Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

A Stolen Tongue

by Sheri Holman

“Holman seduces you into a world of priests, rogues, saints, a world bright with horizon, wonder, piety. Her prose, tart, racy, and somber, will sing in your soul a long while.” —Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date July 22, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4379-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00

About The Book

A riveting mystery that recalls the work of Umberto Eco and Barry Unsworth, A Stolen Tongue is the captivating debut novel that launched critically acclaimed author Sheri Holman’s literary career.

In 1483, Father Felix Fabri sails from Germany to Mount Sinai on a pilgrimage to venerate the relics of Saint Katherine of Alexandria. But at each of the shrines he visits throughout Greece and Palestine, he finds that the remains of Katherine’s body are being stolen piece by piece: her hand, her ear, and then her tongue vanish from their holy resting places. Desperate to discover the thief and save his saint from such appalling desecration, Felix is thrust into a strange mystery that takes him across the desert and plumbs the depths of his soul.

Tags Literary


“Part rollicking historical potboiler, part theological mystery . . . Holman [has a] manic, spiritually inquisitive imagination.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Sheri Holman writes with extraordinary assurance and style.” —Miranda Seymour

“Holman seduces you into a world of priests, rogues, saints, a world bright with horizon, wonder, piety. Her prose, tart, racy, and somber, will sing in your soul a long while.” —Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes

“Holman tells a fascinating story. From the opening scene in Crete to the harrowing finale in the Sinai desert, she knows how to create suspense.” —The Washington Post Book World

A Stolen Tongue is that rare thing: a page-turner which is at the same time intellectually stimulating, very moving and highly original in execution. The best historical thriller I have read since Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.” —Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life


The Port of Candia, Crete, June 1483
The Sides of Ships

We are separated from death by the span of only four fingers, those of us at sea; and from what I can tell, it is that certain knowledge, more than any monster or misfortune, that terrorizes pilgrims on their ships. If you were never unaware, not even for a moment, that a hand’s-width of wood alone stood between you and the fathomless waters, wouldn’t you be inclined to drink a little too much? I ask you, is it fair then to label a man a buffoon and a jackass, as I heard someone call him, for falling, drunk, into the Ocean? Who on board this ship hasn’t, out of fear, drunk himself nearly overboard?

I stand beside the winch while the first mate’s crew hoists our dead burgher off the harbor floor. Four galley slaves wait on the wharf below, their arms lifted to catch all three hundred pounds of him, their knees flexed in anticipation.

They will walk him, dripping, through the ribbon streets of Candia, to the convent I recommended, just outside the city’s gate. There they will help dig him a grave and stand solemnly by while I say a mass to speed Burgher Schmidhans’s lurching, insensible soul on to Purgatory.

“Oh, goodness. Was he that fat?”

My patron arrives just as the burgher’s thunderous Bavarian body rains upon the slaves below. They turn away their faces and reach up blindly to unhook him.

“Bloated,” I offer.

Lord Tucher and I knew him only as a fellow German who lodged, as all German pilgrims lodge, at Zu der Fleuten in Venice and who aspired to take this pilgrim ship over Contarini’s because we were on it. His berth was next to mine belowdeck, and though he kept me from my bedtime prayers too often with his idle settling of the world’s problems, I blame him for one thing only. On nights after the lanterns went out and the waves groaned around us like evil spirits in a nursery, he would draw my attention to the worthless curve of gopherwood, as he called it, that separated us from a watery grave. “For the length of the trip,” he wondered out loud, “shouldn’t we call that Savior?”

“Let’s go.” My patron touches my back. “Ursus is waiting.”

The Mediterranean sun has been kind to Ursus Tucher, my patron’s son, bleaching the first dark smudge above his upper lip, buying him a few more months of childhood. He squats at the bottom of the gangplank, watching a naked brown boy repair a crack in the ship’s hull. The water is so clear we can see him, three feet under, kicking out his legs like a frog, carefully painting the crack with tar.

“I bet Schmidhans’s head made a hole,” Ursus tells us. “When he fell.”

