A Saucer Full of Secrets
by Pam Henry
Some say that all white cats are deaf. I can tell you truly that I am not deaf. I was born under an upturned leaky bucket beside a shepherd’s hut, in the County of Kerry by the sea. My Ma made us a nest of sheep’s wool and kept us safe and warm, but as soon as we were weaned, we were out on our own.
Now I could go on of course, as all Irish cats can, but this is not my story. I am here to tell you about my master.
We met over a thousand years ago on the road to Kenmare. The winter was harsh. There was snow on the ground, and I hadn’t eaten for days. I couldn’t walk another step. I had curled up in a snowdrift at the side of the road and I was just about a goner when I saw a pair of feet. Most self-respecting kittens steer well clear of feet, as they tend to come at you swiftly with a kick. These feet just stood there.
Two warm hands scooped me up and held me for a minute or two until I could see a bright light all around me, and I began to purr. Then I was tucked inside a wool cloak, next to a heart beating slowly and steadily. The welcome warmth and the thump of the heart lulled me into a cosy sleep.
I don’t know how long it was before I woke, but I found myself in a basket by a cooking hearth, still wrapped in the woollen cloak. I was in a round room with wattle walls and a thatched roof above bending beams.
My whiskers flicked and my nose twitched at the smell of food. The feet I’d seen before came close again, and the warm hands that had saved me set a saucer of rich cow’s milk beside the basket. I had no difficulty finding the strength to fall into the saucer.
I lapped the milk greedily from the dish and from my fur, then crept carefully back into the basket, in case anyone should think about throwing me back out into the cold.
“Have no fear little friend,” said the boy with the feet, as he smiled across at me from where he was working at a stout wooden table. “They are all good brother monks here, no one will put you out. You are most welcome to stay and share my lodgings.” I took him at his word, turned my nose under my tail and caught up on my most needed sleep.
I woke, stretched, and dared to look around. Whatever was in that saucer had revived me. There was no one about. My saucer was full of milk again and a fine fish head sat next to it. I cleaned the dish and made the fish disappear, then I started to explore.
“I see you’ve found your feet. I put a little of our special honey in your milk,” he said when he came back and found me walking across one of the roof timbers. “Since you’re staying, I should introduce myself. My name is Sedu,” he told me looking up at my perch. Then he changed his mind.
“That’s not quite true. Sedu is the name they gave me when they found me on the Abbey steps as a tiny baby. They tell me I am twelve years old. They call me Deterrimus now, which is Latin for the lowest of the low. That means I get all the dirty jobs no one else wants to do.”
I’d never had a name, so I thought he was quite lucky to get two. I watched as he stoked the fire and set cooking pots bubbling.
“So, we need to think of a name for you,” he said with a frown as he stared into the flames under the pots. He held his arm out to one side, without really looking, and a large spoon leapt into his hand, all of its own accord. He was a tricky one, this red-headed boy in the hooded robe.
“Perhaps we should just call you Alban, which means you are white, well most of the time anyway,” he said scooping me up from where I had started playing in the hearth, he dusted the ash from my coat. “Good day Sir Alban,” he said as he held me close to his nose and ruffled the fur on my head.
I liked the name Alban.
“I am very pleased to have a helper,” he said looking a bit cross, whilst continuing to stir the evil-smelling concoctions bubbling over the fire. He used one hand to stir the spoon in the blue pot, but the spoon in the red pot moved around on its own. “I serve as assistant to the apothecary and my master has given me an awful special task. Today my little friend, you and I are to begin to understand the mysterious magic of the vanishing bees.”
The door pushed open, and another robed figure came bustling in carrying a bundle of herbs and vegetables. I scuttled behind the log basket and stayed out of sight.
“Don’t let that St Paul’s potion boil dry, the Abbot has a belly-ache,” the old man said, as he placed his bundle carefully on the table and began to sort through it. “Another skep disappeared overnight. It was in the meadow beyond the Refectory. Get yourself down there boy and see what you can see.”
“At once Brother Barnabas,” the boy responded quickly.
