The Quest in Question

Alphonse was on a quest: he wanted to commit the perfect murder. As a fledgling novitiate in the 16th-century order of the Aquinas Brethren, he considered himself a devout Christian. But the one precept he had difficulty obeying was “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” The neighbour in question was Bernard who slept in the cell next to Alphonse.

The monastery was several centuries old and its moldering dampness exacerbated the elderly Bernard’s afflictions: among them, severe arthritis and chronic catarrh. Alphonse was a light sleeper at the best of times, and much of his night was constantly disturbed by Bernard’s moans and groans, his teeth-rattling coughs, not to mention the incessant sounds and noxious odors brought on by his neighbour’s well-known digestive troubles.

Alphonse might have been able to keep these nightly disturbances in some kind of compassionate perspective but for the fact that Bernard was also a mean-spirited fellow. He’d grab an outsized portion of stew from the communal dinner pot and empty the last of the wine flagon into his cup without bothering to check if any of his fellows might still have thirst. He was also a sycophant and managed to get the plum assignment of illustrating manuscripts in the spacious library, rather than tilling the soil for the next planting.

“Of course,” ruminated Alphonse, “he has no burden of physical toil, yet the damp in the library does no favours for his catarrh.” While Alphonse enjoyed sunshine and fresh air, nonetheless his muscles were sorely taxed from digging in the generally inhospitable soil.

Still, Alphonse did not complain to the Abbot, Claudius, whom he held in great esteem. Indeed, this overly sensitive soul would be lost without the role the Abbot’s guidance had played throughout his life. Claudius had taken him in as a foundling, raised him with a firm but gentle hand, and saw to it that he was aptly tutored.

As a young man, Alphonse expressed a tentative desire to become an ordained Brother, though he was an uncertain fellow at best and his faith wavered. Claudius encouraged him to search his heart. When Alphonse was more sure about his calling, the Abbot embraced him with solemn delight, and helped the young man to adjust to the rigors of monastic life, and was there to lovingly quell any lingering doubts. Alphonse believed he owed his very sanity to the Abbot’s constant and gentle shepherding.

Alphonse thought and plotted and schemed: how could he take out Brother Bernard and make it look natural? Aha, finally he had it! He would slip some poison into the wine flagon just before Bernard would reach for the last portion as he always did. The next day he managed to avoid being seen as he wandered off from the fields into the surrounding forest where he found a monkshood plant. “How fitting,” exulted Alphonse.

Carrying back his secret prize with utmost care, he then ground it up and prepared the poison. He held off for several days, just in case he had been observed.

On the fateful day, he waited till all the brethren had filled their cups, and anticipating that as usual Bernard would come back for more, Alphonse slipped the poisonous monkshood into the wine, excited that his relief was about to be made manifest.

As it happened, Brother Bernard, instead of reaching for his downfall, abruptly left the table, his notoriously loud indigestion having overcome him.

At that very moment, Claudius came to sit beside Alphonse. “I have noticed,” began the Abbot, “how diligently you have been tending our seasonal planting.” Alphonse blushed and realized once again how very much he depended on the Abbot’s praise. For now, that would make up for the lost opportunity to rid himself of Bernard.

He reached for the wine flagon to rush to empty it of its destructive contents, but to his immense dismay, Claudius mistook his gesture and took the flagon from him, pouring it into his special Abbot’s cup. “Why, thank you, dear Alphonse. Yes, I will have another drop to toast your good self.”

Claudius quickly downed the wine before the stunned Alphonse could gather his wits to stop him.

“I am truly lost and in living hell now,” thought Alphonse. He had completed his quest; he had committed the perfect murder. He just had the wrong victim.

Marilyn Myerson, PhD Philosophy, has learned to take nothing for granted and to have fun. She retired from USF after 38 years of teaching, learning and kicking up her heels in Women’s and Gender Studies. Marilyn was the first outside hire in W(G)S, starting in 1973, when the department was just one year old. She was an administrator at various departmental and dean’s levels, including a stint as W(G)S Chair before her retirement as Emeritus faculty in 2010. She shepherded the Human Sexual Behavior class through its many incarnations, developed the original women’s health classes,and taught feminist research methodology. She is currently in three writing groups, and happily involved with OLLI-USF, taking art and writing classes.


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