Ivory Saints

Yea, I hated all my labor which I had taken under the sun, for I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me – Ecclesiastes 2:18

On the morning of All Saints Day, Brother Matej rose, as was his custom, an hour or so before sunrise in a small cell of that great edifice called by its inhabitants the Hallow, which was to them all that was left of God’s creation. Brother Matej was a hewer, a title reserved for those whose dedication to Creation came in the forms of whittling, sculpting, and repairing the masonry of the Great Edifice. For years, he had studied its stark, sturdy forms: the styles of buttresses, the art of carving arches and window-ribs, and the faces of gargoyles. He had memorized the Gospels not in words or letters like the scriveners, nor in elaborate stories told in images like the glazers or the nopographs who made windows and frescoes, but in the pale and stony faces of the saints, of Holy Mary, and of the Lord himself that adorned both the inner and outer walls of the Hallow. He retained, of course, a healthy respect for his brothers and sisters of different vocations. And yet, he felt he’d seen too many windows smashed by birds, too many faded frescoes, too many manuscripts blown away in a strong wind, to put much stock in their graces. His was a theology of stone; it covered his head, it supported his steps, it kept him from the harsh wind. 

Rising from his bed, a small straw and sawdust mattress in a corner of his chamber, he donned a simple set of burlap robes and set to washing his face. He was a man wrinkled but not yet bent by age, with a beard as long as he could manage that was mixed of brown and gray in equal measure. He had dreamt again about the statue of St. Nicholas, which had stood since he was little by the door of the Hall of Innocents, a living quarters for young boys, promised at their births to the service of the Lord, where he himself had spent his earliest years. The statue had been carved, so the elder brothers had told him, long before the Calamity that had sent their humble refuge adrift, and yet, its humble face of rough granite still bore a kind of stoic kindness, a promise of cool, silent, but unending presence. It was a composite of every greybeard brother who had been his teacher, every man graced by age and solemn labor with a kind of immobile grace. It was a face he now realized his own had come to resemble.

The statue had borne savage winds and years of wear; you could even see the spot on the saint’s foot which, having been rubbed so many times by penitent young acolytes in the hope of a blessing, was much more worn than the rest. These days, he turned his attention towards smaller figures, in contrast to his brothers who made large sculptures or who repaired walls or buttresses. It was with the faces of his figures that he took the most time and energy. Brother Matej wanted to ensure they all gave that same sense of stoic kindness; he must have carved the face of St. Nicholas hundreds of times by now over his years of whittling and sculpting for the Edifice. There had been no question of how best he could  serve; what did God’s people need more in their exile than a teacher?

By now, the sun had begun to rise, and the great bells in their spires would soon ring out to wake everyone for the holiday. His goal today, on All Saints, was to replenish his stores; for him it would not be a day of rest, although it would be one of remembrance. His workshop was now full of fragmented pieces, from small hands or heads he was to reattach to whole new statues or figurines. The floor was covered in a thick layer of the shavings and cuttings that were the byproduct of his labors. He swept them casually out of his path with the hem of his robes as he walked. The refuse did not trouble him. His was a quiet spire of a quiet wing of the Edifice; he never expected visitors. He pushed aside the curtain that served as the door to the outside (the Edifice was by this point too wood-poor for proper doors, especially not for such a humble servant as himself) and stuck out his hand to test the weather. He saw that the clouds were not dark with rain water, and the winds were strong as ever, but not so fierce as to cause worry. Today would not be a bad day for climbing. Brother Matej spoke the prayer, so quickly and automatically it barely counted for speech, “Let me not today O Lord fall into the vastness of your fury, but guide my foot to the firmness of your Creation, Amen”, and stepped out onto the ledge.

This side of Hewer’s Minister had once been a stairwell, but a century of winds had torn away the outer wall, and the stone had been needed elsewhere. What remained of the tower’s outer wall had collapsed into the emptiness some decades ago. As he climbed, carefully placing his foot on each remaining stone step, his hands into each of the handholds carved into the walls by his predecessors, Matej could see the place where, some hundred meters below, the Refectory of St. Moritz had once been. He remembered when, a few days into Lent, a part of the structure holding it tight had broken and half of the Refectory had collapsed, falling into the roiling clouds and open sky below. They had lost a lot of good masonry as well as some of the gardens that had grown valuable food, but by His grace, no bodies. He’d been there, just having finished his novitiate, to help with repairs, to salvage precious material, and to help the Sisters tend to the wounded, such as there were. It had been a bitter Lent that year, and the feasts at Maundy Thursday and at Easter had been more meager than in years past. As per every year, they had given thanks to God for all the masonry they had not yet lost, all the bodies still with them.

According to the Chronicles, at first a good bit of arable land had escaped the Calamity, along with the Edifice. Over time, however, it had been worn away by wind; it had been too loose, too soft. Now, what little they had, they guarded closely in gardens, surrounded by walls of stone. That was their world now; the scriveners kept the holy books, the deacons and priests kept order and held mass, the sowers kept the gardens, and the hewers devoted themselves to its enduring integrity — body and soul. He continued to rise higher and higher along the tower, slowly moving closer to his goal. 

