The Triplex

22 Sep

“Are you an ambitious one, Brother Cinaed?” asked the head of the scriptorium at Iona monastery. “Do you dream of high position in the future?” The young monk in white wool gown stared blankly at the gray- haired veteran, catching a hint of humorous sarcasm in the twinkling hazel eyes of the elder named Oengus.

“I serve as the Lord commands me,” said the candidate for the open position. “But my work at Clonard certainly qualifies me for the most demanding copying and illuminating of manuscripts.”

A smile of perfect tranquility crossed the pale face if the youthful Cinaed. His  blue Celtic eyes focused with unmovable steadiness on the face of the monastery official. He remained standing before the seated brother about to determine his future career.

Suddenly, old Oengus started to cough. It took awhile for him to restore calm to his aged face.

“I can tell you this, Brother Cinaed: you shall be one of the three finalists in the competition. But the choice falls to Abbot Gorman.”

Cinaed felt like grinning, but did not. He realized that the recommendation of the scriptorium chief was going to be the decisive factor in the matter. But an inner eye told him that he had won the favor of this gate-keeper. Yes, I am indeed an ambitious one, though the young monk from Clonard. “Come with me,” said Oengus, rising from his stool. “We shall go and see the Abbot right now.”

The two made their way out of the scriptorium’s fore chamber, into the central grounds of Iona. On all the sides stood the hut-like cellules inhabited by individual monks. Passing the kiln, mill, refectory, and small chapel church, they came to the hillock with the simple cellule of the governing abbot of the monastery. The pair entered through a low door.

Is the ruler of Iona in perpetual fast? wondered the candidate. So thin, his bones visible through parchment skin. Short and small, Gorman did not at all seem the supreme authority over a large family of monasteries. He sat at a high reading table, a huge Gospel codex open in front of him. His dark violet eyes examined the tall, lanky scribe with sharp attention. Once Oengus was gone, the Abbot spoke in a surprisingly mellow voice, that of a liturgical singer with golden vocal cords. “So, you are Cinaed of Clonard. How is everything at the beloved house?”

“The work continues on, as when you were there, Father.”

“We have a vacancy in our scriptorium due to the death of one of our best copiers. It is a demanding post. The work is hard and exacting. Do you think you can carry such heavy duties, my son?”

“In all modesty and humbleness, I say yes,” confidently declared Cinaed, clenching his teeth. “To me it would be like ascending into heaven and laboring there. The challenges shall be welcome for me.”

The Abbot stared at him in surprise, amazed at his audacious claims. “I believe that Master Oengus thinks highly of your talent. You have met him today for the first time, yet I perceive that the two of you are already amicable. Tell me this: do you believe you can work under his direction, giving him full obedience and cooperation?”

“Yes, Holy Father,” said Cinaed. “That shall be my mission, should I be chosen for the position.” All at once the Abbot let out a single small laugh. “I have reached my decision and it shall be you, my son.” The two exchanged direct, fixed looks. Gorman went on in a low, confidential tone of voice.

“It is my wish that you report from time from time to time on the progress of your work. That will allow me to evaluate how you are doing. Our dear Oengus grows ever older and becomes forgetful. Either that, or secretive.” He paused as his eyes scanned the face of Cinaed. “For many years, old Oengus has buried himself in the copying of ancient pagan manuscripts. He tells no one, not even me, what his purpose is. This brother ever vexes me. Such things should not be concealed from a supervisor. My curiosity rises as he turns more tacit. You are not at all like that, I trust?”

“Not at all, Father,” meekly replied the scribe.”Good!” smiled the Abbot. “I knew you would be obedient and cooperative. It will be a pleasure to converse with you after your daily labors. Come and see me often, my son.”