Ahead of us, the galley slaves count three and bounce the burgher to their shoulders. We follow this giant dripping horseshoe crab as it slowly crawls away from the sea, past wooden doors that bang wide to reveal bolts of tamarind silk and orange-dusted spice barrels, beyond fish stalls where women clad sluttishly in the Mediterranean fashion lean over baskets and buy those creatures that leap highest for their dangling breasts. I look over my shoulder to see the ship’s crew raise a black silk flag between Captain Lando’s lion banner of Saint Mark and the immense white and red cross ensign of the Holy Sepulchre. I’ve observed that Lando only pranks up the ship when something is to be gained thereby—when he wants to impress or intimidate a foreign power. At sea, with only an audience of pilgrims, he furls the holy flag of Jerusalem and hides from us the proof of our journey, begrudging even that little comfort a pilgrim might find, contemplating it at sea. Lando must want to advertise the empty space on board our ship. Certainly reverence plays no part in hoisting the black flag; he would have left Schmid-hans to be picked clean by fishes, had not Lord Tucher bribed him with five ducats.

My patron looks down the dirty Greek lane, perplexed. “I don’t know what I was expecting.” He frowns. “Marble?”

What a discerning patron I’ve found! I know Abbot Fuchs worried about my traveling so long in the company of secular persons, but Lord Tucher is a grave, reverent man, much concerned with the state of souls, his own and ours. He, more than any other, saw how Schmidhans’s drowned body had become like a magnet, luring pilgrims to the ship’s side to stare past their reflections into our dead friend’s aqueous eyes. He saw his own son, Ursus, walk away from his lessons to stand with the common crowd and wonder at the mythical properties of water: how like slumbering Neptune Schmid-hans looked in death, magnified and pale, the wild hairs of his beard stiffening into strands of purling bubbles. Something had to be done, Lord Tucher knew, for Schmidhans’s corpse was becoming a distraction.

My patron walks purposefully beside me, his money pouch jingling softly against his chest. He dresses strictly by the pilgrim’s handbook, in a white robe with red cross chasuble and a gray felt hat, lovingly stitched with crosses by virgins dedicated to God. He lets his sparse facial hair grow, as all male pilgrims must, and shoulders a leather pilgrim’s scrip containing water skin, bread, and hymnal. Lord Tucher is conscious of the town’s eyes on him, as head mourner to the horseshoe crab, and stares piously back at the Greeks, who cross themselves and shrink into their shops when we pass. Ursus capers around us, peeking in this window, spitting in that. He will be fourteen at summer’s end and will straightaway trade his pilgrim’s clothes for a page’s uniform in the household of the illustrious Count Eberhart of Württemberg. Ursus is young to be on pilgrimage, but his father rashly promised him a knighthood of the Holy Sepulchre to raise his status among the other pages, and the child doggedly holds him to his word.

“Why did you pick this particular church, Friar?” Ursus grumbles. “It’s so far from the ship.”

“I understand they have a fine wine cellar there,” Lord Tucher says.

“The Franciscans, where we are headed,” I tell them, “have Saint Katherine of Alexandria’s hand.”

“Saint Katherine again!” Ursus cries. “You make us stop at every statue of her. You make us kiss every painting!”

“But this will be the first relic we’ll venerate on the way to her tomb in Sinai.”

Lord Tucher nods. “That will be edifying for us.”

Edifying indeed! It will be as if the heavenly cloister opened its gates and she pricked her ear at our arrival. It will be as if she raised her paper-nicked finger from the book in her lap and shyly extended her hand to earth, for me to kiss and press to my cheek. I chafe when our slaves spill Schmidhans across the path leading out of town and we are forced to wait while they pick him clean of pine needles.

“Look, Father, that must be it!”

Ursus speeds ahead, up to the thick daub walls and iron gate surrounding the monastery. Carved herringbone detail work softens the edifice of the church, and a red dome, skirted with flaring tile roofs, gives it the slightly effeminate look of all Eastern buildings. Upon Ursus’s persistent yanking of the entry bell, a brown-robed figure comes to the gate.

I introduce myself. “I am Friar Felix Fabri with the Dominican Preaching Brothers in Ulm. We would like to inter this drowned man in your cemetery.”

The Franciscan eyes us suspiciously, taking in my black-and-white Dominican robes, our pilgrims’ chasubles, the slippery, peat-flecked flesh of corpse Schmidhans. As a rule, the animal- and poverty-loving Franciscans have no great fondness for the more intellectual Dominican order, but at least I’m not decked out in the tall hat and showy chin beard of our common enemy, the Greek Orthodox.

“And, of course, we’ll pay for masses,” Lord Tucher adds.

The gate swings open.

