by Michael Díaz Feito
Table of Contents|
Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,
7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14
Chapter 13: Loot
The crypt was a white cave. Two sarcophagi lay in a tomb cut into the wall. A black onyx panel engraved with EVSTOCHIVMPAVLAQVESANCTAE marked the tomb, and it glowed like hot coal when Presbyter Marbode showed it to Fèlix.
The panel’s white veins pulsed, radiating hair-singeing heat. Marbode said, “Bonsoir, mes douces dames.”
Soror Liuve missed the miracle. She was looking back — past the long line of lamp-bearing congregants who followed them into the crypt — to admire the grotto where Christ had been born. A gaudy altar there surprised her. Silver candelabra, silver crosses, and silk drapery, rich purples and expensive reds, like any well-tended altar in Latinity. Where’s the humbled ruin? she thought. Where’s the infidel responsible for it?
“Knock at their doors,” Marbode said. “They may open for these strangers.”
Three of the English deacons lifted iron picks. They pried at the sarcophagi, scraping and pushing the limestone lids.
“Help them, Luís,” Fèlix said.
He scowled at her, chewed his lip. Any respect he had shown Frater Luís was gone. Entering the Church of the Nativity, he had told her to shut up. And earlier, bypassing Jerusalem despite her pleas — “This isn’t a goddamn pilgrimage,” he had said in Catalan — Fèlix had even scolded her in a crowd of Turks and Arabs. Frater Luis was smiling nervously, because they had been sneaking into the bazaar in false beards, when he yelled and menaced her with a raised fist.
She helped the deacons.
“How much for both bodies, Dompnus Marbode?” Fèlix said.
“No, we don’t want money,” Marbode said. “Helping them is our honor and reward. If these living ladies choose to go, then they go freely.”
“Don’t ask questions, Dompnus Fèlix,” Liuve said. “Our mission could be blessed, after all.”
Fèlix grabbed her by the neck and jerked her from the tomb. Then he took her place, shoving Paula’s sarcophagus, grunting. His hand left redness on Liuve’s neck. It burned, bruised.
The sarcophagi soon cracked. They spouted plumes of white dust. Congregants rushed toward the tomb. They crowded Liuve, jostling her, and she began to sweat, stuck in the writhing crowd.
The congregants sobbed. They tugged at their clothes to mop up their tears, and they performed the sign of the cross. They embraced each other, exchanging kisses.
Then the deacons led a chant: Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor lavabis me et super nivem de albabor...
A sour odor, like lavender oil and the slushy mud of a manured field after rain, wafted from the stirred sarcophagi. It made Liuve cough, burning her eyes. She said, “What’s that smell?”
“Oh, you don’t know?” Marbode said.
“No,” Fèlix answered for her. “We don’t. Perfume?”
“It’s the odor of their approval! They’ve accepted your invitation to travel!”
Marbode scuttled around the crypt. His frayed white bangs were whipping right to left like a horse’s tail as he searched the room. He found a velvet bag trimmed with ermine and brought it to Fèlix, saying that it was the only suitable litter for such ladies. He whispered something else, and Fèlix’s face changed. Together they transferred Paula’s bones into the bag.
Liuve pushed closer to the tomb. She hunched over Eustochium’s sarcophagus, and saw that a young woman slept in it. Liuve crossed herself, reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Eustochium wore rags, a wimple, and a white veil. The veil rose and fell with her steady breath. Her face, framed by the wimple, was a dark and glossy circle. The words MENVNCTANGE were carved into her forehead.
Liuve tried to touch her. Her hand went through Eustochium’s body, like breaking the surface of a pond. She only felt bones on the bed. Nevertheless, the young woman’s image persisted.
“Tell me, Nonna Eustochium,” Liuve said, “are you happy? Have I done a good job?”
“Sic et non,” said a voice of fluttering wings and chirps. It continued in Galego: “You bring a heretic to our bed without knowing it and, for this failure of suspicion, this excess of confidence in a strange man, you will have to pay a small fee as penance, the same one we paid in our time.”
Liuve lifted a femur from the sarcophagus. The bone became hot, radiating heat that warped the crypt’s white light. It burned her. She screamed, as her own wet skin slipped off her fingers.
She dropped the bone. Hives rose over her arms and throat. Her insides cascaded. She fell backward, dropping through the chanting crowd of congregants. Her head cracked against the limestone floor.
Robes brushed Liuve’s face. Fèlix removed her false beard. He cradled her and cried. Her tonsured scalp was wet, warm with blood in the cowl.
The sour odor sprang into Liuve’s senses again. Eustochium, cleaning her and lifting her up, now thanked her for the credulous touch, even if Liuve could not understand the scented syllables.
Fèlix later stuffed Liuve’s body into the velvet bag. Soft fire caressed her while she crawled through the bag, which stretched itself with a crackle to accommodate her progress.
Liuve passed enormous bones, including Saint Paula’s hipbone, skull, and jawbone, as well as teeth, scallop shells, fields of clumped white hair, and a stream of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk flowing from a shattered vial.
Eustochium followed her at a distance. After clearing a dusty spot in the velvet ground, Liuve lay down and let the fire finish her.
She became more bonemeal in the bag.
Copyright © 2017 by Michael Díaz Feito