His early weeks in the scriptorium were absolute delight for the new copier. Oengus praised him for the speed, accuracy and beauty of his writing. “Your pages are marvels!” be beamed one afternoon. “God has granted you a gift I have never seen before in anyone your age, Cinaed. There is a distinct touch to your hand that no one can imitate. I stood in wonder of the originality of your illuminating capitals. No one has ever before created such magnificence in any codes produced here at Iona.”

The young monk, gazing down at the earthen floors said nothing in reply. Oengus lowered his voice to a murmur.

“At one time, when our founder Cohum first came to the kingdom of Dalriada, he brought filidic bards here to sing their ancient songs and lays. Those with value were recorded. A special archive contains what was heard from them. I have found it of deep interest and spent many hours with the treasure.”

Cinaed grew visibly excited. “I have heard that in the early years of our houses, the finids aided in setting up the scriptoria. Their histones are scattered throughout Ireland and Pictland, in all the monasteries descended from the mother houses of Clonard and Iona.”

The head of the scriptorium came closer. “Are you interested in perusing some of the old filidic codices, Cinaed?”

“Yes, I am,” said the latter with excitement. “It sounds fascinating.”

Was it wise to reveal this new activity to the Abbot? The scribe considered the question internally for days, then weeks.

It turned out that Gorman himself brought up the matter one wintry evening. “Has Oengus introduced his pagan divine texts yet?” Cinaed gave a start. “Divine work? I would call them filidic.” The Abbot grinned slyly. “Aren’t they fundamentally the same?”

“Yes, he has shown me old books with heroic stories from before the time that the faith was brought here. I have read some of the tales. There is nothing objectionable in them, is there? I recall that sainted Colum himself employed filidic bands in converting the Picts on the mainland, that he had them here at Iona beside the monkish brothers.”

Gorman gave a laugh. “You are correct in what you say. But what is it that Oengus seeks in the pre-Christian codices? Can you tell me that?” No answer came. Cinaed at once understood he had been ordered to find that out. What should he do? Was he to carry out a spying mission for the Abbot?

The scriptorium chief was busy every evening with the oldest manuscripts. Cinaed decided to approach and ask him a direct question. “Should I be looking for a particular event in these texts?” Oengus gave him a strange stare. “Do you have knowledge of the Greek language, my son?” “No, father. Why do you ask?”

“Those ancients had profound knowledge of the universe. They understood the objects can be close and adjacent, or separate and distant. But the ancient thinkers believed that beings not in direct contact could communicate with each other. Just as I am able to shout to another whom I could see, so it is that I should be capable of sending my thoughts into the mind of someone far from me, to someone I do not see with my eyes or hear with my ear.

“Does that make sense to you, Cinaed?”

The latter nodded, though hesitantly.

“I have delved into the philosophers of old,” continued Oengus. “Many say that the world we inhabit is composed of granula and reticula. These small grains of material make up the basic particulae of the universe. They are connected, one to all the others by a series of invisible threads. These bands provide the connecting fabric of matter all about. The reticula are long strings that bind the particulae to each other, whether adjacent or far apart. Each atomus of matter is tried to all the other, without exception. Do you see what that implies?”

“I’m afraid not,” confessed the bewildered Cinaed.

“The songs of the finids of ancient Eire tell us of the movement of written words over distance, from one page to another located elsewhere. This can happen over the strings that held the world together. The druids had knowledge of how that is done. All that is hidden in the songs of the filidic bards. This is where I hunt for the secrets of moving the letters that I write. It has become the great quest of the final, last years of my life.”

Cinaed thought a moment, then asked his chief a question. “Will you allow me to help you, as much as I am able to?”

“Of course,” replied Oengus. “You can begin immediately.”

The Abbot received only a vague description of the obsession with old codices that filled the mind of the scriptorium director.

“He is searching for early spiritual concepts among our pagan forefathers,” prevaricated Cinaed. “Their connection to the material world intrigued him greatly.”

