Sanctuary of the Guilty – chapter 5 – A night with the nuns

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Sanctuary of the Guilty

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When we left the refectory, I tried my best to keep to myself in the multitude of cassocks. I would have been fine if it weren’t for a certain prayer book that had been lost earlier that afternoon.

“Tiberianus,” I turned, extremely irritated. “I’m fed up with Csávossy’s meditations.”

“What was that?” asked the prefect, and halted.

“’All things pall after a while – sleep, love, sweet song, and stately dance’,” I answered calmly.

“What are you blathering about, man? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? A seminarian, going on about love and sweet songs. What sinful thoughts do you harbor in that head of yours?”

“If only these sinful thoughts were mine,” I sighed. “Unfortunately, Homer has already written them down in The Iliad.”

“Well, I never,” the prefect cried angrily and then slunk off.

Tiberianus followed him to the end of the corridor and then parted ways.

I suddenly came to the realization that I was completely alone. In just a few minutes, everyone had left and the seminary became dead quiet, as if only ghosts lingered there. Strangely, I could only recall the two men who had just left as if they too were a couple of demonic creatures whose sole task was to haunt me.

Lonely, I meandered around my forlorn prison from which there was no escape. I tried to familiarize myself with it by wandering around its narrow, dark corridors, rickety staircases, cold passageways, and grand arches. I immersed myself deeper and deeper into the unknown, heading nowhere in particular, forsaking everything. I came upon a well-hidden door at one end. Wondering what was on the other side, I tried to open it, but it was locked.

I then clambered up the stairs to a place under the mezzanine arch, where I could see light coming in. I looked out and saw a tall apartment building and a young girl running through its courtyard. I tried to wave to her, putting my head through the narrow gap, but she didn’t notice, even though she was right across from me. In my desperation, I yelled at her, but she didn’t hear me. She was such a lovely girl. It would have felt great to talk to her for a while, to talk to anyone who didn’t belong here in this depressing prison. How I craved the company of others. I wanted to get out, if only for a few hours. It felt as though I’d been kept there for centuries. I sadly and dejectedly stared at the now empty courtyard. I hoped that the girl would appear again, but she was gone for good.

I headed back. It took me a long time to find the door that I thought I had come through earlier. But when I opened it, I realized I was wrong. I found myself in a room that was almost completely dark. There was only a small gap in the wall, and through it a narrow shaft of light penetrated the room and cast itself on the floor. When my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I was suddenly startled. There was a man sitting in the opposite corner with his head in his hands, as if he was crying. I didn’t know him, so I was afraid to move any closer. Scattered around him were pieces of paper, all dusty and yellow.

“What could he be doing here in this empty, dirty room?” I wondered.

“Perhaps he’s a fellow seminarian who’s gone mad,” I thought and moved closer to him. I touched him. His skull was ice-cold and completely smooth.

I crouched down and only then did I realize he wasn’t a person at all. It was just a lifeless statue. I relaxed slightly, even though the place started to depress me more and more with its stale, dusty air, and its choking sultriness.

I decided to leave, but I felt like I couldn’t move away from this spooky spot. Suddenly, someone tapped me on the back of my neck and muttered something incomprehensible. I shuddered from his touch. I quickly turned around and punched the strange newcomer, who cried out in pain and fell to the floor.

I nervously shut the door behind me and hurried back. I moved forward without thinking, relying solely on my instincts. I don’t know how, but eventually, I found my way back to the chapel. There was a large crowd inside. Many men in cassocks were kneeling in the pews with their heads bowed. I looked for Lucianus in the crowd, but it took a while because he too was wearing a cassock and, other than the altar lamp, there was only one candle burning in the chapel. When I finally spotted him, I hurried over to his pew and sat down next to him. He didn’t look at me. I thought he was still angry with me.

