A late spring breeze drifted out of the forest like a lost child, gently wavering through the recently planted farmland. Sensing the change, the farmer paused from his work of watering his crops. It had been a very cold winter, one among many, with a dry spring following in its wake. But there was something rejuvenating in the air, like the fresh scent of wild mint. The scent brought with it a lone figure who emerged from the woods, leading an old, ash brushed donkey, along the only beaten track leading to his farm. At the farmhouse, the farmer’s wife and three daughters stood at the door and stared disquietly as the figure slowly approached—occasionally pausing.
Traveller with Donkey. Courtesy of Simone Constantine
The stranger seemed to ignore the farmer and his family, focusing instead on what was growing on the land around him. The farmer watched intently as the stranger paused to inspect his crops, touching and turning over the sprouting leaves, bending down to smell the fresh grain, and selectively taking samples from wild plants growing beside the crops. Moving towards the apple orchard, he carefully collected a single pink bud from one of the apple trees and placed the sample in a basket tied to the side of his donkey. As the stranger approached, the farmer discerned a battered trunk tied to the other side of the donkey. Evenly tied to both sides were a pair of white shoulder sacks made of hemp cloth; most likely housing the stranger’s clothes, a simple tent rolled up with a blanket, and basic work tools, hanging from the ragged saddle.
“Good day to you stranger!” the farmer shouted, trying to garner the stranger’s attention. The sudden disturbance roused the farmer’s dog, which sprung up in swirling dust from its slumber barking.
With all the commotion the stranger finally looked up, surprised and mildly annoyed by the interruption.
“Oh, hello there,” he replied over the dog’s yapping. The farmer silenced his dog and strode towards the stranger.
“Can I help you with something?” the farmer asked as he studied the stranger’s features. From his forehead till the crown the stranger’s head was bald. To the sides, silver hair fell back joining a thick beard, which was well strewed. His ears protruded through his hair to reveal an unusual point at their helix. He instantly registered as an outlander.
“Most likely I can help you.” The stranger smiled.
The farmer seemed genuinely surprised. “You can, can you? And what might it be you think you can help me with?”
“Why with the farm of course, what else? It seems it can do with some…,” he paused and looked around, “attention.”
The farmer looked at the stranger’s eyes hoping to see his true intention. They were grey and gentle, shinning with a quivering confidence, which made him seem younger than he was.
“It could do with a bit of rain; can you arrange for that?” The farmer seemed skeptical but was satisfied that his intentions were not hostile and looked away. “What’re you carrying in the box?” He stared at the trunk on the donkey’s side.
“Seeds and records.”
“What?” The farmer was befuddled. “Records?”
“Yes, I keep a record of the plants, trees, and other points of interest I encounter,” the stranger replied.
The farmer found the stranger’s response inconsequential. “So, what can you do?” the farmer asked, finding his original intention far more pressing.
“I can help with your crops.”
“I haven’t got any money to pay you.”
“I only need a bed and a small plot to plant my seeds, I won’t be needing any money.”
This seemed satisfactory, so they had an agreement, and the farmer gave him a small plot he was not using. The soil was poor and tired from overuse, it would need a year or more of rest before it would reach its full potential, but it was all he had and the stranger did not seem to mind.
He was given a small room behind the stable, it had been added as an afterthought, with walls made of intertwined twigs and reinforced by mud. Rushes covered a floor of beaten earth with a single straw bed, a stool and a small workbench would suffice as a table. A lantern hung beside a window, which looked out onto the farmhouse and his allotted plot of land. His meals would be shared with the farmer’s family, and his contribution towards preparation welcomed, especially by the farmer’s wife. The rest of the day would be spent outside, hands on earth and crop.