Gorman listened in silence, asking no specific questions. What did that mean? worried the scribe. Does he suspect me of withholding the truth? Hours passed in the archive, two sets of eyes plowing through endless pages. Most of these were written in Hisperica Faminas, a coded artificial language derived from Latin. On and on they searched for the secret knowledge of the finids and druids. When the discovery occurred, it was Cinaed who made it.

“Look at this line, Master. How simple it appears! The ancient sages made a triple speculum to send what they wrote through the air. Here it is for anyone to read. The reflected image is transmitted from the first mirror into a second one, then from there into a third silvered surface. And far away, a device with three separate specula restores the written message to its original form. Images within images! That is how the feat is accomplished. Reflection of a reflection! That is the secret.”

Oengus rose from his stool. “Is it credible? Can we accomplish that today?”

“We shall try!” cried out Cinaed as if it could be done with mirror reflections. “Tomorrow, we shall begin to build a triplex speculum,” said the young monk with determination.

Using vague circumlocution, Cinaed avoided telling the Abbot of the new device.

He is hunting for the secret holding together the material world,” he said. “I have not found out what it is that will satisfy his curiosity. His mouth closes whenever I ask particular questions about his studies.”

Back in the scriptorium with his mentor, Cinaed discussed the need for special mirrors. “We need six of them, three for sending and three for receiving.” Oengus nodded in agreement. “There is a brother I know who can obtain them for me, Moran the provisioner. He regularly makes journeys into the mainland where the Picts dwell. I will tell him that their items are necessary for our copy work.”

“We can trust him to keep his lips sealed?” “Yes, I am certain of the man.” said the older monk.

Moran was a squat, rotund figure with twinkling green eyes. He listened attentively as the two scribes told him what they required in their work.

“You intend turning to me then in your writing responsibilities?”

“Yes,” explained Oengus. “The mirrors will make our labor much easier.” The provisioner turned to Cinaed. “Was it you who came up with this idea?” “It came to me in a dream.” lied the young scribe. “Specula can help in copying pages.” “And has Abbot Gorman agreed to this expenditure of money?”

Oengus answered him. “There is no need to use general funds. I have saved silver coins and am willing to pay the cost of the mirrors himself.” Moran studied the face of the chief of the scriptorium, then glanced at Cinaed. “Yes, I am able to service your need.” He smiled. “It is indeed, possible.”

That evening, Gorman had a surprise for his young informant. “Moran will run to the mainland tomorrow morning. I shall be present to see him off, with my decision on whether he is to obtain mirrors for you and Oengus.” His eyes seemed aflame with some emotion. “What am I to tell him? I do not know what the purpose of this strange request is, do I?”

Cinaed feared he might lose his balance and fall to the floor. He steadied himself on the stool he sat on, taking time before replying to the unexpected thrust.

“We told Moran not to bother you with the matter…”

The Abbot interrupted him. “He has orders to report anything of an unusual nature. I have to keep an eye on all action that can affect the community. Do you understand what I am telling you?”

The other nodded that he did. “I must beg your indulgence, Your Holiness. It is important that you know what Father Oengus and I are about to do. It may, at first, appear incredible, but when thought out thoroughly will become clear to you. May I proceed?”

“Go on,” commanded Gorman. “Go on please.”

Cinaed revealed how the secret of transmission of written pages had been uncovered. He described the plan for the two apparati, each containing three silver mirrors.

“One for the taking, the second for correcting, and the third reading the words that are sent. We pray to God that our attempt will be successful.”

The face if the Abbot froze into an inscrutable mask.

“You have my permission to build this combined speculum. Yes, I can foresee the astonishing results that hopefully will ensue. All I can say now is to try the scheme. See whether it works or not. Oh, one other thing. Do not reveal to Oengus my knowledge of the venture. He is to know nothing of what has been said between us. I have my reason for keeping him ignorant of what has been told here. Not a word about my knowledge. Is that clear?”

Yes, but…”

“I will tell you my reason in time, dear Cinaed. Till then, you must say nothing of this. But you must inform me of course of the work in the scriptorium.”