Deeper inside the chapel a hushed voice was whispering the rosary. I tried to concentrate on the prayers and avert my thoughts from the dark memories. The silence started to grate horribly on my nerves. I thought that Lucianus was in prayer, so I too tried to overcome my reluctance and pray, but I just couldn’t do it.

These were painful minutes, and I felt guilty in the unpleasant, suffocating silence. Not daring to look at anything, I bowed my head back down and sank into the stillness of a seminarian’s solitary life. In the screaming void, Esther’s face appeared before me. As I conjured her up in my memory while sitting miserably in the gloomy chapel that radiated loneliness and despair, I realized only too late that I truly loved her.

“Esther, Esther,” I whispered.

“Let’s go,” said Lucianus after giving me a strong nudge, and left the chapel.

I followed him. We walked for a long time silently, side by side, until I accidentally stumbled on one of the spiral staircases.

“Be quiet,” he hissed back in a cold voice.

“What’s gotten into you?” I asked.

In the meantime, we had reached a dark passage. It looked like an endless tunnel. Lucianus suddenly stopped and started rummaging under his cassock for something. He whispered back to me from the blackness. I could only hear his voice. His face was lost in the depths of the unknown.

“Do you have a match on you?” he asked.

I handed him one. All of a sudden, I was illuminated by a bright halo of light. It somehow made Lucianus’ face unnatural, almost downright repulsive. That was when I realized we’d been climbing across mounds of dirt. I tried not to fall, but I stumbled often, no matter how careful I was. I was starting to think Lucianus was pulling my leg when I spotted the light of a burning candle a few steps ahead of us. I had to duck under an archway laced with cobwebs, which was probably made of wood. It was definitely rotting, though. In the ominous light of the candle, I could see some sort of dark window. At least, it looked like a window to me at first, but then it turned out to be a door. We unbolted it with considerable difficulty.

“This is it,” said Lucianus. “From here, you have to proceed on your own. We’ll meet by the crucifix at one o’clock. Follow the lamps in the archway,” he added and disappeared down one of the passages.

“Why are you doing this?” I yelled after him, but my voice was lost in the stillness and swallowed by the heavy scent of incense.

I followed the corridor as instructed and soon came upon a crucifix surrounded by candles.

Some dark shapes were lying at the base of the crucifix, right next to the candles. The whole ritual looked like a wake.

I crept into a corner and watched them curiously, but I couldn’t make out anything from their growls.

Their muttering made me remember the mysterious person I had come across not much earlier.

All this seemed so incredible that I began to doubt if it was all real or just a hallucination. I started feeling my way around in the darkness, determined to conclude the matter once and for all.

I stubbed my foot on something hard in one corner of the niche. It seemed big enough to sit down on, and I did so without thinking because my toe was very sore.

While massaging my aching foot, I noticed some commotion near the crucifix.

But there was no noticeable change. I still couldn’t see Lucianus anywhere.

I started to suspect my fellow seminarian of having deceived me, but then someone suddenly glided over to me.

I felt hot breath on my skin and moist lips being wildly pressed onto mine.

I tore my head away, firmly grabbed onto a pair of arms in front of me and shouted, “Who the hell are you?”

My voice filled the whole basement.

Someone near the crucifix cried out as if they were in pain and started to growl unintelligibly.

“You must make love to me or I’ll go mad,” panted the woman next to me.

She grabbed my hand with considerable strength, then slid it under her thin robe and onto her hot breast.

I submitted to her will … for a short while, at least.

“What’s going on down here?” I asked, holding her tightly, pressing my face against her head.

“Nothing,” she answered. “It’s just that I haven’t been with anyone for three years.”

“That’s not what I meant. Those people by the cross, what are they doing?”

“Who cares?” she breathed feverishly. “Let’s focus on what we’re doing.”

“Why, what are we doing?”

“Passionately becoming one.”

“Right here? But …” I began, but she pounced on me with astonishing force and pushed me down on the hard thing we’d been sitting on.

To my shock, I realized that its size matched exactly that of a coffin.

