Augsburg, an Imperial City in the USE
“Horatio Alger Burston! Why is this piece of junk cluttering up our eingang?!” This gale force greeting assaulted H.A. Burston’s ears as he walked through the front door of his home at five minutes before noon, and he smiled. He knew, without looking, that the suit of armor he had recently purchased had arrived. Yes, there it was, standing in the entry hall to the right of the stairs, just as he had instructed. His pregnant and visibly annoyed wife was standing on the stairs next to it and staring at him when she wasn’t scowling at it. H.A.’s smile widened significantly.
Catharina had a fine set of lungs. When she filled them completely, as she usually did when she had a strong, negative opinion, he often found himself distracted by the side effects. This was an additional reason he enjoyed teasing her.
A friend once compared the way he teased to a picador pricking a bull and said he was cruel to do it because he did not have even a picador’s excuse. H.A. disagreed. He was just teasing, as had his father and his grandfather before him, and he was sure it was harmless. When he was told that he was wrong, it was tormenting and it was not harmless, he answered, “Well, I’ll concede that I might be wrong. But I am not the least bit uncertain. And until I see something wrong with it, I will keep right on doing it.”
“Because,” he quietly responded to his wife’s question, “if I put it in our bedroom then how would anyone know we have it except us?”
Catharina said firmly, “Get rid of it!”
“I don’t think so.”
“I am serious, Mister Burston! Store your junk elsewhere until you are ready to send it to the scrap dealer.”
“I will not have it. Get rid of it or I will have the servants throw it into the street!”
He continued smiling. Then in the mild, polite, reasonable voice he knew drove her absolutely mad when she was already angry, he said again, “I don’t think so.”
“Well, I do!” She screamed. “What do you want with it anyway? No one wears armor like that anymore! It’s old and it’s ugly. And no one else has anything like it.”
“Well, Kate, up-time, when I was growing up, a rich man always had a suit of armor somewhere in the house. So if I am rich I am going to have a suit of armor. You married me because I was rich,” he reminded her.
She freely admitted it, and saw no reason not to. After all it was right and normal, wasn’t it?
“Well, of course I married you because you were rich. What better reason for a well brought up lass to marry, or for a widow to remarry? I want this piece of junk out of here!” Her demand filled the whole house.
“Kate, did you say well brought up or well bought up?” It sounded like an accusation, and it was one of his favorite lines when this topic came up. Catharina did not understand why he found it amusing. And her husband either would not or perhaps could not explain why he found it funny.
Her temper cranked up another notch—as he’d expected when he’d called her Kate. He was surprised he had to do it twice before she responded.
“My name is Catharina, thank you very much, and calling me any other name is disrespectful. If you were a polite gentleman you would use only my full first name and even both my full first and last name occasionally. If you must abide by your strange up-time customs, you could address me as Mrs. Burston! But I do not work below the stairs. I am not a Kate!” Their ongoing clash of cultures frequently had “proper address” as its keystone. H.A. watched, smiling expectantly.
His very exasperated wife said, “Horatio Alger Burston, I do not know how many times I have asked myself how you can be so good at business when your head is so full of foolishness. You did not have a suit of armor when you were in Grantville!”
“When I lived in Grantville I wasn’t rich.”
“I did not see a single suit of armor when we were there!”
“Grantville’s not full of rich people,” he said. “The rich are moving out of town.”
“I did not see and have not heard of any suit of armor in any other up-timer’s home!”
“Have you looked in their bedrooms? Would you prefer to have this set moved to ours? Besides, a lot of them still don’t consider themselves to be rich. The ones who do are often trying to fit in. I’m not. I’m rich and I am going to live like a rich man, and a rich man, when I come from, has a suit of armor in the entryway.”
Smiling, H.A. passed by his lovely, young, pregnant, sputtering wife. He headed for his hot lunch. It would be on the table at twelve noon sharp, or his French chef would be out of a job. He knew Catharina would calm down and join him because there was nothing else she could do. Over a midday meal of cream of tomato soup (H.A. had nagged the chef until, at last, he could make something H.A. couldn’t tell from the real thing) and a grilled cheese sandwich (which took even longer for the cook to get right), Horatio asked, “How is your search for a painter coming?”
