Cathay

The cabin boy looked down from the crow’s nest, trying to make out the shapes of waves breaking against the ice floes in the fast-encroaching darkness.

“There’s nothing to see down there.” The old sailor muttered from behind an ice-flecked beard. “It’s too dark.”

“I liked it when it didn’t get dark all night.” The cabin boy blurted out, after a few seconds.

“Yeah, that was nice.”

“Is it true that the Sun doesn’t come up all winter as well up here?”

“That’s right.”

The old sailor pulled his cloak tighter around him, as the wind began to blow harder and colder from the frozen ocean.

“I can’t wait to get to Cathay.” The cabin boy said, into the wind.

The old sailor didn’t answer. He probably hadn’t heard.

“What do you think Cathay’s like?” The cabin boy continued, not put off by his companion’s stern countenance.

“Dunno. Never been.”

“I bet it’s amazing.”

“Yeah, probably.”

The cabin boy stopped talking, as if trying to think of something else to say. The old sailor was humming something, low and vague and tuneless. The cabin boy looked down again but in vain now, for the night had wrapped around the ice floes and the sea and the ship.

In the crisp moonlight, the old sailor pulled a piece of dried fish out from somewhere inside his cloak, tore a piece off, and began chewing, loudly. He handed a piece of his fish to the cabin boy, who tore at it with his teeth like a dog playing with a bone.

The sailor went back to humming his incoherent dirge. The wind was quieter now and the creaks of the sailor’s lips became one with the creaks of the ship far below, its anguished groans and pitiful sighs, heard by none but those within.

The cabin boy yawned, and a big cloud of his breath condensed in front of him, before disappearing into the night.

“Tired, huh?” The sailor observed.

The cabin boy nodded.

“Same.” The sailor continued. “But it’s too cold to sleep.”

The cabin boy took a gloved hand out from inside his cloak, and an absent-minded finger began rubbing abstract, swirling patterns out of the frost on the mast, sparkling in the moonlight.

“Have you ever seen the Northern Lights?” He said, suddenly.

“Yeah, I have.” The Sailor responded.

“What’s it like?”

“It’s beautiful. It’s nothing like anything else you’ll ever see.”

“Where do you think it comes from?”

“Dunno.”

“I hope I get to see it.”

“Don’t worry. You will. We’ve got a long winter night coming.”

“It’s my birthday in a week.” The cabin boy came out with, out of nowhere.

“Is it now? Well, I’ll remember to say Happy Birthday to you then.”

“Do you think we’re almost in Cathay?” The cabin boy asked, unsticking his glove from the frosty mast.

“Dunno. There’s no charts out here. Nobody’s been here before us.”

The Arctic wind had sent a great mass of cloud in front of the moon and right across the sky, and now the only things an eye could anchor on were the torches on the distant deck, before endless unknown and icebound darkness.

“Is it true that in winter all the sea up here freezes totally solid, like rivers do, and it doesn’t thaw for months?”

The sailor said nothing. He probably hadn’t heard over the wind and the waves. The cabin boy kept talking anyway.

“But we’ll be alright. We’ll find some land and wait for it to thaw and we’ll keep going to Cathay. We’ll be alright. Won’t we?”

The wind had picked up again, stronger than before. The cabin boy sunk his chin down into his coat.

“Won’t we?”

The crow’s nest swayed, the great oak beams moaned, and the unseen wind shrieked in the masts and hissed in the rigging, tearing across the unknown ocean.

The Experiment

“I want to show you a project I’m working on at the moment.”

The staircase wound up around the turret, its murky, twisting darkness ruptured by strips of blazing Sicilian sunlight through the arrow-slits. Frederick walked in front of me, his cloak rippling behind him as he negotiated the narrow and uneven steps.

“What is it?”

“You’ll find out.”

The Emperor stopped at a thick, dark door, where a Saracen guard waited, his weathered hand resting on his sword’s elegantly-crafted hilt.

“You see, I never managed to discover the language of Adam and Eve.”

I made a vague noise of acknowledgement.

“The problem is, when you deprive infants of all human contact, they don’t learn anything at all. They need to be shown attention and affection just to survive. So that one ended up as an abject failure.”

I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t really want to know what had happened.

The guard bowed. Frederick said something to him in stern and abrupt Arabic, prompting him to stand to attention once more. The King pushed on the door and it slowly swung open.

“My guards are all Saracens.” Frederick explained to me as we walked inside. “You see, the problem with Christians is that they’ll just do what the Pope tells them. He says I’m getting excommunicated and I’m taking them with me, and they’re gone just like that. I mean, it’s understandable. Nobody wants to spend eternity getting prodded by a demon with a pitchfork.”

My eyes wandered around the room, bathed in the Sun’s dusty rays. There was a row of books on a shelf at the far end, and there was a table with pieces of a huge range of plants lined up, most of which I’d have no chance of identifying. There was a row of glass bottles next to them, distorting and magnifying the light coming through them, casting it into golden patches on the back wall.

On another table, beside an unlit candle with stacks of old wax rising up and surrounding it, a book was open, written in black ink in a precise, practical Arabic hand. I could not read Arabic, but I could make out diagrams of lines meeting and intersecting with circles in deep, black ink against blotchy parchment.

“What I am working on has the potential to either prove or to disprove the very foundations of Christian thought.”

A lizard lay on the window-ledge, its tense and sleek body soaking up the Sun. Hearing our footsteps, it scampered adeptly up the wall and into a crack between two stones.

“This way.” The King of Italy said, briskly, leading me round behind a bookcase. A pale, greasy-haired servant boy was sitting, hunched over, on a low stool next to a large, oak barrel, with an array of ropes holding it firmly against the ground. There was a noise from inside it. Something scraping against the inside, and letting out a strange whimper.

“This is what I brought you here to see.”

“What are you keeping in there?”

“Take a closer look.”

I bent down towards the barrel. There was a hole drilled in one side of it, about big enough to fit two fingers through. I peered in.

There, faint in the dark, was grey and clammy skin.

As my eyes got used to the dark inside the barrel, I made out more features. There, naked and emaciated, crouched in the barrel, with his knees pulled right in under his ragged and tangled beard, was a man.

He slowly began to turn his face towards the hole, and I recoiled at the mere thought of those sorrowful eyes, pleading to be released.

“What do you think?” The King asked, smiling.

“What are you doing?” I responded.

The King of the Germans turned to the servant.

“How’s it going?” he asked

“It’s going fine.” The timid servant replied.

“How long do you think we have left?”

“I think it’s probably a couple more days yet.”

Frederick continued, casually turning back to me. “You see, my purpose is to observe the soul of a man.”

He saw my surprised expression and smiled to himself.

“To that end,” he continued, “a man, like you saw, is deprived of food and water. Lacking such necessities, after a few days, he will perish. At that moment, if there is a soul departing for Heaven or for Hell or for wherever it goes, it will be forced to leave through the small hole in the barrel. My servant will inform me when the moment is imminent, and I will be ready to observe.”

Frederick bent down and stared through the hole, with a big grin. There was an incoherent groan from inside, and the ruler of half of Christendom stood up once more.

“Make sure you keep watching closely,” he said to his servant.