It is said that souls can endure, endure, and still endure through all the ages that will ever come. Bonds form and emotions are linked that intwine people, make them more than just ordinary acquaitances; they can last for all eternity.
Once upon a time, in an age long, long ago forgotten, there was a rocky little peninsula of land that jutted into the sea. On this spur of rock and gorse there was a monastery, the stone foundations crumbling more and more with each passing year, and in this cracked and ancient structure there lived a kindly old friar, Tonberry by name. He lived in the abandoned cloisters all by himself, the birds and the beasts of the coast his only companions, and despite what some might have thought had they known of his existence the elderly fellow was quite happy without humans company.
There had been many monks in the coastal monastery when Tonberry was a young man. The place had bustled with pilgrims and scholars and holy men, a thriving hub of activity on the continent’s far coast. For years it remained this way and it had seemed things would never change, but as the decades passed and time slipped away – as it has a habit of doing – so too did the monks. Some sickened and died from the numerous diseases that people fell prey to in those days, others transferred to monasteries in far-away places, and still more succumbed to old age, that ravager of works and destroyer of beautiful things.
One by one they trickled away and disappeared, until only Tonberry remained to guard the vaults and illuminate the manuscripts as he had for fifty years hence. His bones grew brittle and his weather-worn skin turned the consistency of the leather parchment he wrote his gospels on, but not even time he allowed to bar the righteous path walked so faithfully for so long. Each morning he arose and rang the rusting bells in their collapsing belfry, each afternoon he carefully copied the scriptures down inside hide-bound books of great size, and each evening he prayed to God for another twenty-four hours in which to do good deeds in His name. On sunny days the old man worked in his vegetable garden for the fruits that would sustain his frail body a little longer, and while he toiled and hacked away at the encroaching weeds he sang songs of praise in a lilting tenor surprising to hear from such an elderly personage. The very birds themselves would come down and add their voices to the chorus, and Tonberry thought this made the tunes that much sweeter, for he loved nature and thought all aspects of it wondrously fine.
Harsh nor’easters blew in off the ocean waves and howled through the cracks in the foundation stones at night, but Tonberry paid them no mind. He built his bed in the only room still whole and sound – the kitchen – and when creeping cold threatened, the old man built a roaring fire and kept it fed all through the dark hours of the evening. Winter was the hardest season for him, as rheumatism had begun to work on the monk’s arthritic joints, and although he never would have admitted it (even to himself), sometimes he wished deep in his secret heart of hearts for a helper.
Perhaps the suppressed plea was heard. Perhaps it was not, and what happened next was merely luck. Whatever the cause, things changed that winter, and the old man’s world was never the same thereafter.
It all began late one foggy evening in the month of November, when the sky was leaden and gray with clouds and the earth below them damp and chill. Every blade of grass held a drop of dew, and even the hand-hewn surfaces of the monastery’s granite walls and walkways were dark and wet with moisture. Tonberry hated this weather as much as he hated anything; it left the hems of his robes soaked and worked ill on the manuscripts he worked so hard to preserve, but even to himself he did not complain about these petty annoyances. There was a purpose in all things, even dark, damp days when the cold got into his joints and made holding a quill almost impossible to manage.
By 5 o’clock the landscape had faded to a dull grey, distances becoming blurred and indistinct in the shadow-world between late afternoon and nightfall. Low, scuttling tatters of clouds fled before a rising wind and the old monk feared a gale was soon to arrive on his little corner of the coast; already whitecaps were forming and crashing noisily into the cliff’s base far below. Taking a little copper-framed lantern from its hook on the wall, Tonberry set out through the gloaming to get more firewood from a storeroom on the other side of the property. The gusts of wind were growing so strong one would have thought the elderly man’s featherweight body was sure to be tumbled head-over-heels through the air and off the precipice’s edge, but either by some miracle or an act of sheer willpower he managed to stay on his feet, staggering only a little under the battering fist of the storm.
A bottle of good vintage on this cold winter’s eve sounded passing fair as well, and so after only a moment’s hesitation Tonberry made a slight detour off his path to the wine vaults, a great system of cellars and dust-coated labyrinths that wound their way deep down into the rocky earth below the monasterial grounds. One gained entrance to this warren of lofty wooden racks and ancient bottles through a great oaken door set into a nearby hillside, always kept tightly shut against the ravages of the elements and intrusion from local wildlife. Imagine Tonberry’s surprise and dismay, then, when he found it not closed, as he had last left it a fortnight hence, but open!!
Yes, open. The heavy portal had been laboriously pulled back several inches to allow entry for … something. Something that had made tiny tracks in the dirt, something that had not left the vaults since its arrival there, from the look of things. There was very little the holy man feared in the world of mortals, but he still felt his old heart skip a few beats as he peered down the steps into the yawning blackness of the tunnels below. A draught of musty air wafted up to greet him, and it seemed to Tonberry that it carried the stench of the tomb, inescapable and final. He quailed in terror, involuntarily taking several steps back before once again regaining mastery of himself on the threshold.