At night, with the candle’s flame guarded within the lantern, he would open the wooden trunk and take out the manuscript and add new notes and sketches. Outside the farmer would sit on the porch with his wife, and look at the stranger, whom they could see through the window of the small room. But there were nights when the wind blew awkwardly, and the stars pulsated, and they only saw his shadow falling upon the back wall of his room. It would grow larger and darker, ominous and dangerous, like a loud shape stalking and frolicking the confines of its prison. But on other evenings, when the air was still, they would see only the whisper of his hand working on the manuscript. Together they would wonder silently what it was he was writing.
On the second day of his arrival, it rained. The rain should have been welcomed, but it only conjured a monotonous black and white canvas in the farmer’s mind, like pools of bloom, which seemed short lived like spring itself. The farmer could not help but wonder if the change in the weather had something to do with the arrival of the stranger. His methods were different. He had a unique approach to the soil, and the crops seemed to flourish after he had attended them. When the farmer spoke to him the stranger would talk about his travels, and when questioned about his techniques, he would stress the need to be one with nature and the universe, and seemed to fear nothing, not even the church. The farmer found this unnatural and wondered if the stranger was a demon.
The stranger’s own plot though was a true wonder, he had planted his seeds and in under a week it was thick and green with unfamiliar crops. The farmer and his family had never seen anything like it, he did not know how to explain it, and grew frustrated and at times temperamental towards the stranger when he would answer his queries with vague elucidations.
One morning he asked, “What type of crops you growing there?” While pointing at the plot he had lent him.
The stranger shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t say I know to be truthful; I’ve been collecting seeds for a very long time and not all of them have names. Not all of them grow everywhere, which is good to know, so I make a note of it. And for the ones that do, I just draw them here in the manuscript and give the nameless ones a name fitting to me and hopefully the plant as well.” He showed him the page he was working on, the bottom half of the page was comprised of a single drawing of a green leafed plant, with thin brown roots that ended in large round tubers, a stem with a flower extended from the leaves and stretched up to the top half of the page, which consisted only of writing. “I write some facts about them, oh, and the place where I found them of course.”
This did not sit well for the farmer, who just grew more suspicious of the stranger. He felt the stranger was hiding something. Maybe there were enchantments behind this, maybe he was a man of dark magic. He felt he needed to talk to someone.
“How could those crops grow on such poor earth, and why is he not willing to share his methods with us?” his wife said, sharing his frustration while preparing a meal on the stone hearth in the center of the room. From the stool he sat on, the farmer stared at the slow fire breathing below the pot, suddenly it swelled, sending red tremors into the ripening gaps and nooks of the walls about the room. He looked up and saw his wife’s face, she seemed to be swallowing the fervent vapors from the pot as they rose and curled through her nostrils, like some wraith harvesting the life out of all who were present. He turned away, quickly removing the image from his mind, and continued whittling away with his knife.
“Says he told me all he knows,” the farmer answered. He paused to look at what he had been cutting. The outline of a plant, the same one he had seen in the manuscript, dexterously engraved along both sections of a small wooden cross, which he hung around his neck.
He got up and walked over to the window, his fingers gently stroking the contours of the cross. Solemnly, he looked outside and saw the stranger, who was working his plot while whistling a tune, which was both foreign in melody and yet soothing as fir honey.
Towards the end of summer and with the help of the stranger, a small yield of crops had matured, and everyone was making preparations for the harvest. Looking over the farmland the farmer knew it would barely be enough for his family to survive the coming winter. Winters had been far too deep and cold. But it would have to do. The stranger would be leaving soon, so there would be one less mouth to feed. He knew the stranger had been an asset and had helped him to mature the season’s harvest; his craft with the soil would be missed.
Work began with everyone helping. Within a week most of the harvest had been collected and stored.
“It should be enough to get you and your family through the winter,” the stranger said.
The farmer nodded. “Let’s hope you’re right.”
