The dye in the night.
As he trekked forward to the stone wall, Oisín couldn’t help looking over his shoulder at the Abbey in the distance. If he was quick, he could return home before dawn, leaving Brother Raymond none-the-wiser. Bumping into the wall tore his eyes away from the towers and huts, returning him to the journey ahead. Though the wall was low enough to mount over but high enough to keep the ewes in their field, he was struck by what the interlocking rocks represented.
If they could speak, he imagined, they would remind him how they defined his life since he was a mewing babe, malnourished and left in the woods, saved by Brother Raymond, given an apprenticeship in the scriptorium. They would say how he was kept safe from a world that had failed to kill him only for a moment of pity from his childless father.
But as Oisín hoisted himself and his empty satchel over, he imagined retorting they too had limited him from exploring, siding with Brother Raymond scolding him as a toddler, forbidding him from venturing out. How was he to learn the glory of creation, the crafted beauty of nature, the symphony of creatures, and depict them in books if he couldn’t leave the Abbey? The pleas of the stones drifted away with each step, passing the slumbering mounds of wool, pretending not to be repulsed by the sheep droppings beneath his feet. He was as successful as he was at not glancing back to the Abbey.
An hour passed before he arrived at his first destination; an overgrown meadow hidden behind bushes offering only glimpses through partings of broken branches and torn leaves. Oisín, as he slipped through, recalled Brother Raymond teaching him that these were signs of creatures nearby. Brother Raymond had failed to mention what he meant by “creatures”.
Though Oisín was average height for an eleven-year-old, he was still dwarfed by the wild-flowers as he entered the meadow. The cool moonlight above morphed the plants into streaks of shadow and highlights that whipped Oisín’s eyes and tickled his ankles, unnerving him to where he needed to stop, tending to his stinging eyes. It took a few seconds for the creature following Oisín to stop too.
Over the low whisper of the breeze, he heard the padded feet and sharp sniffs before they fell silent. The rustle of plants he assumed were natural were now imbued with nefarious intent. The night became deaf as he looked around him, hoping to find what was following him. A sparkle of gold caught his attention, flickering yards away passed the swaying plants. A barely audible tempted foot landing on dirt caught Oisín’s pricked ears. The creature was growing bored.
Oisín’s feet sprang forth, punishing the dampened soil. The plants became a thundering rustle, wailing around Oisín as he forced himself forward to the shimmering golden flower. The creature gambolled forth, becoming one with the rush of air it sliced through. If it wasn’t for the raspy breath of the creature, Oisín would have wasted time to confirm it was uncomfortably close. He knew, as he closed quickly on the source of the colour, he had only one shot to grab the plant and make his way to the woods. Oisín veered slightly to the left, struggling to keep his hand out as the plants whipped his palm, but he needed to be ready.
It took only fractions of time for Oisín to erupt, leaping from the thick overgrowth. It was there, blurring passed him in a streak of gold; woad, a rare flower that ironically produces blue dyes. In the time it took for his outstretched hand, now reddening from the lashes it received, to make contact with the stem, Oisín could just make out, in his peripheral, the eyes of the creature lusting after him. The blackness of the pair were so deep they contrasted with the very night itself. Even the dark, ragged coat of fur seemed shades brighter by comparison. Oisín’s fingers closed on the plant and tore out the roots in a quick yank.
With a contracting crouch, Oisin, landing with a skid, sprang to his side, crashing with a painful thud on his ribs, dodging the dark mass hurling itself forward. The creature streaked passed, vanishing back into the overgrowth, emitting a winded whine as it tumbled across the ground. Wincing himself, Oisín got to his feet and sprinted to the looming forest, visible even from the heart of the meadow with trees stretching so high they blocked the stars.
It was a while before Oisín came to a stop, propping himself against an enormous tree trunk. He was so far in the forest that the meadow was nowhere to be seen. In fact, very little could be. The moon and stars were hidden behind the overcast of treetops. Oisín mused he felt like he was back at the abbey with the familiar sight of the looming brothers sneering down at him as he ran errands for Brother Raymond. The brothers who didn’t work in the scriptorium, like the trees, were fat and pompous, thinking they were better than others because they clumped together disapprovingly.
