The Bellowing of the Ox
St. Thomas Aquinas fanfiction
The Bellowing Of The Ox was a story I wrote for the LegendFiction Sacred Stories contest, for which it was a finalist! You can download a copy of the magazine with all the other entries from this link. This story is about my very favorite saint, Thomas Aquinas! It's inspired by and references actual events in his life, with a generous portion of artistic license. There are quite a few Easter eggs in this one, see if you can find them all!
Length: 2800 words, about 12 minutes reading time
"We cannot have full knowledge all at once. We must start by believing; then afterwards we may be led on to master the evidence for ourselves." -St. Thomas Aquinas
The fire was burning low, once a merry blaze now reducing into ashes. As it decreased, the chill in the room increased. He drew his black cappa tighter around his shoulders; they may have prevented him from being in Rome, but they would never take the Dominican habit from him.
He scratched out a few more annotations on the parchment before him. Adelasia's Latin was improving; if there was to be any benefit to his detention, the bettered education of his sisters would be it. Notwithstanding dear Maria's admission that she would rather join the Carmelites than marry that crass Guglielmo.
But that had not happened yet. Or did it ever happen? It was always difficult to know with certainty. Stone walls were around him then, and now, and seemingly always. He set the scroll aside and pulled his beloved Bible closer. Tonight would be memorizing the next five pages of Matthaeum. He hoped to move on to Lucam by Christmas. There was little else to do; all the letters to the Order had been sealed and readied to go out.
The log in the hearth broke in half, a sharp crack pulling him away from the Sermon on the Mount. Unless Adenolfo came with another armful of wood, he would have to burn the stick he had been using to stir the embers. That would certainly be fitting, the tool becoming the fuel. It would have served its purpose well.
Footsteps in the hallway, a knock on the door. "Tommaso!" Fillipo again. Hopefully, he had brought some wood along with the bowl of leftover scraps that served as his dinner. At least there were usually some strips of mutton. The door creaked open; Fillipo had never waited for a response even when he wasn't the jail keeper.
Tommaso didn't get up from his wooden chair, that might be interpreted as a sign of aggression. Fillipo strode into the room, foppish as always in his embroidered tunic and purple hose, the ermine cape he had received from the Duke of Somewhere swirling around his shoulders. He possessed a fearsome, hawkish face which resembled that of his sibling. But that was where the resemblance ended, thanks be to God.
"Oh Tommaso," he sneered. "Still reading, I see. What a waste of time." A servant boy scurried in behind Fillipo with the bowl of steaming soup. And they had even given him a horn spoon this time.
Tommaso leveled his gaze at his oldest brother. "And what would you suggest to be a better use of one's hours?"
Fillipo continued to smirk. "Why, the knightly arts, of course. Fencing, riding, jousting…" As he listed off these pursuits, the servant left and a young woman entered, one whom Tommaso had never seen before. Her braided hair was black, face plain, she wore a rough brown dress with woolen stockings. Tommaso watched her look about the tiny room and frown, then glance at him and put on a forced smile.
The dandy he held for a brother was droning on. "But perhaps it is better you know none of these things, otherwise it would have been harder for Adenolfo and I to… divert you on your way to Rome." He was the only one who laughed at this joke.
Tommaso frowned. "Two things, Fillipo. First, who is this woman? Second, I require more wood for the fire."
Fillipo clapped his hands together. "One answer, Tommaso! And no wonder I must give it to you, since you have so little skill in manhood." He leaned against the door frame rakishly. "We've been discussing the situation, your brothers and I. Since you refuse to abandon the squalid Order of Preachers and join a respectable brethren like the Benedictines, we must take more direct measures. Mother's only directive was that you not remain a Dominican. She said nothing about you remaining a friar."
The young woman gazed at Tommaso, batting her eyelashes to communicate her true business. He was silent as he processed this, a move on the board he hadn't anticipated.
"So, dear brother, the answer to your question is that she will be keeping you warm tonight." He swept out the door, shutting but not latching it.
She shook her head, then stepped to the unmade bed, grateful it was a down cushion and not a straw tick. "So… my name is Isadora…"
That was enough. Or perhaps it was too much. Tommaso leapt from the chair, upsetting it entirely. Despite his large frame, he was across the cell in a heartbeat, snatching up the wooden fire poker. "Get thee gone!" he yelled, waving the burning brand in the air, embers falling around him like orange snow. "Go, and sin no more!"
She needed no more encouragement. Fillipo had opened the door to see the commotion, and she pushed past him in a rush. At the sight of an angry, armed friar, he pulled the door shut and barred it. Tommaso let out another howl of righteous fury, slamming the brand into the door until a crude cross was burned into the surface. Collapsing on the ground, he was soon overcome, that vision beyond sight that he knew so well.
