The Castrati of Cúalaúc

Simon Whitechapel

In its season the eternal eastern current brought half of what was needful to the islands of Cúalaúc and Mrišramf, racing between them with its titheable load of driftwood or seaweed, gravid eels or ichthyoööphores. Without the current indeed, the islands would have been bare of life half the year, when the breeding seals and sea-birds of summer were wintering far to the north. But the islands were never left deserted, for the current brought them inhabitants who could not fly or swim from the hibernal gales and snow-fall: sometimes, audible far-off on still days, it carried day-old infants, bawling with misery in well-caulked rush-cradles.

Whence the sea-borne infants came the monks of Cúalaúc and nuns of Mrišramf, sea-borne identically in their own infancy, had no sure knowledge; why they came was evident so soon as each was rescued. All the boys were crippled in some way, and had been deftly gelded before being consigned to the sea with a crotch-pad of styptic herbs to staunch their bleeding; all the girls, whether crippled or no, were red-haired and blind by abacination, and had plainly been doomed by some erythrotrichophobic superstition in the unseen land of their nativity.

One of these sea-orphans, unguessable centuries before, had founded either the monastery on Cúalaúc or the nunnery on Mrišramf, brought ashore on one island or the other by a vagary of the current and somehow nurtured to adulthood. Perhaps the child had been male and of unusually advanced age, its defect detected late in infancy, and able to feed itself on shellfish scraped from the rocks and sea-weed plucked from the current; perhaps it had been rescued and suckled by some pup-bereft or hypermaternal seal, prompted thereto by the gods. None knew, but each island assigned the honor to its neighbor and offered up hymns and worship to a founder of contrary sex.

Despite this generosity, there was scant intercourse between the two islands. Each had its interpreter for the language of the other, but he or she was seldom called upon and might go years without employing his or her expertise. On the death of one of these interpreters, a monk or nun of suitable youth would be chosen to row across the strait to become his or her successor, learning the tongue and script employed on the opposite island before returning with unspoken relief to his or her peers. With the passing centuries it had grown more difficult to pass this apprenticeship, and sometimes a second candidate would replace the first, for the rules governing linguistic usage on the islands had convolved and ramified exceedingly.

On Cúalaúc it was considered most pleasing to the gods to employ words and phrases that were palindromic; and its entire language had been re-fashioned three centuries before under the Abbot Thaóróath II to this very end. However, difficulties remained in achieving it when discourse ran at length, and so the monks habitually spoke with the most extreme laconicity and concision, conveying fuller meaning with mirroring gestures of the hands. On Mrišramf quite the opposite tendency held sway, for the nuns delighted in extending the most quotidian dialogue till it snaked and swayed like their own never-cut hair, caught unveiled in a sea-wind or extending in the sea-water where they communally washed it on Mrišramf’s northern shore.

Their hair indeed was their scripture, for they braided the verses of their hymns and theology therein by an unchanging cipher, reading them with their fingertips, whether the hair hung from a living head or from the scalp of a long-dead nun hanging in vaults delved in the rock of Mrišramf. On Cúalaúc the verses of the corresponding hymns and theology were recorded on skin, not in hair, for the monks shaved their heads to an egg-like smoothness and were tattooed in yearly progression from feet to skull with needles of seal-tooth and ink of seaweed-ash, till even the faces of the oldest monks would be covered in theodicy or theogony.

But monks of such age were few, for the following reason:

The sea-current bore always more boys than girls on its breast, and Cúalaúc was oft in danger of over-crowding, prompting the hierarchs to limit its population, by obscure numeric symbolism, to eight-hundred-and-eighty-seven, as one school held, or eight-hundred-and-seventy-seven, as another insisted. The disagreement arose because the flayed and preserved skin of the monk wherein the injunction was laid down had been abraded by time, and the number recorded thereon was ambiguous between the two values. The School of Eight-Hundred-and-Eighty-Seven was the stronger and when one of its adherents ruled the island as Abbot a monk would leave the island only when the island’s population had swollen to that maximum and a new boy-child was brought by the current.

Hereat lots would be thrown and a monk would be chosen to depart west on the current in a coracle of drift-wood and seal-fur, while the new-arrived infant would be baptised in his place with his abandoned name. But if the School of Eight-Hundred-and-Seventy-Seven managed to raise one of its adherents to the Abbotship and the population of the island was at its previously permitted height, then ten monks would have to be chosen by lot for departure on the current in coracles. Whether they went solitary or in decades, all such monks carried with them sea-birds whereby to carry news of what they discovered back to Cúalaúc on seal-skin parchment.

But evidently a vast stretch of ocean separated the twin islands of Cúalaúc and Mrišramf from the nearest land to the west, for returned messages were few and most often despatched in extremis by dying monks still to make landfall. Three messages only had come from monks safe ashore: two spoke in semi-delirium of a rocky island of great spiders, which were known on Cúalaúc and Mrišramf only as rare and tiny wind-drifts, and the third of an island where seaweed grew on land to great and unsupported height. Some held that the third message was sent from the same island as the two first, by a monk suffering in the same fashion from the delirium of putative spider-bite and hallucinating impossibilities.

Departing monks now carried fish-spears and bolas of braided seal-fur, with which to fight off the spiders they were forewarned of, should they reach the island, and some day the matter might be settled for the living. Doubtless the dead, whose flayed corpses were despatched regularly west in the same fashion, had settled it long ago; but their spirits had lost the trick of human speech and could reveal the secret only in the voices of the white sea-birds wherein they were resurrected above Cúalaúc, harsher by far than the sweet and unbroken accents they had employed in the days of their plump and mild monkhood.

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