The Edifice itself was vast, and he could see it now almost in its entirety. The first generation of hewers had calculated that, once all the original buildings of the churches and the monastery had been properly attached to one another, there would be some 40,000 square meters of space. There was, of course, less than that now, but in its labyrinthian passages that linked chapels, refectories, scriptoria, and dormitories, one could feel all the vastness the place once had. Half-hallways strung together with rigging now connected what had once been streets, and under the mighty dome, enough roofs for a whole village were now kept safe from erosion by rain and wind. A whole city had collapsed slowly into itself, suffering as the church has often suffered the strain of staying together. The walls were all covered in decorations – paintings of a thousand styles, inscriptions in Latin, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Slavonic. There were some scriveners who still claimed they could read it all and sought to transcribe all of it in their pages, although no one in the Edifice had spoken anything but Latin for generations. The winds brought plentiful sand, and so windows were easy to repair. Matej always thought the glaziers were a bit smug. They never had to struggle, as he did, to find materials. He thought it gave their pieces a brittle, unearned holiness; what beauty could there be without suffering?

Between the four main spires, each named for a writer of the Gospels, was one of the Edifice’s great domes. Although the surface was now cracked in some places, and parts of it  had fallen, the dome was still remarkably stable, and some of the early brothers had run chains along its length so that it might be climbed with ease. It was to this dome that Brother Matej had come, bearing some simple tools of his trade; a small mattock, a hammer, a chisel, and a cleaver. Climbing from the last of the remaining steps of the tower onto the smooth surface of the dome, he quickly set about to work. He was not there to cut stone from the dome to use elsewhere, which would have been a much more difficult task. Nor was he to work on the dome itself, and so he ascended to that highest part which had been named the “Calvary.” The bishop himself had requested a new set of candlesticks to be used in mass, as well as a new chalice to celebrate Christmas, and both would require a finer material than stone.

He ascended via a chain to which small bolts of red cloth with prayers written on them had been tied. It was common for loved ones to give these to the necrophores as they took the bodies of the dead from their homes and began their ascent up the Edifice. Since it was not practical anymore for large funeral gatherings to be held, families gave a little scrap of material, a little flax and dye and language, in thanks for a life and a body. For even the Son of Man did not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many, Brother Matej thought to himself. They were all brought here, or to another of the high places, along with a wooden cross that a hewer like him would make every Lent. It was one of the few reasons that wood would be dispensed, out of respect for the deceased. There had been great debate, Matej had learned, in the decades before his birth, on what to do once there was no land left for graves. This seemed to him an elegant enough solution; as Christ gave his body for us, so we give ours for his creation. Part of them he would take, and make last with that same stoic kindness as the faces of the saints once everything else had been stripped away; the skin for parchment, the hair for rope, the flesh to feed birds, which would in turn be hunted to feed families. By the time he arrived, there would be nothing he could not make use of. It made sense enough, at least to a sculptor. Everything was stripped away, removed, so that what was perfect might remain, just like with marble or wood. 

He walked gingerly between the rows of crosses, pulling a corner of his hood across his mouth and nose, so the smell would not make him stumble. His eyes scanned their rows, looking for those from whom birds had already torn the flesh. He managed to find one, completely cleaned, bleached white by the sun and scoured by the wind. He could see that it had been the body of a large man. Matej wondered for a moment, as he often did, who he had been in life, how he had served. Had he been, perhaps, a brother like himself? A father, or at least a groom? He could never tell at the beginning, but when whittling was done, it was usually clear to him. He never knew how he knew, but bone had a truth-telling quality to it when it was carved. He had made pieces from mothers into which he’d inscribed a prayer to mother Mary, from young sons taken before their times by disease, from gardeners, their backs bent with the habit of their work. It always mattered to him. It always showed in the work; gardner’s bones often became the faces of those most nurturing of saints, a hunter’s femur was often useful in repairing a buttress, for its strength. He wondered if someone would see St. Nicholas in his arms, or maybe in his leg, when the time came. He knew, at least, that his beard would make for good rope. One of the sisters had told him so after seeing him with it for the first time since the seminary. 

He scanned the body, looking at each limb with a view to what should be made of it. All the teeth were still there. These would make a fine rosary, once he polished down the roots into spheres. Tibia and femurs made the best candlesticks, and all of his were intact. For the chalice, he would need the skull; sometimes these were used for candelabra, but none were needed at the moment. Everything looked in order. Inwardly, Matej gave thanks to God for the good health of this person. May I live, to die so well, O Lord! This would supply for several fine pieces, surely. He drew his cleaver with his right hand, and placed his left on the cross on his neck. O Lord, grant unto your servant, this sinner, eternal life. Amen. He reached up with his left hand to the femur, and set his cleaver to the joint between the knee and the tibia. It only took one swing. Thank God the weather was dry, which made the bone more brittle. 

Brother Matej kept at it until his pack was mostly full; he’d taken the legs as well as the arms, although the birds had gotten at them for marrow, and he’d gotten the skull. He preferred to take as much as possible; none of it should go to waste, especially not when all was present. Having finished his work, he made the sign of the cross over his chest. Taking careful steps back towards his workshop, he set about pondering the inscription he should set into the skull. He reckoned the bones had been those of a teacher. They were unbroken, respected, even by the birds. As he made his way back down from the Dome, he began to whittle a face, full of stoic kindness onto the leg bone he planned to make into a candlestick.

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