Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The crypt


The abbot is a tall man, and although he is very keen on good food, he is not the fat caricature of monastic myth. He has a tubular, undefined waist, in contrast to his Irish friend who is short, corpulent and a flamboyant dresser when out of his clerical uniform.

The crypt has been rigged with a single lamp which gives a yellow light and throws the places which it cannot reach into dark shadow. The abbot stands to the back of the small crowd of journalists and archeologists, but can see over their heads quite easily. The crypt is low, causing him to stoop slightly, and the the long chamber with its vaulted ceiling has  taken on an atmosphere of extreme theatricality.

He veiws this event as extremely bad taste, and attends out of duty alone. His secretary, on the other hand, has been looking forward to it for weeks, and is beside himself with a girlish, breathless excitement.

The lead coffin has not buckled and warped through the ages as all of the others have. Two men move toward it with small bars and chisels to begin gently prying at the edge of the lid. The assembly falls into an expectant silence as they work and in the confines of the crypt, each small noise echoes off the stone walls and vaulting.

At last, they breach the lid and a strong and steady hiss is heard as the air enters the coffin for the first time since it was sealed with the abbot inside it. The living abbot feels a mounting sensation that he is too close to the coffin. To him it is as if he is standing over the carnage of a traffic accident, idiotically gawping and incapable of doing anything to help the victim. This is voyeurism at its worst, and he wants to run from the crypt into the open air and sunshine.

The men lift the lid and place it to one side. The small crowd audibly gasps at what they see inside the lead box.

The medieval body looks as though it had been placed there two days before. The hair is dark and lightly oiled, the skin is taught across the face and the mouth is slightly apart, showing a row of white teeth, and the robe in which he is dressed is pressed and clean.

His hands have an unstained parchment-like quality and are placed just above his waist. They are holding a small flower which still retains most of its colour in the delicate circle of petals. The abbot gasps too, but in horror.

Before they have time to take all of this apparent miracle in, the oxygen which has been kept out so efficiently for so long begins to work on the corpse, making up for lost time. The flesh falls from the face as dust, the fabric of his clothes likewise, and then the petals of the flower fall one by one before mingling indistinguishably with the rest of the colourless detritus which has dropped through the bones to the bottom of the coffin. Only the slick mop of hair remains unchanged, sitting almost comically on top of the bleached-white skull.

The whole event happens so quickly that the distracted press photographers fail to take a single picture of the intact monk.

The abbot turns abruptly, shaking himself out of the spell of the ghastly vision, then rushes up the stone steps to stand - breathing heavily - on the grass of the lawn outside. His secretary notices that there is something wrong and quickly follows him.

He asks his master if he is feeling ill, but there is no response. The abbot just stares quizzically at him, trying to understand if the brother had seen what he had seen, but there seems to be no comprehension in his face - just a puzzled concern.

The man in the coffin had been - before disintegration - the exact likeness of the living abbot. It had been himself in the coffin. For all that time he had lain undiscovered, and now he had at last been let out to breath the fresh air once more, but he feels more claustrophobic standing out in the bright sunshine than ever before.

Why had they not just left him in peace?

16 comments:

  1. This actually happened - including the flower - where I worked at an ancient monastery, but sadly I was not there. It was two weeks before I arrived.

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  2. Did anyone else in the crypt at the time of the coffin's opening see exactly what the abbot saw? Or was their communal gasp caused by seeing something different?

    Your comment leads me to believe that they all did see the same sight, but I do wonder still.

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    1. Sorry, I thought it was clear that only the abbot recognised himself when I said that he gasped in horror. Maybe I should re-phrase it.

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    2. The abbot gasps too, but in horror.
      I think this needs clarified, as there are many reasons to be horrified. Perhaps as simple as:
      The abbot gasps too, but in horror, at himself.
      That's a clue, and only people as dense as I am would still be wondering.

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    3. Well, I thought that it had been clarified by the abbot searching the face of his secretary to see if he saw what the abbot saw, but this was obviously not enough. I really don't want to nudge anyone too much with the sort of clues given in American sitcoms to let you know when to laugh, but maybe I should. I will give it some thought.

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    4. Also, remember that these posts are just a synopsis of each chapter and without dialogue. I would hope that it would become clearer if I added the extra words in another draft. I would also hope that it will become funnier, but we live in hope...

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    5. Tom, what you wrote was clear. I think I was over thinking, wondering what the scented secretary was up to.

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  3. On March 17, 1954, a schizophrenic doctor in our little town, killed his family then set a fire to try and cover it up. The local sheriff, called to the scene, said the bodies weren't burned, but baked like a turkey. He said when he touched the hair, it disappeared in a poof of ash. Grisly, but true. I'm glad I haven't seen a decayed corpse. Creepy.

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    1. That's a cheery little tale. Somehow, the crypt in Rome with all the monks leaning up against the wall is not at all creepy - well they are not as upsetting as they would be if they were murdered anyway.

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  4. Tom -if you are trying to give me bad dreams then you have succeeded.

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    1. Did I spoil your afternoon nap, Weave???

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  5. P.s. The lead coffin above is from Farleigh Hungerford castle, near Bath. I have seen them, and I know a woman who spent the whole night in the crypt sleeping with them for charity. Heh heh heh...

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  6. Like the secretary I was beside myself with girlish, breathless excitement! I looked online at more pictures of these human shaped coffins at Farleigh Hungerford Castle. I wonder if there are any others of that kind out there or if that was just a quickly passing fad.

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    1. They were not a quickly passing fad - there are many. Stay girlishly breathless with excitement.

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  7. That's a good story, I liked it.

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