King Sigmus and Bishop Jacob entered together the infamous Bishop's Prison. The coldness penetrated to the bone and the King drew his cloak tightly against the bitterness that rose up from the stones like an icy dagger, for the very stones of the infernal prison were forged in the coldness of hell. Together they came and would ascend to the very top of the tower, the highest level where the pariah Barabbas was being incarcerated. Bishop Jacob had come to the prison many times, but the top of the tower where Barabbas was kept was forbidden to anyone but the keeper. The Bishop could never enter the prison without the memories overpowering him and as he placed his foot on the first step of the long, winding stairwell that would take him to the top, he remembered the first time he had met the prisoner Kerron the Blasphemer, and his heart was troubled.
Kerron the Blasphemer
The stone abutment, merging the horrors of hell and the savage guilt of man, rises from the sea like a mist, solid yet ethereal and vaporous as sin itself. Atop the monolith rests the stone structure, buttressed against the sheer wind and bitterness of cold isolation until the prison over time has been absorbed into the cragged stone like a festering wound. Through the landing Bishop Jacob held fast to the edge of the boat against the choppy, roiling sea. The dangerous waters near the prison were seldom traversed except for those with business. For days the weather had been stormy and unusually inclement, but he was anxious to make his vigil once again to the prison to listen to the lamentations of those for whom such a place was feared by all. Storm clouds scudded across the leaden sky and the wind lashed at the Bishop’s black cloak. With difficulty the boat landed against an outcrop of rock that jutted out to sea and served as a pier. The boatman shouted through the wind.
“I’ll be back before the sun goes down! Be careful now and step lively!”
The Bishop hoisted a small bag onto the rocky surface and then stepped out of the boat nimbly, for he was used to this transit and had lost his fear. Then, with a nod to the boatman he grabbed the front of the bow and shoved hard. As if on cue the torrid sky opened up and it began to rain. The Bishop hurriedly picked up his bag and shuffled as quickly as possible up the slippery stone steps cut into the rock that led to the only way in or out of the dreaded prison.
The prison, raised upon the freezing rock like a dais, looked lonely and frightening against the dark clouds. Bishop Jacob pounded on the iron door and waited to be admitted by the keeper. He was let in at once for the keeper had watched his tiny vessel as it approached. The Bishop stepped through the doorway and shivered.
“It is a cold rain Stephan, a cold rain indeed.”
“Take off your cloak and have some tea,” Stephan answered with a nod. “I have been expecting you for a long time now. It is good to see you again, sir.”
“I do not envy you for what you must do, Stephan, but you have served the King well by your devotion. This is a forsaken place indeed.”
Even with the key-lights taken out it was dreadfully dark inside. Accustomed to such gloominess, Stephan seldom took them out. Jacob waited for his eyes to adjust before looking around the familiar prison for signs of hope, but there is no hope for abandoned men. Built as a tower the prison pierced the sky like a broken finger. A circular stairwell traversed the outer edge of the tower and rose to the top where a final cell was occupied by the lowliest, most reprehensible soul ever committed. Impenetrable, impregnable, the tower was feared by all that could see its silhouette against the western sky. The walls were built of stone; the floor was paved with stone; the air itself was cold and petrified by the anguish within; were it not for the softness of the flesh interred, the prison itself would petrify.
“Follow me,” said Stephan, and then he led the way to his tiny office where a pot of water heated on a brazier against the wall. As coal was the only source of heat, a constant odor of burning coal filled the prison like a rising vapor from the underworld and the prisoners continually choked upon the poisonous fumes for the air was stagnant inside with the stench of hell.
Soon Bishop Jacob was sipping a cup of steaming tea and waiting to hear the latest news from Stephan, the keeper who suffered along with those in his charge.
“I buried the wailer last week. Not another soul witnessed his burial at sea.”
“I hope he is at peace now,” Jacob said sadly. “He deeply regretted his transgression and pleaded for mercy. I told him that only the Lord could grant such mercy, but he is past mercy now . . .”
“Alas,” Jacob muttered softly.
“And what became of the blasphemer,” Stephan? “Tell me, is Kerron the blasphemer still here?”
“I’m afraid so,” Stephan replied. “The King is none too fond of blasphemy.”