The light of the fire grew brighter. The angels had come again. He was floating above the ground, making it easier for them to wrap the girdle around his waist. He murmured the words they spoke, which had been so easy to remember, as if themselves burned into the walls of his mind.
"Behold, we gird thee by the command of God with the girdle of chastity, which henceforth will never be imperiled. What human strength cannot obtain, is now bestowed upon thee as a celestial gift."
Brown wings beat the air, greater than any bird, warm ashes stirring into cold breath, swirling into the smell of salt and fish. But Roccasecca was nowhere near the Mediterranean Sea.
Napoli was, though. He was seated again, but around a large table, a dozen Dominicans in a candlelit room, eating in silence. Or, near silence. "Brother Tommaso," said the monk to his left. He gently pushed Tommaso's thick hand down, sparing the quill pen which almost became his supper.
Blinking, Tommaso raised the spoonful of soup in his other hand. "Yes, thank you Brother Gregorio," he whispered.
"Of course." Gregorio nodded to the sharp-eyed man across the table, whose bushy black eyebrows raised in gratitude.
The meal ended. Some friars went off to their work, others to prayer. Tommaso found himself in the latter group, in the chapel of San Nicolas. Apparently, it was time to sing Vespers. But just as the hymn ended and the chanting ceased, the sun shone in through the windows, the sea smell was vanished, as was the ocean itself. He recognized the space at once, the schoolroom at Monte Cassino.
"Tommaso, come look!" a group of boys cried from the window. A young child looked up from his desk, smaller and thinner than the stout fellow he was destined to become.
"What is it?" Tommasino asked.
"There's a pig flying across the courtyard!" they yelled.
Tommasino leapt up, eager to see the sight, earning him the scorn of the children. "How foolish must you be to think that was so?"
The young Aquino squared his shoulders. "I would sooner believe that a pig could fly than a friend could lie to me." The other children fell silent, but soon began chanting in Latin.
But they were singing Matins. Still in the chapel in Napoli. Early morning, noon, midnight, what did it matter? It reminded him of when he had been hounded by the shadows for a fortnight, those lurking, dreadful creatures that appeared whenever the mood in the monastery became grim. When morale among the brothers waned. Did they beget the ill humors, though, or did the ill humor beget them? He would have to write on that later. If he had any time remaining…
Kneeling in the chapel, he fixed his gaze on the great crucifix above the altar. The beautiful eyes carved into the bright wood stared back into him, and he felt a vision overwhelm him.
Time happened, he knew logically that it must, though how much, he could not tell. He was only dimly aware of Brother Domenico coming in to check on him, under guise of preparing for morning Mass.
The sandy-haired brother bowed his head to the altar as he approached. He glanced sideways at Tommaso; the great man was hovering in midair, tears streaming from his eyes, some holy and fierce truth being revealed to him. After clearing the altar and ensuring none of the novices had placed anything under Tommaso this time, he was unfolding the corporal when the voice came.
"You have written well of me, Tommaso."
Domenico's heart leapt in his chest. That voice was not Tommaso; his was too deep and firm, and besides he never spoke of himself in such a manner. Neither was it one of the brothers, he knew them all so well. This was something else entirely, the tone both pure and calming, yet rousing and stern, all at once.
"What would you have for your labor?"
Domenico fell to his knees, nearly tripping on the folds of his tunic. The voice belonged to the Lord, there was no mistaking it, as it issued from the crucifix. The mouth of the normally immobile carving had moved, inclining its neck toward the holy man below.
Tommaso stared up at the face of his savior, his Lord and master. Presented with such a choice, this Solomon-like boon, what else could he choose? He stretched his arms upward, still levitating above the stone floor.
"None but thee, dear Lord, none but thee."
The Son of Man smiled down at him, His good and faithful servant. "Then I grant your reward."
Tommaso cried out as though in pain. Domenico ran to his side to see if he had been struck somehow. Slowly, like setting a baby in a crèche, the angels who upheld his bulk lowered him to the cold floor, leaving him reaching toward the altar. Tommaso's heart was rent and mended, stirred and stilled. Everything was before him, yet nothing was within reach. He dropped his arms to his sides, burying them under his capuce, and let the tears flow freely, bellowing sobs wracking his body.
Domenico bowed to the inert Lord, then went to Brother Tommaso. Soon the magister was seated in one of his favorite chairs, which took the pressure off his back so pleasantly. But that chair was not in the chapel, it was in his cell upstairs.
The chamber in which he had spent his years in Napoli was nearly the same size as his prison at Castel Roccasecca, but the door was open, and the fire blazed away in the hearth. Advent was upon them, after all. A friar with bushy black eyebrows sat before the desk, quill and parchment before him. He was not writing, though, his face in deep thought, fingers steepled as he listened to the sacristan recount the tale.
