The fire danced and flickered, throwing dancing shadows on the wall of the cave. Outside, the cold drizzle continued to fall through the gathering darkness, soaking the already sodden countryside. A damp chill seeped into the cave, promising ice before morning, but inside, next to the fire, there was a small, fragile bubble of warmth. The young man sat staring into the embers of the fire, idly poking at them with a long stick, his eyes unfocused, his mind gnawing on worries about what the morrow would bring in much the same way as the rangy hound a few feet away gnawed on the bone of a small boar that had provided most of their supper.
“Who are you?”
The voice rang out like a whip crack, sharp and clear, startling the youngster out of his reverie. Absorbed in his thoughts, he had forgotten the old man was there. Turning, he saw the old monk sitting on a stone, his worn and wrinkled face uplit by the glow of the fire, piercing eyes sunk deep beneath bushy grey brows, staring intently back at him.
“W-what?” stammered the younger man.
“Who are you?” repeated the old man, laying heavy emphasis on each word.
“Why, I’m Onulf, of course,” blurted the young man, vaguely uneasy that he didn’t really understand what was being asked.
“And who is that?” demanded the old monk, leaning forward. “Who is Onulf?”
Bewildered, the young man wondered briefly whether the old cleric was having some sort of fit. Hadn’t they been traveling together for weeks?
“I…I’m a miller, sir. You…”
The old man cut him off. “And if your mill burns down? Who are you then, Onulf?”
Sure now that he didn’t know what was really being asked, Onulf fell silent. It was always like this when Brother Pedagos was trying to teach him something. Questions that didn’t seem to make sense, but that always seemed to lead him somewhere in the end.
“I’m the son of Noyo and Luitgard,” he said after a moment.
“Noyo and Luitgard are dead, are they not?” replied Pedagos. “Who are you then, Onulf?”
Onulf’s eyes fell on the hound, which had stopped gnawing on the bone and appeared to be following their conversation with interest. “I’m a fair hunter,” he answered.
“And if there is no game? Or if you lose an arm and cannot draw a bow?” queried the monk. “Who are you then?”
Onulf’s mind raced. Who was he? An image flashed into his mind unbidden, and before he could stop himself he blurted out, “I am the lover of Glodesind.”
“Oh ho,” chuckled the old man. “You are, are you? And tell me, does Glodesind know of your love for her?”
Blushing scarlet, the young man looked at the floor and stammered, “W-well, n-no…”
“Then who are you, if she doesn’t know?” demanded Pedagos.
Thinking he saw an opening and knew what the old man was getting at, Onulf answered confidently, “I am your student, Brother Pedagos.”
“Bah!” answered Pedagos. “I’m an old man with one foot in the grave, and will soon be forgotten as dust. Who are you then?”
“I…I…I don’t know, sir,” replied Onulf, very quietly, still staring at the floor.
After a long moment, the old monk spoke, softly and kindly but with an unmistakable tone of urgency. “But you must know, Onulf. You must know who you are. Everything depends on that.”
They sat in silence then for a long time. A faint rattling patter outside told Onulf that the rain had changed to sleet. Still he sat and stared at the fire, Pedogos’ relentless question caroming around in his skull. Who are you? After a time, he heard the old man move to his sleeping skin and wrap himself up in the furry hide. Still he stared in to the depths of the fire, turning the question over and over in his mind. Finally, when the last flames were flickering down to embers, he whispered.
“Yes, Onulf?” the old man replied in a voice that told Onulf he hadn’t been sleeping.
“I am a child of God.”
“Yes, you are,” replied Pedagos. “And upon that, all of the other things depend. Teachers, parents, trades, even great loves come and go in this life. But that does not change. And nothing that happens tomorrow will change that, either.”
“Yes, sir,” Onulf replied. “I understand now.”
“You’ll need to be reminded from time to time,” replied the old monk. “I still do.”
Smiling, the young man banked the coals, wrapped himself in his sleeping skin and quickly fell asleep.