“That is true,” said Jacob thoughtfully as a memory distracted him briefly. “But tell me, is Himmer the Village Killer still alive?”
“The last time I looked in on him he was still alive. But, I confess Jacob that I do not look in on him more often than it is to feed him and bring him a few lumps of coal. Yes, he lives . . . that and no more.”
“Does he speak?”
“His lamentations are almost too much for me to bear. I consider myself fortunate if I hear nothing from him at all.”
“I should like to see the blasphemer,” said Bishop Jacob suddenly.
The two men stopped in front of an iron door. The keeper silently slid the door panel aside and peered into the cell. Satisfied with what he saw he inserted the key into the door and unlocked it. Then he stood aside and waited for the Bishop to enter. Finally he locked the door and went away.
The Bishop stood in the doorway and waited for it to close behind him. When it did he remained motionless and waited for the blasphemer to speak.
Kerron the blasphemer lay curled up in a corner. He held close to a soiled blanket for protection against crawling demons and demons of the mind. He looked up when Jacob entered.
“Have you come to kill me?” he asked.
Jacob looked at the blasphemer and nodded. “No,” he said at last. “I have not come to judge.”
“Are you of this world?”
Jacob looked closer at the pathetic man. He lay in the corner and shook with fear. His hair was long and fell about his face in dirty, oily streaks. The chalkiness of his skin and his silent trembling showed that he was already sick, and through his pale eyes he stared at the one that should accuse him, for he was dressed in the garments of the church.
“You have nothing to fear from me,” Bishop Jacob said softly. Then the bishop opened his bag and removed something: it was a tomato. Moving closer to the blasphemer he reached out his hand. “Take this and eat it,” he said, “for I know that you are hungry.”
The blasphemer snatched it away quickly, but he did not eat it. Holding it in his hands he felt its softness against the harshness of his cell. Then he looked up to the bishop and stared through his weary eyes as if the bishop were an apparition.
“How long have you been here?” Jacob asked compassionately.
The blasphemer did not answer but only held tighter to the tomato fearing that it would vanish.
“Do you remember your sin, Kerron? Tell me so that I may know of your torment.”
Still the blasphemer would not speak. He was utterly frightened and feared to reveal his presence as if the tiny blanket could hide him through the dimness of his isolation.
“Are you a blasphemer, Kerron? Is that why you were sent here? Tell me your story and I will remain silent. It is good to share your pain, Kerron. It is good to . . .”
“Yes,” the hollow voice of the blasphemer came at last. “His voice was weak and the dimness of his cell only made it weaker.
The Bishop moved slightly and slowly sat down on the edge of his little pallet. He looked directly at the forsaken man and said.
“Go ahead now, Kerron . . . tell me your story.”
The blasphemer looked long and hard at the bishop. At first he was afraid to meet his eyes, but after a few moments he looked into the Bishop’s eyes and saw that they were true and there was no mockery in them. His own eyes began to sting with the bitterness of unrequited tears. Then he began to speak.
“Sheep’s wool has been my trade for my whole life. It’s all I know and all I ever wanted to know. My sheep were mine and I protected them just as a parish priest protects his flock. Many nights I ran out into the storm to find a missing sheep because it was my duty to bring it back into the fold, do you understand? Sometimes the darkness can be frightening, but to the tender heart of a sheep the terrors of the night can destroy just as surely as the fangs of a beast or the quick hands of a thief.
“Me and my family lived in a little stone cottage near the western sea so that we could taste the air of Ireland, the land of the saints, and sometimes we prayed to the saints and that they might bring us sunshine and good dreams. But mostly we prayed to the Lord because we knew that to the Lord it was we that were sheep and we were comforted because we knew that a good shepherd protects his sheep against all matter of evil. The Lord gave me three healthy children and I gave the Lord my soul and the souls of my family. The Lord was happy with my soul I reckoned because he kept me safe.
“Now, as you probably know, there are monsters creeping in the shadows and that they not be seen is due to the grace of God. The Lord wants to protect us because we are weak. It is sometimes that I would hear them and even see shadows, for the shadow cast by a demon can reach into the heart of men. The Lord gave this ability to me because the Lord is also a shepherd and gave me a greater sensitivity to such things as demons and crawling monsters the better for me to protect my flock.