She wanted a family portrait painted. Respectable families had them done, she said, and H.A. agreed. But he insisted on a Dutch painter, or at least an Italian.
“We could be sitting right now if you were willing to be reasonable about this! There is a perfectly good German painter in town currently.”
“Nope,” he said. “All the best painters are Dutch. We can afford the best. If you want a portrait get a Dutch painter. Though I will settle for an Italian if we can’t go Dutch.”
“Horatio Alger Burston, you are a most infuriating man.”
H.A. laughed. “I can afford to be.”
“Another glass display case arrived this morning,” she said. “I do not understand what you want with that, either.”
Actually only the front was glass. The hardwood case had a leather gasket on the door to seal out damp, and an aerated box in the bottom to hold chalk or dried wheat to absorb any moisture inside the case. When it became available, Horatio planned to add a nitrogen atmosphere system to preserve the books and artifacts.
“Are you spending more money on another old Latin Bible when you can’t even read Latin?”
“Nope,” he said, and smiled as he helped himself to a second sandwich. “Six Gutenberg first edition Bibles are enough, unless a really good one or a really cheap one comes along.”
“What is this case for? Surely you have enough of those English Bibles. You don’t read any of them either.” Catharina asked, genuinely curious. Some of the things H.A. wanted, like the foot-long bronze chariot which he said was over a thousand years old, needed no explanation. It was simply beautiful.
“No, I don’t read them. If I were going to read a Bible it wouldn’t be a 1611 Authorized Version, that’s for sure. Six first edition King James Authorized Bibles are enough. I didn’t buy them to be read.”
“Then why did you buy them?”
“Catharina, when I was a boy, I collected stamps because I could afford to. I wanted to collect old and rare books but I did not have the money. So I studied to be ready and dreamed of the day when I could afford to buy them. Well, I have the money and right now they’re dirt cheap. Any one of those Bibles when I was a lad would have been worth a fortune. There are millions of dollars setting on those shelves, if not now, then in time, and if not in time, then in my mind. Having them makes me feel rich. Just like the suit of armor. I like feeling rich.”
“What is this case for?” she asked again.
H.A. smiled. “It’s a surprise.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Can you keep a secret?” he asked.
She huffed at him. The first time he asked that she had replied, “Yes, of course I can.” And he had answered, “So can I.” She hadn’t fallen for it since.
“Well, since you are rich, a rich man should have some relics on display!” Catharina repeated a much promoted idea. “For the sake of piety, we should have some relics.”
Patiently, watching her bosom, he said, “We’ve been over this before. Most of them are fakes. I could buy you a piece of the True Cross, but why? When Henry the Eighth threw the Catholics out of England there were enough pieces of the true cross in England alone to make two and a half crosses. Would you like the skull of John the Baptist? Would you like two of them? Three? I believe there are three for sale on the market and at least six on display in various places. Should I buy you some of the clay that was left over from making Adam?”
“You could find something that has made miracles.”
“My love, you are married to a man who was born in 1953. Surely that is miracle enough.”
H.A. could tell she still was not impressed by this argument. The truth was that nearly two years ago when she had first brought it up, shortly after they married, he had set a chain of events into motion so she could be the owner of some genuine artifacts. The display case that had just arrived would exhibit the fruits of that labor.
A few weeks later H.A. came home for lunch early, to check in on the sick children at home. He’d talked to the doctor the first day he came and the doctor had been back every day since. Catharina had insisted even though the physician had repeatedly assured her there was nothing he could do. The doctor said it was measles. “Keep them warm, and dry, fed and most importantly hydrated.” Catharina was sure they were dying and was upset. She was equally upset with her husband’s apparent lack of concern.
“Catharina,” H.A. told his wife, “it’s just the measles. I had then when I was a kid. It’s no big deal.”
“People die from the measles.”