This trespass could not be allowed to go unchecked. The cellars would have to be searched, and if there was some beast hiding amongst the shelves it would have to be gently shooed out. If, by some miracle, a person lurked down there in the dark, be they vagrant or wanderer or pilgrim, he would offer them shelter and food for the night and send them on their way when dawn broke the next morning. And if it was neither, well …
The friar reached for the religious pendant that hung around his neck and without thinking clutched at it tightly, impressing the shape of the thing into the flesh of his palm.
Down the staircase the little hooded figure went, the whistle and whoop of the wind fading a bit more with each step he took. Distance and layer upon layer of earth above muffled all outside noises, until Tonberry was moving through a stifling, oppressive silence, the little lantern’s light throwing strange shadows on the walls. The air was chill and dry down here, an overpowering smell of mildew and must working its way into the monk’s nostrils despite his best efforts at keeping the unsettling odours out. The confined quarters and the atmosphere of the place on this dark night unerringly reminded him of the grave, and although he was a holy man Tonberry could not help but be slightly frightened at the thought. He was a mortal human being, after all, and even the wisest and most righteous of men can lose faith and doubt in troubled times.
At last he reached the vaults, soft footfalls echoing softly off the arches and passages that loomed unseen in the darkness outside his little circle of illumination. Nothing seemed amiss at first, and there was no sign of the intruder, but then out of the corner of his eye Tonberry saw movement coming from behind a pyramid of dusty flasks, indistinct but most definitely there. Moving closer he could just make out a shadowy figure crouched low to the ground; it was far, far too small to be a human and seemed to tremble in fear at the friar’s approach. But if it was not a human, then whatever manner of beast could it be? He took another halting step forward, raising the lantern to better see this mysterious visitor who lay prone and shaking on the chamber floor.
”Hello?” he said. “Who’s there?? Don’t be afraid, I’m not going to hurt you, I just want to …”
The old man gasped, his soothing words suddenly cut short. On the stones before him the creature had raised its head, gazing up at him with two bright and beady yellow eyes. They seemed to glow with their own inner light, those eyes, and there was neither pupil nor iris within to tell Tonberry if the strange beast was angry, scared, happy, or otherwise indifferent to his presence. It reminded him much of the tiny geckos that scampered in and out of the monastery ruins, but on a bigger scale, maybe the size of a house cat.
Then it stumbled to its feet like a man, which was something Tonberry had never seen gecko or cat do. It stood swaying for a few moments before taking a timid step towards him, all the world like a shaky toddler. This was all the unnaturalness the old monk needed to see; he crossed himself and began to back away towards the stairs, unnerved by this eerie interloper and its will-o’-the-wisp eyes. It had been a mistake to come here at night, a grave mistake, and he swore to himself that if he got out of this situation alive and unharmed there would be no more acts of false bravado. What business had a monk venturing into dangerous places in the dark? Did not the scriptures say, ‘resist the temptation to test God’?
As for the creature itself, it had taken two more steps and stumbled to the ground face-first, forked tail waving languidly in the air. It raised its head from the flagstones, saw the monk moving back into the darkness, and for the first time made a noise – quite a remarkable noise, as a matter of fact.
”W-w-wait!” it said in a tiny, halting voice, high-pitched and just a little bit squeaky. “Please … please don’t leave me here! I’m afraid of the dark!”
At these words Tonberry’s fear suddenly evaporated, replaced by a great stirring of pity in his heart. Cautiously, and rather carefully, he picked the tiny green creature off the floor by the scruff of its neck. The two regarded each other for a few tense moments. Then quite without warning the monk reached out his other hand and scratched the funny little beast’s head, which even more surprisingly elicited a purr not unlike a cat from the animal. Its skin was the colour of tree leaves in June but felt like soft suede, not clammy or lizardlike at all.
The purr was the final straw. Tonberry put the creature in one of the deep pockets of his robe and left the vaults, taking it with him back to the monastery.
Tonberry’s reasons for rescuing the strange animal had been simple: it was small, seemed rather defenceless, and had spoken to him pleadingly in the tongue of a man. Like the fledglings he had nursed back to health or the rabbits whose broken limbs he had set, Tonberry expected the creature to return back to wherever it had come from once it was hale and hearty again. This is not what happened. Instead, the little creature became a bizarre sort of pet, dogging the monk’s footsteps faithfully wherever he went.
It said very little after its initial outburst and only vocalized in chitters and squeaks; Tonberry got the feeling it could probably speak quite well but chose not to for reasons known only to itself. It certainly understood everything he said, and soon the old friar had his companion trained to fetch things – lanterns, small sticks of firewood, anything Tonberry’s arthritic old back wouldn’t allow him to bend over and pick up on his own. The amusing little beastie would scamper around on its hind legs, grabbing whatever it had been sent after with its dextrous front paws like a squirrel with a nut.
The cold, wet climate of the coast was obviously not the creature’s own. When chill sea winds whistled in from over the waves it shivered and shook itself distastefully and hid underneath the hems of Tonberry’s robes, which made walking quite the hassle indeed. To remedy this problem, Tonberry took out his needle and thread and made his friend a tiny habit, identical to his own in all details but size. It was inordinately proud of its new clothes and spent hours preening and posing in them, the vainest being to set foot in the monastery since its construction several hundred years before.