“One night as we were all sleeping, one of the children was frightened by a sound in the night. Children also have the ability to penetrate the curtain that separates the world from that which is hidden. She woke up and could not be calmed down again. She trembled like a lost sheep in a storm. I took little Aalin in my arms and held her until she fell to sleep again. I held her until daybreak. In the morning I went out to check on my flock.
“My sheep are free to wander the rocky hillock amongst the stones and grasses and they are content. Most of what is left of an old stone fence built in the last century is in ruins, but it is enough for my sheep to know their boundaries. In truth, I have no need of fences. My worries are not that my sheep should escape, but that something should come in from outside.
“I walked around looking for any sign of intrusion and my flock gathered around me bleating and murmuring as if they were frightened. I talked to them gently and told them that they were safe and that seemed to calm them as the sound of a mother’s voice comforts her children.
“That night I sent my two boys out into the night to keep watch until morning, and I slept fitfully. When I woke in the morning I had a queer feeling and I bolted out of the cottage to check on the fold. Both of my boys were gathered around a fallen sheep. They were shaking their heads in confusion as neither one of them had heard an unordinary sound during the night and they feared that I would blame them for falling to sleep. I looked down at the fallen ewe and she was ripped open and her insides were strewn about. The other sheep fidgeted and tried to get closer but I held them back. Looking up to my boys from where I was kneeling beside my sheep I shot them a questioning glance, for I had no idea what kind of animal could have done such a thing, not a fox, no, certainly not a fox. This was the work of a wolf, a lone wolf I speculated.
“I said nothing to my boys at first. But secretly I was alarmed. I knew that the wound was not the work of a wolf. Indeed, a wolf would have devoured part of the flesh for wolves do not attack without driving hunger. Further, I knew that there were no wolves on the island for they were hunted and killed long ago.
“That night I took watch and sent my young boys to bed. The night air is alive with night sounds and it takes a man many years to distinguish the merely nocturnal from the supernatural. The night sounds tell a story of death and rebirth, but it is not suited for the ears of weak men. Slowly I began to succumb to the power of the night, but just before I went under I heard a murmur in the fold. Suddenly I jumped up alert and ready for a fight and I drew a long dagger from my belt. Now, though the moon was nigh, thick clouds floated above and only a dim half-light illuminated the hillock where I stood ready to defend my flock. Then I saw a shadow moving across the slope near the stone wall. The shadow was darker than the darkness through which it moved. I lunged! When I caught up to the shadow it was gone and only an icy thickness remained.
“I counted my sheep, and when I was satisfied that they were all accounted for I began to relax and consider other things. The stalking predator was unsuccessful . . . I had prevailed, but for how long? I would continue to keep vigil as long as possible, but would I always prevail? The next morning when the sun was up I knew that my sheep would be safe during the daylight hours, so I had a talk with my two boys. I told them that we were being stalked by a demon and that we would have to fight. Yes, they were frightened, I was frightened too. But I told them that the Lord was on our side, for He was also a shepherd. I said that we were righteous in our cause.
“That day we made preparations for our campaign against the demon. We fashioned weapons out of steel and wood and stone, and we plotted against the demon. Little Aalin we did not tell for I had no desire to frighten her needlessly. But as expected, when she saw that we were fashioning weapons, she became curious and begged to be allowed to help. I told her that she was too young for hunting wolves and that she would be safe in the cottage. ‘Close the shutters,’ I said. ‘And don’t look out.’
“For three nights we kept the demon at bay, chasing it away when it came too close to our firelight, praying, always mindful of our sheep. And now it seemed like we were getting the upper hand, driving the demon further and further from our property until it lurked outside of our border like a starving solder, exiled from his camp . . . and still we remained vigilant.
“During daylight hours we would take turns sleeping. My boys were brave and they were strong, but after a fortnight of battle we were exhausted. And then it happened.
“One night after chasing the demon away once more, we heard a cry in the night. It was the sound of absolute terror and it made my blood curdle. Wailing, relentless wailing, the sound stopped me cold. And then suddenly I recognized that terrible sound . . . it was the voice of Aalin.
“I ran with all the strength of my soul just as the last wail faded into the darkness. I ran with all my strength at last bursting into my cottage and running to her little room, but when I got there, the shutters were torn open and it looked like a terrible struggle had taken place. Aalin was gone . . .Aalin was taken.
