A long time ago, in a land now called another name, there was a Monastery known for its choir. It’s numbers were dwindled; only ten monks in the choir remained, and they were very old. These ten were unlike their holy Brothers; they sounded, when they spoke, like little boys, and when they sang, like sweet angels. Now there is a word for men such as this, but then there was none, or if there was, it has been lost to time.
In those days, a bloody war raged across the countryside. Every man in the nearby village was either dead or fighting, so no one was left to defend the Monastery when Roman mercenaries struck. By a week’s time stores were depleted, and when there was no food or drink or cattle left the Romans grew bored and, in boredom, violent. The monks gathered in secret to plan how to save themselves from their captors. They decided that the choir of ten would sing for the soldiers, and when they became entranced by song, the rest of the monks, who were younger and swifter of foot, would escape.
So decided, a concert was hosted, and the Romans came because in their travels they had heard of the magnificent Monastery choir. The choir sang to their captors for many hours, and the Romans were so entranced by their angelic voices that the other monks escaped the Monastery unnoticed. When the mercenaries realized how they’d been tricked, they were enraged. They killed all the monks of the choir, save two. These two, the soldiers took from the Monastery back to Rome as gifts for their masters.
It is for this reason that there are castrati in the south, in Italy and Germany and France, but not in the north, not in Norway. It is also for this reason that the oldest hymns of the castrati choirs are Nordic. Go to Rome, go to the Sistine Chapel, and you will hear.
Excerpt (Accompanied by Yasna New York Bulgarian Women’s Voice Choir: Tri Bjulbjula)
We speak very little. Our voices, when they are not singing, unsettle our brothers. We are also old, and leave excitement and fear to the young for carrying.
Then it is decided, they say.
Yes, they respond, it must be so.
And who will close the wooden doors?
Brother Bruegel will close the doors.
So we will stay? we ask.
Do you understand? brother Bruegel asks us, you will sing while I close the wooden doors.
Us? we ask, and sit there.
Yes, who else?
And when we are done singing? we ask.
We can’t, we exclaim at once. They wince at our words, at their pitch, so high, like children pleading.
Because God won’t know our voices unless we are singing.
Then sing your prayers.
We can’t do that either, we say, we have not rehearsed them.
Quiet, brother Bruegel says, you’re always contradicting. It upsets everything, all this contradiction.
All right, we say, so we’ll be quiet, so we’ll go sing.
And nobody holds us back, either, as we shuffle, not pushed, towards the Choir screen.
* * *
The soldiers are gathered round the screen, standing or sitting on the floor. We look neither right nor left but shuffle straight. Gudbrand, the last of us, carries the thurible. He swings it so clouds of incense trails us slowly up the steps. Our feet drag on the floor. The soldiers make suspicious noises, but why should they, we don’t look much. The last of us is in line then, shoulder to shoulder. And we open our mouths towards heaven and close our eyes and listen to the silence, each of us to his own. And we imagine to ourselves the fields and hearths of old homes, all the places we’ve been separated from since boyhood, enveloped in our silence. And then, lilting out of our lungs, past gaps in our teeth, past whiskers, bursts our voice.
Brother Bruegel faces us from the door, behind the soldiers. It will be the last time he sees us, we think. A horde of Romans surrounding us, ten grizzled old men with long arms and unrivaled lung power pushing through our small, child-sized vocal cords.