Oisín pulled himself from his fantasies, realising he still had the woad in his hand. The bright gold of the petals kept their luminosity in the forest’s shadows. He tucked it into the satchel before surveying the high tree branches. The next item he required was Lichen, a flakey moss that grew on branches. Unfortunately, Oisín realised he had a new challenge ahead of him. Lichen has a heavy tone similar to stale blood, making it difficult to see in this darkness. Oisín sighed; he had to climb the trees.
Oisín, despite catching splinters and slipping on sap, didn’t take long to reach the sturdier of the branches and balance himself upright. He was now so high up that the ground below appeared as a shady fractal of litterfall and dirt. Oisín, disorientated, shook his head and refocused on the branch. A patch of lichen was growing further down it. Though the branch was thick enough to support his weight, there was still a bounce as he gingerly placed a foot ahead of him. It was too far to stretch of it, so, reluctantly, he lowered himself onto his stomach and pulled himself forward, enduring the coarse surface sliding across his body.
Half way to the lichen, a quiet snap startled Oisín. Though reflexively he looked to the base of the branch, he knew it sounded further away. He looked down to the forest floor, unnerved by the return of those consuming, black bottomless pits. The creature was sitting patiently in the shadows, leering up at Oisín, waiting for the wrong move, misplaced limb, or snapped branch that would deliver dinner tenderised and winded with a crippling smack.
Stirring him from the churning in his stomach as he locked eyes with the hungry creature was the thought of how Oisín had lost track of time. Without a clear sky, he couldn’t tell the time. Refocused, Oisín inched forward, ignoring the creature as it hungrily lapped its tongue in anticipation. He came to the large patch of lichen and briefly thanked God for its size. To produce a strong rouge for pink and purple dyes, he would need as much as he could get. Reaching back into his satchel, he pulled out a blunt blade with a rough leather handle and proceeded to shear the flakey fungus. Oisín grimaced in annoyance as he allowed small shavings to sprinkle down. Every ounce mattered, but he still couldn’t risk losing his balance.
Several moments passed and after awkwardly gathering the last of the lichen, Oisín scooted back to the trunk, relieved. But now the creature became more ominously pressing. Like Oisín, it too approached the centre of the tree, clawing at the trunk. Descent wasn’t an choice anymore, nor was waiting. He was more than halfway through his mission. He was so close. Oisín resigned himself to his fate; he had to jump from the tree.
Oisín, clinging to the trunk for support, saw a thicker branch within stepping distance that directly faced another tree with lower branches. With a groaning lurch, Oisín tossed his body with another branch, spinning on the ball of his feet, gripping onto the trunk to stop the momentum that otherwise would have sent him over the edge. The creature, fearing its meal was escaping, darting to the side.
Oisín followed the stretching branch with his eyes. Though it tapered, it seemed thick enough to perform a running jump. His deliberation was short as he kicked off from the trunk, barely landing on the branch with the opposite foot before switching, ensuring his weight didn’t strain the branch. As he dipped, his weight finally too much, he leapt forth, his hands facing out, his legs tucking in, hopeful that they may land or at least soften the blow. Oisín entered a stormy cloud of leaves and crackling twigs, scraping his skin and flickering his eyes, blinding him, before the tree winded him as he landed on his stomach, hoisted by a branch.
For one successful second, as he saw the creature staring up at the former tree, confused, Oisín laughed and was thankful he didn’t land on a more sensitive part of his anatomy. But that moment quickly evaporated as a groan of stress caught Oisín’s attention. He struggled to understand until he looked down. In the darkness and his desperation, he failed to see the unearthed, gnarled, and gangly tree roots barely holding onto the Earth. The tree was dead. And worse, it was tilted. Oisín couldn’t pull himself up in time before the roots snapped, breaking the tree free of its restraints, sending it falling like a wounded behemoth. All Oisín could do was brace himself for what followed.
The tree rolled in its descent, whipping Oisín around, turning his back to the ground. Scrambling to get topside, he saw the creature had finally caught up, following Oisín’s decent. He twisted his body around in time to avoid being pinned down by branch once the tree landed with a hefty thump and a dizzying blizzard of weak leaves shaken free. Oisín’s paralysis, as he tried taking in what had happened, was undercut by the sudden snap of jaw just short of his right ear.