It took a moment for Bishop Jacob to realize that he was finished speaking. There was a terrible silence. In the choking silence the Bishop could feel the pressure of the walls as if his nerves were expanded against the frigid prison walls. Finally Kerron looked up and his eyes met the eyes of the Bishop and the strength of the Bishop failed him for the first time in his life. Overcome by the grief of the harrowing tale the Bishop wanted nothing more than to comfort the poor man who had lost his child. He looked into the eyes of the prisoner . . . they were blank.
“What kind of a shepherd allows his flock to be taken away from under his very nose?” said Kerron weakly. “What kind of a shepherd?”
“It was not your fault,” said Bishop Jacob with compassion, but his words failed him. “It was not your fault,” he repeated.
But then the expression of Kerron changed and the change was terrible. He slowly raised his arm and in his hand he still clutched the tomato given to him by Jacob. He was trembling. His awful eyes stabbed into the Bishop mercilessly and in his anger he shouted as his hand crushed the tomato between his fingers.
“I was not talking about myself, fool! Fool! Where is your learning now? Where, where, where . . .” and he began to cry. “Where is your learning now?” he gasped between sobs.
And then the Bishop knew at last that it was the Lord that he was talking about, and he knew the depth of his terrible blasphemy. The Bishop could not meet those awful eyes again and he stared at the floor until the sobbing subsided.
A long time passed before Jacob had the strength to raise his eyes. Much evil had the Bishop come to know of, for prison is the house of evil, the house of death, and every act of evil tore at his heart like a thorn because he was good, and he was selfless. When he finally did he was staring directly into the eyes of Kerron who sat watching him with an utter intensity.
“You have committed a great evil,” Jacob said at last. “The Lord cannot forgive you for this transgression.”
“I went all over the village looking for my little Aalin,” said Kerron without acknowledging the words of the Bishop. “To everyone I met I damned the Lord and told them of His weakness. I became His accuser. The people recoiled from my accusations and closed their door to my lamentations. I wandered until I collapsed. The people condemned me. They pointed to me and said, blasphemer! They cursed me and chased me away until my hatred for the Lord grew even more.”
“Don’t you understand?” said Bishop Jacob as if a sudden spark had rekindled his sensibility. “Your sin is unforgivable.”
“Unforgivable?” said Kerron from within if darkening shadow. “I’m already in prison. I’m already condemned. Take your precious soul with you and leave me alone.”
Bishop Jacob stood up and went to the door. He knocked once very loudly. Then he turned back to Kerron who watched him through the resentment of his own self righteousness. “You need to think about eternity,” he said. “Eternity is not about time, Kerron. No, eternity is outside of time, and when time is over and darkness covers the land, eternity remains.” Then the door opened and he stepped out into the dimness of the lonely corridor and the door closed behind him.
Before leaving the prison Jacob stopped at the cell of Issak the stone. The Bishop did not know what Issak’s crime had been to land him in prison because Issak was as still as a stone and would not talk about his crime. Most prisoners were all too eager to confess to the Bishop their crimes in the hope of eliciting mercy from the Bishop, but not Issak. Verily, Issak was eager to talk, but not about his guilt.
Bishop Jacob stepped into the wretchedness of Issak’s cell and was reminded of the terrible incarceration of Paul who spent two years rotting away in a Caesarea prison for casting out a demon before being sent to Rome to be judged by Caesar. His incarceration was cruel and unjust, but even Paul could not save himself and he was beheaded in 68 A.D. How much less of a sinner was Issak? Bishop Jacob took pity on all men.
“Tell me your sin so that I may help you,” said Bishop Jacob. “There is no more need of secrecy . . . there is no more reason to hide from the truth, for you have been found guilty.”
“I am guilty,” answered Issak.
“You are guilty before God,” Jacob reiterated.
“Yes, God is my judge,” said Issak.
Jacob looked at Issak and was moved to pity by what he saw. No pillar dweller hermit or peregrine saint ever looked so lowly and destitute as Issak looked now. His hair was long and wild. He had not bathed and his skin was thin and crusted with sores. But still there was a look of defiance in his eyes, and that is what disturbed the Bishop most.