“Yes, something can go wrong, but it is very rarely serious.” H.A. dredged up what he knew about it from a conversation with his mother years ago when he was a kid and the measles were going around. She told him, amongst other things, that he had already had them so he could not get them again.
But his wife had a different experience with measles than her husband had. “Here and now, measles are always serious. I’m worried. You should be, too.”
When he started upstairs to check on the kids, Katharina met him on the staircase. She was smiling for the first time in days. It was a tired smile on an exhausted face.
“The fevers have broken. They are going to be all right,” she said.
“That’s good.” H.A. replied.
“It is an answer to prayers, which would have been more effective if we had a relic in the house.”
H.A. realized that a relic was more to his wife than just keeping up a pious appearance. If she actually thought her prayers would be worth more for having a trinket in the house then who was he to deny her?
So H.A. made some inquiries as to what was available on the market and made a purchase.
“It’s beautiful,” Catharina said as her husband closed the door of a display case. “What is it?”
“It is beautiful, isn’t it? A poet once said, ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever.’ Something that beautiful needs no other reason to exist than the fact that it is. It was in England up until Henry the Eighth; then it floated around through France and Germany until now. You will be pleased to know that inside that beautiful work of art there is what is claimed to be a hair off of the donkey Christ rode into Jerusalem. Whether it is indeed what it claims to be and not just a recent fraud, it still has any number of attested miracles to its credit.”
“But,” Catharina said, “you’ve always said you would not buy any relic that was not verifiable.”
“I didn’t buy the hair for me. I bought the hair for you.” H.A. replied. “What I bought for me is the case it is in. It claims to be over two hundred years old. Whether it is or it isn’t, really does not matter. It is just plain beautiful. Beauty needs no other justification to exist. Which is why I married you.
“How is the search for a painter coming?” H.A. asked.
“Horatio, we could be sitting now if you were not being so difficult.” But the passion which usually went into her protest was lacking.
Two weeks later Eliyahu, from the local Abrabanel office, was waiting for H.A. when he arrived home from work along with another man.
“H.A., this is Abram. He is from Jerusalem and he is the man who went to the Sinai for you. He’s on his way to Grantville. Since he arrived in Venice with the first item he was insistent that he wanted to bring it to you in person. So he could meet you.”
“That’s flattering.” H.A. said.
Eliyahu smiled. “Not really.” What he said next reflected the bond that had grown between the two men, which far and away exceeded their working relationship as men of finance and business. “He said he had to meet the craziest man in the world.”
Abram blushed. Of his four languages German was the weakest. He had only started learning it when he decided to move to Grantville. But it was still plenty good enough to understand what his associate had just said.
H.A. laughed. “Can you stay to dinner? I’m sure the chef can come up with something suitable.” The kitchen wasn’t kosher, but if asked the chef could put together a dairy kosher dinner in short order, and the staff would enjoy the whole of whatever meat had been destined for the dinner table instead of just a portion of it.
“We would be delighted.” Eliyahu answered. Abram and Eliyahu were part of the extended Abrabanel family. They were Sephardic Jews, and they considered themselves to be cosmopolitan, men of the world, understanding fellows willing to be less strictly observant than some of their more conservative co-religionists.
“Let’s install what you’ve brought. I’ve got a display case waiting for it. And then you can tell me why you think I am crazy, over dinner.”
When his wife came to the table H.A. said, “Catharina, you know Eliyahu. He brought Abram from Jerusalem, and Abram brought a relic from St. Katherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. I just put it in the new display case. We are now the owners of an absolutely genuine piece of history. Abram here was about to tell me why he thinks I’m crazy.”
“That is not surprising in the least,” Catharina said. “I have had the same thought myself at least once a week since we married. And now I have it every time I look at that hideous suit of armor.”
“That is not quite correct, Herr Burston,” Eliyahu said. He had been translating to Abram and now he was translating from Abram. “The monks at St. Katherine’s are greatly puzzled, and they are sure you are quite strange, but they were very pleased with what you were willing to pay for copies of manuscripts. The money you sent was very generous. But with the advent of printed copies of the New Testament they were puzzled by why you wanted handmade copies.”
