by Bill Bowler
Chapter 5: Wandering Soul
Straker and Hope wandered north along the mountain trails. They ate mushrooms, wild fruit and berries, dehydrated cereal from Hope’s backpack. In the streams, Yanosh caught fish that they grilled over an open flame. Parts of the trail bordered farmland and they raided fields and orchards for fresh corn, tomatoes, peaches and other delicacies.
Straker and Hope kept their own company, avoiding any hikers or campers who chanced to cross their path. On clear nights, they slept unprotected in the starlight, under the infinite vault, watching the shooting stars and the silvery moonrise. When rain fell, they shared Hope’s small tent. The inevitable cannot be stopped. Two wandering souls, they lay together, side by side. And one night, Hope took Straker in her arms and they became lovers.
By day, they walked north through the thick, green mountainous forest, full of birds and wildlife, full of the beauty of bush and flower and tree. The weeks flew by. Eventually, they crossed the border into Canada, and drifted further, always hiking north, through the highlands, finally reaching the end of the trail, where the mountains meet the crashing waves of the cold northern sea.
It was late August. Straker’s gray streaked hair and beard had grown long and shaggy. He had lost track of time. He had little orientation as to place. His goal had been to lose himself and now he was lost, and yet, he didn’t care.
The only thing that mattered now was Hope. His feelings for her were growing stronger with each passing day. Her presence beside him was like a balm; her touch was a healing tonic. He could no longer imagine life without her. Without realizing it, he had come to depend on her, to rely on her support. And the best part was, she returned his love in kind. They were happy.
One tranquil day, they stood upon a cliff looking down at the waves breaking on the rocks below. The sea glittered and sparkled in myriad shifting blues, greens, purples and orange, mirroring the shades of the sky and clouds above, and the reddish rock of the rugged, layered cliffs, streaked with tans and grays. In the meadows around them, countless purple, pink and yellow wildflowers swayed in the wind and wove moving patterns through the rippling green and beige.
On the horizon, miles out to sea, immense white cotton puffs, stacked one upon the other, the wall of a cloudbank, sat motionless. Cold wind from the sea swept up the sheer face of the cliffs and breathed life into Straker’s body and soul. He breathed deeply, took it all in, tried to empty his mind and live in the moment.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said Hope.
Straker held her close. “I never want to leave.”
Gazing up along the jagged coast, to the northeast, Straker noticed, across the shimmering azure bay, at the tip of the next peninsula, a structure of some kind. It seemed to be a walled compound set on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.
A single spire rose from a clutch of roofs behind the wall. The compound had the look of a Medieval cloister or monastery. It stood, gray and grim, impregnable, at the edge of the cliff behind stone walls, facing the forest, with its back to the sea.
Where they stood, Straker and Hope had reached the end of the trail and, if they weren’t jumping into the sea, they had to turn one way or the other. They turned northeast, instinctively away from people and civilization, and headed up the smaller, branching paths.
Perhaps a mile up the coast, as they were climbing a steep trail along the side of a mountain, in a thick section of woods, a bear lumbered into view not far in front of them.
Hope was startled and hid behind Yanosh but Straker stood there calmly, feeling no threat from the bear. Its aura was familiar and reassuring. The bear was curious about them for a passing moment, but its attention quickly moved to more interesting objects like berries and acorns, and a horsefly that was buzzing around its ear. With hardly a parting glance, the bear disappeared into the brush across the trail.
That day towards dusk, weary from climbing the steep side of a mountain, they made camp in a clearing near a fork in the path, beside a huge, flowering wild rose bush, not far from the edge of the precipice. Through the woods, unseen, the wind carried to them the faint sound of the surf pounding the rocks somewhere far below.
As they lay in the grass, the sea wind picked up and grew chill. Hope huddled in Straker’s arms as fast moving black storm clouds rumbled in over the mountain tops. First a few drops splattered and then the deluge came.
They crawled quickly into Hope’s pup tent. The heavy rain continued and, as night fell, the howling wind caught the tent like a kite and ripped away the poles. In the downpour, Straker and Hope collected the windblown tent, gathered their scattered gear, and set off along one fork of the muddy path to try and find shelter.