Sedu needed no second telling. He gathered up his cloak and me with it and we were outside under the winter sunshine in a blink. I travelled in a warm pocket inside the cloak, but I could see the path we took through a hole in the stitching.
“The Abbey is your home now Alban. I’ll keep you safe, but we’ll keep you hidden for a while,” Sedu explained to me. Then he began to tell me about our mission.
“A skep is a woven straw basket we make to cover the bees,” Sedu explained to me as we walked. “They’re not very big, but quite heavy once the bees have filled them with their nest of wax and honeycomb. Whoever stole it must have used a barrow or a cart to carry it away.” I could see tall stone walls beside us as we made our way around the edge of the Abbey buildings. When the walls finished a thick green hedge sprinkled with snow took over and followed our way to the meadow.
Sedu stopped when he reached the gate. He stood looking out across the field.
“Now Alban, isn’t that a bit strange?” he said, looking all around.
“There’s nothing there.”
Hadn’t the good Brother Barnabas already told us that?
“No, I mean, there’s nothing there,” he said again, as though he could read my thoughts. “Alright the skep has definitely gone, but there are no footprints, no cart tracks, no wheel marks, nothing. There hasn’t been enough snow this morning to cover any tracks, so how did whoever it was get across the meadow?”
I was only little then, but I had never seen a flying cart or a flying monk for that matter. I had to agree it was all quite peculiar. The path continued round outside the field, so we walked on a little way but there were no tracks at any point. Then Sedu stopped again, he was obviously listening.
“It’s a funny thing about snow,” he said, squinting across the bright sunlit fields. “It deadens all sound, the quiet is almost deafening.”
As I’ve said before, I am certainly not deaf and I could hear nothing at all, but Sedu could.
“Here we go Alban, it's down this way,” he said, breaking into a trot. The path narrowed as he ran along until Sedu had to push his way through the undergrowth that brought us to the woods. Not too far in we came upon a clearing completely free of snow, and there in the middle was a strange mound.
“Well now, will you look at that,” Sedu said, creeping cautiously forward.
There was a low humming sound coming from the mound. I didn’t like the sound of it. The light was quite dim under the trees but getting closer you could see that the mound was made up of quite a few dome-shaped baskets, piled up one on top of the other to form one large dome about as tall as the boy.
“This is one huge bee hive, Alban,” he said, peering forward to get a better look. “Why on earth doesn’t it fall over?” he asked himself, getting far too close for comfort in my view.
When we were close enough to touch the strange pile, we could see how it was that these things didn’t topple, they were held together by a moving mass of thousands and thousands of bees.
“I recognise these skeps,” he said, giving one a gentle prod. “They are the missing ones. They’re also the ones that were returned from the island. How did they get themselves here?” We did one last circuit of the mound, then began to make our way back to the Abbey. As we walked, Sedu told me a story.
“I’ve never been able to find out why, but some of the monks here spend their summers across the bay on one of those spiky little island rocks. Great Skellig it’s called. I’ve asked to go with them, but they won’t take me,” he said, pressing his mouth into a frown.
“Just listening to gossip in the kitchen, they say they’ve built another workplace over there, and for the past two years they’ve been taking some of the bee skeps.” As he spoke, Sedu’s voice became more and more angry. We’d come to the end of the hedge and were nearly back at the apothecary’s workshop, when Sedu lowered his voice and whispered to me.
“As soon as the weather improves, we’re going on a boat ride Alban,” he said quietly, but with some determination. I’d never heard of a boat, but it sounded quite exciting. “Meanwhile, we need to find out how those skeps got into the wood.”
“So, what have you discovered Master Deterrimus?” Brother Barnabas asked as soon as Sedu had taken off his cloak, keeping me hidden inside.
Sedu was warming his hands by the fire. Peeping out from my pocket hideaway, I could see his face as he made up his mind about something. He turned towards the old man, but with one hand behind his back where he had crossed his fingers.
“Not very much I’m afraid Brother. Would you like me to check all the other skeps to make sure they’re safe?” he fibbed, without batting an eye.