When the soup was served, Catherina excused herself from the table. She was having morning sickness, for the usual reason, and morning sickness can happen anytime of the day, after all. Something about the pleasant smell of the soup course sent the poor lass off to find a bucket in a hurry.
Abram continued in her absence, “That you sent three Bibles all the way from Germany along with a substantial gift in hard currency, just to loan them to the monastery’s library was a bit odd. Though they were completely puzzled by why you sent a Latin Bible and two English Bibles when they use the Greek texts. That you asked them to place the smaller of the English Bibles in storage in the genizah with the worn-out manuscript rolls and codices, when it was clear that all it needed was some minor repair to the binding was cause for almost as much discussion as the book itself.
“I was repeatedly asked, was it really printed in 1988, and where was Indianapolis, U.S.A. It will be awhile before it ends up in the genizah. They are insisting that it be copied first. Also they have sent letters to all the houses they correspond with asking for a visit by a monk or scholar with English proficiency willing to teach. The printing, the binding, and the paper were all very talked about, but the half of the book that is not biblical text has them poring over the book with great interest.
“While I was there they discussed what you meant by a permanent loan and concluded that you meant they should treat it as if it was staying permanently but that someday you might ask for it back.
“But then, when I mentioned that you asked to buy works already on their shelves and in the genizah my warm welcome became very cold. When I said you were only interested in making such a purchase if they would agree to store the works on site in perpetuity for you then they relaxed. But it was then that they decided you were completely odd if not truly mad. They understand that because of the dry climate books last longer there than anywhere else. They also decided that even if it proved to be that you were not mad, you were unquestionably quite mean. You really should send them a dictionary. The monks are combing the English Bibles looking for words and then trying to figure out what they mean by reading the Greek textual equivalent. It really is driving them crazy because there is clearly not a word for word correlation.”
H.A. chuckled. “Yes, I guess a dictionary or two would be in order. I really never thought that they might be interested in reading them. I guess it was silly of me not to think of it. I sent them there to be warehoused and preserved. I wonder if maybe one of the pastors in Grantville might have a ‘teach yourself Greek’ book or a Greek/English lexicon he would part with.” H.A. looked at the senior Abrabanel. “Do you think they will find a teacher who will be willing to go?”
“Not likely. It is a long way, and traveling is expensive.”
“Find me a Greek scholar with English or an English scholar with Greek. I’ll pay his expenses. Have him stay no less than two years. Tell him to write a book about the trip and I will have it published. Considering the kind of men who would seek a life like that, having books you can’t read would be torture.”
Eliyahu did not ask if Herr Burton was serious. He had gotten enough odd requests from the man asking him to handle strange and unique undertakings to know better. He sent the three Bibles to an oasis in a desert mountain range. And he had arranged for his colleagues in Jerusalem to negotiate with the Orthodox Christian Patriarch to establish a new Christian monastery at Masada near the Dead Sea. It turned out that this was rather a matter of re-staffing a long-closed institution. This fact went a long way toward getting government permission. And it helped that they had the backing of the Romans and Armenians. They had actually offered to share the old Anchorite site. He did start thinking of whom to write to, to find a man willing to make the journey to the Sinai and what to charge, and just how much the commission and charges would add up to five years down the road when the man was back and the book he would write was finally printed. H.A. Burton handled commercial accounts for several interests in Grantville and elsewhere. But there were odd and one-off items he farmed out rather than handle himself. And Eliyahu was happy to oblige him. The smile on Eliyahu’s face did not change even if it did become a bit more sincere.
