[The trappings of Christmas, though bountiful, always include reruns. Here’s a seasonal “Quid Plura?” flashback from 2008.]
For all its opulence, the palace was a hall of drear. It glittered, the chamberlain knew, but it long ago ceased to shine. Enthroned, the pope passed the afternoon without the hint of a whisper. He was now another of the chamber’s countless statues, a decoration to be dusted, an object of occasional veneration. Clerks and notaries flitted beneath him; they attended to petitioners and saw to the snuffing out of candles.
The chamberlain sighed. He wished for a window. How many more hours of misery awaited him? The incense stung his nose. He ached for a cup of wine.
“A chanter from Seville to see you, sir.”
The chamberlain blinked. The small priest before him was sweaty and red. Was this forgettable creature always so twitchy? No matter; it was time to be a tyrant.
“The Holy Father has no interest in Andalusian vagrants. Send him away.”
“Sir, you really want to see this.”
They always promised marvels. What came instead? Puppet shows. Mimes. That donkey with the law degree.
“Have we no legitimate business to conduct?”
“No, sir, not after this.”
The chamberlain gave his old hand-wave of resignation. Boredom trumped tyranny on dull winter days; regret would soon bury them both.
Moments later, a dark-haired man wearing humble clothing entered the room. The chamberlain approached him, mindful of protocol.
The Spaniard strode past him and burst into speech.
“Holy Father! Far have I traveled, and strange sights have I seen, but today I bring music that shall warm men’s hearts and give glory to Almighty God!”
The chamberlain rolled his eyes.
“Your Holiness, in Sevilla, the city of my birth, I was a scholar of music in all its myriad forms. I knew the call of the muezzin, the savage chanting of ancient Gaul, the bawdy refrains of the Genoese shipmen. From Cordoba to Samarkand, my name was known to many. Raspy minstrels, cantors from the patriarchal tombs—strangers came from far and wide that I might discover their songs.
“But to my enduring shame, O Holy Father, one form of music was entirely unknown to me. Rumors reached me of a marvelous style of singing, a sound full wondrous to hear. Its secret, travelers told me, was guarded by monks at the ends of the earth, where they sang unending hymns of Saint Nicholas and other Christian subjects too numerous to mention. Desiring to know this music which few living scholars had heard, I left my comfortable home and my company of flatterers, and I chased vague whispers over strange and lonely paths.”
The chamberlain glanced at the motionless pope. Was he asleep? Was he breathing? Had this long-winded fool at last bored the pontiff to death?
“Holy Father, I sought this heavenly choir in the terrible places of the world. I sailed through ice in the realms of the north, where hard men laughed at my desperate quest. I traveled eastward into Araby, but I journeyed in vain, for there I heard only frivolities, and never celestial sound.
“Winter came. Forlorn, clad only in rags, I faced starvation on frigid mountain peaks. Through the intervention of God—for how else to explain that fortuitous day?—I was rescued by the brothers of an order whose patron I am forbidden to name. But there, Holy Father, while I rested, healing through Our Lord’s salvific grace, strange music amazed me as I lay in my cell.
“That miracle I bring to Rome this day.”
At the far end of the chamber, golden doors opened. Three tiny, hooded figures glided silently over the marble.
Bile rose in the chamberlain’s throat. A dwarf act! He crossed himself. These always ended in sacrilege. Where were the guards?
The Spaniard raised his right hand.
“Hit it, boys.”
A weird, piercing music filled the air: an unearthly chant that flowed magically from beneath three tiny cloaks, an eerie, impossible singing that bathed the great hall in a strange and transcendent cheer. Priests and monks froze where they stood, beguiled by a falsetto that not even castrati could create.
Tears welled in the chamberlain’s eyes. Was this the choir of Heaven or of Hell? The verse of these singers was in some alien tongue—foreign, yes, yet oddly familiar. He understood none of it, not one single word—but he knew it would haunt him for the rest of his life.
And then, as quickly as it had begun, the singing ended.
The hall was silent. Eternities passed. No priest or monk dared blaspheme the place with motion—not a cough. Everyone stared at the singers.
Finally, with trembling voice, the chamberlain found nerve enough to ask: “Are you men…or angels?”
The three beings reached up with tiny hands and reverently lowered their cowls. Solemn faces peered out at the world, wide-cheeked faces with prominent teeth set beneath large, benevolent eyes. Their features were mingled in brown, shaggy fur.
The chamberlain gasped.
“What manner of monk are these?”
From far behind him came a stir of precious robes and a voice not heard here in ages.
“Non monachi,” declared the quaking, agitated pope, “sed chipmonachi.”
The giggling of the pontiff resounded through the hall. Priests rushed to his side, desperate to calm him. The chamberlain fell to his knees as confusion around him swirled.
The stranger from Seville folded his arms; then he looked at his singers and frowned.
“If they think that’s something,” he muttered, accustomed to such chaos, “just wait ’til they see you fellas dance.”