“I’ll be leaving for Rome soon, and then to Portugal since my work here is done. I have a friend in Portugal, Álvares, he’s an explorer who wants to make a name for himself as the first European to reach China by sea. He’s a bit mad, but something tells me he’ll do it. He’s made arrangements to sail to the Far East and I’ll be joining him. It should be quite the adventure.” The stranger hesitated and turned to look at the farmer. “But there’s still a little work left to be done here on the manuscript before I leave.”
“Aren’t you afraid, traveling on your own? What if you’re robbed, or worse yet?”
“I’ve been robbed before. The petty thieves only took coin and food, and they left the manuscript behind, not understanding its true value. Without some codex key, anyone who steals it will be unable to translate it, thus it will be of no value to them. I can always find work and make up for the loss of coin and food, but the manuscript is irreplaceable.” His index finger tapped the iron gall ink holder where his quill pen rested beside the manuscript.
“What’s a codex key?” the farmer asked.
“Here, take a look.” The stranger opened the manuscript to a page with writing towards the back. The farmer looked over the writing, but could not understand what it said. He had learnt to read from monks as a child, which his father had helped to build their monastery, but this writing was unknown to him. His eyes followed a smooth consistent flow in the writing over the course of the page, noticing some stars in the left margin.
“I can’t read this; what language is it written in?”
“It’s in a language I learnt when I was young, in a distant place you wouldn’t understand, which I call home. I write it in the language of my ancestors, so its contents are kept safe in obscurity, unless you have a key to decipher the language of the codex. Otherwise it will make no sense, and I have written no such key.”
The stranger allowed the farmer to hold the manuscript in his hands.
“What about these diagrams, I’ve never seen these plants before.”
“Sketches of plants from places I’ve visited, some are faraway lands. This one,” he said pointing to an illustration of a New World Sunflower, “I found while travelling unfamiliar lands across the ocean to the west.”
He paused to look up at the stranger, wondering if he was joking, but there was nothing to indicate he was toying with the farmer’s provincial nature. Instead, he was sharing something important with him.
Returning to the manuscript, he turned the pages carefully, as if he were holding something of extraordinary value. “And are these stars in the sky? They seem unfamiliar.” The farmer was truly bewildered; he knew the night sky and these formations were unknown to him.
“Stars, or suns, and planets, look different when you are somewhere else, so I have made records from these lands… and other places.”
“Suns? You mean there’s more than one?” The farmer seemed genuinely puzzled.
“Yes, the stars you see are suns, they’re just so far away they’re too small to give us any more light than the stars you see at night. And the worlds circling them are smaller still, they’re totally invisible to us. The only worlds we can see are the ones wandering around our sun.”
This was not what the farmer had been taught in church. He felt there was something wrong with the stranger’s mind. Maybe he was possessed, or simply insane, having lost his reasoning from all his travels and too much study. His father had always told him, if you spend all your time reading books, you’ll go mad. He was starting to believe it, but he felt a strong desire to inquire a bit more, to turn another page.
The farmer looked at a page with diagrams of basins and tubes. He had seen alchemical equipment before, but this shared little resemblance to them. “What are these instruments for?”
“What I use when mixing herbs for pharmaceutical reasons. To heal and mend beast, man and plant. Now this device”— with one hand he picked up a bizarre metallic object, which was near the corner of the table, shaped like a door handle with its back plate—“I use to observe the wonders of nature that are kept hidden from my eyes.” The object had two plates joined by a screw to a bracket: housing the main screw, the focusing screw and a specimen pin above the lens.
“Have a look.” The stranger brought the farmer’s eye close to the hand-held microscope.
“What devilry is this!” He pulled away, frightened as if he had seen a ghost.
The stranger laughed. “It’s not devilry my friend, its science.”
“What? Sci…ence?” The farmer had never heard of the word.
“Natural investigation. I’m what you’d call in this world, a natural philosopher.”
What does he mean, this world? The farmer feared further contemplation. His head was spinning, it was all a bit too much.