Eliyahu prompted the man from Jerusalem to continue. “When I told them you were interested in the oldest texts they had, eyebrows went up. When I told them you were especially interested in the second oldest known copy of the Gospels in Syriac but that it was a palimpsest under a work dealing with female martyrs, they tried not to laugh out loud. But when I insisted they did go looking for it and when they got over the embarrassment of having something they did not know about they were quite excited. As I said already, when I said you were willing to buy them, the atmosphere became a bit tense and suspicious. When I told them you would only be willing to buy them if they agreed to store them for you and your heirs in perpetuity, and that while the works could be viewed there with due care, they were never to leave the monastery under any condition, that was when they first asked what sort of man you were and if you were as completely insane as you seemed. Of course I couldn’t answer them because I did not know. But they warmed back up. That you were willing to pay to have copies sent to you, while they kept the originals after selling them to you—well, it was the first time anyone had ever asked such a thing. While they agreed, they again asked me why? I promised to ask if I ever got the opportunity and to send them a letter with an explanation.
“So I am asking? Why? Specifically, why buy something and then have the seller keep it for you? Why send three Bibles they cannot read?”
H.A. felt Abram’s gaze lock on to his face. The man not only wanted to hear the answer, he wanted to gauge the truth of it. H.A. smiled a slight smile. “St. Katherine’s is in the middle of a very dry desert. It is hard to get to and there is nothing there that an army would be at all interested in. Books last next to forever there. That is why I sent one of my copies of the first edition King James and a first printing Gutenberg on loan to them for safe keeping. If I should have a fire here I would still own a copy of the two most important books ever printed. The study Bible I sent is falling apart. The owner who wore it out knew it was cheaper to replace it than have it rebound. He gave it away and it was important to the person he gave it to. When I ended up being responsible for it, throwing it in the garbage just didn’t feel right so I sent it to where it could be stored with other worn-out Bibles.
“In the future, more and more people will be increasingly interested in the oldest texts available. In our history back up-time a German scholar working for the Czar of Russia absconded with the particular Bible I was most interested in. He gave it to the Czar as a gift. It was later sold off by a new government that did not care about such things. Most of it would have ended up in the British Museum in London. Now they can’t sell it, or loan it beyond their walls because it is no longer theirs. So it should be safe where it is until the scholars are ready to deal with it.
“My wife,” H.A. beamed a broad smile at the empty chair where the love of his life was recently sitting, “for piety’s sake wants some relics. Now she owns the oldest complete Bible in the world. It is being stored where it will be best preserved. When it is ready we will have a copy to display.”
The next morning on his way out the door, H.A. observed his wife peering at the book that was opened for viewing in the newest of the display cases. He approached her quietly, put his arms around her and looked over her shoulder at the codex. “How are you this morning?” he asked. While she was pregnant she chose to sleep in a separate room from her husband. In the early stage of an uncomfortable pregnancy with a lot of nausea she did not want to disturb his sleep. In the later stage when she was large she did not want him to disturb hers. So some mornings he did not see her until he came home for lunch.
“So this is a copy of the oldest Bible in the world?” She asked a bit skeptically.
“No, it will be nearly a year before that arrives. It will take that long for a scribe to copy it out. This is a copy of the gospels in Greek. The cover letter says it’s a copy from an eleventh-century codex. It’s associated with a name I don’t know anything about. The other copy of the Gospels I want, the Sinaitic Syriac, will be just as long in coming as the full Bible even though it’s shorter. It’s a palimpsest, which means it was reused for something else so someone has to figure out what is underneath what is written over it. But a copy of the oldest Bible in the world, which we now own by the way, is being copied out for us. It happens that someone had just made this new copy and sent it to us while they make a second copy for their library and the original gets put away in a cool dark room cut into the stone of the mountain, where it will be safely out of sight, and scholars three and four hundred years from now can see the original and take photographs when someone gets around to making low-light film so the harsh light doesn’t hurt the old texts.”
“But, husband, if the books are that valuable, when word get outs about how much you paid for them, won’t thieves flock there to steal them? Can the monks keep them safe?”
H.A. nuzzled the back of his young wife’s neck. “Actually, I didn’t pay hardly anything for the originals. They sold them very cheaply. After all they are still in their possession. An emperor of Rome once created a tribe of Romanian Bedouins, well, Macedonians anyway, the Gebeleya, to guard the monastery. They’re still there. Perhaps I should send them some modern firearms.”