“You will never leave this prison if you do not confess and repent,” Jacob persisted. “You must accept you r guilt.”
“It is too horrible for me to contemplate,” said Issak with sadness in his voice. “I can never speak of it, for if I were to speak of it . . . it would return to my mind, and that I cannot bear.”
Jacob saw a small chance of hope. “It is done,” he said. “Whatever you have done can never be undone. If you refuse to acknowledge your sin it does not lesson your sin, and it does not lesson your guilt. But if you declare your sin before God and before the Church, you may be forgiven your sin.”
Issak looked into Jacob’s eyes and they were sad. “I do not wish to be forgiven,” he said. “I wish to suffer.”
“But, tell me Issak, how long can you suffer?”
“Until the Lord is satisfied,” he replied.
Now Bishop Jacob was angry. “Do you wish to stay here? Do you wish to die here . . . in this prison, alone?”
“All men are along before God,” Issak insisted.
There was nothing Jacob could say to penetrate into the soul of such stubbornness, and he knew it. But he had to try, if only for his own sake.
“Tell me Bishop,” said Issak with growing fervor. “Is it true that to God, all sin is equal? This is what I have been taught . . . but if all sin is truly equal to God, and all men are sinners . . . then it is no more sinful to God if one mutilates children than it is to steal a loaf of bread to assuage gnawing hunger. To God all hunger and all need is the same.”
“Thoughts like this will not help you,” said Jacob.
“But is it true! Is it true?” Issak demanded forcefully.
“All sin separates us from God, that is true,” Jacob answered. “The Lord cannot abide sin, for the Lord is sinless. That is why he sacrificed his own flesh and suffered for us.”
Issak would not listen to the words of the Bishop and only became more and more despondent.
“But if we love God,” he pleaded. “If we truly love God and He lives in our heart . . . then tell me why He would allow Himself to be used for such evil?”
“Do not make the mistake of supposing to use God,” Jacob said, still trying to reason with the prisoners lamentations. “It is God that uses us. No, the plans of the Lord cannot be altered, and what for you is your own free will, is already known to God. This is true.”
“That cannot be true!” Issak shouted. “If my will is not my own . . . then, then the terrible things I have done are not my fault, they are the fault of God.”
Then Issak was silent and he seemed to be turning a particular thought over in his mind. The Bishop watched him and his heart was moved. Though he looked down on a terrible sinner, the Bishop knew that all men were sinners and the anguish of Issak only made him feel weaker.
“There is a hole in the world,” Issak said looking up. “I know where it is because it is right here in my cell. Sometimes I plan o escape, I want to escape yes. Sometimes I plan to escape . . . but I never do.”
“You would do well to alter your plans,” said Jacob. “This is where you are and this is where you must be. There are no more plans for you to make, Issak.”
Issak smiled. “I know a lot about spiders,” he said. “It is true, for I watch them when they come out and I see the things that they do. And I know that the flies come for me because I am unclean . . . Yes, I know that I am unclean and wretched. I cannot bear to smell my own wretchedness . . . But the spiders come to me to get the flies. But, but the spiders do not know that it is I that feeds them, for it is not for them to know. No, the spiders do not know because they hide during the daylight when I am thinking. And I hide during the darkness when the Lord is thinking.”
“St. Anthony was often attacked by flies,” said Jacob calmly as the words of Issak lulled him into a strange torpor.
“The whole world is like a spider web.” Issak continued. “This is what I have discovered. It is true that I am grateful to be here in this prison, for otherwise I never would have known. The web is so thin, so delicate, but we do not see the web, nor do we feel the web as it coils and coils and coils around us. No, no we do not see the web, and even though we are entangled in silk, we never know. This is what I have discovered.” Then Issak smiled strangely at the Bishop. “The spider feels the quivering fly caught in the web, and so the Master must feel our pathetic struggle as we try to tear free, but our struggle only entangles us further as our struggle announces our presence.”
“And have you also discovered a way into hell?” asked the Bishop who was growing weary of such speech. “Because if you die here without confessing your sins, then that is where you must go.”
“No, I have not thought about that,” Issak replied.
“Hell is darker than any darkness that you can ever know.”
Issak jerked as a new thought occurred to him. “And you have seen this?” he asked in anticipation.