He placed the manuscript back on the table and moved away from it, like a child moves away from some sinister talisman, fearing if he ventures closer, he will become lost in its crippling spell. “Well, I wish you the best of luck and a safe—”
“Father!” One of the farmer’s daughters called out, “A carriage is coming, with soldiers.”
The farmer’s face turned pale. He turned and left the room.
Leading the carriage was a man dressed in a black robe and hat, whose temper had been frayed by heat and grime. The reins had blistered his hands, which were sore and sweaty from steering the two black horses. The carriage was being escorted by two soldiers on a pair of pale white horses, trailing behind like slinks in a cloud of dust and flies.
“You can see I’ve nothing to give, I already sacrificed my two sons to the war, there’s only enough to feed my family,” the farmer implored.
The tithe collector remained unmoved. “The winters have been the coldest we’ve ever known. The wars have devastated us all. I too have lost a son, but the Pope assures us they now stand tall beside the angels in Christ’s army. Let us not forget our sacrifices have secured our state against the enemies of the church. We’ve much to be grateful for.”
The farmer was unable to voice further refusal, hiding his anger he watched the two soldiers set their arms aside to drink water from the farmer’s well. Any resistance would be met by forced confiscation, and even worse, conviction of treason and imprisonment. He had no choice but to submit.
He motioned his wife to prepare accommodation for their guests, which meant the farmer and his family would be sleeping in the barn for the night.
“If we give them our crops we’ll starve by winter’s end,” the farmer’s wife whispered, her head resting on his shoulder as they both lay together in the hay.
A small candle dallied with a moth, the flame whipping at the shadows. “They’ll take a tenth of what we have, and what we have now won’t be enough, there are animals to feed, without them we’ll die,” the farmer added.
His wife got up. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“I need to get some fresh air, I’ll be right back, get some sleep.” Watching her leave, he thought he saw her pause to reach up for something in the darkness, where the candle’s light could not touch.
The farmer felt helpless. He looked over at his daughters sound asleep, but saw no sons, and now they had come to take away what was left of his family and his livelihood. He lay thinking about all the years of suffering and toiling the land, of sacrifice, to raise children only to see them entering a life reprised of his own grief. Or worse still, to perish in youth, and for what? To see them starve to keep the Papacy fat. His blasphemy terrified him. Quickly he clutched the wooden cross and brought it to his lips, only to fling it away as he felt the engraved plant.
He tossed and turned, till finally he decided to get up. His wife had returned and fallen asleep, so he quietly made his way out of the barn.
It was a clear night full of stars. He sat, resting his back beside an olive tree and let the cool evening ease his mind. He was at a crossroad, unable to decide what he needed to do, his only wish was this sojourn would last for eternity and morning never come. He envied the stranger’s life, of travels to far off lands, no family to look after and no responsibilities to tend to.
A candle burned in the stranger’s window, the farmer knew he had been working late into the night on his manuscript. Adding more information, making amendments the stranger deemed necessary, and which the farmer could only ponder about.
His one and only cock crowed, and he knew it would soon be morning. After breakfast the tithe collector would ask for his submission, as he would need to move on. He knew he had very little time to decide.
With no choice but one, he made up his mind.
He returned to the barn and removed an axe from his tool chest. Silently, he made his way to the stable and entered the stranger’s room. The candle’s wax had almost melted, and he could see the manuscript still open on the desk. The stranger’s head was resting on the page he had been working on. Beside him, an incomplete meal on a wooden plate, and a cup half drunk in his right hand. His pen was still in his left hand. He had fallen asleep while working.
He stood there staring for a long time, watching the stars on the page slowly fade as the candle died. From the window, the stars in the night sky faded too and the sun’s first rays appeared, gently streaming out from below the eastern horizon, washing away the night’s dreams. Had he the right to do the same with this man’s life? To extinguish his aspirations? After all he was his guest, and he had done so much to help with his crops and the harvest, sharing with him his knowledge and bringing a trace of hope where there was no hope before. It was only because of him his family would have food for the winter.