The Franciscan leads us through the dark church and out under a shady latticed arbor plaited with pea-sized grapes, just flushing purple. This region of Crete is famed for its malvoisie, the sweet boon to pilgrims and reviver of flagging spirits. Would that Schmid-hans had not been revived even unto death.

“Plant him over there, then,” the Franciscan tells me, stopping in their cypress-lined graveyard. “I’ll lay out the things for mass.”

Oh, how Katherine inhabits this place! The Franciscan told me her hand is put away in a jewel-encrusted box, locked inside the airless sacristy, and yet I feel her take a seat beside me, here on this stone bench, and watch, as I do, the slaves turn fresh earth. Her white robe falls in tidy folds around her ankles; her wheel, that instrument of torture, rests harmlessly underfoot. We put our heads together, and her blue eyes smile into mine as a fond wife’s would, happy to be reunited, even if it is in such a place as this.

“Where’s Ursus?”

My bride evaporates at the sound of Lord Tucher’s panicked voice.

“Did he go inside?” I sigh. Ursus is forever running off.

“Ursus!” his father calls sharply. “I’ve told you a hundred times not to leave us.”

I push open the unlocked back door of the church and march across the apse. Sunlight slanting through the red-and-gold glass bodies of the Holy Family melts three sacred hearts across the flagstone floor.

“Ursus, are you in here?”

Huddled on a back pew, mottled by the blue bird-light of Saint Francis’s lead-paned grackles, my patron’s son sits beside a stranger.

“Ursus?” I take a step closer.

“Here, my friar will confirm. Friar Felix,” Ursus prompts, “there are no ladies on our ship, are there?”

The stranger rises expectantly, hoping I will contradict my charge. What sort of question is that? Why should this man care that we sail womanless upon the sea, if we consider it our great good fortune? Perhaps because he is a handsome man; tall, dark-haired, richly clad in a black doublet and yellow leather boots, he fancies himself a dandy? And yet his full mouth is drawn into a frown, and his somber eyes promise anything but a flirtation.

“That is correct, son,” I say. “All the ladies rode with Contarini.”

“You are certain, good Brother Dominican? No women have recently joined your party?” The stranger speaks the perfectly accented Latin of the university or novitiate.

“I can happily answer, Yes, I’m certain we have not a one. Why do you ask?”

“I’m looking for a young woman.” He smiles self-consciously. “She ran away several days ago, and I tracked her as far as this monastery. You are Jerusalem pilgrims, yes? You continue on to Sinai?”

“We certainly hope so.” I smile, for, without knowing, he has touched upon my deepest desire. “We plan to continue our pilgrimage across the Sinai even to Saint Katherine’s Monastery, God willing.”

“God’s will may not be the only one at work, I’m afraid.”

The stranger turns to leave. I follow his eyes to where they light briefly on a misfired glass portrait of Katherine, her bubbled yellow sword flaring like that which bars the gates to Eden.

“I hope you make it.” He pushes on the door.

“She is a bad girl, this lady?” Ursus calls after him.

“Worse than that, son.” The man takes one last worried look around the church. “She is completely insane.”

“I just had it!”

Ursus is near tears in the cemetery. I’ve interrupted mass so he might look for his silver rosary, a present given him by his mother before we left Ulm, along with a pair of oversized gray boots in case his feet grow in the Holy Land. The boy’s eyes and nose are red. He fears he dropped the beads into Schmidhans’s open grave.

With a sigh, his father hands him his own expensive gold rosary and motions for me to continue.

You are a generous man, Lord Tucher, but are you the sort of man who keeps his promises? Do you have the courage to travel that great empty space with me? My patron puts out his fuzzy yellow tongue for the Host, and I stare deeply into his eyes. I have made you the keeper of my childhood vow, my most solemn oath; and yet the farther east we push, the wilder the rumors surrounding her monastery become and the less you speak of your promise to me. Here, in her presence, I command you to honor the pledge you made when I agreed to become your confessor. Take me to her.

“May the Lord watch over our dear departed Schmidhans and guide him swiftly through Purgatory with the help of these hundred masses we now purchase for his wretched soul.”

Quickly, I confess my sins in my heart, the most recent being that I was inattentive during my own mass, and take the Lord’s Host into my mouth.

“In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

Lord Tucher pushes himself to his feet and looks around for the Franciscan. “Felix,” he says, “before we take a peek at the relics, let’s see about that malvoisie, eh?”