Not all aspects of Tonberry’s creature were helpful. It had an innate and insatiable curiosity about things which very often led to trouble. On one occasion it overturned a jar of ink onto one of Tonberry’s finished manuscripts. Yet another time it shredded one of the last remaining wall tapestries to pieces with a kitchen knife. The monk’s infinite patience and kind heart were the only things that stopped him from hurling his mischievous companion over the cliff’s edge during terse moments like these.
Despite this mischievous streak, man and beast grew very close as the weeks turned to months and months into years. Tonberry’s hair grew whiter and patchier, his hands shook almost continuously, and it became harder and harder to see to the tasks he had done since the days of his youth. His beast seemed to change not at all; it might have grown a little in stature, but for the most part seemed to stay in a continual stasis, the only thing that did not change with the passage of time. When the old man’s eyesight finally began to fail the little animal became even more important to him, leading Tonberry safely around the ruin almost like a faithfully trained dog when it wasn’t sitting curled in his lap, purring as it had done on the day of their meeting all those years before. Soon the monk was almost completely blind, and it was only through the constant intervention of his clever pet that he managed to totter about without seriously injuring himself.
And so things went, until one unsettled night when the wind howled like a mad thing and the waves roared just out of sight in the darkness, dashing themselves to pieces on the rocky shore in a fury before coming back with renewed violence in a never-ending assault upon the land. The monastery had been falling more and more into disrepair since the monk became frail and weak, a drafty place to live and less than ideal for a sick and elderly old man like Tonberry. Many times he would wake up to find that the fire had been completely blown out since their going to bed, and so it was on this eve. The kitchen was chill and damp and smelled of ashes, no warmth at all coming from the big stone fireplace when he stretched out his quivering hands in the void.
Usually in circumstances like this Tonberry would awaken the creature and it would scamper off through the dark and fetch back firewood, trotting along with its pack like a child sent on an important task by a parent. Tonight he touched the beast, curled up sleeping soundly at the foot of his pallet, and a wash of guilt passed over his heart. It was really not fair to ask the funny little chap to always be at his beck and call. Had he not made the trek to the woodshed many times before, when his eyesight was true? Surely he was not that helpless. With sudden determination the monk decided that this was one task he could do on his own. He felt his way carefully through the darkness to the outside door and stepped out into the night.
Tonberry was only able to take two steps before the gale pushed him to his knees, a noisy, screaming, confusing cacophony whirling about his ears. Disoriented but still determined, the old man rose to his feet and set out in what he thought was the right direction. The outside world was frightening without one’s sight – this was true – but his faith in the god he had served for so many years would not let him be cowed.
And the cliff’s edge loomed ahead, and Tonberry, blessedly, never saw the drop.
The little creature woke alone and fearful in the dark, almost immediately aware that something was gravely wrong. Its great yellow eyes, so unsettling at first to its master, scanned the blackness of the room as if it were daylight, two perfectly round orbs shining faintly with a phosphorescent foxfire glow. Where was Master? Where had he gone at this hour of the night? This was not right, not right at all.
It hopped off the bed and trundled to the door, which was slightly ajar. Perhaps he had gone outside? Why would Master go outside when the sky was dim and the wind howled so? That was the creature’s job, so this confused it greatly. Running back to the kitchen sideboard, it fetched the copper lantern and a great knife – for if Master was in danger action would have to be taken to protect him, and the little beast knew well enough how to use utensils – and after some fumbling with the matches had lit the wick and was off, stumbling only a little over its robes when crossing the front stoop.
All night it searched the grounds, peering into sheds and vaults and every dusty nook of the rambling old monastery. Daybreak found it bereft and alone, sitting disconsolate at the foot of the monk’s bed. Perhaps Master had gone on a journey and would be back soon? He had never done such a thing in all the creature’s memory (never the less in the middle of the dark hours), but perhaps he had changed his habits. The creature would wait and see.
But the monk never returned. Evening fell and there was still no sign of Master; the ancient building remained hollow and empty. Shadows begin to creep in to fill the kitchen with darkness, and the little creature whimpered and hid from them under the bedsheets, until it was almost completely dark and it had no choice but to light the lantern once more.
Again it went out searching. Again it returned with the sun, puzzled and afraid. For three nights it did this, and then on the fourth it made a desperate decision.
Master was not on the grounds. Master must have left the grounds, but something was keeping him from returning. It was up to the creature to find him, wherever he might be in the big scary world outside. For the last time it took up its knife and its lantern, and it left the monastery kitchen, never to return again.
When it reached the marshes that marked the boundaries of the place it did not stop. It took one last look at the stone buildings that had become its home, and then it turned and wandered off into the fens, the little light of the copper lantern bobbing and disappearing into the dark like witch’s fire.
It wanders still today, looking for the beloved master it has lost. Perhaps you have seen its lantern in the distance on stormy nights, swaying just ahead of you on some deserted country road? This is the Tonberry, and until it is reunited with its monk it will never, ever stop searching.