“Horatio Alger, a recent copy of the gospels, no matter how old, is not a relic.” The quiet but very sincere young woman added, “And rich man really should have relics for piety’s sake.”
“My lady wife, you notice that the top shelf holds the codex. The second shelf will hold the Syriac copy when it arrives. There is a shelf for the copy of the whole oldest Bible. The bottom half has no shelves. Something is coming from a place called Masada on the Dead Sea which is south of Jerusalem. It is an absolutely genuine, over sixteen hundred years old item which absolutely without doubt or question once belonged to Herod the Great while he lived.”
“Herod? The one who condemned Christ?”
“No. The father. The one who tried to have the Christ Child killed.”
“And you have procured something that belonged to him?”
“Yes. When it arrives we will have an absolutely genuine relic complete with letters of authenticity establishing its provenance, proving that it is what it claims to be.” He kissed the back of his wife’s head, patted her gently on her bottom and left for work.
Some weeks later H.A. installed the artifact in the display case.
“What is it? It looks like a piece of broken pottery. It ought to be thrown out!”
“It is a piece of broken pottery. But beyond any doubt it was once the property of Herod.”
“Does something which belonged to King Herod qualify as a relic?” Catharina asked.
“It is one of the few things I can think of that claims to be more than sixteen hundred years old which is indisputably what it claims to be.”
“Has it produced any miracles?”
“Then it is not a relic.” Catharina pontificated.
H. A. sighed. His wife wanted a miracle. Then a thought popped into his head. There was a blind Irish harper, an acquaintance of one of the resident staff, visiting below the stairs. A shit-eating grin spread across his face as a scheme was hatched. If Catharina wanted a miracle then he would give her a miracle. It would cost almost nothing and that was almost a crying shame because having a happy wife was one of the few things in this life that truly was worth a spending a fortune on.
Fredrick Hertfelder, H.A.’s valet, went to see his distant cousin Bernhard Hertfelder, the abbot of the Benedictine abbey that now inhabited only half of the Church of St. Ulrich and St. Afra near the end of Maximilianstrasse behind the Hercules fountain. The other half of the complex had been claimed by the Lutherans. It was sometimes a bit tense, and sometimes it worked out rather well. Not that they wouldn’t like it all back and, in time, when the writ of restitution was enforced it would all be theirs again.
“What do you want, Fredrick?” The abbot demanded.
“Is that any tone to take with a close kinsman?”
“Kinsman, I’ll grant you. Close, I will not. And you want something. You always do. If you need money, I am sorry I can’t help you. Under the current circumstances the abbey is struggling.”
“Then we can help each other.”
The abbot just looked at him.
“I mean it. If you had the right to display a genuine miracle-working relic with a line of people out the door just to touch it, and each and every one of them would pass the poor box donation stand as they came in and another as they went out that would go a long way to helping out your empty purse.”
“And of course you want me to buy this relic.”
Fredrick smiled a lying smile and waited to get his cousin’s goat. When he had confirmed his cousin’s opinion with his silence he gave that lie up. “No.”
“Then you want a portion of the proceeds.”
“What do you want?”
“My boss—it’s an up-timer’s word—my employer, Mr. Burston—has a miracle-working relic. It once belonged to King Herod, the one who tried to kill the Christ Child. He wants to place it on public display.”
“Why, and why here? He is not Catholic.”
“In truth, he’s not anything. He eats with Jews and the way they get along I suspect he is secretly one of them. But that does not matter. You see he wants to display a miracle-working relic. He asked me to arrange it and I thought of you.”
The abbot looked extremely doubtful. After all, this was Fredrick he was dealing with. “Why does he want to display it and again why here?”
Fredrick smiled. “In part because this is a shared site. So he has the favor of both the faiths. And to answer your first question, he wants to make his wife happy by making his piety publicly known.
“He will send it in a display case. He will provide an armed guard for as long as it is accessible to the public. He will leave it for as long as you like but for at least a week.”
“It has just come from the Holy Land. He has papers documenting that it once belonged to the Herod who tried to kill Christ. And if it fails to produce at least one miracle he will donate one thousand dollars to the joint maintenance fund.”
