Sybille's Journey: "Prologue," by Meredy Amyx




     The truth about truth is that it changes over time. The proper device for truth-viewing is neither a microscope nor a telescope, nor even a periscope. It's a kaleidoscope.

     Truth is not a treasure dug out of the earth. Truth is the shovel. Truth is the act of digging. Truth is the digger.
     More than a century ago, in the city of Bruges in what is now Belgium, three workmen with shovels uncovered something extraordinary. The document you see before you is the result of their find.
     In 1887, the Flemish city of Bruges looked much the same as it had for the preceding five centuries. Situated eight miles upriver from the North Sea, Bruges was once one of the busiest ports in Western Europe, its flourishing textile trade attracting commerce from all over the known world. As silt filled the delta of the River Zwin, eventually cutting off access by seagoing vessels, Bruges—or Brugge, as it is known to its Dutch-speaking inhabitants—became isolated from the traffic that had once animated its streets and waterways. Instead it retired gracefully from active life and traded on its picturesqueness to remain an attractive European destination, its quaint character carefully maintained for public view.
     Visit Bruges even today and you will see a town whose face is as ancient as its bones. The muscles and sinews that contain its vitality thrive now on modern sustenance but remain discreetly out of sight. The clusters of gothic structures, the lacework of canals and their flotillas of swans, the arching stone bridges, and the crooked cobbled streets give this one-time Roman fortress a storybook quality. Wooden frame houses shouldering one another in tight rows, with their stepped-gable roofs and their ornamental façades, smile down in their infinitely varied novelty on the busy town squares, the Grote Markt and the Burg, twin hearts still beating vigorously in this working model of a fabled medieval city.
     In a narrow residential street somewhat away from the political center of town, a row of once-respectable merchant-class houses dating from the thirteenth century, and long since fallen into dereliction, succumbed to a fire of unknown origin during the summer of 1887. One cool, bright autumn day, crews of workmen were engaged in razing the burnt-out remains.
     The nearest houses in the row, though skeletal, were still standing, the medieval architecture visible through the blackened timbers. Workmen with sledgehammers and crowbars were busy demolishing the next two. Men carried out the debris by wheelbarrow loads or passed it from hand to hand down human chains, carefully separating reusable stone from scrap timber, mortar, and roofing. Horse-drawn carts stood in the road waiting to haul it away. At the next house farther on, ropes were being strung through the upper stories of a heavily damaged structure in order to pull it down.
     The last dwelling in the row had already been reduced to its foundation. A pair of crewmen wielded shovels to excavate the packed earth around the stonework to free it for removal. The older man, a sandy-haired veteran with the sun-browned complexion of years of outdoor labor, whistled a traditional folkdance tune and matched its jaunty beat to the stroke of his shovel.
     The younger, sturdy and blond, pulled the brim of his wool cap down to shield his eyes from the sun. Not yet hardened to the work, he wore an expression of endurance under trial. Even a moment's pause to adjust his cap, retie his boot laces, or wipe the sweat from the back of his neck was a welcome break. His thoughts were divided between his sweetheart Adèle and a cool stein of Straffe Hendrik beer, and he wasn't sure which interested him more.
     His shovel struck sudden resistance. He drew back and dug in again.
     Something hard and solid, but not sounding like a rock, stopped his shovel as he drove it in horizontally about two feet inside the stone wall of the foundation.
     "Klaas, look here, I've hit something," he called to the older man working a few yards away.
     "Just a stone, Arend," returned Klaas cheerfully, "and not a message from God to stop digging. Work around it."
     Arend chopped the neighboring section of earth a little with the blade of his shovel and dug laterally from the first point of impact. The vertical side of the object continued to halt his stroke. He found that he was clearing a small area in a straight line.
     "There's really something here, Klaas. It's got a straight side like a box, but it isn't wood. Come look." He began cautiously clearing the earth a little forward of that point in order to locate the top of the object.
     Klaas sighed and climbed out of the trench he was digging.
     By now Arend had exposed enough of the side to reveal that it was unmistakably a solid man-made object. As Klaas watched, leaning on his shovel, Arend's blade struck the top of the object, about a foot and a half below surface level.
     "Come on, help me."
     Klaas began digging beside Arend, and in a few minutes they had uncovered an oblong slab about thirty inches long and eighteen inches wide, earthenware by the look of it, glazed a pale blue-green. Arend wiped the surface with his handkerchief, shook it out, and put it back in his pocket. The top was not smooth but covered with intricate images and strange markings, some incised and some raised in relief, brought out distinctly by the remaining encrustation of earth. Central to the design was a large symbol made up of three crescents, the two larger facing in the same direction and the third, smaller, facing the opposite way with its closed side centered on the joint between the larger two.
     Klaas whistled in awe. Arend assumed an expression of smug triumph and adjusted his cap.
     "Hey, Andreas," called Klaas to the crew foreman, who was overseeing the roping of the frame in the next unit. "Look at this!"
     The foreman glared at the interruption and drew a dirt-coated wrist across a face streaked with sweat. He strode over the broken ground to where Klaas and Arend stood in a low trench around their find.
     "What have you got, a skeleton?" Andreas stared at the half-buried object. "Godverdomme. What the hell? Let's get that thing up here." He grabbed a shovel, and the three of them worked to clear enough of the soil around the box to free it.
     "It could be a treasure," suggested Arend eagerly.