How can he think of grapes when he knows I burn to see her hand?

“Brother Franciscan!” Tucher calls, clapping into the chapel. “Will you help us?”

While his father profanely haggles, Ursus enlists me to crawl around the floor with him and feel for his lost rosary. Three times I watch the Franciscan’s feet trot down to the cellar when Lord Tucher sends him back for a different vintage. On the other side of the wall, my beloved idly scratches a cross into the dirt floor with the tip of her sword. She stands and paces the small room, leans her head against the door.

“And this is a good year, you say?” Lord Tucher asks the monk.

“Friar Felix, are you married to her like Father is to Mother?” Ursus asks, reaching under the pew near me. “Can you have children?”

I smile at my charge’s naïveté.

“No, Ursus. You know how women, when they become nuns, are called Brides of Christ? How they call our Lord ‘Bridegroom’ and wear a gold wedding band to symbolize their union?”

“Yes. My aunt is a nun. We watched her marry Christ.”

“Well, when we monks take our orders, we may choose a spiritual spouse to keep us company, like nuns have Jesus. We can’t very well take Jesus because, first, he is a man and, second, he has married all those nuns. It’s wrong to presume the Blessed Virgin would have us; she is married to Saint Joseph. Saint Anne is married to Saint Joachim and Saint Elizabeth is married to Saint Zacharias, so these, too, are out. It is fitting, therefore, that a pious monk not come between the happy couplings of Heaven but take to wife some unwed virgin saint.”

“And you chose Saint Katherine?”

“I like to think she chose me.”

And we have been happily joined now for twenty years, since I first pledged myself to the Dominicans on the anniversary of her martyrdom when I was eighteen years old. Every November twenty-fifth I retire from the world and relive her suffering. I see again her courageous refusal to sacrifice before the pagan gods, her defeat of their Fifty Philosophers sent to break her faith in Christ. I weep for her torture at the hands of Emperor Maxentius, when he bound her to that diabolical wheel and tore her flesh with hooks. How I rejoice when the Emperor orders her head struck off by the sword, only to witness milk flow instead of blood! How I triumph as the Emperor is forced to stand by and watch the angels translate her broken body to the top of holy Mount Sinai! Katherine of Alexandria, the philosopher saint, is the patroness of young girls, scholars, and priests. I try not to take too much pride in her popularity.

“Felix.” Lord Tucher bends over me, wagging a dusty green wine bottle before my face. “I bought an extra for you.”

“Thank you, my lord. Might we see her hand now?”

“Friar!” Ursus cries. “You promised to help me look!”

“We are seeking and not finding, Ursus.”

“Brother Franciscan,” Lord Tucher calls. “We’re ready.”

The monk invites us back into the tight, musty sacristy. In my lifetime, I have venerated her foot in Rouen, her spine in Cologne, and now her hand in Crete. The most precious of relics, Katherine’s holy head, lies where angels set her down, twelve hundred years ago, in her monastery atop Mount Sinai.

The Franciscan unlocks the sacristy closet and slowly draws from its shadows a silver box marvelously fashioned after a woman’s hand. Polished rubies form the hand’s fingernails, while inside the palm veins of pure lapis lazuli trace a deep lifeline, headline, and heartline. It is the left hand! The hand upon which, if we were earthly spouses, she would wear my wedding band.

The hand of Saint Katherine is a very important relic, being the blessed appendage she places upon our Lord’s knee to beg favors for men. Her sainted hand holds a cool cloth against the foreheads of those with fevers, whether we suffer the physical pain of illness or the emotional distemper that accompanies too great a love. Katherine, schooled as she was in the seven Liberal Arts, with a voice so melodious it converted fifty pagan philosophers to Christ, must certainly be called upon to read aloud in Heaven. This hand, then, holds the book when she reads sweetly to God and the Holy Family.

“By the grace of God,” the monk intones, throwing open the reliquary, “the hand of Katherina Martyr.”

Where is it?

A cushion of blue velvet. A whiff of myrrh. No bones, no shaving of knuckle, no thumb print. Where is my wife’s hand?

“There’s nothing there, Friar,” Ursus whimpers.

The Franciscan sharply shakes the box. His mouth works but no words follow. Ursus’s bottom lip begins to tremble.

“Thief!” The monk shouts, sweeping up his robes and running from the church. “Thief!”

My beloved? My wife?

She knew I was coming and she allowed herself to be stolen.