“No, I have not seen this, Issak. But the Lord has spoken of it, and the saints have been taken there in visions. Eternal darkness, Issak, eternal nothingness, eternal emptiness, an emptiness that is devoid of all thought, all warmth, and all awareness. What would you do? Your cries will never be heard. Think about that, Issak.”
“Darkness is not so bad.”
“Suffering, Issak! Eternal suffering . . .”
“I am weary, for such talk makes me want to sleep. Would you leave me now?”
Bishop Jacob knew that it was best to leave when a prisoner no longer accepted his presence. Many times he had witnessed as a prisoner would shrink from him until he could not be reached and had become insensate but would only stare with blank, vacant watery eyes. The Bishop knew that such was the expression of God’s work, and it was best that he not interfere.
Jacob left and rode to Bishopscourt and ate a light meal before retiring to his private garden to meditate. Not overly ornate and symmetrically pleasing like the private garden of King Sigmus, the Bishop’s garden offered something different, something quite special: it offered complete solace, and it was during such periods of such solace that Jacob came closest to his understanding of the will of the Lord. The calmness brought to his mind by the natural, asymmetric beauty was a form of enchantment.
The private gardens of Bishopscourt were constructed by Bishop Jacob and the many bishops before him that lived and worked from the idyllic location. The Bishop particularly liked a grove of fruit trees that he planted, and he ate from the trees and thought it was good, for beauty without purpose was good, but beauty endowed with a purpose was closer to the divine will of the Lord.
Also of particular interest was the tower, King Orry’s Tower, as it had come to be known. There are many legends about the tower and its construction, but there are no records and only fragments and old myths and folklore remain. The legend that Bishop Jacob came to love the most went like this:
There lived a King named King Orry long ago before written word had come to these shores. This was a time of words, a time of scratching on stones and the carving of symbols; this was a time of deeds done in the name of honor. This was a violent period and the clashing of swords and the raising of pikes dominated the mind of men. King Orry fought hard to defend his land against invaders and many men had died horrible but noble deaths. Then there came a time when King Orry was driven across his land by the army of a sorceress from the north. He was driven all the way to Bishopscourt where he built a stone tower in which to hide, for the sorceress had come for him. The sorceress had come to usurp his power and his people.
Driven to the edge of his land the King made his stand, and there he built a tall, square stone tower so that he could see his enemy from the four points of the Earth. But the sorceress would not give up and she sent strong winds from the four corners of the Earth and she sent stinging, sleeting, freezing rain down from above. Then she battered the walls of his tower with vicious biting insects and with crows, but the King would not come out. Next she prepared to storm the tower and raze it to the ground and she brought her army to the foot of the tower.
Now it was known that King Orry had four daughters. The four daughters of King Orry were the most beautiful women in the land and none could look on their fair countenance and not be moved to tears. After much thought the King sent his daughters up into the top level of the tower and seated them in the four quadrants where they could easily be seen from below. When the solders saw the beauty of these women their heart was moved and they ached with pain that such beauty should be isolated. In their agony the men could not be persuaded to attack the tower and they refused to take up arms. But the sorceress still did not give up her quest and that is when she wrought her most malevolent act of sorcery and thus sealed the fate for the King.
The sorceress bound them forever more captured in the tower and that they should never come out but were instead condemned to, like the sirens of Odysseus, cry their mournful cries into the farthest reaches of the island thus quartered. The King was thus condemned to live forever, but in spirit and not in body. When the doors were finally broken down by the Kings faithful army after the retreat of the sorceress, only five mounds of white ash were ever discovered. For many years afterward it was discovered that strange wailing could be heard in the winds that swept across the island and that a mournful throbbing could often be heard inside the tower.
 But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost, shall never have forgiveness, but shall be guilty of an everlasting sin. Mark 3:29
 Jacob tells him that thinking is equal do doing in the eyes of the Lord, and blasphemy of the mind is equal to blasphemy of the mouth.
 King Bartholomew knew that to blaspheme one must know and willingly blaspheme against the living spirit of God. He sent Kerron to the Bishop’s prison so that his pride would be broken by such loneliness and despair and that he would come to know God and that because he had not known God when he uttered the blaspheme he could not truly have been a blasphemer.
 Aalin: beautiful.