joseph of Arimathea thrust his staff into the ground,” said Wilkens. “I can’t vouch for the supernatural properties of the Glastonbury Thorn myself, but I have seen one very like it, near a ruined abbey in the Fens.” He paused to take a sip of scotch. Its warmth reached nearer the chill he felt than did the heat from the burning logs. “I wouldn’t return to look at that thorn bush for anything in this life.”
“You say the abbey was in the Fens?” asked Lawrence, his curiosity piqued by his friend’s uncharacteristically somber demeanor.
“A few miles south of a village modern map makers have apparently given up for dead. No, before you ask, I wouldn’t give you directions any sooner than I’d give you directions to your own grave site.”
“How did you hear about this place?” asked Lawrence.
“It was mentioned very briefly in a fragment of manuscript by William of Malmesbury. Hamilton, the chaplain of St. Mary’s, passed it on to me. I tracked the site down through Ordnance Survey maps and correspondence with several vicars in the surrounding countryside.”
Wilkens took another drink, and as he tipped his head the firelight caught a touch of gray that had not been in his neatly trimmed beard when Lawrence had last visited Oxford. “Oddly enough,” he added,” the vicar from the village nearest the ruins never replied. Let me pour you another.”
Lawrence held out his tumbler. He knew that his friend, a professor of theology, took a scholarly interest in medieval religious relics. Not just garden variety relics like the Holy Grail, or the True Cross but those of a more curious (Lawrence would have said “absurd”) nature – The nails of the Passion, the Holy Lance, the preserved arm of Saint Augustine of Hippo, the tongs Saint Dunstan used to grab the Devil’s nose. But Wilkens’ attitude had always been one of skepticism, albeit coupled with more respect than Lawrence could have managed.
“What was it about this thorn then?” asked Lawrence. “Does it only bloom on All Hallows?”
Wilkens ignored his friend’s attempt at a joke. “I can only tell you what I was told, when I visited the site,” he said. “It was early December when I received a letter which seemed to me to confirm the location of the ruin where the bush grew. Or had once grown. The weather was unseasonably cold but I really couldn’t contain myself so I gathered up my O.S. maps, climbed into my van, and headed north.
“I neared the place at twilight. Snow covered the ground but mists still hung above the ditches – you know, they take the place of hedgerows in the area. I drove through several villages. Each seemed more devoid of life than the last, probably because it was growing late and the wind was getting up. After a few wrong turns, I came to the stone vicarage and church I was looking for. The house was small, the church a squat, Saxon structure.
“It was the sort of scene you can encounter on the outskirts of any village. But, as soon as I turned off the engine and stepped into the silence outside the van, I had the feeling I was being watched. All I could hear was my own breathing and the faint ticking of the cooling engine. Still, the feeling grew until I was sure there must be something coming up behind me. I spun around, expecting a Doberman perhaps, or some other kind of guard dog. But there was nothing.
“The trip must have frayed my nerves. I forced myself to walk slowly to the vicarage. No one had bothered to salt a path from the road to its door. I could feel the frigid air in my nostrils and my chest. There were none of the smells you associate with the countryside. Only cold.
“I wasn’t surprised when no one answered my knock. The windows were a dead black and, despite the cold, not a breath of smoke rose from the chimney.
“‘Is anybody in?’ I called, wanting to hear any voice, even my own.
“There was no answer. The church was equally lightless, and it occurred to me that maybe my correspondent was wrong and the place had been abandoned.
“I still felt I was being watched, and now I was uncomfortably aware of the failing light. Across the road, the snow-covered Fens retained a dull, metallic sheen, but objects nearer – the vicarage, the gravestones in the churchyard – were already growing indistinct. As I searched for the source of my uneasiness, I spotted, across the churchyard, the shape of a ruined archway. The abbey!
“The ruin was less impressive than I’d expected. Many of the stones had probably been cannibalized for the church and vicarage, as usual. What remained was a single wall, part of the cloister buildings – the frater perhaps. Four archways with two lancet windows above, tangled in vines and rambling bushes. Beyond the ruin stretched the Fens — flat and featureless except for the mists.
“I found the thorn bush near the end of the ruined wall among broken weeds and bent saplings. My eye was immediately drawn to it.
“It grew shoulder-high. Hawthorn-like. Black. Its limbs were arthritic and swollen, devoid of any hint of leaf or bud, let alone blossom. Each thorn was at least an inch long.
“The hairs on the back of my neck prickled as I looked at it. William had written about the thorn in the twelfth century, and even then it had been an ancient legend. I tried to imagine how it had survived in this desolate country, lifetime after lifetime, watching the winds erode its sheltering wall.
“Some curious trick of the wind had cleared the area around the thorn’s base of snow. Under the twisted branches, the ground was as undisturbed as the dusty marble floor inside an unopened mausoleum.
“Sharp crystals of snow were blown against my face. My cheeks stung.