He jumped back and stumbled to the ground, staring at the ferocious jerks of the creature pinned beneath the branch. The few inches it squirmed out from under it was all the incentive Oisín needed to run out from the leafy bramble. He had lost his bearings, second guessing every recollection of which direction he came from. The creature’s growls were getting clearer; it would soon be out from under the tree. He wouldn’t be able to outrun it this time. He needed to hide.
It was his near stumble into the chasm made by the uprooted tree that drew his attention to a perfect option. Whatever killed the tree had done so digging a tunnel large enough for Oisín to crouch in. He glanced back to the fallen tree before jumping in and crawling into the narrow tunnel. Oisín was small enough to swing his feet, even if he had to hunch. What little light was permitted in the forest was nothing compared to the blinding darkness under the Earth.
It was here, Oisín remembered, the Aos Sí, the pagan gods were banished to. Legend says the Aos Sí took with them rocks as white as stars. Brother Raymond called them Gypsum, a chalk that not only made the purest white dye but also could lighten any colour. It was the final but most important item Oisín needed to retrieve tonight. Without it, the entire journey would have been pointless.
Oisín continued on, feeling his way through the tunnel, stopping only to listen for anything following him. His paranoia was quelled as he noticed something ahead. It was small and distant at first, but slowly the emerging glow became a thicker haze of white, electrifying Oisín into scrambling on his hands and knees. Clumsily, Oisín raced out of the tunnel and dropped a few feet until he hit a gravelly slope and tumbled down to a plateau. Wincing from the injuries, Oisín pushed himself up, hunching at first, expecting a low ceiling, but then straightened up to marvel at the scene laid before him.
The tunnel had led to an amazing chasm sparkling with hundreds of Gypsum rocks, overwhelming Oisín with the sensation that he had ironically fallen into the heavens, surrounded by dazzling stars. The rocks varied in size, intensity, and placement. Dust slowly ebbed through the air, like tiny serene angels, causing the very air Oisín breathe in, though stale and damp, to glow. It was amazing. Oisín, for the first time in his life, was experiencing awe. And there, at his feet, was his reward for his trials; a huge rock of Gypsum.
Oisín didn’t hear the carefully placed paws sneak up behind him and leap, but he felt the sudden rush of panic and fear as he was knocked to the ground, sending the gypsum tumbling ahead. It was more the surge of pain than instinct that jolted his elbow back, knocking the creature off him. Oisín scrambled to his feet and spun around once he had some distance between him and the snarling creature. In the chamber’s glow, he could finally fully see those deep black pits, swallowing the light surrounding them.
It was only then that Oisín realised the creature’s eyes were not black. In fact, they weren’t even eyes at all. They were hollow. It suddenly made sense how Oisín had evaded the creature this entire time. Dodging it in the meadow. Jumping from the tree unnoticed. Even narrowly escaping its jaws. It was blind.
They circled each other tempestuously. Oisín watched the snout flair, and the ears twitching. Oisín lowered his stance, careful to dampen his footsteps and avoid kicking over rocks. He lowered further and picked up the gypsum he had thrown. As his heart thumbed heavily, monitoring the creature searching for him, he cupped the gypsum in both hands and pressed it tightly.
A silent crunch of the gypsum was all the creature needed to sense Oisín and charge towards him, possessed by hunger. Oisín focused on the rock, pressing harder still, hearing it crunch more and more in his palms as the creature raced forward. Those black, all-consuming pits grew and grew, yet he remained where he was, still trying to squeeze the gypsum. The creature leapt in the air, soaring towards Oisín, like a shadowy spectre. It was only then that the gypsum finally gave, disintegrating into a bloom of glowing dust, covering Oisín. The creature landed right on top of Oisín, knocking him onto his back, digging its claws into his chest, baring its sharp teeth inches from Oisín’s face.
Strangely, it stopped. It looked from side to side, sniffing. Oisín, covered in the fine, chalky dust, was invisible to the creature’s sense of smell. He watched for a moment as the creature, perplexed, scanned the chamber, sniffing, before it unclenched its claws from Oisín’s chest and ambled to the side, stopping again to smell the air until it wandered further away.