Domenico took a breath. "Yes, Brother Rinaldo. I was in the chapel, and I heard the voice of Christ say these things. No one else was about, it had to be the Lord himself!"
Rinaldo nodded. "I agree. Well, I have written down what you related. I shall call on you if I need any clarification." Domenico bowed and left, leaving Rinaldo alone with his old friend. Tommaso was staring out the window, bundled up in his warm robes, his implacable face set with an expression of worry, not the peace one would imagine after hearing the Lord speak.
But again, Tommaso had always been stubborn. Rinaldo let out a sigh. "Well, Brother Tommaso, it is time to continue our work." He picked up the quill and dipped it. "Now, we were on the fifth article of the parts of penance, having just discussed the fitting division between baptism and sins of both mortal and venial varieties. I am ready when you are."
Tommaso said nothing, so Rinaldo waited. This was common, he reckoned it took time to stoke up the fires of his great mind to a suitable blaze. But still no words came forth. "Brother Tommaso? Are you well?"
"Oh yes, Rinaldo," he said in a low voice, "more well than you know."
"Then please, let us continue dictation."
Rinaldo's impressive eyebrows knit together. "I do not understand."
"There is no point, no need. It is simply vanity, as all is."
"Yes, Ecclesiastes, I know, but it is time to work."
"There will be no more work."
Rinaldo scratched his scalp just above his tonsure. "How can you say this? I know you have outlines for at least a dozen more articles."
"Unnecessary," Tommaso mumbled. "Inconsequential. Nothing but a pale comparison."
Rinaldo stood, shaking his head and shuffling over to the fire to warm the fearful chill from his hands. "Well, alright. A change of topic then? I know you had wanted to do a commentary on the Song of Songs, why not begin with that?"
"But please, Tommaso…" He turned toward him. "Your wisdom must be shared through these writings!"
"I cannot!" Tommaso burst from his chair. This was familiar, did he see a scared young woman cowering in the corner? He grabbed up the book on the table, ninety articles thus far, and all but useless. Only worthy for…
With a heave, he tossed it toward the fire, but an angel stood among them as the weighty tome fell short of the hearth. Rinaldo stood rooted in shock.
"Rinaldo, I cannot," Tommaso breathed. "The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to me as so much straw…"
The confused friar picked up the book off the floor, tucking the loose sheaves back inside the binding. He clutched it to his chest like a newborn babe.
"Is this due to your recent ecstasy?" Tommaso only nodded. "What… what did you see?"
Tommaso shuddered. "Everything."
He was silent a moment. "Words cannot describe what I saw."
Rinaldo stood in the room a minute more, in case that the words might be found. When none more came: "I see. Well, I will have Brother Lorenzo begin copying this, then." He closed the door with perhaps more force than was needed, the sound of wood against stone becoming the sound of wood against earth.
Tommaso was on his back, the stars in his eyes only flickering simulacra of the vision he had in the chapel, pale echoes of the most glorious sight ever seen by human eyes. He was a star, he had been dancing among the suns, but now the earth pressed against him, rocks dug into his back, the donkey brayed at his side, calling the others to him.
"Brother Tommaso!" Gregorio yelled, or was it Alessandro? It could have been the Philosopher himself for all he knew.
"Are you alright?"
"That tree branch fell just as he passed beneath."
"His eyes are moving, he can see me! Here, help me get him up."
"He cannot possibly make it to Lyon, not in this state. Monte Cassino is over the ridge, if we hurry we can make it there by nightfall."
"A fine idea, he can recover his strength there before we set out again."
Tommaso could not move. Had it been a branch, or had Fillipo and Adenolfo knocked him from his horse as he approached that spring? Was he in the chapel, levitating in ecstasy? Maybe he was in the streets of Napoli, preaching as the Lenten snow still covered the ground. Perhaps he was back among that great multitude, cheering while friars of his order stood in a line, singing and playing stringed instruments like none he had ever seen. Or back among the great peafowl which surrounded that young woman making noise with that machine that produced parchment from the top. Perhaps the angels had returned again, bearing him up with their strong hands, lifting him from the ground and onto his donkey. Guiding him where he needed to go.
The smell of people, of food, of horses. Paris, the universitas. Magister Albertus had just finished scolding the other young men for speaking ill of Tommaso, for calling him slow because of his quietude. No one knew he was hiding around the corner of the hall, levitating and sinking, young and old, Tommasino and the Magister of Napoli all at once. Where was the end? To that course, where was the beginning?
"You call him the dumb ox," Albertus says, or he said, or he will say. "But, in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world."
Master Albert was certainly right. If you liked this Thomas Aquinas fanfiction, find more stories at ZMT Books.