“Is this a casket underneath us?” I asked without thinking.

“Yes, it is,” she answered. She started kissing my neck more and more violently, and tore off my shirt.

“Whose is it?”

“It belongs to an old nun who died recently.”

“Well, I hope she’s not inside it. Or is she?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Nothing. I just thought …” I tried to appease her, while she immodestly started to undress. In that moment, I was struck by the seminarian’s sense of duty. I stopped asking inane questions and tried instead to help her.

Meanwhile, the procession started outside. All the nuns, each one holding a candle, started to move around the crucifix.

By the mystical, quivering light of the candles, I finally caught a glimpse of my nun’s face, who so eagerly wanted to break the sixth commandment through our fall into sin.

Her face was pleasant and childlike. The faster and deeper we immersed ourselves in each other, the more her face bloomed.

As she plunged ever more ferociously beneath the waves of lust rising out of her uncontrollable passion, her face transformed and became more and more like a fairy’s bedecked with rose petals and dewdrops.

By the time she finished and fell on top of me, barely conscious, holding her blazing face against mine, the nuns had already stopped their aimless meandering outside.

The way they repeatedly passed by us during their procession made it seem as if they were trying to lavish offerings upon Jesus, maybe to bring salvation to sinful souls. Perhaps they inadvertently helped to bring about our salvation as well.

“Why’s this nun underneath us?” I asked when we were already beginning to return to our senses.

“She’s here because it was her last wish to be put here for three days and three nights. She wanted to be drenched in incense and have prayers be said over her.”

“What’s the point of this ceremony with the incense and everything?”

“It’s for protection against the devil so that she can’t be possessed after her death.”

“And they’re actually willing to hold a wake for her?”

“As you can see, yes. What are you doing here, anyway, if you don’t have the slightest idea about what’s going on?”

“I can’t tell you that,” I said secretively.

“Why not?” she asked, curious.

“Well, my profession is not something to be …”

“Tell me,” she urged.

“I work in a mortuary.”

She was shocked. “What?” she asked, gasping for air.

“That’s what I do. So what. I deal with corpses. Is there a problem with that?”

“What’s your business here?” she asked, now visibly keeping her distance.

“I came for the coffin. It was really hard to find, to be honest, and the circumstances were awfully peculiar …”

“But the three days haven’t even passed yet.”

“They haven’t?” I asked and then added, “Truth be told, it was the old nun herself who asked me to …”

“I don’t understand.”

“It happened at the mortuary, when …”

“What happened?”

“I was just in the middle of getting a corpse out from the freezer …”

“I don’t want to hear about that,” she interrupted sharply. “Tell me about the nun.”

“So I was pulling it out when I heard this moaning sound. I looked around, but I couldn’t see anything.

Must be one of my coworkers, I thought, so I kept on tugging at the corpse because one arm got stuck …”

“Get to the point,” she interrupted impatiently.

“I tried to get it out. The stuck arm, I mean. As soon as I did it, I heard someone yell in a suppressed voice, ‘Satan, I’m yours,’ so I let go of the corpse and ran toward the sound.

The nun was lying there motionless, but suddenly I thought I saw some sort of steam escaping from between her lips. You know, like when you can see your breath in the cold. They probably had just finished writing the chirographum,” I finished, then I wanted to kiss my sweet little nun, who had been listening to me with such awe, but then I realized she was long gone.

I stood up and left so that the old nun could spend her last few lifeless hours in peace before she is finally put to her eternal rest underground.

A bell struck midnight somewhere in the distance.

I mingled with the praying crowd, and in my mirth I decided to lie myself down among them.

Although the stone was cold, I didn’t get up for a while.

Someone nearby started sobbing loudly, so I bent over and kissed her face.

My reward was a single teardrop, which trickled playfully down my neck.

The air was filled with reverence. I soon fell asleep for a short while. Incense descended upon me like a thick fog.