“There is no joint fund. We are each responsible for our half.”
Fredrick smiled. “There won’t be, either. Because there will be no donation. There will be miracles or at least a miracle. The offer is Herr Burston’s way of, as he says, putting his money where his mouth is. This is a miracle-working relic.”
“Still, who ever heard of a Herod miracle?”
“He sought to kill the Christ Child and failed. Wasn’t that a miracle?
“Look, it won’t cost you anything to let him display. It will generate interest and donations. Isn’t that enough of a miracle?”
“I guess. What sort of miracle are you expecting?”
“The usual. The blind made to see, the mute to talk. The relic has a special affinity to saving children and making them well. Herod failed to kill the Christ Child. His possessions continue in the failure of seeing children suffer and die.”
“Fredrick, why am I sure I am going to regret this?”
“Why my dear cousin Bernhard, why ever would you say something like that?” Honey could have learned something about sweetness from his voice. “When have I ever led you astray?”
“Lucinda and her sister in the hay loft?” Bernhard answered.
“That wasn’t my fault. I was just as much a victim as you were. Those two wayward girls were—”
Bernhard cut him off. “When? Fredrick?”
“The boss is having a display case made and arranging some promotional materials. Give it a week or two. I’ll let you know.”
The town was plastered with broadsides, with when and where and what. The inns and taverns were full of tales. A favorite was the story of how a donkey would walk the five miles from the mount that held the monastery built on the ruins of Herod’s mountaintop stronghold to the garden by the sea because the monks asked it to. Some said the very donkey blessed by having carried the Christ Child lives on to this day. When it arrived it would knock on the door of the gardeners shack with its nose and he would load it up and tell it to go home. But it only listened to the monks.
And the stories of the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the mute talking, the lame walking were all overshadowed by the tales of the desperately sick children facing certain death who lived after they touched the relic or were touched by a bit of cloth that touched it.
The stories overshadowed the people who asked why no one had ever heard of it before. Some people asked why something belonging to the arch-villain Herod would now work miracles. The idea that Herod’s failures lingered on in his possessions after his death satisfied some but not all. So there was a great deal of skepticism.
It was a fair day, overcast but warm, when the abbey was first scheduled to show the Herod pot. Some people were claiming it was Herod’s chamber pot. They said that if you touched it you should touch the outside only. A line formed early. Near the front of the line a blind Irish harper played and sang. A skinny little girl with red hair and big blue eyes stood beside him and with a hand on his hip moved him forward. When he didn’t need to move she would work the crowd around her with a begging bowl. There were always a few small coins in it. There was never less than half enough for a good meal for one and never more either at least not for very long. But you would have to watch closely to see the child make the extra disappear. For the last week he had been making the rounds of the inns and taverns. Playing, singing, and telling tales. Most of the stories of Herod’s chamber pot could be traced back to him.
But the main story though was his dream. In the dream he was told by the Virgin herself to come to Augsburg and he would receive his sight being spared from a life of blindness through Herod’s failure to kill the Christ Child. It had been a well-received story for it was well told. The journey had been fraught with peril and full of close escapes. But the real genius was the child. What man’s heart would not melt at those big blue pleading eyes. “Please, if we don’t get enough to feed us both he won’t eat, and I am worried for his health.”
The day was warm, his music was pleasant, the doors opened, and he moved forward at a touch on his rump. At the door he quit playing. The church was not the place for a con man’s music. “Shaun,” the little girl said, “we’re almost there. There is a fine wooden cabinet with four legs standing on feet of balls in the clawed hand of birds. The pot is broken. There is naught but the base.
“Now, give me your hand.” And with those words she placed his hand onto what was left of the storage jar.
Shaun stopped and stood absolutely still. “What is that?” he called out in a loud voice. “What is that? It’s warm but it isn’t. Is that light? Lass, take the harp lest I drop it.” He handed off the harp and ripped the rag off of his eyes. When he did he yelped as if in pain and closed his eyes. “I can see! Lass, do you understand? I can see! It is as the virgin told me in my dream. Herod has failed, the Christ Child lives. I can see!”