     When the three had succeeded in wrestling the large, heavy object out of the ground and stood it on the surface, they paused to stare at it, wiping their faces with their handkerchiefs or shirtsleeves. It was definitely a container, about ten inches deep, with a well-fitted lid, heavily glazed, and decorated all over with the same strange markings. A depression was molded into the form as a handle at each end. On one side appeared the clear outline of a bat with wings spread wide, and on the other an ornamented ellipse enclosed what appeared to be the initials YS.
     "Maybe it's gold," said Arend more forcefully. "Let's open it." Already he and Adèle were on their way to Paris in a carriage, his work clothes laid aside for good.
     Klaas and Andreas bent to raise the lid, but it didn't budge.
     "It's sealed," said Andreas. "Something like beeswax. Use your knife. Come on, hurry!" Arend could see his own excitement mirrored on the face of his foreman.
     "Calm down. Whatever it is, it's not metal," said Klaas. "Not heavy enough." He dropped to his knees and opened his stout pocket knife. The sealing substance scraped away easily, and when he had removed enough of it, Arend and Andreas were able to force the lid upward with a pop of broken suction.
     They placed it aside with a ceramic clunk, and the three stared gaping down at their find.
     "Schijt," said Arend.
     Within the earthenware box lay three neat stacks of books that even the uneducated eye could see were made by hand with great care and were very, very old. They were bound with leather thongs, and their embossed leather covers showed markings of a kind similar to the designs on the outside of the container. From a glimpse of their spines in the spaces between the stacks, each was about an inch and a half thick, and a few appeared to have covers of carved wood. The edges of pages were yellowed but not crumbling, and they gave off only a faint leathery aroma. They had been well preserved. The uppermost three all showed YS in a decorative ellipse and the numbers 28, 29, and 30, respectively.
     Arend reached to pick one up. Klaas slapped his grimy hand. "First wash," he ordered gruffly.
     "They must be worth something," said Andreas, stroking his chin.
     They brushed the loose dirt off the edges of the lid and carefully laid it back on the container.
     "Adèle's cousin works at the library in Leuven, at the university," said Arend. "He might know what to do with these."
     "Dig those others up," said Andreas, "and let's get them out of here. Whatever they are, we're not going to get rich off them. Back to work now. We have a schedule to meet."
     "They gave us six hundred francs," said Arend, opening a small leather purse and spilling out twelve gold coins into his left palm. He carefully counted out four 50-franc coins each to Klaas and Andreas. "Said the books were worth a lot to historians but had no real value otherwise."
     Klaas raised an eyebrow, pocketing more than he normally earned in a month. "Looks like the boss was right, they were worth something."
     "Well, I actually more like sold them," admitted Arend. "To the library," he added in haste in response to Klaas's scowl. "Nicolas, that's Adèle's cousin, helped me make the deal. He, uh, got a share too."
     "What were they?" asked Andreas. The coins clinked softly as he jingled them in his hand.
     "Nicolas said they were journals. All kept by a woman named—" Arend fished in his pocket and produced a limp, well-folded sheet of paper. "Ysabella Swandyn. They had to bring in an expert who could read this old stuff—it's Flemish, but not like it is today. Listen to this. Here's the first part, the way Nicolas wrote it down for me. '4 June 1354.'"
     Klaas whistled.
     "Godverdomme," said Andreas. "That's—" he paused, a slow mechanical calculator turning behind his eyes.
     "Five hundred and thirty years ago, about," supplied Klaas. "Read it, Arend."
     "I'm not so good at this," said Arend. "You read it, Andreas."
     The foreman took the sheet of paper and read haltingly, word by word:
4 June 1354. I am Ysabella Swandyn, and this is my very secret, private journal. I am nearly ten years old. I live in Brugge with my father and mother and my three sisters. This is my story of myself, and it will be a story of wonder, adventure, mystery, and delight, with many excellent pictures. But first it is the story of my grandmother Sybille. Sybille Benet, Sybille de Béthune. And it begins a very long time ago.
     "Go on," said Klaas.
     "That's all there is," answered Andreas. Klaas's brow furrowed in disappointment.
     "There were more than fifty of those books, Nicolas told me," said Arend, "all numbered, with drawings and everything. All by the same woman. The last of them had a date of more than eighty years after the first. Oh, and he said there was one other book, much older, they didn't know who by. It was in one of the boxes that we didn't open. I kind of had the idea that that's the one they paid us for."
     "Arend," said Klaas, clapping him on the shoulder, "you made a discovery that really is worth something. Congratulations."
     A fancy dinner, at least, thought Arend, looking down at the four gleaming gold coins in his hand. And a very nice dress for Adèle, something really special, maybe from Paris. But first, down to the Langestraat for a round or two of Straffe Hendrik with the lads.
     Let us agree to believe this, and then it will be so. Certainly this account has no less truth in it than a great deal of what is written by journalists and historians or spoken by men and women of God.
     What is known and recorded is that the journals of Ysabella Swandyn, of Bruges, were found by three crewmen in 1887 while they were razing a house presumed to have once been hers. Four ceramic containers were unearthed, containing a total of 54 volumes in old Flemish bearing dates from 1354 to 1433, together with a magnificent book bound in jewel-encrusted leather, written in French and published in Toulouse as early as 1280. The documents were acquired by the University of Leuwen through the agency of one Nicolas de Groote, an employee of the university. The library paid eight hundred francs for the acquisition.
     As for the rest: if it is not factual, is it therefore false?
     Ysabella Swandyn died in 1435, four years after the Maid of Orléans was burned at the stake in Rouen. Her journals reflect one of the darkest periods of Western civilization: the medieval Inquisition. They bring to life the personal histories of her grandmother Sybille, her sister Kateryne, and herself, interwoven with a tale of mysterious practices and arcane rituals that still have their adherents down to the present day. Kept in the hands of scholars until now, they have been edited into a continuous narrative and are here released to the public for the first time.

Copyright © 2006 Meredy Amyx.
x x Chapter 1 excerpt