Sir John unsheathed his blade, pointed it at my neck, and I found myself in a most disagreeable position.
“In the name of the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury, I demand to know your business,” he said. I cradled the desiccated big toe, snug in its ornate oak box—the source of my livelihood since Henry’s Court of Augmentations tossed out all the godly men at St. Bartholomew, where after my retirement from the army I’d taken holy orders.
“Peddling curious anatomy,” I said. I displayed the box to the soldiers, maneuvering my way to the door, but they blocked my route. So, I limped back to my table and quaffed the last of my ale. “Have you ever seen such a toe? Belonged to a giant, Richard Ploughshare. He set the roof on this tavern.” The local patrons at the Ark—recently renamed the Burning Papist Pub—in New Market looked on in terror. For three days, I offered and proffered the big toe of St. Bartholomew to the locals and preached its salubrious power. For the fee of a groat—I mean donation—they could rub it on afflicted parts. The villagers caressed their gout, fingered boils and rubbed their bones, and one desperate crofter even rubbed his trousers in hopes of once again achieving a tumescent marriage. They saluted me a holy pilgrim, but now that Sir John Bingham had come hunting Catholics, they betrayed my sinful entreaties to the power of diabolical saints.
“He comes with the pope’s parts to cure us with the devil’s power.”
“I won’t return your money,” I said to the crofter, “when your parts fail your marriage duty.”
“Idolatry,” Sir John scoffed. “The seeking out of such images is whoredom!” The three soldiers raised their pikes. I smiled, showing off my broken brown teeth. Mortimer Sneed, former monk and soldier, could talk his way out of a gibbet. “Set Satan’s toe on the table.”
“What’s the harm?” I asked then set down the digit’s pall.
“If this relic holds power, could it not heal your limp?” Sir John snickered.
“An old wound earned at Guinegate in France. And relic? No. Physicians bleed humors. Quackery abounds. I merely comfort the ailing. I am no papist. I amuse.” Sir John wasn’t having it.
“Arrest this monk,” he ordered. They had blocked my quick exit through the door, but I reasoned I could escape from the second floor. Yet what’s the point of surviving sans a living? Once a poor man could look to a monastery for alms, but now they were left to starve. I raised my hands in surrender. When Sir John relaxed his arm, I reached for the big toe, but swift as a scythe, he slashed my hand, slicing my finger nearly clear of its joint. Pain burst up my arm, and I clutched my hand. Blood spilled down my shirt, and the finger dangled from a thin attachment of skin. The soldiers moved to hold me, but I fled up the stairs, jumped out of a window and landed in the mud below. Enduring the pain, I vanished west into the wood and took the road to Oxford where superstition abounded among the learned.
Yet, sans a few silver groats, I had no means of living, and the pension offered to monks could hardly satisfy my tabs. I never understood all the bother. Latin sang pretty off the tongue and golden crosses gleamed in the dawn light. Priests were just entertainers. The flock were happy with a path to heaven, and I’d found peace at prayer after a youth at war. And now I’d become a beggar limping on the road—all over a big toe.
And then inspiration blessed me. I plucked off my finger and wrapped it in cloth. An ornate box could be carved. In time, the digit would decay. All I needed was a compelling tale. After all, the toe I’d lost in France then kept as a keepsake served me since the dissolution, and a finger would be just as good.
I traveled west—the bearer of a new holy relic.