“Then something touched my leg.
“It was a barely perceptible touch – the stiff fingertip of a frozen branch blown against my trousers.
“But when I looked down I saw that the bush was motionless, unaffected by the movement of the air around it, as if the thorns caught the wind itself and held it. And, besides, I was no closer than two feet to any of those branches.
“I stood there for a while, until night had closed in completely. Just as I turned to go after it, a pale wisp of motion beside the ruined wall caught my attention.
“A figure came toward me. The man’s plain black suit faded into the night. His clerical collar glowed palely.
“Apparently it was the vicar who’d been watching me, accounting for my uneasiness.
“‘You would be the Reverend Owen,’ I said, when I’d got over my surprise. I proffered a handshake, but he ignored it. I was afraid I might have scared the poor man out of his house by my arrival because he was not only coatless but shivering violently.
“He confirmed he was the vicar and after I’d introduced myself he invited me back to the dwelling.
“‘You’ll want to hear the story of the thorn,’ he said, with no trace of emotion. I wasn’t surprised that he seemed to have guessed my mission, since he had found me staring at the thorn. But I did wonder why he hadn’t approached me sooner.
“The stone building was, if possible, even colder than the open, but at least it offered protection from the wind.
“‘Make yourself a fire,’ said the vicar, indicating a pile of exceptionally dry wood stacked near the fireplace.
“Once I got it going, the room it illuminated was Spartan. A kind of wooden bench — a converted pew perhaps — served as a seat. The walls were of old smoke stained plaster, and entirely bare. It might have been a monk’s cell, and yet I sensed something wrong.
“‘Would you care for some port?’ asked the vicar.
“I declined. I wanted to keep a clear head.
“‘Why don’t you sit,’ he suggested. I sat on the hard pew, but he remained standing, a few feet from the fireplace. He was still shivering, but he made no effort to stand nearer the flames. He looked to be in his fifties, but his features were drawn and had the pallor of illness.
His first words confirmed my observation.
“‘As vicar here, ‘ he said, ‘I have naturally taken an interest in the history of this place and lately, having been ill, I’ve had more time to study. I will tell you what I know.’ When he spoke, it was with the assured manner of someone who has delivered countless sermons. He said, “‘The Bible tells how Joseph of Arimathea begged Pilate for the body of Christ, and how he wrapped the body in linen and placed it in a sepulcher. Proper burial is a thing to be desired.
“‘Beliefs were not so well settled in those days, or in the time when Joseph visited Cornwall – to inspect his tin mines, it is said. Where Glastonbury Abbey stands now, the man who buried Christ thrust his staff into the ground and it grew into a thorn which blossoms only at Christmas. Christians would call it a miracle – pagans, magic.’
A shudder — it might have been a chill — ran through his stooped frame. He paused, but he didn’t hold his hands out to the flames. And in the silence, I again had the feeling of being watched. I was alarmed, since I’d attributed my previous uneasiness to the vicar’s surveillance. My gaze went to the window facing the ruined abbey. Orange firelight wavered on the old bubbled glass. Nothing outside was visible.
Making an effort, I said, “Was the bush I looked at really cut from the Glastonbury Thorn as William of Malmesbury claimed?
“‘Yes,’ said the vicar, still shivering but not so violently. ’A dispute arose among the monks of Glastonbury. No one remembers what it was over. There were hints of Mithraism or worse. Nothing that anyone would care about today. One night a monk, whose name has been lost, or purposefully obliterated, slashed a cutting from the thorn and he and a few disciples fled to the Fens. Like the Cistercians, they preferred a wild country where they would be allowed to worship in their chosen manner.
“‘The cutting grew where it was planted, and where it was planted the monks built an abbey. But the supernatural properties of this thorn were different from those of the Glastonbury Thorn. Maybe it was because these monks held different beliefs, or God had just changed his mind. The bush budded, but the buds, few in number, never opened – until one of the monks died.’
“‘You mean the bush foretold the death of the monks?’ I couldn’t help interrupting. William’s fragment hadn’t hinted at such a thing.
“‘What does it mean really? The chronicler noted events, which seemed to be linked. For every soul who stayed in the abbey, there appeared a bud. It blossomed at his death. This was a very long time ago, before even King Lucius, who was our first Christian King, according to tradition. And within a few generations the Order of the Thorn was dissolved.’
“‘Condemned for heresy,’ I guessed.
“‘Hardly so simple as that,’ said the vicar. The firelight flickering across his face seemed to reveal the skull beneath the translucent skin. ‘There was an Abbot Worgren who began a painstaking study of the thorn,’ he said. ‘He recorded the appearance of each bud, as a newcomer arrived at the abbey, and each bloom, when a soul departed. Then one summer, though he was still a young man, he fell victim to one of those fevers that haunted the marshes.