He changed his mind. He could not do it. It was wrong and would have to find another way. To kill the stranger and take his manuscript and sell it to pay his tithe, would make him as evil as the crows that collected taxes and tithe from the poor and destitute.
The stranger would be leaving soon, he could travel with him and find work along the way. There might be work in Rome, and they were sure to visit other cities. He might still be able to feed his family, and with him away from the farm, there would be enough food to make it through the winter. The girls were old enough to do all the chores and help their mother. No one would visit them during winter, so they would be safe till he returned in early spring to toil the land, and possibly make enough to purchase seeds and new equipment. But he would need to discuss this with the stranger.
Leaving the axe outside he returned to wake the stranger, who now slept deep and silent. He had to know if his options to travel with him had merit. He nudged him and the quill pen dropped from his hand, as did the cup he held, spilling its black contents like blood on the rough, wooden floor. The farmer froze as the stranger slowly descended like a silent shell of grief, diminished and without form. He stood there staring.
The stranger lay dead on the floor.
At midday, the farmer offered the manuscript to the tithe collector for the year’s payment of tithe. The collector was sceptical at first, but on close examination, and finally with great enthusiasm, accepted.
“Where did you get this?” the collector asked.
“It was given to me by a stranger, who we offered lodging to for the season. He had no more use for it,” the farmer replied.
“I see. Well, it should cover the year’s tithes handsomely. If I can fetch a good price I’ll be able to offer you a discount next year. But now I’d best be going, thank you for your hospitality.” He bowed to the farmer and to his wife, which he paused to smile at. She bowed but did not smile back. The farmer escorted the tithe collector to his carriage and watched grimly as the collector and his soldiers departed along the beaten track, like wolves on a relentless crawl following a trickling scent away from the farm, until finally dissolving back into the woods.
Once he was certain they would not return he turned his eyes away, only to fall upon a saturnine shadow that now draped his farmland. He stood staring, feeling almost lifeless. Slowly he looked up to see a black moon had swallowed the sun. Its corona, a battlefield of innumerable white wings, swirling amidst the day’s night. Questioning his sanity, he finally looked down and saw his wife clumped in a veil of velvet berries, which were wheezing and whirring around her like frenzied wasps. Unexpectedly, the darkness cleared, and he saw her like a phantom form descend to her knees, sobbing like a child. Her accountable hands were clawing at her apron, soiled with the black stains from the nightshade brew that had incarcerated her to damnation.
He approached her and gently raised her, wiping the tears from her guilt-stained face. He held her close till their cheeks touched. Her skin was ice cold, and he felt her body trembling. Together they walked back to the house.
With nightfall they all sat together and ate. But no one spoke, no one made a sound. Only a chill wind broke the silence. Sleep came very late, and when it did come it was as restless as the wind, filled with obscurities and burdened with images that wrestled with their souls till the early morning light.
In that light, at the far end of the farm on the forest edge, over a small patch of soft soil, four figures stood solemnly with heads bent. A fifth figure, the farmer’s wife, kneeled on the fresh patch and placed a spray of white flowers beside a headstone. She paused to look at her hands. They were marked with cuts, scratches, and the black stains that only she saw. They would never rub off.
On the headstone, the farmer had carved a rough image of a circle with outward spiraling arms. An image the farmer recalled from the manuscript. An image the stranger had once shared with him while showing him its position in the sky. The farmer had thought it a cloud, a cloud the stranger claimed was filled with worlds, known in folklore as the ‘chained woman’. The stranger had called it Andromeda.
That evening the farmer and his family sat on the porch of their house, where the farmer pointed out the fuzzy cloud hanging like a crown of chains in the night sky. No one spoke till a sudden gust shook the branches of the trees, and the ‘chained woman’ quivered, and the farmer’s wife cried out, and a shadow crossed the sky.
Originally written in 2015
More information about the Voynich manuscript can be found below: