Bergen, Norway, September 1528
The mendicant monk had heard few good things about Bergen and even fewer about Norway, the land where he was born, about which he had forgotten so much. A lost and windswept land, it was said. The towns were far apart. But Bergen at least was a town of some size, and if the beard-cutter had settled here, it certainly meant that he had found what he sought among the young men of the town.
The coastal vessel on which he arrived from Rostock was the type that the Hanseatic seamen had used in the olden days, and some were still in use up here in northern waters. They were good at sea but could not compete with the Dutch and English trading ships. The ship was carrying flour, salt, and several casks of ale, of which the crew had partaken greedily during the crossing. On the last night of the voyage, during a boisterous drunken debauch on the foredeck, a seaman had fallen over the railing and drowned. The mood onboard was downhearted, because the drowned sailor had been only fourteen summers old and well liked. Not that the mendicant monk understood why. For his part, he couldn’t help but be a bit amused by it all. The boy had wailed every single night of the voyage, so the monk hardly got a wink of sleep. But thanks to a sudden sea swell, the beggar monk now arrived rested in Bergen. All was as it should be. A sailor’s life was short and dissolute. Few would truly miss the drunken little lapdog.
They glided into the harbor called Vågen, and the crew was busy taking down the sails and finding a spot to drop anchor. It was autumn, but winter had come down from the tops of the fjells above the town. He could count seven mountains, all capped by a thin white crest. Down in the harbor a light rain was falling; each drop described unbroken rings on the dark surface of the water.
The monk’s gaze swept over the town. It contained no more than ten thousand souls. Apart from Bergenhus, the fortress overlooking the harbor entrance, a few churches, and scattered merchants’ houses, Bergen was constructed exclusively of timber. He had never seen so many wooden buildings so close together. Even the town wall looked like it was made of bare logs. In the last stretch before the boat dropped anchor, he amused himself by imagining how well a town like this would burn.
Arriving at the wharf, he settled up with the first mate for the journey and hung his leather purse from the belt that held his cowl in place. He was a mendicant monk in possession of a heavy money purse. For an itinerant man like himself, it was occasionally necessary to stretch Brother Francis’s commandments a bit. It saved him from unnecessary delays and detours.
The mate wished him well in his travels before heading for the nearest marketplace. The monk simply stood there, feeling the hunger that had afflicted him during the entire passage from Rostock. But fresh food would have to wait a while longer.
Sequence is everything, he thought. He had learned these words from Master Alessandro. Even though the master’s words referred to the way one dissected a body and not to a hasty mission in an unknown town, they were useful. Like nearly everything Alessandro said, they could be employed in many situations. And sequence was truly more important than everything else if he were to come away from this town with the booty he was after.
But first he had to find a swift way out of here.
Once he had possession of the knives he would continue north in the direction of Trondheim. That’s why he was looking for a Norwegian vessel. There were not many of those along the German Wharf this morning. A woman pushing a handcart past the docked boats, trying to sell home-baked goods to the sailors, told him that many of the Norwegian boats tied up along the strand side of the harbor. As he stood there listening to a long and confusing description of the quickest way around the harbor of Vågen, he was surprised at how quickly the Norwegian language came back to him. It was fourteen summers since he had been here last, and the language was the only thing he hadn’t forgotten entirely from that time. The language, and his mother’s face.
He bought a small cake from the old woman and thanked her for the help. Actually, he did not like the idea of going all the way across town before everything was arranged. What if he ran into the beard-cutter and was recognized? But it didn’t look as though he had any choice. He could clearly see all the cutters, fishing boats, and dinghys that lay docked on the other side of the harbor. They were precisely the sort of small vessels that carried passengers and goods along the coast of this mountainous land. He pulled his hood up and headed off.
It is said that the air of a town makes you feel free, but it certainly didn’t smell good. After several days at sea he had almost forgotten how a town could irritate the nostrils. Bergen was no exception. On the contrary, the usual stench of drains, sewers, and putrefaction was spiced by the odor of rotten fish and decaying wood. The monk felt an urge to hold his nose as he walked down the alleys at the end of the harbor, but he thought better of it. He did not want to do anything that might attract attention. He walked straight ahead without looking up and without making eye contact with anyone he encountered along the way.
When he reached the strand side there were even more people in the streets. Here they all spoke lilting Norwegian. The houses were smaller and there were more turfed roofs. He asked for directions and found a commercial house that did business in the north of the country.
“No, none of my boats are sailing this morning,” said a diminutive merchant, giving him a skeptical look. The shopkeeper was a man of almost fifty summers. He stood inside the dim storeroom of his house, among barrels and stacks of dried fish. His skin had the same grayish-white color as the fish, and he spat on the floorboards to punctuate his words.