Calls came from outside.
“What is happening?”
“What’s going on?”
And people called back, “It’s the blind harper. He can see.”
And the news was spread down the line. Those who had passed through and were on their way out rushed off to share the news or take the bits of cloth home to sick children. The harper’s tale spread like wildfire.
The musician took a seat on the steps of the church and played a hymn to Mary. Mostly he kept his eyes closed and would from time to time open them a crack to squint out. The little girl stood beside him bowl in hand. And no matter that everyone passing by was dropping a coin the bowl seemed always empty. The harper smiled. It had been a good turn of luck when he had stopped to visit an old friend. It had been better luck her employer had asked her point-blank if he was truly blind and she had told the honest truth. “Of course not. He’s Irish, and we Irish are all terrible liars now, aren’t we?”
He was paid well to linger in town and play the miracle. But that was nothing compared to what he was pulling in on the steps of the church. Before noon, the word of the first healing from a rag carried home to a sick babe was in the streets. At noon someone afflicted with gout left their canes on the floor between the legs of the cabinet and walked out without pain for the first time in years. In the square he shouted the news. The harper’s mouth fell open in surprise or shock or maybe awe. But his pondering of whether the relic was genuine or not did not stop him from played a jig. When the man now free of gout heard the music he danced.
By evening there was another story of a healed child being told in the streets. By the next day there were two more.
H. A. arrived home that first day to find the maid by the door. She rushed into the dining room where his wife was entertaining a number of women friends who suddenly found her company desirable. “Mistress, the master is home.”
Catharina rushed to his arms. “Tio,” she said, giving in to his wish that she address him informally, “Thank you. You were right. It is a relic.” She smiled. “We will have something that no one else has. I have never heard of anybody having anything that once belonged to a Herod.”
“Well, we will be the only one for only a while. I have one hundred pieces of Herodian plunder. We will be swapping out the first one tonight to establish that all of Herod’s pots are touched with the gift of healing. Shortly Herodian relics will start turning up in curio cabinets of the very rich across Europe.” H. A. did not mention that the price he had been planning to ask for Herodian relics had just shifted a decimal point and he had not planned to sell them cheaply to begin with.
“But? Why? You should give them to churches. You do not need the money.”
“Others will give them to churches. And while we do not need the money, the monks on the shores of the Dead Sea do. It is a hard place to make a living. I do not want to pay to keep them there forever out of my own pocket.”
“They were doing okay before, weren’t they?”
“No. This is a newly reestablished monastery. And they need to be there. There are special things on that mountain top that will be stripped and lost if they are not guarded.”
“But they are selling them, are they not?”
H.A. Burston smiled. “I have an agreement with the Patriarch of Jerusalem. As long as I buy enough to keep the monastery going and a bit more for him of course, then they will sell only to me. So the monks need to sell an occasional broken pot, of which there are tens of thousands of pieces, to protect the rest of the site. And in time they will charge tourists to see the special areas. So the world slowly gets miracle-working relics and the mountain fortress is guarded for posterity. That is why we will not be giving the potshards away for free.”
Fredrick stopped by nightly and if there had been a reported miracle that day he would swap out the artifact. The miracles kept happening. The area between the legs was filling up with crutches and canes. The poor box was filling up with offerings. The tales of the healing from the little white rags being sold by the monastery and carried by pilgrims were coming back from ever farther away.
Fredrick told H.A., “Boss, when I told my cousin that we wanted one hundred letters attesting to the miracles of Herod’s pots Bernhard told me we only needed ninety-nine. He says they are keeping one of them. I reminded him that it was just on loan. He said you have ninety-nine more, and you agreed to display it for as long as they wanted. He said you can afford to make them a long-term loan of one of them for the good of your soul.”
H.A. chuckled. “My wife wanted relics for piety’s sake. Leaving the last one there will please her. Tell your cousin ninety-nine letters attesting to the miracles will suffice.”