Oisín, wincing as his wounds stung, gingerly got up and watched the creature search for his scent. Oisín slowly picked up a rock and tossed it at the far end of the chamber. The ears shifted, carrying the creature to where the rock landed. Oisín carefully crept back to the slope leading to the tunnel, but not before dislodging a hunk of gypsum from the earth and tucking it into his satchel with the woad and lichen. He came to just below the tunnel’s mouth and climbed up, placing his hands and feet on jagged rocks lodged in the soil. But as he hoisted himself up into the mouth, he accidentally kicked a rock free, unable to stop it tumbling down the slope. Those black voids whirled around in the blink of an eye and raced towards him.
Oisín scurried up the tunnel, colliding his head with the ceiling, wishing for more room. It wasn’t long before the faint glow of the chamber was eclipsed by the hulking mass of dark fur, mangled teeth, and those ever-present pits of despair. Oisín prayed in between his desperate gasps for air, but even he knew his fate was grim. He needed a miracle.
A falling sprinkle of dirt blinded his left eye, but it was a godsend. Oisín would have wasted a second more to marvel at the solution before him if it hadn’t been for the lusting snarls racing behind him. Oisín turned onto his back, ignoring the swelling darkness racing toward him, and started kicking the tunnel ceiling. He kicked and kicked as hard as he could. His feet pounded as quickly as the creature was gaining on him. He kept going, even as the jaws widened, ready to be filled with the sweet taste of prey.
One ultimate kick was all it took to cave in that patch of the tunnel, landing straight on top of the creature, burying it with a pathetic whimper. Oisín wasted no time celebrating; the tunnel continued to pour soil and dirt on itself, quickly covering where Oisín had laid. Oisín had now become the desperate creature, thirsty to surviving. Hunched, he clawed forward, skirting passed collapsing pockets of dirt and bursting through growing mounds in his way. More than once he had to rip his legs out from under the weight of the dirt. He saw a glimmer of light. His hunger for life burned intensely.
He leapt out from the crater, falling onto the forest floor, just as the dead tree sunk into the earth, filling the caved tunnel. Oisín coughed and spluttered. The true measure of that night’s journey overtook him. Tired, hungry, cold, bruised, and wounded, he laid washed in suffering until it was too much. As he passed out, the world growing darker despite the dawn piercing the trees, he was convinced the creature had returned from certain death, and was swallowing him whole.
Oisín’s eyes slowly opened. For a second, he thought he had returned to the gypsum chamber, making out faint glimmers of light. Had the Aos Sí taken him to live with them as a spirit?
Brother Raymond coughed.
Oisín bolted upright. His vision returned, seeing the candles shimmering in the scriptorium, barely reflecting off the stone walls. He found himself in a bed, his wounds bandaged and the gypsum dust washed off him. He turned and found, as usual, Brother Raymond, hunched over the book, peering through a crude glass piece, magnifying the intricate designs on the pages. Brother Raymond turned his head only slightly to Oisín with his fogging eyes. In a few more years, if his age didn’t catch him before then, he too, like the creature now buried in the forest, would be blind. But Oisín didn’t need his eyes to show the frustration lining the face beneath his shaggy hair; that too reminiscent of the creature.
Oisín pulled himself around and stood up from the bed, failing to hide his pain. Before Brother Raymond could protest, Oisín brought a candle closer to the desk and the book, giving more light. To the side Oisín saw his satchel empty and its contents already being used on the table; a mortar of crushed woad leaves formed a blue paste, a jar of lichen was slowly seeping out wisps of red, and a small pouch of white dust glowed dimly.
Brother Raymond, glaring to his student, turned back to the book.
“Why Oisín? Why did you disobey me? We’ve wasted the day searching for you. The Brothers are furious. Why would you risk your life by being so petulant?”
“The same reasons we work on the book.”
Brother Raymond put down his quill and turned to Oisín, a mix of fury and confusion on his face.
“You didn’t start this book. You’ll never finish it. I may neither. But you taught me it’s bigger than us. I knew what this book means to you. To everyone. Is that not what we are called to do; act for others? If I am to carry on your work, should I not know what it means to be in service to others?”
Brother Raymond returned to the book, hiding a smile as he carefully inks a stroke on the page, one of many over the years and certainly, he was pleased to know, not the last one.