“Why is a grayfriar such as yourself in such a hurry?”
“I’m a grayfriar on a mission. I’m also a grayfriar who can pay his own way,” said the monk, starting to loosen the money purse from his belt.
“Some people might claim that makes you something other than a grayfriar,” replied the merchant dryly, but the monk could see that the weight of his purse and the jingle of the coins had made an impression on the man.
“There’s a sailboat—a fembøring—sailing north to Austrått tomorrow morning. It’s not my boat, but I’ll talk to the first mate. But I have to warn you that the boat is owned by a high-born lady, and she’s not particularly fond of grayfriars like you. You’d do well to disembark before the boat docks up north at Fosen,” he advised.
“That might suit me well for several reasons. I have no desire to associate with noble folk who have renounced the holy Christian faith. Believe me, I’ve met enough of them in the German lands,” he said with conviction. Then he promised to pay well for the journey, since the first mate would have to defy the ungodliness of his mistress and give passage to true Christian folk.
Then the monk went to buy what he needed for his continued journey: a good leather sack, some dried meat, and several bottles of wine. When he returned to the commercial house, he also bought some dried fish, which he added to the sack. At the same time he learned that an agreement with the mate had been reached, and he could now seek shelter for the night. The merchant told him the way to an inn.
“Are the proprietors well-known in town?” the monk asked before leaving.
“There is no Bergenser, living or dead, that the mistress innkeeper cannot gossip about,” the merchant replied.
* * *
The merchant was right about that. The mistress of the inn loved to gossip.
The stories she told about the beard-cutter were not news to the monk, and he listened without interest. All he cared to learn was where the old master cutler did business. In between all the ridiculous rumors, half-truths, and exaggerations the innkeeper gave him enough information so he would be sure of finding his way the next morning. Now he knew where he would carry out his only real mission in town. He had to do it early in the morning. But not too early. It was important that there be little delay between completing his business and the time his boat sailed.
He lay on the bed in the room he had rented, letting a rosary glide through his fingers as he meditated over the seven joys of Mary and mumbled Our Father, and Hail Mary, Full of Grace. The inn was a drafty, timbered house. Autumn brought cold nights in Bergen, and the frosty air crept in through all the cracks. It turned out to be a sleepless night.
* * *
Before the cock crowed he was out on the streets of Bergen. Hoarfrost covered the turfed roofs, and the puddles left after yesterday’s rain had a thin crust of ice. He cinched his cowl tightly about him and followed the innkeeper’s directions from the night before.
When he arrived and opened the door to the dark room where the beard-cutter tended to his customers, the well-known artisan had just gotten up and was sharpening his knives. It was early. Nobody had yet arrived to have his hair cut, drink a glass of ale, or chat away the morning, as was the custom in places like this. The monk took a step into the room but did not lower his hood.
“I think you must be in the wrong place,” said the beard-cutter. “Here we do no work without payment, and my cupboard is bare, I’m afraid.”
The mendicant monk stood there looking at him from the shadow of his hood. The beard-cutter hadn’t recognized him. Not so strange, perhaps. Many summers and winters had passed, and he was no longer a youth.
“I have come neither for food nor to purchase your services,” said the monk.
The beard-cutter set down the knife he was sharpening on a little table next to a set of other knives meant for various purposes. He was a master with all these knives. For the moment he hardly did anything but trim beards and lance boils. But occasionally he might be called down to the wharves to amputate a gangrenous leg from a seaman. The time for great deeds was past.
Before he retired to this lonely town at the edge of the world, he had been assistant to Master Alessandro, down south in Padua. And his hands were behind many of the great master’s discoveries about the human body. They had spent nights together in secret, bent over the stinking remains of criminals—the beard-cutter with his knives, the master with pen and parchment.
As a young boy, the monk had been forced to lie under the bier, listening and breathing in the smells until he fell asleep and the beard-cutter carried him to bed. The sight of the knives brought back childhood memories: the smell of wood and newly sharpened knives, and of almost suffocating on the stench of rotting human corpses.
“If it isn’t food you want, there must be some other reason why you are here,” said the beard-cutter.
“You’re right,” replied the monk. Then he sprang forward. His fist landed where he intended, and the beard-cutter slumped to the floor. The monk tore off his hood so that the light of dawn coming through a hatch in the wall lit up his face. The beard-cutter stared up at him in confusion.
“May God have mercy on my soul,” he said. “It’s you.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for a heathen as rotten to the core as you to turn to the Lord,” said the monk.
“You’ve returned from hell. What have you come here for?” It sounded more like a plea than a question.
“I’ve come for your knives,” said the monk. “Better knives cannot be found in all of Christendom.”
Copyright © 2011 by JØrgen Brekke
Translation copyright © 2014 Steven T. Murray