Chilled and drenched to the bone, they had not gone fifty yards when they came to an iron gate. From both wings of the gate, a high stone wall ran along the edge of the woods as far as they could see, encompassing the grounds of the great estate that Straker had seen from across the bay the day before. Through the bars, the grounds seemed deserted.
Straker pulled the chain of a rusted bell that hung by the gate. The melancholy clanging rang through the grounds as lightning flashed above and thunder rolled through the sky. Within the grounds, a light went on in a window of the chapel. A stooped and hooded figure came out the door into the downpour and shuffled slowly towards the gate.
Straker probed the hooded figure’s aura, which was strangely blank. He felt nothing emanating from the figure. There was no thought energy, no emotion, no psychic impulse, nothing, as if a shield were up to block the curious.
A bolt of lightning split the sky and thunder cracked above them and rumbled off. The rain poured down in sheets of big drops. Mist and spray rose from the ground.
“For God’s sake, man, hurry up!” shouted Straker.
From under the hood, the man’s eyes, unthinking, blank and dull, rested first on Straker and then on the young woman huddled in his arms. The man slid a bolt away and the heavy gate creaked open on its rusty hinges.
Straker and Hope stepped onto the grounds. The hooded figure barred the gate behind them and led them along a cobblestone walk to a wing of the chapel. Straker saw that all the structures on the grounds were made of stone and all the windows had bars.
The hooded figure, apparently a monk of some obscure order, pushed open the wooden door of the chapel wing and led them in. Dripping wet, they stood in a small vestibule before two doors. The monk opened one of them. Straker and Hope looked into a small, bare room, little more than a cell with an iron frame bed, a folding chair, and nothing more.
Straker looked at Hope. “At least it’s dry.”
They started towards the room but the monk held Hope by the arm.
“Let go of her,” said Straker.
The monk opened the second door, revealing an identical cell.
“Looks like separate bedrooms,” said Hope. “The Honeymoon Suite must be taken. I guess the bathroom’s down the hall?”
“I don’t like it,” grumbled Straker.
“Don’t worry, Yanosh. It’s just for one night. I don’t mind. Men and women sharing rooms is probably against their rules or something.”
Outside, the driving rain beat against the stone walls. Lightening flashed again in the dark sky and peals of thunder rolled through the thick low clouds.
Yanosh and Hope separated. As soon as Straker entered the room, he felt the constriction, the confinement, the potential trap. He sensed the locks and hinges were made of silver alloy. The heavy wooden door was reinforced with silver bars. The walls were stone a foot thick and the one barred window in the rear overlooked the precipice.
The monk closed the door to Straker’s room and shuffled off. Straker grabbed the knob. The silver felt warm to his touch but the door was unlocked. Straker suppressed his apprehension. It was only for one night. He got out of his wet clothes, hung them on the back of the chair, and collapsed onto the small bed. Exhausted, he shut his eyes and soon fell into light, troubled sleep.
He dreamt of a vaulted crypt. Rows of hooded figures knelt before a crude altar, a slab of stone supported by blocks of granite. The kneeling figures were chanting in a monotone. On the slab of stone lay a naked corpse, a dead woman. A hooded figure stood at the altar, sprinkling powder on the body, pouring liquid down its throat, and muttering incoherent incantations. The corpse choked on the liquid and sat up, its dead eyes staring straight at Yanosh. It was Hope.
Straker woke with a jolt. Sunlight was streaming through the window in his cell. He rose from the bed and looked out. Far below, the azure sea spread to the horizon. The storm had passed. Only a few wispy clouds lingered and the sun was already high in the sky.
Straker checked the door of his room and found it still unlocked. He went out into the vestibule and knocked on Hope’s door. There was no answer. He opened her door a crack and saw that she was still asleep, her silken hair spread upon the pillow, her eyes closed. A faint smile flitted across her face as if she were in the midst of a pleasant dream. Straker closed the door and went out to have a look around.
The sun was nearing its zenith. The sea and sky were mirrored shades of cobalt blue. Laughing gulls circled and soared along the cliffs, gliding effortlessly with outstretched wings on the air currents. Swarms of terns and crook winged gannets wheeled and dove into the sparkling waves to feed among the darting schools of fish.
Straker walked around behind the chapel to the orchard. The wall of the compound ran as far as he could see down one side of the grounds. The tree tops of the thick forest loomed beyond.