“‘Sick as he was, he made his daily visit to the thorn. Then, on St. Luke’s Day – an ironic date, since he is the patron saint of physicians – he noticed, to his horror that one of the buds was swelling.
“‘The fever intensified, as if the fires of Hell burned inside his skull. By the next morning, Worgren began to slip in and out of delirium. In a rational moment, he ordered two monks to carry him to the thorn and saw exactly what he feared. The swelling bud was near to bursting. He knew it was his own life, and that, come morning, it would burst into bloom at the first touch of the rising sun.
“‘Worgren had come prepared. He pulled from his robes a knife from the refectory and loped off the bud.’
“‘And he continued to live?’ I hardly dared ask. “He defied God and continued to live?”
“‘God is not so easily foiled. The abbot…continued. Whether it could be called life, in any proper sense, I cannot say. His flesh wasted on his bones. Certain ligaments and muscles do not, apparently, decay so quickly as vocal cords because it was reported, during the subsequent hearings on the matter of heresy, that the pile of bone and rotting flesh on the abbot’s cot continued to twitch long after the screaming stopped.
“‘But his soul did manage to extricate itself finally from its fleshly tomb, exiting through a hole in the mummified skin near the right heel, according to the legend I was given. Afterwards a presence was sensed wandering the abbey. It may have been his soul. Or something less…Christian.
‘The buildings were abandoned, the Order dispersed.
“‘But the thorn survived?’ I said.
“‘Perhaps it would not allow itself to be harmed. Eventually these stories were all dismissed as monkish legends and a church was built on the site.’
“As the vicar finished his tale a gust of wind screamed across the churchyard and pounded at the window. And stopped. Much too suddenly. I turned to the window and saw behind the bubbled glass a face — or a whorl of mist with two black vortexes where eyes might have been.
“‘I jumped up but when I reached the window the thing had vanished. Had it been windblown snow, or mist, or a trick of the old glass? Outside, beneath the window, I saw a dimly glistening trail. It was as if the snow turned to ice there and reflected some light from the cottage. The trail wandered back through the ancient, lichened gravestones toward the ruined abbey.
“That night I slept poorly on the hard bed, in a small room adjoining the parlor. I didn’t dream of ghosts. Instead, in my nightmares, I felt myself drawn into a terrible geometry outlined by the twisted black branches of the thorn.
“At dawn I threw off the tattered blankets, anxious to be up and about and to question the vicar further. He was one. The fire in the parlor had died during the night and the room was frigid. The place was coated with a thick layer of dust. Snow had seeped through a chink in the window. On a table near the cold fireplace, sat an old bottle of port, frozen solid.
“Looking around, I realized what had disturbed me about the room. It was the home of a man of God, but no crucifix hung from the wall. There was however, over the grate with its spent ashes, a pale, cross-shaped marking on the plaster, where once a cross had protected the wall from the smoke.
“I remembered how the vicar had not bothered to sit, or warm himself.
“I raced outside, calling him over and over.
“But, as you will have already guessed, there was no answer, now the sun was up.’
Professor Wilkens paused. He very slowly poured the last of the scotch from the bottle on the hearth. Lawrence stood, to prod a few flames from the ebbing fire with the cast iron poker. From across the way came the snow muffled sound of the ringing of Christ Church bell.
“God help me, Lawrence,” Wilkens said, at last. “I wish I’d bolted for the van and fled immediately after I had heard the story. If I’d seen St Dunstan’s Tongs lying at my feet, I shouldn’t have stopped to pick them up. But after a moment passed, I began to feel foolish. So I crossed the churchyard. It was a bright morning. The sunlight on the snow dazzled my eyes. The thorn, when I reached it, had no supernatural aspect.” Again, he paused, and Lawrence waited, looking into the rising sparks.
“A vicar, a man who believes in God, should trust in the promise of an afterlife, don’t you think?” asked Wilkens. “Now, in daylight, I saw clearly on one of the twisted black branches a white scar, still covered in frozen sap, where, within the past few weeks, a piece of the bush had been cut off.”
“You mean your vicar had followed the abbot’s lead and cut the bud off to prevent his own death? You were talking to a ghost?” His friend’s demeanor came nearer to convincing Lawrence of the possibility than any logical argument could have. “No wonder you won’t return there,” he said.
“I suspect many ghosts wander those ruins,” said Wilkens. “Monks who took the same course – who preferred even a cold, phantom existence in a world they knew to a promised Kingdom of God they couldn’t be sure about.
“But that isn’t the reason I will never return.” He finished the last of his drink. His face was flushed, but the color hid an unhealthy pallor. “I’m not so young now, Lawrence.”
“What do you mean? You’re barely middle-aged.”
“I spent the night in the vicarage, built with some of the stones from the old abbey. And that morning, on what had been the bare branches of the thorn, just below the cut made by the vicar, I saw what I’ll never dare to look at again – a single bright green bud.”
© 2005 Eric Mayer and Mary Reed