“I will do as you say, sir,” promised the inwardly troubled scribe.

The specula, smooth and polished, arrived within eight days. Moran brought the mirrors, about a foot in length and width, to the scriptorium, Oengus and Cinaed were both excited and enthused. “Let us begin the trial at once.” proposed the latter. Breathless with joy, Oengus gave his approval.

They went to work constructing the first device of three mirrors.

“Where shall we place the receiving scriptorium triplex?” inquired Cinaed.

“My cellule is too close to the scriptorium. What do you think?”

The younger man had a solution at once. “Mine is at the far end of the monastery grounds. It is perfect for testing the triplex’s reception.”

Late that afternoon, after all the scribes had left, the sending specula were set up on a writing-table.

“We shall construct the second device tomorrow,” decided Oengus. “It is time for vespers and everyone expects to see us there.”

Cinaed looked across his cellule at the Abbot, who made a surprise entrance.

I see the Moran is back,” Said the leader of the monastery. “How does the situation stand now?”

“Tomorrow will be the day that decides our failure or success,” muttered the monk. “Until we test the triplex, no conclusions are possible.”

Gorman said nothing for a spell. For several moments, his violet eyes looked foggy and far away. What is he thinking? wondered the other.

“I see very practical uses for this thing, if it does what is claimed,” said the Abbot in a low, hollow voice. “If codices can be sent elsewhere, why not simple messages as well? It would be as if our monastery were omnipresent. For instance, a command from here in Iona, on the west coast of Pictland, across the water to Eire. I can foresee communication even further southward to Kells, Darrow, and Kildare, or to far distant Glendalough, Clonmachois, Clonard, and Clonfert.

“For the first time, one abbot could be in charge of all the monasteries in these lands. Do you see what I mean?”

He looked questioningly at the scribe, waiting for his reply. It was a nod.

“I am glad that you think like me,” continued Gorman. “Whoever assists me in this will win a high position. All of our united scriptoria will, one day, need an active director like you can become.”

Cinaed felt a spinning sensation. The Abbot saw him as an assistant or henchman. Was he to become a tool of his power? There was much for him to consider.


By mid-morning the next day, the second triplex was set up in the hut of Cinaed. The experiment was ready to proceed. Oengus was to carry out the transmission from the scriptorium. Nervous tension rose for both monks as the decisive moment neared. What would result from their effort?

Cinaed sat on a stool, staring into a blank parchment he had placed in front of the third mirror of the reception device. His decision had solidified, the project had to be completed.

His hand reached out suddenly and grabbed hold of the empty page. That is how it is going to remain, he told himself. In order to prevent the Abbot from misusing whatever came out of the experiment, it would have to prove an absolute failure. Alone in his cellule, he could attain that end through his own account of the event. The result had to be manipulated by him.

With a single movement of his hand, Cinaed dashed the power ambition of Gorman.

That was it.

There was no going back. The trial had failed. In a short while, Oengus rushed in, excited and out of breath.

“How did it come out?” he panted. “Show me what resulted.”

The scribe held up the blank page for his master to see. Both of them stared with wonder at the clean untouched surface. “It was a fantasy, nothing more,” said Cinaed, his brow furrowed. “The ancient finids were weavers of untrue tales. This, it appears, was one of them.”

Oengus bit his lip. His face flushed crimson in rage. “We have been made fools of by a lying codex.”

“What happens now?” asked the young monk.

“I will have Moran take the mirror back to the mainland and sell them for what they are worth. You must not speak to anyone about the trick played on us. Do you understand?”

Cinaed merely gave him a nod.

He was already preparing the story of failure he was going to relate to the scheming Abbot Gorman of Iona. The adventure with mirrors was now ended. It had been proven impossible to achieve.

But what if I held the parchment correctly in front of the final mirror? he sighed to himself.

Would the transmitted words have been received and captured? the scribe wondered.

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