“As your duties permit boy, as your duties permit. Do not waste too much time on it. There is much work to be done,” the old man croaked, wagging his finger at the boy, without really looking at him. If he had looked he would have seen that Sedu’s face was very red, but Brother Barnabas didn’t notice.
The boy continued with his work then, fetching water, gathering firewood, chopping herbs, and sealing medicine bottles with pieces of oiled cloth. I curled up in my pocket for a snooze, but later when all was quiet and the only light came from the embers of the fire, Sedu lay awake on his cot. Part of his job was to keep the fire going through the night.
“It’s winter Alban. Bees do not move about in winter. If no one moved them, then they moved themselves. How did they manage that, skeps and all? Why was it only the skeps from the island that ended up in the wood? Why was there no snow in that clearing? he puzzled, as he lay there half asleep.
The fire was quite low, and the room had started to get cold. Sedu’s blanket had fallen onto the floor. I watched as he stretched out one arm with his palm facing upwards and made a lifting motion. The blanket did his bidding. It raised itself above him on the cot, then gently fell covering him. He pulled it under his chin curling up in its warmth, and before bringing his hand under the covers he clicked his fingers at the fire, which burst into fresh bright flames.
We were up and about early the next morning. Sedu got on with his work quickly, whilst gobbling down a piece of bread dipped in honey. He made sure the fire was made up, then whistled at a broom that stood against the wall. Whilst Sedu finished piling the firewood, the broom set to and swept the floor clean, then placed itself back where it came from. Sedu glanced around the room to see that everything was in order, then threw on his cloak with me in the pocket and we set off to find the other skeps.
“Is there anything you need me to bring for you Brother Barnabas,” Sedu called to the old man, who had just returned from his prayers.
“Since you’re visiting the beekeepers, a jug of mead wouldn’t go amiss,” he said, squinting at the boy in a quizzical short-sighted sort of way. I wondered if he knew how the boy had finished his work so quickly.
Snow swirled around us that day. The wind twisted it about and piled it up in every corner. Sedu pulled his hood close under his chin, but I was quite snug in my pocket.
“We’re not supposed to cut through inside Alban, but if we’re quick no one will notice, and we won’t end up having to scrub the floors,” Sedu said, as he pulled open the high door to the cloister. Keeping to the shadows as several monks passed us, we managed to slip by without attracting any attention.
We came out on the far side of the abbey close to several barns set in the shelter of a low hill. There was smoke mingling with the falling snow from a chimney in the end wall of the far barn, that’s where we headed.
We came to a small access door set in the great barn door, but the latched had frozen solid. Glancing round to make sure no one was watching, Sedu held one hand close to the latch and stared down at it. I was very surprised to see steam begin to rise as the ice melted away and the latch was set free. Sedu lifted the latch, stepped inside and threw back his hood.
“Ah, Master Deterrimus,” a jolly voice boomed from behind a row of skeps. “And what brings you to the apiary in this fine burly blizzard?”
“Good day Brother Fane, we are on a mission for Brother Barnabas,” Sedu answered.
“When you say we, did you leave someone outside in the cold?” the large cheerful monk asked.
“Oh no, he’s right here,” Sedu said, hooking me out of the pocket and sitting me on his shoulder. “It’s alright Alban,” he whispered whilst he stroked my fur. “Brother Fane is a good friend.”
“Well I’m blessed. A little stowaway!” the brother said as his huge strong hand lifted me gently onto the table. There was a small dish catching drops underneath one of the skeps which he placed before me, pouring in a little milk from a leather jug. I began to lap away happily, while Sedu finished the telling.
“It’s about the missing skeps, Brother Fane. My master sent me to enquire whether there are any others gone astray,” Sedu told him.
“No. No more will there be,” Brother Fane said.
“How do you know there will be no more?” Sedu asked him.
“Simply because these are home skeps lad. They are not prone to go a-wandering,”
“How do skeps wander brother, do they have legs to carry them or wings to fly?” Sedu and I couldn’t believe our ears.