The orchard was planted in the wide swathe of ground that ran along the edge of the cliff and, beyond the orchard, Straker saw garden plots, vineyards, and a barn. Dozens of hooded figures were laboring in the grounds, picking fruit, harvesting vegetables, pruning trees, clearing weeds.
Straker stood and watched as the hooded figures worked in the mid-day sun. None of them paid the least attention to him and, like the monk who had let them in the night before, none of these laborers emitted the slightest living aura. They seemed devoid of mental and psychic energy, emotionless, thoughtless entities that radiated no more life force than a rock or stone.
Straker was puzzled by the deadening blankness of the men. He entered the orchard and approached one of the monks. From under the hood, two blank eyes stared dully at Straker, an empty expression, fixed and unresponsive.
As Straker watched, a laborer pushing a wheelbarrow stumbled and fell onto the blade of a shovel left in a rut between two rows of trees. No one moved to help him. In silence, the fallen monk climbed slowly to his feet and grasped the wooden handles of the wheelbarrow. Straker saw that the shovel blade had sliced a deep gash, exposing the bone, almost severing the man’s arm, but not a drop of blood fell from the wound.
Yanosh was filled with revulsion. This deadened place was all askew — lifeless men amidst the bounty of nature. Yanosh had the growing sense of a presence, a shadow, lurking behind the deadness of the place. The laboring monks seemed little more than puppets on a string.
It struck Yanosh that perhaps they were the symptoms, not the cause of the deadened emptiness that reigned inside the stone walls of the chapel grounds. Yanosh was eager to pierce the veil, curious to glimpse the source of the living death that enveloped this place.
Straker heard the screech of metal on metal and a loud, rusty creak. He turned away from the laborers and walked around to the front of the chapel. The gate was unbolted. Four hooded monks were entering the grounds, shuffling slowly and carrying something between them like a large sack. As they approached Straker, seemingly unaware of his existence, he saw that they were carrying a broken, bloodied man. The poor devil was barely conscious. Straker put his hand on the man’s forehead and the man opened his eyes.
“I was...” blood gurgled in the man’s throat and seeped from the corners of his mouth, “climbing...”
The man’s chest rattled at the touch of death and Straker felt the climber’s spirit detach from his body and drift off towards its destination in the next world.
“He’s dead,” Straker said simply.
The monks had no reaction. They continued carrying the dead climber up the steps to the front door of the chapel and then into the sanctuary. Straker followed.
The interior of the chapel was dark. The windows were grimy, admitting only a few gray beams of diffuse light. The rows of broken, rotted pews were covered with a thick film of dust. The altar was crumbling and in disuse. The air was thick with the odor of decay. The hooded monks carried the dead climber slowly down the aisle and up the creaking wooden steps. Behind the altar, they disappeared through a small door.
Straker ran to the door but it was already locked from inside. He was suddenly aware of an intense and malevolent aura permeating the chapel, like the odor of rotting meat or backed up sewage. As the stench enveloped him, a sharp pain shot through the base of his skull.
“Did you sleep well last night? Our accommodations are modest but I trust you were comfortable.”
Straker turned to face the voice. He was almost overcome by nausea, but the sensation vanished as suddenly as it had come, as if the source were aware it had been detected and had raised a screen.
The voice came from a man of medium height dressed like the other monks in a cassock, belted with a rope, and sandals. His hood was drawn back exposing a handsome face with a sallow complexion and sharp piercing eyes beneath bushy gray brows. The man’s thick hair was streaked with gray. His forehead was creased as if from thought or worry. His thin lips curled in a kind of smirk. The man exuded self-confidence from the core of his being.
“I am Brother Thanatosius, rector of this chapel.”
“Yanosh Straker. We’re grateful for your...”
“A roof and a bed is the very least we could provide. It’s so rare we have visitors from outside. But you must be famished, you and your travelling companion. Please, both of you, join me for lunch!”
“No thanks, we...”
“But I insist! You and...”
Straker said nothing.
“that charming young woman.”
“No, I won’t hear it. Humor an old man. I’ll send one of my novices for you both in half an hour. We’ll dine in my private quarters in the main rectory.”
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Bowler